"The stuff that isn't scrubbed, the greenhouse gases aren't the issue," Patton said. "They're just so old that it doesn't make sense to spend the money to make them comply with the existing rules. Under any scenario you looked at, regardless of EPA rules, all those plants were gone anyway."
The plant closures and proposed transfers would reduce the share of Appalachian's power generation that comes from coal from 74 percent today to 71 percent in 2015. The share generated from gas would increase from 15 percent to 20 percent over the same time period, officials said.
More broadly, parent company AEP has said coal's share of its generation will drop from 67 percent in 2011 to 50 percent in 2020. Nationally, government data shows coal's share of power generation has been dropping for years and reached 36 percent during the first quarter of 2012 -- far below the "nearly half" figure frequently cited by coal officials and the industry's political supporters.
"Coal is going to continue to be here," Patton said. "But that huge advantage we were getting as coal, we're not getting that again."
Patton predicted that no companies would build any new coal-fired generation anytime soon. He said that low natural gas prices, and not EPA's proposed rules to limit greenhouse gas emissions are the reason.
"Nobody is building any new coal," Patton said. "The economics just aren't there.
"Gas is just so cheap," he said. "You cannot deny that natural gas is the fuel of choice."
Patton said that advances in natural gas drilling -- such as horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing -- that have created a boom in the Marcellus Shale region have reduced industry concerns about the price volatility of natural gas over the long term.
"I don't care what you read, I don't think anybody is going to build a coal plant, given natural gas prices," Patton said. "It's just economics."
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.