Brandon Presley: Consumers lost in Mississippi Power’s planned Kemper County plant | Better MS Report
July 22, 2011 Leave a comment
From Better Mississippi Report:
JACKSON (Tuesday, July 6, 2010) – Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley says consumers lost in Mississippi Power Co.’s planned Kemper County coal plant because the utility doesn’t have to guarantee the technology behind the project will ever work.
Mississippi Power’s plant, the first of its kind in the world, will use a new technology that converts a soft coal called lignite into a gas to fuel turbines and create electricity. The concept is high risk because no one can guarantee that the technology to be used in the plant will work.
Presley said Gov. Haley Barbour and U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu sent letters asking for support of the Mississippi Power plant. But Presley voted in April and May against forcing Mississippi Power ratepayers to finance the plant.
“I received letters urging me to support the project from everyone from Gov. Barbour to Steven Chu, secretary of energy in the Obama administration,” said Presley, who represents the Northern District on the three-member PSC.
“If they thought it was such a good project, why didn’t they find a way to pay for it rather than forcing Mississippi Power’s customers to be the sole investors in the plant?” Presley told the Better Mississippi Report.
The PSC voted 2-1 in April to allow Mississippi Power Co. to build the Kemper County plant at a cost of no more than $2.4 billion. Commissioners said they would decide at a later date whether to grant Mississippi Power’s request for ratepayers to finance the plant before it begins operating.
Less than a month later in May, the PSC voted 2-1 to increase the cost cap of the Mississippi Power plant to $2.88 billion and also allowed the company to charge ratepayers for financing costs before the plant is completed.
Presley cast the sole no votes at the April and May meetings.
Presley, 32, a lifelong resident of Nettleton, is in his first term on the PSC – winning the position in 2007 after serving as mayor of Nettleton from 2001 to 2007. He talked about the Mississippi Power plant and other issues in an interview with the Better Mississippi Report.
Better Mississippi Group: You were the only member of the Mississippi Public Service Commission to oppose the Mississippi Power Co. plan to build a coal-burning plant in Kemper County. Can you explain your concerns about this proposal and why you voted against it?
Brandon Presley: Very simple. Mississippi Power wanted the ratepayers to pay in advance hundreds of millions of dollars in financing costs and then $2.4 billion (now up to $2.88 billion) for the plant itself, and after hours and hours of sworn testimony and days of hearings they would not, and to this day, still will not, guarantee their new technology to be used in this plant will work.
If I had voted yes for this plant, I would have been a part of forcing ratepayers in one of the poorest states in the nation to pay, in advance, for something the company can’t even guarantee will work and that was, obviously, a big concern to me. I strongly support innovative technology, and I have a deep admiration for the scientists and engineers who bring about groundbreaking ideas that could make our lives better. But I believe the companies themselves and private sector investors should be willing to take some of the risks and not force all the risk on ratepayers who don’t have a choice in their providers. Remember, customers of Mississippi Power can’t choose who provides their electricity. They must use Mississippi Power or be in the dark, literally. So they are now being forced, via their electric bill, to invest in this plant.
I received letters urging me to support the project from everyone from Gov. Barbour to Steven Chu, secretary of energy in the Obama administration. I wondered if they thought it was such a good project, why didn’t they find a way to pay for it rather than forcing Mississippi Power’s customers to be the sole investors in the plant?
Also, I felt strongly that since there are so many unknowns out there, especially about the technology itself, that nothing would have been harmed by waiting. As I have said, Henry Ford built a better car five years after he started on his first one.
In a few years, we should have a better idea about other discoveries going on now, such as the impact of shale natural gas and also about the technology in the plant. Maybe then Mississippi Power will be able to guarantee that it will work. In a few years, we should also have a better understanding of the current energy legislation and environmental regulation that is being debated in Washington.
If Mississippi Power is going to ask consumers to pay up to $2.88 billion, plus hundreds of millions in banking fees (before the plant puts out any electricity), they need to have their ducks in a row with technology that they can guarantee works and share some of the risk. They didn’t. So I voted “no” twice.
Better Mississippi: The vote was a total change from a stand the PSC took days earlier. Can you tell us what led to the about-face on the PSC?
