Brick buildings line the wide sidewalks of Main Street in downtown Coshocton, Ohio. On a recent spring day the dogwood trees are blooming. Bright red and white tulips dot the grassy public square, home to the local courthouse and a gazebo.
There are barber shops, an optometrist, a florist, a railroad-themed steakhouse is open for lunch. A trendy public art installment features a small roller coaster designed and built by the local high school and a marquee that blinks “be nice to others.”
But there are also vacant buildings.
Paula Wagner has lived in Coshocton for more than 40 years. She taught Spanish at a local high school for 35. Standing on Main Street, she says Coshocton has been a wonderful place to live, but it isn’t thriving like it once was.
“We still have some businesses, but I think every time one of these big businesses goes out, it takes so many people too,” she said. “They have to move to find jobs outside of town, or they’ll move their whole family.”
In recent years, thousands of jobs have been lost as major employers like General Electric, automotive mat maker Pretty Products, and a WestRock paper mill have closed their doors in the region.
Now, Coshocton is bracing for another blow. At the end of May, two of the three remaining units of American Electric Power’s Conesville Power Plant went dark. The last unit will shutter in May 2020, years earlier than expected. Coshocton is joining the growing list of Ohio Valley communities where coal plants are powering down.
“It’s an integral part of the community,” Denise Guthrie, owner of Mercantile on Main, said of the power plant, which has been operating here for over 60 years. Her shop has for 20 years sold vacuum cleaners and cotton quilting materials. Guthrie, a Coshocton native, greets everyone who comes through her doors like she knows them, largely because she does. Many of her customers, or their families, have worked at the power plant.
“We’re hurting,” she said. “You can physically see that there’s empty buildings, and that’s hard …I remember what it was, you know, but that was the past.”
Guthrie knows first-hand what that loss looks like. Her husband was laid off when the paper mill closed.
“It’s like, bam, bam, bam, you know, our community is hit, you see that,” she said.
Located in eastern Ohio, Coshocton has a mix of rural landscape and industrial labor common to much of Appalachia. It has rolling green hills and the occasional farm stand, but it’s also a place where people take pride in making things. And like so many communities in Appalachia, coal mined here, then later burned here to make electricity, shaped the fabric of this community, and helped give rise to its industrial roots.
In recent years, the community has tried to diversify.
“We have a lot to offer,” said Guthrie. Local wineries have banded together to create a wine trail, and a brewery has opened. Visitors can visit historic Roscoe Village, a restored 19th Century canal town, and hunting and fishing opportunities abound. Coshocton County is home to Kraft Heinz, the country’s largest bacon manufacturer, and American flag producer, Annin Flagmakers, as well as more than a dozen smaller manufacturers.
County and local officials haven’t been sitting idly by as Conesville’s retirement approaches. But as many communities in Appalachia have found, the loss of a coal-fired power plant is a major blow, even in places like Coshocton that are used to dealing with loss.
“I will say, we’re resilient, we’ll survive, we’ll find jobs, somehow we find jobs, we find new opportunities,” Guthrie said. “But it is a concern.”
The Conesville power plant began burning coal to create electricity in 1957. Over time, the plant grew to include six coal-fired boilers and could generate 1,590 megawatts of power.
The plant was a significant purchaser of Ohio coal, much of it mined by now-bankrupt Westmoreland Coal Company. At its peak, the plant employed 600 workers.
Plant Manager Ryan Forbes has worked at Conesville for 12 years. He will now oversee its closure.
I’ve had four family members make lifelong careers here at Conesville, so it’s definitely close to me,” he said.
Shortly after he took the job, AEP announced it was moving up the timetable for the plant’s closure by two years.
Units 5 and 6 at the plant, which were originally scheduled to shut down in 2022, are closing now. Unit 4 is scheduled to close in May 2020. As of June 1, Forbes said, the plant will have 95 workers. They started the year with 160. About 25 employees have found other jobs elsewhere within the AEP system, and some are retiring.
Coshocton is not alone in facing a future without a coal-fired power plant. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, from 2007 through 2018, more than 500 coal-fired generators, representing roughly 22 percent of all coal-generated electricity capacity, retired. In the Ohio Valley alone, 34 coal-burning facilities closed from 2009 to 2017.
Cost is the biggest force in the decline of coal, as renewable sources and gas-fired generation are proving cheaper and more flexible.
And there are more closures to come. Utilities have announced the retirement of at least 36.7 gigawatts of coal-fired capacity through 2024 — 117 units in total, according to a recent study by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis. Increasingly, utilities are moving up retirement dates for their old coal burners.
Communities in the Ohio Valley are expected to be hit especially hard. In addition to the Conesville closure, utility FirstEnergy Solutions is shuttering three power plants over the next four years. The Bruce Mansfield power plant in Beaver County, Pennsylvania, W.H. Sammis power plant in Jefferson County, Ohio, and Pleasants Power Station in Pleasants County, West Virginia, are all set to close by 2022. The Tennessee Valley Authority voted in February to close the last of the coal-burning units at its Paradise power station in Kentucky, after switching to a new natural gas generator two years ago.
“These are huge economic drivers in the regions that they’re in,” said Gilbert Michaud, an assistant professor of practice at the George V. Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs at Ohio University.
Since 2010, eight coal-fired power plants have closed in Ohio alone. Michaud has studied the associated impacts of these closures.
“They employ hundreds of workers, they have this rippling effect through the use of vendors and supply chain … where they are really driving activity and creating jobs and a lot of ancillary industries too,” he said. “A lot of these rural communities that don’t have very diverse economies, these are core industries and core facilities that are really driving economic development and jobs in these regions.”
Michaud and colleagues published a study in February that examined the impacts of the closure of two Dayton Power and Light coal-fired power plants last year in Adams County, Ohio. They found the county and local government and school districts were set to lose $8.5 million in tax revenues due to the closures, 370 direct jobs and another 761 associated jobs.
Michaud said displaced coal plant workers have limited local options to find new employment.
“We did find that there were emerging industry clusters in things like tourism and rural healthcare, but the problem here is that these folks would face like a wage challenge if they were to transition to new careers altogether,” he said. “And so a lot of these folks have been moving away, both throughout Ohio and out of state altogether, unfortunately.”
Conesville lies just a few miles outside Coshocton. The power plant’s three massive smokestacks have been a fixture of the small town’s landscape for decades, alongside a convenience store, post office, and a school, Conesville Elementary.
River View Local School District Superintendent Dalton Summers said having the power plant in the district was a huge advantage.
“When you have a power plant in your district it’s almost a separate tax source,” he said.