The Future of Energy in West Virginia

By John McFerrin

The West Virginia Center for Energy and Sustainable, part of the West Virginia University College of Law, does research and analysis aimed at strengthening opportunities for West Virginia and its residents in the context of nationwide trends to reduce carbon emissions and pursue sustainable energy policies.  One of its fellows—Tim Cronin—spoke at the 2021 Fall Review of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy.

For most of its history, and certainly for the last century, West Virginia has been guided by the idea that this alternative energy stuff was all well and good but if we wanted to have a real economy we had to base it on coal.  The attitude was that birds and bunnies were sentimental fluff; coal kept the lights on.

Mr. Cronin’s message was that it does not have to be that way and, in fact, we are already set on a course away from that.  Both First Energy (parent of Mon Power and Wheeling Power) and American Electric Power have committed themselves to carbon neutrality by 2050.  In a filing with the Public Service Commission, First Energy has said that it plans to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050 or earlier and “move beyond” West Virginia coal-fired power plants by 2050 or earlier.  American Electric Power has said it will reduce emissions 80% by 2030 and achieve net-zero by 2050.  It estimates 51% of its generation will be renewable energy by 2030. Its West Virginia coal plants are scheduled for retirement by 2040.

There is considerable doubt that this is soon enough to support an all out effort to slow climate change but that is still the direction we are headed.

There are several things driving this switch to renewable energy.  The first is cost.  Since 2009 the cost of solar and wind electricity generation has fallen by 90% and 72% respectively. 

The move toward renewable energy is also driven by demand.  Mr. Cronin had a list of dozens of major companies—everybody from Amazon to Mars to Wal-Mart–who demand renewable energy when making their sighting decisions.  He quoted the Executive Director of the West Virginia Development Office about the problems his office has in recruiting companies when West Virginia cannot offer solar power.  

Mr. Cronin also quoted the West Virginia Commerce Secretary, “Invariably that will be the first or second question in terms of criteria: Where does your state stand in terms of renewable energy? Frankly, we don’t ever make the cut.”

He also pointed to public opinion surveys that show overwhelming support for solar power.

The growing popularity of renewable energy (and the other side of the coin, the growing unpopularity of fossil fuels) is reflected in the capital markets.  Banks are becoming reluctant to finance fossil fuel based projects.  Mr. Cronin quoted the investment firm BlackRock as well as several banks on their plans to avoid investments in coal in the future.  He quoted American Electric Power as saying, in effect, that if big banks are not going to loan to coal based companies it will have no choice other than to look to renewable energy.

The presentation also included estimates of jobs created or lost by a change to renewable energy.  In comparing what he called Ramped Up Renewables and continuing with coal, he presented estimates that Ramped Up Renewables would create almost 3,000 full-time jobs from renewable energy and energy efficiency installations alone.  Through 2030, there would be a net increase of 1,155 full-time jobs. Through 2035, the net impact on jobs would be zero. 

Mr. Cronin described two options:  Ramped Up Renewables and continuing on the coal dependent path we have followed in the past.  This is what he described as the bottom line:

The direct energy costs are similar, but Ramped Up Renewables: 

  • Creates more jobs and income through 2030. 
  • Diversifies our economy – decreasing dependence on coal and beginning the building of a new energy economy. 
  • Greatly reduces financial exposure to CO2 risks and fuel costs. 
  • Avoids significant costs due to adverse health impacts

There are policy choices that would we could make to encourage movement toward renewable energy.  One is a carbon fee, a charge that is placed upon emitters of carbon dioxide based upon how much they emit.  Emitters of carbon would be free to decide how they would reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

The second is the Clean Electricity Performance Program previously proposed as part of President Biden’s Build Back Better plan.  The Clean Electricity Performance Program would have provided utility companies with financial assistance for increasing the percentage of energy they generate with clean energy sources by 4% annually, and penalizing utility companies that failed to meet the 4% threshold. This clean energy standard was removed from Build Back Better.  Without it achieving carbon neutrality will be more difficult although still possible.

His presentation was entirely economic.  From the data he and his organization have collected, it appears that an economy based on renewable energy will produce more jobs and electricity at a cheaper price than an economy based on coal and natural gas.  He kept trying to read the Zoom room and saying things such as “this group is probably more interested in the environmental aspects” but he was really all economics.  From cost to jobs to economic development, his data shows that renewable energy is the way to go.

This is the last of our summaries of presentations at the 2021 Fall Review.  We have another Review coming up the weekend of October 15, 2022.  Watch for more details in later issues of The Highlands Voice.