Two twists in the struggle over energy production

By Tom Baxter

Last week there were a couple of stories from around the region that veered far enough from the conventional story line to bear watching as possible signs of things to come.

For six years, the Mississippi chapter of the Sierra Club has waged a legal battle against Mississippi Power’s plans for a massive coal-gasification plant in Kemper County, which runs along the Alabama state line north of Meridian. As discussed before, it has been a fight which drew the environmentalists into alliance with conservative libertarians who view the plant as a boondoggle.

The Sierra Club announced last week that it had reached a settlement with Mississippi Power and would be dropping its suit in exchange for a number of concessions on the part of the utility.

Sierra Club state director Louie Miller called the deal a “huge victory,” commenting later that the group got things in the agreement it couldn’t have gotten through litigation.  From the outside, it’s hard to judge the real value of the concession package, although clearly it was a big day for the gopher frog. The settlement includes $2 million to buy habitat for the endangered creature, along with $15 million for energy efficiency projects for poor people, new retention ponds at the plant site and, most significantly, the closing of four coal power plants in Mississippi and two in Alabama. The utility also dropped its objection to net metering, which will allow consumers to sell home-generated power to the grid to which they’re connected.

Most probably Mississippi Power, which is another arm of the Southern Co., looked on the settlement as a convenient way of dealing with the inevitable. For all the pro-coal sentiments expressed recently, the Southern Co. finds itself in a box. It recently ranked 31st of 32 utilities around the country for sales tied to renewable energy sources, and 26th in annual savings from energy efficiency program. So the concessions it made to get the Sierra Club off its back in the Kemper case are likely to be only a small part of what it will have to do to change its operations in coming years.

The utility’s problems with the delay-plagued project don’t end with the settlement of the legal case, either. There’s another law suit waiting in the wings, and the day after the Sierra Club settlement was announced, the Mississippi Public Service Commission ruled against the utility on a couple of technical matters which could have a big impact on the financing of the plant.

If the utility executives reasoned they might as well concede some things they were going to lose anyway, the environmentalists may have reasoned that the fate of the Kemper project was sealed, with or without their help. The larger point is that both sides in this ongoing environmental-energy struggle deemed this to be the time to turn the page.

The second story — governor signs popular measure in election year — might not seem so unconventional. But in this case it was South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, formerly known for such environmentally sensitive measures as quashing the state Department of Natural Resources report on climate change, signing a bill to open the development of solar energy in her state.

“When you look at North Carolina and you look at Georgia, they’ve been doing well when it comes to solar energy. And they don’t have any more sun than we do,” Haley, who can never resist the chance to stoke her state’s competitive spirit, said at the bill signing.

While South Carolina has lagged behind its neighbors in overall solar production, the bill Haley signed last week represents an advance comparable to what solar advocates have tried, and failed, to get enacted in the Georgia General Assembly. It gives homeowners a better price for power they sell back to the grid, and allows them to lease expensive solar arrays rather than buy them.

Like the settlement in Mississippi, the solar bill in South Carolina represents a turning of the page, particularly with regard to the concept of net metering. There aren’t going to be revolutionary changes overnight in the way electrical power is generated and distributed, but the way forward is becoming easier to see.

About Tom Baxter

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.
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