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A couple of large coal-fired power plants in this area could be retired ahead of schedule.

As part of a deal to secure a rate increase in Virginia, Appalachian Power has agreed to examine what would happen if the John Amos Power Plant in Putnam County and the Mountaineer Power Plant in Mason County were taken out of service ahead of schedule. Neither is old for a coal-fired power plant, with Amos having begun service in 1971 and Mountaineer in 1980. Both have another 20 years of service, more or less.

What happened in Virginia is a complicated situation, but in simple terms, Appalachian Power wanted a rate increase there, but the Sierra Club opposed it. After negotiating various components of the request, the two parties decided that Appalachian Power would study what would happen if the two plants were retired and the company replaced their output with other sources. Appalachian Power is supposed to report the results of its study before the end of 2022.

Appalachian Power is a subsidiary of American Electric Power, which is based in Columbus, Ohio. AEP has committed to reducing its carbon dioxide emissions and obtaining more of its power from renewable resources while also divesting itself of much of its coal-powered generating fleet. It retired its Philip Sporn power plant in Mason County and its Kanawha River Power Plant in Kanawha County in 2015. It sold the Gavin plant at Cheshire, Ohio, a few years ago, and it has announced plans to reduce output at its large plant at Rockport, Indiana.

AEP subsidiary Kentucky Power converted the Big Sandy power plant near Louisa, Kentucky, from coal to gas a few years ago. When AEP has built new fossil fuel-powered plants in recent years, they have been gas burners.

Other than in their local communities, the loss of Sporn and Kanawha River were barely noticed. Both were smaller, older plants that didn’t produce enough power to justify the investment needed to meet modern environmental standards. Had natural gas not become so plentiful and inexpensive, one or both might still be operating.

Taking Amos and Mountaineer out of service would not be a simple step for AEP. Both plants handle part of Appalachian Power’s baseload needs in Virginia and West Virginia, so their output would have to be replaced with a dependable source. For now, that would mean natural gas. In the long run, it could mean renewables.

Shutting down either plant would be hard on the economies of their local communities, not to mention the West Virginia coal industry in general.

Retiring a large power plant requires the approval of several parties. The regional grid operator must certify that enough power is available from other sources to meet all expected needs. The Public Service Commission of West Virginia would have a say, and undoubtedly the governor and the Legislature would step in.

As noted here before, the coal-fired fleet in this region is expected to reach its scheduled retirement age sometime around 2040. Appalachian Power may have used the rate process in Virginia to begin the process of accelerating its move toward natural gas and renewables at the expense of coal. Now comes the hard part as Putnam and Mason counties wait for the study results and for the involved interest groups — the bureaucracy, politicians, environmental groups, the coal industry and others — to weigh in and prepare for battle.