Op-ed: Solar energy — West Virginia’s path to a brighter economic future
The time is now for West Virginia to seize the opportunity to capture some of the 240,000 jobs and the billions of dollars of annual investment in the United States’ growing solar energy sector. Surrounding states-from Virginia to North Carolina to Pennsylvania to Kentucky-have already taken action toward the creation of strong solar marketplaces at the state level to satisfy the growing renewable energy appetite of large industrial employers, local businesses, schools, churches and residents. The pace and scale of solar development in these states far exceeds West Virginia’s by many hundred-folds. Make no mistake; this is a race that is heating up for the jobs and economic benefits that come from early leadership, and it is not too late for West Virginia to catch up and possibly even surpass surrounding states. How? By enacting solar-friendly policies that create a fair, predictable and competitive marketplace without further delay-and by leveraging unexpected assets. But we must act quickly.
Right now, in the West Virginia Legislature, several solar-friendly bills are under consideration. We at The Nature Conservancy in West Virginia applaud legislators championing those bills that can serve as incremental steps toward establishing a solar marketplace for homeowners and businesses alike. And, we are committed to working with lawmakers and stakeholders over the coming years to develop a more comprehensive policy framework, which will be required for West Virginia to catch up to surrounding states that have more solar opportunities due to these states having the right policy frameworks in place. This will pave the way for the most significant economic benefits to West Virginians over the long-term.
We are pleased that at least two of the bills under consideration by the West Virginia Legislature focus on an incredibly important pathway to such a marketplace for West Virginia: siting large-scale solar arrays on former mine lands and brownfields to help return these formally productive lands to potentially lucrative assets, which has benefits for West Virginia and its economy. Think about this: formerly mined lands that once provided the energy our nation needs and economic benefits from the local to national level can once again be part of the energy breadbasket, with benefit to both workers and the economy while providing the renewable energy demands of the market. And, importantly for our Wild and Wonderful lifestyle and attributes, by steering solar development to former mine lands and brownfields, we steer development away from forests and, thereby, sustain the values that forests bring to West Virginia: clean water, wildlife, carbon sequestration, forestry, outdoor recreation and tourism, Siting solar on these sites is a win for nature, a win for our economy and a win for the climate.
In recognition of this win-win-win, The Nature Conservancy in West Virginia has created a road map to siting solar energy on former mine lands that serves as a playbook of actions that stakeholder groups-from landowners and state leaders to solar developers and organizations like The Nature Conservancy-may take to facilitate redevelopment of former mine lands for large-scale solar sites. Independently, these players could make some headway toward creating a solar marketplace in West Virginia; collectively, we can maximize our impact and have the greatest likelihood of success to see West Virginia create a competitive marketplace that provides a full suite of economic benefits.
What are the potential economic benefits? A competitive solar marketplace could help those seeking employment to transfer their skills, ranging from heavy equipment operation to electrical wiring to tax accounting, to this growing industry. Solar development would also generate valuable lease revenues for landowners and replenish the tax base for local communities-all while helping to attract new employers, manufacturers and industries to the state. The Nature Conservancy is committed to working with the key stakeholders needed to create the opportunities for West Virginia to capture the benefits of solar energy. We stand ready to do what’s required to make this a reality for the Mountain State and its people. If we don’t act now, West Virginians will miss out on the economic, conservation and climate benefits of solar energy that surrounding states are experiencing.
Beth Wheatley is director of external affairs and strategic initiatives for the Nature Conservancy in West Virginia.