Energy, Latest News, West Virginia Legislature

Senate Energy OKs solar power program bill; House Energy stops work on its sister bill

CHARLESTON — The House solar energy bill took an unexpected twist on Thursday.

After four hours of prior discussion and an aborted attempt to kill it, HB 4562 was taken off Thursday’s Energy Committee meeting agenda.

Committee chair Bill Anderson, R-Wood, confirmed after the meeting what had been mentioned in various hallway conversations: the Senate made short committee work of its sister bill. SB 583 is already headed to the Senate floor, so the House will just work with that one when it arrives.

House Energy on Thursday did approve two natural gas-related bills dealing with certain mineral owners and orphan well capping.

Solar bill

HB 4562 and SB 583 are both called the Renewable Energy Facilities Program but are both referred to as the solar bill.

In contrast to the long House laboring, Senate Energy, Industry and Mining spent less than an hour reviewing it on Tuesday and then passed it in just a few seconds on Thursday.

State Development Office Executive Director Mike Graney told senators on Tuesday, “We know that there have been many projects lost … because we don’t have a solar offering.”

He referred to FANG-type companies (companies like Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, Google) that aren’t interested in settling here because West Virginia lacks a significant renewable portfolio – specifically solar. Just last week he had a phone call with a prospect that saw the lack as a non-starter.

“We believe that we need this tool in order to be able to recruit, and encourage expansion of existing businesses,” he said. Publicly traded companies are looking at solar, too. “Social investment is very important to the valuation of companies these days. … We don’t really even know how many projects we’ve lost.”

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

The bill – SB 583 now that HB 4562 is set aside –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% of a solar plant’s 50 MW capacity is contracted for, consumers would have the increases credited back.

A 50 MW solar plant would cost roughly $65 million. Spread across the utility’s entire customer base, the rate hike would amount to about 18 cents per customer per month. Once 85% 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.

SB 583 has a second reference to Senate Finance, but it was noted Thursday in Senate Energy that the bill has no fiscal impact on the state budget so Energy chair Randy Smith, R-Tucker, will seek a waiver to Finance, which will likely be granted. The bill would then be expected to pass during the first half of next week.

Gas bills

HB 4706 deals with the sums of money circuit clerks across the state are holding in trust for unknown or unlocatable mineral interest owners.  It’s intended to offer some government transparency by setting up a mechanism for the counties to report full details on those funds to the state Treasury Department.

It passed unanimously and goes next to House Judiciary.

The well-capping bill, HB 4088, is a revival of last session’s HB 2779, which died in the closing hours of the session after some questions about it were raised.

It provides a means for royalties due to unknown or unlocatable mineral owners to be transferred to the Oil and Gas Reclamation Fund after seven years.

The bill addresses two situations. One deals with partition suits, where multiple mineral interests in a single tract are sold to a single buyer via a civil suit and the proceeds are divided among the previous owners.

For unknown and unlocatable owners in these cases, the money is held in county courts. Under the bill, the court will appoint a guardian for the funds. Funds unclaimed after seven years will go into the reclamation fund.

The other deals with situations where, after seven years of unpaid property taxes, the surface owner has the option to buy the mineral rights. In these cases, royalties accumulated and held in the court up until the time the surface owner signs the deed will go to the reclamation fund. The surface owner will receive all subsequent royalties and rights to future development.

HB 4088 also passed unanimously and goes to Finance.

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