West Virginia may be best known as the source of the coal that built America and keeps its lights on, yet communities throughout the state are taking back their energy independence and going solar.
Evell Meade of Kermit, W.Va., Greg Dotson of Parkersburg, W.Va. and Mark Hunt of Charleston, W.Va., from left to right, carry a solar panel into a doctor’s office in Williamson, W.Va. A group devoted to creating alternative energy jobs in Central Appalachia is building a first for West Virginia’s southern coalfields region this week: a rooftop solar array, assembled by unemployed and underemployed coal miners and contractors. Photo: Jeff Gentner/AP
At just 9.70 cents per kilowatt hour, West Virginians pay the third-lowest electricity rates in the nation. Yet they don’t enjoy the nation’s lowest electricity bills, and they’re not likely to in the future, either.
Indeed, from 2007 to 2011, electricity rates jumped an average of 50 percent across the state. And on Feb. 3, the state’s Public Service Commission approved another rate increase for Mon Power and Potomac Edison, subsidiaries operating under the Ohio-based FirstEnergy Corp. Together, these subsidiaries serve over 520,500 customers in 34 counties and the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia.
This latest hike is “just 7.4 percent more reason to go solar,” according to Joey James’ reading of the document from the commission.
James is a staff scientist with the Energy Program of Downstream Strategies, a Morgantown, West Virginia-based environmental consulting firm. Originally from Columbus, Ohio, James decided to stay in the Mountain State after graduating from West Virginia University. Considering the state’s history as a coal producer and its more recent rise as a natural gas hub, it would be easy to assume that James decided to build a career around tapping into those energy resources — but he’s not.
“There’s a community of young West Virginians who all have the same vision: What’s happened historically isn’t working. And we’re all looking ahead to something new,” James told MintPress News.
That “something new” is slowly, but surely, coming in the form of solar power. Over the past couple of years, community solar co-ops have been popping up on the hills and in the hollers of West Virginia, and more are in the works.
Despite a lack of state incentives and the high up-front costs, communities and individuals are pulling together to take back their energy independence and free themselves from the monopolies held by energy companies which largely rely on coal to generate electricity.
“West Virginia’s coal built America”
West Virginia’s identity and economy has long been tied to the coal-based energy it produces not just for itself — the state generated at least 96 percent of its own electricity from coal last year — but also the nation.
“West Virginia’s coal built America. It fired its steel mills, lit its homes, and provided the cheap energy to create the wealthiest nation in the world,” Patrick Reis wrote for the National Journal in 2013.
Yet, as that article goes on to note, this hasn’t improved the lives of West Virginians. The state consistently ranks among the nation’s poorest, its residents scoring the lowest in well-being indices and with nearly the lowest life expectancy.
Central Appalachian coal production dropped 20 percent from 1997 to 2008 alone, and the state lost 17,000 mining jobs from 1983 to 2012 (though an EPA crackdown on mountaintop removal in 2009 provided a boost to coal employment).
When hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, took off in the state, it seemed like an obvious new economic lifeline. But as Measure of America, a project under the Social Science Research Council, reported in its American Human Development Report, Measure of America 2013-2014, part of a series measuring well-being in health, education and earnings, “Resources like natural gas enabled states such as New Mexico, Montana, and West Virginia to avoid the earnings losses most other states faced between 2000 and 2010. But their HD [Human Development] Index rankings remained low; valuable natural resources do not automatically fuel improvements in people’s well-being.”
While noting that those working in the extractives industry earn an average of $22 per hour — compared to $16 across all industries and the state’s $7.25 an hour minimum wage — and that these earnings trickle back into local businesses as workers, especially those without college degrees, flock toward employment opportunities, Measure of America reports:
“But the higher pay that workers earn is offset by dangerous working conditions, lack of job security (market changes can have big and sudden impacts), and relatively short careers (these jobs are often physically arduous and thus best suited to the young) without much room for advancement. Fracking boom towns have seen skyrocketing rents; poor, overcrowded living conditions and housing shortages; traffic, sanitation, and other environmental impacts; increased violence among workers and against women; and problems with substance abuse.”
At best, the natural gas industry is a mixed bag. And like the coal industry, it isn’t necessarily bankable in a long-term sense. Coal and natural gas aren’t hidden below the surface in unlimited amounts, and aside from environmental and socio-cultural concerns surrounding their extraction and use, they’re inherently non-renewable resources that are going to run out eventually.
Solar is a different story entirely. The solar industry is creating jobs 20 times faster than the overall economy. There are more solar installation sector jobs than coal mining jobs and it created 50 percent more jobs than the oil and gas pipeline construction industries combined. West Virginia, in particular, has favorable solar resources which, according to a 2013 policy white paper from Downstream Strategies and the Mountain Institute, surpass that of Germany, “the largest and most successful solar market in the world.”
“West Virginia needed this more”
After graduating from college in 2007, Dan Conant left West Virginia so he could work in the “solar energy industry, renewable energy, energy efficiency — anything I really wanted to do.” He spent the next few years launching a series of solar projects everywhere from Virginia to Vermont.
