Ohio’s solar project queue on pace to surpass coal capacity this decade

By Kathiann M. Kowalski, Energy News Network

Energy Harbor’s announced closing of the Sammis plant means solar projects in Ohio’s regulatory pipeline already exceed the coal power that will remain after 2028.

The recently announced retirement plans for one of Ohio’s largest coal-fired power plants puts the state’s planned solar project queue on track to surpass the state’s coal generating capacity before the end of the decade.

Coal power still dwarfs solar in Ohio despite a decade of steep decline for the former. As of last year, the state was home to more than 10,600 megawatts of coal generating capacity, compared to about 112 megawatts for solar.

Utilities and other generators continue to phase out coal generation due to worsening economics and impending federal regulations. The state’s remaining coal fleet without announced closing dates is now projected to shrink to about 5,000 MW by or before the end of 2028.

Meanwhile, the state has seen a flurry of applications to build large solar projects. The Ohio Power Siting Board last month had 7,783 MW of solar projects in its regulatory pipeline, almost all of which had applications pending before the effective date of a new siting law that is expected to complicate future projects.

“Increases in the cost of coal extraction, coupled with the growth of cheaper alternative energy assets, have created a pointed coal-to-renewable energy shift,” said Gilbert Michaud, an assistant professor at Loyola University Chicago’s School of Environmental Sustainability.

The shift also is important for addressing climate change. “The continued decommissioning of coal-fired power plants in Ohio, and the increase in solar energy activity in particular, has become a significant development toward decarbonization goals,” Michaud said.

The projections are notable in part because Ohio lawmakers have spent several years putting a thumb on the scale in favor of fossil fuels. Legislation has gutted the state’s renewable energy standards, subsidized old coal-fired power plants, and erected new hurdles for siting solar and wind projects, but not fossil fuels. Some of the new siting law’s more restrictive provisions don’t apply to projects whose applications had already been complete and in the grid operator’s queue.

The figures indicate that Ohio can expect a steep curve in solar project construction over the next several years as greenlighted projects are built and more are approved. The fast growth of solar capacity also fits with the national trend. In 2011, the United States generated less than 2 million megawatt-hours of electricity from solar power. Last year the figure was more than 90 million MWh.

“There’s an opportunity for Ohio to be a leader in solar energy,” said Jason Rafeld, executive director for the Utility Scale Solar Energy Coalition. But, he said, not all proposed solar projects get built. 

Last month, for example, Ohio regulatory staff recommended denial for the planned 300-megawatt Birch Solar project because the developer hadn’t established the location of abandoned oil and gas wells. However, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources doesn’t even know where potentially thousands of old oil and gas wells are in the state. The project is in the districts for Ohio House Speaker Bob Cupp and Ohio Senate President Matt Huffman, who opposes the project. Staff at the Ohio Power Siting Board also recommended denial of the 175-megawatt Kingwood solar project, which would lie partly in the township where Gov. Mike DeWine’s family home is.

“If we can educate the policymakers to understand the opportunity, Ohio’s solar development can be an incredible draw for businesses to locate and expand,” Rafeld said. “It’s already happening.”

Crutches for coal?

As for coal, Energy Harbor (formerly known as FirstEnergy Solutions) told the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency last month that it will close the remaining units at the W.H. Sammis power plant in Stratton by or before the end of 2028. That date is tied to federal wastewater rules for coal-fired power plants.

That will leave only about 5,000 MW of coal-fired electric plants without announced closing dates. Those remaining plants include the 2,680 MW Gavin plant in Cheshire, the 1086 MW Kyger Creek plant in Gallia County, 1,230 MW from Units 1 and 2 at the Cardinal plant in Brilliant, and a few municipal power plants. AEP Generation Resources, Inc. plans to close its 595 MW Unit 1 at the Cardinal plant by 2030, AEP spokesperson Scott Blake said.

Capacity indicates the maximum expected output for a generation source under ideal conditions. The real-world output varies depending on weather, fuel availability, and other factors that are taken into account when grid operators decide how much generation is needed to maintain a stable system.

Competition also affects how much any power plant runs, and natural gas has been edging out coal on price. The Energy Information Administration’s latest annual coal report, released on Oct. 4, shows the state’s total production was less than 3.6 million short tons last year. That’s less than one-seventh of Ohio’s production in 2010.

Still, even if coal and solar capacities don’t provide an apples-to-apples comparison, the projection that solar will surpass coal is an important milestone, clean energy advocates say.

“The end of coal is on the horizon,” said Neil Waggoner, Ohio representative for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign. “We have passed the point of no return.”

Starting in 2014, FirstEnergy began asking the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio for a bailout for the Sammis plant, as well as the Davis-Besse nuclear plant and its share of power from two 1950s-era coal plants, known as the OVEC plants. One of those plants is the Kyger Creek plant.

The first four units at Sammis closed last year, and the remaining three had been slated to close by June 2022. That plan was reversed after Ohio lawmakers passed House Bill 6, the state’s nuclear bailout law. FirstEnergy Solutions president John Judge had told area residents that if HB 6’s nuclear bailout passed, “we’ll also be able to make the investments that need [to be] made in Sammis.”

House Bill 6, the law at the heart of a $60 million corruption case, now subsidizes the two 1950s-era coal plants through 2030. One is the Kyger Creek plant. A surgical repeal by state lawmakers got rid of the law’s nuclear subsidies earlier this year. However, ratepayers across the state continue to pay for the aging plants.

A Sept. 30 analysis by RunnerStone for the Ohio Manufacturers Association revised previous cost estimates in light of the fact that annual OVEC plant subsidies “have surged to $150 million per year.” According to the analysis, that puts Ohio customers on track to “subsidize $1.8 billion in total through 2030.”

bill to get rid of the OVEC subsidies had its third hearing in the Ohio House on Oct. 27, with representatives of Duke Energy, AES Ohio and AEP all opposing the bill. A similar bipartisan bill to get rid of the coal plant subsidies had hearings this spring in the Ohio Senate.

It’s unclear whether the bills will pass. House Speaker Bob Cupp, R-Lima, said on Oct. 13 that he didn’t think there was support to eliminate the subsidies. And House Majority Leader and HB 6 supporter Bill Seitz, R-Cincinnati, talked about the “value of the OVEC hedge” against natural gas prices on Oct. 27. Bill co-sponsors and others strongly disagree.

“Ohioans should not be fronting the bill for aging and environmentally harmful coal plants,” said Sen. Hearcel Craig, D-Columbus, co-sponsor of Senate Bill 117. “These coal plants are not competitive in the wholesale market, and their owners have made questionable business decisions that Ohioans should not be responsible for.”

Instead of subsidies for coal plants, Waggoner wants lawmakers to take the energy transition seriously. Among other things, they should make sure companies will meet their obligations to complete environmental cleanups. The state’s forfeiture fund for coal mines that fail to meet their obligations is “nowhere near what’s needed,” he said.

More importantly, Waggoner said, “we need to have a very focused and deliberate conversation around community transition and support.” Multiple coal-fired power plants have already closed, and others are on the chopping block. In his view, policymakers should be “thinking about what could we do to provide support for those communities now, as well as for making sure they are able to transition to a future where they are able to grow and thrive.”