Regulations strangling local coal-fired plants

WHEELING – To comply with President Obama’s plan to reduce carbon and mercury emissions, American Electric Power and FirstEnergy Corp. are eliminating 2,665 megawatts of coal-fired generating capacity.

Even though some believe burning methane natural gas for electricity – a process planned for the 700-megawatt generating station set for construction near Carrollton, Ohio – is better for the environment than burning coal, Wheeling Jesuit University biology professor Ben Stout is not so sure.

“Methane is 20 times as powerful of a greenhouse gas than CO2,” he said, a statement supported by information from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “Eventually, we are going to run out of fossil fuels, whether its coal, gas or oil. We need to be working to find a more sustainable strategy.”

Nevertheless, residents of eastern Ohio and northern West Virginia who have long relied on relatively cheap electricity from coal soon may see their market squeezed. Obama recently directed the EPA to crack down on carbon emissions, specifically those coming from coal-fired power plants, to “prepare our nation for the unavoidable impact of climate change.”

FirstEnergy sells electricity to customers in Hancock, Brooke, Wetzel and Tyler counties through its Mon Power subsidiary.

The company still operates the W.H. Sammis Plant in Jefferson County, which actually stretches over the lanes of Ohio 7, as its largest generation facility in Ohio. FirstEnergy closed its R.E. Burger Plant south of Shadyside in 2010.

This week, FirstEnergy officials announced they will deactivate two coal-fired power plants in Masontown, Pa., and Courtney, Pa., by Oct. 9. This will remove 2,080 megawatts from the company’s generating capacity. FirstEnergy estimates it will cost the company $925 million to comply with the EPA’s Mercury and Air Toxics Standards.

After investing hundreds of millions of dollars to upgrade its facilities, FirstEnergy expects to reduce emissions of nitrogen oxides by 84 percent, sulfur dioxide by 95 percent, mercury by 91 percent and carbon dioxide by 20-30 percent. However, the two Pennsylvania plant closures will affect about 380 FirstEnergy workers.

AEP provides coal-fired electricity to residents in Ohio, Marshall, Belmont, Jefferson, Harrison and Monroe counties, with much of this power generated at the Kammer and Mitchell plants in Marshall County and the Cardinal Plant in Jefferson County.

AEP officials said Thursday they will close a 585-megawatt coal-fired power plant in Beverly, Ohio – northwest of Marietta – by 2015 because of “the cost of compliance with environmental regulations.” The company had explored the option of reconfiguring this plant to run on natural gas, but determined this would probably not be cost-effective.

AEP already is scheduled to close its Kammer plant by the end of 2014, affecting the 55 workers now employed there.