The first thing that strikes you about the Mountaineer power plant is its sheer size.
Its stacks rise more than 1,000 feet over the Ohio River floodplain, almost as tall as the Empire State Building. Its massive cooling tower can hold 8.5 million gallons of water.
A 20-story building houses its 1,330-megawatt generator. It produces enough electricity to power a city of a million people. Or more than half of West Virginia.
Mountaineer has been generating electric power since Jimmy Carter was president.
But due to changing environmental regulations and the competition from natural gas and renewable energy, time could be running out.
The plant requires upgrades to its wastewater treatment system. Under federal rules, it can operate until 2040 with the upgrades. Without them, it has to close by the end of 2028.
Conflicting decisions between utility regulators in two states complicate the plan to extend the plant’s life. West Virginia’s Public Service Commission approved the plan.
Virginia’s Corporation Commission, however, rejected it.
The regulatory snag shows the limits of what supporters of West Virginia’s coal plants can do to keep them from shutting down as the country moves away from fossil fuels.
‘Closing of a Culture’
Shutting down the plant would deliver an economic blow to Mason County. It employs more than 150 workers and supports other jobs in the community. Local schools depend on tax revenue from the plant.
Upstream, coal mines in northern West Virginia supply the plant with its fuel, which is delivered by barge. Those jobs are at stake, too.
“This is closing of a culture, this is closing of a community,” said Rick Altman of Wheeling, who’s been a coal miner for 44 years. “This is closing of a generational lifestyle that has really fueled this country.”
When Mountaineer opened, coal was the nation’s dominant source of electric power. Four decades later, natural gas dominates and renewables are catching up.
Coal plants like Mountaineer are becoming more expensive to operate. American Electric Power, the parent company of Appalachian Power, has two other coal-fired plants in West Virginia: the John Amos plant in Putnam County and the Mitchell plant in Marshall County. They face the same pressures.
The company has set a goal of becoming 80% carbon-free by 2030. Reaching that goal will require more coal plants to shut down.
President Joe Biden wants the nation’s power supply to become carbon-neutral in 2035. That’s five years before the West Virginia plants are scheduled to shut down if they are upgraded.
The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns that drastic action is necessary to curb the most devastating impacts of global warming — which in the Ohio Valley would mean less predictable weather, more flooding, and second-hand impact from coastal displacement and global disruptions.
One path forward: Replacing the coal plants with carbon-free sources of energy.
Gypsum and Molasses
It isn’t only the jobs at the power plants, the coal mines or the barge companies on the line. The plant produces and consumes other materials that contribute to the local economy.
Fly ash is collected and hauled off by the truckload. It gets recycled in concrete and asphalt.
The exhaust is filtered through a huge drum that spins with powdered limestone and steel balls.
“We mix limestone and water inside of that drum that’s got them rotating balls in it,” said Brett Watt, the plant’s senior maintenance superintendent. “And it crushes this limestone up to where it’s a slurry. It’s actually finer than the coal is.”
That removes sulfur dioxide and produces gypsum, which is used to make the drywall.
Probably the strangest part of the process involves molasses. Yes, molasses.
It’s used to grow bacteria that eat mercury and selenium.
“We bring in tanker trucks of molasses to feed the bacteria,” said Brian Mabe, the plant manager. “There’s, you know, a living organism that removes that.”
The plant’s closure would be bad news for the drywall plant and the molasses maker.
Fossil Fuel Allies
One thing the plant, and most like it, can’t remove from the exhaust stream is carbon dioxide.
For several years, Mountaineer participated in a pilot program, funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, that took some of the carbon and injected it deep underground.
Carbon-capture technology has not been adopted on a mass scale. It’s expensive.
Still, West Virginia Sens. Joe Manchin and Shelley Moore Capito have included more funding to develop carbon capture and storage in a big infrastructure bill that just passed the Senate.
West Virginia lawmakers have made an effort to bolster the state’s remaining coal-fired power plants. This past spring, they passed a bill that makes it harder for coal plants to shut down.
Gov. Jim Justice has also taken steps to save the state’s coal plants. He reactivated the dormant West Virginia Public Energy Authority and appointed fossil fuel allies to serve on it and find ways to keep the plants from closing.
One of them was Chris Hamilton, president of the West Virginia Coal Association.
“We know these plants won’t run forever,” Hamilton said. “You know, we’re looking for about a 20 year run. Maybe a couple of decades.”
Justice also appointed the former top coal lobbyist in West Virginia to the Public Service Commission, which regulates coal plants. Justice himself owns companies that mine coal.
The federal government is poised to spend billions of dollars to reclaim abandoned mines in Appalachia, and that could help communities that are losing jobs.
Altman started working in the mines when he was 19, and he said he’s heard the promises before. As more power plants and coal mines close, he said, the government needs to step up.
“Don’t just have a plan and say, ‘don’t you worry.’ I’m 63 years old. I got laid off the first time in 1979. You know what I was told by the government? ‘Don’t worry about this, we got you covered. We’re going to educate you, we’re gonna do this.’ I’m still waiting for that to happen. I’m truly waiting for that to happen.”
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