Sean O’Leary was ready to explain the path toward economic renewal he had mapped out for a West Virginia coal community.
He didn’t get the chance.
The Wheeling native and senior researcher for the Ohio River Valley Institute, a nonprofit think tank, had in front of him his 33-page testimony and 14 exhibits filed on behalf of three clean energy advocate groups.
O’Leary had modeled a better economic future for Marshall County based on the revitalization of a community nearly 3,000 miles away. He cited a plant owner-funded $55 million economic transition plan for Centralia, Washington, finalized in 2011 to help that community deal with the closures of a coal mine and plant.
The stakes were high for Marshall County.
It was the second day of the commission’s evidentiary hearing in part on whether to approve federally required environmental compliance upgrades to keep the Mitchell coal-fired generating facility in Marshall County past 2028.
Some past witnesses had spent an hour or more defending their testimonies on cross-examination. O’Leary awaited questions from the commission and an army of attorneys in the commission hearing room in Charleston representing utilities, regulators and some of the state’s most prominent industry and ratepayer advocacy groups, from the Coal Association to the state Consumer Advocate Division charged with representing residential ratepayers.
O’Leary’s hearing testimony lasted three minutes. He was the only witness who faced neither cross examination nor questions from commissioners.
“It’s very hard to get people to pay attention to it,” O’Leary said of economic transition planning, “despite the fact that, as evidenced by what’s happening at Mitchell and elsewhere, the need is absolutely acute.”
Momentum toward federal infrastructure spending could change that.
“There’s at least a potential that not only we have a model for how to do really effective economic transition and development, but there may soon be money coming available to actually implement that model,” O’Leary said.
His direct testimony filed with the commission in May noted that a plan to help Marshall County recover from losing the Mitchell plant could include federal money. The plant employed 214 people at combined pay of $26.8 million in 2020.
Advocates for economic diversification and clean energy in West Virginia largely have embraced the twin infrastructure spending proposals picking up steam in the U.S. Senate.
“We may be in a moment where there’s this fortuitous coincidence that a lot of funding may become available,” O’Leary said.
The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee chaired by Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., on Wednesday advanced a roughly $100 billion energy infrastructure bill that Manchin’s office said will provide the legislative text for key portions of a bipartisan Senate infrastructure package.
“It would be one of the biggest investments in coal country in decades, potentially ever,” said Joey James, principal and researcher at Downstream Strategies, a Morgantown environmental consulting firm.
Clean energy advocates also are excited by Senate Democrats’ rollout Tuesday of a $3.5 trillion spending package serving as an entry point for planned legislation to address climate change and expand Medicare.
“There is so much opportunity in that $3.5 trillion proposal,” Chelsea Barnes, legislative director for Appalachian Voices, said during an online press conference. “Obviously we don’t know the details and would love to know more, but I think that even a portion of that going to central Appalachian communities, coal-impacted communities across the country, would just be a game-changer for the local economies.”
Manchin, though, told CNN last week that he was “very, very disturbed” by provisions he said would eliminate fossil fuel use.
A Manchin spokeswoman said Friday the senator is concerned by “proposals that ignore the role fossil fuels are projected to play around the world for the foreseeable future.” Manchin wants to develop technologies using all the country’s resources to address global climate change “in a realistic manner,” given the International Energy Agency’s projection of global emissions growing in emerging and developing countries in decades to come.
Manchin will be critical to passage of any Senate Democratic reconciliation package with climate change provisions.
A coal brokerage founder who long has stuck to a mantra of “innovation, not elimination” in promoting both renewable and fossil fuel energy development, Manchin will be the center of attention as proponents of climate-conscious proposals expected to be included in the plan urge him to get on board with fellow Democrats.
“What I hope Sen. Manchin will consider is even in this next wave of negotiations around investments that will likely deal with supporting transition to clean energy, where is West Virginia and this region in that?” West Virginia Rivers Coalition Executive Director Angie Rosser said. “What can he do with his influence to make sure that West Virginia gets as much support as possible in making that transition?”
A clean energy standard
An expected centerpiece of Senate Democrats’ budget agreement is a clean energy standard, a technology-neutral plan anticipated to mandate 80% carbon-free electricity by 2030.
