A case before the state’s public utility panel is poised to help shape West Virginia’s economic future.
For the past five months, hundreds of residents, government and union officials, coal supporters and clean energy advocates have submitted testimony in state Public Service Commission filings on the fate of the imperiled Mitchell coal-fired power plant in Marshall County.
The commission will consider evidence early next month on whether operations at the 50-year-old facility near Moundsville should end in 2028, 12 years ahead of schedule, an option that American Electric Power subsidiaries Appalachian Power and Wheeling Power put on the table in a Dec. 23 filing with the commission.
The companies said they could halt operations in 2028 if they retire the plant rather than invest in it to comply with federal wastewater guidelines. The utilities did not identify which option they prefer, although they said it would benefit customers to ensure compliance with the wastewater rule and a federal rule regulating coal combustion residuals at Putnam County’s John Amos and Mason County’s Mountaineer coal-fired plants.
All four Republicans in West Virginia’s congressional delegation — Sen. Shelley Moore Capito and Reps. David B. McKinley, Alex X. Mooney and Carol D. Miller — signed a letter sent Wednesday to the commission urging it to consider the “devastating” impacts” of an early plant closure, which they contended would slash tax revenue needed for Marshall County’s public schools and first responders.
“And it would destroy the businesses in the region like machine shops, barge operators and restaurants who directly or indirectly rely on the plant and the mines that supply the coal for it,” the legislators wrote, following state Delegate Mark Zatezalo, R-Hancock, and Moundsville City Councilman Randy Chamberlain as recent commenters in favor of keeping the plant open beyond 2028.
But there has been a recent uptick in comments from West Virginians embracing an early closure as an opportunity to avoid rising electric rates while diversifying an economy they view as far too dependent on the declining coal industry.
“Irrational decisions such [as] spending more money to keep the Mitchell Power Plant running until 2040 are not in our best interests,” wrote Brandon Dennison, CEO of Coalfield Development, a nonprofit, Wayne County-based economic revitalization group. “This is a bad deal for West Virginia. We should invest in the community around Mitchell, not in an uneconomic power plant.”
An evidentiary hearing on the Appalachian Power and Wheeling Power application for approval to comply with federal environmental regulations at the Mitchell, Amos and Mountaineer plants will be held June 8 and continue June 9 if necessary.
“I think it’s going to be a lively hearing,” said Robert Williams, director of the Consumer Advocate Division of the Public Service Commission, an independent arm of the commission that represents the interests of utility customers.
A videoconference public comment hearing is scheduled for 9:30 a.m. Wednesday (see breakout for additional details).
Projected rate impacts
Appalachian Power and Wheeling Power are seeking permission to perform all of the work at all of the plants, which they estimate would cost $317 million. The utilities listed potential project-related residential, commercial and industrial rate increases of 1.59%, 1.52% and 1.72%, respectively. The proposed increased project-related rates and charges would produce $23.5 million in additional annual revenue, according to the companies.
Retiring the Mitchell facility in 2028 could save West Virginia customers $27 million annually from 2029 to 2040, according to Appalachian Power and Wheeling Power filings with the commission.
“What Mitchell right now is for the economy in the Ohio Valley is not what it was 10 years ago and is not what it will be if it stays online beyond 2028,” Energy Efficient West Virginia policy director Emmett Pepper said. “We need to focus on helping the local economy there broadly and plan for this closure — whether it’s in 2028 or 2040, it’s going to happen — and do it in a way that’s less harmful to ratepayers.”
The average monthly residential bill (as measured by the residential rate for 1,000 kilowatt-hours) for American Electric Power’s West Virginia utilities escalated from $55.28 in 2006 to $138.57 in 2021 — an increase of 150% over 15 years.
That’s not the only case Appalachian Power and Wheeling Power have pending before the Public Service Commission that could cost ratepayers extra money.
The two companies also filed a request in December for approval of a surcharge on customers’ bills that would allow them to recover costs from infrastructure investment projects between base rate cases.
