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Solar energy bill powers two more hours of questioning in House Energy

MORGANTOWN — The House Energy Committee spent another two hours on Tuesday – bringing the total to four – exploring a bill intended to promote economic growth by drawing green-minded manufacturers and high-tech firms with renewable energy portfolio goals into the state.

HB 4562 is called the Renewable Energy Facilities Program and came at the request of the state Department of Commerce.

The bill refers to renewable portfolio-minded companies as its reason for existence. It allows electric utilities (there are two in the state: FirstEnergy and American Electric Power) to build or buy and then own and operate a solar plant. The bill provides an expedited Public Service Commission approval process.

Any single plant may produce up to 50 megawatts (MW) of power (until a certain sales threshold is reached), with a limit of 200 MW for each parent company and 400 MW statewide.

Until such time as an interested company or companies sign on to buy the solar power, the utilities would recover the facility’s costs by raising consumer rates. Once 85 percent of a solar plant’s 50 mw capacity is contracted for, consumers would have the increases credited back.

Early in Tuesday’s meeting, Delegate Tony Paynter, R-Wyoming, moved to kill the bill by tabling it. That effort failed in a 10-15 roll-call vote.

PSC Commissioner Charlotte Lane told delegates that a 50 mw solar plant would cost roughly $50 million to $55 million. Spread across the utility’s entire customer base, the rate hike would amount to about 18 cents per customer per month.

A representative of AEP subsidiary Appalachian Power (APCO) said that once 85 percent of capacity was reached, the additional cost would fall to about 3 cents per customer per month. If a company committed to buying all the power up front, other ratepayers would see no hike.

One provision of the bill is directed at APCO, which serves West Virginia and Virginia. The bill says that if a utility builds a plant in West Virginia and another state would refuse to share in the costs by raising power rates, all the cost would be absorbed in West Virginia but all the solar credits would also remain here.

(The companies wouldn’t be buying the solar power directly from the utilities. APCO, Mon Power and Potomac Edison all sell their power into the PJM regional grid and buy it back from PJM. The companies would be buying credits called Renewable Energy Certificates.)

Delegates learned that West Virginia’s current power mix is 90% coal, 8% natural gas and 2% renewable in the form of wind and hydro.

Commerce Secretary Ed Gaunch told the delegates the first or second question tech-based companies ask is what is the state’s renewables mix. “Frankly, we don’t even make the cut if we don’t answer the question.” This bill could be a tool to draw tech firms and manufacturers.

He referred to the convenient fiction of credits, “I think this is a perception thing.” He referred to a company consider locating here that wanted an assurance a certain portion of a state forest wouldn’t be harvested. There are no plans to do so, but it satisfied their concerns.

Lane explained to the delegates that the typical PSC rate-approval process takes 270 days. This bill would speed things up by allowing the utility to start recouping costs as soon as the plant went online.

The bill faces opposition from the coal and natural gas industries, who fear that it could affect jobs in their industries. But Delegate Evan Hansen, D-Monongalia and a bill co-sponsor, in a conversation with the APCO representative, fleshed out that it’s not a zero-sum issue. One solar job doesn’t equal a lost coal job.

Coal and gas, they said, will remain at 98% of the state’s power supply and more businesses and residents will raise demand for the coal- and gas-based power.

The meeting wrapped up with some environmental questions. Some delegates are concerned that disposing of worn-out solar panels could harm the environment.

Jim Pickering, a solar installer and advocate, said solar panels now in production have a lifespan of about 30 years. They’re 90% glass, which is virtually all but not completely recyclable. Panels are about 6% to 8% aluminum, which is also recyclable. The silicon chips contain rare trace minerals that are in demand and recoverable.

The Energy Committee meets again on Thursday and will take up any amendments members wish to offer before putting the bill up for a vote. If approved, it goes straight to the House floor.

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