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Electric utilities’ resource plans are intended to shed more light than heat, but answers about coal in the latest state filings can be difficult to divine.

Toward the end of their 52-page joint integrated resource plan, FirstEnergy subsidiaries Mon Power and Potomac Edison sent a message about their conclusion that coal plants should remain in their generation stack through the planning horizon to 2035.

“[It] should not be construed as ‘business as usual’ for the coal fleet,” the plan reads. “Mon Power is committed to achieving its climate goals and commitments and this will impact strategy production during the planning period, though this does not necessarily translate to lost economics for customers. The West Virginia Public Service Commission should expect that the next [plan] to be filed in 2025 will further address an eventual transition away from coal by 2050.”

Renewable energy and energy efficiency advocates find the utilities’ messages mixed, given other aspects of the resource plans.

Some of that concern comes with the territory.

West Virginia lawmakers in 2015 repealed the state’s renewable portfolio standard and erased a requirement for energy producers to increase their amounts of alternative fuels used.

By contrast, Virginia last year adopted clean energy legislation that required nearly all coal-fired plants to close before 2025 and ordered American Electric Power and Dominion Energy Virginia to produce their electricity entirely from renewable resources by 2050. The law also developed an energy efficiency resource standard.

West Virginia’s number of coal plants has steeply declined as the U.S. shifts from coal toward renewable energy. The federal Energy Information Administration last year reported that the nation’s annual energy consumption from renewable sources in 2019 exceeded coal consumption for the first time in more than 130 years, largely reflecting the continued decline in coal used for electricity generation over the past decade. Coal consumption in the U.S. decreased nearly 15% from 2018 to 2019.

In West Virginia, though, coal-fired power plants still account for almost all electricity generation. In 2019, coal made up the smallest share of state generation in more than two decades but still exceeded 90%.

Integrated resource plans like the one filed by Mon Power and Potomac Edison offer insight into utilities’ thinking. The Public Service Commission requires the documents to be filed every five years identifying the type, amount and timing of resources utilities say they need to meet expected electricity demand over a long-term period.

Appalachian Power and Wheeling Power made the case in a separate filing last month that continuing to own and operate the John Amos coal plant in Putnam County and the Mountaineer coal plant in Mason County until the end of their projected useful lives in 2040 would economically benefit customers. The utilities described the costs and benefits of retiring the Mitchell coal plant in Marshall County in 2028 as “comparable” to an investment in wastewater compliance that would allow the facility to continue operating beyond that year.

Karan Ireland, the West Virginia Sierra Club’s senior campaign representative, said the companies are unwisely doubling down on coal-fired plants.

“Let’s pretend it’s the mid-’80s and you’re a supplier of office machines,” Ireland said. “Are you going to plan to stock up on typewriters for the next 10 years? Or are you going to look around and decide it’s time to step into the future with computers?”

American Electric Power President, CEO and Chairman Nick Akins in 2019 noted an “aspirational” goal of zero emissions by 2050. FirstEnergy pledged in November to transition away from coal-fired power by the same year.

In its 124-page resource filing, Appalachian Power outlines a five-year action plan that includes exploring opportunities to subscribe West Virginia customers to future solar resources and preparing to implement additional energy efficiency programs consistent with West Virginia and Virginia objectives.

FirstEnergy, whose generation fleet includes the Mon Power-owned Harrison and Fort Martin power stations in Harrison and Monongalia counties, pledges in its resource plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 30% by 2030.

The Mon Power and Potomac Edison plan projects net customer cost will double from 2017 to 2035. It also projects an energy shortfall from 2030 through 2035 and a capacity shortfall throughout the planning horizon.

“Given that the levelized cost of energy for new utility-scale solar generation is already directly competitive with existing coal-fired generation and new combined-cycle gas, solar is an obvious choice for FirstEnergy to fill this projected gap,” said Autumn Long, regional field director for Solar United Neighbors.

FirstEnergy’s subsidiaries offer three scenarios. In the first, they add no new resources while reducing greenhouse gas emissions 30% by 2030. In the second, they add up to 200 megawatts of solar generation. This, the plan notes, would not be “meaningfully costly or overly impactful” to Mon Power’s resource position and would mesh well with a law that state legislators passed last year creating a solar utility program approving renewable electric generating facilities up to 50 megawatts.

But the slightly favorable financial option for customers, according to the same plan, would be to add a 1,000-megawatt combined cycle gas plant, a scenario in which Mon Power still would reduce its greenhouse gas footprint 30% compared to 2019 by lessening output from the current coal fleet.

Appalachian Power forecasts that coal will compose 40% of its energy mix in 2030, the same as in 2021. But it does assume rooftop solar capacity in its service territory will increase to 75 megawatts by 2030 and more than 200 megawatts by 2050.

Long calls that a “massive uptick” in rooftop solar adoption but recalled Appalachian Power’s opposition to state Senate Bill 611, a measure that stalled in last year’s legislative session. The bill would have provided financing options for distributing solar to West Virginia schools, businesses and homeowners.

“I hope West Virginia lawmakers will take note of this hypocrisy in 2021 and act in the best interests of their constituents rather than bowing to pressure from monopoly utility companies,” Long said.

Appalachian Power spokesman Phil Moye said the utility supports solar growth in West Virginia, noting the company last year backed legislation that established a process for developing utility-scale solar power.

The company is reviewing submissions in response to a a request it issued for proposals for solar energy resources based on provisions in that legislation, Moye said.

FirstEnergy’s resource filing includes no energy efficiency plans, something spokesman Will Boye attributed to West Virginia not requiring energy efficiency programs for its utility customers. The plan also makes no mention of rooftop solar.

“That’s unfortunate, because rooftop solar is growing quickly in all West Virginia utility service territories and will cover an increasing percentage of customer load demand in coming years,” Long said. “Given its projected increases in customer costs, FirstEnergy would be wise to remember that reducing load is always cheaper than purchasing more power.”

“Once again, Mon Power and Potomac Edison have no plans at all to implement utility programs like any modern utility would,” said Emmett Pepper, executive director of Energy Efficiency West Virginia.

Pepper lamented a Save on Energy report earlier this month that found West Virginia had the second-highest average electricity bill in the country in September.

“But [we] have little in the way of utility energy efficiency programs,” Pepper said.

Pepper has criticized service commission staff in the past for recommending that Appalachian Power and Wheeling Power discontinue their energy efficiency programs, saying that implementing energy efficiency and demand response programs would leave customers worse off economically.

But Pepper finds hope for the commission supporting energy efficiency in an order the agency issued last year in a street lighting case. The commission called energy efficiency “an important issue for consumers and utilities in West Virginia.”

Public Service Commission spokeswoman Susan Small said the agency speaks through its orders.

The electric utilities’ resource plans don’t commit them to any course of action. The commission analyzes and reviews the plans, rather than approves them. The plans will remain in place until filings are due again in another five years.

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