The Public Service Commission of West Virginia is considering a request from Appalachian Power to allow it to increase the rate it charges customers in exchange for keeping all three of its coal-burning power plants in operation beyond 2028.
It’s a complicated case with deadlines that can change. What it comes down to is how long West Virginians can be expected to pay higher rates to keep the state’s aging coal-burning fleet in business when coal is becoming less competitive in the power market.
For decades, West Virginia has provided electricity to other states through an extensive fleet of coal-burning power plants owned and operated by utilities. That’s why Appalachian Power needed the approval of regulators in Virginia and Kentucky for rate increases to help pay for improvements at its John E. Amos Power Plant in Putnam County, Mountaineer Power Plant in Mason County and Mitchell Power Plant in Marshall County. Regulators in those two states, which are further along in the conversion from coal to gas and renewables, have decided they don’t want to subsidize coal any longer.
Likewise the Pleasants Power Station near St. Marys, West Virginia, sends most of its power to Ohio. But its owner wants out of power generation in general and coal in particular, so it, too, faces an uncertain future.
West Virginia has an abundance of gas in its shale formations. The legal and regulatory climate is working against efforts to build new pipelines to carry that gas to out-of-state customers. That same legal and regulatory climate also prevents new coal-burning power plants from being built.
As much as one generation hates to admit and another generation yearns to preach, coal as an electricity source has a limited future, even in West Virginia.
Thus, it is time for West Virginia to embrace gas-burning power plants the way surrounding states have. It’s also time to look at producing electricity on a scale smaller than what we are used to seeing from utilities. Businesses in this area are installing solar panels, whether they are for a commercial building in downtown Huntington or an industrial-sized installation similar to the one at Toyota Motor Manufacturing West Virginia. Solar isn’t always economically feasible, but it should be in the mix.
Barring significant advancements in engineering and materials, West Virginia probably has reached the limits of feasibility as far as wind and hydroelectric generation. Environmentally conscious residents must accept the fact that this state will need fossil fuels for the foreseeable future. West Virginia just doesn’t have the capacity to go 100% renewable in power generation. Natural gas is the bridge to the future.
It’s not like we don’t have experience with that in this region. About 25 miles from downtown Huntington, the Hanging Rock Energy Facility in Lawrence County produces power from gas. Last year it produced almost as much electricity as Amos but with a fraction of the pollution.
As the existing fleet of coal-burning plants ages, it’s either upgrade them or replace them. Replacing them requires political will in the West Virginia Legislature and from the governor’s office, neither of which has embraced gas as a power source.
The coal industry wields considerable power at the Capitol. Energy Solutions Consortium of Buffalo, New York, had planned to build a gas-fired plant in Brooke County. It had received approval for a loan from the West Virginia Economic Development Authority, but Gov. Jim Justice, whose family business interests run on coal, intervened. He questioned why developers needed state aid. About a year ago, Energy Solutions dropped its plans to build the plant.
There are reasons to keep coal available as a standby power source. Unlike gas, several months of coal can be stored on site. And coal is not subject to weather the way renewables are.
As Sen. Joe Manchin says, we need an “all of the above” approach to producing electricity. Shutting gas out of the power market just doesn’t make sense.