The direct voter frustration with what the Obama administration and regulations issued by its Environmental Protection Agency are doing to West Virginia’s coal industry seen in that state’s primary on Tuesday is surely also present in Ohio. Though coal mining is nowhere near as important in the Buckeye State as it is to West Virginia, it directly employed almost 3,000 Ohioans in 2010.
But the direct impact on the coal industry only scratches the surface of what could happen in Ohio as a result EPA’s overreach. Because it depends so heavily on coal to power its economy, Ohioans may begin seeing usage curbs or brownouts within five years.
Here’s what is leading to that possibility:
- Ohio produced just over half of the coal its power plants consume in 2009 (27.4 million short tons produced vs. 50.7 million used). It imported and used the difference at its coal-fired power plants.
- Several of Ohio’s coal-fired plants will be closing during the next several years because their owners have determined that it’s too costly to retrofit those plants to meet stringent EPA guidelines relating to emissions of mercury and other toxic metals.
- To make up the shortfall, Ohio will have to import more power from other states.
Importing more power shouldn’t be a problem, right? Not so fast.
On May 1, the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s John Funk reported that FirstEnergy Corp. is delaying the shuttering of several plants originally targeted for closure on September 1 for several years, because “the closings would cause major voltage inadequacies and equipment overheating in the regional grid.” In other words, trying to import the energy lost if the plants were to close this year would (not could) fry the grid. Upgrading the grid to handle the higher level of energy imports will require “about $1 billion … in the next three years.”
If those upgrades don’t occur quickly enough, or if Ohio’s energy use increases more quickly than expected as its economy recovers, the identified upgrades may not suffice, or will become even more expensive. FirstEnergy may need to keep the plants whose death sentences have been commuted open even longer — if the EPA will let them.
But what if the EPA or an environmentalist organization’s lawsuit succeeds in forcing the closures before the transmission lines are completely ready? It would appear that Ohio’s utilities will have no choice but to use some combination of rate increases, which the state’s utility commission would be expected to resist, along with pleas to major customers (and perhaps even the general public) to cut back their usage. If that’s not enough, the only remaining resort would be moving to usage curbs, i.e., brownouts.
As bad as the EPA’s potential direct impact on the coal industry is, what really should be animating Ohio’s voters this November is the economically devastating prospect that in a few short years they may not be able to count on electricity being there when it’s needed because of a federal regulatory agency gone wild.