Rage of a dying dinosaur: Why is AEP really shutting down five coal plants?
Photo: MarkusramA huge animal, thrashing around in its death throes, threatens nearby smaller animals. Such is the case with coal-dependent American Electric Power (AEP). Thursday, it announced that it would be closing five coal plants in Virginia, West Virginia, and Ohio, adding up to about 25 percent of its total capacity. And it attributed the closure to the cost of EPA regulations.
Cue the noise machine on the “job-killing EPA.” The Bluefield, W.Va. Daily Telegraph editorial could have been written by AEP executives: “One must look no further than last week’s stunning announcement from American Electric Power for further proof of the out-of-control, job-killing agenda of the federal Environmental Protection Agency.”
The only problem: It’s not true.
AEP has pitched two different reasons in the space of one week for the demise of the Picway plant, one of the five coal plants to be shuttered, near Columbus, Ohio. This plant was built in 1955 and, according to AEP’s June 9 press release, generates 100 megawatts of electricity per year. However, just one week before, on June 2, AEP announced that it would shutter Picway nine months per year as a cost-saving measure:
Pat Hemlepp, an AEP spokesman, said the national recession lowered demand for electricity, making the generators too expensive to run year-round.
The company wouldn’t say how much it expects to save. Hemlepp said the company will try to shift affected plant workers to jobs that other employees left when AEP offered early-retirement buyouts in April.
In short: AEP was going to close the plant anyway to save itself money, and the jobs have already been shifted elsewhere in AEP, not killed. This dinosaur plant has been dying of old age and obsolescence, not killed by the EPA.
The Picway plant is located in Lockbourne (population 280), Franklin County, Ohio. That county has 1,614 asthma attacks per year attributable to power plant fine particle pollution.
AEP is playing a similar game at the Glen Lyn power plant in Virginia, a plant in its 90th year of operations and officially generating 335 megawatts of electricity. On June 9, 2011, Glen Lyn was among those being closed due to the “unrealistic compliance timelines in the EPA proposals.” However, on May 12, 2010, AEP placed the plant on standby status as “another move by AEP to cut operating costs to adjust to recession-related drops in electricity usage, especially among industrial and commercial customers.”
Glen Lyn’s fly ash ponds release contaminated water into the New River, although the amount of contamination is unknown because Virginia’s water records are less than adequate, according to the Sierra Club [p. 218 of PDF].
The Philip Sporn plant, located in West Virginia, likewise was slated to be retired by AEP in 2010 because it was projected to lose money in 2011 and 2012.
The remaining two plants to be closed — Kammer and Kanawha River, both in West Virginia — are likewise inefficient 1950s-era plants. In 2007, AEP entered into a consent decree [PDF] with the EPA that affected all five of the plants now to be closed.
The EPA responds to AEP:
Utilities have known for decades that these standards — which are still in the proposal stage and have a built-in three-year-compliance timeline, have been coming for decades. They also know that they are free to approach EPA with serious, fact-based compliance plans, and that state governments also have the ability under the law to seek more time for the plants in their jurisdictions.
In short: AEP has a number of dirty, old dinosaur coal plants. A Bush-era consent decree required it to retrofit or retire the worst of the bunch. It’s been losing money. However, rather than meekly admit obsolescence, AEP is choosing to play political hardball and blame the EPA for its business decisions. The Center for American Progress sees through AEP’s dirty trick.
The Jurassic-era carboniferous forests that became coal, and the dinosaurs that roamed them, are long since gone, and now coal itself is becoming obsolete. AEP finds it convenient to blame EPA, but it can’t attribute “job-killing EPA regulations” to a decision by a French utility to close its five least-profitable coal plants. AEP can choose to invest in clean renewable energy, or follow the dinosaurs.