During the 2020 state legislative session, we asked you what energy and environment issues were on your mind. We got a lot of great responses, but one area in particular stood out — many of you had questions about West Virginia's renewable energy policies.
Like Huntington, West Virginia, resident Jennifer Leist. She asked: “What are the obstacles keeping West Virginia from advancing with more renewable energy in our state? What can we do to help with the problem?”
This year, West Virginia lawmakers debated a handful of different bills related to solar energy. One proposal that could exponentially increase the amount of solar installed across the Mountain State passed.
Senate Bill 583 creates a utility solar program in West Virginia. Under the proposal, the state’s two electric power generators — FirstEnergy and American Electric Power — can each install up to 200 megawatts of solar power in 50 megawatt increments. Two hundred megawatts is enough to power about 28,000 homes.
If fully implemented, the bill would boost the amount of installed solar in West Virginia exponentially. Currently, there are about 10 megawatts of solar in West Virginia, and the state is ranked 48th in the nation for installed solar capacity, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.
“I would say we made some incremental progress this year and that’s a good thing,” said Autumn Long, regional field director for the nonprofit solar advocacy group, Solar United Neighbors. “It does open the door for large-scale solar development. So, it is a landmark year in our Legislature in so much as leadership and the rank and file lawmakers are really recognizing the need for West Virginia to step up and get in the game with renewable energy development.”
The bill was requested by economic development officials at the state Department of Commerce, who told lawmakers providing access to solar was an important tool to lure many new businesses to West Virginia.
The bill also dredged up, at times, contentious debate among lawmakers, with some fearing solar could displace coal. The bill was amended to include language to ensure it doesn’t.
Jamie Van Nostrand, director of the Center for Energy and Sustainable Development at West Virginia University, said increasingly companies around the globe are demanding access to renewable energy in order to meet corporate sustainability and emissions reductions goals.
Without easier access to renewables, he said it is likely some companies would never consider West Virginia.
“But you say, ‘well, now we have a bill actually that a utility will go out and procure just for you whatever you need,’” he said. “That takes away one huge barrier that we had.”
Van Nostrand said Senate Bill 583 makes it as low-risk as possible for power utilities to get into the solar game. The bill requires the Public Service Commission to permit projects within 150 days. It also helps utilities concurrently recover the costs of solar installation. The PSC estimates residential customers could see bills rise about .18 cents per month as a result.
The bill also does not mandate utilities do anything, he said.
“So, it’s a little bit of smoke and mirrors,” Van Nostrand said.
In an emailed statement, a representative for FirstEnergy said the utility supports economic development in West Virginia and if a customer expressed desire for solar would “then begin to investigate the options.” AEP did not respond to a request for comment.
No Change For PPAs
Solar advocates say Senate Bill 583 does not address policy barriers that prevent individuals from easily accessing rooftop solar across West Virginia.
Multiple bills and an amendment to Senate Bill 583 that would have legalized power purchase agreements, or PPAs, failed during the 2020 session.
PPAs are financial agreements in which a third-party developer installs, owns and operates a solar system on a host customer’s site. The host buys the electricity generated by the solar system from the third party, generally for a fixed price over a predetermined period, often 15-20 years. PPAs allow hosts, such as homeowners, schools or businesses, to receive stable, often low-cost energy, without having to pay the full up-front cost of a solar system.
PPAs are illegal in West Virginia, according to state law.
Another bill that would have incentivized solar on reclaimed coal mines, the MOJO Act, never made it out of committee. Karan Ireland, lobby coordinator for the West Virginia Environmental Council, said the failure of lawmakers, once again, to increase access to solar energy for everyday West Virginians is disheartening.
“I had been fighting so hard to get power purchase agreements, to get that bill on an agenda, and get it passed and that seems like such a reasonable thing,” she said.
Long, with Solar United Neighbors, is a little more optimistic. She hopes once lawmakers see solar boosting the state’s economy, making solar more reachable for everyone might gain traction.
“So, it's a first step that I hope will encourage our state's leaders to really be open-minded about more renewable energy policy that can encourage this industry's development in future years,” she said.
As of Tuesday, March 24, Senate Bill 583 was still awaiting the governor’s signature.