Wednesday, January 28, 2015

West Virginia’s RPS Repeal is Pure Political Theater, and Probably a Flop

By Nick Lawton, Staff Attorney
Controversy about Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPSs) continued this week with West Virginia becoming the first state to repeal its RPS. I blogged last week about how RPS repeal efforts are fueled by false claims. Last week’s post covered RPS repeal movements in several states, including Kansas, North Carolina, Connecticut, and West Virginia. That effort has now succeeded in West Virginia, where the legislature recently passed a law rescinding a 2009 law requiring 25% of the state’s energy to come from “alternative energy sources.” Additionally, Kansas Representative John Whitmer (R-Wichita) expects to see a renewed challenge to that state’s RPS as well, stating that he is “sure it will come up.”

Although West Virginia is the first state to rescind an RPS (Ohio froze its RPS last year but did not rescind it), the legislative shift will likely have very little impact because West Virginia’s RPS was quite weak to begin with. In the words of West Virginia House Minority Leader Tim Miley (D-Harrison), the law was a “toothless tiger.” Unlike the vast majority of states, which require actual renewable energy to satisfy a Renewable Portfolio Standard, West Virginia allowedcompliance through such dirty technologies as waste coal, natural gas, and tire-derived fuels. Perhaps as a result, West Virginia’s utilities were already well on track to meet the law’s goals, and the law had little impact on coal-related jobs, according to the West Virginia Public Service Commission. Thus, West Virginia’s withdrawal of its weak renewable energy policy is unlikely to significantly change that state’s energy markets.

However, West Virginia’s recent action does illustrate the short-sighted enthusiasm of some renewable energy opponents. Acting unanimously in the State Senate and by a margin of 95-4 in the House, the West Virginia legislature has refused even to consider the economic impacts of repealing the state’s feeble alternative energy standard. The nominal purpose of the repeal is to help the state’s coal industry, but since the RPS had little impact on coal production in the state, the real purpose seems to have more to do with scoring political points. Jeremy Richardson, a senior energy analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists, describes the new law as “just political theater.” 

As political theater goes, though, fighting renewable energy may prove to be a flop. A bipartisan poll from December 2014 by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) shows that strong majorities favor laws that promote renewable energy. NRDC polled 500 likely voters in Colorado, Maine, New Hampshire, and Virginia, as well as 700 in Florida. Solid majorities in every state wanted more investment in energy efficiency and renewable sources like wind and solar, while only small minorities wanted more investment in fossil fuels:

These poll results reveal that the American people are strongly in favor of transitioning our energy system away from fossil fuels and toward clean, renewable sources of energy.

Indeed, this sensible attitude by the American public is likely the reason that Renewable Portfolio Standards are in place in most states. Similarly, popular support for renewable energy is leading California to consider increasing its RPS to 50%, leading New York to consider a fundamental change to its energy markets, and leading Illinois to dedicate $30 million to jump-start solar development. States like West Virginia are clinging to increasingly obsolete fossil fuel-fired technologies, and it will be their citizens who pay the price in higher energy bills, local calamities such as pipeline explosions, and severe health impacts (valued at roughly $75 billion annually nationwide from coal). In contrast, states like California are leading the way to a future powered by renewables, and their citizens will benefit from their forward-thinking policies.

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