By Taylor Kuykendall
Natural gas may drastically alter the economic landscape of West Virginia, but the Marcellus shale development has some West Virginians wondering why time, money and effort aren’t being directed into developing a robust renewable energy industry in West Virginia instead.
“Someday we are going to have to find a new way to generate energy,” said Beth Little of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy. “We really ought to be working a lot harder on that now. There’s new stuff always coming down. Americans are pretty resourceful in that.”
She said that coal mining and natural gas are too harmful to West Virginia plants, animals, streams, air and people.
“What kind of a legacy are we leaving our kids with this?” Little asked.
Carol Warren, of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, said when she visits her daughter in California, she can’t help but notice the large solar energy farms she said she dreams of seeing built in West Virginia.
“If we are looking for a use for our mountaintop removal sites, I don’t know why we don’t put a lot of solar panels on some of them and create energy that way,” Warren said.
Large-scale wind projects could also produce a lot of energy for West Virginia.
“I personally think wind is good,” Warren said. “I don’t think wind turbines are ugly. I know there are people who do. If it was a special place where I grew up, used to it looking a certain way, I might not like that either. I think with wind, if we come up with something better in the future, we can take the turbines down. If we smash up a mountain, we can’t get that back.”
According to the American Wind Energy Association, the wind energy industry in West Virginia is growing. West Virginia currently has about 430.5 megawatts of wind energy capacity. The existing wind capacity places West Virginia 19th nationally. West Virginia’s potential capacity, however, ranks 32nd in the U.S.
Current wind facilities in West Virginia are owned by Appalachian Power, Dominion and Exelon. They are located primarily in Tucker, Grant and Greenbrier counties.
Warren said that investing in natural gas, particularly, as the environmental friendliness of the fuel increasingly comes into question, is not a wise decision for West Virginia. She pointed to studies that show gas lost to venting, pipelines and other emissions may add up to a damage similar to coal extraction and use.
“If you take all those things into account, gas is not a good transition fuel,” Warren said. “We should not be investing in gas. We should be investing in things that are truly renewable and can take us into the future rather than investing in gas.”
West Virginia has tested the waters in renewable energy, with a few wind farms and solar projects going on throughout the state. Recently, researchers found that West Virginia could be sitting atop a large geothermal energy hotspot.
Development of geothermal energy skirts the primary drawback of wind and solar energy. Geothermal is a constant baseload energy source that can generate energy 24 hours a day, without dependence on a cyclical source like the sun, or an unpredictable source like wind.
Some western states are already developing co-production of geothermal and geopressure energy from natural gas and oil wells.
According to a 2009 assessment by the U.S. Department of Energy, West Virginia produces enough cellulosic biomass annually to supply 14 percent of the state’s gasoline use.
The race toward renewable fuels is supported by a measure from former Gov. Joe Manchin, who introduced legislation that would set West Virginia on the course to have 25 percent of its electricity produced by renewable energy sources.
Renewable sources are defined by the bill as “advanced coal technologies and wind, solar, and other nontraditional sources of energy.” The bill included measures to provide incentives for renewable energy companies who wanted to locate in West Virginia.
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