Bill Howley: Gov. Tomblin can stop attempt to strangle W.Va. solar industry

By Bill Howley on March 5, 2015

This Op Ed was originally published in the Charleston Gazette on Thursday, March 5th 2015. Check out the original article.

John Snyder 10 kW
Image of a 10 kW residential system at the home of John Snyder. Image courtesy of John Snyder.

Things started well. When the West Virginia Legislature repealed the 2009 Alternative and Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard law early in this year’s session, legislators wisely kept the part of the law that authorized the West Virginia Public Service Commission to regulate net metering for retail electric customers who send electricity back through their electric meters.

Net metering is a system used in 44 U.S states that allows small scale solar power producers to get a one-for-one credit for the kilowatt hours they produce to offset electricity they use from a power company. Since 2009, more than 600 residential and small business customers in West Virginia have invested millions of dollars in new electricity generation with the understanding that net metering would be there for the 30-year lives of their systems.

After the Legislature passed House Bill 2001, repealing the 2009 AREPS law and preserving net metering, a bipartisan group of delegates introduced HB2201 to reinsert a definition of net metering into the new net metering law created by HB2001. That’s when the problems started.

Strangely, HB2201 did not use the definition of net metering found in either the Alternative and Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard law or the current Public Service Commission rules. Instead, HB2201, by changing an “or” to an “and,” eliminated a whole category of West Virginia citizens from having access to net metering. Many observers suspected that lobbyists from AEP and FirstEnergy, the two Ohio-based holding companies that control our state’s electrical system, started manipulating HB2201 even before the bill was introduced.

Recent residential solar installation in Fayetteville, WV. Image courtesy of Appropriately Applied Technologies.

And things got worse from there. Each time solar advocates pushed legislators to change HB2201, power company lobbyists inserted more and more attacks on net metering. Just three years ago, both AEP and FirstEnergy agreed to net metering rules at the West Virginia Public Service Commission in a voluntary settlement. Now, with vague and misleading language about “cross-subsidization,” the power companies tried to get the Legislature to dictate new terms to solar power producers. The power companies also pushed many PSC net metering rules into law, removing control of net metering that was passed to the PSC in 2009, and reauthorized in the newly passed HB2001.

The result of all this meddling and manipulation is that HB2201 is now a mess that casts a cloud of regulatory uncertainty over business investment and innovation in West Virginia. Solar installers in West Virginia are already seeing current orders being canceled or postponed as customers fear for the future of their investments. Large installed projects, such as those as American Public University in Jefferson County or the Morgantown Transit Authority, are now looking at much longer payoff periods on their investments of taxpayer funds. Most disturbing of all, Yeager Airport’s planned project to invest $15 million to $20 million in the largest solar power array in the state may not happen.

HB2201, vetoed once by Gov. Tomblin, is back on his desk a second time. The bill is aimed straight at killing West Virginia’s small, but growing, solar power industry. This industry includes residential electric customers, installation companies and large institutions. HB2201 has already cost our state jobs and new business.

Gov. Tomblin simply cannot allow AEP and FirstEnergy, through the West Virginia Legislature, to dictate the direction of West Virginia’s energy future. He needs to veto HB2201 a second time to show that West Virginia means business when it comes to innovation and investment by West Virginians, for West Virginians.

Bill Howley lives on a farm in Chloe, where he shares his net metered solar electricity with his neighbors and edits The Power Line, the View from Calhoun County, a blog about energy issues in West Virginia.