DEKALB, Miss. — In the woods of east Mississippi, a subsidiary of Atlanta-based Southern Co. is pouring billions of dollars into construction of a power plant that burns coal but would emit less carbon dioxide. It's a response to looming efforts by federal regulators trying to curtail gases blamed for climate change.
Each day, as 2,600 construction workers toil away at Plant Ratcliffe in Kemper County, the big bet becomes more expensive. The projected cost is at least $2.8 billion, almost a half-billion dollars above original expectations, and some estimates say it will go higher.
Legal challenges brought by the Sierra Club have led regulators to block the company from billing customers for the costs so far, although Southern subsidiary Mississippi Power Co. got closer to that goal with a favorable lower-court ruling this month.
Southern CEO Thomas Fanning stands by the plant. He says Southern's own technology will mitigate its environmental impact and the need to exploit coal as a hedge against uncertainties in the cost of natural gas, which is currently cheap and abundant.
But there are risks.
The Kemper plant is the most expensive project ever built by Southern subsidiary Mississippi Power Co. The company promises completion in May 2014, but some engineers monitoring construction for state regulators warn that the cost could reach $3.1 billion and that completion isn't likely until November 2014 at the earliest.
Those same engineers, with the firm Burns & Roe, say the plant's linchpin coal-to-gas technology isn't certain to work.
Mr. Fanning says some setbacks at Kemper have been seen in the company stock price. Shares are down about 5 percent over last year, but Southern's stock has closely tracked shares of other big utilities in that time.
Morningstar analyst Mark Barnett said he respects Southern's ability to manage big projects but that Mr. Kemper might dent Mississippi Power's finances if costs keep mounting. "This is an outsized project for such a small utility," Mr. Barnett said.
As the Kemper project goes on, Southern also is at work on two additional nuclear reactors at Plant Vogtle, about 30 miles southeast of Augusta, Ga. The $14 billion project will be funded in part by $6 million from Southern subsidiary Georgia Power Co. Southern also owns Alabama Power Co. and Florida's Gulf Power Co.
"Vogtle and Kemper County, even despite where gas prices are today, are exceedingly attractive resources for the future," Mr. Fanning told The Associated Press.
The plants reflect Southern's decision not to become overly reliant on natural gas. Mr. Fanning argues that gas can't be expected to remain cheap for decades, the life cycle that utilities consider for power plants.
How Kemper and Vogtle turn out are likely to define Mr. Fanning's legacy, as the company stated in the last chapter of a 534-page history it published last year titled "Big Bets." The book, published for Southern's 100-year anniversary, is meant to encapsulate past lessons for future leaders.
Part of that past has been coal. Five years ago, 70 percent of Southern's power came from coal and 11 percent from natural gas. The company now generates 35 percent of its power from coal and 47 percent from gas.
But given federal regulations against carbon dioxide emissions, few utilities are building coal plants.
Southern's response at Kemper is to convert the coal to a gas, strip out carbon dioxide and other hazardous chemicals, and burn the gas for power.
Southern expresses confidence in technology developed and tested at Wilsonville, Ala. But Burns & Roe, the engineering firm that warns that Kemper's cost will top $3 billion, says "there is still a technology risk," partly associated with scaling up the gasifier to Kemper's larger size.
The company would sell the carbon dioxide to be pumped into the ground for energy companies seeking to push up more oil from old oil fields.
"We are the Saudi Arabia of coal — very high-quality stuff. We've got to find a way to continue to preserve that important national energy resource to be used for the benefit of our citizens," Mr. Fanning said. "What we're doing here in Kemper County, I think, may be a way forward for coal in America. It is that important."
The Sierra Club — which opposes coal-burning plants nationally — says the plant could harm the environment and raise customer bills by 45 percent or more. Mississippi Power says the rise in bills would be closer to 33 percent before falling.
Kemper, though smaller, may be financially riskier than Vogtle. In Georgia, Southern already is collecting its financing costs from ratepayers, and regulators are approving company expenditures every six months, though they can challenge that spending at the end of the project. Mississippi Power — Southern's smallest subsidiary with 186,000 customers — hasn't won regulatory approval to collect any money it has spent on Kemper.
The Mississippi Public Service Commission's decision to delay rate increases until legal challenges are resolved stunned executives and investors, especially considering a 2008 state law allowed rate increases during construction.
"That decision surprised the investment community and we saw it in our stock price," Mr. Fanning said.