The Trump Administration in Washington and the Justice Administration in Charleston have been working to bring back coal as a dominant industry in the state.
These moves included the appointment of a pro-coal EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, who is doing his best to undermine and halt pro-environment regulations that would reduce coal ash and the impact of mountaintop mining restrictions that help keep the streams and rivers more free of heavy and toxic metals. In the state,
Gov. Justice’s switch from the Democratic Party to Republican Party, in addition to angering Democratic state leaders, showed his true allegiance to coal which is not surprising because that is where he made his fortune.
Yet another coal mogul, Robert Murray, founder and CEO of Murray Energy, one of the largest coal companies in Appalachia, said Trump should ”temper his expectations” for the coal industry.
“He can’t bring them back,” he said of mining jobs. Even with a long history of coal production, and with a crazy quilt of conditions for solar across the Middle Atlantic states and Appalachia, it’s looking as if the future is clearly with clean energy such as solar.
A January 2017 Department of Energy report showed that 373,807 people are employed nationwide by the solar industry compared with 187,117 in coal, oil and natural gas combined. These numbers are affected by different state laws in neighboring states and by different performances and priorities.
West Virginia, for example, is the 47th state in the nation with its solar performance while nearby North Carolina is 2nd. Virginia is 21st, Maryland 14th, Kentucky 41st, Tennessee 25th, South Carolina 24th and Georgia 9th.
Yet a low solar performance in a state such as West Virginia should not be cause for discouragement, but a sign of opportunity. The West Virginia Legislature has made it more difficult for solar to get footholds because there are fewer laws that encourage solar than in other states, but there are solar companies that are still thriving such as MTV Solar in Berkeley Springs.
The combination of coal industry plus energy utility interests in the state have limited solar opportunities, but have not eliminated them. If you can afford to buy solar panels for your home or farm, you can reduce your own energy costs almost to the point of zero, but for the time being anyway it may not be possible to make money from solar.
Net Metering is a system whereby any excess energy you generate from your own solar panels can be fed into the utility electrical grid. The excess you supply to the grid can be returned to your site at a time when your panels are generating less than what are your electricity needs.
If you consistently generate more than what you consume, however, under current law you cannot sell the extra electricity to the utility. This would prevent you from turning the roof of your barn and extra fields into solar generating sites until the law is changed.
But the time may come when it will be possible to do this. Already the solar industry has changed a lot of things with improvements in technology and legislation.
In some parts of Appalachia such as Tennessee one coal-mining company used solar to convert its used mountaintop mining sites into a solar collection farm.
These companies frequently have the capital to invest in many solar panels, which means that they will be providing employment for people to install and maintain the new energy production sites. In West Virginia this model could be followed to convert old mountaintop mining sites and retrain former miners for solar jobs if state legislators can open their minds and votes to change the laws to help this happen.
In North Carolina another concept has gained ground: solar electric cooperatives. Owners of solar collection panels work with each other and with the local utility to supply themselves and a wider market.
Currently China is the largest and most reliable supplier of solar panels. There is virtually no U.S.- based capacity for producing solar panels, though there used to be. Some people may remember Solarex in Frederick, Md., and then BP Solar which took over Solarex, before it was taken over by Chinese interests.
China is in a peculiar position because it pollutes its air more than any other country through the use of coal-burning power plants. But it is also the leader in clean energy manufacturing, not just solar panels but also windmills.
President Trump commented recently on his visit to China how that country is making great strides in its business sectors. There are many areas where America business needs to improve to keep up with China. But it would be a mistake to think that the U.S. can make solar panels more competitively than the Chinese.
The U.S. jobs to be gained in solar are most likely in installation, maintenance and management of solar systems, not in the manufacturing of panels. A policy to raise tariffs on solar panels is what the American solar industry fears most.
“If Trump raises tariffs, 10,000 U.S. jobs will be lost — jobs in blue-collar, middle-class America,” said Abigail Ross Hopper, president and CEO of the Solar Energy Industries Association. “Imposing tariffs will not create a manufacturing renaissance in the U.S., it will raise prices and kill demand.” o