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Sparks Fly In W.Va. Legislative Energy Committees Over Utility Solar Bill

Solar panels arriving in Fayette County.
Colleen Laffey

A legislative proposal that would allow limited solar development by West Virginia’s two electric utilities has ignited intense debate in the energy committees of both the lower and upper houses of the state Legislature.

Of debate are Senate Bill 583, “Creating program to further development of renewable energy resources,” introduced by Republican Sen. Patricia Rucker, who represents the state’s 16th District. The bill was debated Tuesday by the Senate Energy, Industry, and Mining Committee. 

Related is House Bill 4562, “Renewable Energy Facilities Program,” which was debated for the second time in the House Energy Committee Tuesday afternoon. 

The bills would allow utility companies American Electric Power and FirstEnergy Corp. to develop up to 200 megawatts of solar each in 50 megawatt chunks. The proposed legislation creates a framework within the Public Service Commission to allow utilities to concurrently recover the costs of installing the solar through a rate increase. 

Once 85 percent of each 50 megawatt block of solar is purchased or claimed, ratepayers would begin to see the surcharge decrease, said Charlotte Lane, head of the West Virginia PSC. 

She told members of both committees customers would pay about .18 cents per month extra to cover the cost per 1,000 kilowatts. According to the U.S. EIA, in 2018, the average household used about 914 kilowatts of power per month. 

The measure was requested by the West Virginia Development Office to help lure new companies to West Virginia. Commerce Secretary Ed Gaunch told the House Energy Committee many companies, primarily in the technology sector, require access to renewable energy in order to meet corporate sustainability goals. 

“Invariably that will be the first or second question in terms of criteria: Where does your state stand in terms of renewable energy?” Gaunch said. “Frankly, we don’t ever make the cut.”

The proposals drew sharp criticism from lawmakers concerned over the state’s coal and natural gas industries. Others expressed concern that ratepayers will initially foot the bill for the utility-scale solar development. 

“So, what you’re saying is the customer takes all the risk, if this thing doesn’t work the customer gets screwed,” said Del. Scott Cadle, a Republican from Mason County. 

West Virginia’s energy generation is currently about 90 percent coal-fired and the state lags behind nearly all others in the nation for solar development. 

But some solar advocates also have concerns about the utility solar proposal. 

“House Bill 4562 would really consolidate control over the future of our state's energy system into the hands of private investor owned utility companies, and those utilities currently control the energy system in this state,” said Autumn Long, with West Virginia’s Solar United Neighbors, which advocates for distributed rooftop solar. 

Long said the proposal lacks consumer protections, while not addressing other barriers to boosting solar access in West Virginia. Solar United Neighbors instead supports Senate Bill 611, which would legalize third-party solar, also called power purchase agreements. The bill is set to be taken up by the Senate Economic Development on Wednesday.

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