West Virginia has long been known as an energy state — first as coal country, and now as a major producer of natural gas. Yet there’s also a nascent renewable energy industry slowly taking hold in West Virginia, including solar, wind and hydropower.

West Virginia’s mining industry has suffered some hard knocks in recent years. The state’s coal production fell from 158 million tons in 2008 to 80 million tons in 2016. The inevitable result: closed mines and jobless miners.

Nevertheless, coal still dominates West Virginia’s power generation mix and seems destined to continue doing so for the foreseeable future.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA): “Coal-fired electric power plants accounted for 93 percent of West Virginia’s net energy generation in 2017. Renewable energy sources — solar, wind and hydropower — contributed a total of less than 5 percent. Natural gas provided 2.2 percent.”

The 2.2 percent figure cited for natural gas may seem low, but most of the gas produced in West Virginia isn’t used here. Instead, it’s transported out of state, providing needed energy supplies to other states while adding revenue to West Virginia’s coffers.

Sunny skies, strong winds and fast-moving water can provide a vast and constantly replenished supply of energy. And while only a small fraction of U.S. electricity currently comes from these renewable sources, this seems certain to change.

Studies have repeatedly shown that renewable energy can provide a significant share of the nation’s future electricity needs. A recent study by the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory found that renewable energy could comfortably provide up to 80 percent of U.S. electricity by 2050.

Yet that optimistic view is not universal. The EIA’s Annual Energy Outlook for 2018 projects in its “reference case” scenario that natural gas may be used to generate nearly 2,000 billion kilowatt hours of electricity by 2050, compared to about 1,600 billion for renewables. In a low-price natural gas environment, natural gas’ use would be far greater for power generation. But consistently high natural gas prices between now and 2050 could give renewables a significant edge.

Sunny skies ahead

“Renewables are going to be the main source of energy long term — it’s just a question of when,” said Dan Conant, the first employee of Vermont’s largest solar installer and a former adviser to the U.S. Department of Energy’s SunShot Initiative.

Conant earned a master’s degree in energy policy from Johns Hopkins University. In 2016, he was named one of Southern Living magazine’s “50 Southerners of the Year.”

Like many young West Virginians, Conant left the state to seek greener pastures. But in 2014 he returned to his native Shepherdstown and took on an ambitious challenge when he founded a nonprofit concern, Solar Holler, working to bring solar jobs to West Virginia communities hit hard by the decline of coal.

“I really feel like we’re in a race against time, that it’s important we diversify quickly so young folks don’t have to move away,” Conant said. “It’s been really frustrating over the years to see all of my friends leave — pretty much everyone I went to high school with. The state is experiencing a serious brain drain.”

The deck seems stacked against Conant and those who have enlisted in his cause. West Virginia lacks the solar-friendly regulations, financial incentives and high electric rates that have combined to fuel solar power’s popularity in states like California and Massachusetts. But Conant noted the cost of installing solar power systems has fallen sharply, a fact he hopes will help convince more businesses and homeowners to go solar.

In 2015, Solar Holler began partnering with Coalfield Development Corp., established by Brandon Dennison in 2010.

Like Conant, Dennison was a young man with a big dream. Today, he’s the CEO of Coalfield Development, a multimillion-dollar operation dedicated to creating jobs and providing vital job training for southern West Virginia, where thousands of miners have lost their jobs.

In Huntington, Coalfield Development has taken an abandoned factory and turned it into a multifaceted facility housing a number of training programs, including solar installation.

A graduate of Shepherd University, Dennison served five years as youth director of Shepherdstown Presbyterian Church. In that role, he took young people on several work trips to poverty-stricken areas to help people repair their dilapidated houses.

He never tires of telling the story of something that happened on the last such trip, one in Mingo County. He tells of how two shirtless young men with tool belts slung over their shoulders approached the volunteers. They wanted paid work, and there was none.

“They were really motivated, they wanted to learn, and they wanted to work,” Dennison said. “But because of where they lived, they didn’t have an opportunity to apply that gumption. The worst part of it is that they lived in my home state. It was a small moment but one that dramatically illustrated a real problem.”

As a graduate student and then as an intern with the Wayne County Housing Authority, Dennison began to ask a lot of questions about what it would take to break the region’s cycle of poverty, by creating good jobs for the people left behind by the declining coal industry.

His answer was Coalfield Development, which employs jobless workers to rehabilitate homes and buildings in southern West Virginia.

“We started out small,” Dennison said. “We had three crew members, and my best friend out of high school got his contractor’s license and joined me. We bought seven apartment units in the town of Wayne and rehabbed them. This actually became our first solar project, when we converted the apartments to solar power.”

Today, training workers to install solar power systems is an important part of what Coalfield Development does at its Huntington facility, a mammoth former factory on Vernon Street in Huntington.

From the 1920s to the 1960s, the block-long building was home to a stove plant operated by the A.F. Thompson Manufacturing Co. The factory provided good, well-paying jobs for hundreds of employees, many of whom lived in the neighborhood. After Thompson went out of business, clothing manufacturer Corbin Ltd. operated in the building until 2002.

