The Electrical Worker online
October 2014

First U.S. Clean Coal Plant a
Big Win for Miss. IBEW
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Since 2010, Mississippi Power has been building a revolutionary $5.4 billion cleaner-burning coal-fired power plant less than eight miles from Stacy Henderson's front door. For two years after construction began, Henderson, business manager of Meridian, Miss., Local 917, said not a single union member got onto the work site at the Kemper County Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle plant.

And it bothered him.

"I could see the lights at night from my front porch and it drove me hard to get out there," Henderson said. "I could be on-site harassing the [patience] out of them in about 10 minutes, so I did. For two years I did."

The plant won close to $700 million in federal grants and tax credits, and a nearly 20 percent utility rate increase to recover at least $2.8 billion in construction costs. But Henderson said that local union contractors were boxed out.

The job was plagued by construction problems and nearly $2 billion in cost overruns, ultimately resulting in the very public firing of KBR and W.G. Yates & Sons Construction, the nonunion contractors running a significant part of the job. The plant opening, originally set for spring 2014, has been pushed back several times, and full operation is now not expected until 2015.

That two-year campaign by Local 917 and the trades council was ultimately successful, and, a year ago at peak, more than 200 members of Local 917 were at work under a special agreement with Southern Co., parent company of Mississippi Power. There are still close to 100 members at Kemper — out of a local union with just over 200 members — and 300 union craft workers total.

After eight months on the job, Southern Co. came back to the council and expanded the agreement to cover maintenance work at five coal plants that had never used organized workers before.

"Even though we have the utility contract with Mississippi Power, traditionally, their Gulf Coast coal plants had on-site nonunion electricians exclusively," said Fifth District International Representative Phillip Young. "It took a while, but once we started working on Kemper, they saw the benefit and now all their Mississippi plants are our work."

When complete in 2015, Kemper IGCC will be the nation's first scratch-built "clean coal" power plant and the first new coal plant of any kind to break ground since 2008. It uses a revolutionary carbon capture system that cuts carbon emissions by 65 percent, about equal to a similarly sized natural gas plant. It will far exceed the Environmental Protection Agency's new regulations for mercury, sulfur and carbon dioxide, yet it will burn lignite, one of the dirtiest and lowest grades of coal.

"It's not even a rock really, it's more like black dirt and they have enough on the power plant site itself to run the plant for more than 40 years," Henderson said.

The secret to reducing the emissions is that Kemper is about equal parts chemical and power plant. Unlike the carbon capture systems that have retrofitted a handful of existing coal plants in the last half decade, at Kemper the coal is never burned. Instead, power from the plant is used to convert it to a gas a lot like natural gas.

When coal is gasified, carbon dioxide is much more concentrated and easier to remove than when it is burned, said officials from Southern Co., which co-owns the technology with the mega-contractor KBR. Once removed, the carbon dioxide gas will be piped more than 40 miles to Heidelberg, Miss., where it will be pumped into nearly tapped out oil deposits in a process known as "enhanced oil recovery." All that carbonation loosens the remaining oil and it, in effect, fizzes its way out of the well like dropping Mentos into a 2-liter bottle of Diet Coke.

When the well runs dry, the remaining carbon dioxide is sealed below thousands of feet of bedrock.

The gasifiers, pipes and turbines were all successfully tested in July and August but the official start of lignite-fueled operation has been pushed to early 2015.

Henderson said that working conditions have often been difficult at Kemper and the jobsite is often hostile to unions. So Henderson said he keeps the folder documenting two years of meetings, negotiations and protests sitting on his desk, as a token of what it took to get there.

"That file is three, maybe four inches thick, and it's there to remind me of the hard work we all did to turn the first bolt," he said. "I tell the members: this is our work. We keep doing jobs like this right, and there will be a lot more jobs that let us sleep in our own beds at the end of the day."


Mississippi Power's revolutionary Kemper power station is being built with the help of Meridian, Miss., Local 917 members.