Cleaning Up Coal-fired Power Plants
Graphic of coal-fired power plant.
While touted as cheap energy, coal exacts a price far higher than what we pay in utility bills. Burning coal for electricity produces global warming pollution, and releases harmful toxic pollution into our air and water.
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Too Old, Too Dirty To Live

The Big Sandy coal-fired power plant burns through 90 railroad cars of coal daily. The Kentucky Power Company had proposed a near billion dollar upgrade—but the price tag would have been passed along to Kentucky ratepayers. (Shawn Poynter)

An aged and decrepit coal-fired power plant in Kentucky is closer to being retired as a result of a stunning victory won by Earthjustice attorney Shannon Fisk. The Big Sandy coal plant is the latest victory in Earthjustice’s effort to rid the land of one of the most highly polluting industries in America … coal-fired power plants.

Fisk challenged a proposal by the plant’s owners to spend nearly a billion dollars on the coal plant rather than invest in cleaner and cheaper alternatives. The spending would have bought new scrubbers to reduce its sulfur dioxide emissions. But it also would have increased the average rate payers’ monthly electric bill by more than 30 percent.

Oddly, the plant’s owner, Kentucky Power Company, first proposed converting the plant to cleaner natural gas but reversed course after being pressured by the coal mining industry and state politicians.

Fisk brought his case to the state regulatory body that has to sign off on such plans, the Kentucky Public Service Commission. He pointed out the folly of trying to prop up the 42-year-old coal plant when cheaper and cleaner alternatives were at hand. The plant burns through 90 railroad cars of coal daily. And while the scrubber retrofit would have reduced some of the air pollution, it would have done nothing to reduce the plant’s huge volume of carbon dioxide. Another key reason to oppose the plant upgrade: if Kentucky Power had invested $940 million in Big Sandy, it would have wanted to keep the plant open for at least another 15 to 30 years to pay off the investment.

It’s clearly not economic to retrofit this coal plant in the heart of coal country—and that really sends a message for coal plants throughout the country.

When Kentucky Power reversed their gas conversion plan to the billion-dollar coal makeover, a most unusual bedfellow surfaced. An industry group called the Kentucky Industrial Utilities Customers—representing major eastern Kentucky employers, including AK Steel, Air Products & Chemicals, and Marathon Petroleum—opposed prolonging the coal plant’s life. The industry group submitted expert testimony urging the Kentucky Public Service Commission to reject Kentucky Power Company’s proposal, given its impact on ratepayers. Then the state Attorney General joined in, agreeing with Fisk that pouring nearly a billion dollars into an old, tired, highly polluting coal plant was not the best option.

Before the Public Service Commission announced a final decision, the coal plant’s owner saw the writing on the wall. Rather than risk getting an official denial ruling from the commission, the company withdrew the application.

One can only imagine what effect this decision will have on the political structures in Kentucky which largely considers itself a coal state. More than 92 percent of the state's electricity comes from coal generation.

Fisk probably said it best when he told a radio reporter in Kentucky, “It’s clearly not economic to retrofit this coal plant in the heart of coal country—and that really sends a message for coal plants throughout the country. If it’s not even economic to do it in Kentucky, it’s certainly not economic to be spending hundreds of millions, even a billion dollars on aging coal infrastructure in states like Ohio and Michigan and Tennessee.”

Written by John McManus. First published in the Earthjustice Quarterly Magazine, Summer 2012 issue.


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