Major Blow to 'Clean Coal' as 11- Year, $7.5 Billion Flagship Project Fails
By Sharon Kelly
In a major blow to proponents of "clean coal" technology, Southern Co., parent company of Mississippi Power, announced in a Securities and Exchange Commission filing Wednesday that it's throwing in the towel on efforts to generate electricity from coal and will instead use only natural gas at its flagship Kemper County, Mississippi power plant.
The project, which relied on a "gasifier" to turn a cheap and common grade of coal into fuel, is over, at least for now, Southern said.
"On June 28, 2017, Mississippi Power notified the Mississippi PSC that it is beginning a process to suspend operations and start-up activities on the gasifier portion of the Kemper IGCC."
Further, Southern warned that it may record a $3.4 billion loss for the project in the second quarter of 2017, depending on how negotiations with state utility regulators unfold.
If "Mississippi Power does not ultimately obtain rate recovery of the $3.4 billion … , Southern Company and Mississippi Power would be required to recognize a charge to income in the second quarter of 2017 for those unrecovered costs, in addition to any other costs required to be incurred," the SEC filing says.
The filing comes on the heels of a historic vote by Mississippi's state regulators that rejected asking the 187,000 customers who may get electricity from Kemper to pay for the long-delayed and far over-budget "clean coal" experiment. The 582-megawatt plant, initially projected to cost $1.8 billion, has so far run up a bill of more than $7.5 billion in construction and engineering expenses. In comparison, a typical 700-megawatt natural gas plant would have cost roughly $700 million to build, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Earlier this month, Southern told investors that vital machinery for the coal-powered section of the plant had started leaking, and would take 18 to 24 months to repair.
Mississippi Power Co. still plans to try to recover some or all of the $3.4 billion from power customers, Southern Co. said in its SEC filing. The company will pursue that through settlement negotiations and "any available settlement alternatives" and other options to recover its costs.
The state regulators have been gearing up for the potential legal battle, expanding their legal budget from $200,000 to up to $2.5 million and hiring two large law firms with experience in utilities law, as the Climate Investigations Center recently reported.
"The ultimate outcome of these matters cannot be determined at this time," Southern Co. said in its 8-K filed Wednesday.
Over a Decade of Delays
Kemper was supposed to be the nation's first "clean coal" power plant, capable of taking the world's dirtiest but most abundant kind of coal, lignite coal, and turning it into a dirt-cheap fuel providing electricity while churning out roughly the same carbon emissions as a power plant burning natural gas—a plus for the power bill as well as the planet.
Plans for the Kemper project were first announced by Southern Co. in December, 2006. Over a decade later, the power plant is still not fully up and running and its price tag has spiked from $1.8 billion then to $7.5 billion now—making it one of the most expensive power plants per megawatt ever built in the U.S.
Earlier this month, Mississippi officials sent a clear message to the plant's builders: when it comes to "clean coal," we're not buying what you're selling any more.
"Mississippians don't want to pay for a ticket on a plane that isn't going to fly," Paul Patterson, a utilities investment analyst, told the Wall Street Journal.
Instead, the Kemper power plant "should operate using only natural gas," the Mississippi Public Service Commission announced, adding that it was commencing negotiations with Mississippi Power Co. to figure out how to protect the state's electricity customers from having to pay for a plant that seems to have been better at burning through capital than coal.
In its SEC filing Wednesday, Southern Co. said that while the "clean coal" portion of the plant is suspended, Kemper will indeed keep running on natural gas, but added that it planned to dispute some of the $3.4 billion in costs—meaning that legal battles may be only just beginning.
"We are committed to ensuring the ongoing focus and safety of employees while we consider the future of the project, including any possible actions that may be taken by the [Mississippi Public Service] Commission," Southern Company Chairman, President and CEO Thomas A. Fanning said in a statement. "We believe this decision is in the best interests of our employees, customers, investors and all other stakeholders."
