National groups ask states to follow W.Va. energy law repeal

First Posted: 1/31/2015

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — After West Virginia legislators voted to delete a law that counts burning tires and some coal as alternative fuels, national small government groups are turning the uncontroversial repeal into a rally cry to remove more stringent energy standards in other states.

The push against West Virginia’s Alternative and Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard has served political purposes for the new Republican legislative majority. GOP statehouse candidates ran on scrapping the standard, and the party is using it against Democratic U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, who signed it into law as governor in 2009 and may seek that office again next year.

Many stakeholders have countered that West Virginia’s standard has little effect, either way. The coal industry and big power companies helped write it.

The standard requires utilities serving at least 30,000 residential customers to generate 25 percent of their electricity with renewable or alternative power sources by 2025. City-owned utilities and rural electric cooperatives are exempt.

But alternative energy is broadly defined to include a variety of coal-burning technologies, natural gas and fuel from burning tires. The vast majority of power generation earning credits under the law is from coal technologies, according to Public Service Commission records.

National small government lobbies, including The Heartland Institute, still heralded the repeal’s passage in West Virginia in early January as a win and a call to action.

“One can only hope other states follow West Virginia’s sensible lead,” H. Sterling Burnett, Research Fellow, Environment & Energy Policy for The Heartland Institute, said in a news release after the state House passed the bill Jan. 22.

The groups argue renewable energy plans limit free market choices and could result in higher electricity costs. But for years, the American Legislative Exchange Council and others have failed to get any states to delete their standards.

Twenty-nine states have renewable energy standards, while nine have less binding goals, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

West Virginia would be first to eliminate its portfolio completely, said Heartland Institute spokesman Jim Lakely. Ohio Republican Gov. John Kasich came closest by signing a bill freezing his state’s standards last June.

Democratic Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin will likely act on the repeal bill this week. He has given no indication he would veto it, saying it wouldn’t make much of a difference, anyway.

Others states targeted for repeal, including Kansas, have stricter requirements.

The Republican state mandates wind and other renewable sources account for 15 percent of peak electricity-generating capacity by 2016, and 20 percent by 2020. A phase-out of the state’s portfolio narrowly failed in the Kansas House in May.

In West Virginia, large coal-using power providers like FirstEnergy have said its state standard doesn’t affect operations, or rates, at all.

Until recently, the coal industry had defended the law. Earlier this month, West Virginia Coal Association President Bill Raney pointed to increased federal regulation and legal action affecting the industry — the biggest being the Environmental Protection Agency proposed rule to limit carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants, a push against global warming.

Republican lawmakers, and some Democrats, have said the repeal would help Central Appalachia’s struggling coal industry and affect power rates. One Republican brought a hunk of coal on the House floor during debate. Many took floor time to rail on President Barack Obama’s environmental policies.

Several Democrats have called the process a political stunt on a toothless law, while other Republicans said the free market should determine energy decisions.

The state Public Service Commission, however, gives a less dramatic analysis.

“The coal industry and the future of coal-fired generation in the State will be impacted by factors that are unrelated to the Portfolio Act including changes in natural gas pricing and the rules proposed by the federal Environmental Protection Agency in June 2014,” the commission wrote in its 2014 assessment of the standard.

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