The companies said their proposal would yield an annual revenue increase of $49.8 million and average monthly bill hikes of $5.26 for residential customers, $12.37 for commercial customers and $5,686 for industrial customers — jumps of 3.71%, 3.52% and 2.92%, respectively.
The Public Service Commission staff, Kanawha County Commission and West Virginia Energy Users Group composed of large industrial users have filed testimony opposing the surcharge.
“People wonder why West Virginia is such a poor state, well, this is one reason why,” Linda Roberts of Huntington wrote in a comment filed with the commission earlier this month. “The PSC needs to stop this and help the people of this state.”
The commission will hold an evidentiary hearing Thursday and Friday. A public comment hearing via videoconference is scheduled for Tuesday on the infrastructure investment surcharge proposal.
Moving on from Mitchell
Other filings scrutinizing the case could help decide Mitchell’s fate.
Little of the focus in the filings has been on the environmental impact of the plant, which was one of West Virginia’s 14 electric power facilities that combined to emit 62.6 million tons of carbon dioxide in 2019, according to U.S. Energy Information Administration data.
The Mitchell facility itself emitted more than 5.5 million tons in 2019, enough to prompt health impacts that year that included an estimated 19 deaths, four asthma emergency room visits, seven heart attacks and 188 asthma attacks, according to a Clean Air Task Force analysis of data derived from a federal screening model.
Autumn Long, West Virginia regional field director for Solar United Neighbors, touted the importance of coming up with a plan that will ease the economic transition for Marshall County as it faces life without Mitchell, whether in 2028 or 2040.
Long touted testimony from her organization’s witness in the case citing a plant owner-funded $55 million economic transition plan for Centralia, Washington, finalized in 2011 to help that community deal with the closures of both a mine and coal plant.
“We need to ask for federal resources and state resources. We need to ask the utility to do right by this community and put their resources toward economic transition for the plant workers and their families,” Long said. “But a successful plan really needs to come from out of the local community.”
Instead, local residents’ comments to the commission largely have highlighted fears that a 2028 Mitchell closure would wipe out what is left of the area’s economy.
Mitchell employed 214 people at combined pay of $26.8 million in 2020.
American Electric Power retired the Kammer coal plant in Marshall County in 2015 and coal plants in Mason County in 2015 and Kanawha County in 2017. Ten conventional steam coal plants have been retired in West Virginia since 2005, and only nine remain in the state, according to Energy Information Administration data.
John Robbins of Moundsville, an equipment operator at the Mitchell plant and former coal miner, wrote to the Public Service Commission that the plant’s closure would worsen the area’s quality of life.
“Without the tax revenue these jobs provide, many people will be forced to move,” Robbins wrote, “leaving those who cannot with nothing but more poverty and drug problems, which are already in a sad state.”
In written rebuttals, Appalachian Power and Wheeling Power rejected Public Service Commission staff and Consumer Advocate Division recommendations that they study the feasibility of converting the Mitchell facility to a combined-cycle gas plant by 2030 and other facilities to combined-cycle gas by 2035. The companies deemed those moves impractical.
Advised by commission staff to add significant rooftop solar, wind and smaller modular nuclear generation with coalfields as the initial preferred location for the majority of renewables, the companies said they’d given many of the generation sources serious consideration but could not make firm commitments.
The companies also rejected a Consumer Advocate Division witness recommendation that they consider retrofitting one or more plants with carbon capture technology, concluding there were too many limits on its use.
Carbon capture, use and storage technologies reuse the carbon dioxide emitted from coal-fired power plants or store it permanently underground in geologic formations so it will not enter the atmosphere. Carbon capture and storage technology has been viewed as a way to keep coal in the energy mix amid the country’s shift away from the fossil fuel, but the concept is unproven at commercial scale.
As market forces persist in dragging West Virginia through an energy transition, residents and elected officials who have eyed the transition with fear now have all eyes on the commission. Ratepayers and clean energy advocates are watching too.
“[Y]ou’ve got a lot of passionate groups involved,” Williams said.