Manchin-Connected Coal Plant Tries to Pivot to Crypto, Fails

Manchin-Connected Coal Plant Tries to Pivot to Crypto, Fails
Photo: J. Scott Applewhite, AP

Here’s your word scramble for the week: A gob-burning power plant that helped Sen. Joe Manchin make millions tried to pivot to mining cryptocurrency but was denied by West Virginia officials. Say that three times fast!

Grant Town Power Plant, a small plant located in northeast West Virginia, is powered by what’s (hilariously) known as “gob,” a term for waste rock generated as a byproduct of coal mining. This waste is much lower-quality than coal — and burns dirtier — but can still be used for fuel. Almost all of the gob the Grant Town plant burns is purchased from Enersystems, a coal waste resale company owned by Manchin.

Grant Town is Enersystems’ top buyer. In fact, it was actually the only buyer for Enersystems’s coal waste between 2008 and 2019, and the plant is the last bastion for gob-burning in West Virginia. Manchin and his wife earned almost $US492,000 ($686,734) from Enersystems’ sales to the Grant Town plant in 2020 alone, according to federal disclosures. Since Manchin entered the Senate in 2010, they’ve raked in $US5 ($7) million.

Yet the plant is in financial trouble. Burning gob is much more expensive than using other forms of fuel because it’s labour-intensive and the waste is costly to dispose of. The plant said in 2017 that it had just enough cash to keep it running and pay its staff, and it couldn’t afford to shut down or pay for upgrades.

The plant’s owners’ grand plan to save Grant Town, first reported by E&E News last year, wasn’t switching to a cheaper fuel — but trying to attract crypto miners. Last year, Grant Town’s owners created a proposal put before West Virginia’s Public Service Commission to buy out the plant’s existing power purchase contract in order to potentially attract crypto miners. As crypto mining operations move into the U.S. at breakneck speed, they have sometimes acted as a customer of last resort for struggling power plants. That’s true for nuclear plants as well as natural gas peaker plants, the latter of which adds to the already massive carbon footprint of crypto mining. As E&E reported, a successful switch to crypto could have kept the plant in business — and Manchin’s fortunes intact.

But the Public Service Commission denied this proposal on Wednesday, E&E reported, noting that the proposed $US200 ($279) million buyout price was too high. The reasoning, the PSC said, is that the region is already facing a power shortage. Despite the high costs its power poses to consumers, buying Grant Town out of its contract could force the plant to close, the PSC said. Even if the plant stayed open, the buyout may force consumers to pay for any extra capacity utilities may have to bring online to replace that power. The PSC also expressed concern about the jobs that would be lost if the plant closed.

It remains to be seen what will happen with Grant Town. But it seems to be headed into a pre-bankruptcy twilight that hit many coal-fired power plants, unable to turn to other sources for possible funding, burning dirty, expensive fuel that it remains tied to, and raising rates for customers in the area. Meanwhile, Manchin seems poised to continue to profit off of coal while gutting climate proposals that would end its use.