Thanks to singer-songwriter John Prine, Paradise Fossil Plant might be the only coal-fired power plant that has a household name. “Paradise,” Prine’s 1971 ballad, drew on boyhood memories from the small town of Paradise, in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky, to relay the environmental and social costs of our dependence on coal.
“Mr. Peabody’s coal train,” he sang, had hauled away the Paradise from his childhood.
On a recent hot July day down by the Green River, where Paradise lay, officials from the electricity suppliers at the Tennessee Valley Authority, or TVA, gathered to mark a milestone in the region’s energy production: the dedication of a gleaming, new billion-dollar generator to replace two of the 50-year-old coal burners nearby. This new facility, however, would burn natural gas.
“Natural gas is more flexible, it’s cheaper to operate, and also more efficient,” David Sorrick, TVA’s senior vice president of power operations, said. “The unit behind me becomes the most efficient one in the TVA fleet.”
Just a week earlier, the Trump administration’s energy secretary, Rick Perry, toured a coal-fired power plant in West Virginia to tout the president’s commitment to coal.
“The people who make their living in the coal mines running plants like this, they need to understand something,” Perry said. “They have a friend, a proponent, in the White House in Donald Trump.”
The Paradise and Longview power plants stand as examples of coal’s struggle to hold its ground against natural gas, even in the Ohio Valley, where coal has long been king. In addition to the new Paradise facility, three new natural gas power plants are pending in West Virginia, and a dozen are either in construction or planning stages in Ohio.
Despite the Trump administration’s attempts to roll back regulations on the mining and burning of coal, natural gas is rapidly becoming the power industry’s fuel of choice. It's a switch that also brings big changes for the region’s economy, environment, and public health.
The Long View on Coal
Energy Secretary Perry recently toured North America’s youngest, most efficient coal-fired electricity plant, Longview Power near Fort Martin, West Virginia.
“This is a very enlightening stop,” Perry said. “This technology, this ability to deliver a secure, economical, environmentally good source of energy is really important.”
A 20-day supply of coal is always stockpiled at the plant, fed directly from the mouth of a nearby coal mine via a conveyor belt that stretches more than 4 miles. About 600 employees work together to keep rock burning hot to boil water in the deafening plant.
“This is the turbine building,” Longview manager Chad Hufnagle shouted during a tour. “The turbine is basically where we take the steam from the boiler, we rotate the turbine to take the mechanical energy into electrical.”
Longview generates 700 megawatts of electricity for the region and it does so with far less pollution than most older coal burners in the nation’s fleet of power plants. Longview officials say the plant produces 90 percent less particulate pollution than other coal plants. It also produces less carbon dioxide compared to other coal plants, because of its high efficiency and partial use of natural gas as a complementary fuel.
Longview does not capture and store the carbon dioxide emissions, however, something generally thought of as part of “clean coal” technology. That technology suffered a major setback when the operators of the $7 billion Kemper facility in Mississippi pulled the plug on a planned clean coal facility and decided instead to switch to natural gas.
Secretary Perry and many federal lawmakers see big benefits in keeping coal-fired power going, and if coal is going to have a future, it will probably be with plants like Longview.
“This plant -- and I won’t say plants like it, because there’s not a lot like it -- is incredibly important to the future of this country,” Perry said.
But Longview’s short history shows the many hurdles coal power faces. Plans were drawn for Longview in 2001 and the plant met resistance from local residents who sued to stop it. After winning the necessary permits Longview’s owners secured financing in 2007 and started operation in 2011.
Just two years later, however, the operating company filed for bankruptcy protection as electricity demand fell and competition from cheaper natural gas rose. The company emerged from bankruptcy just two years ago. Officials now say the facility’s high efficiency helps make it competitive in a tough market.
That sort of bumpy start helps explain why few coal powered facilities are slated for construction.
Perry is waiting for an analysis he has ordered of the country’s electrical grid. He expects that report will demonstrate need for the kind of constant, uninterrupted power coal can provide.
“Where Paradise Lay”
Coal is showing its age. The average age of coal plants in the U.S. today is about 40 years and for the past couple of decades power companies have faced tough decisions about the investments needed to keep those coal-burners going in a way that meets both environmental requirements and economic competition.
Many are opting to phase out coal and instead invest in cheaper, cleaner natural gas.
Some 8,000 megawatts of coal power generating capacity will likely be retired this year. That’s roughly the equivalent of 11 Longview plants. Last year, 13,000 megawatts of coal were retired, many of those before planned retirement dates.
Economists like Walter Culver with the Great Lakes Energy Institute at Case Western Reserve University say the boom in the shale gas supply and development of high efficiency technology to burn that gas are combining to force more coal out of the market.
“So now the natural efficiency of generating electricity with gas for the same amount of gas energy as coal energy is about half of the costs, basically,” he said.
That was the strong selling point for TVA President and CEO Bill Johnson, who recently addressed a crowd gathered in Paradise, Kentucky.
