Power Giant AEP Talks Up Clean Energy, but Coal Is Still King in Its Portfolio
The utility has won praise for its wind and solar plans, but it’s still fighting to keep old, coal-fired power plants on the grid.
When American Electric Power (AEP) announced what it called a significant decarbonization program, a lot of people took notice.
After all, the company was promising to cut its greenhouse gas emissions down to 60 percent of the level they were in 2000, and get there by 2030, then reach 80 percent by 2050. Along the way, it was proposing to build what would be the biggest wind farm on American soil.
AEP is one of the nation’s biggest electric companies, and one of the biggest greenhouse gas emitters in the power sector. Any progress it makes toward reducing its emissions is important, in its own right and as an exemplar for the industry.
But was this as remarkable as AEP made it sound in its Strategic Vision for a Clean Energy Future?
A close examination presents a mixed verdict.
AEP has already achieved a lot of progress. It has cut its emissions 44 percent since 2000. That means it’s already more than two-thirds of the way to its 2030 goal. But that also means AEP expects to slow its rate of emissions cuts going forward, at a time when the world urgently needs to get emissions to net zero.
And AEP’s plan would not close some of its most contested, old coal-fired power plants.
In 2000, coal made up about two-thirds of AEP’s generating capacity. Its current fleet is still almost half coal, while in the industry as a whole, coal provides about 30 percent of power generation and natural gas has surpassed it as the main fuel.
What About Those Coal Emissions?
Activists in the 11-state region where AEP operates said what concerns them is that some of the company’s oldest, largest and dirtiest plants were not slated to close.
“When you look under the hood, it’s a little disheartening to see these public relations pieces out there without someone saying, ‘what are they really doing behind the scenes?'” said Jodi Perras, manager of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign in Indiana, Michigan, Ohio and Kentucky, all states where AEP operates.
Perras pointed to the Rockport Generating Station in Indiana—two coal plants totaling 2,600 megawatts that are among the dirtiest in the nation. AEP has fought updating their pollution controls.
“They put out this green report and get all this great press and, at the same time, they’re in federal court in Columbus, Ohio, trying to get out of cleaning up the Rockport plant,” Perras said.
Then there are two sets of coal plants known as Ohio Valley Electric Corporation (OVEC). One set of plants is in Ohio and the other in Indiana. They date to the 1950s, when they were built to service a uranium enrichment facility, and now generate 2,400 megawatts of grid power. AEP is the majority owner and has pushed for Ohio ratepayers to pick up the cost for $2 billion in upgrades.
“Cost recovery for a pair of coal plants that are already 64 years old just doesn’t align with some of what you’re seeing in this report,” said Dan Sawmiller, Ohio energy policy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). “It certainly contradicts a clean energy culture vision.”
Wind Power Promises
Environmentalists are pleased, though, with AEP’s new commitments to renewables and wind.