By John McFerrin
The MOJO Act takes several realities and tries to put them together in a way that benefits West Virginia. Those realities are:
- West Virginia has more than 550 square miles of strip mined land and other degraded lands. 98% of this land is just sitting there. The idea that there is this much strip mined land might make some of our hearts hurt but that is the reality. There are 219 square miles of land that are suitable for large scale solar farms.
- There are major companies who have made commitments to using renewable energy at their facilities.
- West Virginia gets more than 90 per cent of its electricity from coal.
These realities are set out in Legislative Findings in the bill; they are supported by research by the bill’s lead sponsor (Evan Hansen) and a company where he works (Downstream Strategies).
One difficulty with recruiting modern jobs to West Virginia is that two of these realities are in conflict. If a company has a commitment to renewable energy, it will not come to a state where over 90 percent of the electricity comes from coal.
The MOJO Act attempts to make West Virginia more attractive to modern jobs by using the first reality (vacant strip mined land) to reconcile the second and third realities. It does this by encouraging the building of solar energy facilities on old strip mine sites.
The MOJO Act would only apply to large industrial users, those who use more than one megawatt per month. It would encourage solar facilities by removing them from the control of the Public Service Commission. Under present law, someone who wished to produce and sell electricity would be classified as a public utility, subject to the Public Service Commission. Under the MOJO Act, someone could build a solar farm on an old strip mine and sell the electricity to a large industrial user free of the control of the Public Service Commission.
Of course, encouraging solar facilities on old strip mines does not guarantee that they will start popping up like dandelions in the spring. That requires financing, customers, and a whole host of other things. The MOJO Act just tries to remove barriers to this happening and encourage it.
Neither would the MOJO Act guarantee that modern jobs would flock to West Virginia like West Virginians to Myrtle Beach. Modern jobs require modern workers, good roads, etc. The MOJO Act just seeks help make renewable power more available and, by doing so, remove one of the barriers to a substantial portion of those jobs coming here.
The 2020 Legislature will not be the first try for the Modern Jobs Act. In spite of its catchy nickname (The MOJO Act), the Modern Jobs Act did not make much progress during the 2019 session of the West Virginia Legislature. It was not passed by either of the committees to which it was assigned.
This is not unusual. Unless they have the enthusiastic support of the Governor or one of the big dogs of the Legislature, proposals often do not make much progress in the Legislature their first year. Proposals without a powerful person in their corner usually get introduced the first year, talked about the second year, and finally passed in the third or fourth year.
The Modern Jobs Act made a step along this road to passage during one of the interim Legislative sessions. It was talked about. In a major milestone for the Modern Jobs (MoJo) Act, the Joint Standing Committee on Energy heard from four experts on opportunities for solar energy in West Virginia, with a focus on the MoJo Act.
WVU Law Center for Energy and Sustainable Development Director Jamie Van Nostrand explained how the bill would open West Virginia to new investments by Fortune 500 companies with renewable electricity targets. Charlie Dennie from Alpha Technologies described the demand he’s seen from Alpha’s customers to have its South Charleston data center powered by renewables. Neil Habig from Dakota Power Partners identified opportunities for utility-scale solar in West Virginia, along with some of the challenges. Chip Pickering from Pickering Energy Solutions talked about his Parkersburg-based solar installation company and his vision for expanding access to solar in West Virginia.
With this momentum, the Modern Jobs Act will almost certainly be back for another try, either for final passage or for more steps along the road to eventual passage.