“I kept feeling a sense of guilt, and felt like West Virginia needed this more, not just because of energy, but because of brain drain,” Conant told MintPress.
Since 1980, West Virginia has lost a quarter-million residents born in the state. This is particularly true among the young, college-educated set, who have generally sought more gainful employment in other states. Further, the state appears consistently at the bottom of Forbes magazine’s Best States for Business and Careers list — last year, West Virginia was 48th.
Still, Conant saw a glimmer of hope for solar in West Virginia, and in 2013 he returned to found Solar Holler, which uses a crowd-sourcing and financing program to help community groups and nonprofits go solar.
The organization has teamed up with Maryland-based Mosaic Power to install remote controls on volunteers’ water heaters. These remote controls turn the water heaters on and off for 30 seconds to 15 minutes, acting as “virtual power plants” to allow more solar and wind energy into the grid. The fleets of remote controls on the water heaters fill in the gaps for days when it’s cloudy or winds are calm, and the energy savings are sold to the regional utility grid.
Volunteers are paid $100 per tank, per year. Instead of pocketing these funds, they pass them onto Solar Holler, which puts the money toward solar panel installations for nonprofits like churches and libraries.
Solar Holler completed its first crowdsourcing campaign and installed panels on the Shepherdstown Presbyterian Church in August, and its second campaign is underway to equip the Bolivar-Harpers Ferry Public Library in the historic town of Harpers Ferry with solar panels.
“We’re keeping West Virginia an energy state — it’s always been an energy state,” Conant said. Noting that renewables are the future, he added, “Solar is the next step in that.”
A map depicting the cities, towns and counties that host solar co-ops and related non-profit organizations.
Solar Holler was spun out of the Community Power Network (CPN), a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit started by Anya Schoolman in 2009. When her son pushed her to go solar in 2007, Schoolman decided that the research and work that would go into such an initiative would only be worth it if she could get their entire neighborhood on board. Over the course of two years, she worked to take 45 houses solar.
After that, communities throughout the D.C. area and in surrounding states started approaching Schoolman, asking for her help. So far, CPN has helped two West Virginia counties start their own solar co-ops via WV SUN.
“Monroe and Fayette Counties reached out to CPN. They were fighting fracking and pipelines, but they also wanted to create the energy resources they wanted,” Emily Stiever, the temporary director of WV SUN and the program director of CPN, told MintPress.
WV SUN helps individuals determine whether solar panels would be viable on their property, and then where the panels would be most effective. It also works to educate homeowners on solar energy and the process of going solar. The nonprofit also helps co-op members sort through bids from installers to find the best price.
“The installer doesn’t have to explain everything. They can cut right to the logistics,” Stiever said, noting that this cuts down on the installation time and saves customers money.
Moreover, by buying in bulk and being educated, co-op members can shave significant amounts off of the initial costs of going solar — a process which can cost anywhere from $8,000 to 10,000 in up-front costs including equipment and installation.
These up-front costs are prohibitively expensive for many in West Virginia, where the median household income hovers around $12,000 below the national average. Stiever admits that it doesn’t make economic sense for everyone to go solar, but over the long term, as costs associated with solar power continue to fall and as more people embrace solar technologies, WV SUN hopes that eventually the up-front costs will be low enough to encourage wider participation.
“West Virginia energy from West Virginia sunshine”
For about four years, West Virginia offered a $2,000 state tax credit for anyone installing any kind of solar power system, but the Legislature let that lapse two years ago.
Other states have set renewable energy portfolio standards, which dictate how much power companies need to use renewable sources like wind, solar or hydroelectric to generate the electricity they provide. Individuals with solar panels at home, for example, can often sell their renewable energy credits to power companies that come up short in their renewables targets — it’s a win-win: the solar power-producing consumer makes money for the power he or she is generating at home anyway, and the power company gets closer to meeting its target.
West Virginia, too, had such a scheme — sort of. The state recently repealed its Alternative and Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard, which not only included coal, natural gas and tire-derived fuels as alternative energy resources, but also contained no specific requirements for renewable energy.
Aside from some available federal tax credits the personal satisfaction of limiting one’s carbon footprint, what’s the incentive for going solar in West Virginia?
“The only thing that could be called an incentive — and it’s not even an incentive, it’s just the fair thing to do — is net metering,” Bill Howley told MintPress. “There’s no tax credit, no portfolio standard, but we do have nice, clean net metering.”
Net metering is a policy in which any energy produced by a consumer, but not used by that consumer, feeds into the electric company’s local distribution line. The energy-producing consumer is also free to pull from the grid in the future — it’s not a matter of having to use all the electricity one produces or losing it to the power company forever. WV SUN’s Stiever describes it as one of the most important policies for people looking to get a return on their investment toward going solar.
Howley blogs about electrical issues in West Virginia on his blog, The Power Line, from his home and farm in Chloe, West Virginia. In addition to providing a range of services through his research firm, Bill Howley Research, he’s become somewhat of a go-to guy for anything related to solar power in the Mountain State.
