FirstEnergy spent $1.8 billion installing scrubbers at its largest coal plant, the W.H. Sammis unit on the Ohio River. "It took us five years to do that. That's just one project. Multiply that by the plants that need to have work," Durbin explained. "It could reach into billions of dollars."
The Ohio plants FirstEnergy's generation subsidiaries will close are Bay Shore plant's Units 2 and 4 near the city of Oregon, plants in Eastlake and Ashtabula, and the Lake Shore plant in Cleveland. Also on the list are the Armstrong plant in Adrian, Pa., and the R. Paul Smith plant in Williamsport, Md.
These are old, relatively small, relatively inefficient compared to newer units, and dirty, having been granted a grandfathered exemption from initial Clean Air Act requirements, say the power company's critics. One was idled in 2010 because of the recession. Others run only when demand peaks.
Living on 'grandfathered' time?
"Make no mistake, these plants were operating well-beyond their intended lifespan for a reason: it has been cheap to be dirty," said Henry Henderson, Midwest director of the Natural Resources Defense Council, in a recent blog post. "And utilities have taken advantage, holding off on modernizations so that the Clean Air Act's provisions would not kick in to force older plants like these to be retrofitted with modern pollution controls to protect the surrounding communities," he said.
"These are rules that have been coming down the pike for more than a decade," said NRDC's John Mogerman. "Most of the nation's utilities long ago put themselves in a position to deal with these requirements," he said -- and that includes FirstEnergy's investments in its more modern plants. "Those that are left are the smallest, most inefficient plants. The company is simply making a business decision that they don't want to invest in modern pollution controls, or in protecting the communities around them," he asserted.
If the pressures of low natural gas prices contributed to the coal plants' closing, it also has a big upside for the Ohio economy. Ohio leaders and officials from Gov. John Kasich (R) down are counting on the natural gas boom to create direct jobs from exploration and production and also to lead a revitalization of the state's manufacturing sector.
The Ohio Oil & Gas Energy Education Program, a shale gas drilling advocate, estimates that more than 200,000 new jobs could be created over the next four years from shale gas development, if developers are able to safely maximize production.
Employment in Ohio's primary metals industries plunged from 82,400 in December of 2000 to 34,900 in December 2009, continuing the jobs hemorrhage in that sector that began in the late 1970s. By the end of 2010, employment was headed upward. Ohio's unemployment rate had dropped to 8.1 percent last December from 9.5 percent in December 2010, and remarkably for Ohioans, the state jobless rate at the end of last year had dropped below the U.S. average.
Politics drones on, but so does new employment
"We talk to companies that provide equipment into the steel industry and other manufacturing industries. They are hiring people as quickly as they can find qualified people, because their demand is up tremendously," said Martin Abraham, dean of Youngstown State University's College of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.
An alliance of Youngstown-area companies has formed, called the Mahoning Valley Manufacturers Coalition, he added. "They are trying to identify new opportunities to get people educated so they can take the jobs they are trying to fill."
For its part, FirstEnergy is contributing to job growth in the wind energy, as well, committing to buy power from the Blue Creek Wind Farm in northwestern Ohio, an expansion that provides more jobs for Ohio.