CHARLESTON, W.Va. — After impassioned debate that lasted the better part of an hour, the House of Delegates passed a bill meant to make it easier for companies to get a sliver of their power supply from solar energy.
Senate Bill 583 passed the House on a 75-23 vote but debate demonstrated the lingering divide over those who want to protect West Virginia’s traditional coal-focused economy and those who say it’s time to branch out.
“I acknowledge the history of coal in this state, and I feel for what the citizens of southern West Virginia have been going through for the past decade,” said House Energy Committee Chairman Bill Anderson, R-Wood.
“I don’t want to focus more on the past because it’s kind of depressing to tell you the truth. We need to move forward.”
Anderson continued, “There are economic forces at work, not only in West Virginia but throughout this country that are transforming this country in many ways. We are focusing on the energy component and its effect on this state today. There has got to be a mosaic of energy production in this state.”
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.
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.
The bill has already passed the Senate, but the House amended it so it goes back to the Senate to concur or reject the changes.
On the House floor, debate focused on whether the bill would undercut coal and natural gas in West Virginia’s energy marketplace.
Delegate Terry Waxman, R-Harrison, expressed concerns about solar reliability.
“If the only reason we’re doing this is because check companies want to check the box to come to our state, I think there might be tech companies that don’t need to check a box and just want common sense,” Waxman said.
Delegate Tom Bibby, R-Berkeley, contended renewable energy sources can’t stand on their own in the marketplace.
“Let’s use the energy we have,” Bibby said. “Coal is the most productive resource we have. It’s reliable, it’s cheap and it’s the resource we can use for over 200 years.”
Delegate Pat McGeehan, R-Hancock, said the bill is only meant to cater to corporations. He compared it to an energy portfolio policy that the Legislature called “cap and trade” and repealed a few years ago.
“They’re catering to corporate America, and that’s the fad right now,” McGeehan said.
On the other side of the issue, Delegate Evan Hansen said the state’s economy has been disrupted in slow motion for decades. He said that has been speeding up in recent years. It’s past time to pivot, he said.
“Now we’re finally taking a step to support all types of energy, not just fossil energy but renewal energy as well,” Hansen said.
Delegate Daryl Cowles, R-Morgan, said passage of the bill could lead to increased economic development.
“What we’ve seen is trying to carve out a new direction for West Virginia through economic development in our state,” he said.
Growth would help the coal and natural gas industries, he said, because they would still be the largest players in the energy market.
“I think this bill is good for coal,” he said.
Delegate Moore Capito, R-Kanawha, concluded debate by urging delegates to vote for the bill.
“I would suggest to you the way to burn more coal and to burn more gas is to get more bodies into West Virginia,” Capito said.
“If West Virginia’s future is bright I would suggest a little solar energy might come in handy.”