During the winter months in West Virginia, Felisha Chase pays more for her electricity than she does for her home.
“It does feel wrong when your electric bill is more than your mortgage,” Chase told CNN. “Around here the old adage is ‘coal keeps the lights on.’ Anyone struggling to keep their electric on knows it’s more than the lights.”
Her electricity bill spikes every January, when Chase estimates her electricity usage increases five- or six-fold. In September, she was still paying down a remaining balance of $600 from the winter before – twice the cost of her monthly mortgage payment. Her cumulative bill has gone as high as $1,400.
As America has largely transitioned away from coal-fired power, West Virginia has thrown its weight behind it. The state is the second-largest coal producer in the country, and coal generates nearly 89% of its electricity compared to just 19% nationwide – a steep fall from 1990, when coal powered 52% of US electricity.
But coal has become more expensive than renewables or natural gas, the prices of which have fallen rapidly, and in West Virginia, the ratepayers are footing the bill. With three of the state’s major coal-fired power plants in need of hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of mandatory upgrades, costs for ratepayers like Chase will continue to go up.
Coal may be a dying industry in the US, but Joe Manchin, a key Democratic swing vote in the Senate, isn’t interested in hastening its demise.
“The transition’s already happening,” Manchin told CNN. “So I’m not going to sit back and let anyone accelerate whatever the market’s changes are doing.”
As chair of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Manchin now presides over Congress’s key provision to address the climate crisis: the clean electricity program, which would incentivize utilities to switch to low-carbon forms of energy like wind, solar or nuclear.
Proponents say the program would kickstart utilities into transitioning away from fossil fuels and lower costs for ratepayers. Manchin has said he’s “very, very disturbed” by provisions he believes would eliminate fossil fuels, and CNN reported Friday it will likely be cut to appease Manchin.
But Chase, who is a Democrat, says her anxiety grows as winter approaches.
The electric bills “will explode come January,” Chase told CNN. “If I’m struggling over here, I must be representative of hundreds if not thousands of West Virginians.”
The rising cost of coal
Coal-fired power in West Virginia is not as cheap as it once was.
The rates for Chase’s electricity utility, Ohio-based American Electric Power, have risen sharply over the past decade. The residential electricity rates of AEP’s West Virginia subsidiaries have risen 122% over the last 13 years, from an average of $62.46 per month in 2008 to $138.57 per month in 2021.
Chase tries to use her electricity as little as possible. She sweated through this summer’s heat wave to avoid turning on the air conditioning. In the winter, cold air seeps in from the roof, clapboards, and windows of her 100-year-old home.
Covering the cracks with sheets of plastic brings little relief. Her gas furnace only heats the first level of the house, so Chase relies on electric baseboards and five space heaters to keep the second level warm.
“You staple, and you tape, and you plastic all those drafty spaces,” she said. “It was like my plastic kingdom, trying to keep the heat in.”
AEP’s three coal-fired power plants in West Virginia – John Amos, Mountaineer and Mitchell – are in need of $448 million worth of mandatory upgrades in order to remain federally compliant, causing electricity rates to increase by 3.3% starting in September 2022, according to Tammy Ridout, a spokesperson for AEP. These upgrades would allow the plants to stay open until 2040, rather than being shut down in 2028.
“Sure, [the rates are] going up because of all the different regulations being put on everything,” Manchin told CNN.
Neighboring states that were once heavily reliant on coal are moving away from it. As the New York Times reported last year, Pennsylvania and Ohio sharply reduced their coal use in recent years, becoming more reliant on natural gas and nuclear power, according to the US Energy Information Administration. And while 73% of Kentucky’s power is still coal-generated, that state has also been shutting down coal-fired plants.
Kentucky and Virginia’s public service commissions recently pulled their support from AEP’s three West Virginia plants in need of upgrades, saying the plants are too expensive to support. But West Virginia’s Public Service Commission recently ruled in favor of approving the upgrades to allow the plants to operate until 2040.
“The policy question here is whether it’s appropriate for West Virginia ratepayers to pay more to keep uneconomical plants open,” West Virginia House Delegate Evan Hansen told CNN. “How many subsidies keep getting thrown at coal fired power plants to keep them open?”
Sean O’Leary, a senior researcher at nonprofit and clean-energy think tank Ohio River Valley Institute, told CNN the utilities could save ratepayers $317 million by retiring the coal plants in 2028, pointing to AEP’s own data showing the cost to keep the plants open until 2040.
“These plants, even if they’re kept open, are going to be operating at such a low level there will be far fewer jobs and far less coal consumed than it is now,” O’Leary said. “It’s as if everyone walks around utterly oblivious to that fact, and it has huge economic implications. If anything, there’s a concerted effort to prevent that kind of reimagination of West Virginia as a different kind of energy state.”
