Solar needs to be allowed to compete

It’s time for West Virginia to focus on how to grow our economy and encourage entrepreneurship with free markets, sensible regulations and fair competition. Renewable energy stands to benefit from such policy changes.

Distributed renewable energy resources like solar, wind, hydropower, geothermal and biomass offer increasingly affordable alternatives to the outdated model of centralized utility monopolies. More West Virginia families, businesses, communities and institutions could benefit from these affordable energy options — if our elected officials create a policy environment that encourages choice, competition and diversification within our evolving energy system.

Such a policy environment will benefit our state’s economy by attracting large employers and investments, encouraging entrepreneurship, expanding our state and local tax bases and creating good new jobs in rapidly growing economic sectors. We know this to be true because we have worked together to grow southern West Virginia’s first ever solar installation company: Solar Holler. Our mission is to make solar the most affordable choice for our neighbors across Appalachia. Since 2013, Solar Holler has created 30 new full-time jobs and attracted millions of dollars in new investment to our state. Renewable energy is a growing market with real job creation. Now, our state’s regulations and bureaucratic barriers need to catch up with innovations driven by private markets so the renewable energy industry can realize its full potential.

Removing barriers to renewable energy developments is important for consumers, too. Electricity rate hikes are a growing concern for West Virginia’s businesses, families and communities. Once among the lowest in the country, Appalachia’s electricity rates have increased at a faster rate than any other region in the nation over the past 10 years. At the same time, our energy system is undergoing rapid changes thanks to breathtaking technological breakthroughs and competitive market forces.

Allowing third-party financing for renewable and alternative energy resources is one tangible step our elected officials can take to make West Virginia a more competitive and attractive place to live and do business. Third-party financing models such as power purchase agreements are common and powerful ways to finance renewable energy projects. This type of contract allows a private developer to install, own and operate a distributed energy system on a host customer’s property. The customer purchases the system’s electric output to get reliable power while protecting themselves from the ever-increasing prices utilities charge.

Legal in at least 26 states, including Virginia, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Ohio, power purchase agreements are widely used by commercial businesses and tax-exempt institutions such as schools, churches and municipalities. Crucially for nonprofits and local governments, power purchase agreements allow a tax-paying private developer to use the 30 percent federal energy investment tax credit and pass along those savings to the customer in the form of lowered energy costs.

Yet, when Solar Holler attempted to do the first power purchase agreement in our state — with our congregation at Shepherdstown Presbyterian Church — we were shut down by the West Virginia Public Service Commission, which argued that only the incumbent utilities should be allowed to sell power to the church, or anywhere in their service territories. It was a blatant stifling of competition. If we want to maintain our legacy of powering America, we need free and fair competition.

Legalizing third-party financing for distributed energy resources will help consumers protect themselves against future rate hikes. It will create good new local jobs, encourage entrepreneurship and investment, and send a clear signal to large employers and investors that West Virginia is an amazing place to live and build a business. That’s why we joined West Virginians for Energy Freedom, a coalition of our neighbors, organizations in our community, local businesses and officials who believe West Virginians should have the right to take control of where our energy comes from. Visit wv4ef.org to find out more and join the fight for energy freedom in West Virginia.

Dan Conant is founder and CEO of Solar Holler. Brandon Dennison is founder and CEO of Coalfield Development.

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