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Appalachian Power president says company is looking toward renewables

CHRIS DORST Gazette-Mail
Appalachian Power President Chris Beam speaks with Gazette-Mail editors and reporters last week.

When Chris Beam, the new president of Appalachian Power, talks about economic development, he brings a message that may not be very popular among the coal-focused political leadership in West Virginia.

Giant businesses Appalachian would like to lure to the state as its future power customers — the Amazons and Googles of the world — make it very clear that when they are scouting locations for facilities like new data centers, they have to go somewhere that can guarantee them a power supply that is generated from 100 percent renewable sources.

“At the end of the day, West Virginia may not require us to be clean, but our customers are,” Beam said. “So if we want to bring in those jobs, and those are good jobs, those are good-paying jobs that support our universities because they hire our engineers, they have requirements now, and we have to be mindful of what our customers want.”

Beam, 48, took over in early January as president of Charleston-based Appalachian. The company serves about 1 million customers in Southern West Virginia, Tennessee and Virginia. Beam replaced Charles Patton, who was promoted to executive vice president of external affairs for American Electric Power after more than six years at the helm of Appalachian.

A Wheeling native, Beam said he understands coal’s longtime role in West Virginia’s economy and culture, but he also realizes he’s running Appalachian in the middle of historic changes in the electric power industry across the nation.

The rise of cheap natural gas from shale reserves along with the plummeting drop in renewable sources like wind and solar have cut coal’s share of U.S. electricity generation from more than one-half to about a third over the last few years. Appalachian and other power producers have closed a large number of coal plants, shifted others to gas and increasingly embraced renewable options.

In West Virginia, the changes have cost thousands of coal jobs. Beam is quick to point out that Appalachian still relies on large coal-fired plants — those it chose to equip with more advanced sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide controls — in Kanawha and Mason counties. Those facilities aren’t going away anytime soon, he said, but new coal plants just aren’t in any company’s future.

“We know that coal is king in West Virginia and we aren’t naive to that,” Beam said during a meeting last week with Gazette-Mail editors and reporters. “We continue to burn that, and we will continue to burn that going forward.”

In Washington, President Donald Trump said he’s going to bring back the coal jobs in places like West Virginia by doing away with a variety of what Trump and the mining industry said are overreaching regulations.

Trump has promised to do away with the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulation aimed at curbing greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants. Trump also signed into law a bill that did away with an Interior Department rule meant to give streams additional protections from mountaintop removal mining.

During the last two weeks, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has visited a coal mine in Pennsylvania and a power plant in Missouri to promote what the Trump administration is calling a “back-to-basics” agenda for the environmental agency.

Most experts said they don’t believe any regulatory relief offered by the Trump EPA is going to bring back substantial numbers of coal jobs in West Virginia, and most utilities have indicated they don’t see the administration’s moves as reversing their move away from coal to more natural gas and more renewable sources.

Trump and Pruitt have also continued to try to cast doubt on the overwhelming scientific consensus that human activities, such as burning coal, are the main drivers behind climate change that threatens to bring extreme weather, rising seas and other potential disasters for human society.

Beam, though, said he’s not interested in those kinds of discussions.

“We’re past that argument as a company,” Beam said.

He said Appalachian Power and its parent company believe action to regulate carbon dioxide emissions from power plants is inevitable, but they prefer to see it done by congressional action rather than by EPA rule.

AEP’s former CEO, Michael Morris, was a major supporter of the cap-and-trade bill passed in the U.S. House in 2009 but never brought to the Senate floor by the then-Democratic leadership.

What Beam said is most difficult is the back-and-forth about climate regulation when presidential administrations change. Utilities want some certainty in the form of congressional action on the matter, he said.

“We don’t want to get into either that four- or eight-year cycle of trying to comply and somebody else comes,” he said. “Everything we do are very long-term decisions, everything from 30- to 50-year decisions, so a four-year cycle just doesn’t work for us.”

If Beam needed a personal story to highlight his industry’s shifts, he need look only to AEP’s Kammer Plant near Moundsville, where he started with the company in 1990 after attending West Virginia Northern Community College. Kammer was among the aging and inefficient plants AEP closed two years ago, and the facility was recently purchased for potential redevelopment.

Currently, Appalachian gets a little more than 60 percent of its electricity from burning coal. That’s far more than the national figure, but less than what Appalachian’s coal share used to be. And, by 2020, the company said it hopes coal’s portion of its generation will be down to about half.

Beam said he met not long ago with Gov. Jim Justice, and the governor wasn’t happy to hear those numbers.

“The governor asked me, ‘I’d like you to burn more coal,’” Beam said. “Well, we don’t have any more coal plants. We’re not going to build any more coal plants. That’s not going to happen.”

Beam declined to provide details, but he disclosed Appalachian Power will announce, perhaps as early as June, plans to add to the company’s wind-generation capacity in Southern West Virginia.

“We’re getting ready to propose something, and it would put assets in West Virginia,” Beam said. “We have a model that looks good. We like it. We think it makes a lot of sense. There definitely is some ability to expand wind in West Virginia. There is no doubt about that.”

Beam said he’d also met recently with state Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, and House Speaker Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, and told them about his discussions with companies like Google and about Appalachian’s future plans for trying to add more wind and solar generation to its portfolio.

“They are open to anything that is the right thing for jobs for this state,” Beam said.

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at

kward@wvgazettemail.com,

304-348-1702 or follow

@kenwardjr on Twitter.

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