A coal train in Eastern Kentucky’s Harlan County. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Bill Conn was thinking of his two children when he wrote an email in December to the Kentucky Public Service Commission, the state agency that regulates more than 1,000 utilities.
The Whitley County teacher counts Eastern Kentucky coal miners among his ancestors, a history that’s near and dear to his heart. As recently as 1988, the coal industry employed 650 people in Whitley County, according to state data; by last year that number was down to 30. Statewide, coal industry jobs have dwindled from 31,500 just 35 years ago to 4,628 in the third quarter of 2022.
When Conn hears rhetoric in his community about a coal industry comeback, he’s doubtful, believing “the ship has sailed” on that era for the region.
Last summer, he pitched in to help with the cleanup after deadly flooding, a disaster that he attributes in part to the ongoing impacts of climate change, a threat that his children will have to deal with.
“That, to me, is a direct result of climate change. The tornadoes out west? Climate change,” Conn said. “I believe global warming has to have an effect on that, and part of that is through the coal power plants.”
Conn was one of dozens of Kentuckians who submitted comments to the Public Service Commission, giving feedback to nonprofit electric utility East Kentucky Power Cooperative (EKPC) on its plans for the future. EKPC generates power for more than 1 million people and distributes that through 16 electric distribution cooperatives throughout Central, Eastern and Northern Kentucky, including in Whitley County.
Utilities in Kentucky, including EKPC, are required every three years to present what’s known as an integrated resource plan (IRP) to the Kentucky Public Service Commission. Generally, an IRP lays out how a utility will provide an “adequate and reliable” supply of electricity to meet future consumer and industrial demands at the “lowest possible cost” over the next 15 years.
That includes laying out how the utility currently generates its electricity — for example through coal-fired power plants or hydroelectric dams — and planned projects to build new electricity generation facilities or planned closings of old facilities. Over the past several months, the debate over aspects of EKPC’s integrated resource plan has mirrored debates elsewhere in the country over how soon to retire aging coal plants and how quickly to incorporate renewables such as solar energy into the grid.
Environmental conservation and renewable energy advocacy groups are urging EKPC to take a hard look at retiring its aging coal-fired power plants due to concerns over the potential for burdensome maintenance costs in the future and the substantial carbon emissions contributing to the catastrophic effects of climate change.
Yet EKPC and the office of Attorney General Daniel Cameron have expressed concern with what they say would be moving too quickly toward renewable energy because of assertions that such newer energy sources haven’t proven their reliability to provide consistent energy.
EKPC hasn’t considered retiring any of the generation units at its coal plants. That fact became a part of a pointed line of questioning at a Kentucky Public Service Commission hearing in December.
Commission chairman Kent Chandler asked how could the utility prepare for its future — with the least amount of costs as required in an integrated resource plan — if it wasn’t comparing the costs of maintaining its current electricity generation facilities, such as its coal plants and natural gas turbines, to the possibilities of retiring such facilities in the future.
“Even if they’re three times more expensive to keep them going than to retire and replace it, your all’s planning does not take that into account at all?” Chandler asked Fernie Williams, manager of power supply analytics for EKPC.
“Having those units on the ground is our (energy) hedge for our member-owners,” Williams said.
“But if it’s three times more (expensive) than a different hedge, it doesn’t matter, right?” Chandler said.
Williams eventually responded that the utility doesn’t anticipate retirements of its current generation facilities and that he wasn’t sure — beyond expenses going up — what would trigger the utility to look at retirements.
When asked why EKPC had not analyzed potential retirements of its coal plants, EKPC spokesperson Nick Comer in a statement said the plants are “reliable, efficient and provide competitively priced energy.”
Comer said EKPC considered retiring one of the two coal-fired units at its John Sherman Cooper Power Station in 2008 when adding a “scrubber” to reduce emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide, ultimately deciding to keep the unit in operation. The added scrubber was a part of a settlement and consent decree following a federal lawsuit against the utility to resolve violations of the Clean Air Act.
Julia Tucker, director of power supply planning for EKPC, during the December hearing before the state Public Service Commission said the utility does generally evaluate “upfront capital costs” for its electricity generation facilities to determine whether maintaining them is cost-effective.
“Our fossil units have provided a secure resource and affordable resource for our members,” Tucker said.
Conn, the Whitley County teacher and father, understands the need for reliable electricity and keeping the lights on — “I don’t want to be in the dark, either” — and that technological innovation in renewable energy is still ongoing. But he also wants his electric utility to at minimum have an active plan toward a greener future.
“Why are we not working towards that grid?” Conn said. “American ingenuity is unprecedented when it comes to setting a goal once everybody’s behind it. That’s my goal, as a parent, and just as a citizen of Earth, that we continue to move forward in the regards of energy consumption and making it.”
The coal question
Currently, East Kentucky Power Cooperative generates more than 90% of its energy from existing coal and natural gas plants. That’s not unusual for how Kentuckians get their power: Kentucky was among 15 states last year that still get most of their power from burning coal, while other states in the past two decades have pivoted to prioritizing natural gas or nuclear energy.
But EKPC’s two coal plants — the Cooper Power Station in Pulaski County and the Hugh L. Spurlock Station in Mason County — are aging. The majority of the generation units at the two plants are at least 40 years old, both of the plants having started operations in the 1960s and 1970s. According to data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the average age of operating coal-fired power plants nationwide is 46 years.
