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FirstEnergy is the utility company that provides electricity to most of northern West Virginia. For the most part, its service territory is what you might call the area north of U.S. 50.

Last week, FirstEnergy announced it is preparing to transition away from coal-fired power in West Virginia by 2050 and produce more of its power from renewable sources.

It’s not only that FirstEnergy has seen the light and is transitioning to green power generation. It’s also a signal that electric utilities have little or no incentive to maintain their investment in coal-fired plants.

Many of those plants will need millions if not billions of dollars of improvements to keep them running past 2050. No new coal-fired plants are being planned anywhere in the United States, so whatever coal-based power we will have in 30 years will come from the existing fleet — or what’s left of it.

At present, coal-based electricity is less competitive economically than that based on natural gas. Politically, it’s undesirable except in coal-producing regions.

American Electric Power, the parent company of Appalachian Power, is also moving its generating fleet away from coal and toward renewables.

These announcements should serve as a warning to West Virginia’s leaders in government, business, education and elsewhere that change is coming to some counties. Should coal-fired power be a thing of the past by 2050, that gives West Virginia only 30 years to prepare for what this will mean for tax-supported entities such as schools and public safety and what it will mean for the jobs picture in the affected counties.

It’s not like this should be a surprise. People in the power industry have been talking about this for years. But politicians barely mention it. As with deferred maintenance on a house, if problems are not anticipated and dealt with early, they become more serious and more expensive later. That’s what’s happening here with coal and power generation and what their loss would mean in Putnam County, Mason County and elsewhere.

There is always the possibility that the coal plants will remain open. AEP shed much of its carbon dioxide output by selling the Gavin plant near Cheshire, Ohio, a few years ago. The plant remains in operation and continues to produce electricity for Ohio, but its carbon impact is no longer AEP’s direct concern. That leaves open the possibility that Amos, Mountaineer and other coal-fired plants could remain in production past 2050 but under different ownership. That carries its own set of benefits and problems, however.

The bottom line is that this is a situation that must be faced and dealt with now.

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