Climate Corner: West Virginia Public Service Commission must say no

Apr 15, 2023

Eric Engle

First Energy West Virginia subsidiaries MonPower and PotomacEdison want their ratepayers to pay $36 million between June of this year and May 2024 to place the Pleasants Power Station in a state of “warm storage” (aka not generating energy), energy that is generated for Ohio customers even when operational, while First Energy decides whether or not to purchase the plant and keep it running over the long-term. This is a terrible idea that the West Virginia Public Service Commission should not allow.

A writer in last week’s edition of the Parkersburg News and Sentinel who is a plant employee argued that warm storage is a responsible option for coal plants instead of permanently shutting them down because coal’s baseload power is needed when power demands can’t be met by other sources. The writer mentioned the power demands placed on grids last Christmas when an Arctic blast of cold weather hit the nation and that coal plants were fired back up across Europe to meet energy demands recently when Russian natural gas became more scarce with Putin’s war in Ukraine. Those arguments are fallacious.

According to a report by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) from March, “more than 100,000 megawatts of coal-and-gas-fired generation failed to start or were forced offline during the Arctic blast that hit the central and eastern U.S. just before Christmas.” Dennis Wamsted, IEEFA energy analyst and author of the report, Fossil Fuels Fail Reliability Test, stated in a media release that “Coal-and-gas-fired resources’ performance in December show how unreliable they can be exactly when they are needed most. The increasingly troublesome record of performance needs to be accounted for in utility transmission system planning efforts.”

In Europe, energy for heating was the biggest challenge as the onslaught of Russian aggression in Ukraine led the Putin regime to cut off some of Europe’s gas supplies. This is a challenge Europe is now beginning to meet with heat pumps and energy efficiency and the deployment of more renewables. The electric heat pump market in Europe has exploded since 2021. The International Energy Agency has found that coal use in Europe is expected to decline below 2020 levels by 2025, at the latest.

Last week’s writer also mentioned intermittency issues with renewables like solar and wind. That’s where battery storage, grid management, and energy efficiency come in. Even West Virginia’s Republican supermajority in the state legislature and coal baron governor can see the importance of battery technology, as evidenced by the efforts and expenditures made to bring Form Energy’s iron-air, long-lasting battery manufacturing facility to Weirton. Investments in such technologies are booming in West Virginia, thanks to the passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and especially the Inflation Reduction Act. And renewables are already coming in cheaper than coal. A study released in January by Energy Innovation Policy and Technology, LLC, found that every coal plant in operation in West Virginia could be replaced with wind and solar at a lower cost. In the case of the Pleasants Power Station, the study found regional wind energy could replace its generation at a cost that is $10.37 lower per megawatt-hour for customers.

It’s often pointed out that the Pleasants Power Station employs more than 154 people. As a longtime union steward, I want to see jobs and livelihoods protected, but in this case that is the responsibility of First Energy and the state and federal governments. Why can’t First Energy help these employees make the transition and why did the state legislature pass a resolution saying the sale of Pleasants from First Energy’s Ohio subsidiary, Energy Harbor, to its West Virginia subsidiaries go through on the backs of ratepayers instead of focusing on protecting theses workers’ futures? When this same sale failed to go through in 2017, the state legislature’s only response was a $12.5 million a year tax break on the backs of West Virginia taxpayers to delay the inevitable. Why wasn’t the focus on the workers and local communities’ long-term interests then?

Another important question is why the environment and public health always take a backseat ride in these discussions. According to the U.S. EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory, the Pleasants Power Station released 2.4 million tons of toxic chemicals in 2021, mostly through ground contamination. According to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) data, there is now 50% more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere than in preindustrial times and an enormous proportion of that is attributable directly to coal use. We cannot dismiss the settled science of anthropogenic (human-caused) global climate change and the threats it poses or the extremely dire negative effects of coal on our air, water, soil and health. First Energy wants us to bear the costs of cleaning up those effects as ratepayers and taxpayers instead of their shareholders shouldering the responsibility.

On April 25, the West Virginia Public Service Commission must say no to another dirty deal that threatens our energy finances, health, and the very habitability of our only home in the cosmos.


Eric Engle is chairman of Mid-Ohio Valley Climate Action.