AEP chief executive Mike Morris said that retrofitting plants would add jobs but that he needs more time from the EPA.
“We have to hire plumbers, electricians, painters, folks who do that kind of work when you retrofit a plant,” Morris said. “Jobs are created in the process — no question about that.”
Another AEP coal plant in nearby Conesville required more than 1,000 temporary workers to build a scrubber for one of its units. The plant then added 40 full-time employees to monitor the scrubber, which doubled the footprint of the unit. The device requires so much machinery it has its own control room.
Ralph Izzo, chief executive of the New Jersey utility PSE&G, said installing scrubbers at two of his company’s coal plants created 1,600 jobs for two years, plus 24 permanent ones.
Critics from groups such as the Environmental Defense Fund say that AEP has had plenty of time to comply with the rules, which have been years in the making, and that some of these coal plants are too old and too dirty to continue operating.
“Everyone has this idea that the EPA could shut a plant down,” said Rachael Belz, organizer of the coal program at Ohio Citizen Action. “But these decisions are being made by AEP, or Duke Energy. These are business decisions.”
Some of the coal plants are approaching the end of their life spans anyway. And the price of natural gas has plummeted as people have discovered how to unlock gas from shale rock.
“The coal-to-gas switch is already on for pure economic reasons,” said Mark Fulton, global head of climate-change investment research at Deutsche Bank.
He recently co-authored a study concluding that, by 2020, the shift to natural gas and renewables will generate a net 500,000 jobs in the United States.
Standing on the construction site of AEP’s natural gas plant in Dresden, Ron Borton spoke excitedly about the future.
“I’m making the shift from coal to gas,” said Borton, who spent 20 years working at the Conesville coal plant before becoming operations and maintenance superintendent of the Dresden project two years ago.
“I looked at this as an opportunity to learn something new,” he said. “You don’t hear many people complaining about a gas plant.”
But the Dresden plant will require fewer workers. There will be just 25 full-time AEP employees, compared with the 159 at Muskingum.
“Our level of automation is really heavy,” Borton said. “One guy could run this plant.”
Attacks on regulation
There is no question that a regulation can add costs for businesses and sap the resources and time of busy executives.
Companies have long complained that spending money following rules means there’s less left over to invest in research or expand their businesses.