Electricity: Steps needed to improved competition

Dealing with the post-holiday bills has become more difficult for West Virginians during the past few years, but not because of their Christmas spending. It is because statements from the electric company have gone up drastically.

Ten years ago, the average price residential users in our state paid for electricity was 6.73 cents per kilowatt hour. By last fall, the bill had shot up to 11.91 cents per kilowatt hour.

During the same period, the national average went up to 13.3 cents — an increase of just 2.71 cents.

Not so long ago, Mountain State residents and businesses paid some of the lowest power rates in the country. But from 2007-17, while the average for the nation went up by just 25.6 percent, our bills exploded by nearly 77 percent.

What happened?

State legislators asked that question about a month ago. David Ellis, of the state Public Service Commission, blamed two factors.

First was installation of about $2.8 billion worth of pollution control equipment at coal-fired power plants in the state, Ellis said. Utilities pass costs on to consumers.

Second was more difficulty experienced by power companies in selling in other states energy generated here, Ellis said. Such sales from low-cost coal-fired plants can help keep prices down here. But, during recent years, it has been more difficult for West Virginia companies to export electricity because the cost of power from gas-fired stations elsewhere has decreased.

There are other factors, of course. “Green” power laws in some states have prompted their utilities to buy less electricity from coal-fired generating stations.

What can state officials do about the situation? Not much. One suggestion that should not be considered is increasing what industrial power users pay to subsidize lower rates for residential customers. We need all the jobs we can get; higher costs for employers make West Virginia even less competitive for economic growth.

It appears the damage has been done at the federal level. Repairing it is beyond the control of state officials.

Still, legislators should continue looking at the problem. If there are ways to restore at least some of our electric rate competitiveness, they should be undertaken.