The Kemper project has suffered from a long string of delays and cost-over runs. The most recent setback, which was made public by Southern on June 5, will require builders to rip through a dense labyrinth of steel pipes to replace crucial equipment that's already started leaking, adding up to two years of additional work at a cost of $164 million.
Company records, recorded phone calls and other testimony provided to the New York Times last year by a whistleblower showed Southern Co. officials may have deceived investors and the public by knowingly concealing problems along the way. Last May, the Securities and Exchange Commission launched an investigation into those concerns.
Reposted with permission from our media associate DeSmogBlog.
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If weather is your mood, climate is your personality. That's an analogy some scientists use to help explain the difference between two words people often get mixed up.
Size Matters<p>Climates are a bit like woven tapestries. The big picture is important, no question. But so are all the seemingly minor details found inside the larger whole.</p><p><a href="https://research-information.bris.ac.uk/en/persons/tommaso-jucker" target="_blank">Tommaso Jucker</a> is an environmental scientist at the University of Bristol. In an email, Jucker says he'd define the term microclimate as "the suite of climatic conditions (temperature, rainfall, humidity, solar radiation) measured in localized areas, typically near the ground and at spatial scales that are directly relevant to ecological processes."</p><p>We'll talk about that last bit in a minute. But first, there's another criteria to discuss. According to some researchers, a microclimate — by definition — must differ from the larger area that surrounds it.</p><p><a href="https://www.cfc.umt.edu/research/paleoecologylab/publications/Davis_et_al_2019_Ecography.pdf" target="_blank">Forests</a> provide us with some great examples. "The climate near the ground in a tropical rainforest is dramatically different from the climate in the canopy 50 meters [164 feet] above," says University of Montana ecologist <a href="https://www.cfc.umt.edu/personnel/details.php?ID=1110" target="_blank">Solomon Dobrowski</a> in an email. "This vertical gradient among other factors allows for the staggering biodiversity we see in the tropics."</p><p>Likewise, scientists observed that a 2015 partial <a href="https://animals.howstuffworks.com/insects/bees-stopped-buzzing-during-2017-solar-eclipse.htm" target="_blank">solar eclipse</a> caused the air temperature of an Eastern European meadow to <a href="https://rmets.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/wea.2802" target="_blank">change more dramatically</a> than it did in a nearby forest. That's because trees provide not only shade, but their leaves also reflect solar radiation. At the same time, forests tend to reduce wind speeds.</p><p>All those factors add up. A 2019 review of 98 wooded places — spread out across five continents — found that forests are 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit (4 degrees Celsius) <a href="https://natureecoevocommunity.nature.com/posts/47363-forests-protect-animals-and-plants-against-warming" target="_blank">cooler on average</a> than the areas outside them.</p><p>Now if you hate the cold, don't worry; there's a cozy exception to the rule. According to that same study, forests are usually 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit (1 degree Celsius) warmer than the external environment during the wintertime. Pretty cool.</p>
A Bug's Life<p>When does a microclimate stop being, well, micro? In other words, is there a maximum size we should be aware of when discussing them?</p><p>Depends on who you ask. "In terms of horizontal scale, some have defined 'microclimate' as anything that is less than 100 meters [328 feet] in range," Jucker says. "I'm personally less prescriptive about this."</p><p>Instead, he says the "scale at which we want to measure [a particular] microclimate" ought to be "dictated" by the questions we're trying to answer.</p><p>"If I want to know how temperature affects the photosynthesis of a leaf, I should be measuring temperature at centimeter scale," Jucker explains. "If I want to know if and how temperature affects the habitat preference of a large, mobile mammal, it's probably more relevant to capture temperature variation across [tens to hundreds] of meters."</p><p>For instance, solitary plants have the power to generate itty-bitty microclimates. Just ask <a href="https://www.colorado.edu/geography/peter-blanken-0" target="_blank">Peter Blanken</a>, a geography professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder and the co-author of the 2016 book, "<a href="https://amzn.to/2XN6FT8" target="_blank">Microclimate and Local Climate</a>."</p>
