MORGANTOWN — From presidential races to local and state legislation, the issue of climate change is at the forefront, with many pushing for more renewable energy sources, especially in places like West Virginia with a long history of using fossil fuels.
But the issue of renewable energy is also an economic development one, as West Virginia Commerce Secretary Ed Gaunch recently told a House committee that the lack of renewable energy sources in the Mountain State is a deterrent to some companies wanting to consider moving here.
“The main barrier for deployment of renewables are policy-based,” said Autumn Long, regional field director and West Virginia State Director for Solar United Neighbors. “Our state lacks a very positive policy environment.”
Policy actions by the state Legislature are needed to move forward, with perhaps the No. 1 movement forward likely being creating renewable portfolio standards, according to James Van Nostrand, director of the Center for Energy and Sustainable Development and West Virginia University law professor.
“Thirty-nine states in the country have renewable portfolio standards — including all the states around us,” he said. “And we don’t.”
Renewable portfolio standards is a regulation that mandates heightened production of energy from renewable sources such as wind and solar. This would make it so utilities in the state would have a set time to have a certain percentage of their supply from renewables, according to Van Nostrand.
“We have about 600 megawatts of renewable wind energy, and that’s the size of a decent-size coal plant,” he said, adding that that allows the state to take advantage of other states’ RPS as wind can be “tradeable” across state lines.
There are virtually no tangible environmental or technological barriers in deploying renewable energy in a state like this once, according to Long, who added that technology like solar panels are more efficient and affordable than ever.
This legislative session, Senate Bill 611, which would allow power purchase agreements for solar panels, is a pending measure that both Long and Van Nostrand say would make a big difference in the transition to renewable energy.
“A big barrier of solar now is you’ve got the upfront cost,” Van Nostrand said. “The power purchase agreement is a big solar developer ... would come in and say ‘we’ll put the solar panels on your roof; we’ll own the panels and then we’ll do an agreement so we more or less share in the electrical output of those solar panels.’”
Agreements like this are fairly common around the country, Van Nostrand said, and are a way to make solar more accessible and affordable for people.
Solar United Neighbors is among the groups advocating for SB 611, legalizing those on-site power purchase agreements and allowing the property owner to purchase the energy the facility produces on a month-to-month basis, similar to leasing, according to Long.
“It allows institutions like our schools, governments and churches to go solar without a large up-front capital investments,” she said. “We think that would be a really good first step.”
Transitioning for renewable energy for the average West Virginian can be very cost-effective, according to Long, and community members making the change to sources like solar can be an important part of the changing energy system. Local communities do have the opportunity to take control over energy in a way like never before.
“We’re able for the first time to be energy producers ourselves,” she said of local rooftop solar. “In terms of quantity, the large-scale reality of utility-scale energy production is such that over 90% of this state’s electricity is produced from coal. ... It’s going to take a lot deeper shift on the part of our utility companies to change the overall power mix.”
Making utility companies have a more diversified generating portfolio through policies of the Public Service Commission and integrative resource planning is another key move that needs to be made on the state level, according to Van Nostrand and Long.
“Most states have a much more rigorous long-term planning process,” Van Nostrand said, adding that tax breaks for solar or wind facilities would be another way to push renewable energy into the realistic future.
One thing that always comes up in any West Virginia conversation of energy the state’s long history with coal mining.
“It’s cultural. It’s almost as if you would be unpatriotic if you suggest bringing in anything other than coal to generate electricity,” he said. “It’s a big source of pride in the state. We industrialized the United States, and it was industrialized on the backs of the West Virginia coal miners. ... And I think we have a hard time letting go of that.”
The influence of the coal industry in the Legislature makes a big difference in the future of energy production and renewable development, Van Nostrand and Long agreed.
“If we had different incentives and promoted different industries, we’d probably have a lot more jobs in solar by now than the 12,000 mining jobs we have,” he said, adding that this directly influences the rising electricity costs in the state, which have gone up faster than any other state over the last 10 years.
Even though there’s much support in West Virginia, the coal industry is experiencing a “very rapid decline,” according to Van Nostrand, and moves like cutting the coal severance tax, as the state did last year, doesn’t make much, if any, difference in terms of “massive market forces that are crushing the coal industry.”
For Long, it’s important that state leaders don’t assume the energy sector is going to continue as it has in the past — especially as renewable energy becomes more affordable.
“I see renewable development as an opportunity to continue the legacy West Virginia has as an energy-producing state,” she said.
The growth of renewable energy depends on policy changes to become a tangible, widespread option for the state’s future — and capture economic and job opportunities in areas like solar and wind.
“I think it’s about time our state leaders acknowledge that we actually do need to have a transition process,” Van Nostrand said. “It’s like continuing to hold out hope that coal is going to rebound.”
Having the sometimes difficult conversations of transitioning to renewable energy in West Virginia’s communities rely on how political leaders handle the issue, according to Van Nostrand.
“Courageous political leaders would take this on,” he said. “Our political leaders refuse to step up and acknowledge the inevitable transition that’s underway.”
Many of the world’s governments have committed to changing energy standards in efforts to impact climate change through moves like the Paris Climate Accord, and several states are producing high%ages of renewable energy, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
“When I think about the future of this state and the changing reality of our nation and world energy system, it’s very clear that we as a state have to react to that reality,” Long said. “The reality on the ground is changing really quickly. ... I don’t want to see the state get left behind.”