Coal Country’s Power Plants Are Turning Away From Coal

In Economy, Environment On
- Updated

Appalachian Power, the leading utility there, is quickly shifting toward natural gas and renewable sources like wind and solar, even as President Trump calls for a coal renaissance. Appalachian Power still burns plenty of coal, but in recent years it has closed three coal-fired plants and converted two others to gas, reducing its dependence on coal to 61 percent last year, down from 74 percent in 2012.

Chris Beam, the company’s president, made the industry’s shifting dynamics clear in an encounter with Gov. Jim Justice, a Democrat, at his inaugural ball in January.

Walmart’s first onsite large-scale wind turbine pilot project, at its distribution center in Red Bluff, Calif. Walmart is among 23 Fortune 500 companies that have pledged to eventually run their businesses on 100 percent renewable energy.
Alan Rider for The New York Times

“‘Look, I’d like to see you guys build another coal plant,’” he recalled the governor saying. “And our answer was: We’re not going to build another coal plant.” (The governor confirmed the account, but added in an email, “I’ll continue to encourage power companies to burn more coal to put our miners back to work.”)

It’s the same story in Virginia, where Dominion, a leading utility based in Richmond — near where commercial coal mining got its start — designed a special rate to make it easier for Amazon Web Services and similar customers to buy renewable energy.

In Kentucky, a chance meeting between a state regulator and a Facebook employee ultimately led the Public Service Commission to advise utilities that they could offer customers renewable energy packages, part of an effort to attract new business and hold on to automakers like G.M. and Toyota.

And in Wyoming, the nation’s leading coal producer by far, Black Hills Energy worked with Microsoft to create a complex arrangement for the technology giant to get enough wind energy to fulfill current and future needs at Microsoft’s data center in Cheyenne.

“I’ve not spoken to a single utility that’s truly holding on to a future of more coal,” said Brian Janous, who directs energy strategy at Microsoft. “They’re looking to attract, as in the Appalachian case, new customers, and those customers aren’t attracted by coal.”

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