06.14.2021

The Great Debate

Alternative and Renewable Energy in West Virginia

By Samantha Cart

During the 2021 session of the West Virginia Legislature, House Bill 3239 was introduced and called for the creation of the West Virginia Energy Diversity Study Commission to identify areas where additional electric power generation facilities may be located that utilize renewable energy sources to lower carbon emissions. While the bill did not make it to the Senate, it is not the first to be introduced stirring discussion on the potential for the increased use of alternative and renewable energy sources in West Virginia. While some argue that West Virginia’s lack of renewable energy sources is hurting its economic opportunities, others are concerned about the U.S. giving up its energy independence in favor of less reliable forms of power. Those on both sides of the issue agree that energy will continue to play an important role in the state’s economy, but there is much debate on what types of energy that should include.  

In an effort to better understand the arguments for and against an increase in alternative and renewable energy sources—particularly wind and solar—West Virginia Executive magazine reached out to James Van Nostrand, professor of law and director of the Center for Energy & Sustainable Development at the West Virginia University (WVU) College of Law and a proponent of increased wind and solar energy production, and Gregory Wrightstone, executive director of the CO2 Coalition and a fierce advocate for the use of fossil fuels, for their unique perspectives on some of the statements that have been made during the debate. 

Solar and wind energy are less harmful to the climate than fossil fuels and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. 

Van Nostrand: Yes, generating electricity with solar and wind generating resources is much less harmful to the climate than burning fossil fuels—either coal or natural gas—to generate electricity. Solar arrays and wind farms produce no greenhouse gas emissions in generating electricity. They reduce emissions to the extent they replace carbon-emitting resources, such as coal- or natural gas-fired generation. A recent study performed by the Center for Energy and Sustainable Development titled “West Virginia’s Energy Future” calculated the dramatic reductions in carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions that could be achieved by displacing coal- and natural gas-fired generation with wind and solar energy in a ramped up renewable scenario.  

Wrightstone: Solar and wind energy are touted as being less harmful to the climate than fossil fuels. However, the environmental harm that accompanies them is significant and widespread—so much so that the Pennsylvania Game Commission that controls 1.5 million acres in the Keystone State banned them permanently and found that wind development was incompatible with its mandates to protect, propagate, manage and preserve the game and wildlife of the commonwealth and promote recreational opportunities.

The federal government is subsidizing wind and solar energy, which is why they appear competitive with fossil fuels on paper. 

Van Nostrand: Utility-scale solar arrays currently benefit from a 26% investment tax credit, which is being phased down to 10% in 2024. Wind generation currently receives a production tax credit of 18 cents/kilowatt-hour (kWh), or $18 per megawatt-hour (MWh), which is being phased out after 2021. The most recent calculated Levelized Cost of Electricity from the Energy Information Administration shows that even without the subsidies, however, utility-scale solar and onshore wind facilities are cheaper than coal- or natural gas-fired generation. Federal subsidies for renewable energy projects receive undue attention as a result of the frequent legislative action necessary to extend them from time to time. In contrast, subsidies favoring fossil fuels such as depletion allowances, deductions for intangible drilling costs and credits for clean coal investments are permanent provisions in the Internal Revenue Code and receive very little attention. According to a study by the International Monetary Fund, subsidies for fossil fuels in the U.S. in 2017 were $649 billion, including the negative externalities caused by fossil fuels such as health care costs and climate change adaptation. 

Wrightstone: Wind turbines are unlikely to be economically viable without government subsidies anytime soon, if ever, according to a recent report by PPHB Energy Investment Banking. 

Solar and wind drew the largest federal subsidies for the amount of electricity generated in 2013—$231 and $35 per MWh, respectively. The amounts for nuclear, natural gas and coal were $2, $0.60 and $0.57, respectively. Solar and wind simply cannot compete in a free market with fossil and nuclear. A natural gas well will produce 600% more electricity over a 30-year period than will an equal investment into solar or wind, according to the Manhattan Institute. 

Many states surrounding West Virginia have renewable portfolio standards, making them more competitive in business. West Virginia’s lack of access to renewable energy sources will keep companies from locating to the state. 