“It’s a big part of our priority here to diversify our fleet to make sure we are making electricity at the lowest feasible rate,” he said.
David Sorrick, TVA’s senior vice president of power operations, stood near the new 1100 megawatt facility.
“Directly behind me is the new Paradise combined-cycle facility,” he said. “And it’s co-located with the unit down the hill, which is our Paradise coal facility.”
Gas power produces far less soot, no mercury, and none of the combustion ash that coal power produces. It also produces 40 to 50 percent of the carbon dioxide emissions compared to the coal unit.
Operations technician Kyle Jones conducted a tour at the dedication ceremony, and proudly pointed out the efficiency features.
“The combined cycle portion where we’re using all the heat possible is what makes it so efficient,” he explained. “Our exhaust leaving the stack is as cool as we can make it to use all the energy we could, the most heat transfer possible.”
That even reduces the amount of water needed from the nearby Green River. Steam is returned to liquid form in cooling towers. Huge fans pass air over droplets to cool water until it can be reused.
Jones started at the Paradise coal facility a decade ago and worked his way from conveyer operator to unit operator and now a job at the new gas facility.
“I love it,” he said of the new plant. “It’s a whole lot more clean and makes a world of difference in terms of the work I do.”
Others in the community, however, see trouble in Paradise. At the nearby Paradise Cafe, a stone monument to Kentucky’s coal miners greets visitors at the door. Inside, patrons talked over burgers and BLTs about looming concerns over job losses, either at the TVA facility or the nearby coal mine that supplies it.
The TVA is eager to calm those fears. Sorrick pointed out that even though two coal units were retired here, a third one remains in operation and likely will for decades. However, the new gas facility employs fewer people than the coal plant did. Some employees found work elsewhere in the TVA system.
When John Prine put Paradise on the popular culture map, he was writing about the visible effects of strip mining.
But what Prine couldn’t see then were some of the profound public health effects of burning coal, effects that would take years to measure.
The TVA has been burning coal in Paradise for fifty years. But it started burning a lot more of it in the 1980s, after the public’s opinion of nuclear power changed dramatically.
“It was completely related to the partial nuclear meltdown of Three Mile Island in 1979,” Carnegie Mellon University researcher Edson Severnini noticed.
When the TVA took some of its nuclear power generators off line, the power gap was met with coal, specifically, a big increase in the output from the Paradise Fossil Plant. That swap in power generation in the mid 80s provided Severnini an opportunity to study public health impacts in places where coal power generation increased.
He found a striking relationship between the uptick in coal burning at Paradise and a decrease in the size of babies born downwind.
“Where Paradise coal-fired power plant was located there was a huge increase in coal-fired power generation, a high increase in air pollution,” he said. “And in that particular location there was a decrease in birth weight by 5.4 percent.”
Severnini’s study was published in the journal Nature in April. He looked at recorded birth weight in the first 18 months after the region’s switch to coal. It was accessible data and birth weight is a good indicator of human health outcomes later in life. Severnini explained that low birth weight can be linked to shorter life spans, higher susceptibility to disease, and even a person’s ability to thrive socially.
“What I wanted people to think about is: What are the consequences of energy choices?” he said.
The Paradise coal facility is now far cleaner than it was in the 80s thanks to stronger requirements under the Clean Air Act and pollution control technology TVA installed. But no matter how you burn it, coal is an organic material dug from the ground and will produce emissions. Recent environmental studies indicate that despite progress in pollution control, soot from coal power plants still accounted for an estimated 7,000 premature deaths each year in the U.S. as of 2014. That’s a lot fewer deaths than the country saw just a decade earlier.
“The cleaner you get that carbon-containing compound you’re burning, the better it is,” said University of Pittsburgh physician and public health expert Dr. Bernard Goldstein. “There are cleaner forms of coal, but none of them are as clean as, say, natural gas.”
Goldstein said despite a lack of data to understand the full health effects of the natural gas industry, it is a significantly cleaner fossil fuel to burn. And gas drillers probably face fewer health risks than coal miners.
“Anytime we've had areas that have switched from coal to natural gas there are far less particulates in the air and so the pollution levels have decreased because of that switch," he said.
Uncertainty Over Gas
But while natural gas offers improvements compared to coal, its environmental effects are proving difficult to fully measure.
Goldstein said he thinks the gas industry, which is highly fragmented, has missed opportunities to clearly address concerns about its own environmental effects. Those include air and water pollution near drilling sites, disposal concerns related to drilling waste, and the greenhouse gas emissions that result from methane leakage.
As a result, any health effects remain to be clearly understood.
“For natural gas, the major uncertainties are weighing on the people who live next door,” he said.
Next door to gas drilling, that is. Put another way, the health and environmental risks for the industry’s host communities may take years to observe and measure. And the people of the Ohio Valley may well bear the brunt of those effects to come, just as they have with the effects of coal in the past.