An analysis released by environmental scientists and public health experts Monday found a clean energy standard would prevent more premature deaths per 100,000 people in West Virginia than in any other state except Kentucky.
A standard that requires an 80% carbon-free power sector by 2030 would avoid 10.5 premature deaths per 100,000 people in West Virginia in 2030 and 14 per 100,000 people in 2050, according to researchers from Syracuse University, the Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, the Georgia Institute of Technology and the environmental research nonprofit Resources for the Future.
The researchers estimated climate benefits of $637 billion from a clean energy standard far outweighing policy costs of $342 billion as well as 317,500 lives saved from 2020 to 2050 with $1.13 trillion in cumulative health benefits due to cleaner air.
American Electric Power, the Columbus, Ohio-based parent company of Appalachian Power and Wheeling Power, signaled cautious support for a clean energy standard conditioned on not moving away from fossil fuel sources too quickly.
“Any standard should provide flexibility, including opportunities to utilize existing dispatchable electric generation units that are needed to provide system reliability,” American Electric Power spokesman Scott Blake said in an email, adding that those include coal and natural gas units. “Any effort to significantly increase the amount of clean energy resources will require research and development of new generation and energy storage technologies to achieve these goals safely, reliably and economically.”
American Electric Power recently announced plans to add nearly 16,600 megawatts of new renewables in its regulated states by 2030, which would grow its renewable generation portfolio to about 50% of total capacity.
The company in February announced a goal of achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050 with an interim target of cutting emissions 80% from 2000 levels by 2030.
In the last decade, American Electric Power has retired or sold nearly 13,500 megawatts of coal-fueled generation and anticipates reducing coal capacity by an additional 5,600 megawatts by 2030.
The Kentucky Public Service Commission pushed the Mitchell plant toward a potential closure Thursday by rejecting Kentucky Power’s request for a certificate to implement and recover costs for federally required environmental upgrades to keep the facility operational through 2040.
Instead, the commission approved another plan that Kentucky Power, an American Electric Power subsidiary, had modeled but deemed less desirable: completing only enough environmental upgrades to keep the plant federally compliant and operating through 2028.
“Technology development will be key to determining how quickly we can achieve the clean energy standards without compromising the reliability of service that our customers expect and our economy needs to continue to grow,” Blake said.
FirstEnergy spokesman Will Boye declined to comment on the prospect of a clean energy standard, citing limited details about the proposal.
FirstEnergy last year pledged to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050 and set an interim goal for a 30% reduction in greenhouse gases within the company’s direct operational control by 2030. FirstEnergy will seek approval this year to construct a solar generation source of at least 50 megawatts in West Virginia, according to Boye.
Carbon capture scrutiny
American Electric Power has consistently observed that technology for capturing and storing carbon – a key plank of Manchin’s “innovation, not elimination” platform – has a long way to go to be commercially feasible.
In a company climate impact analysis released in March, American Electric Power said its experience with carbon capture, use and storage showed “the high cost and inefficiency” of the technology that takes carbon dioxide emissions from sources such as coal-fired power plants and reuses the carbon dioxide to create products or store it permanently underground so it will not enter the atmosphere.
A carbon capture and storage facility at the company’s Mountaineer coal-fired plant in Mason County transported and geologically stored carbon emissions for the first time in 2009, but at a cost of more than $5,000 per kilowatt without government subsidies.
“For [carbon capture, use and storage] to be a viable option for the future, public policies will have to change or financial incentives will have to be offered,” the company said in its March climate impact analysis.
Manchin’s Energy Infrastructure Act makes carbon capture funding a top priority. The bill approves more than $12 billion for carbon capture technologies, including direct air capture and demonstration projects on coal, natural gas and industrial plants.
The bill would fill an essential infrastructure gap by allowing emitters to access carbon storage regardless of location and addressing an inequitable distribution of geologic storage resources, said Lee Beck, international director of carbon capture for Clean Air Task Force, an environmental policy group.
But some environmentalists frown at the bill’s heavy investment in carbon capture.
