CLARKSBURG — Coal is still the king of electricity generation in West Virginia.
While the state has seen an enormous amount of activity in recent years due to the ongoing oil and gas boom, the majority of oil and gas produced in West Virginia is shipped elsewhere for use.
Although levels of coal production in the state have plummeted dramatically over the last decade — coal production reached a 40-year low in 2016 — more than 90 percent of the electricity created in West Virginia still comes from coal.
Renewable sources of energy — wind, solar and hydroelectric — represent a small portion of the state’s total energy produced — about 4.6 percent.
James Wood, interim director of the Energy Institute at West Virginia University, said the state has a much more homogenous energy generation landscape than neighboring states like Ohio and Pennsylvania.
“West Virginia’s (energy) generation is not diverse. Between 2007 and 2017, the amount of coal generation (of electricity) dropped from about 97 percent to 94 percent,” he said. “By comparison, the amount of coal generation in Ohio dropped from 94 percent in 2007 to 58 percent in 2017. The amount of electricity generated by gas in West Virginia went from less then 1 percent in 2007 to about 2 percent in 2017. Comparable data for Ohio is 4 percent to 35 percent.”
Energy experts are studying strategies the Mountain State should employ to help its energy industry better compete with surrounding states, Wood said.
“I think the relevant data include the cost of generation between coal and gas and renewables. Gas generation has two benefits: It is cleaner — carbon dioxide emissions are about 47 percent of coal on a ton/megawatt basis — and it is more efficient,” he said. “In addition to the economic and environmental issues, shareholders, consumers and industrial users also are pushing for carbon-free energy.”
Kelly Bragg, energy development specialist with the West Virginia Office of Energy, said the amount of electricity West Virginia sells to other states has declined over the last two decades.
“Back in 1998 we exported 68 percent of the electricity that we made. By 2017, that’s down to 53 percent,” she said. “My suspicion is that other states are taking steps to diversify their own energy supply.”
Diversification keeps states from having to import energy from elsewhere, Bragg said.
“We never ever want to become a net electricity importer,” she said. “I just think that would be a shame.”
Although coal still dominates the state’s energy generation interest in renewable sources of energy are increasing, Bragg said.
“I think we’re moving in a diverse direction. There’s a lot of support for new projects,” she said.
The state is particularly lacking in utility-scale solar energy projects, Bragg said.
“We are the only one of 11 states in the northeast region that does not have a single utility-scale solar project,” she said. “That is a number that I would certainly like to see changed.”
There are several steps the state could take to encourage more solar activity, Bragg said.
One is called a Third-Party Power Purchase Agreement, which makes it more attractive for property owners to install solar panels on their homes or commercial buildings, Bragg said.
“Basically it allows people to pay a smaller monthly fee for their solar system, as opposed to coming up with the full amount up front,” she said. “It’s a contractual relationship between the building owner and the solar installer which currently is not allowed here.”
While she said that changes to overall energy policy priorities tend to be effective then merely offering incentives like tax breaks, West Virginia needs something to attract more solar development, Bragg said.
“I would hope that within the next five years we would have at least one utility-scale project,” she said.
On the wind energy side, West Virginia has six wind energy projects online.
West Virginia is ranked 26th in the nation in terms of its wind energy generation capacity, according to the American Wind Energy Association.
Data from the association shows the state’s wind projects have the ability to produce 686 megawatts of electricity. In 2017, 2.2 percent of the state’s total electrical generation came from wind.
Energy industry experts estimate coal will remain the major player in West Virginia energy generation for the immediate future.
According to a 2018 study from the WVU Bureau of Business & Economic Research, the coal industry is estimated to remain “relatively stable” through the early 2020s.
In the short term, overall state output is expected to decline by 3 percent annually until 2020, leaving mined coal tonnage at just over 85 million by the end of the decade.
The study suggests weakening export activity will likely drive most of the anticipated drop in production through 2020, but the retirement and/or conversion of several gigawatts worth of coal-fired generating capacity that source coal from West Virginia mines will also account for some of the decline.
Domestic shipments of thermal coal are expected to drop over the next decade as older coal-fired generation facilities deal with rising maintenance costs and lack of competitiveness against natural gas and, in some markets, renewables.
By 2030, statewide coal production is expected to fall below 80 million tons and decline further through 2040, according to the study.