Coal not coming back, Appalachian Power president says

ROANOKE — Coal consumption is not likely to increase, regardless of whether new federal regulations on power plants go into effect, and, from coal’s perspective, the national debate on coal and climate change has largely been lost, the president of West Virginia’s largest electric utility told a roomful of energy executives Tuesday.

The Clean Power Plan, the Obama administration’s proposal to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, would cut coal consumption — but even if the regulations are blocked, coal consumption will not increase, Appalachian Power President Charles Patton said at the state Energy Summit at the Stonewall Resort.

“You just can’t go with new coal [plants] at this point in time,” Patton said. “It is just not economically feasible to do so.”

Patton acknowledged that entire communities, particularly across Southern West Virginia, are being decimated by coal’s decline. However, he laid out a series of stark economic realities.

By 2026, Patton said, Appalachian Power expects its use of coal power to be down 26 percent, with or without the Clean Power Plan.

That’s because of cheaper alternatives and already-imposed environmental regulations that make coal uncompetitive, Patton said.

The cost of natural gas electricity, including construction of power plants and infrastructure, is about $73 per megawatt hour, Patton said. For a conventional coal plant, it’s $95 per megawatt hour.

Even wind power, which is less dependable than coal, is still significantly cheaper, at $73 per megawatt hour, when a longstanding tax credit for wind energy production is factored in.

An advanced coal power plant, with carbon capture and storage to lower emissions, costs nearly twice as much, at $144 per megawatt hour, Patton said.

“With or without the Clean Power Plan, the economics of alternatives to fossil-based fuels are making inroads in the utility plan,” Patton said. “Companies are making decisions today where they are moving away from coal-fired generation.”

What’s more, the debate over the “war on coal,” which sucks up so much of the political air in West Virginia, has largely been settled in other states, Patton said.

He said 72 percent of Americans believe the earth is getting warmer and that man-made causes are partly attributable. Nearly two-thirds of Americans favor stricter emissions limits on greenhouse gases, Patton said, with even larger majorities among young people.

“Americans believe there is a problem, and while we in West Virginia believe that’s ludicrous and we have our view on coal, it’s really important to understand, if you’re not in a coal-producing state, your affinity for coal is not there,” Patton said. “The debate largely, at this point in time, has been lost.”

Patton reminded the audience that the closest the United States ever came to a carbon tax was the cap-and-trade bill pushed by Sens. Joe Lieberman and John McCain. “I don’t see John McCain as a flaming liberal,” Patton said.

He said he opposes the Clean Power Plan and said West Virginia should continue its lawsuit to block it. However, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said Tuesday that West Virginia will submit a plan to comply with the Clean Power Plan — despite Republican calls to boycott it — while those lawsuits play out.

Patton said the federal regulations, intended to help stave off the worst effects of climate change, would cause a reduction in coal use, but even defeating the regulations won’t make the push to address climate change disappear.

He urged the crowd to “think globally” and work to advance cleaner-burning coal technologies.

“If we believe that we can just change administrations and this issue is going to go away,” Patton said, “we’re making a terrible mistake.”

Reach David Gutman at david.gutman@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-5119 or follow @davidlgutman on Twitter.

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