Van Nostrand: Thirty states—including Ohio, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia—have renewable portfolio standards that stimulate the development of renewable energy resources within their state. Five other states have clean energy standards, which require their electricity supply to be zero carbon. Those states with a commitment to renewable energy are well-positioned to attract large employers, many of which have corporate sustainability goals requiring their electricity to be supplied by renewable resources. For example, over 200 companies have joined RE100, in which they commit themselves to going 100% renewable for electricity by a certain year. West Virginia, with its 92% coal-fired electricity supply, will be unable to attract the employers with renewable energy goals. West Virginia Commerce Secretary Ed Gaunch confirmed in his testimony to the House Energy Committee in February 2020 that the state’s lack of renewable energy generation is an impediment to investment.  

Wrightstone: In 2004, Pennsylvania enacted the Alternative Energy Portfolio Standards that likely made the state less competitive. Alternative energy mandates raise the cost of living and manufacturing and make it harder for people to find work. These were the findings of a 2016 study by the Rhode Island Center for Freedom and Prosperity. According to the report, the mandates adversely affect Pennsylvania and by 2025 will have raised energy costs by $700 million and eliminated 11,400 jobs. After more than a decade of subsidizing alternative energy sources, wind and solar produced about 2% of Pennsylvania’s net electric generation in 2020, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

A renewable portfolio standard makes states less competitive, as it is forcing more expensive electricity onto the grid. Denmark has the highest percentage of wind energy implemented in the world. Compare the residential electricity rate of Denmark (~35 cents/kWh) to that of U.S. (~10 cents/kWh). 

Solar panels and wind turbine blades are nonrecyclable, and the heavy metals used to make solar panels are harmful to the environment during the disposal process. 

Van Nostrand: Solar panels often contain lead, cadmium and other toxic chemicals that cannot be removed without breaking apart the entire panel. Solar panel disposal in regular landfills is thus not recommended in case modules break and toxic materials can leach into the soil. Although about 90% of most photo voltaic (PV) modules are made up of glass, this glass often cannot be recycled as float glass due to impurities. But the possibility of recycling solar panels in the U.S. has not been extensively explored because a vast majority of installations have occurred in the past 10 years. In Europe, on the other hand, where greater solar PV capacities were installed in the 1990s, a solar PV module recycling market is steadily maturing.

In the case of wind turbines, about 85% of turbine component materials—such as steel, copper wire, electronics and gearing—can be recycled or reused. The blades are different as they are made up of fiberglass, a composite material, to be lightweight for efficiency yet still durable enough to withstand storms. The mixed nature of the blade material makes separating the plastics from the glass fibers to recycle into a workable fiberglass material difficult, and the strength needed for the blades means they are also physically challenging to break apart. There are few options for recycling the blades currently, so the vast majority of those that reach end of use are either being stored in various places or taken to landfills. 

The disposal issues associated with wind and solar equipment are minor, of course, compared to the environmental devastation left behind by coal-fired generation. Coal plants produce more than 100 million tons of coal ash every year, for example, more than half of which ends up in ponds, lakes, landfills and other sites where, over time, it can contaminate waterways and drinking water supplies. In West Virginia alone, Earthjustice has identified 41 coal ash impoundments at 11 power plants, at least five of which are rated high hazard given the likely loss of life in the event of failure. 

Wrightstone: According to Mark Mills, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, by 2050, with current plans, the quantity of worn-out solar panels—much of it non-recyclable—will constitute double the tonnage of all today’s global plastic waste, along with over 3 million tons per year of unrecyclable plastics from worn-out wind turbine blades. By 2030, more than 10 million tons per year of batteries will become garbage.

There are no environmental or technological barriers to deploying renewable energy in West Virginia. 

Van Nostrand: West Virginia already has six operating wind farms generating over 760 megawatts (MWs), with an additional project, the 115-MW Black Rock project to be located on the Grant-Mineral county line, announced in January. With respect to solar potential, Downstream Strategies analyzed in 2017 whether brownfield sites in West Virginia—for example, abandoned mine lands, landfills and former industrial sites—could serve as feasible locations for solar farms. They identified at least 140,160 acres of brownfield sites that are viable for large solar energy installations. The West Virginia’s Energy Future report produced by the Center for Energy & Sustainable Development proposes the development of about 8.2 gigawatts of solar energy installations under the ramped up renewables scenario, which would require less than half that amount—64,780 acres—for construction. This means that solar on the scale of the ramped up renewables scenario could feasibly occur without even breaking ground on greenfield sites.

