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Three concerns about power plant decision: jobs, costs to ratepayers and climate change

Commenters expressed three main points at a public hearing over whether West Virginia should take on the full cost of extending the lifespans of three coal-fired power plants.

Some emphasized that the plants are needed for the jobs they provide and the contributions to economic activity in their communities.

Others said the resulting rate increase would be too high, and West Virginians would be unduly affected.

And still others emphasized the environmental costs of continuing to burn coal as a power source.

Thirteen people spoke this morning at a hearing before the Public Service Commission, which regulates utilities.

“This decision needs to consider the impacts on people like me,” said Kristen Olsen, a public school teacher and single mom who said she took the day off to provide her comment. “Don’t allow them to increase my power bill.”

What’s at stake

West Virginia regulators are weighing a decision that could extend the lifespan of three coal-fired power plants versus the $443.8 million cost for the environmental upgrades necessary to do so.

The millions of dollars of investments would extend the service of three aging coal-fired power plants in West Virginia — John Amos, Mountaineer and Mitchell.

Without the full array of environmental upgrades, the power plants might remain in operation for just the next few years, until 2028. With the changes, the power plants could remain in operation until 2040.

West Virginia regulators already weighed the costs and benefits once and decided to go all-in on the upgrades. The twist is that two other states — Virginia and Kentucky — have a say-so in the future of the three power plants too. Regulators in those two states declined the full range of improvements.

Lawyers for Appalachian Power and Wheeling Power on Sept. 8 asked for the case to be reopened. The power companies are asking for a decision pretty soon, by Oct. 13.

The decision falls to the three-member West Virginia Public Service Commission, which was also having an evidentiary hearing today. So if West Virginia regulators opt to go ahead, the financial burden of the full extent of the upgrades would fall to ratepayers here.

Cost to ratepayers

The overall cost breaks down to $217.3 million for the John Amos plant, $82.7 million for the Mountaineer plant and $148.3 million for the Mitchell plant. The overall annual cost is an estimated $48 million.

Energy Efficient West Virginia calculates the cost would be an extra $54.24 a year for the average residential ratepayer. That’s based on assumed usage of 1,000 kilowatt hours per month.

Gaylene Miller

“Many in our state already struggle to make ends meet,” said Gaylene Miller, state director of AARP West Virginia. “They simply do not have the ability to absorb additional fees without making difficult tradeoffs in spending for food, medicine or transportation.”

Margot Saunders, a Hurricane resident who serves as an attorney with the National Consumer Law Center, agreed. With the increase, she said, “some seniors would not be able to purchase medications. Some households would not be able to afford their electric bill some months.”

“The companies are asking West Virginia ratepayers to pay this service month after month, year after year.”

Pam Garrison, a Fayette County resident who works with the Poor People’s Campaign, emphasized that some people could not afford the increase.

“Fifty dollars might not seem like a lot to some people,” she said. But, “$50 means your kids’ food. It means your medicine.”

Jobs and economy

Others emphasized the jobs that result from the power plants remaining in operation.

Chad Francis of the United Mine Workers of America said closure of any of the power plants would be detrimental to surrounding communities. “We support keeping our current coal-fired power plants open and operating as cleanly and efficiently as possible,” he said.

George Capel, representing the West Virginia State Building and Construction Trades, said union members work about a million hours a year at the plants. Although he said the union supports alternative forms of energy, “The fact of the matter is, there’s nothing on record to indicate anything comparable to the output of these facilities is going to be built in West Virginia in the near future.”

Charlie Reynolds

Delegate Charlie Reynolds, R-Marshall, asked commissioners to please leave the plants open. The Mitchell plant is in Marshall County.

“It would be hard if the utility rates go up, but I’m going to support it,” he said. “I do believe without anything in place to take up and give us the energy those plants provide, it’s just an attack on our energy grid.”

Climate concerns

Still more commenters emphasized the environmental effects of continuing to burn coal.

“We don’t owe coal. It owes us,” said Linda Frame of the West Virginia Environmental Council.

Wes Holden

Wes Holden, a retired constituent services director for longtime Sen. Jay Rockefeller, observed “A decision for a $448 rate increase will not bring back coal.”

Stephanie Highsmith, another of the commenters, blended both the cost concerns to households and worries about climate change.

“I’m very thrifty. We keep our thermostat at a reasonable temperature,” she said. “But it’s hot. And it’s getting hotter.”

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