Coal jobs are already declining
West Virginia’s coal consumption has remained nearly steady over the last decade – going from a 98% share in the state’s power generation in 2001 to nearly 89% in 2020, according to the EIA. But it’s not the economic powerhouse it once was.
Coal mining employed around 13,000 people in West Virginia as of 2019 – about 3% of the state’s workforce – down from 120,000 in 1950. Many of those jobs have been lost to automation and the rise of cheaper sources of energy like natural gas. Coal-fired power plants, meanwhile, directly employ a little more than 2,000 people, according to a report by researchers at West Virginia University’s John Chambers College of Business & Economics.
Kanawha County Commission president Kent Carper said shutting down these plants in 2028 would deal a blow to the state’s economy.
“Coal is West Virginia,” Carper told CNN. “What we’re being asked to do is to shut down our coal power plants, fire our employees, and go out of the coal mining business, and I guess we’ll be promised to make solar panels. Yeah, sure, that will work. I’m not a bit convinced of it.”
Even as Carper fiercely defended the state’s coal jobs, he admitted utilities were putting West Virginia ratepayers in a bad position.
“It’s a sword of Damocles for our state,” Carper said. “It is an awful thing that people have to make choices between paying their electric bill and instability with food. The utility companies have an insatiable appetite for more money.”
Senior officials in the Biden administration have tried to persuade Manchin that Democrats’ clean electricity program will save money for West Virginia and his constituents.
Karen Skelton, a Department of Energy senior adviser, recently had a call with Manchin’s staff about a report from West Virginia University’s Center for Energy and Sustainable Development that showed investing in renewables would cost the state $855 million less through 2040 than continuing to invest in coal.
The call was arranged “to get that exposure in front of Manchin’s staff, trying to get them to look at the numbers,” said James Van Nostrand, the director of West Virginia University Law School’s Center for Energy and Sustainable Development, who worked on the report and was on the call.
Manchin’s staffers didn’t engage much on the call, Van Nostrand said.
CNN reached out to Manchin’s office in September and October to talk about this story, and the nature of this call in particular, but his staff did not reply before publication. Two days after this story published, Sam Runyon, a spokesperson for the senator, responded: “Senator Manchin’s staff received a courtesy invitation from the U.S. Department of Energy on short notice to join this briefing, requested by DOE, on West Virginia University’s recent study. Senator Manchin’s staff joined the call in a listening capacity as a show of support for the work of both organizations. Senator Manchin and his staff have excellent and very active relationships with WVU and DOE and work with both organizations frequently.”
“The Department of Energy staff requested nothing more than an academic briefing to understand the findings of the new report,” Bridget Bartol, a spokesperson for the Department of Energy, told CNN after this story’s publication. “Out of courtesy, the senator’s state staff was notified of WVU’s presentation and invited to join to learn about the findings in parallel.”
At a recent virtual event hosted by Gayle Manchin, the senator’s wife and a federal co-chair of the Appalachian Regional Commission, US Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm emphasized the clean energy program’s allowance for carbon capture, a technology that seeks to filter out the carbon dioxide from plants’ emissions, before it enters the atmosphere.
Granholm said Biden’s agenda would incentivize carbon capture so West Virginia’s coal plants “will have a lifeline and be clean.”
But Manchin remains opposed to the program, which is also known as the Clean Energy Standard.
“Can you imagine the reliability factor if they go with the Clean Energy Standard?” Manchin told CNN when asked about the high electricity rates in his own state. “Paying utilities to transfer to other types of unreliable power? And then you have a reliability factor and someone’s going to have to pay for that reliability factor? It will be the ratepayer every time. It’s just crazy.”
Manchin’s concern about reliability echoes a point argued by AEP’s top DC lobbyist, Tony Kavanaugh, in a recently penned a letter to lawmakers.
“A program of this magnitude, if enacted into law, will adversely impact the reliability and resilience of the electric grid” unless things like energy storage are also passed, Kavanaugh wrote on September 13.
Even as coal is causing her electricity prices to go up, Chase respects its history in the state. Her grandfather was a coal miner who died from black lung disease; her grandmother helped raise her with the money the coal company paid their family after he died.
“It is so divided here, for the love of coal and the love of the mountains, but how can you love both?” Chase said. “We’ve got to think about solar and wind on these gorgeous mountains, we’ve got to get away from coal. It’s a matter of being comfortable in your home, warm in the winter and not suffocating in the summer. Not having to sacrifice your mortgage to be comfortable.”
As the weather turns colder, Chase’s anxiety is growing again.
“If the rates are increasing it seems like the rug is literally being pulled out from under me as I’m trying to get ahead,” she said.
This story has been updated with a statement from the Department of Energy about Skelton’s recent call with Manchin’s staff and researchers at West Virginia University. It has also been updated to include a statement from Manchin’s spokesperson about the call.