The years 2008, 2009 and 2010 were good ones for people who watch towboats push barges up and down the Ohio River. American Electric Power was taking delivery of 10 new boats at about $13 million each, and Crounse Corp. was taking delivery of five smaller boats.
And why not? They were ordered when power plants were burning all the coal they could get. The companies needed new equipment to push all that coal.
As things worked out, the boats were delivered as the market for thermal coal, the type burned in power plants, was shrinking. And it has shrunk more since as the demand for electricity produced by coal has shrunk.
A few years ago I wanted to see how the coal-fired power plants along the Ohio River were doing compared with their peak years, so I chose 2005 and 2015 for comparison.
The amount of power produced by coal had declined as natural gas took part of the market. Things have declined for coal even more since then as more gas-fired generation has come on the market and as renewables have taken more market share, too.
The other day I ran some preliminary numbers for 2019. As you might expect, some of the biggest power plants of 2005 were producing much less than at their peak. Actually, two of them are gone.
FirstEnergy Bruce Mansfield, a Pennsylvania plant of the same size as John Amos in Putnam County, West Virginia, shut down last year because it could not compete against natural gas and renewables in the wholesale electricity markets. J.M. Stuart, in Adams County, Ohio, just this side of Maysville, Kentucky, was retired a couple of years ago.
In 2005, the list of 10 largest power plants along the Ohio as ranked by generation consisted of one nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania — Beaver Valley — and nine coal burners. Last year’s list would have Beaver Valley, eight coal burners and one gas burner — Hanging Rock in Lawrence County, Ohio. Just outside the top 10 is the gas-burning plant at Lawrenceburg, Indiana, just below Cincinnati.
Both gas-burning plants reported all-time production highs last year. Beaver Valley had its best year of this century as well.
Back to those boats: Crounse still has its five newer boats. Two of them — the Linda Little and the Paula Ruble — are frequent visitors to the Huntington area. The other three come through here less often.
AEP has sold several of the boats it bought a decade ago, mainly because it no longer needs them. The ones it kept spend much of their time on the lower Ohio supplying coal to the power plant at Rockport, Indiana, from the Cook Coal Terminal at Metropolis, Illinois, across from Paducah, Kentucky.
Rockport is the largest coal-burning power plant on the Ohio, but AEP has said it will retire one of the two generating units there by December 2028 rather than invest millions of dollars if not $1 billion or more to bring it into compliance with newer emission standards.
Rockport burns coal from out west, so it won’t affect the Appalachian coal industry that much, but it’s still an indication of how the market has changed.