Solar energy bill zooms through W.Va. Senate committee

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The state Senate’s energy committee took three minutes to pass a bill meant to make it easier for companies to get a sliver of their power supply from solar energy.

That was a quick-strike approach compared to what has been happening with the bill elsewhere at the Capitol.

The West Virginia Coal Association has expressed concerns. Gov. Jim Justice has said he’d need to learn more about the bill. And earlier this week the House Energy Committee defeated an attempt to table the same bill, then met on Thursday without taking up the bill even though it had been posted on an agenda.

The Senate Energy, Industry and Mining Committee wasted no time on the bill early Thursday afternoon.

Committee members had already talked for an hour about the bill earlier this week. So when it came up again Thursday afternoon, there wasn’t a lot to say.

Randy Smith

“Is there anyone here who didn’t talk at the last meeting who wants to speak on this? Not seeing any,” said Senator Randy Smith, chairman of the committee.

“Are there any further questions  of counsel? Not seeing any. Are there any amendments? Discussion? If not, I look to the vice chair to move the agreed-to language of the committee substitute.”

Senator Dave Sypolt, R-Preston, did just that.

The bill had also been assigned to the Senate Finance Committee. But Smith, R-Tucker, observed that a fiscal note indicates there would be no financial repercussions for state government. So he proposed sending the bill on to the full Senate and waiving the second reference. Other committee members agreed.

So, just like that, the bill was on its way. The entire action started at 1:10 p.m. and concluded by 1:12 and 45 seconds.

The same bill originally was on a House Energy agenda for later Thursday afternoon. Delegates on that committee had already had two long rounds of discussion of the bill, which was causing heartburn for some.

On Tuesday, House Energy members voted down an attempt to table the bill, 10-15.

When the committee met again Thursday afternoon,  they wound up not taking it up at all, despite what the agenda had initially indicated.

So, although the bill has been on parallel tracks, it has more momentum in the Senate. It seems possible the Senate will just run the bill now and the House will receive it, assigning that one to committee.

The bill would allow for expedited application for solar energy production 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.

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.

Backers say increased access to solar is desirable for companies investing in West Virginia.

Gov. Jim Justice

Gov. Jim Justice and his staff have been having meetings with representatives of the coal industry, as well as with utilities.

“I need to understand it better to give you an answer of support or oppose,” Justice said following a bill signing ceremony on Wednesday afternoon.

“You’ve got many many companies throughout the world that will not come to a place if they can’t basically buy into a solar or alternative energy footprint. So basically what it does, by us not having that option here it really limits the numbers that can truly come. We want ‘em all. We want to attract ‘em all.”

But Justice, whose family has significant coal holdings in southern West Virginia, also said he doesn’t want any perception of harming the coal industry.

“We don’t want to take away in any way – not me – from the standpoint that one additional coal miner can go to work. We don’t want to kick them. So there’s a balance we have to address here.”

He concluded without expanding on details by saying he thinks there’s a compromise.

“I think there is a way to do both. I’m one who thinks sir do you like your eggs scrambled or fried, and the answer is yes.”

Ed Gaunch

His Commerce Secretary, Ed Gaunch, appeared on MetroNews’ “Talkline” on Thursday in support of the bill.

“The first question we ask ourselves is will this make us more competitive in achieving Commerce’s goal, which is to retain and attract new business to West Virginia. The answer to that is a definite yes,” Gaunch said.

“We have companies that tell us that. As late as last Wednesday we were on the phone with a prospect, and that was one of the first questions they asked us.”

State leaders, in discussing the bill, have said that 90 percent of West Virginia’s energy production is coal, 8 percent is natural gas and the remaining two percent is wind and hydro.

Gaunch said companies want to be able to say a portion of their power supply is a renewable like solar.

“There are companies that are willing to pay more for their electricity if they can put the green stamp of approval,” Gaunch said.

“It has nothing to do with how we feel about coal. We love coal.”

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