March 7, 2023 - West Virginia is at a crossroads on coal.
The state’s upcoming decisions on its iconic fossil fuel could have major implications for reducing planet-warming pollution, the future of coal in the eastern United States, and how much people pay for electricity in the region, writes POLITICO’s E&E News reporter Miranda Willson.
The rub: As coal-fired power plants across the country retire at record rates, West Virginia is trying to ramp up operations at three of its major power plants.
The state’s utility regulator argues that the move could lower costs for customers by maximizing in-state energy and limiting power purchases from the regional electricity market, which tend to be more expensive.
But the company running these plants, American Electric Power, says it's already struggling to secure enough coal supplies. That’s in part because mining companies are increasingly shipping their product to lucrative markets overseas. Running plants more often would require a hefty increase to customers’ monthly bills, the company said.
The utility regulator denied the company’s request to increase power rates and convened a task force to find a solution.
Climate ripples: Environmental advocates and others argue that extending the life of West Virginia coal, which accounts for about 90 percent of the state’s electricity generation, will only drive up prices and hurt the planet.
The price of coal in the U.S. has nearly quadrupled in the last three years. And over the last 15 years, electricity rates in West Virginia have risen faster than the national average.
Boosting coal-plant production could also significantly increase the carbon pollution causing the climate crisis. According to federal data, one of the plants in question produced more than 11.5 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2021, making it one of the 10 dirtiest plants in the country.
Coal backers argue that the fuel is necessary until the state’s power system is updated to accommodate an influx of cheaper natural gas, wind and solar power.
Rock > coal < hard place: The fight in West Virginia mirrors those in other coal-reliant states, like Kentucky and Wyoming, that are grappling with the future of a fuel that has long dominated their economies and that some say is still needed to keep the lights on.
But the economic reality facing the dirtiest fossil fuel is only projected to worsen, putting states that cling to coal in a difficult position, said Joe Daniel, a manager focused on clean energy at the think tank RMI.
“You have to look at the bigger, longer-term trends and the bigger picture, and all of those arrows point in the same direction,” he said.
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