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Ky. bill preserving aging coal power plants heads to Beshear's desk

Emissions from the coal stacks at LG&E's Mill Creek Generating Station.
Ryan Van Velzer
Emissions from the coal stacks at LG&E's Mill Creek Generating Station.

The legislation sponsored by Republican Sen. Robby Mills, of Henderson, would make it more difficult for utilities to retire coal-fired power plants.

Senate Bill 4 establishes a “presumption” against the retirement of fossil fuel-generating units and requires regulators to prove any retirements won’t compromise the reliability and resilience of the electric grid.

In debate on the House floor Thursday, supporters blamed federal regulations for the decline of coal and the increased cost for electricity in their communities.

Republican Rep. Ryan Dotson of Winchester said, as the son of a miner, coal provided stability, but now “people are depressed, drugs are rampant” because the economy has collapsed.

“Coal has been and always will be the most reliable source of energy. When it comes to renewable energy I have no problem with it, but the wind doesn't always blow and the sun doesn't always shine, but coal always keeps the lights on,” Dotson said.

Utilities, however, say the legislation would result in higher rates for customers because it presumes that keeping existing coal plants open is the right answer without considering the age, condition or required investments in those plants.

Louisville Gas and Electric Vice President Kent Blake told a House committee last week they plan to retire three coal generating units that are around 50 to 60 years old. Their analysis found replacing those units with natural gas would save ratepayers around $600 million.

“It does not make sense from a customer’s perspective to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in those [coal] plants that were built in the ‘70s,” Blake said.

On Thursday, Vice President of Communications Chris Whelan told WFPL News LG&E the bill doesn't reference affordability at all.

"We are disappointed in the passing of SB 4 because we believe it could have unintended consequences that would increase rates and reduce reliability for our customers," Whelan said in a statement.

Senate Bill 4 passed the House on a 66-28 vote and now goes to the governor’s desk for a signature. A handful of Republicans voted against the measure including Rep. Emily Callaway of Louisville.

“For my district, LG&E is doing the right thing and this is unnecessary overreach based on the evidence that I’ve seen,” Callaway said.

Republican Rep. Jim Gooch of Providence shepherded the bill in the House. When asked about the potential for higher costs for ratepayers, he dismissed the idea.

“It didn’t carry much weight with me and the rest of the committee,” he said.

That question came from Democratic Rep. Lindsey Burke of Lexington, who voted against the measure saying coal is not in the state’s future.

Burke said the reason the state has seen such devastating storms, such as the floods in eastern Kentucky and the tornadoes in western Kentucky, is because of climate change.

“For us to ignore the writing on the wall is a shame,” Burke said. “We can do better because we know better and this bill the utilities say will raise our rates.”

Ryan Van Velzer is Louisville Public Media's Energy and Environment Reporter. Email Ryan at rvanvelzer@lpm.org.