The Beckley-Raleigh County Chamber of Commerce, sitting in a historic coal mining region, has come out in favor of a proposed solar farm in Raleigh County, endorsing diversification of energy sources, including renewable energy options, Chamber CEO Michelle Rotellini wrote in a Friday press release.
On Tuesday, Raleigh Commission will vote on whether to accept "payment in lieu of taxes" from Raleigh Solar, which was created in October 2018 by a Colorado company.
Under the requested agreement, Raleigh Solar would pay the county, based on the amount of electricity the farm generated, over a 15-year period. Commission will only consider the agreement if the payments are higher than any tax revenue that the property would generate.
The agreement has an inflator of two percent per year on most payments through year 15, while an adjustment from years 16 to 20 would tax the personal property piece in a way comparable to how solar farms in other states are taxed.
The company would also be responsible for treating the soil and for putting up a bond to disassemble all the panels, once the 15 years are past, Tolliver added.
Raleigh Solar, which was established by Dakota Renewable Energy of Denver, signed an agreement to purchase about 600 acres on Grandview Road where it plans to place 1,000 solar panels, if favorable tax incentives are granted, according to Commission President Dave Tolliver. A portion of the land is leased.
Raleigh Sheriff's Office, Raleigh Assessor's Office and the Raleigh Board of Education will make recommendations to commission members who are expected to vote at their Tuesday meeting.
The plan has gotten some pushback from local coal supporters.
But on Friday, the Chamber wrote in its press release that it does not believe that the addition of solar energy to Raleigh County would create an “either - or” scenario in which the commission or the community must choose one type of energy to support.
"Rather, we see this as an opportunity to be the first site in West Virginia to host a solar energy farm," Chamber officials stated in the press release. "We also believe that this will create an economic development opportunity to the Beckley-Raleigh County area.
"The Chamber stands with energy providers as they continue to diversify and is excited to partner with them as they expand into new forms of energy."
Rotellini said Saturday that many institutions and businesses are committed to carbon neutrality.
"If we want to compete in attracting remote workers from these forward-thinking companies, it's important to have more renewable energy projects to showcase," she added. "The solar farm is exciting for the Chamber because it is a renewable energy project that shows that Raleigh County is supportive of carbon neutral efforts."
Beaver Coal manager Joe Bevel said he supports construction of the solar farm.
“As a director for the Chamber of Commerce, I feel that having a solar farm constructed in Raleigh County could attract new outside businesses to our area which would be beneficial for the overall business climate in Raleigh County,” stated Bevel.
Beaver Coal owns approximately 50,000 acres within a 10-mile radius of Beckley. Bevel was not immediately available for comment on Friday.
The Chamber, an advocacy organization for the progress of business, noted that Fortune 500 companies thoroughly review and study an area’s overall business climate and culture when considering relocation.
"We believe that this solar panel opportunity is a positive step in attracting new businesses and commerce," the statement from the Chamber continued.
"In conclusion, the BRCCC supports an 'all of the above' approach to energy options to ensure the future economic growth of Beckley-Raleigh County and all of Southern West Virginia."
According to information from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, coal-fired power plants accounted for 92 percent of West Virginia’s electricity net generation in 2018. Renewable energy resources — primarily hydroelectric power and wind energy — contributed 5.3 percent and natural gas provided 2.1 percent.
The West Virginia Legislature in March passed a solar energy bill, a step toward diversifying the state's energy portfolio. The law created a program that encourages the development of solar energy in the state.
According to statements by attorney Roger Hunter, who represented Raleigh Solar during an Aug. 18 public meeting, the estimated total construction cost for the solar farm is more than $90 million.
Hunter said an economic study of the project predicts that the farm would provide an estimated $40.7 million economic impact in the county and $55.1 million for the state.
The Raleigh Board of Education would receive the lion's share of the monies, Tolliver said.
Doug Epling, a businessman with interests in coal mining, said Friday that he is "not against" the solar farm but that he does not support the pilot program.
"It's political," he said.
Epling feels like the county and Raleigh Commission — which includes his wife, Linda Epling — are being told by state politicians that they must take a tax hit to develop an industry that Epling said is going to result in a loss of coal jobs in the county.
"When the state does anything, they pass the cost on to the counties, and the counties are going to break," said Epling.
"I have no problems with the alternative sources of energy coming in, but they cannot prove one time it has brought any industry along with it," he added. "I'm not 'against' them.
"If we get a thriving economy, we've got to have different kinds of energy to support it, but this coming in, tax-free, is just something I can't swallow.
"If a company comes in here, they need to pay their share of taxes, like other business people."
Epling says he has a problem with a business coming into the county and ordering the county to give it a break on taxes — even before it has shown any benefit to the county, he said.
"Their claim to fame is, 'We'll just go elsewhere,'" said Epling. "If you go elsewhere, we haven't lost that money, but we saved some jobs."
Epling estimated that the solar farm's energy production could put 30 coal miners out of work, which impacts other local businesses.
"A ton of king coal equates to 2,460 killowatts," he said. "In tonnage, that's calculated out to 90,000.
"So that's about 36 tons of coal that that produces," he said. "You take 30,000 tons a month, that equates out to about 30 coal miner jobs.
"(Under) the pilot program, they come in, tax-free, and our county attorney should be promoting the taxes in this county," said Epling. "The severance tax is going down, and they're going to fall behind on tax collections.
"This stuff of giving the farm away? I just don't see it," he said. "I surely pay taxes on anything I get.
"If they come in with a solar farm, that's fine. But they need to pay their taxes."
West Virginia has about 8 megawatts of solar installed that supports about 340 jobs, according to data from the 2018 Solar Jobs Census.
A report earlier this year by West Virginians for Energy, national solar advocacy group Solar United Neighbors and West Virginia-based consultancy firm Downstream Strategies estimated if legislation is enacted to allow third-party solar installation, at least 13 megawatts of solar power capacity could be installed across the state and create almost 400 jobs.
The group based its estimates on results from Virginia’s ongoing PPA (power purchase agreement) pilot program.
Pro-solar groups are gearing up for another battle in 2021, Solar United Neighbors reported.
Legislators could pass laws to explicitly legalize PPA in the state, or the Public Service Commission could issue a ruling to clarify whether PPAs are legal in the state currently.