He invested in solar for his farm in 2010, well before there were murmurs of co-ops throughout the state.
“I live in about as rural of a community as you can find in West Virginia, way out on the end of the distribution grid,” he said, noting that especially in southern parts of the state, the grid is old and in poor shape. “There are lots of blackouts.”
“We live from our farm, so our freezer is full of meat and vegetables — and we can’t afford to lose that.”
When the Derecho storm disrupted Mon Power’s services for 14 days in the summer of 2012, Howley says his lights, water heater and freezer didn’t even flicker. His six-panel system, coupled with eight 6V batteries, is capable of powering his home for a week without sunlight.
In 2013, Howley added nine more solar panels in a separate array. By then, the costs had fallen by about 50 percent since he installed his first array. He further dragged down the costs of installation in true West Virginian fashion: He used his own farm equipment to dig ditches to install underground cables.
By combining his solar production with bringing his household’s electricity consumption to about 7kWh a day, or around 200 kWh a month, he says his family is at “essentially net zero with the power company.”
“We send as much into their system as we take out over the course of the year,” he said. “We had a very cloudy fall and early winter, so we may end up paying the power company $30 to 40 for 2014.”
The power company offers Howley a 1:1 credit for every kWh of electricity he puts back into their system. Yet, as he explains, the notion that his electricity reaches the grid at all isn’t scientifically accurate.
“Electrons travel via the path of least resistance. They go to my neighbor’s house to power their washing machine,” Howley said. “It doesn’t go into Mon Power’s system — it goes down the road to my neighbors.”
“The power company gets a windfall if they pay me less for my net metered electricity than they charge my neighbor for the power that I’m producing.”
At 62, Howley considers his solar arrays a retirement investment, as he knows exactly what he’ll be paying for his electricity from here on out. “I don’t mind it when West Virginia’s electricity rates go up,” he quips.
Meanwhile, WV SUN’s Stiever describes the interest in solar in the state as coming out of an inherently West Virginian virtue. “It’s self-sufficiency,” she said, “‘I chop the wood I burn in my fire.’ ‘I have my own vegetable garden.’”
“It’s people saying, ‘We’re from West Virginia and we produce our own power,’” Stiever said, adding that it’s a point of local pride that, for example, a rooftop solar panel installation can’t be outsourced. Having solar arrays installed on a business or home contributes to the creation of local jobs and to keeping money in the local economy.
“My system was installed by West Virginians, for West Virginians, and it produces West Virginia energy from West Virginia sunshine,” Howley said, simultaneously echoing Stiever and West Virginia’s state motto: Montani semper liberi (Mountaineers are always free).
“Let’s do this”
While West Virginia ranks toward the bottom in overall solar jobs, the emergence of solar co-ops throughout the Mountain State is a sign that the state could be poised to climb those rankings — slowly, but steadily.
Mary Ellen Cassidy is helping to lead the exploratory stages for a solar co-op in Wheeling in partnership with WV SUN. Already, there’s a group of 15 to 20 people she describes as interested, though many are “very cautious.”
“The question always comes down to: Can we afford it?” Cassidy told MintPress.
About 15 years ago, she and her husband looked into installing solar panels at both their home and office — a building that served as West Virginia’s first capitol building when it broke away from Virginia and declared its statehood in 1863. Seeing that solar was too expensive then, Cassidy and her husband opted for an energy efficiency upgrade instead, taking advantage of incentives from agencies like the U.S. Department of Agriculture to make it affordable.
“West Virginia is really tough [for renewable energy incentives],” Cassidy said. “Almost all incentives are for the coal or fossil fuel industries.”
Today, however, prices of solar panels and other related costs have dropped considerably, and going solar as a community, through a co-op, further reduces costs.
“People just absolutely don’t know it as an option,” she said. “For the gas fields, a land man will come to your home to buy your mineral rights. Solar doesn’t have anybody coming to your door.”
Cassidy hopes legislators will come to see solar as an investment that needs to be made and approach it with the same enthusiasm that’s been extended to the coal and natural gas industries. In the end, it’s sustainable economic activity that creates local jobs while also chipping away at people’s dependence on polluting, non-renewable energy sources — all things that West Virginia could certainly use more of.
“Energy independence means not being tied into the volatility of the market and rising prices,” Cassidy said, “and we’re all interested in investing in our community.”
Wheeling itself is currently going through a major revitalization. More and more young people and families are setting down stakes there, opening businesses and restaurants and breathing new life into the Rust Belt city along the Ohio River in the process.
“They don’t see the obstacles as much as what’s possible,” Cassidy said.
There will be informational meetings for solar co-ops in Wheeling and Morgantown this month. During these sessions, West Virginians — young and old, urban and rural — can explore funding solutions and learn more about how they could join a community to take back their own energy independence.
Cassidy is enthusiastic about the upcoming meeting. There’s something in the air in Wheeling, she said, “There’s a feeling of, ‘Let’s do this.’”