“Instead of funding non-polluting alternatives, it throws public money at expensive, unproven technologies that will allow the fossil fuel industry to continue poisoning frontline communities and trashing the planet,” Basav Sen, co-chairman of the Energy Democracy Working Group at the Climate Justice Alliance, said in a statement.
O’Leary is concerned the bill makes relatively little investment in renewable energy and invests too much in carbon capture and storage technology.
“A lot of people are pinning hopes on the notion that [carbon capture and storage] will help natural gas and especially coal continue in the electric generating business, which is exceedingly unlikely,” O’Leary said, citing the declining cost-competitiveness of coal as an electricity source. “But it’s an area in which we could squander a lot of money trying to make the impossible happen.”
Abandoned mine land impact
Conservationists have hailed the Energy Infrastructure Act’s authorization of $11.2 billion for the Abandoned Mine Land Reclamation Fund.
Downstream Strategies released an analysis Thursday estimating the bill would result in 1,730 jobs that continue for 15 years, noting that new reclamation jobs and related economic activities will be focused in areas with large numbers of abandoned mine lands and high levels of unemployment.
“It cannot be understated how impactful this $11.2 billion investment would be for struggling coal-impacted communities and workers across the country,” Barnes said.
“What has been keeping me awake at night for some time is how are we going to address all of these environmental liabilities that West Virginia holds in terms of mining impacts over a long period of time? How will that be paid for and who will step forward with the commitment to see that happen?” Rosser said. “Yesterday felt like a big breakthrough.”
But Manchin’s energy infrastructure package has drawn criticism for dropping policies aimed at cleaning up abandoned mines.
The proposal would extend fees levied on coal companies that fund the reclamation program for abandoned mine lands, which is set to expire at the end of September. But the measure would lower those fees by 20% from 28 to 22.4 cents for surface-mined coal and from 12 to 9.6 cents for coal mined underground.
“It’s hard to call something climate legislation when it hands money directly to coal corporations,” Sarah Lutz, climate campaigner at Friends of the Earth, said in a statement.
The bill lowers the extension of Abandoned Mine Land fees from 15 to 13 years as proposed in a standalone fee reauthorization bill announced by Manchin and four other Democratic senators in April.
Barnes called on Congress to amend the Abandoned Mine Land proposal to ensure local labor is used in cleanup projects and a separate pool of funding is provided for emergency reclamation to facilitate funding for sites that pose the most serious health and safety risks.
‘If the money happens’
Under the Energy Infrastructure Act, West Virginia would be eligible for some $16 million from a new revolving loan fund for states to encourage energy efficiency upgrades and about $47 million in funding for weatherization, according to Manchin’s office.
The bill also allocates $500 million for demonstrating the viability of clean energy projects on current and former mine land while also authorizing grants for manufacturers to locate in coal communities.
“There is plenty of work still to do to enact strong climate policies in this Congress, but this is a vital piece of the puzzle,” Lindsey Baxter Griffith, Clean Air Task Force director of federal policy, said in a statement.
Just as vital will be the puzzle pieces that state and local leaders fill in.
West Virginia lawmakers have doubled down on coal-fired generation, becoming the first state to repeal its renewable portfolio standard in 2012 and approving a $12.5 million tax break to extend the lifespan of the Pleasants Power Station for three years in 2019.
In 2019, coal-fired electric power plants accounted for 91% of West Virginia’s electricity net generation compared to 23% nationwide, according to the Energy Information Administration.
“It’s just obviously the question of, will the money happen, and then if the money happens, will we use it wisely?” O’Leary said. “We have a long history of not using money wisely.”
O’Leary testified to the Public Service Commission that job growth in Centralia, Washington, shot past pre-recession levels before the pandemic while stagnating in Marshall, Ohio and Wetzel counties. Centralia successfully used economic transition funding earmarked for clean energy technologies, worker retraining and residential energy efficiency measures for low and moderate-income residents.
Those advocating for massive federal investment in West Virginia with similar targets view it as the most viable shot at economic stability as the state stares down a future pointing toward more coal plant and mine closures after generations of helping to power the nation.
“What I’m seeing and hearing is an acknowledgment from the president to congressional leadership that coal country deserves reinvestment,” Rosser said. “Not only does it need it, it deserves it.”