By Johnny Kampis | Watchdog.org | March 25, 2015
In late 2011, a contractor on the Kemper Project in east central Mississippi found a key component of the gasifier towers of the plant was failing, causing months of delays and untold amounts of cost overruns.
Could this aspect of the project’s problems be what former manager Brett Wingo wishes to speak about?
Wingo, due in Jefferson County, Alabama, Circuit Court on Thursday, has been muzzled by Southern Company Services, an arm of Southern Company, the parent company of Mississippi Power, which alleges Wingo agreed to a settlement in which he would be paid to keep quiet and leave his job. Wingo said he doesn’t agree with the settlement and hasn’t executed that agreement.
Jefferson County Circuit Judge Elisabeth French issued a temporary restraining order, but delayed a hearing on the matter when Wingo requested more time to find an attorney. Wingo is a resident of Jefferson County.
In his resume posted on Indeed.com, Wingo lists prominently his efforts in guiding his team through “unexpected gasifier refractory failures” in early 2012. The refractory material is key to protecting the gasifier shell from the great heat resulting from high pressure syngas.
In early 2012, successfully guided project team through unexpected gasifier refractory failures at the fabrication site by first recognizing the serious schedule implications of failures, consulting with and getting buy in from leadership and project management on a path forward, assembling the proper team, utilizing in house expertise as well as industry experts and outside consultants. The resulting pursuit of a parallel path testing and production plan produced a reliable path forward, achieving the dual goals of minimizing overall impact to the project schedule while delivering a refractory product of sufficient quality. Gasifier delivery schedules were subsequently rebaselined, with each section shipping on time with minimum impact to project.
A prudence audit by Pegasus-Global prepared for the Mississippi Public Service Commission last May describes in some detail the refractory issue at Kemper.
The two gasifiers at the plant each consist of 12 individual steel pieces lined with refractory materials that insulate and protect the metal vessel walls from extreme heat and corrosion.
Contract Fabricators Inc. was awarded a contract to fabricate the gasifier components, with the amount the company was paid redacted from Pegasus-Global’s audit. CFI began applying the refractory material to the interiors of completed gasifier components in late 2011, but the material began to show air bubble cracks and failed to adhere to the vessel walls.
The audit shows that CFI and Mississippi Power spent close to six months identifying the problem and determining a solution, delaying delivery of gasifier components and impacting gasifier steel erection.
The cause of the problem was first attributed to the temperatures at which the refractory was applied and cured. The first response involved repeating the work with tighter controls on the temperature.
When that didn’t work, Mississippi Power worked with CFI to try different “dry-out” methodologies, which are not explained in the document. When that also failed, the power company gathered a team of experts, including engineers from China, to develop possible solutions. By May 2012, a solution was found — the audit does not describe what that solution was — and the gasifier construction was back on track.
The audit said Mississippi Power was able to recover some money from CFI for the late delivery of components, as stipulated in the contract, but did not reveal the amount.
The document does note, however, that Mississippi Power did not fully press for monetary damages.
Patricia Galloway, CEO and president of Pegasus-Global, said the power company chose to not fully assess damages “in order to work cooperatively with CFI in developing a solution to the refractory issue.”
“MPC weighed its decision in consideration of additional costs to the Project should the CFI refractory delay be prolonged,” she wrote. “This decision was reasonable and prudent management given the circumstance.”
If the past repeats itself, Mississippi Power could experience prolonged trouble with the refractory material.
Tampa Electric opened the nation’s first integrated gasification power plant in 1996 in Polk County, Florida. Among the plant’s plentiful problems has been constant weakening of the refractory lining, requiring plant workers to replace it every year, requiring a 20- to 30-day scheduled outage.
A 2010 presentation by Mississippi Power at a National Energy Technology Laboratorymeeting said one advantage of integrated gasification is a 10- to 20-year refractory life.
Whether that will prove true at the Kemper Project site remains to be seen. The gasifier, which will turn high-moisture lignite coal into syngas, is not expected to go online until at least March 2016.
Alison Kerester, executive director at the Gasification Technologies Council, which advocates for the industry, told Watchdog.org via email she’s not familiar with the technical aspects of the refractory linings and problems at either of the Mississippi or Florida plants. She said in an earlier story on gasification plants going over budget that the scale of these plants is creating challenges.
“Anytime you’re going to scale up like that, you inevitably are going to have issues that come up during construction and initial operation that need to be resolved,” she said.
Dan Kish, senior vice president of policy at the Institute for Energy Research, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank that advocates for free-market solutions to energy issues, told Watchdog he understands power companies must try and fail before they succeed, but risks must be mitigated when taxpayer money is at stake. He noted WD-40is so named because the lubrication product was the 40th formula developed.
“That works pretty good, doesn’t it?” he asked. “But they weren’t using federal money to do it.”
The cost for the Kemper plant has ballooned to more than $6.2 billion, with Mississippi Power reporting another $26 million cost increase earlier this month.