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Rural Blog: Appalachia hit twice by coal declines; fewer jobs, ‘crippling’ bills for more expensive power

“As coal mining has collapsed across Appalachia, residents in Eastern Kentucky and West Virginia have been socked with a double whammy—crippling electric bills to go along with a declining economy,” James Bruggers reports for Inside Climate News.

(KyForward file photo)

American Electric Power subsidiaries Wheeling Power and Appalachian Power requested permission from the West Virginia Public Service Commission in May to increase residential bills 11 percent because of declining sales. That’s on top of a 29 percent increase between 2014 and 2018, in a region where many residents live in poverty. Residential bills for another AEP subsidiary, Kentucky Power, have nearly doubled in the past decade and are among the highest in the country for an investor-owned utility, Bruggers reports.

One reason for the increasing power bills is that, as mines and other businesses shut down, residents move away in search of other jobs. That means utilities must spread their fixed costs among fewer residents, including the expense of closing old coal-burning power plants and cleaning up the toxic coal ash they leave behind. And many Appalachian utilities keep buying coal when though it is more expensive than natural gas, Bruggers reports.

Kentucky Power spokesperson Allison Barker told Bruggers that last winter’s unusually cold weather was partly to blame for high bills, and said customers could save money by turning their thermostats down when the weather turns cool. But she acknowledged that losing thousands of customers since 2014 caused the utility’s demand to drop 15 percent, and said it must pay new costs to comply with environmental regulations.

Some Appalachians blame coal’s decline on such rules, but James Van Nostrand, a West Virginia University law professor and director of its Center for Energy and Sustainable Development, told Bruggers that’s not the case: “These people have been sold a bill of goods for the last 10 years that everything in the coal industry would have been fine if the (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) had just left us alone. It’s been cheap natural gas and it’s been cheap renewables.”

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The Rural Blog is a digest of events, trends, issues, ideas and journalism from and about rural America, from the IRJCI, based at the University of Kentucky. The Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues is an extension program for rural journalists and news outlets. It takes no positions on issues and advocates only for strong news coverage, responsible commentary and things that make them possible, such as open-government laws. For more information see www.RuralJournalism.org.

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