Their View | Appalachian Power’s slow but encouraging progress toward renewable energy


If you’re a person who hopes to see significant steps taken to decelerate global warming, the news has provided a pile-on of setbacks.

Earlier this month, West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, the U.S. Senate’s most conservative Democrat, scuttled Democratic plans to pass a package meant to incrementally address the climate crisis.

Just days before, a U.S. Supreme Court opinion curbed the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to impose limits on carbon dioxide emissions from power plants, with the conservative majority in the 6-3 opinion saying the EPA has not been explicitly granted that authority by Congress.

On Wednesday, Manchin reached an agreement with fellow Democrats on a new climate package — that could involve new federal assistance with a Manchin priority: the Mountain Valley Pipeline.

Such developments might dishearten those angling for a greener future and demanding that government act with urgency.

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It’s worth noting that even with government support, green energy faces plenty of obstacles. Consider the glacial progress of and mounting resistance to the construction of the Rocky Forge Wind Farm in Botetourt County, or the public opposition to solar farms expressed at Franklin County government meetings.

One effort that looms large in Southwest Virginia appears headed down the right path, depending on which hill one stands on to take in the view.

On July 15, the State Corporation Commission gave its blessing to Appalachian Power’s plan to go green, eventually, a plan that in its beginning stage will add an average of $2.73 to the monthly bills of the power utility’s customers, which is not that noticeable, even if any increase to an electric bill might set one’s teeth on edge in this time of hefty petrol prices.

The wind and solar farms that Appalachian proposes purchasing or buying electricity from would only generate a little more than 8% of the company’s 6,000 megawatt capacity. The idea is that the company will continue to acquire more in succeeding years.

For those who want to see the burning of fossil fuels ceased ASAP, that’s not Appalachian Power’s plan. There’s little sense, though, in letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. In fact, it’s great that the power company has a renewable energy plan.

Slow, steady — and costly?

Appalachian’s motivation to pursue this path could well have been nonexistent without the passage in 2020 — while Democrats controlled the General Assembly and the governor’s office — of the Virginia Clean Economy Act, which mandates that all the commonwealth’s electricity come from renewable energy sources by 2050.

The Clean Economy Act specifically requires Dominion Energy Virginia to make the conversion by 2045. Dominion is progressing faster than Appalachian, in part because almost 30% of its electricity generation comes from nuclear energy. As our concerns in this region lie with Appalachian, that’s our focus.

Compared to its peers nationally, Appalachian Power is well behind in making the transition to renewable energy. Roanoke Times reporter Laurence Hammack has done excellent work keeping tabs on Appalachian’s progress.

While expanding its wind and solar resources, the utility intends to keep the coal fires burning in its West Virginia power plants until 2040. Appalachian has argued that this approach best positions it to close those plants and convert completely to renewable energy.

This approach happens to dovetail with that advocated for by a strand of energy stakeholders and lobbyists who generally agree with expanding renewable energy sources but argue that shutting down fossil fuel use too soon leaves the power grid needlessly vulnerable in times of emergency.

Appalachian has also argued that setting a faster pace for change would require steeper expenses be passed along to its 540,000 customers in the form of even higher bills. Unspoken in that assertion is the company’s determination to preserve its profit margin, given Appalachian Power is definitely not hurting for revenue.

Appalachian has suggested that rate increases could reach as high as 55% by 2035 to make up for the cost of meeting the Clean Economy Act. Ideally the annual reviews by the SCC will arrest any tendency on Appalachian’s part to raise rates in a manner disproportional to actual expenses incurred.

Political winds should not alter course

Despite the caveats proffered by Appalachian about complications ahead, advocacy groups pushing for action to counter global warming acknowledge that the transition won’t be simple and seem encouraged by the measures taken so far.

As Peter Anderson, Virginia policy director of Appalachian Voices, told Hammack in April, “The climate science demands that we decarbonize our power sector sooner than midcentury, but fairness compels us to ensure that we do it at least cost, while keeping the lights on and providing new economic opportunities for the communities that rely on the existing infrastructure.”

For another reason to take heart, Appalachian has stated that the recent Supreme Court ruling limiting the EPA’s authority to impose caps on all emissions has no effect on its renewable energy plan.

“Our customers, investors and other stakeholders expect that we are moving as quickly as possible to a clean energy future, and we are pursuing that goal,” Appalachian spokeswoman Teresa Hall told Hammack.

The company is also upgrading its two coal-powered plants in West Virginia to comply with state and federal regulations. Expenses related to those updates have already been passed on to customers in the form of an average $2.17 increase to monthly bills.

Going greener simply won’t happen without a price. We don’t make any claims that Appalachian’s slow march toward becoming fully renewable energy-based will convert into immediate cures for the world’s climate-related ailments. Yet given that an overnight solution is impossible, we must welcome and encourage each painstaking step as it’s taken.

Hanging over all this news of gradual but needed progress is the skepticism of Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin and House of Delegates Speaker Todd Gilbert, who have said the goals set in the Clean Economy Act are unachievable and that the costs eventually passed on to consumers will be too much to bear.

Clean energy advocates need to make their case to voters and legislators in the event that the slim Democratic majority in the Virginia Senate loses its grip.

Should that happen, hopefully Appalachian Power will see the wisdom of advancing this course on their own without need of a legislative mandate.

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