So this is what it’s like being dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century. Here in West Virginia, we are being blackmailed into continuing the use of coal for electric power generation until the year 2040, regardless of the economics. And we are going to pay dearly for the privilege of using the dirtiest fossil fuel extracted from the earth in the most damaging way possible. How is this possible? Let us say when we selected a coal baron as Governor, we accepted his appointments to the Public Service Commission (PSC). And when a position came open in the 3-member commission, the Governor filled it with the recently-retired head of the WV Coal Association.
There are three large power plants run by Appalachian Power in the state of West Virginia. These plants sold power throughout West Virginia, and also to Kentucky and Virginia. All three plants face the need to upgrade their sludge handling facilities by 2028 in order to meet EPA regulations. The Kentucky and Virginia PSC’s refused to accept their portion of the costs for upgrading the water treatment facilities, so it fell to the WV PSC to make its decision. To no one’s surprise, they approved the half billion-dollar upgrade, along with the requisite costs for the utility to not only offset its investment cost, but enable Appalachian Power to earn a return on the incremental investment. The PSC stated their rationale for approval as: “Direct employment at the Plants, use of West Virginia coal, state, county and local taxes related to operating generation plants and related employment in businesses supporting the Plants and the coal industry cannot be discounted or overlooked.” I can’t wait for the first shipment of Wyoming coal to these plants, justified solely on cost. Lower cost will eventually out trump any other justification.
When I moved to West Virginia in the late 1980’s, a point of pride in the state was the low cost of electricity as it was totally dependent on coal generation. Since those days, a revolution in energy generation has occurred. Natural gas availability has increased exponentially, and the cost of renewable energy has plummeted. At the same time, the deep thick veins of coal have mostly played out in the state, and the coal industry has resorted to the extremely destructive and disruptive practice of blowing off the tops of mountains in order to expose the relatively thin veins of carbon remaining. So now we suffer from periodic explosions causing rock to rain down from on high throughout our coal fields, and then suffer from the exposure of virgin rock to the atmosphere where every metal present is leached out into our streams. All for the pleasure of allowing our neighboring cloud factories to vent their excess heat into the atmosphere.
Much has been written about how coal has held this state captive for over a century. Coal mines, and coke ovens, have plagued us ever since industry began to exploit this resource. Of course, you wouldn’t want it extracted in your back yard, since the act of extraction just may make your yard and house uninhabitable. But we are still held in thrall to the large utilities and their subservient governmental regulators, all under the massive oversight offered by our oversized Governor. It makes sense that the state suffering from rampant obesity should select an exemplar of this trait to be its leader.
So while the rest of the nation learns how to adapt periodic energy sources into a system which can handle volatile energy demands, this state will muddle along with the power system of the last century. Once more, West Virginia is insistent upon remaining a vassal state to the rest of this country, and ensuring our subordination for multiple decades to come. A state looking ahead would try to market the flattened mountains as opportunities for solar farms, since the soil won’t grow useful plants due to the dearth of organic top soil. No, instead we will continue to permit the desecration of our lands in order to fulfill our need to pay obeisance to the gods of coal.
Do we deserve to be last in almost every economic category within these states? It would seem so, since we appear destined to race backwards rather than face forward and try to improve. The state has changed from a progressive labor enclave, into yet another southern US state where the Republican party staged a takeover. Law after law is enacted aimed at hamstringing the labor movement, many straight from the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) playbook. It makes you believe the legislators have no individual capacity for thought, they have to outsource it to ALEC. But those are the facts on the ground, and we have to deal with the unfortunate circumstances we find ourselves stuck in.
It may be that all politics are local. What is unfortunate is that the local variant of politics in this state consists of denigration of education, followed by an insistence on wishing for an economic rescue from the economic gods of the past, instead of realizing the facts on the ground have changed, and no longer will we thrive if we refuse to look beyond coal. There is a reason why the coal extracting regions are among the poorest in the world. Only when you think coal is the only resource you have to share, will you accept the degradation it brings. Here in West Virginia, we think we only have coal to offer to the rest of the world.