The US state of West Virginia barely makes a ripple on the great global pond of clean power, and for good reason. Fossil energy has been locked into the Mountain State’s political identity for generations, all the way up to the current Governor Jim Justice, who built a fortune on his father’s coal mining business. Nevertheless, the compelling allure of renewable energy is irresistible. A new wind power project backed by the clean investment firm Hannon Armstrong will soon pump 110 megawatts of clean wattage into the state, and a wave of utility scale solar is finally in the works, too.
Big Renewable Energy Investor Locks In 1.6 More Gigawatts For US
Hannon Armstrong has been popping up on the CleanTechnica radar lately due to its ambitious, gigawatt-scale activity in the clean power field here in the United States.
Just last summer, Hannon put up the big bucks for a total of 2.3 gigawatts in wind and solar projects in several states around the US. That move finally put the leading energy company ENGIE on the US solar map for the first time, which was a welcome development considering ENGIE’s global influence.
Hannon Armstrong’s newly announced portfolio of six clean power projects across four different states totals 1.6 gigawatts of wind and solar along with 395 megawatts of energy storage, under the umbrella of another clean power company that has been scooting across the CleanTechnica radar, Clearway Energy Group.
The six projects are:
- Daggett Solar: a 482 MW utility-scale solar project with 320 MW of co-located storage located in San Bernardino County, California.
- Mesquite Star: a 419 MW wind project located in Fisher and Nolan County, Texas.
- Mesquite Sky: a 345 MW wind project located in Callahan County, Texas.
- Rosamond Central: a 192 MW utility-scale solar project located in Kern County, California.
- Black Rock: a 110 MW wind project in Mineral and Grant County, West Virginia.
- Waiawa and Mililani: a 36 MW utility-scale solar project and a 39 MW utility-scale solar project with a combined 75 MW of co-located storage located in Oahu, Hawaii.
West Virginia Pumps Up Renewable Energy Profile
If West Virginia sticks out of that list like a sore thumb, it should. Despite its plethora of windswept mountaintops — hundreds of which have already suffered the blows of mountaintop removal coal mining — the state currently ranks a lowly 26th in the US for installed wind capacity, with 742 megawatts spread among six projects.
At 110 megawatts, the new Black Rock wind farm would inject a nice big new chunk of wind power into the state in one fell swoop. That’s significant because, according to our friends over at the American Wind Energy Association, wind is already running neck-and-neck with other non-coal forms of electricity generation in the state, and it won’t take much to put it over the top.
As of last year, AWEA charted 91% for coal (surprise!) and 2.7% for wind, which is pretty respectable considering that natural gas only nailed down 3.3%.
For those of you keeping score at home, solar, nuclear and biomass don’t even register on AWEA’s tracking site (the remaining category is “other” at 0.3%, which likely includes solar power).
Black Rock also supports the idea of deploying clean power to attract and retain businesses. Clearway has already inked power purchase agreements with Toyota and the utility AEP for the new wind farm, so stay tuned for more on that.
What About Solar Power In West Virginia?
Yes, what about it? According to the latest state-by-state solar power ranking by the Solar Energy Industries Association, West Virginia’s solar industry is even slower out of the gate than its wind industry. The state has just 10.52 megawatts in installed solar capacity under its belt to date, putting it down at the #49 slot for state rankings in 2020.
There has been talk of repurposing unused coal fields for solar farms since at least 2011, when the “billion-dollar” Williamson coal field was eyeballed for solar conversion.
However, aside from political obstacles the idea of repurposing spent coal mines for clean power is more complicated than it may seem. For starters, there’s the question of how to get all those kilowatts down from a remote former coal mine and over to populated areas where people can use them. On the other hand, the emerging clean data center trend raises the possibility of co-locating new data centers with solar arrays in remote locations.
Meanwhile, school districts in West Virginia have been driving the interest in solar power. The school districts in Grant and Mineral counties provide a couple of good examples that hint at a ripple impact on the renewable energy market in statewide, as these are the same two counties that will host the new Black Rock wind farm.
In 2019, news surfaced that schools in Mineral County were already realizing thousands of dollars in energy savings in the first year of a clean power and energy efficiency overhaul.
The work included several HVAC upgrades, new LED lights, a geothermal system at one school, and solar panels at another. As of November 2019, the solar powered school was already banking credits for producing more energy than it can use on site.
Something just as interesting went on over at the Grant County school district last year. When they flipped the switch on their new solar panels, they laid claim to the largest net metered solar array in West Virginia.
As of last year, the Grant County was also anticipating that the new array would bring in revenue while also adding more clean power to the grid.
Local TV station WHSV reported that the energy savings for Grant County will top $1,000,000 over 15 years, which is expected to translate into additional energy upgrades for other schools in the county.
Coal Losing Out To Clean Power
The Grant County school district also anticipates its renewable energy investment will help introduce students to the idea that there is more than one way to produce energy in West Virginia
That’s a welcome change from generations of coal dependency. Though long touted as an economic engine for West Virginia, flip the picture and what you get is a state long bedeviled by economic depression, poor health outcomes, and permanent environmental destruction. The current wave of coal bankruptcies has left miners and their communities at risk of losing pensions and health benefits, even as the COVID-19 outbreak has exposed them to even greater health risks.
As for why West Virginia is so slow to the renewable energy party, earlier this week by The Herald-Dispatch (follow that link and support local journalism) described a new report titled “West Virginia’s Energy Future” from the West Virginia University College of Law that describes a litany of obstacles, including the repeal of a 2009 target for renewable energy in 2015.
Nevertheless, a sea change occurred with the recent passage of a state law that finally smooths the way for utility scale solar. Just last month the West Virginia Public Service Commission approved a 90-megawatt solar array for Raleigh County, and the law firm of Bowles Rice also took note of another 100 megawatts of solar in the proposal pipeline, with more on the way.
If those 190 megawatts come to fruition within the next year or two, that would completely overrun SEIA’s estimated timeline for solar development in West Virginia. Currently, SEIA currently estimates the addition of just 154 megawatts over the next five years.
A Just Transition To Renewable Energy
Another change-making element to keep in mind is the continued drop in coal employment in West Virginia, which means that the voting constituency for coal is fading, too.
As one measure of growing public support for new energy technology, this year the West Virginia House of Representatives set the stage for a green jobs boom when it passed a bill that makes the case for establishing a Just Transition Office, along with other provisions aimed at managing the economic fallout from the inevitable decline of the coal economy.
The proposed legislation, House Bill 4574, notes that coal mines currently employ only 12,000 workers in West Virginia, down from 63,000 as recently as 1978.
“According to Moody’s, coal-based electricity generation may fall to 11 percent of the nation’s total generation by 2030,” the bill writers note. “The closure of coal-fired power plants nationwide is likely to have a serious impact on employment in West Virginia’s coal mines and the transportation and logistics supply chains that move coal from mine to market.”
“The communities that host closing coal mines and retiring power plants may lose principal contributors to their tax base and revenue for vital local government services,” they add.
That bill appears to have stalled in the state Senate, but proponents of a managed transition from coal to renewable energy may have a secret weapon in their pocket as utilities like AEP transition their portfolios out of coal and into something more profitable.
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Photo (cropped): Solar farm courtesy of Clearway Energy.