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Coal Baron Jim Justice Vetoes Modest Solar Bill

Nothing shows how desperately West Virginia needs a change than Jim Justice’s veto of HB 5528. Coal fuels 92% of West Virginia’s electric generation, while renewable solar energy is responsible for less than 2%. HB 5528 would have made a modest increase in the amount of solar allowed under West Virginia law. But, according to Justice, the veto was necessary to protect coal. Seriously?

West Virginia has a tiny Renewable Energy Facilities Program administered by the Public Service Commission. This Program was enacted into law because modern businesses that consider locating in this state often require a portion of the electricity that they purchase come from renewable sources.

The Program allows electric utilities to develop solar generating facilities of up to 50 megawatts, with expansions limited to 50 megawatt increments. The Program places an absolute limit of 400 megawatts state-wide on solar facilities.

Just for comparison, the coal-fired John Amos plant at Winfield in Putnam County is rated at 2,933 megawatts.  In 2021, it emitted 12.6 million tons of carbon dioxide, and from 2012 to 2021, it emitted 132 million tons.

HB 5528 was sponsored by six Republicans, including the Chair of the powerful Energy and Manufacturing committee, and three Democrats. All it proposed to do was raise the 50-megawatt limits in facility size and incremental growth to 100 megawatts each, hardly a threat to coal. It also eliminated the 2025 sunset provision for the Program.

Governor Justice’s veto message to lawmakers is typical of his fuzzy thinking. While admitting he has advocated for “all-of-the-above” energy choices, he further claimed that “it is very important that we not cripple our great coal-fired energy industry in the process.”

Just exactly what does the coal industry in West Virginia amount to now? In 2022, only 10,219 people were working in the industry, as opposed to 644,784 in all West Virginia jobs. The industry has declined in importance to the state steadily since the 1950s. This is because of cheaper alternative fuels like natural gas and market forces that prefer cleaner burning fuel.

The coal industry will continue to be an important source of severance tax revenue for the state, but the carbon pollution burning coal creates involves health costs to our citizens that are not considered in this revenue calculation. Health impacts can range from asthma and breathing difficulties to brain damage, heart problems, cancer, neurological disorders, and premature death. At best, coal is a mixed blessing.

West Virginia already produces more electricity from coal than any other state in America. This activity adds greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere by the millions of tons and harms our health. Coal is simply not an industry worth protecting any more. Our elected officials need to get the message. Isn’t it time we Fix It?