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Tina Casey headshot

Coal is Still King in West Virginia, but Solar Power is Coming on Strong

By Tina Casey
West Virginia

Wheeling, West Virginia, autumn 2021

When a U.S. senator with a personal stake in the coal business deploys his position in Congress to support fossil energy interests, that’s no surprise. Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia is a case in point. Nevertheless, West Virginia’s solar energy profile shows signs of sudden growth, and a new surge of activism could help accelerate the state’s inevitable transition to clean power.

A slow start for renewable energy in West Virginia

Fossil energy stakeholders have exercised an outsized influence over energy policy in West Virginia for generations. The picture is complicated by a measure of competition between coal, oil and gas interests. However, in terms of climate action the end result is the same. Even as other states in the same region have begun to add more renewable energy to their power generation mix, West Virginia has lagged behind.

The Solar Energy Industries Association currently ranks West Virginia down at 48th among the 50 states for installed solar capacity. SEIA also counts only 311 solar industry jobs in the state.

West Virginia is one of the smallest U.S. states by population, which partly accounts for the small numbers in its solar industry. However, population only tells part of the story. SEIA notes that solar accounts for only 0.04 percent of electricity generated in West Virginia. In contrast, neighboring Virginia currently gets almost 4.0 percent of its electricity from the sun.

At a time when small and large businesses are actively seeking out opportunities to run on clean power, West Virginia’s poor showing in the solar industry could have a ripple effect that discourages employers from setting up shop in the state.

Signs of life for solar energy, thanks to an oil and gas giant

West Virginia’s own Department of Economic Development appears to recognize the bottom-line case for making the jump to clean power. The agency continues to highlight fossil energy industries as important contributors to the state’s economy, but it has also embarked on a campaign that emphasizes economic diversification.

“West Virginias diverse economy has moved beyond our history of resource extraction to include a robust array of products and services,” they explain.

They also take note of a recent change in state law aimed at smoothing the way for large-scale solar development, and that appears to be a game-changer.

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Just last week, the Atlanta-based solar startup SEVA WV announced the proposed SunPark development, featuring a 3,000-acre solar array on an abandoned coal mining site that sprawls across Lincoln and Boone counties in West Virginia. At 250 megawatts, that one project will eclipse the entire statewide total of just 18 megawatts in installed solar capacity to date.

The new development is significant in more ways than one. Aside from its enormous size, SunPark indicates that West Virginia could be headed for an accelerated jump to solar energy. That’s because the global oil and gas firm Shell, which has been aggressively pursuing new wind and solar opportunities in the U.S. and elsewhere, is connected to the project through its acquisition of the Kansas based renewable energy firm Savion last year. Savion was selected to develop the solar portion of the project.

In another interesting twist, SEVA, Inc. tapped West Virginia native and business leader Devanna Corley as its President. Corley’s background includes growing up in a coal community. She will spearhead the SunPark development as a living example of the state’s economic transition.

Citing Corley in an editorial last week, the West Virginia news organization News and Sentinel observed that “entrepreneurs who understand the enormous potential in West Virginia can do great work toward diversifying and expanding our economy, if we let them. SEVA WV’s plans appear to be an encouraging example. Perhaps others will follow their lead.”

More renewable energy for more economic activity

As reported by West Virginia News, the new SunPark solar array will support a mixed-use industrial, lodging, recreation and hospitality complex, thus answering the question of why companies that seek clean power would choose to start a business in West Virginia.

The idea of attracting new businesses with solar power seems to have caught the attention of Senator Manchin and his Republican colleague, U.S. Senator Shelley Moore Capito. Both provided bland but encouraging media statements in support of the project.

“Investing in West Virginia’s rural communities creates good-paying jobs and spurs economic growth in the region and across the state. I am pleased by the continued investments in our communities and will work with SEVA WV to further economic development opportunities across the Mountain State,” said Senator Manchin.

“This is an exciting day for Boone and Lincoln counties, there is incredible opportunities in our communities. I would like to commend SEVA WV and this endeavor to create the SunPark that will boost our economy and expand the region for future economic development activity,” added Senator Capito.

Against the backdrop of mega-scale, business-attracting solar projects like SunPark, Senator Manchin’s efforts to assist the fossil energy industry in his home state appear doomed to fail, in time.

That time may come sooner rather than later. Environmental activists are beginning to draw media attention to an alleged conflict of interest with the Manchin family business, as underscored by the ongoing sale of waste coal to the Grant Town Power Plant.

In a widely reported action last weekend, local demonstrators and other activists blockaded the power plant to bring their case to the media.

The action added drama and a camera-friendly human dimension to the story of Senator Manchin’s role in blocking the Democratic climate action agenda. As entrepreneurs and developers continue to chart a renewable energy path in West Virginia, Senator Manchin could find himself as isolated at home as he is in the halls of Congress.

(Editor's note: An earlier version of this story erroneously referred to Savion as the parent company of Seva. The two companies are not affiliated.)

Image credit: Walter Martin via Unsplash

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

Read more stories by Tina Casey