Wrightstone: WVU Geology Professor Dr. Tim Carr compared the energy created by the Boggess well pad—39.35 acres—outside of Morgantown to that needed for wind and solar in West Virginia. To generate the same energy as the Boggess pad from wind would require 7,368 acres, or 187 times the land required for the Marcellus well pad. To generate the same energy from solar would require 6,432 acres, or 163 times the land required for the Marcellus well pad.  

The Columbia Center on Global Energy Policy estimates that by 2050 the total area covered by wind and solar will be approximately 590,000 square kilometers, or an area equal to Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island put together. 

The placement of large wind turbines on ridge tops despoils the grand vistas of the Mountain State and diminishes the appeal to the tourists that flock here every year. Do you want to climb to the top of Seneca Rocks or Spruce Knob to see ridge tops on either side lined with slowly turning turbines? The state’s motto is Montani Semper Liberi, and that should include that they be free of industrial-scale wind farms. 

Solar and wind energy are unreliable and intermittent. 

Van Nostrand: Solar and wind facilities are commonly referred to as variable or intermittent generating facilities due to their reliance on the sun and wind for generating capability. The capacity factor, which compares the average output to the generator’s nameplate capacity, of an onshore wind farm, for example, is about 41%, meaning that a 100-MW windfarm will, on average, produce about 41 average MW each hour over the course of a year. The comparable figure for solar is somewhat lower—about 30%. The variability is increasingly being reduced through greater use of battery storage or, in the case of concentrating solar, using solar thermal energy storage systems. While the capacity factors for solar and wind have improved considerably over the past decade, renewable resources alone will never have the level of reliability to serve as baseload generation. 

Wrightstone: True. Solar and wind are exceedingly inefficient generators of electricity because they are unavailable most of the time, often less than 35% of the day. By contrast, the availability of coal and nuclear plants are typically 70% and 90%, respectively. Similarly, solar and wind facilities last for two or three decades at best while coal and nuclear plants have lives in excess of 50 years. During their operating life, wind turbines are well-known for killing birds and creating eyesores that draw the ire of nature lovers and neighbors. 

Solar and wind energy systems typically have low maintenance costs. 

Van Nostrand: The operations and maintenance expenses for wind and solar are relatively low compared to fossil fuel-fired generation. Moreover, along with the reduction in cost of equipment, operations and maintenance costs for wind and solar facilities have declined substantially in recent years. The reduction is especially noteworthy in cases of wind power, where innovations such as predictive maintenance for turbines has helped reduce costs for onshore wind from around $30 per MWh on average in 2005 to $7.43 per MWh in 2020. Similarly, operations and maintenance costs for solar energy declined from $19 per MWh in 2011 to less than $6 per MWh in 2020. These low costs, when combined with zero fuel costs, give solar and wind projects an advantage over fossil fuel-fired projects with respect to operating costs, which helps to overcome the higher initial capital costs of renewable energy over the useful life of these renewable energy facilities.  

Wrightstone: Referencing a study by Dr. Gordon Hughes, a professor of economics at the University of Edinburgh, PPHB Energy Investment Banking says wind turbine performance is impacted by major breakdowns that deprive power generation until the turbine is repaired. There is also deterioration of output due to blade erosion and other factors that reduce the aerodynamic or mechanical performance of the turbines.

Major breakdowns can be expected in the first eight years of operation in about 80% of offshore machines and 20% of their onshore counterparts. However, more significant is performance decline through age-related wear that reduces within 16 years of operation the output of offshore turbines to 50% of their peak performance and that of onshore machines to 63%.

The products used to create solar panelsincluding silicon, phosphorous, titanium dioxide, and boronmust be mined, refined, and manufacturedall industrial processes that require energy from fossil fuels. 

Van Nostrand: A life-cycle analysis (LCA) is an approach that is commonly used to determine environmental burdens from cradle to grave and enable more consistent comparisons of energy technologies. According to a report from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions from renewable electricity generation technologies are generally less than those from fossil fuel-based technologies. The proportion of greenhouse gas emissions from each life cycle stage differs by technology. For fossil-fueled technologies, fuel combustion during operation of the facility emits the vast majority of greenhouse gases. For nuclear and renewable energy technologies, the majority of emissions occur upstream of operation; in other words, raw materials extraction and manufacture of construction materials. From cradle to grave, coal-fired electricity releases about 20 times more greenhouse gases per kWh than solar, wind and nuclear electricity based on median estimates for each technology.

