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 the 2020 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.
Unfortunately, SB 759 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 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. But SB 583 is a puny little thing without much prospect for changing the energy landscape.
Demonstrating how timorous this legislation 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 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.
House environmental advocates considered proposing an amendment to SB 583 when it reached the House. The amendment would have broadened the bill to include solar power purchase agreements (PPAs). These are contractual arrangements where a third-party developer arranges for the design, financing and installation of 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.
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.