FirstEnergy plans closure of two coal-fired plants

Special to the Marietta Times

With AP Dispatches

COLUMBUS — Ohio Valley officials on Thursday asked for state and federal officials to come together to avert “a regional economic crisis” that could be brought on by FirstEnergy Solutions’ decision to close its last coal-fired power plants in Ohio and Pennsylvania.

The company said Wednesday it would close the diesel unit at the W.H. Sammis Plant in Stratton on June 1, 2021, and the three coal-burning units at the plant on June 1, 2022. Also scheduled for closure is the Bruce Mansfield coal-fired plant in Shippingport, Pa. The plants employ a combined 550 people.

“I think we should do whatever we can do to get that process reversed,” Jefferson County Commissioner Thomas Graham said Thursday. “There are a lot of lives that will be negatively affected. We need to talk with politicians at the state and federal levels to try and have this process reversed. The Sammis plant has been around for a long time, and we have to do whatever we can to keep it here.”

Ohio Rep. Jack Cera, D-Bellaire, said the region’s economy would suffer if the Sammis plant closes.

“The economic impact of FirstEnergy in eastern Ohio is critical to the stability of families, small businesses and our local community,” Cera said in a statement. “The working men and women of Eastern Ohio have powered and helped build this nation over many generations, making it even more important that state and federal officials come together to work toward a fair solution that puts our people and businesses first.”

FirstEnergy Solutions said it can’t compete in the regional wholesale markets that are managed by grid manager PJM Interconnection.

“Our decision to retire the fossil-fueled plants was every bit as difficult as the one we made five months ago to deactivate our nuclear assets,” said Donald Moul, FES Generation Cos. president and chief nuclear officer, in a statement.

He said coal and nuclear power plants are losing out to cheaper energy sources such as natural gas and renewables.

Closure of the plants would leave about two dozen coal-fired plants operational in Ohio and Pennsylvania, according to data from the U.S. Energy Information Agency.

FirstEnergy Solutions and its parent, Akron-based FirstEnergy, have appealed to the Trump Administration to intervene to keep the plants operating, and Moul left the door open to keeping them operating if the company can get help.

Mike Cope, president of the Ohio Coal Association, said the coal industry employs 2,800 in Ohio and coal-fired plants provide 59 percent of the state’s energy.

“It’s certainly not good (that they’re closing), and I would respectfully wish that they had waited a little longer because many of the steps that the (Trump) administration is taking may have assisted them,” Cope said.

Dan Sawmiller, Ohio energy policy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said he suspects the announcement was carefully timed to put pressure on those they’ve asked for help in bolstering the nuclear and coal-fired power markets, including PJM and the federal and local governments.

He said a sustainable solution would be better than what the NRDC characterizes as a “bailout” of these plants that would be footed by customers.

“We’re talking about billions of dollars being used to bail out a failing industry, when these closures are inevitable and irreversible,” he said. “There are a lot better uses for that money, not to mention the impact on the environment.”

Neil Waggoner, state representative for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign in Ohio, agreed with Sawmiller.

“FirstEnergy should simply retire these uneconomic coal plants and help affected workers and communities through the transition, rather than suggest they could be saved by an expensive federal bailout. Time and again, it’s been shown that there are no reliability concerns as aging uneconomic coal plants retire. We will continue to monitor these retirements to ensure workers are taken care of, and that FES does not walk away from its environmental cleanup obligations,” Waggoner said.

The plant closures are subject to review by PJM, which didn’t immediately return a call seeking comment. If the grid operator determines that one or more is needed for grid reliability, FirstEnergy would provide further details on the costs and timing issues for keeping the plants open.