Mississippi Power's Kemper plant casts a shadow over PSC races

MISSISSIPPI POWERThe sprawling Mississippi Power plant in Kemper County.
MISSISSIPPI POWERThe sprawling Mississippi Power plant in Kemper County.

Mississippi Power can expect tough questions about its Kemper power plant rate requests, regardless of which candidate wins the Southern District seat on the Public Service Commission.

For Democrat Thomas Blanton of Hattiesburg, that's a given. He's been questioning the need for the plant for years and successfully sued to overturn an 18 percent rate increase designed to pay part of the cost of building the plant as it was being built. That case went to the Supreme Court, which sided with Blanton.

Mississippi Power has asked for a rehearing. Blanton doubts the utility will get it.

Republican Sam Britton of Laurel said he also opposes the rate increases, especially the 18 percent emergency increase approved 2-1 by the Public Service Commission after the Supreme Court ruling.

Both Blanton and Britton want Mississippi Power to prove Kemper was a prudent move.

"It is my opinion, and in light of the recent Supreme Court ruling, any rate increase should be considered only after public and transparent prudency hearings have been held to determine if Kemper is in fact functioning at the level of performance as it was presented to the ratepayers," Britton said in a statement emailed to the Sun Herald earlier this month. "While Mississippi Power Co. is experiencing financial difficulties as a result of their mistakes in the planning and implementation of this project, that in of itself does not entitle the company to a rate increase."

Blanton and Britton also face Reform Party candidate Lonny Kenny Spence, but he doesn't look very formidable. Not much could be learned about Spence other than perennial candidate Shawn O'Hara is his contact and Spence hasn't raised or spent any money since ponying up a $200 filing fee. Steve Renfroe, who took the Southern District seat when Leonard Bentz left to run the Southern Mississippi Planning & Development District, isn't running.

So there will be at least two new members on the board because Central District Commissioner Lynn Posey also isn't running. And all the candidates running for the vacant seats have expressed at least some degree of skepticism about Kemper.

Mississippi Power has said the plant will prove to be a good decision when the price of natural gas, which has dropped because of enhanced recovery methods such as fracking, starts to rise again. Many analysts, including the federal government, doubt that will happen.

In the Central District, Republican Brent Bailey has opposed Kemper since 2010 and Democrat Cecil Brown, although he voted for a $1 billion loan for Kemper in the Legislature, has since begun questioning the plant. They face Reform Party candidate LaTrice Notree, who is running a campaign just as low-key as Spence. Northern District Commissioner Brandon Presley, who voted against Kemper rate increases, faces GOP challenger Mike Maynard.

There are other issues in the races -- the aggravation of robocalls, net metering and alternative energy among them -- but none rise to the level of Kemper.

Blanton has tried to get Posey to agree not to vote on Kemper issues -- including a possible vote in early November to make the emergency increase permanent. Posey refused and Blanton appealed again to the Supreme Court.

In the meantime, Blanton is running an unconventional

campaign with a core of supporters placing tens of thousands of push cards into the hands of potential voters at festivals and fairs, anywhere there is a crowd.

"Getting a lot of enthusiasm from everybody," Blanton said. "We're running an issue-driven campaign, not party politics."

He said he's encountering a public that's very knowledgeable about Kemper, even in the western part of the district where voters buy electricity from Entergy.

Blanton, an oilman and longtime activist, said news of his fight with Mississippi Power is spreading beyond his home PSC district.

"It's a statewide, actually this race has got national attention," he said. Only four states -- Georgia, Florida, South Carolina and Indiana -- have laws similar to Mississippi's Baseload Act. All, Blanton said, have expensive plants, extensive overruns and rising rates.

"I'll be helping get them organized," Blanton said. "I've found out how to legally win and so I've got to go teach them how I did it."

Britton, who ran for the Legislature decades ago, has been out meeting people, too. He said friends urged him to run because of his background in finance and energy. He's a CPA and licensed real estate agent.

"We always talk about, well, they ought to do something," he said. "But I finally realized that this time, I see where I could serve in this position and really make a difference."

Kemper, he said, made the job even more important.

"The decisions that will be made will affect us financially for decades," Britton said. "If we don't do it the best we can, we could end up with a very devastating situation."