The State Public Service Commission is deciding what should be done with the Pleasants Power Station.
Energy Harbor, which owns the coal-fired power plant in Pleasants County along the Ohio River, is going carbon-free so it has targeted the plant for closure at the end of May. First Energy subsidiaries Mon Power and Potomac Edison are potentially interested in buying the plant.
However, the companies say it will take a year to analyze the deal and, during that time, they want their rate payers to subsidize the power plant’s operation. At minimum, that will mean a $36 million surcharge. That translates into an average monthly increase of $2.67 for residential customers, $8.44 for commercial customers and $4,416 for industrial customers.
The power plant employs about 150 workers and burns West Virginia coal, so it is an important economic driver in the region. Several individuals testified before the PSC Thursday that the surcharge, while not optimal, was a justified cost for keeping the plant operating.
But there was also testimony that rate payers should not have to subsidize a profitable company to continue operation of a facility that should be mothballed along with other coal-fired power plants.
The Pleasants Power Station issue is, in one sense, localized to the community around the plant and the ratepayers in northern and eastern West Virginia. But in another way, it is emblematic of the difficulties associated with the transition in electricity generation that is happening in this country.
The ongoing debate is how to reduce carbon emissions that contribute to climate change. Much of that focus is on electricity power generation which, according to the EPA, is responsible for 25 percent of greenhouse gas emissions.
Power companies are moving away from coal and natural gas power plants to lower their CO2 emissions and to meet customer demands for more electricity generated by renewables. EPA rules and political pressures are hastening those power plant closures.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates that nearly 16 gigawatts of electric generating capacity will be retired this year. Each gigawatt can power 750,000 homes or 300 large commercial buildings.
More renewable-generated power is coming online all the time, but it is not a smooth transition. Recently, PJM Interconnection, which operates the power grid for 13 northeastern states including West Virginia, issued a warning that a rush to retire traditional baseload power plants “presents increasing reliability risks.”
In fact, during the deep freeze from Winter Storm Elliott last Christmas, PJM warned of the potential of rolling blackouts. The Pleasants Power Station cranked up to 91 percent capacity during that period to help ensure the reliability of the grid.
In other words, the fate of the Pleasants Power Station is not a simple matter. Myriad competing interests are all presenting valid concerns. It is one thing to have philosophical debates about climate change and power generation, but PSC’s difficult decision about Pleasants Power is what the practical application of these issues looks like.