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Report, experts highlight economic benefits of expanding solar power

MORGANTOWN — Expanding solar energy in West Virginia could create thousands of jobs, help diversify the economy and save consumers, businesses and the government money. That’s the conclusion of a report produced by Vandalia Energy Services for West Virginia’s Sierra Club chapter and expounded on by four presenters during a Friday press conference call.

The report is called Clean Energy Works in West Virginia and was unveiled as a wrap-up of the week’s Earth Week activities.

“I see clean energy as a key step in both the recovery and the growth of the energy sector here in West Virginia,” said report co-author Danie Chiotos, energy efficiency manager for Mountain View Solar.

The report says there are 837 solar installations state wide, totaling 8.35 megawatts of power, only one-one hundredth of a percent of the state’s total power output. Winder power totals 686 MW, 2.6% of the state’s output.

Clean energy’s potential is underappreciated, he said, but incentives and tools legislated into state policy could help realize the potential. The state’s weatherization assistance program is an example of successful policy that helps low-income households save energy and money. But we lag behind our neighbor states and more could be done through such things as energy efficiency programs for the state’s two utilities and power purchase agreements.

“With the right policy tools we can grow clean energy even more, expand the clean energy economy and build sustainable jobs on our state,” he said.

Mike McKechnie is CEO of Mountain View Solar, which engineers, procures and constructs solar porject in West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia. It’s been in operation for 11 years.

“We chose this path because we knew we were to need to have alternative energy in a more prominent way.” They’ve installed solar in residential, commercial, industrial and governmental buildings.

They began in West Virginia but most of its work is in the other states that have more advanced policies, he said. “There are a tremendous amount of jobs that we’re missing here in West Virginia that are readily available if we had the policies in place to make it happen. … We don’t have very many, if any RFPs to respond to in West Virginia.”

And these aren’t just construction jobs, he said. They include administration, sales, electrical engineering, procurement, back office. They all pay above average, with benefits and advancement opportunity. “We’re missing thousands of jobs, not hundreds.”

One lost opportunity, he said, was the Manchin-era $2,000 tax credit for solar jobs that expired and was never followed up. Virginia had fewer solar jobs when the credit was active, now it has far more – thousands compared to less than 100 here. “We need the political will and the policy.”

Autumn Long is regional field director for Solar United Neighbors, a nonprofit that advocates for solar and helps homeowners go solar.

At the national level, she said, the federal Investment Tax Credit will sunset in two years. It helps small businesses and farms install solar power and solar advocates across the nation are pushing for Congress to renew it. Her organization, she said, hasn’t yet spoken to West Virginia’s delegation about it and she doesn’t know where the five members stand, but that effort will begin soon.

In West Virginia, she said, power purchase agreements – PPAs – are needed. PPAs are a financing mechanism that allow a homeowner, business, nonprofit or government entity such as a city or a school to enter into a long-term contract with a third-party that installs, owns and operates a solar array on the building.

The customer buys the power from the installer at a fixed rate, she said. There are low or no up-front costs for the customer, the rates are locked in, and the customer saves money on electricity. The installer can take advantage of the Investment Tax Credit and pass the savings to the customer.

PPAs are legal in Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Ohio, she said, but not here.

Delegate Evan Hansen, D-Monongalia, is president of Downstream Strategies in Morgantown. He talked about two solar-related bills that passed last session and one that has a good shot at passing next session.

Last session, SB 578 sailed under the radar, he said. It corrected a mistake in state code, and tweaked the business and occupation tax for solar installations to match the B&O tax for other renewables, to reduce the make solar development more palatable.

SB 583 was covered extensively by The Dominion Post. It allows the state’s two electric utilities to build or buy and then own and operate solar plants – four 50 MW plants totaling 200 MW per utility – in order to draw national companies to West Virginia that want a significant solar element in their energy portfolio.

Hansen said that the full 400MW capacity would put solar at 1% of the state’s power output. He was the lead sponsor of an original version of this bill under a different bill number (a fact he didn’t mention during the conference call) but GOP leadership sponsored this version (which he did mention).

During the 2021 session, he said, he plans to sponsor a bill to legalize PPAs.

Last session, Long said, Senate Judiciary chair Charles Trump, R-Morgan, co-sponsored a PPA bill, SB 611, that was co-sponsored by Energy chair Randy Smith, R-Tucker, but it didn’t move.

But with that kind of support plus a planned interim study on the topic this summer, Hansen is optimistic about its chances. “Hopefully we can get that across the finish line next session.”

McKechnie said PPAs have proved an effective tool in other states. He cited an example of a Virginia school system that entered into a PPA agreement for six schools. The system signed a 20-year agreement, paid nothing for the installations, and will save millions of dollars over the course of the contract.

“That’s the signal, it’s that good,” he said.

Hansen is also drafting an energy efficiency bill. He said the state’s two utilities offer money-saving programs in other states but not here because it’s not required by law.

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