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IEEFA U.S.: Southern Company demolishes part of the $7.5 billion Kemper power plant in Mississippi

October 14, 2021
David Schlissel

Two explosions rocked the Kemper power plant on Saturday as can be seen from footage posted on Twitter. The images dramatize the demise of a “clean coal” project that eventually ballooned in cost from an estimated $3 billion to $7.5 billion. 

Driven by hubris and greed, and despite repeated warnings about the risks involved in this complex and first-of-a-kind undertaking, the Southern Company built the Kemper power plant in Mississippi relying on a key system that would convert coal into a gas (coal gasification). The gas would then be burned to produce electricity. Southern also claimed that the plant would capture 65% of the CO2 produced by Kemper – about 3.3 million tons per year. 

Kemper’s problems started soon after construction began

However, the coal gasification system, called TRIG™, had only been tested on a small-scale facility which processed an average of less than two tons of coal per hour and remained unproven in a commercial-scale power plant like Kemper (which was designed to process 575 tons per hour in each of its two gasifiers). In addition, significant problems were experienced during the scaling up of the gasification system to the much larger Kemper plant.

Kemper’s problems started soon after construction began, partly due to flaws in the project’s design but also due to Southern Company’s poor management. The cost ultimately ballooned from an estimated $3 billion to $7.5 billion. 

But the project’s vision to be a “clean coal” facility began to unravel when the TRIG™ system proved to be unreliable during the testing phase of the project. Ultimately, at the prodding of the Mississippi Public Service Commission, Southern Company decided to stop using TRIG™ and instead opted to burn natural gas just like many other gas-fired generators in the U.S.

This meant that Southern had paid $7.5 billion for a natural gas combined cycle plant that could have been built for under $1.5 billion-dollars. It also meant that the company’s promise that Kemper would capture more 3.3 million tons a year was pure fantasy as it barely captured any CO2, if indeed it captured any at all.

The graphic video of what was probably the intentional destruction of the coal gasification infrastructure at the Kemper plant was the final nail in the coffin of a project that had never lived up to its hype.

The Kemper experience should serve as a warning for developers looking to significantly scale up the size of planned carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) projects and for investors and government officials that are considering funding these projects: it is much more difficult than you think. 


Related items:

IEEFA report: ‘Holy Grail’ of carbon capture continues to elude coal industry; ‘cautionary tale’ applies to domestic and foreign projects alike

IEEFA Arizona: Perilous Talk of Turning Navajo Generating Station Into a ‘Clean Coal’ Plant

IEEFA Report: Costly and Unreliable, Two Multibillion-Dollar American Coal-Gasification Experiments Prove the Case Against Such Projects

IEEFA Update: Will Southern Company Refund Mississippi Ratepayers for Failed $7.5 Billion Kemper ‘Clean Coal’ Experiment?

Southern Company’s Kemper County Folly

David Schlissel

David Schlissel is an IEEFA analyst with 50 years of experience as an economic and technical consultant on energy and environmental issues. 

He has testified as an expert witness before regulatory commissions in more than 35 states and before the U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

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