Wrightstone: So-called green energy technologies are themselves energy intensive in their manufacture. Building wind turbines and solar panels to generate electricity, as well as batteries to fuel electric vehicles, requires, on average, more than 10 times the quantity of materials, compared with building machines using hydrocarbons to deliver the same amount of energy to society, according to Mark Mills of the Manhattan Institute. Increased reliance on these technologies will make the U.S. more dependent on China for the needed rare earth metals and the Congo, which is known to use forced child labor to mine cobalt. Both involve open pit and strip mines that are damaging to the soil and waters of third world countries ill-equipped to manage the environmental impacts.

There are no independent, freestanding solar or wind power plants in the world. They all require backup, and that backup is fossil fuels. 

Van Nostrand: All electric generating resources are backed up in some form or another; no power plant operates independently from the grid. Once they are interconnected to the electric grid, the backup power is acquired as an ancillary service from the grid operator or through a firming contract provided by another power provider. As variable resources whose output varies with the intensity of the wind and sun, renewable energy facilities require more firming services than fossil fuel-fired resources. But those firming services are being provided less and less by fossil fuel resources. In fact, with the technological breakthroughs in battery storage capability, solar and wind developers are increasingly firming up the output of their projects with grid-scale battery storage. The cost of lithium-ion battery storage has declined by 76% since 2012, and, as a result, in applications requiring two hours of energy, batteries are cheaper than relying on gas peaker plants. In the Pacific Northwest, hydroelectric power is the leading resource used to firm up renewable energy projects. Other options include pumped storage, such as the Bath County Pumped Storage Station in Warm Springs, VA, operated by Dominion Energy, which has been called the largest battery in the world because of its ability to firm up renewable energy resources.  

Wrightstone: Fossil- or nuclear-powered backup is required when the sun doesn’t shine for solar or the wind doesn’t blow at acceptable operating speeds for wind. Traditional energy sources are also needed for the mining and transportation of materials for the manufacture of solar and wind facilities and for the manufacturing processes themselves.

Alternatively, would the proponents of green energy that believe the earth and humanity are facing an existential threat from man-made warming support the only non-carbon electricity generation source other than nuclear that is reliable and abundant? That would be hydro-electric generation and the best candidate for that would be the New River Gorge.

With the addition of wind and solar energy, West Virginia can continue its legacy as an energy-producing state. 

Van Nostrand: The West Virginia’s Energy Future report produced by the Center for Energy & Sustainable Development shows the advantage of scaling up wind and solar energy by diversifying the state’s energy portfolio and taking advantage of the thousands of jobs that are being created in the renewable energy sector. Reductions in the cost of renewable energy have been dramatic over the past decade, and the decreases continue to exceed forecasts. Since 2009, solar and wind energy costs have decreased by 90% and 71% respectively. As a result of these dramatic cost declines, new renewable energy projects frequently are not only cheaper than new fossil fuel power plants, often a new renewable energy project is cheaper to install and operate than the ongoing cost to operate and fuel an existing coal-fired power plant. Given the speed with which these plants are becoming uneconomical versus renewable energy power plants, West Virginia’s electric utilities urgently need to consider diversifying their resource portfolios to include more renewable energy facilities. This diversification would reduce West Virginia’s vulnerability to downswings in the coal economy and avoid the problems caused by such downswings in the past, such as government revenue declines, population loss, cuts to education budgets and negative effects on related businesses.

Wrightstone: This is a nonsensical statement since West Virginia has huge reserves of coal and natural gas that provide a reliable and economic source of fuel for power generation. The northern one-third of West Virginia is home to three natural gas reservoirs that qualify in the category of giant. The Marcellus Shale is the largest gas field in the world and is currently being exploited from northern Ritchie County to the Ohio and Pennsylvania state lines. Natural gas production from this resource continues to expand, but two other very large reservoirs have barely been tapped. The shallower Burket/Geneseo Shale has been completed in less than two dozen wells and is productive across many of the same counties as the Marcellus. The deep Utica shale may offer similarly gigantic reserves and productive capabilities as the Marcellus but has only been tested in a handful of high-volume wells. Vast, untapped reserve potential exists in the Mountain State from these organic-rich shales and will continue supplying needed energy well into the next century. 

Germany is a world leader in renewable energy, yet utility bills for its citizens have gone up astronomically, creating energy poverty.  

