The coal-fired Mitchell Power Plant, in Marshall County, likely will stay open and economically viable until at least 2028. That’s longer than a lot of coal plants in similar positions, but it’s not what a Kentucky subsidiary of American Electric Power, which has a 50% stake in the West Virginia plant, was hoping to hear.
Kentucky Power was seeking approval and partial funding for a wastewater upgrade project that would make the plant environmentally compliant through 2040. But, as Mike Tony reported in the Gazette-Mail, the Kentucky Public Service Commission issued an order this week rejecting that plan.
This might look like an environmental decision, rather than an economic one, but it’s actually a bit of both. Yes, environmental groups were against it. But so was Republican Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron, because of concerns that the proposal was misleading about costs and savings. Meanwhile, the other company with a stake in the plant, AEP subsidiary Appalachian Power, said in a filing in December that retiring a portion of the plant by 2028, rather than spending more money on upgrades, has “comparable costs and benefits.”
No one wants to see workers in Marshall County or at any other coal-fired plant in West Virginia lose their jobs. However, while coal will still play some role in energy production for at least the next decade, the industry’s time as the main fuel for keeping the lights on is ending, if it isn’t already over. That can be seen everywhere across the state and the rest of the country.
Two years ago, Gov. Jim Justice and the state Legislature engineered a $12 million tax break for the Pleasants Power Station after FirstEnergy stated that the facility was bankrupt and would close. That prolonged the plant’s life through next year.
There will continue to be markets for coal beyond energy production. The metallurgical market is in an upswing. But energy is the sector the coal industry is most dependent on, and those customers are leaving the table.
Environmental concerns and changing regulations have always been an issue, but the No. 1 factor in coal’s demise continues to be cheaper natural gas and emerging renewable energy sources that are not only cleaner but, now, economically competitive. Even with reduced regulations during the past presidential administration, coal companies filed for bankruptcy left and right. Coal is being killed by supply-and-demand capitalism, plain and simple.
Gimmicks and legislation to keep these facilities going for as long as possible are all well and good, but it again pushes back the conversation West Virginia has needed to take seriously for decades: What does the state do when the coal industry is truly finished?
The Legislature has taken a good first step, by forming a bipartisan committee to seriously study the financial impact the decline has and will have on coal communities in West Virginia, along with examining possible economic solutions moving forward. That’s important, because it’s not the fault of the workers or the community, whether at a mine or a power plant, that the country is moving on.
The Legislature also is seeking federal reclamation funds that will not only clean up and close off abandoned mine sites but will provide jobs to do it. There’s also hope for jobs in existing and emerging sectors through the federal infrastructure plan, whatever that winds up being.
West Virginians shouldn’t live with false hope or denial about coal’s future, but those who have relied on it to keep food on the table shouldn’t be cast aside and forgotten, either.