CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- FirstEnergy wants to transfer ownership of its huge coal-fired Harrison Power Station to a West Virginia-based subsidiary. American Electric Power wants to do the same thing with two of its coal plants, John Amos, near St. Albans, and Mitchell, near Moundsville.
On the surface, the proposals easily could be taken as just some corporate-property paper shuffling. They are anything but that.
West Virginians who get their electricity from FirstEnergy's Monongahela Power and AEP's Appalachian Power would have to fund the purchases from parent companies in Columbus and Akron -- through years of increased power rates.
FirstEnergy is seeking to put the cost of its Harrison plant transfer at $1.2 billion, roughly double what critics of the deal say the facility is worth. Cost estimates for the AEP proposals haven't been announced yet.
Public Service Commission staff members and the agency's consumer advocate already are raising serious questions about the proposals. Also, a growing number of various interest groups, from environmental organizations to gas industry lobby groups, have intervened in the two cases pending before the PSC.
A growing number of critics say the deals would lock West Virginia into relying on coal, a polluting fuel whose role in U.S. electricity production is in decline as world energy markets are in flux. The proposals are shaping up to be a major fight over the future of coal -- and over a variety of other important energy issues, from efficiency and reliability to global warming.
"We're at a turning point," said Bill Howley, a Calhoun County resident who follows energy issues and advocates changes to the system on a blog called The Power Line.
Formal hearings aren't scheduled until late May in the FirstEnergy case, and mid-July in the AEP case, and initial testimony -- laying out more facts and expert opinions from all sides -- hasn't been filed yet.
The power companies say their proposals will help them deal with upcoming deficits in electricity needed to serve Mon Power customers in Northern West Virginia and Appalachian Power customers in the southern part of the state.
FirstEnergy, for example, told the PSC that the company "has thoroughly investigated several alternatives to increase generation resources" and that officials "identified a unique opportunity to obtain full ownership of Harrison, one of the state's most modern, environmentally controlled baseload generation facilities."
The proposal "is the best solution among the various alternatives," the company argued in a 600-page petition filed with the PSC in November.
In the petition, AEP also touted potential economic benefits of its proposal, such as "jobs, taxes, and the consumption of Appalachian area coal [that] would be assured of continuation for many years to come."
In a letter submitted to the PSC, West Virginia Coal Association President Bill Raney agreed.
"The Harrison plant produces electricity with locally mined West Virginia coal, consuming more than 5 million tons each year," Raney wrote in the December 2012 letter. "Mon Power's plan would preserve the opportunity to use this vital resource, helping to support our hard-working miners and their families, as well as the many businesses that depend on the mines. Harrison also benefits governments, paying local and state taxes."
It's just that focus on coal that has some groups, such as the West Virginia Citizen-Action Group, concerned about the power company proposals.
"WVCAG is concerned that the transfer of outdated, coal-fired electric generating facilities to the petitioner from its affiliates in Ohio will burden West Virginia consumers with unreasonable costs for inefficiently generated electric power at a time when less costly and more environmentally sustainable alternatives are available," WVCAG lawyer William DePaulo said in a PSC filing.