Power from Maryland's Coal

March 22, 1995

The handwriting is on the wall for this state's small but tenacious coal mining industry in far Western Maryland. Tougher air pollution rules make its high-sulfur coal undesirable for industrial boilers and power plants. Electric utilities are delaying expansion plans for new generators amid a slowing growth in consumer demand.

Within a decade, the coal business in Maryland's Appalachia will be extinct, local officials warn. That's 3.5 million tons a year of surface and deep-mine coal and 350 jobs in a region that badly needs employment.

So the proposal of mining companies to build two small power plants in Garrett County to burn Maryland coal and coal waste -- using smokestack scrubbers to remove sulfur -- is an idea well worth exploring. An added inducement is that ash from the plants would fill abandoned mines, a significant source of acid pollution of the Potomac River.

Yet unanswered are the basic questions of whether additional power generation is needed in that area, and whether the cost of mine-mouth power would be competitive.

The coal companies say the two plants, one 150-megawatts and the other 350-megawatts, would together cost $650 million. But financial support remains to be found. No major power company is jumping to embrace the idea; the best hope may be for an independent power company to build them.

There's also the important issue of permission to use existing transmission lines to carry the power generated by these proposed coal plants, lines owned by the Potomac Edison Co., which serves Western Maryland.

Traditional power companies are wary of encouraging independent producers, whose prices can undercut the price of electricity from their own plants. But independents can more easily provide additional capacity for traditional power systems.

It's unclear whether a major power company would commit to a future supply agreement with these two plants as independents, or commit to building them itself. Potomac Edison is already backing a 180-megawatt power generator to be built and operated by an independent producer outside Cumberland in 1999, a plant that will also burn Maryland-mined coal.

So not all is bleak for the local industry. And if plans for the two Garrett power plants develop, we expect they will be self-supporting and economically justifiable, without public subsidy.

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