The urban heat island effect is a good example of how microclimates work. NOAA
Microclimates on a Grand Scale<p>It's no secret that our planet is going through some rough times at the macro level. The global temperature is <a href="https://climate.nasa.gov/vital-signs/global-temperature/" target="_blank">climbing</a>; nine out of the <a href="https://www.noaa.gov/news/2019-was-2nd-hottest-year-on-record-for-earth-say-noaa-nasa" target="_blank">10 hottest years on record</a> have occurred since 2005. And by one recent estimate, roughly 1 million species around the world are <a href="https://ipbes.net/sites/default/files/2020-02/ipbes_global_assessment_report_summary_for_policymakers_en.pdf" target="_blank">facing extinction</a> due to human activities.</p><p>"One of the big questions that ecologists and environmental scientists are trying to answer right now is how will individual species and whole ecosystems respond to rapid climate change and habitat loss," says Jucker. "...To me, [microclimates are] a key component of this research — if we don't measure and understand climate at the appropriate scale, then predicting how things will change in the future becomes a lot harder."</p><p>Developers have long understood the impact small-scale climates have on our daily lives. <a href="https://science.howstuffworks.com/environmental/green-science/urban-heat-island.htm#pt0" target="_blank">Urban heat islands</a> are cities that have higher temperatures than neighboring rural areas.</p><p>Plants release vapors that can moderate local climates. But in cities, natural greenery is often scarce. To make matters worse, plenty of our roads and buildings have a bad habit of absorbing or re-emitting heat from the sun. <a href="https://www.google.com/books/edition/Microclimate_and_Local_Climate/LHUZDAAAQBAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&bsq=urban%20heat%20island" target="_blank">Vehicle emissions</a> don't exactly help the situation.</p><p>Still, it's not like Boston or Beijing are thermal monoliths. Sometimes, the documented temperatures <a href="https://e360.yale.edu/features/can-we-turn-down-the-temperature-on-urban-heat-islands" target="_blank">within a single city</a> vary by 15 to 20 degrees Fahrenheit (8.3 to 11.1 degrees Celsius).</p><p>That's where metro parks and city trees come in. They have nice cooling effects on nearby neighborhoods. "Several cities around the world have developed programs to increase urban green spaces," says Blanken. "Tree planting programs and green roof programs, have been shown to lower surface temperatures, decrease air pollution and decrease surface water runoff (urban flash-flooding) in urban areas."</p>
An "explosive" wildfire ignited in Los Angeles county Wednesday, growing to 10,000 acres in a little less than three hours.
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One of the challenges of renewable power is how to store clean energy from the sun, wind and geothermal sources. Now, a new study and advances in nanotechnology have found a method that may relieve the burden on supercapacitor storage. This method turns bricks into batteries, meaning that buildings themselves may one day be used to store and generate power, Science Times reported.
Bricks are a preferred building tool for their durability and resilience against heat and frost since they do not shrink, expand or warp in a way that compromises infrastructure. They are also reusable. What was unknown, until now, is that they can be altered to store electrical energy, according to a new study published in Nature Communications.
The scientists behind the study figured out a way to modify bricks in order to use their iconic red hue, which comes from hematite, an iron oxide, to store enough electricity to power devices, Gizmodo reported. To do that, the researchers filled bricks' pores with a nanofiber made from a conducting plastic that can store an electrical charge.
The first bricks they modified stored enough of a charge to power a small light. They can be charged in just 13 minutes and hold 10,000 charges, but the challenge is getting them to hold a much larger charge, making the technology a distant proposition.
If the capacity can be increased, researchers believe bricks can be used as a cheap alternative to lithium ion batteries — the same batteries used in laptops, phones and tablets.
The first power bricks are only one percent of a lithium-ion battery, but storage capacity can be increased tenfold by adding materials like metal oxides, Julio D'Arcy, a researcher at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, who contributed to the paper and was part of the research team, told The Guardian. But only when the storage capacity is scaled up would bricks become commercially viable.
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