Presley: I’ve been consistent – I voted no both times. You would have to ask the other two commissioners that question. Even though I could not support the project after hearing and studying the facts presented to us for months, I felt the first order on April 29th was strong and at least had some good protections in it for the ratepayers. I do not know why the majority voted to ease up on that order and grant the company another $480 million in spending authority under certain circumstances.
Better Mississippi: Mississippi Power Co. won’t release the possible increase in electric rates that customers may have to pay to finance construction of the Kemper County plant. Is this something that should be released to the public? Why?
Presley: Absolutely. They should have been disclosed before the plant was approved. It was one of the reasons I voted against the project. Two times before the final votes, I asked if the rate impacts were going to be made public before the project was approved, and both times the answer was “no.”
The customers of Mississippi Power have a right to know how this plant is going to impact their bills. They shouldn’t have to wait until they get the bill out of their mailbox to understand how much it is going to cost them. I had proposed changing the rule that allowed Mississippi Power to deem these rate impacts “confidential” prior to the final vote on Kemper. I raised the issue of changing this rule in May but was out-voted. The issue was taken up in our June meeting, at which time it passed unanimously.
Better Mississippi: With the Sierra Club taking the Mississippi Power Co. Kemper County issue to court, how do you see things working now? Will this be a long, protracted case?
Presley: All I know is that I will keep fighting for taxpayers and ratepayers no matter what happens.
Better Mississippi: You are one of three commissioners on the PSC. Can you tell us about your relationship with the other commissioners? Do you all tend to get along? How do you handle disagreements on major issues, such as the one with Mississippi Power Co.?
Presley: I like my fellow commissioners and think they’re good men. As with any three-member commission, we are going to disagree from time to time.
With that said, I tend to be very passionate about the job the people elected me to do. I’m passionate about what I believe a regulator is supposed to do. I won’t back down when I believe consumers are getting a raw deal or when I see something unfair about the process. I think that’s what the ratepayers expect and it’s certainly how an elected official who is protecting the public’s interest should act, in my opinion.
When you have the courage of your convictions, you don’t mind going against the grain or standing alone. I recently heard a pretty good saying that fits this situation, “Even a dead fish can go with the flow.” I don’t plan to be a “go with the flow” commissioner.
Better Mississippi: What do you see as the biggest challenge of the PSC these days?
Presley: The single biggest challenge is making sure that consumers aren’t left out of the picture at the PSC. It seems that almost every rate plan, service plan, rule and regulation was written for and by the utilities for their benefit. Too many times the people who actually have to pay the utility bills have just been left out of the process and forgotten. The simple fact is that if the PSC doesn’t stand up for the consumer, nobody else is going to.
We desperately need balance at the PSC. And by that, I mean that we need to remember that there are real people, families, small businesses and industries that have to pay for these rate hikes and proposals. The utilities have a vast reservoir of attorneys, lobbyists, experts and cheerleaders. All the general public has is the PSC.
Better Mississippi: What do you see as the most important regulatory issues facing the PSC and consumers in the state?
Presley: So many Mississippians are facing very tough economic situations in their homes and at their businesses. My mission is to do everything possible to keep money in the pockets of taxpayers and ratepayers and not help the big utilities make undeserved profits. That is our single biggest challenge. I believe we can craft policies that are pro-consumer and pro-business. Letting utilities increase rates whenever they want hurts so many small businesses that are the backbone of our state’s economy. I am proud to say that I have voted against more spending and rate increases than any other commissioner in the history of the PSC.
Better Mississippi: How do you see your role on the PSC?
Presley: I see my role as a watchdog for the public interest – period.
A commissioner I’ve gotten to know from another state says it best. One time, when the hearing room was full of attorneys and high-paid lobbyists for the utility companies, he called the meeting to order by asking everyone who was there on behalf of the utilities to please stand up. Almost the whole room, of course, stood to their feet. Then he told them to sit down. He then asked, “Who is here on behalf of the ratepayers?” Nobody responded and he stood up and said “You see, folks? That’s why I’m here. That’s my job.” I couldn’t agree more.
Better Mississippi: Statewide and district elections will take place in 2011. Do you plan to run for re-election? Why or why not?
Presley: I honestly haven’t given it much thought. I’m consumed daily with issues at the PSC and getting my job done. I will make a decision about the election in the coming months.