The View from Puncheon Creek: Uncertain Times

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I just heard the news that the last load of coal was dumped at AEP’s Louisa Power Plant they will ever receive. 

The Kentucky Public Service Commission approved a plan back in August that will enable Kentucky Power Co. to continue generating electricity at its Big Sandy plant by converting the smaller of its two coal-fired units to run on natural gas. Kentucky Power is converting Big Sandy Unit 1 to meet stricter federal air-quality requirements to reduce emissions of mercury and other toxic emissions. Without the conversion they would have had to shut down the plant entirely. Apparently due to cost, this was not an option for the large number 2 unit which has been mothballed. Instead, Kentucky Power bought a 50 percent interest in Ohio Power Co.’s Mitchell power plant, which is south of Moundsville, W.Va. which has near the same 800 megawatt capacity as unit 2. Kentucky Power also purchases electricity from an AEP plant in Rockport, Ind., and has a contract to buy electricity from a biomass plant when it is built near Hazard in Perry County.

You might wonder what impact all this will have for each of us. As with most changes there are benefits and deficits. On the bright side our electric supply should remain stable along with more modest rate increases. We and the environment will benefit from lower emissions of toxic pollutants. At least some jobs and local tax base will be saved by this plan. The dark side of the equation will be the loss of jobs and revenue created by coal. The entire economy of Eastern Kentucky for generations has hinged on coal. How can our region survive after coal? Everyone knew the end of our coal economy was a near certainty for decades now, yet our leaders to often done little to plan for that eventuality. As I see it our only viable options to replace coal are Tourism with the Entrepreneurships it creates, and light industrial development. 

There will be few jobs that will be equal to coal salaries’, $90,000 a year coal jobs are most likely going to be replaced by jobs paying less than half as much. This will have profound effects not only economically but also on the identity of our region. Simply put, we have no choice in the matter. Other than to seek out ways to develop new engines to drive economic activity as our region transitions from coal we are caught in the tide of time. One of the ways to get ready for radical change is by learning about these emerging changes ahead of time so you won’t be overwhelmed by the upheaval. Make no mistake, radical change has already passed the tipping point. Like tobacco before it, coal is destined to decline. But all is not gloom.
A bright spot is a regional initiative founded by Congressman Rogers and Governor Beshear known as SOAR. SOAR’s goal is to develop opportunities for our people here in Eastern Kentucky to thrive. SOAR’s web page states, “Eastern Kentucky’s economy is changing fast, and our future is unwritten. We believe we have the opportunity to move forward together, to build a new economy here in the mountains—a diverse, homegrown economy good for all people.” Magoffin County is already reaping the benefit of this initiative through a modern four lane highway, the Industrial Park and the Dawkins Line Rail Trail. I hope that the Civil War Park can soon be added to the list. 

Since the problem with coal is region wide so to must the solution be. That in no way negates each county’s obligation to do all it can to develop what it has. From many perspectives Magoffin County is ahead of the pack. We are at the center of it all and we have the chance to become the regional hub of a vibrant non-coal Eastern Kentucky economy. 

Some interesting facts about coal fired electric generation include that the 29 coal fired plants that are larger than 2,000 MW have a greater generating capacity than the 392 plants that are smaller than 500 MW. A one percentage point improvement in the efficiency of a conventional pulverized coal combustion plant results in a 2-3% reduction in CO2 emissions. This means new high efficiency, low emission coal-fired power plants have the potential to keep coal in the mix for years to come. Coal plants are the nation’s top source of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, the primary cause of global warming. The EIA (Energy Information Administration) is projecting 60 gigawatts of coal power plant capacity will be retired by 2020. That’s enough electric generating capacity to power about 27 million homes.