CHARLESTON — A report from the Center for Energy and Sustainable Development at West Virginia University’s College of Law lays out a roadmap to a future in which West Virginia is powered by renewable energy.
The report says the state will be better off because of renewable energy and offers suggestions for how to work around obstacles expected along the way.
West Virginia is one of 13 states without any renewable portfolio standard or target, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The 52-page report, released Monday and titled “West Virginia’s Energy Future,” makes the case for a “major ramping up” of renewable energy and energy efficiency over the next 15 years. It argues that it would be more cost-competitive for the state than continuing to depend on coal.
“Utilities are already moving in this direction, but I think there’s a lot of misconception that coal is still a cost-effective way to generate electricity,” said James Van Nostrand, director of the Center for Energy and Sustainable Development. “If nothing else, we hope this report will stimulate some discussion.”
The report’s arguments are more economic than environmental, as it points out that renewable energy keeps getting less expensive.
“Some will argue that we should just utilize coal as long as possible,” reads the report, whose lead author is Tim Cronin, a CESD fellow. “But forecasts showing weakening coal economics into the foreseeable future demonstrate that this would be a recipe for a costly, slow decline — all while missing out on the opportunity to build a 21st century renewable energy economy in West Virginia.”
The report cites an October 2020 analysis from the financial advisory firm Lazard estimating that the ongoing cost of a new solar energy project is $24 to $32 per megawatt hour, $10 to $16 less per megawatt hour than the cost just to operate an existing coal-fired power plant.
It also cites an analysis from Energy Innovation: Policy and Technology, a San Francisco-based energy and environmental policy firm, finding that 74% of U.S. coal capacity could be replaced by nearby renewable energy generation with immediate cost savings as of 2018, with that percentage rising to 86% by 2025.
Coal-fired electric power plants accounted for 91% of West Virginia’s electricity net generation in 2019. But coal accounted for just 23% of the nation’s net electricity generation overall last year, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
“Given the speed with which coal-fired power plants are becoming uneconomical versus renewable energy power plants, West Virginia’s electric utilities urgently need to consider diversifying their resource portfolios to include more renewable energy facilities,” the report states.
The report also cites an economic outlook for the next four years published by WVU’s John Chambers College of Business and Economics. That outlook forecasts declines in coal production and employment of 2.3% and 1.7%, respectively, on an annual basis from 2020 through 2024.
The report also notes the unanimous approval earlier this year by the state House of Delegates of coal transition legislation that stalled in the Senate. That legislation would have established a coal and timber transition advisory committee that would create a plan for a “just transition” for communities hardest hit by an energy shift.
“The transformation has been happening,” Cronin said. “It’s a question of how we approach it.”
American Electric Power, the parent company of Appalachian Power and Wheeling Power, has announced goals of reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 80% by 2050 and adding more than 8,000 megawatts of regulated wind and solar through 2030. FirstEnergy, the parent company of Mon Power and Potomac Edison, pledged in November to transition away from coal-fired power plants in West Virginia by 2050 to become carbon neutral.
The report explores pathways to diversified generation portfolios for West Virginia’s utilities by 2035 and predicts that the net employment impact of ramping up renewables through 2030 would be a gain of 1,155 full-time jobs, factoring in employment effects of the buildout of renewable energy resources and the gradual retirement of coal-fired power plants.
Van Nostrand and Cronin said the report was inspired by awareness that the end of 2020 will bring new integrated resource plans presented by the utilities to the Public Service Commission for review outlining what resources they feel will meet electricity demand at the lowest cost.
“(W)e just felt there was an opportunity to see if we could stake out a different path than we thought the utilities were going to take,” Van Nostrand said.
Appalachian Power President and COO Chris Beam said in a news release announcing the report that its analysis shared AEP’s carbon emissions goals. Additionally, the West Virginia Development Office touts the report for suggesting that the state can create nearly 3,000 full-time jobs by installing solar farms and energy efficiency.
“(We’re) just wanting to make sure that West Virginia … benefits, knowing that this transition is taking place on a national level,” Cronin said.