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After More Than A Century, Owensboro Utility Will Stop Burning Coal Entirely

German smokestacks

A coal-fired power plant in Western Kentucky will stop burning coal entirely in the next five years. The Owensboro Municipal Utility’s board made the decision last week to retire the second unit of the Elmer Smith power plant in Owensboro, marking the end of the utility's 116 years of burning coal in the city.

Elmer Smith is the utility’s only power plant, and it has two coal-fired units. The company had already decided to retire the first unit; that will be done in the next couple of years. But until last week, no decision had been made on Unit 2.

OMU spokeswoman Sonya Dixon said the units are reaching the end of their useful life anyway, and economic factors are leading the utility to look to other fuels for electricity generation.

“Pressures on coal, the costs associated with that, the environmental costs that were looming for us, as well as the age of our unit meant that we were at a critical juncture, and had to stop and think about where we wanted to go from here,” she said.

The decision to stop burning coal at Elmer Smith was welcomed by members of the Sierra Club, which had pushed for the change. Sierra Club Pennyrile Group chair Mary Cupp said Elmer Smith, along with other coal plants in the area, had had a detrimental effect on the region’s air quality.

“We really suffer from really poor air quality,” she said. “We have an increase in heart attacks, asthma, we have increase in a number of respiratory ailments associated with the poor air quality that we have.”

Even though these external factors aren’t necessarily taken into account when utilities make decisions about how to generate electricity, coal is still losing its competitive advantage. That’s despite the Trump administration's vow to stop regulations put in place under President Barack Obama to regulate carbon dioxide from coal-fired power plants.

“We had to make the assumption that we’re moving along with current legislation and current requirements,” Dixon said. “But also, the economics did not make sense. We’re a municipal utility, and that means we’re responsible for finding the most affordable and reliable electricity for our customers. We didn’t feel that burning coal at the Elmer Smith station would be the most affordable for our customers.”

That was also the conclusionreached last year by a study requested by the Sierra Club. The analysis by the non-profit Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis recommended OMU retire the entire plant, citing the rising cost of burning coal and the declining electricity demand in OMU’s service area.

Cupp and the Sierra Club are actively campaigning for OMU to invest in renewable energy in Owensboro, citing the dropping price for solar generation.

Dixon said OMU hasn’t yet decided how it will replace Elmer Smith’s generating capacity, but she noted the utility had recently completed a solar study and found the fuel wasn’t cost-competitive at this time.