What is West Virginia’s Energy Future?

By John McFerrin

            “Coal, is West Virginia”, or so goes the radio jingle that the Friends of Coal sponsors.  The tune that goes with it swells; even if some might disagree with the words, it is the kind of music that inspires, makes us want to charge forth, do great things.

            While not literally true, the jingle does contain a kernel of truth: coal has been the major force in West Virginia’s economy for over a century.  Considering our current economic ranking there could be vigorous disagreements over whether hitching our economic wagon to the coal industry was such a good strategy. That is, however, the past, something economic historians can argue about.  What we have now is the undeniable fact that coal has been the dominant factor in West Virginia’s economy for over a century.

            Now we are in a time when the industry is declining.  The coal industry realizes the decline is happening.  Coal Association representatives routinely whistle past the graveyard, saying that it’s “never going to be as good as it was.” They follow up with the assertion that coal will remain a major force for a long time but they know.  President Trump came to office on a promise to revive the coal industry.  He made some efforts but he couldn’t do it, any more than he could have commanded the tide not to come in.  

            In parts of West Virginia the decline is visible.  In the 1950s Welch was a thriving city, the capital of the Free State of McDowell.  People in that area did not have to consider a trip to Charleston for serious shopping.  They had Welch.

            In 1950 McDowell County was the third most populous county in West Virginia.  The mechanization of the mines dealt the first blow to Welch. Population fell dramatically and the county began to decline.  The next big blow was the overall decline in the coal industry.  Now the Free State is the thirty third most populous county in West Virginia and one of the poorest counties in the entire United States.  There are efforts in McDowell County to rebuild an economy, an economy that does not depend on coal, and they have had some success.  It’s a long way back.

            So is this our future?  Does the decline of the coal industry inevitably send us all down the path that, through no fault of its own, McDowell County has taken? 

            No, at least not according to a new report by the Center for Energy and Sustainable Development at the West Virginia University College of Law. 

            The report, entitled West Virginia’s Energy Future and subtitled Ramping up Renewable Energy to Decrease Costs, Reduce Risks, and Strengthen Economic Opportunities for West Virginia, paints a hopeful future.  It concludes that we if we move toward renewable energy and energy efficiency we can avoid the pain that will come from the decline of the coal industry and emerge with a more diverse, stable economy.

            The report reaches this conclusion by first looking at the costs of renewable energy.  Since 2009, the cost of solar energy and wind energy have decreased by 90 percent and 71 percent respectively.  The report cites a study that found that by 2025 every single coal fired power plant in West Virginia could be replaced by renewable energy with a resulting cost savings.  The report recommends that utilities begin relying more upon renewable energy sources so as to achieve cost savings.

Having renewable energy available is also important because companies demand it.  As an example of the strong demand from businesses for renewable energy, the report points to the RE100 Initiative. The RE100 Initiative represents over 250 major companies, including businesses like Anheuser-Busch, General Motors, Kellogg’s, Trane, and PNC, that have committed to procure 100 percent renewable electricity.  The RE100 group includes Walmart, Procter & Gamble, Target, and General Mills. Looking beyond the RE100 initiative, other major employers in West Virginia with significant renewable energy procurement efforts include Amazon, AT&T, Home Depot, Lowe’s, PepsiCo, Toyota, and UPS.

Other than force of habit, the chronic argument against moving away from fossil fuels has always been jobs, jobs, jobs.  Friends of fossil fuels have always said with great certitude that any diminution of those industries would be devastating to our economy.  The report addresses this issue.

The report concludes that getting our energy from renewable sources would be between a little less than five percent more expensive than it is now and a little less than five percent less expensive.  The difference in whether renewable sources would be more or less expensive is whether there is a fee on carbon.  Nationwide there is a good deal of support for a fee on carbon as a tool for combatting climate change, both among the public and among political leaders.  If such a fee is enacted then renewable sources will be less expensive than energy from fossil fuels.

On the questions of jobs, the report concludes that moving toward renewables would create thousands of renewable energy and energy efficiency jobs.  On the whole a move toward renewable would have a positive impact on overall employment in the state through 2030, and has an almost neutral (-0.0002%) net-impact on overall employment through 2035.

In addition to the economic benefits of moving away from fossil fuels, the report also addresses the health cost that would be avoided if we no longer relied upon fossil fuels.  The report estimates the avoided hospital admissions for such things as heart, lung, and respiratory diseases.  For example, in 2035 relying upon renewable energy avoids approximately 44 respiratory-related hospital admits, 54 cardiovascular-related hospital admits, and 76 asthma-related emergency room visits. 

The report places a monetary value on avoided health costs, including both health care costs and the lost productivity of those who are sick.  The estimates range from $16 to $36 million in 2021, increasing to from $77 to $174 million in 2035.

The report is realistic in its recognition of how hard a transition will be.  We have been a coal mining state for a long time.  Our state seal features a coal miner.    It is not as if everybody will read the report, say “sounds good to me” and all of a sudden we are getting our energy from solar panels.  Big change is hard.  Moving in a different direction will require deliberate planning and sound leadership.

It is also useful to remember that this report (like many reports) is a projection of what its authors believe, based upon available evidence, will happen in the future.  Since it is in the future, we cannot be sure that the projections are accurate.  The projections of costs to build renewable energy facilities may be more (or less, for that matter) than the authors assume. The report does, however, suggest a way forward.

The report was prepared by GridLab (a non-profit that provides technical grid expertise), Synapse Energy Economics (a research and consulting firm specializing in energy, economic, and environmental topics) and Downstream Strategies (an environmental and economic development consulting firm located in Morgantown, West Virginia).  To read the whole thing, go to https://energy.law.wvu.edu/files/d/b1ff1183-e9ae-4ad0-93bf-aa3afa1da785/wv-s-energy-future-wvu-col-cesd-final.pdf.