MAIDSVILLE, W. Va. — In a push to keep coal part of the national energy mix, U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry spent Thursday touring one of the newest and most efficient coal-fired power plants in the country and promising more federal energy research into clean coal projects.
On Friday, he is scheduled to head to the Pittsburgh area to meet with researchers at the National Energy Technology Laboratory in South Park.
Mr. Perry’s two-day visit to northern Appalachia comes as the U.S. Department of Energy prepares to release a much-anticipated review of the country’s electric grid later this month.
The goal of the review, announced earlier this year, is to determine if a wave of coal plant shutdowns in recent years has threatened reliability of the U.S. grid to meet demand.
The answer on Thursday — though Mr. Perry said he couldn’t directly comment on the study — seemed to be a resounding yes. And he emphasized President Donald Trump’s goal to roll back regulations on coal as the way to lift up the industry.
“The last eight years we’ve seen an administration that was using their thumb to affect the power portfolio in America,” Mr. Perry said. “Those days are over.”
Steve Nelson, chief operating officer at Longview, left, gives Energy Secretary Rick Perry a tour of the facility in West Virginia Thursday. (Darrell Sapp/Post-Gazette)
He added, “People in West Virginia who make their living in the coal mines and running plants like this, they need to understand something: They have a friend and proponent in the White House.”
Mr. Perry found an ideal backdrop for his comments.
Longview Power Plant, about seven miles north of Morgantown near the Monongahela River, is touted as what a modern coal-fired power plant can look like. The 700-megawatt plant cost $2.2 billion to build — the largest private investment in the history of West Virginia — and came online in 2011 after about a decade of planning.
Plant operator Longview Power said it had achieved a high energy conversion rate, which means the plant needs less fuel to generate the same amount of electricity. More sophisticated air pollution control systems keep emissions lower than older coal plants, company officials said.
To lower costs, Longview also arranged a nearby source of fuel: a coal mine operated by affiliated company Mepco LLC, just across the border in Greene County, Pa., which transports the coal to the plant on a 4.5-mile conveyor belt.
Just two years after the plant opened, however, both Longview and Mepco filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, citing competition from cheaper natural gas and operational defects that the companies blamed on a group of construction contractors.
In 2015, the plant emerged from bankruptcy with a $275 million loan from Morgan Stanley Senior Funding, KKR Corporate Funding and Third Avenue Trust.
Together, Longview and Mepco currently employ more than 600 workers with an annual payroll of $72 million, according to the company.
Mr. Perry's visit follows the White House's “Energy Week," during which President Donald Trump gave a speech pledging to mine more “clean, beautiful coal” and burn it cleanly.
Putting a damper on that promise, Atlanta-based electric utility Southern Co. last week suspended work at a Mississippi coal plant intended to showcase clean coal technology. The utility did not want to accept any more ratepayer money, it said, after work on carbon capture and storage systems at the Kemper coal plant ran $4 billion over budget and three years behind schedule.
Mississippi regulators recommended it continue running fueled by natural gas.
Longview Power officials were quick to acknowledge the Kemper plant’s failure and draw distinctions. Longview has no equipment to capture carbon emissions and gasify coal — common clean coal technologies that have been slow to commercialize.
During the two-year bankruptcy restructuring, company officials said, Longview overcame some construction setbacks with a number of improvements.
“We’re so compliant from an environmental standpoint, it’s inconceivable that they would have additional restrictions that would cause us not be able to produce that power going forward,” said Jeffery Keffer, chief executive officer of Longview Power.
Mr. Keffer added that Longview is also counting on higher natural gas prices once more pipelines are built to take it from Pennsylvania and West Virginia to places it can be consumed. Last month, the first-ever U.S. exports of liquified natural gas arrived in Poland, a shipment Mr. Trump promoted on Thursday during a visit to that country.
“The world is clamoring for our natural gas,” Mr. Keffer said. “Once they start consuming that gas, your supply is going to start matching that demand. So the price is going to go back up.”
Mr. Perry was joined Thursday by three lawmakers from West Virginia — Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, Republican Sen. Shelley Moore Capito and Republican Rep. David McKinley — who presented a bipartisan front.
“We want a balance between the economy and environment,” said Mr. Manchin, who said he worked frequently with Mr. Perry when they were both governors. “We can do that, and this plant shows it can be done and done well.”
It remains to be seen how Longview’s technology could be replicated with natural gas prices still low and the costs of renewable energy falling. Federal energy research into clean coal — though projects have faltered in recent years amid a lack of funding and interest — could get a boost under Mr. Perry.
“There are other countries that are making advances in clean coal technology that we historically have led the world in,” he told reporters at the Longview plant. “We need to get that edge back.”
The tone could not have been more different in September 2016, when former Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz visited Longview with Mr. Manchin and Mr. McKinley. While Mr. Moniz reportedly praised Longview’s technology, he backed a renewable energy tax incentives and the Obama administration’s $39 million in funding for laid-off coal miners to explore other careers.
Daniel Moore: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-2743 and Twitter @PGdanielmoore.
First Published July 6, 2017 9:47 AM