Saturday, February 17, 2018

Another look at Pleasants, Stuart and Killen

(Formatting problem corrected. My apologies.)

Yesterday’s news that FirstEnergy would retire the Pleasants Power Station near Willow Island, W.Va., if a buyer is not found was part of a longer trend in which Ohio-based utilities are under pressure from investors and environmental groups to get out of the coal-based power generation business.

The J.M. Stuart power plant as seen in the distance from the lower end of Maysville, Ky.

The pressure is more intense in Ohio than in West Virginia. Several years ago Ohio deregulated its retail power markets. That effectively separated the generation of electricity from the sale of electricity to the end user. Now that natural gas and renewables are more competitive, coal is at a disadvantage in deregulated states.

If Pleasants closes on Jan. 1, and if Dayton Power & Light retires its J.M. Stuart and Killen power plants in Adams County, Ohio, as planned in June of this year, that makes three coal-fired plants that will go off the grid. Let’s look at what has been happening to those plants in recent years.


Stuart is one of the ten largest power plants along the Ohio River in terms of power produced. However, it has been on a downward trend since 2009. Until that time, it had generated about 15 million megawatts of power per year. Production bottomed out at about 9.85 million in 2015 and rebounded to about 11.25 million in 2016, according to data on the Energy Information Administration website.

Last year was another low point for Stuart in terms of production. An explosion at Stuart in January injured six workers, and production never recovered. Monthly data for 2017 are preliminary and subject to revision. They show that not one month in 2017 did generation match or exceed that for the same month in 2016. Through November, production was down about 3.8 million megawatts, or 37.5 percent, compared with the first eleven months of 2016.


The Killen power plant is a few miles upriver from Stuart, but its production in 2017 was the opposite of Stuart’s. In the long term, Killen’s production has been in decline since 2009. It produced about 4.3 million to 4.5 million megawatts per year up to then, then saw a dropoff. Production in 2016 was 3.66 million megawatts.

Something changed last year. Production through November was 3.72 million megawatts, meaning Killen had already exceeded 2016’s entire production. Through November, output was 10.5 percent higher than it was through November 2016.

If you compare Killen’s increase with Stuart’s decrease, though, you still get a drop of about 3.06 million megawatts.


In the past ten to fifteen years, net generation at Pleasants has been up and down. Except for 2004 and 2009, production varied from about 7.5 million megawatts per year to about 8.5 million megawatts. Production dropped to a recession-level 7.0 million in 2015 and 6.9 million in 2016.

Through November 2017, generation was about 7.0 million, which was about 1.8 percent higher than all of 2016.

Month-to-month comparisons vary widely. March and April combined were about 925,000 megawatts ahead of 2016, while September and October were about 554,000 megawatts behind.

Overall, through November generation at Pleasants was about 13.5 percent above that of the same period in 2016.

Up next

The question in West Virginia is whether a buyer will be found for Pleasants. In Ohio, Dayton Power & Light has said it was looking for someone to purchase its interests in other coal-fired power plants. And in Pennsylvania, FirstEnergy is under pressure to sell or retire the Bruce Mansfield power plant, which is the largest coal-fired plant along the Ohio in terms of capacity. The problem is that Mansfield has not been competitive on the wholesale market in recent years.

Off and on, I’ve been writing about coal and the Ohio River for more than 40 years. What’s going on now is another chapter in a long story about opposition and hurdles the coal industry has faced in that time.

All three of these plants get all of their coal by barge, so the decrease in generation or total retirement of the plants themselves will reduce the need for towboats and barges on the river.

The next months and years will show whether the industry can or will bounce back, and how long it will take to do so.

High water

If the predictions of Ohio River stages are correct, it looks like Wheeling is having some pretty high water, with the rest of the river below us expecting to crest in the next day, two or three.

It looks in several places like this could be one of the highest crests since the flood of 1997. It won't top the flood of 2011, but it might come close.

It should crest at Huntington on Monday, Maysville on Tuesday and Cincinnati on Wednesday, which is as far out as the National Weather Service is predicting.

So tomorrow I hope to head up the river and see if the community of Glenwood is under water. That's usually the first place in my part of the river where a main road gets blocked because of high water.