Coal Still A Contender, Says Exec

A natural gas-fired power plant costs billions of dollars less to build than a new coal-fired plant, but larger, existing coal plants still can compete with them in today’s economy, according to Charles Patton, president and chief operating officer for Appalachian Power.

Patton served as speaker for the Rotary Club of Wheeling’s meeting at WesBanco Arena Tuesday, and he offered a three-point message to members:

– The economics of natural gas make the building of new coal-fired power plants “highly unlikely.”

– Existing, larger coal plants can compete with newer natural gas plants.

– America must pursue a “rational” greenhouse gas mitigation strategy.

Patton set the estimated price to build a natural gas-fired power plant at $1.3 billion, compared to $7.2 billion for a coal-fired plant. The coal-fired plant, however, costs less to operate, he said.

“The reality today is coal – on a (British Thermal Unit) basis – is still cheaper than natural gas,” Patton said. “But it is not cheaper enough to overcome the price differential of building a plant that costs $1.3 billion versus $7.2 billion. That’s the challenge for coal going forward.

“But if you have a coal plant today – and that coal plant meets all EPA rules – that plant competes effectively against natural gas. The cost of coal is comparable to – or better than – the cost of gas over time.”

And retrofitting an existing coal plant to burn natural gas doesn’t work, as the modified plant – engineered to burn coal – becomes less efficient, he said.

Power plants operated by wind and solar resources are an alternative to power plants that burn fossil fuels, Patton continued, but are no cheaper to build. Their production is also unreliable, he said.

“We have very little control over the wind and the sun,” Patton said. “That’s not to say these technologies are not important to a provider’s portfolio, but you have … to mix them in in some way. They are not a replacement for natural gas and coal.”

Patton described himself as “party agnostic” when it comes to politics, and he expressed concerns that plants in developing countries such as China and India continue to emit more pollution as the EPA continues attempts to regulate carbon emissions in America.

“Should we stretch and put our economies at risk when the trend is undeveloped nations – China and India – continue to be the greatest contributor to greenhouse gases?” he asked.