Shuttering of power plant symbolic of energy's future

February 04, 2012

It’s never a good time to lose 40 jobs, but in this economy, when we have to scrap for every opening we can get, the impending shutdown of FirstEnergy’s R. Paul Smith coal-fired generating plant in Williamsport is especially distressing.

Although the economy has shown some signs of renewal, we of course would have preferred it if FirstEnergy had either delayed the decision or invested in the necessary technology that would have allowed the aging plant to comply with tighter clean-air standards.

Williamsport in particular, which could always be counted on in the past to produce mountains of brick and auto leather, has seen a decline in its industrial base.

We might hold out some slim hope that the plant not remain shuttered for good. The trend in energy is toward smaller, more decentralized generating plants, and coupled with the solar farm at the state prison complex, it’s conceivable that Washington County could one day become self-sufficient in its electrical production.

Technology that might not make economic sense to a monolithic corporation might be more cost-effective when viewed in the sense of providing a community with all the energy it needs.

We do understand, however, FirstEnergy’s position that the old relic had become more trouble than it was worth on a corporate scale. It operated infrequently, only in times of peak demand.

Nor do we take much issue with environmental groups that applauded the plant’s announced closure. Despite those who will blame the EPA and government regulations for costing the community jobs, the science behind clean-air initiatives is beyond dispute. Recall that those who said there was no such thing as acid rain were proved wrong when fish disappeared from Northeastern lakes and entire forests on Western slopes downwind of the big coal-fired plants turned brown.

It is not satisfactory to wait for another demonstrable crisis before taking action, and for the health of the Williamsport community, the plant could not continue to operate as it has.

The closure of R. Paul Smith is perhaps symbolic of the world’s transition away from fossil fuel and toward cleaner sources of power. It wasn’t all that long ago that over every American city hung a blanket of black coal smoke. We’ve largely cleaned the air of what can be seen; now we must deal with toxins and carbons that might in the long run be even more deadly.

Meantime, we would encourage the county to take a lesson from the disaster of the Municipal Electric Light Plant, where the machinery was sold at a fire sale and the remaining blighted shell is a constant reminder of failed leadership.

Whether the R. Paul Smith plant ever finds new life or not, the commissioners should work hard to ensure that it doesn’t become one more lasting eyesore that reminds us that the big ideas and projects of the past are gone, and the generation of leadership that came afterward was unable to summon similar initiative.

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