In W.Va., New GOP Majority Defangs Renewable Energy Law That Never Had a Bite

New Republican majority's first act overturns broad renewable standard that counted even burnt tires as an alternative energy source.

The West Virginia legislature's first act in the 2015 session was to repeal that state's renewable energy mandate. Photo credit: Coal-fired John E. Amos plant in West Virginia/ Quinn Dombrowski

In a largely symbolic move, West Virginia legislators have repealed a law that required utilities to generate a quarter of their power from renewable or alternative sources by 2025. The bill repealing the state's energy portfolio standard passed 95-4 in the House and 33-0 in the Senate and was signed into law by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin on Tuesday. The law leaves intact one provision that provides rebates to people who generate their own electricity.

The repeal, which was the first piece of legislation to come out of the GOP-led legislature this session, is seen by the environmental community as political theater orchestrated entirely to placate constituents.

"This whole thing is a charade," said Bill Howley, a citizen activist following energy policy in West Virginia. "The Republicans had made it a big issue in the elections and they want to be able to say, 'See, we told you we were going to do something about it and look, here it is.'"

Prior to the November 2014 elections, both the House and Senate in West Virginia were controlled by the Democratic Party. But in an unexpected sweep last year, Republican candidates running primarily on a pro-coal platform seized control of the House for the first time in eight decades, winning 64 of the 100 seats. In the Senate they gained control by a two-seat majority.

The 2009 law applied specifically to utilities with over 30,000 users and considered a wide range of options as acceptable alternative sources of energy: natural gas; a variety of coal-burning technologies; and even fuel from burnt tires. As a result, the law has had little to no impact on the electricity mix in the state in the last few years, according to the Public Service Commission, the state's utilities regulatory agency.

In a 2012 report assessing the state of energy generation in West Virginia, the commission noted that the "near term impact on the coal industry through the displacement of coal-fired generation by the Portfolio Act is negligible." The agency also predicted that if West Virginia continued to use 15 percent of the coal it mined instate to produce electricity, only 4 percent of the electricity produced this year would be affected by the act.

"Because [the 2009 law] was written so broadly, none of the utilities have to actually produce any new renewable energy before 2030," said Jim Kotcon, chairman of the energy committee at West Virginia's Sierra Club chapter. In 2009, when the portfolio standards act was passed, it did so without opposition from the utilities or the coal industry, he said.

Republican legislators, however, have argued that the energy portfolio standard provided an unfair advantage to producers of renewable energy, including solar, wind and geothermal.

'Let the Market Dictate'

Delegate Randy Smith, co-chairman of the energy committee, told the Charleston Daily Mail that the free market should determine how electricity is generated. "We're not here to pick winners or losers or give one group an advantage over another group," he said. "We're here to be fair and let the market dictate what wins and what loses."

In a written statement announcing the repeal earlier this week, Gov. Tomblin said that when the legislature first approved the energy portfolio in 2009, the act "had overwhelming support from business and industry," but that "economic drivers and factors [had] change[d] over time, and the Act as it was passed in 2009 is no longer beneficial for our state."

The repeal comes as no surprise to those who have been following West Virginia's position on climate change and energy policy.

Last year West Virginia joined 11 other coal-reliant states and sued the Environmental Protection Agency over the Clean Power Plan, which requires the state to cut its carbon emissions by 20 percent by 2030. The state argued that the EPA was overstepping its jurisdiction and that it would take away thousands of jobs from coal miners. Since then West Virginia's environmental agency, attorney general, legislators and governor have all vehemently opposed the Obama administration's mandate for carbon emission reduction.

The Clean Power Plan allows states to choose among four strategies to achieve the targets set. These strategies—called building blocks—include increasing efficiency at power plants, switching to natural gas, increasing electricity from renewable energy and increasing energy efficiency in homes, businesses and industries. By repealing this law, environmental groups say lawmakers are further dismantling the few tools, however weak, the state had to meet the EPA's targets.

West Virginia is not alone in moving quickly to repeal laws that promote renewable energy. Last week, lawmakers in Georgia sought to end tax credits for those purchasing electric vehicles. In Virginia, legislators are aiming to freeze the state's largest utility's rates and prohibit regulators from examining its revenues.

West Virginia's lawmakers are also considering another bill that requires the state environmental agency to submit its plan to reduce emissions for approval to the legislature before sending it in to the EPA. That bill has passed the House Judiciary Committee and is up for consideration by the House of Delegates.

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