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Solar Utility Program One Step Closer To Reality In W.Va.

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A bill that would create a utility solar energy program in West Virginia is one step closer to becoming law.

On Thursday, despite vocal opposition from some coalfield lawmakers, the House of Delegates passed an amended version of S.B. 583, 75 to 23 with two members not voting. The bill now heads back to the Senate to address two House amendments.

The proposal would allow the state’s two electricity utilities to install up to 200 megawatts each of solar energy in 50 megawatt increments while concurrently recovering the cost of the solar plants through a Public Service Commission-approved rate increase. If fully implemented, West Virginia would see the amount of installed solar grow from about 8 megawatts to 408 megawatts, or about 5000 percent.

The measure was requested by state officials at the Commerce Department, who testified some new businesses have been reluctant to consider setting up shop in the Mountain State without having access to solar energy.

The Public Service Commision said residential customers can expect to see their bills rise .18 cents per month under the proposal. Once the solar is claimed, the surcharge would decrease.

The measure drew concern from about two-dozen lawmakers, many that represent coal-heavy regions of the state, and exposed a split within the Republican party.

That includes Del. Tom Fast, R-Fayette County, as he expressed concerns over the impact the solar program may have on electric bills.

“I voted against SB 583 for the following reason: the bill promotes solar energy, which is good. However this promotion comes at the expense of increased power rates to all customers and the coal companies will have to produce power when the sun isn't shining,” he wrote in a tweet. “A major problem could arise: will the coal power still be there when needed due to being pushed out of the way when the sun is shining?”

On the House floor Tuesday, Del. Tom Bibby, R-Berkeley, also spoke against the bill.

“This is not a good bill,” he said. “If renewable energy, solar energy, was so good, they could afford to pay [for] it themselves. This bill is going to be paid for on the back of the ratepayers and also on our coal.”

Others pitched establishing a solar program as an important job-creating tool for the state.

“Not to sound corny, but we're adding a tool to our toolbox,” said Del. Moore Capito, R-Kanawha. “We've heard from the Development Office, We've heard from the Governor's Office, and we've heard from all of our outside folks that want to come into West Virginia. This is an important piece of the mix.”

Others tried to assuage fears the bill could harm the state’s coal industry. In fact, language in the bill enumerates the installation of solar shall not “displace current levels of coal-fired generation capacity.”

“So, this is actually going to help the coal and gas industry because these businesses are not going to locate here to buy this energy unless we do this,” said Del. Gary Howell, R-Mineral. “So, this helps everybody in the state; it creates jobs.”

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