Coal is on its way down as a source of electricity in the United States. It won't happen tomorrow, but unless something changes, coal will have a smaller and smaller role in power generation as old plants are retired and they are replaced with plants that burn natural gas or that produce power from renewable sources such as wind and solar.

Here in southern West Virginia, though, coal will remain a major supplier of electricity for at least the next 20 years, based on Appalachian Power's integrated resource plan. The company expects coal to generate most of its power through 2040, said Jeri Matheny, communications director.

But that doesn't mean coal will rule forever, she said.

"We are always going to be looking for opportunities to add wind and solar," Matheny said last month. "Those are more and more cost-effective. It makes sense for us to do so.

"It's all economics. We talk about Amos and Mountaineer and Mitchell, but we don't plan to build new coal plants."

The Amos plant near Winfield, Mountaineer near New Haven and Mitchell near Moundsville are Appalachian's three coal-burning plants, and they have survived the wave of retirements in the industry. That wave led to the shutdown of the Philip Sporn plant in Mason County and the Kanawha River plant in Kanawha County a few years ago.

Even before then, new gas-fired plants were coming on line in the region. As horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing became economical, natural gas became less expensive and took market share from coal on the wholesale power markets.

As of now, Appalachian Power doesn't need large amounts of new power, Matheny said.

The long-range plan for Appalachian Power's parent company, American Electric Power, shows a smaller supply of power from coal, but not its elimination. In 2005, coal accounted for 70% of the company's generating portfolio. Renewables made up only 4%. This year, AEP expects coal to produce 46% of its power vs. 16% from renewables. Beyond that, AEP plans to drop coal down to about 27% of its generating capacity while renewables rise to 40%.

Coal-fired plants are aging. By 2040, most will be at or near the end of their expected service times and their owners will have to decide whether to invest large amounts in keeping them going or shut them down.

Unforeseen changes in technology or national energy policy can change things quickly — fracking, for example. It's possible the large, regional grids will be replaced either entirely or in part by smaller grids that won't rely on large power plants. We could return to the days when local areas were supplied by smaller power plants.

Or coal could make a comeback. The future isn't certain.

This part of the Ohio Valley, which has relied on coal for decades, could be one of the last holdouts for coal power.

— — —

Now, a correction to last week's column.

That column was about how solar power is getting a foothold in the areas around Huntington. The first paragraph said for the first time ever, solar power generated more electricity than coal in April. That was a mistake. It should have said renewable sources - solar, wind, hydroelectric power and others - had overtaken coal, not just solar.

Someone's mind was too focused on solar power, it seems.

Jim Ross is opinion page editor of The Herald-Dispatch. His email is jross@herald-dispatch.com.

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