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Solar power bill doesn’t move at light speed in coal-focused West Virginia

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Lawmakers in coal-focused West Virginia spent hours Tuesday debating a bill meant to make it easier for companies to get a sliver of their power supply from solar energy.

The bill was up for debate in both the Senate’s energy committee and in the House’s energy committee.

Senators discussed the bill for about an hour with no resolution, while delegates had another two hours of discussion without taking action. Delegates had already had one prior discussion of the bill.

House Energy Chairman Bill Anderson, R-Wood, said he expects more consideration on Thursday of the bill that would allow for expedited application with the Public Service Commission, which regulates utilities in West Virginia.

Right now, utilities go through an extensive application and review process. But under the bill they would be cleared right away to generate a relatively small amount of solar power.

Anderson supports the bill, saying it would help diversify West Virginia’s economy and make it less susceptible to the booms and busts of fossil fuel.

He said some companies, particularly tech companies, want renewable energies like solar to be part of their portfolio.

“Doesn’t a business and/or a state that hopes to survive don’t they try to service their customers and offer something that will encourage those customers to invest?” Anderson said during an interview after the House Energy meeting.

But some lawmakers asked questions about the effect on the coal industry and what any effects on ratepayers might be.

“I very much respect those delegates,” Anderson said. “They are representing people who are fearful of the future, but the future — sometimes you have to take a step forward.”

Tony Paynter

Delegate Tony Paynter, R-Wyoming, made a motion to table the bill before consideration had even started in House Energy. There was a delay in considering his motion, but it eventually failed 15-10.

No one is saying solar would replace coal-powered or even gas-powered energy. Solar would merely be in the mix for companies that want it.

State officials said the amount of solar being considered is a maximum of 400 megawatts out of the total 14,000 megawatts produced in West Virginia.

Representatives of the state Department of Commerce said some companies want a portion of their power supply to be solar. And they said the bill under consideration would help West Virginia ease the regulatory path to providing that.

State Commerce Secretary Ed Gaunch told delegates that companies, particularly technology companies, often want solar to be part of their energy portfolio.

Ed Gaunch

“Invariably that will be either the first or second criteria in question: where does your state stand in terms of renewables,” Gaunch said. “My feeling is, frankly we don’t ever make the cut if we can’t answer that question in the affirmative.”

He said the issue came up just last week with a name-brand investor. “In that case, it was the very first thing they brought up, the lack of renewables.”

Mike Graney

Mike Graney, executive director of the state Development Office, echoed those comments while speaking Tuesday to the Senate’s energy committee.

He said companies such as Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google particularly seek renewable energy sources.

“We believe we need this tool to recruit and encourage expansion of existing companies,” Graney said. “It’s really a lot of public companies that are traded on the Wall Street exchange.

“Social investment is very important to the valuation of companies these days. To be perfectly frank, we don’t even know how many projects we’ve lost because we might not even make it through the desktop review.”

Senator Mike Woelfel, D-Cabell, asked Graney for the top five factors companies consider.

The response: workforce availability, workforce training, tax credits and other incentives, and renewables.

Charlotte Lane

Charlotte Lane, the chairwoman of the Public Service Commission, told senators that the Development Office wanted the bill for recruiting efforts and that the PSC reviewed it to make sure rate recovery is in the best interest of the public.

Lane said that 90 percent of the power production in West Virginia is from coal, 8 percent is from natural gas and the remaining two percent is from wind and hydro.

“We have wind, but apparently some companies want solar,” Lane said.

Steve Ferguson

Steve Ferguson, vice president for regulatory and finance for Appalachian Power, said the company has been focusing on economic development for several years.

“So the proposal is to have solar available so we can try to bring some of these industries into our area,” Ferguson told senators.

He said those companies want to be able to point to actual solar panels as being a key contributor to their power supply.

“The companies that I have spoken with over the last few years that want renewable, they want the visual aspect of renewable,” he said. “They want to point to where their energy comes from.”

House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, appeared earlier this week on MetroNews’ “Talkline” in support of the bill.

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