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Samuel Speciale/For The Herald-Dispatch The John E. Amos Power Plant is seen in Winfield, W.Va., on Monday, Feb. 27, 2017.

The stacks of the John E. Amos Power Plant loom large over the Putnam Valley, the columns of steam from its coal-fired generators extend their stature high into Earth's lower atmosphere.

Built in the 1970s, the 900-foot-tall John Amos Plant has kept the lights on for millions of customers, while employing hundreds, if not thousands, of local workers. Its impact on the community over the years is without question, but today, plants like John Amos, which burn coal to generate electricity, are struggling to stay in operation. Environmental regulations and the availability and affordability of alternative fuels like natural gas have led to the downturn, but campaign promises to revive the industry from President Donald Trump have instilled some hope in those whose livelihoods depend on coal.

Those promises - to put coal miners back to work and reverse decades of strict regulations - may never come to fruition, some industry leaders have said. After years of decline and the shuttering of many plants, damage may be irreparable.

In the meantime, plants like John Amos keep cranking out the power in the face of an uncertain future.

Producing 2,900 megawatts of power, the John Amos plant is the largest in the American Electric Power system, and one of the largest in the United States. To put the plant's output into perspective, a megawatt is one million watts, which is used in the International System of Units to quantify the rate of energy. Phil Moye, a spokesman for AEP, said the energy generated at the John Amos Plant is enough to power about 2 million homes.

Electricity at the John Amos Plant is generated by boilers. First, coal is delivered to the plant, where it is pulverized into a fine powder that is used to heat water to 1,000 degrees. Steam from the coal-fired boilers is directed into turbines, which drive a generator that produces power. Electricity, which moves at 186,000 miles per second, is instantly transmitted to the millions of customers serviced by the plant.

More than 7 million tons of coal fuel this process each year.

Moye said the plant doesn't serve a set geographic area, but it does power homes here in West Virginia. Appalachian Power is the name which AEP operates under in Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia.

In 2015, many of AEP's smaller coal-fired power plants in Appalachia closed in response to environmental regulations, like the Clean Power Plan, which is a set of rules requiring states to reduce carbon pollution from power plants. Plants that closed in West Virginia included the Kanawha River Power Plant in Glasgow and the Philip Sporn Power Plant in New Haven.

While the U.S. Supreme Court issued a stay on the Clean Power Plan last year until further judicial review, power plants still must still meet a litany of regulations. This can be difficult for some power plants, depending on the type of coal it burns, but Moye said all remaining plants in West Virginia, including John Amos, are in compliance.

"The Amos Plant is currently more affected by fuel cost than by environmental regulations," he said.

The cost of coal fluctuates with demand, which continues to slip due to the availability of cheaper natural gas, which is abundant in West Virginia's northern counties. While natural gas is cheaper, coal-fired electric power plants generate 94 percent of West Virginia's electricity, according to statistics compiled by the U.S. Energy Information Administration in 2015. Natural gas, by comparison, is used to generate 1.8 percent of the state's power.

While West Virginia is the fourth-largest energy producing state, generating more than 4 percent of the country's power, it exports about 80 percent of all its mined coal. Nearly half is shipped to other states while a third is exported to foreign countries.

Coal costs also depend on what type of coal it is and how it was mined. Coal mined in West Virginia comes from thin seams found deeper underground than cheaper coal found closer to the surface in other energy producing states. How far it was transported plays a part as well.

As the energy industry evolves, changes may be on the horizon. Meantime, the John Amos Plant employs more than 300 people and continues to impact the community in positive ways by supporting many local initiatives, like the Wetlands of Winfield.


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