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Ruling clears way for gas-fired power plants in W.Va.

November 7, 2018

The John E. Amos Power Plant near Winfield, W.Va., is in no danger of closing, but coal-burning power plants such as Amos face competition on the electricity markets from cheaper natural gas. A state Supreme Court decision last week removed a hurdle for the first large gas-fired plant planned for West Virginia.

West Virginia could be getting its first large power plant fired by natural gas now that the state Supreme Court of Appeals has turned down a request to overturn a decision by the Public Service Commission allowing the plant to be built.

In a 5-0 decision filed Friday, the court allowed ESC Brooke County Power I LLC to continue with plans to build the 830-megawatt plant in Brooke County.

After several pages of comments on the specific laws involved in their decision, the five justices wrote, “Given the current economic condition of West Virginia, and Brooke County, in particular, it is apparent that the project will substantially and positively impact the state and local economies.”

Once it’s built, it will be the first step in West Virginia’s move to join other states in moving away from relying mainly on coal for its baseline power needs and toward cleaner and less expensive natural gas.

The word “irony” is too often overused or misused, but in this case it fits. ESC Brooke County Power I plans to build its plant on 20 acres of a former coal mine site that is now owned by the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources. The company will lease the land for $19 million over a 30-year period and pay the DNR an additional $1 million at the closing of the project’s financing.

Construction is expected to cost $884 million.

The plant in Brooke County would be larger than the Ceredo Generating Station and the Big Sandy Peaker Plant, both in Wayne County, but smaller than the 1,430-megawatt Hanging Rock Energy Facility in Lawrence County, Ohio. As with Hanging Rock, the Brooke County plant would not be owned or operated by a utility. It will sell its power on the open wholesale market, where utilities can purchase it instead of relying solely on power produced by their own coal-fired plants.

That’s the way the electricity generating industry is moving these days. West Virginia, Ohio and Kentucky have seen several coal-fired power plants close in recent years.

As a further sign of the shift in the industry, the Big Sandy Power Plant near Louisa, Ky., plant has been converted to gas. As things happen, the amount of coal moving out of the Big Sandy River is now about a quarter of what it was a few years ago, and several coal docks have closed or reduced operations. Meanwhile, with the converted Big Sandy plant and the nearby Riverside Generating plant plus the Big Sandy Peaker Plant, there are three gas-fired power plants along a river once dominated by coal docks servicing power plants.

For political and other reasons, West Virginia has been slow to make the move from gas-fired power to coal-fired power for its baseline needs. Renewables and small gas-fired peaker plants can pick up the slack during times of heavy demand for power, but in this part of the country, coal and gas dominate.

The Brooke County decision could be the first of a wave of gas plants in West Virginia. Some companies that have serviced the coal mining industry have seen the writing on the wall and have begun servicing the gas industry as well.

West Virginia will rely on coal for several more years, but the trend toward gas does not appear to be slowing down. The shift to gas does not have to be an economic disaster for West Virginia as long as the private and public sectors accept it, embrace it and plan for it.

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