West Virginia’s biggest utility just told the governor burning more coal is “not going to happen”

If you want to hold on…
If you want to hold on…
Image: Getty Images/Daniel Berehula
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West Virginia is coal country. And so, given Trump’s promise to “put our [coal] miners back to work,” it’s no surprise that the state’s Democratic governor Jim Justice wants his state’s biggest utility to burn more of it.

But Chris Beam, president of Appalachian Power, the state’s largest utility, has some bad news.

Beam told the governor—a farmer and coal mogul himself—that all new power generation would likely come from wind, solar, and natural gas. “The governor asked me, ‘I’d like you to burn more coal,’” Beam said according to the West Virginia Gazette-Mail. “Well, we don’t have any more coal plants. We’re not going to build any more coal plants. That’s not going to happen.”

This isn’t an issue of pollution controls, however. Customers and economics are driving today’s energy agenda. Beam says the debate over climate change, and the role of coal in it, is essentially over. Appalachian Power’s parent company AEP believes the regulation of carbon dioxide is inevitable. In the coming decades, renewable energy and natural gas are poised to dominate the fuel mix. “We’re past that argument as a company,” Beam said.

Appalachian Power’s residential and industrial customers (pdf), which include Steel Dynamics, Koch Industries, and Marathon petroleum, are now asking about switching to 100% renewables, says John Shepelwich of Appalachian Power. In order to get out in front of this growing demand, the utility, which serves more than a million customers across the US mid-Atlantic region, has begun preparing power plans that would allow customers to stop using fossil fuels.

“At the end of the day, West Virginia may not require us to be clean, but our customers are,” Beam told the Gazette. “So if we want to bring in those jobs, and those are good jobs, those are good-paying jobs that support our universities because they hire our engineers, they have requirements now, and we have to be mindful of what our customers want.”

And it’s not just West Virginia: Companies across the country are rushing to switch their energy portfolio to renewables. In California, where technology companies have spent more than a decade building up their own renewable portfolios, Amazon, Autodesk, Facebook, Google, HP, Salesforce, and Apple have committed to sourcing 100% of their electricity from renewable sources as part of the RE100 pledge. Google says it could achieve its goal as early as 2017.

Appalachian Power estimates it will reduce its coal capacity from 60% of its energy mix to about 50% by 2020. A the same time, wind and solar will rise from about 4% of capacity to 20% by 2031, said Shepelwich. But that doesn’t mean the utility will be giving up any of its existing coal plants anytime soon. Thousands of megawatts of generating capacity still rely on coal. And despite steady conversion to natural gas, they will continue to do so for decades.

It’s important to remember that capacity is only one part of the equation; fuel mix is the other. Since coal plants can run most of the time, compared to just a portion of the day for wind and solar, it’s possible that the hours Appalachian Power’s fuel mix relies on coal will remain as high as 70% over the next decades.

There is one way change could come to the region much sooner, however. “If [customers] demand it, we would have to change the fuel mix on the renewable side,” said Shepelwich.

Correction: A previous version of this post misstated  the names of AEP and the Gazette-Mail.