A report last year by the nonpartisan energy and climate policy think tank Energy Innovation Policy & Technology LLC found that 80% of existing coal plants across the country are either slated to retire or more costly to maintain compared to building new solar and wind facilities. In Kentucky, the report found that solar is more competitive cost-wise compared to most coal plants in the state.
Coal is also by far the dirtiest fossil fuel in regards to carbon emissions and the largest contributor in the world to global temperature increases, according to the International Energy Agency.
Those two issues of future maintenance costs and emissions are why renewable energy and environmental conservation advocates are pushing EKPC to look at retiring the plants, particularly the John Sherman Cooper Power Station.
Andy McDonald sits on the board of the advocacy organization Kentucky Solar Energy Society, one of the groups that intervened in the state Public Service Commission’s consideration of EKPC’s future energy planning.
“On top of all of the carbon and environmental and health impacts, Cooper Station is expected to operate at a loss of millions of dollars over the coming decade,” McDonald said. “It simply makes sense to us to evaluate whether it would be prudent to retire them, especially when there are now very significant established alternatives available including solar and battery storage.”
In a Nov. 1 filing by EKPC, the utility refuted that the Cooper Station plant was losing millions of dollars each year and said that retiring the plant early would leave “a financial burden on ratepayers to continue payment on an asset from which it receives no value.”
Debating the energy transition
The statements by EKPC’s Williams reflect a larger point made by the utility in its proposed integrated resource plan — the assertion that fossil fuels are needed in the near future to maintain reliable electricity.
“EKPC is concerned about future reliability of the interconnected electric system and believes that conventional generation resources will continue to be required to facilitate the transition to renewable and low/no carbon emitting resources,” EKPC states in the IRP. “Conventional generation resources will be required to maintain reliability as the transition occurs.”
It’s a position that Republican AG Cameron’s office agrees with. In a Nov. 11 filing before the Public Service Commission, Cameron claimed that Kentucky’s climate wasn’t suitable to make the rapid adoption of wind and solar power cost effective, and that cost-effective battery technology for wind and solar power doesn’t exist yet.
“The Attorney General is concerned with both the reliability and affordability of the electric grid. Utilities across the country are prematurely shuttering fossil fuel baseload generation resources that provide continuous electricity for customers, and instead rapidly adopting renewable generation resources which, in the case of wind and solar, only provide intermittent electricity,” a Nov. 11 filing from Cameron’s office states.
A report last year from the U.S. Energy Information Administration found that about 10,000 megawatts of large-scale battery storage was being added to grids across the country through 2023, about 10 times the nationwide battery storage capacity in 2019. The report noted the costs of installing and operating such battery storage facilities had declined in recent years, and most of the planned battery storage projects were to support solar energy installations.
Renewable energy experts say that solar and wind power can be just as reliable as fossil fuels due to technological innovation, with the need for continued investments in battery storage to capture energy from renewables in the future.
Environmental conservation advocates in Kentucky are urging EKPC to consider incentives passed this year in the federal Inflation Reduction Act that could make battery storage projects, paired with wind and solar energy or as stand-alone projects, much more attractive to build.
Such advocates make clear they don’t believe coal is the reliable and affordable way to go.
“The entire world is now going through a significant energy transition to lower carbon resources, and since Kentucky has traditionally relied on a high-carbon infrastructure, it will be impacted more than most states,” said Drew Foley, chair of the Sierra Club Kentucky Chapter in a statement. “It is incumbent that our utilities take that transition seriously and take the approach that considers a thorough review of emerging trends and new technology, rather than continue to rely on ‘business as usual.’”
EKPC noted before the Public Service Commission that it believed it was too early to consider the impacts of the Inflation Reduction Act in its future resource planning because of the recency of the passed legislation.
A farmer for solar
In EKPC’s statement to the Kentucky Lantern, the utility pointed to a 60-acre solar farm in Clark County that it built in 2017 — its only current solar installation — as part of its push toward sustainability.
According to the utility’s sustainability plan, it aims to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions by 35% in 2035 and by 70% in 2050. A report this year by the United Nations states that global carbon emissions must decline by 43% by 2030 and reach net-zero emissions by 2050 to stave off the worst impacts of climate change.
One Kentucky farmer’s view of the situation comes from her ridge top where she can see vapor billowing from another utility’s coal-fired power plant. She can’t help but think of the heat-trapping carbon dioxide and health-damaging pollution that’s also being released into the air. Teresa Biagi installed solar panels on her big tobacco barn in Owen County last year. It’s a move that covered the entirety of her electric bills.
She submitted a public comment to EKPC because she wants her utility to make a push toward solar like she did.
“Anything that’s going to further cause pollution we need to all try to quit,” Biagi said. “To me it was like, ‘Well, if I’m going to be protesting this, or complaining about it, I need to at least have solar panels on my property.’”
EKPC in its statement said it is “actively engaged in seeking solar power arrangements, both to meet its own sustainability goals and to help industrial members meet theirs.”
The Kentucky Public Service Commission plans to give its staff report on EKPC’s integrated resource plan in February.
Correction: This article was updated to make clear that Kentucky Public Service Commission Chairman Kent Chandler was referring to all of East Kentucky Power Cooperative’s generation units, not just its coal-fired power plants, in his questioning of the utility during a recent hearing. A paragraph quoting Julia Tucker, EKPC director of power supply planning, was also added for context.
Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.