Solar bill important for West Virginia’s economic future

The West Virginia Legislature is considering the most modest of alternative energy bills. House bill 4562 and Senate bill 583 create a pathway for regulated power companies in the state to build and operate solar generation.

West Virginia gets 90 percent of its electricity from coal, eight percent from natural gas and just two percent from wind and hydro, but no solar. The legislation would allow for a maximum of 400 megawatts out of the total of 14,000 megawatts currently produced. That’s less than three percent.

Tuesday, the bill nearly died in the House Energy Committee, but a motion to table failed on a 10-15 vote. West Virginia Coal Association Vice-President Chris Hamilton said on Talkline that laid off coal miners should not be forced to subsidize an alternative fuel. (The PSC estimates residential ratepayers would see their bills rise 19-cents a month to pay for construction of a solar energy plant.)

Coal industry representatives are nervous because their business is already struggling mightily. They don’t want a state built on, and still heavily reliant upon, coal to be actively promoting solar. That’s understandable, especially given coal’s challenges.

However, here’s the reality. Options for alternative fuels have become increasingly important, if not vital, to business and industry. In fact, West Virginia’s Department of Commerce is pushing the bill. Commerce Secretary Ed Gaunch said when recruiting companies, especially tech companies, the availability of solar power is a factor.

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

Last month, Larry Fink, president and CEO of Blackrock, the world’s largest asset managing company, sent a letter to CEOs, explaining that climate change awareness is “fundamentally reshaping finance.”
“Every government, company and shareholder must confront climate change,” he wrote, and with assets of $7.4 trillion in 100 countries, when Larry Fink talks, people listen.

West Virginia should too. We appropriately resisted when the federal government tried to use a heavy and legally questionable hand to shut down coal, and it’s particularly galling when anti-carbon celebrities and politicians fly around in private jets while lecturing the world about climate change.

For a long time the business community (and admittedly yours truly) refused to give an inch. As Fink wrote, “Markets to date have been slower to reflect the impact of climate change on economic growth and prosperity.”
But that has changed. Companies, either for reasons of social responsibility, investor pressure or just good PR, increasingly want alternative fuels in their energy use portfolio.

Coal won’t disappear anytime soon. “The energy transition will take decades,” Fink said. There are still overseas markets, the necessity of met coal for making steel and potential alternative uses for coal for products like carbon fiber.

Additionally, if having solar power in the energy mix encourages a business to locate here, that actually increases the demand for coal-fired power as the state’s primary source of electricity.

West Virginia cannot afford to get left behind during this long transition. We are constantly asking ourselves, “What more do we need to do to encourage businesses to locate here?”

When we hear the answer, we need to have the courage and the foresight to respond.


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