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Britton says PSC should make changes to prevent another Kemper Project fiasco

Southern District Public Service Commissioner Sam Britton said Monday that some changes might need to be made to the structure of the commission and the staff to prevent future Kemper Projects.

The first-term Republican commissioner made his remarks at the Stennis Institute’s Capitol Press Club Forum in Jackson.

He talked about his involvement with the solution to the controversy over the Kemper Project power plant, which was designed originally to be powered by synthesis gas made from lignite coal while removing pollutants such as carbon dioxide. According to the settlement, the company will have to run the plant on natural gas as it has since August 2014 and can’t seek any recovery through high rates to cover costs on the gasifier plants that convert lignite into syngas.

“Since being in office, my prime focus has been to find a solution to the Kemper issue, as many other people have,” Britton said. “Now that it’s over, what am I going to do?”

One project that Britton would like to tackle is changing the way the commission and the separate Public Utilities Staff are run. He says that’s important to prevent future Kemper-like issues. Kemper was originally supposed to cost $2.4 billion and be operational by May 2014, two goals Mississippi Power never could meet.

“We need to look and possibly change the system,” Britton said. “It should bear the scrutiny of the Legislature, the press and all individuals because if we ask the questions, what should work, what doesn’t, going through that process will give us a better system. There needs to be a review. There are changes that need to be made, the question is how much.”

Britton also said that the commission won’t be pursuing any investigation of Mississippi Power even after documents have surfaced that revealed that executives from the utility’s parent company — the Southern Company — knew three years before the project’s clean coal component was abandoned in July that it wouldn’t meet cost targets because of excess maintenance costs.

The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission recently dropped an investigation over similar claims from earlier in Kemper’s history from the 2009 to 2010 period, but several lawsuits are pending from shareholders over similar claims.

“At this stage of the game, I don’t see what purpose that would serve,” Britton said. “I think instead of going back and focusing on that, it’d be better to create a system where things like that can’t or are less likely to happen.”

He said March 6 was the true end point of the Kemper saga, which cost Mississippi Power $6.4 billion in write offs since that was the deadline for parties to object to the settlement approved by the PSC.

Britton also didn’t reveal whether he wants to run for re-election or another office in 2019.

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