More than 1,600 people sent letters against closing the lone remaining coal-fired unit at the iconic Paradise power plant in Western Kentucky. An estimated 300 rallied last weekend against the move, including Gov. Matt Bevin and state legislators.
President Donald Trump even sent a tweet urging the Tennessee Valley Authority to consider all factors before closing Paradise Unit 3.
It wasn’t enough.
The TVA board voted Thursday to close the coal burning unit in Muhlenberg County by the end of 2020.
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Residents had warned that closing the plant, which employs 131 people and props up other jobs at coal mines and trucking companies, would undermine the economy, lead to less revenue for county government and schools, and force people to move away for work.
However, an analysis by the utility said the Unit 3, which went online in 1970, had deteriorated with age.
The plant had a relatively high rate of unplanned shutdowns and would require significant costs for mechanical and environmental upgrades to keep it running, the analysis found.
TVA chief Bill Johnson said the multi-state utility could avoid more than $1 billion in costs by closing the Paradise plant and another aging coal plant in Tennessee called Bull Run. “This decision is about economics. It’s about keeping rates as low as possible,” Johnson told board members during a meeting in Chattanooga.
Johnson recommended closing the two plants.
He said that would not hinder TVA’s ability to generate power reliably, noting that the utility has added nuclear and natural gas plants, which cost less to operate than Paradise and Bull Run and are more flexible.
Paradise is no longer an efficient part of TVA’s generating fleet because it was not designed to be ramped up and down quickly to meet fluctuating electricity demand, Johnson said.
Johnson said TVA could only use Paradise and Bull Run to generate power about 10 percent of the time.
The end of Paradise Unit 3 is part of a larger shift toward natural gas and renewables such as wind and solar power in the nation’s energy landscape.
In December, the U.S. Energy Information Administration projected that U.S. coal consumption for 2018 would be 44 percent lower than in 2007, mostly because of the decline in coal as a fuel for power plants.
That shift has hit hard in coal-producing states like Kentucky, where jobs in the industry have dropped sharply and local governments have seen revenue dry up, forcing cuts in services.
Johnson noted that five more coal-burning units are scheduled to close this year in Kentucky.
At Thursday’s meeting, Kenny Allen, a former coal company executive from Western Kentucky who sits on the TVA board, asked the board to delay voting on closing Paradise until May.
Allen said it made sense to keep Paradise open because there is abundant coal nearby to fuel it and it could help TVA maintain a diverse generating fleet.
“The livelihood of many depends on this plant staying open,” Allen said.
The board turned down that request and voted to close the plant, though members said they want the utility to work hard in helping displaced employees and the community.
Closing Paradise will reduce the demand for Kentucky coal. The plant buys about 1.1 million tons of coal a year from mines in Western Kentucky, according to the TVA assessment.
U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, a Republican from Bowling Green, which is about 35 miles from the plant, said in a news release that TVA had no business “picking winners and losers in Kentucky’s energy sector.”
But Johnson said the move to shutter the last coal-burning unit at Paradise was not about coal.
Closing Paradise and Bull Run will only cut coal’s contributions to TVA generation by about 1 percent, and the utility will still be burning about the same amount of coal in 10 years as it does now, Johnson said.
Gary Jones, director of economic development for Muhlenberg County, said losing the plant will be devastating to employees and other affected workers, and will hurt the school system and county at a time money is already scarce.
“Our county finances are tight at best,” Jones said.
Environmentalists said TVA needs to work with the county to soften the blow of losing the plant, but also applauded the decision to close it.
“TVA made the right decision to ignore the political posturing and close these dirty, expensive, and unnecessary coal units,” Mary Anne Hitt, a Sierra Club official, said of the Paradise and Bull Run plants. “The board ignored the political games, followed their statutory mission, and were guided by the facts laid out by their own experts.”
Hitt referred to Trump’s “cynical efforts to bail out millionaire coal executives.” The Paradise plant reportedly gets coal from a mine operated by Trump supporter Robert E. Murray.
TVA opened two coal-burning units on the bank of the Green River at Paradise in the early 1960s, then added the larger Unit 3 in 1970.
The plant was once the largest coal-fired facility of its kind in the world, with the capacity to produce enough electricity for 950,000 homes.
The utility closed Units 1 and 2 in 2017, in part to meet tougher environmental rules, and built a natural gas-fired plant to replace them.