If there is one place on earth where you would expect coal to win every skirmish in the War On Coal, it’s West Virginia. People there celebrate when coal companies blow the tops off mountains and dump the debris in valleys to get at the coal underneath. They get positively giddy when heavily polluted coal ash flows unchecked into their lakes and rivers. They turn out in record number to vote for Donald Trump because he promises to reinvigorate the coal mining industry. So what if their once beautiful state becomes as flat as Nebraska?
There is only one thing that gets West Viriginians riled up enough to oppose anything the coal companies do and that is messing with their wallets. When people start taking food off their tables, that’s where residents draw the line in the sand — or coal slag, if you prefer. The grand irony of all this is, the Repubnicrats are always screaming at the the top of their lungs about job-killing government regulations.
But when FirstEnergy, one of the largest local utility companies, realized its 1,300 megawatt Pleasants coal-powered generating station located in Willow Island, West Virginia, could not compete in an unregulated energy market, it whined and sniveled to federal and state officials that the plant should become part of a regulated market, a move that would force its customers to pay nearly half a billion dollars more in utility charges over the next 15 years, money that would go to fatten the wallets of FirstEnergy executives and its investors.
The proposal was denied by the Federal Energy Regulating Commission on January 12. On January 26, the West Virginia Public Service Commission approved the sale of the Pleasants plant to a regulated utility within the FirstEnergy empire but attached several stipulations to the approval that were deal breakers for the company. Last week, it notified regulators it was withdrawing its transfer of ownership plan.
According to a report by Think Progress, “The Pleasants transfer plan was part of a larger strategy by FirstEnergy to re-regulate unprofitable assets in deregulated markets as a way to capture subsidies from its utility customers.” Don’t you just love it when the people who proclaim the loudest that government should not be picking winners and losers in business — a favorite refrain that reactionaries trot out all the time — start lining up at the public trough begging for handouts? The amazing thing is that none of them are ever embarrassed in the slightest by their blatant hypocrisy.
“They didn’t need this plant to begin with,” says Michael Soules, an attorney for EarthJustice, which opposed the FirstEnergy plan on behalf of Solar United Neighbors of West Virginia and West Virginia Citizen Action Group. “In the long term, it’s going to be not just a victory for West Virginia ratepayers, but also for creating a window for more clean energy resources and energy efficiency to be a robust part of the energy mix.”
“This is a major win for the 530,000 [FirstEnergy] consumers in West Virginia,” adds Emmett Pepper, executive director of Energy Efficient West Virginia. “This deal was bad from the beginning and the extensive evidence presented at the PSC proceeding made clear that the proposed transfer would benefit FirstEnergy and hurt West Virginians struggling to survive in today’s economy.”
FirstEnergy and the subsidiaries it controls provide a total of 16,000 megawatts of power to millions of customers in Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, West Virginia, Maryland, and New York. 58% of its power plants are fueled by coal and another 25% are nukes. Only 12% of its electricity is derived from solar, wind, or hydroelectric sources. That mix must and will change as the cost of keeping aging coal fired plants open will continue to escalate, making renewables the only competitive option — even in West “By God” Virginia.