Solar is about as popular in coal country as offshore oil drilling is in California, but despite a legislature hostile to renewables and fierce pressure from lobbying groups, West Virginia Governor Earl Ray Tomblin has vetoed controversial bill House Bill No. 2100. The bill would have required West Virginia’s Public Service Commission to set new rules on net metering that would have killed opportunities for the owners of solar installations to sell power back to the state’s grid. Governor Tomblin vetoed the bill on technical grounds, citing vague language that the bill’s opponents said would have dismantled the state’s small but growing solar market.
A coalition of clean energy advocacy groups, including the Solar Energy Industries Association, had urged the governor to veto HB 2100. Saying it was unfair to “families, businesses, and churches,” SEIA complained the poor wording over terms such as “commission,” “cross-subsidization,” and “customer generator” gave utilities leeway to deal with net metering as they would see fit — which of course meant that they would have ended the practice or charged fees that would have made it prohibitively expensive.
Another organization that insisted Governor Tomblin veto the bill is the conservative group Tell Utilities Solar Won’t Be Killed (TUSK). Former US Representative Barry Goldwater, Jr., of Arizona, who is the son of the 1964 Republican nominee for President, has used libertarian arguments to promote the expansion of solar in 11 politically red or purple states. Arguing that utilities “want to extinguish the independent rooftop solar market in America to protect their socialist control of how we get our electricity,” the group has used the freedom of choice argument to advance the cause of solar in states from Arizona to West Virginia. TUSK has denounced the attacks on net metering as a “profit grab” and “utility greed,” arguing that such moves fly in the face of a free market economy and the drive to boost local job growth. But those arguments may be falling on deaf ears.
Governor Tomblin’s use of his veto pen does not mean this saga is over. He left the door open to signing a similar piece of legislation, as he suggested several ways in which the bill could be rewritten and that he anticipated another look at a revamped bill: “These errors can be easily fixed, and I urge the Legislature to return this critical piece of legislation to my desk for final review,” the governor said in a statement.
The governor’s signature on a rewritten bill that would end net metering effectively puts a boot on the neck of West Virginia’s nascent clean energy industry. Earlier this month, Governor Tomblin signed House Bill No. 2001, which repealed West Virginia’s Alternative Renewable Energy Portfolio Act. That mandate, passed with the approval of Governor Joe Manchin in 2001, had required the state’s utilities to derive 25% of electricity from cleaner sources by 2025. That legislation included a provision for net metering from solar installations.
But arguing the state’s economic fundamentals had changed over time, a reversal of the state’s renewable energy standard picked up steam, and the repeal passed unanimously in the State Senate and 95–4 in the House of Delegates. West Virginia is the first US state to put the kibosh on its renewable energy plan, a move which observers say is a victory for utilities and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). The final thread from which solar energy in West Virginia is hanging, net metering, could still become snipped very soon.
So, how can proponents of solar breathe life into an industry on life support in one of the poorest US states? Gaining the support of churches and community groups is one way to appeal to residents of a state who feel their most lucrative export, coal, is under siege (which it is, but largely thanks to the natural gas boom).
One nonprofit, Solar Holler, is on a mission to power West Virginia and Appalachia with more solar energy. Arguing that lower utility bills, and of course free electricity, can in turn increase the resources that churches can use to perform better community work, Solar Holler is developing a business model to boost solar’s acceptance within the faith community. Since nonprofits cannot benefit from tax credits and other government incentives — in addition to the fact they cannot score the capital needed for a solar installation — Solar Holler is using crowdfunding to wean nonprofits off of conventional energy. Smart controllers are installed on water heaters within a community to reduce energy consumption, and those savings in turn are used to fund a solar installation. Solar Holler says about 75 such controls are enough to fund such a project, which then allows the solar installation to be installed, which in turn Solar Holler donates to the church or nonprofit.
Solar Holler’s work has resulted in the largest community solar project in West Virginia, but it is still carrying a sling-shot into a gun fight with utilities. But with fossil fuel prices already inching up while solar becomes cheaper, renewables still have some life in West Virginia— even though the state capital, Charleston, has been bought by lobbyists who do not have citizens’ long term interests in mind.
Image Credit: Solar Holler