Solar Energy and the Legislature: A Power Play in Charleston
For a state beholden to the coal and natural gas industries, solar energy generated a lot of heat at the recent West Virginia legislative session. Two initiatives concerning alternative energy, including solar, were introduced. One survived and will become law. Unfortunately, the survivor is a timid effort to attract a specific hi-tech enterprise that will involve no new solar energy facilities unless that enterprise locates here. But progress on renewable energy in West Virginia will have to be made in small steps, and this was a start.
The unsuccessful initiative – SB 759 – contained a number of wonderful ideas that would have enabled commercial and individual property owners to develop alternative energy for their own consumption. The bill would have accomplished this by authorizing municipalities to establish low-cost alternative energy revolving loan programs to assist the property owners. Interest rates charged on the loans from these programs would have been below prevailing market rates.
The alternative energy technologies eligible for loans from the municipal loan program included solar photovoltaic projects, solar thermal energy projects, geothermal energy projects, as well as wind energy, biomass or gasification facilities for generating electricity.
SB 759 was introduced by Democratic Senators Robert Plymale and Mike Woelfel, both from District 5 (Cabell and Wayne counties). It was referred to the Government Organization Committee, the place where bills of this sort go to die. At the end of the session 67 bills, including SB 759, had expired in that committee with no action.
The survivor of the two initiatives — SB 583 — was introduced by Republican Senator Patricia Rucker of Jefferson County, among others. This bill will authorize electric utilities in the state to construct or purchase solar energy facilities on sites that have previously been used for industrial, manufacturing or mining operations. Wind and other alternative energy sources are not covered.
Demonstrating how timorous this initiative is, solar facilities under the law can only be built in 50 megawatt increments. When 85% of the power from the first increment is under contract, facilities for the next 50 megawatts can be built. No single such facility can generate more than 200 megawatts and the state-wide cumulative generating capacity of renewable energy facilities can’t exceed 400 megawatts. Evidently, neither the utility industry nor the coal industry wanted a lot of excess solar power sloshing around that would require companies to reduce coal-fired power generation.
This bill surprisingly had the support of the West Virginia Department of Commerce. It seems that whenever the business recruiters at the Department tried to lure tech companies to the state, these companies insisted on the availability of solar energy. Well, of course, we have had no such capacity.
The particular focus of the Department’s recent efforts is a company that proposes to build a research and development facility in Preston County that will test ultra-high speed transportation systems. The provisions of SB 583 that enable utilities to recover their costs for constructing solar facilities will sunset in 2025, by which time this company will either have located in West Virginia or not. So despite the high-sounding rhetoric about the need for West Virginia to enter the twenty-first century world of renewable energy, the real driver of this legislation was immediate business development and not a long-term commitment to renewable energy.
A similar bill – HB 4562 – was introduced in the House and debated extensively in the House Energy Committee, where it appeared to be stalled by objections from the coal industry. When SB 583 was passed by the Senate and sent to the House, it sidestepped the troublesome Energy Committee and went straight to House Judiciary and then to the House floor. Debate there was contentious. Delegate Tom Bibby, a Republican from Berkeley County, grumbled
If renewable energy and solar energy were so good they (the tech companies) could afford to pay for it themselves. Renewables may sound nice and good, but they are heavily subsidized. To say coal-fired power plants won’t suffer from this legislation is just sticking your head in the sand.
House environmental advocates were initially considering an amendment that would broaden SB 583 to include solar power purchase agreements (PPAs). These are contractual arrangements where a third-party developer designs, finances and installs a solar energy system on a customer’s property at little to no cost. The developer sells the power generated to the host customer at a fixed rate that is typically lower than the local utility’s retail rate.
However, the idea for an amendment allowing PPAs was dropped. Democrats favoring the amendment had little time to gather support and it was feared that complicating the process would threaten passage of the main bill. Karan Ireland, lead lobbyist for the West Virginia Environmental Council, lamented that “what we see is utilities calling the shots and getting everything they want in the process.”
So West Virginia will move forward with a solar facilities law limited in scope that was carefully managed by electric utility and coal interests to avoid any threat to the existing carbon-based power generation monopoly in the state. The motivation for this law had nothing to do with any recognition that burning coal is fouling our air and literally killing us. Nevertheless, it is a first step and progress will have to be made this way.