Executive Briefings

Bosses at World's Most Ambitious Clean Coal Plant Kept Problems Secret for Years

Executives at the world’s most ambitious “clean coal” plant knew for years about serious design flaws and budget problems but sought to withhold key information from regulators before their plans collapsed, according to documents obtained by the Guardian.

The Kemper plant in Mississippi — held up as the global model for a new generation of “clean coal” power plants — was the most expensive fossil fuel power plant in U.S. history, with a $7.5bn price tag. Its owners, Southern Company, boasted it was “going to be the cleanest coal plant in the world,” in the words of the CEO, Tom Fanning.

But thousands of internal documents reviewed by the Guardian and a series of interviews with Kemper staff uncovered evidence that the company had information showing that the project would blow through state-imposed budget limits five years before the company decided to reverse course and become an exclusively gas-fired energy plant.

Kemper’s failure could be a serious setback for global climate policy and plans to reach the Paris climate targets. International climate agreements rely heavily on developing practical carbon capture technologies that have so far largely proved elusive. Kemper was slated to be the largest coal carbon capture plant ever built, touted as potentially the first of many similar projects worldwide.

The documents show that Kemper’s design faced what proved to be an insurmountable issue: it required vastly more maintenance downtime than originally predicted, and according to one 2014 report would be offline 45 percent of its first five years rather than the 25 percent the company had publicly projected.

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The Kemper plant in Mississippi — held up as the global model for a new generation of “clean coal” power plants — was the most expensive fossil fuel power plant in U.S. history, with a $7.5bn price tag. Its owners, Southern Company, boasted it was “going to be the cleanest coal plant in the world,” in the words of the CEO, Tom Fanning.

But thousands of internal documents reviewed by the Guardian and a series of interviews with Kemper staff uncovered evidence that the company had information showing that the project would blow through state-imposed budget limits five years before the company decided to reverse course and become an exclusively gas-fired energy plant.

Kemper’s failure could be a serious setback for global climate policy and plans to reach the Paris climate targets. International climate agreements rely heavily on developing practical carbon capture technologies that have so far largely proved elusive. Kemper was slated to be the largest coal carbon capture plant ever built, touted as potentially the first of many similar projects worldwide.

The documents show that Kemper’s design faced what proved to be an insurmountable issue: it required vastly more maintenance downtime than originally predicted, and according to one 2014 report would be offline 45 percent of its first five years rather than the 25 percent the company had publicly projected.

Read full article