The United States may be urgently transitioning from its long reliance on fossil fuels to generate electricity, but West Virginia and its senior senator, Democrat Joe Manchin III, appear to be in no rush.
The Mountain State trails the rest of the nation, including other coal producers, in decarbonizing its electricity supply. In 2000, 98.2 percent of its electricity generation came from coal, according to Energy Information Administration data. That figure dropped to 96.7 percent in 2010 and 88.48 percent today and remains the highest in the nation.
West Virginia is also the No. 2 producer of coal, behind Wyoming, and ranks fifth in natural gas production.
“You can’t make the case at all that transition is happening in West Virginia, because it’s just not,” James Van Nostrand, director of the Center for Energy and Sustainable Development at the West Virginia University College of Law, said by phone.
By comparison, the top coal producer, Wyoming, gets 80 percent of its power from coal. Kentucky gets 69 percent; North Dakota, 57 percent; Ohio, 37 percent; Minnesota, 25 percent; and Pennsylvania, 10 percent, and all are cutting their use of coal at faster rates than West Virginia.
Manchin, who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, is invested in the coal industry and is a top recipient of campaign contributions from fossil fuel companies. He has expressed dismay at many of the clean energy elements in his party’s massive budget reconciliation proposal, which would put into effect President Joe Biden’s agenda for averting catastrophic climate change.
He’s particularly opposed to a provision called the Clean Electricity Performance Program, a $150 billion proposal meant to spur electric utilities into shutting down power plants that run on fossil energy sources by paying utilities that move swiftly to close power stations that run on fossil fuels and fining companies that don’t. Negotiations on the budget reconciliation program are continuing, and the provisions related to addressing climate change are not yet final.
“Makes no sense to me at all for us to take billions of dollars and pay utilities for what they’re going to do as the market transitions,” Manchin told CNN in a September interview. He made similar comments at a hearing and when talking to reporters last week.
“The only thing they want us to do is pay $150 billion for what’s already happening,” he told reporters. “We’ve transitioned.”
Without the program, the U.S. faces steep odds in reaching climate targets that the administration hopes will provide a good example to other nations at the COP26 climate summit starting Sunday in Glasgow. President Biden heads to Scotland for the summit later this week.
Manchin “is crippling” the United States’ “ability to lead in bringing the other nations in the world along” at Glasgow, Van Nostrand said. “Because Biden’s not going to have anything in his pocket.”
Manchin has rebuffed criticisms that his opposition to the clean electric plan undercuts the U.S. delegation’s negotiating position at the climate talks scheduled to start Sunday, telling reporters that “the president’s going to go with a full hand.”
Nationwide, renewable energy sources, primarily wind, solar and hydroelectricity, have grown from constituting 10 percent of U.S. electricity generation in 2010 to 20 percent in 2020. Over the same time period, natural gas ballooned from 24 percent of the national fuel mix to 41 percent, coal has dropped from 45 percent to 19 percent, and nuclear has remained steady at 20 percent.
But that sharp drop in coal, the most polluting of fossil fuels, doesn’t track in Manchin’s state.
While West Virginia’s coal industry has shrunk from its halcyon days in the 1950s of employing more than 100,000 people, it still retains an outsize economic footprint in the state, which has seen its population dwindle as residents move elsewhere.
More than jobs
“It constitutes maybe 2 or 3 percent of full employment in the state, but it’s somewhere on the order of between 15, 16 percent of total state GDP,” Eric Bowen, a research professor who studies energy economics at West Virginia University, said in an interview.
“In a more typical year than 2020, it’s about 7 or 8 percent of total wages,” he said. Workers can make salaries of $100,000 or more with an associate degree, experts say. “These, these jobs are very highly paid,” Bowen said.
Demand for coal is expected to pick up next year and in 2023 because of demand from overseas, including India, Vietnam and Egypt, Bowen and colleagues said in a recent report.
Coal industry employment in the state, including mining and support-related jobs, fell by more than 3,100 positions, or about 22 percent, from 2019 to 2020, the researchers said.
Christine Risch, director of research for the Center for Business and Economic Research at Marshall University in Huntington, W.Va., said economic forecasts for the industry in the mid-2000s were largely positive, projecting slight growth.
Then the build-out of large natural gas plants came along and the sharp declines of the industry began, she said.
“The main thing that happened in the early 2000s was the construction of the big, new combined-cycle natural gas power plants,” Risch said. “That was when natural gas really took off,” she said. “That’s been the biggest impact” on the decline of coal production.
Limits to wind and solar
Risch and other energy experts said replacing coal generation in West Virginia could be trickier than in other states because of its hilly terrain and limited solar options.
“If utilities, under this new proposals, if they had to install all wind and solar to make up for the capacities of coal — and that’s a huge amount of generating capacity, absolutely huge — they could never do all of it here,” Risch said in an interview, referring to the clean electricity plan. “So they’d probably have to buy power from the Midwest, for wind.”
She added: “To do this plan as proposed, you would have to get a lot more transmission capacity around the whole country.”
While projections from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory show strong wind speeds and a promising corridor of potential wind farms that could run along the Appalachian Mountains in the state, siting wind turbines can be tricky.
“It’s harder to build them on the ridgetop,” Risch said. “There’s not as many places to put it,” she said of the towering turbines that catch and transform the wind’s energy into electricity.
Dana Kuhnline, campaign manager for RECLAIM, a coalition that advocates for climate and infrastructure in Appalachia, has worked on energy issues in the region for 15 years.
The pressures on the industry stand apart from those of decades past, Kuhnline said.
“It has always felt like the end was coming, but it feels closer now,” she said. “I used to work with coal miners, and they would say, ‘We’re going deeper for thinner seams than we would have 20 years ago.’ And they were saying that in 2010.”
The loss of coal jobs and closure of plants come with cascading repercussions even for those who don’t work in the industry, Kuhnline said. Boone County, in the state’s southwest, had to cut trash collection recently because of lost tax revenue from coal closures, she said.
“These rural communities, a power plant or a large mine, that’s a chunk of what they pay for their schools with,” Kuhnline said.
Still, she said, a structural overhaul is coming to the coal industry in the state.
“To me, it’s just a matter of when. I think the writing’s on the wall, and I think you’re seeing more and more from a wide variety of folks who were reluctant to that message five years ago,” she said.
Kuhnline cited Ron Stollings, a Democrat who represents Boone in the state Senate, who decades ago was a staunch defender of the coal industry. Recently he was in tears in the Legislature over the need to diversify from coal, she said. “We have communities in a state that is heavily invested in this economy, and they’re gonna get screwed if we don’t invest in what’s next,” Kuhnline said.