Curtis Tate Published

During Christmas Freeze, Coal Units Were Offline At 2 Plants, Data Show

The big John Amos Power Plant dominates the backdrop in Putnam County along the Kanawha River.
The big John Amos Power Plant dominates the backdrop in Putnam County along the Kanawha River.
Curtis Tate/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Coal’s supporters have bragged about the performance of the fossil fuel during the deep freeze over Christmas weekend. But not all coal units were available to help, even in West Virginia.

A large portion of West Virginia’s coal-fired electricity generation was not available to meet the demand as temperatures plummeted ahead of Christmas Eve.

That’s according to data from Standard & Poor’s, a global credit rating firm that monitors utilities.

A total of three units at two of the state’s largest power plants were not available as regional grid operator PJM struggled to meet a spike in electricity demand.

At Mon Power’s Harrison Power Station in Harrison County, Unit 2 went offline on Dec. 7 and was not reactivated until 7 p.m. on Dec. 24, during the height of the crisis. Unit 2 is capable of generating 684 megawatts of the plant’s total capacity of 2,052 megawatts.

At Appalachian Power’s John Amos power plant in Putnam County, only one of the facility’s three units, Unit 2, was operating at all. Unit 1 went offline in October and was still out of service in December.

Unit 3 at Amos was operating at full power but went offline at 6 a.m. on Dec. 20 and remained out of service through the winter storm.

Unit 2 at Amos has a capacity of 816 megawatts of the plant’s total capacity of 2,932 megawatts.

Together, the outages were the functional equivalent of losing one plant or the other.

In total, PJM lost 7,600 megawatts of coal capacity and 32,500 megawatts of natural gas during the peak of the crisis.

PJM had asked state officials to tell residents to cut back on their electricity use.

Winter is typically a peak time for electricity consumption, along with summer.

PJM is scheduled to release a detailed report in the coming weeks on what went wrong.

Dennis Wamsted, an energy analyst with the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, published a report that concluded fossil fuels are not as reliable as some say.

“My point in doing this larger report, and going forward, just doing little one offs, is to point out that fossil fuels in general, are not as reliable as their proponents claim,” he said. “Because for too long, it’s been a one sided discussion where it’s like, oh, well, you can’t rely on the sun or the wind. But you can always rely on fossil fuels. And I think we’re increasingly seeing that that’s not the case, especially in the winter.”

It’s not clear why one unit was down at Harrison and two units at Amos. Power plant outages can be planned months in advance for needed maintenance. Outages can also be unscheduled. Sometimes they last only a few days, and other times weeks or longer.

Hannah Catlett, a spokeswoman for Mon Power, said the Harrison Unit 2 outage was not related to the storm and noted that it became available again at a critical time.

“Our teams worked really hard to get that unit back up and did so right as that winter storm began to move into the region,” she said. “Additionally, all of our other coal-fired units were running beyond expectations at the time.”

Phil Moye, a spokesman for Appalachian Power, said the company wouldn’t comment before the release of PJM’s report.

Jeff Shields, a spokesman for PJM, wouldn’t provide any generator-specific data but said a high rate of generators failed on Dec. 23 and 24, creating the shortfall that strained power supply.

The S&P data show no other power plant outages in the state during that time frame.

Wamsted said it appears the Harrison outage, and at least one at Amos, was unscheduled.

The fact that Harrison’s Unit 2 came back online in the middle of a holiday weekend shows how much it was needed, he said.

“Right now, if you just are an average run of the mill weekend, you’re not going to have people there at 10 p.m. on a Friday night to restart a coal plant, if it can wait till Monday,” Wamsted said. “So clearly, there was some real urgency going on there.”

Ultimately, PJM, which covers all or part of West Virginia and 12 other states, did not experience rolling blackouts like customers did in the Tennessee Valley Authority or Duke Energy territory.

Appalachian Power is an underwriter of West Virginia Public Broadcasting.