Climate

West Virginia Power Company Admits Coal Is Doomed

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A mining operation in Charleston, WV.

On Tuesday, in front of a roomful of energy executives, the president of Appalachian Power declared that the war on coal was over, and coal had not emerged victorious.

According to the Charleston Gazette-Mail, Charles Patton, president of Appalachian Power, told energy executives that coal consumption is likely to remain stagnant whether or not federal regulations like the Clean Power Plan are allowed to go forward. He also said that in the national debate about coal and climate change, the public has largely settled on the side of climate change.

“You just can’t go with new coal [plants] at this point in time,” Patton reportedly said. “It is just not economically feasible to do so.”

Regardless of how the Clean Power Plan — President Obama’s signature climate effort placing limits on carbon emissions from power plants — shakes out, Patton estimated that Appalachian Power’s use of coal could drop 26 percent by 2026. The Clean Power Plan was published in the Federal Register last Friday, and already faces more than 20 legal challenges from fossil fuel-producing states, utilities, and coal companies. It’s also being challenged by a group of Republican lawmakers who want to use the Congressional Review Act to essentially negate the rule.

The Obama administration, as well as climate and environmental activists, seem confident that the rule will stand up in court. But even if it doesn’t, coal is still in perhaps terminal decline in the United States. That’s thanks, in large part, to a slew of other regulations that have cracked down on harmful pollutants like sulfur and mercury, as well as market forces such as the fracking boom that made natural gas cheap and widely available. For a lot of companies with aging coal plants, it’s better economic sense to retire those plants than incur the costs associated with retrofitting them to adhere to new standards, especially when natural gas is so cheap.

“With or without the Clean Power Plan, the economics of alternatives to fossil-based fuels are making inroads in the utility plan,” Patton said. “Companies are making decisions today where they are moving away from coal-fired generation.”

West Virginia is one of the states leading the legal challenges to the Clean Power Plan, and Patton said that he supports West Virginia’s lawsuit. West Virginia’s governor Earl Ray Tomblin (D) has said that the state will craft a plan in compliance with the rule while the legal challenges proceed.

Coal-fired power plants are still the primary source of electricity in the United States, supplying the nation with 34 percent of its electricity. But that’s expected to decline in the near future, with the EPA expecting coal’s share to drop to around 30 percent by 2030. In fact, this July natural gas power generation exceeded coal for the second time ever, and this trend is expected to continue if gas prices remain this cheap.

To counter the drop on domestic demand for coal, Patton urged the executives in the room to “think globally.”

Around the world, coal remains a popular source of power. As Brad Plumer points out over at Vox, the rest of the world is undergoing something of a coal renaissance — there are currently more than 2,000 coal plants slated for construction around the world, with 557 actually under construction. To bring U.S. coal to overseas markets, especially markets in Asia where demand for coal remains high, several companies have proposed building coal export terminals on the West Coast. In Washington state, two proposals for coal export terminals that would ship millions of tons of coal overseas are currently under review. Coal companies are also eyeing a new shipping terminal in Oakland, slated to be finished in 2017, as a potential coal export site.