Charleston – Democrats had hoped to broaden a solar energy bill so that more people would use renewable energy in West Virginia, but decided to withdraw their amendments to a more limited solar energy bill that was on second reading, the amendment phase, in the House of Delegates Monday. 

Karan Ireland, lead lobbyist for the West Virginia Environmental Council, said an amendment "would have been a way for individuals and tax-exempt entities to take advantage of the ability to produce their own power, lower their electric costs, lock in those rates, and would not have jeopardized the utilities at all, but unfortunately what we see is utilities calling the shots and getting everything they want in the process."

Senate Bill 583, sponsored by Sen. Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson, had already passed the state Senate and is up for final passage in the House of Delegates Tuesday. The bill creates incentive for utility companies to design limited solar energy projects.

The bill lets utilities recover the cost of developing solar facilities in an expedited process. If utilities want to increase rates to pay for solar projects, the Public Service Commission of West Virginia has to issue a final decision on that request within 90 days.

No single renewable electric-generating facility would be allowed to have a generating capacity greater than 200 megawatts, which renewable energy advocates have noted is low.

Appalachian Power has said it supports the bill. Jeri Matheny, a spokeswoman, has said it "makes sure West Virginia is considered as a location for companies that have corporate sustainability policies, which many, many companies today do."

Lawmakers had postponed second reading of the bill several times while they considered amendments by multiple delegates.

Del. John Doyle, D-Berkeley, had planned to amend the bill so that homes, nonprofits and small businesses could enter into their own agreements with solar energy developers. Del. Cindy Lavender-Bowe, D-Greenbrier, had offered a similar amendment, except it removed businesses from the provision.

Ireland said current law allows consumers to use solar panels that interconnect with the power grid and receive credits on their bills from utility companies when those solar panels generate more electricity than needed. But, she added, those laws don't let people and tax-exempt entities, like schools and local governments, enter into private contracts to pay third party developers for their on-site usage of solar power. 

She said such agreements are legal in most states and would have led to jobs in a rapidly growing field, solar installation, in West Virginia.

Ireland said some lawmakers were concerned one of the amendments would have killed the bill, although she disagreed, noting that the West Virginia Department of Commerce had endorsed the original bill multiple times. 

Of the current bill, she said, "A little bit is better than nothing, if it happens, but there's nothing that mandates that it happens."

In an interview Monday, Lavender-Bowe said she removed her amendment because she wasn’t sure if it House leadership would rule the amendments relevant to the bill.

She said her amendment would have made it "affordable and achievable for nonprofits and for people to get solar power."

"We're very supportive of the bill as it was proposed and in the end we just thought we didn't want to do anything to hamper that bill," she said.

She said Democratic lawmakers had lacked enough time to gather support for their amendments and said they hope to revisit the potential legislation during interim meetings.

She also said it was unclear if residents can already enter into power purchase agreements now, although her amendment would have given them explicit permission.

"You get differing opinions from differing attorneys," she said. "Some say, 'Well, there's nothing that would stop companies from doing this now,' but clearly it's not clear to those companies, or they would be here trying to enter into those agreements with nonprofits and residential customers," she said.

She said that "because this is a new area for West Virginia, there's still a lot of confusion around renewable energy."

Lawmakers Monday also rejected several Republican amendments to the bill, including one by Del. Tony Paynter, R-Wyoming, stating, "All physical components of the renewable electric-generating facility, including the solar photovoltaic infrastructure, or other portions of the electrical generating array, shall be made or assembled in the United States of America."

Del. Evan Hansen, D-Monongalia, countered that the amendment sounded like a matter of trade policy.

Del. Brandon Steele, R-Raleigh, also argued against Paynter’s amendment, saying it ran the risk of being unconstitutional by only applying that requirement to solar energy projects.

Paynter argued that the bill before them dealt with solar energy.

"You're a lawyer; you tell me," Paynter said.

Steele said that a solar facility is planned for currently vacant land in Raleigh County. 

"Right now, there's plans to put a solar facility in Raleigh County, right in my backyard, and it's going to create jobs, right in Raleigh County," he said. "There's going to be local people working there. Those are going to be American jobs."

Email: ebeck@register-herald.com and follow on Twitter @3littleredbones

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