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How the Deck is Stacked Against Solar Energy in West Virginia

Solar power is unlimited, cheap and pollution-free. New jobs are being created all over the country in the manufacturing and installation of solar energy infrastructure. States all around West Virginia are adopting public policy that promotes the development and use of solar energy. So why is West Virginia lagging in the adoption of solar energy?

The obvious answer is our dependence on coal. Politicians are reluctant to promote another energy source that could undermine the coal industry in West Virginia. A recent book by WVU professor James Van Nostrand calls this the “coal trap” and we are stuck in it. There are examples every year. Here are three of them.

Repeal of Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard. In 2009, West Virginia followed thirty other states in adopting a renewable energy portfolio standard (RPS) for electric utilities in the state. As introduced in the Legislature, this law would have required utilities to generate 15% of their power from solar and other renewable sources by 2021. It expressly excluded coal. But the bill was hijacked by coal-friendly legislators and was changed to count power generated from “clean coal” technologies as renewable energy. This meant that the utility industry had to make absolutely no changes in its operating mix of energy sources.

Then in 2015, West Virginia became the first state in the country to repeal an RPS — even though our RPS had been watered down to nothing. As a result, electricity in West Virginia is generated 92% from coal, the highest percentage of any state in the nation.

Veto of Renewable Energy Facilities Program. In 2021, West Virginia’s coal-fired power plants had a 13.1-gigawatt capacity. By contrast, wind and solar capacity combined was only .7 gigawatts. Because modern businesses that might locate in West Virginia require at least some of their power to be generated from renewable sources, the state adopted a tiny renewable facilities program administered by the Public Service Commission. That program allowed utilities to develop solar generating facilities up to 50 megawatts (.05 gigawatt) with a maximum limit of 400 megawatts state-wide.

In 2024, the Legislature passed a bill to raise the renewable facility limit to 100-megawatts per facility and to eliminate the 2025 sunset provision for the program. But the state-wide limit of 400 megawatts remained in place. Still Governor Justice vetoed the bill, claiming it was a threat to coal.

Failure to Pass Community Solar Bills. We are all familiar with rooftop solar panels with which a homeowner can generate solar power and reduce her electric bill. But some consumers don’t own a home or live in a wooded area where solar panels won’t work. Many states have laws allowing community solar generating facilities that permit consumers who can’t use rooftop panels to subscribe. The power is generated in a central location, but the subscriber gets a credit against her electric bill just like the panels were on her rooftop. Bills allowing community solar were introduced in the Legislature in 2023 and 2024, but never made it out of committee for a vote.

Young voters in West Virginia want change in the state’s attitude toward solar energy and other renewables. Conservation West Virginia’s poll of voters between 18 and 40 in seven West Virginia counties showed that the vast majority – 82% — believe that renewable energy will have a positive impact, resulting in more quality jobs for West Virginians. And 83% of all voters polled are concerned about politicians in Charleston blocking development of renewable energy sources like solar and wind.

Politicians in Charleston need to be responsive to this strong sentiment or move out of the way.