WV Looks for Sunshine to Forget Coal Mining & Shale Fracking

by Duane Nichols on March 19, 2015

More Solar Panels in WV: www.MTVSolar.com

The Coal State of WV in Transition to Solar Energy

Evell Meade of Kermit, WV, Greg Dotson of Parkersburg, WV and Mark Hunt of Charleston, WV, from left to right, carry a solar panel into a doctor’s office in Williamson, WV.  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.

From an Article by Mikala Reasbeck, Mint Press News, February 19, 2015

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.

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.”

“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.”

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.

Today, prices of solar panels and other related costs have dropped considerably, and going solar as a community, through a co-op, further reduces costs.

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.

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.

See also: www.FrackCheckWV.net

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