Van Nostrand: The leading country in the world for renewable energy is China; Germany is number five on the list with about one-fifth of the installed generating capacity as China. With respect to cost, Germany is one of the most expensive countries worldwide for electricity supply, with prices being the equivalent of about 33 cents per kWh, or about three times the cost of electricity in West Virginia. Germany’s power prices include a surcharge of about 21% to support Germany’s renewables expansion, such as wind, solar, biomass and hydropower installations. Germany began creating aggressive environmental policies promoting renewable energy more than 20 years ago, often referred to as energiewende, which is German for energy transition. This resulted in large price increases in electricity prices from 2010 through 2013. For the past several years, however, Germany’s electricity prices have been very stable. In fact, over the past decade, the increase in electricity prices in Germany has been somewhat less than the increase in electricity prices in West Virginia, which have increased at faster rate than every other state in the U.S. Unlike West Virginia, however, Germany has positioned itself for the future with its sustained investment in renewables, while West Virginia’s electricity supply remains 92% coal fired.

Wrightstone: France for years has generated 70-80% of its electricity from nuclear power. Meanwhile, Germany adopted a different route nearly 20 years ago. It embarked on an energiewende—a German word for energy transformation to solar and wind energy. Accordingly, it has decommissioned many of its coal-fired power plants, and it is in the process of decommissioning what once was its fleet of 17 nuclear power reactors. At this point, it is getting 25-30% of its electrical power from wind and solar.

Some of the press have reported German success in glowing terms with headlines such as one from a 2017 edition of Energy Post titled “The spectacular success of the German energiewende—and what needs to be done next.” However, the realities of economics and energy production have not gone unnoticed by all as others have reported a German failure on the road to a renewable future.

So how does the cost of electricity in Germany and France compare? In the past 20 years, German electricity prices have more than doubled to about 40 cents (Euro) per kWh while prices in France settled at about 19 cents after dipping for a time by as much as 20% below that. The impact of the high cost of electricity in Germany is such that almost five million people there were unable to pay their electricity bills in 2019.

Is there anything you’d like to add? 

Van Nostrand: West Virginia would benefit from policies that promote the development of renewable energy in the state, such as adoption of a renewable portfolio standard. Including a carve-out specifically for solar energy would provide additional incentive to encourage the installation of utility-scale solar that would help attract employers with corporate sustainability objectives that require the use of renewable energy in their manufacturing processes. Legalizing power purchase agreements for distributed solar arrays would also help residential and commercial customers manage their energy costs by being able to generate their own electricity.

Wrightstone: Most proposals for solar and wind projects are based on the false premise that supposed man-made global warming threatens life on Earth. There is no climate crisis, and there is no evidence that there will be one in the future. Claims made by climate alarmists is largely absurd fearmongering. We offer the following points: 

The climate is changing, and it has been changing for billions of years. Today’s warming is neither unusual nor unprecedented. The geologic record shows that most of the last 10,000 years were warmer than the current period. During the Medieval Warm Period a thousand years ago, for example, Vikings

grew barley on Greenland, a crop that can’t be grown there today. During the earlier Roman Warm Period, citrus grew in the north of England. Modern warming began more than 300 years ago and the first 200 -plus years of that were naturally driven, as it occurred long before the ramp-up in emissions in the mid-20th century. CO2, the gas purported to be the cause of catastrophic warming, is not toxic and does no harm. While CO2 is a greenhouse gas, it is a weak one that is overshadowed by other such gases, including water vapor. Water vapor is the dominant greenhouse gas whose atmospheric concentration is 100 times greater and is readily visible as clouds.

Recent small increases in both CO2 and natural warmth have led to a greening of as much as half the planet over the last 50 years, benefiting people and the environment. Prior to recent increases in atmospheric CO2, CO2 was trending dangerously downward to where plant life cannot survive. Increasing CO2 above historically low levels is good for the planet’s ecosystems and humanity.

Radical proposals to replace fossil fuels with unreliable energy technologies such as wind turbines and solar panels are absurd, dangerous and environmentally unfriendly. Too much unreliable wind and solar on the electric grid makes us vulnerable to tragic blackouts. This fact was illustrated in Texas in February 2021.

Modern industry—powered by coal, oil and natural gas—has produced widespread prosperity and longer life spans. Affordable, reliable energy is the key to raising billions more people from third-world poverty and privation. These fuels, along with nuclear power, provide 85% of the world’s power today and will be the dominant energy sources for decades to come.

This article appeared on the West Virginia Executive magazine website at https://www.wvexecutive.com/the-great-debate/

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