Between 2008 and 2020, West Virginia consumers faced rate increases in electricity prices more than five times the national average. Recently, Appalachian Power, which services states across the Appalachian region, filed yet another rate increase request—asking for a $297 million raise—with the West Virginia Public Service Commission (PSC). The company claims that challenging market conditions have caused problems getting coal for their West Virginia power plants, and that the rate increase request is “nothing more than passing on their increased cost of doing business—as utilities are permitted to do.” However, with research showing that a transition away from coal dependence would be cheaper for consumers, there is growing pushback on why the state continues to rely on coal for energy production. As has become apparent to many, a primary factor for this is that the coal industry has tremendous influence over officials within West Virginia.
The Cost of Coal vs Renewables
West Virginia has seven coal plants which represent roughly 91% of the state’s energy production. In situations like that of last year, where the cost of coal rose sharply worldwide, power companies will often place the burden of those increased costs on consumers. Today, Appalachian Power executives have testified that they’re still having problems getting coal for their West Virginia power plants and that because of this, only one of the company’s three power plants is currently in operation. According to John Scalzo, vice president of regulatory and finance for Appalachian Power “that coal does not exist. It’s not like we’re not trying to run or trying to get it. It’s just not there.” Scalzo further claims that the other plants would be operational if coal were available to run them. These circumstances show that dependence on a finite resource such as coal can cause energy production to falter when that resource becomes more expensive or unavailable altogether.
Conversely, relying on renewable energy would diversify regional economies and allow power companies to be more self-sustainable in the face of challenging market conditions. Research in this area shows that a transition to renewable energy would effectively eliminate many of the issues that stem from a reliance on coal and would be cost-effective in the process. For example, a University of California at Berkeley study says that the United States could generate 80% of its power from renewables in 2030 without causing electricity prices to rise. Another study from the WVU College of Law’s Center for Energy and Sustainable Development found that “a major ramping up of renewable energy and energy efficiency in West Virginia over the next fifteen years would, at the least, be cost-competitive versus our current trajectory of continued dependence on coal.” These cost ratios may be even higher in support of renewable energy if the price of coal continues to rise, as it has been recently. As the study states, “while no one knows what coal or natural gas fuel prices will be in 2030, we do know that sunshine and wind will continue to be free.” This research shows that making a shift towards renewable energies would lower electricity prices for West Virginia consumers, which leaves many wondering why the state continues to depend so heavily on coal.
Coal’s Influence on the PSC and Other West Virginia Officials
Although the coal industry has lost influence at the national level, its influence in West Virginia remains potent. This has become especially apparent with regards to the West Virginia Public Service Commission (PSC), which is the regulatory agency responsible for utilities doing business in the state. Over the years, the PSC has approved rate increase requests without much pushback and is generally opposed to renewable energy. According to James Van Nostrand, the Center for Energy & Sustainable Development director at WVU’s College of Law, state utility regulators have repeatedly been hostile to renewable energy primarily because “the PSC is in coal’s pocket.” Considering that two of the three current PSC commissioners have worked for coal, oil, and gas industry groups, this statement appears to be rather accurate.
Between 2009 and 2019, West Virginian politicians aligned themselves with the interests of the coal industry to the substantial detriment of the citizens and economy of the state. Van Nostrand explains this in his recently published book called “The Coal Trap: How West Virginia Was Left Behind in the Clean Energy Revolution.” This sentiment has been echoed by others such as Delegate Kayla Young (D-Kanawha), who stated “a lot of us know … the PSC is, like, not trying to help renewables.” The PSC has “repeatedly made uneconomical changes to the way utilities operate that have increased energy costs for West Virginians in order to burn more coal.” For example, when Appalachian Power sought regulatory approval in multiple states for environmental upgrades to keep coal burning plants operating past 2028, only the WV PSC approved them. Furthermore, the WV PSC voted to pay for upgrades to three coal-fired power plants in order to keep them open through 2040, even though they will cost West Virginia ratepayers over $440 million. Part of the reason the cost is so high is that Kentucky and Virginia utility regulators, who oversee the same utility companies, would not pay for the upgrades.
Not only does the coal industry influence the PSC, but it continues to influence state policy as a whole. Unlike nearby states which have passed legislation requiring a transition away from fossil fuels, West Virginia has passed no such requirements. One example is the Virginia Clean Economy Act, which imposes renewable targets with a goal of 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2050. In terms of national representation, the coal industry has influenced West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, who often supports traditional fossil-fuel forms of energy. As of today, Senator Manchin is the third highest recipient of coal mining industry donations in Congress.
With such potential for more sustainable and cost-effective methods of energy production available, there is no denying that the coal industry maintains influence over officials in West Virginia. To best help consumers, utility companies should diversify their forms of energy production and add renewables, instead of continuing to double-down on coal.
As the price of coal continues to rise, and consumers are burdened with the associated costs, it will be interesting to see whether there is enough pushback to force the state to allow a transition towards renewable energy.