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The West Virginia Senate has unanimously passed a bill that would require coal-fired power plants owned by public electric utilities in the state to keep at least 30 days of coal supply under contract for the lifespan of those plants.

Senate Bill 542, which now goes before the House of Delegates, would also require public electric utilities to give notice to the West Virginia Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, state Public Service Commission and the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Government and Finance before announcing the retirement or proposed shutdown of an electricity-generating unit.

The legislation, passed without debate on the Senate floor Wednesday, is a gutted version of the original bill that would have made further-reaching reforms to keep West Virginia’s dwindling fleet of coal plants operating as long as possible. Those reforms included requiring in-state power producers to maintain 2019 coal consumption levels and file compliance plans every three years with the long dormant state Public Energy Authority specifying their fuel supply and how 2019 coal consumption levels would be maintained.

West Virginia Coal Association and United Mine Workers of America representatives enthusiastically endorsed the original version of the bill to the Senate Energy, Industry and Mining Committee, but representatives from Appalachian Power, FirstEnergy and Dominion Energy as well as state Public Service Commission Chairman Charlotte Lane all expressed reservations with the bill.

Appalachian Power and FirstEnergy representatives told the committee that the bill was uneconomic and would introduce unnecessary costs for the companies that they would then have to transfer to ratepayers.

The result was a new version of the bill that would mandate power producers maintain a 30-day fuel supply onsite instead of a 90-day supply to come closer to what representatives from Appalachian Power, FirstEnergy and Dominion Energy told the energy committee was the supply amount they currently keep onsite.

Unlike the two previous versions of the bill, the latest committee substitute, still supported by the Coal Association and United Mine Workers of America, does not mention the long dormant Public Energy Authority that the bill’s authors originally intended to empower.

The Public Energy Authority Board, as constituted under state Code, consists of the secretaries of the departments of Commerce and Environmental Protection, and the director of the state Economic Development Authority, along with four members appointed by the governor with Senate approval.

The term of the last governor appointee to the board expired in June 2012, according to both the Governor’s Office and the Secretary of State’s website.

The original version of the bill would have directed the Public Energy Authority to coordinate with the Public Service Commission to review electric utilities’ integrated resource plans, which are 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.

The majority of the bill passed by the Senate lists legislative findings supportive of the coal industry, noting that 18 coal-fired electric units in West Virginia have been forced to close.

“Public electric utilities in West Virginia should be encouraged to operate their coal-fired plants at maximum reasonable output and for the duration of the life of the plants,” the bill concludes.

The West Virginia Coal Association filed a petition to intervene before the Public Service Commission last month after Appalachian Power and Wheeling Power warned in a still pending rate case that they may close the Mitchell coal-fired generating facility in Marshall County.

The utilities said in a Dec. 23 filing that the Mitchell plant would cease operation in 2028 if the companies choose to retire the plant rather than make an additional investment to ensure that the plant complies with federal guidelines limiting wastewater to continue operating until the projected end of its useful life in 2040.

West Virginia’s number of coal plants has steeply declined as the U.S. shifts away from coal toward renewable energy. The U.S. 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.

Coal used for electricity generation has declined over the past decade, as coal consumption in the U.S. decreased nearly 15% from 2018 to 2019 as renewable energy consumption rose 1%. Electricity generation from coal in 2019 fell to its lowest level in 42 years, according to the Energy Information Administration.

But in West Virginia, coal-fired power plants still account for almost all of West Virginia’s electricity generation. In 2019, coal comprised the smallest share of state generation in more than 20 years, and it exceeded 90% anyway.

West Virginia had just under 14,000 coal mining employees in 2019, according to the Energy Information Administration’s annual coal report released in October.

Reach Mike Tony at mtony@hdmediallc.com, 304-348-1236 or follow @Mike__Tony on Twitter.

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