After that, the former plant sat vacant and neglected until it was donated to the Wayne County Development Authority. In 2013, the authority contracted with Coalfield Development to demolish the building. The aim was to create a vacant tract of land that would attract a new industry.

“When we started tearing out the old yellow pine flooring in the building, we had no trouble selling it, as it’s popular in today’s big city restaurants and bars,” Dennison said. “But as we worked, we developed a vision of what the building could be; so we told the Development Authority that instead of tearing it down we wanted to buy it.”

Now named the West Edge Factory, the old building houses a number of different projects, financed with a long list of federal grants and donations from private foundations.

There’s an application form for individuals interested in becoming a Coalfield crew member, “but it’s pretty simple,” Dennison said. “Rather than looking for a ‘good interview,’ we’re looking for a good fit. We are willing to take risks and give chances to employees that other employers aren’t ready to take on. But we need to know our recruits will be willing to learn and grow and give their best. We do drug test and there is a 90-day probationary period.

“Being a Coalfield crew member is not for everybody. It’s a major commitment and it’s very challenging. Our crew members work what we call the 33-6-3 model each week: 33 hours of paid work, 6 credit hours pursuing a two-year degree at either Mountwest Community and Technical College or Southern Community and Technical College and 3 hours of personal development.”

The latter, Dennison said, includes skills such as time-management, emotional health, physical health, goal-setting and financial planning. Crew members are required to keep personal journals recording their progress.

Since teaming up, Solar Holler and Coalfield Development have done rooftop solar projects and LED lighting installations for churches, a public library and a number of homes and local businesses. In August 2018, they installed 115 solar panels on the roof of Harmony House, an apartment complex and homeless shelter operated by the Huntington Coalition for the Homeless.

Answer blowing in the wind

Advocates of wind power believe that Bob Dylan had it right when he told us “the answer is blowing in the wind.” They argue that increased use of wind power could put the nation on the fast track to cleaner energy. But that premise hasn’t quite caught on in West Virginia.

The American Wind Energy Association reported the nation’s total installed wind capacity as of 2017 was just under 85,000 megawatts. West Virginia’s six wind projects account for only 686 MW and generate just 1.9 percent of the state’s total energy production.

By way of comparison, Texas, the leading state in wind energy production, has 146 working wind projects with nearly 12,400 turbines generating more than 22,000 MW.

Wind power is both old and new. From the sailing ships of the ancient Greeks, to today’s high-tech wind turbines, humans have used the power of the wind for millennia.

In the United States, the original heyday of wind was between 1870 and 1930, when thousands of farmers across the country used wind to pump water. Small electric wind turbines were used in rural areas as far back as the 1920s, and prototypes of larger machines were built in the 1940s. When the New Deal brought grid-connected electricity to the countryside, windmills lost out.

Interest in wind power was reborn during the energy crisis of the 1970s and flourished in California in the 1980s. Between 1981 and 1986, small companies and entrepreneurs installed 15,000 medium-sized turbines, providing enough power for every resident of San Francisco.

Pushed by the high cost of fossil fuels, a moratorium on nuclear power and concern about environmental degradation, the state provided tax incentives to promote wind power. These, combined with a federal tax incentive, helped the wind industry take off. Even after the tax credits expired in 1985, wind power continued to grow, although more slowly.

Wind turbines are mounted on towers at least 100 feet above the ground, so they can reap the benefit of the faster, less turbulent winds at that level. The towers are grouped in what are called wind farms.

Wind turbines operate on a simple principle. The energy in the wind turns two or three propeller-like blades around a rotor. The rotor is connected to the main shaft, which spins a generator to create electricity.

AWEA says the 376 turbines located in West Virginia’s six wind farms produce enough energy to power 132,000 homes and represent a total investment of $1.4 billion.

The future of wind power in West Virginia is uncertain. New projects are on the drawing board but can be counted on to face opposition from those citizens who see the soaring turbine towers dotting the landscape as not just ugly but an environmental menace

At present, the Mount Storm Wind Farm, located 120 miles west of Washington, D.C., in Grant County, is the largest of West Virginia’s six wind project. Its 132 turbines can generate up to 164 MW of electricity for the mid-Atlantic power grid.

When plans for the Mount Storm project were first announced, its developers filed for a permit from the West Virginia Public Service Commission (PSC) that would have authorized construction of 166 turbines, which would have been the largest wind farm east of the Mississippi.

Opponents quickly raised objections, arguing that the project would threaten birds and diminish home values in the surrounding area. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service concluded the project posed little danger to local birds, and after a hearing the PSC approved the requested permit, clearing the way for construction. Only 132 turbines were built, rather than the 166 that had been originally requested.

Mount Storm can meet the energy needs of 66,000 homes. Dominion Energy and Shell Wind Energy each own a 50 percent share in the project.

As the company’s first facility in West Virginia, the New Creek Wind Farm began as a big deal for Enbridge Inc. And, as it turns out, the 103 MW project in Grant County is a big deal just about any way you look at it.

The blades on each of the project’s 49 turbines are 150 feet long. That’s one and a half times the size of an adult blue whale. Each turbine has an effective height of 400 feet, taller than the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor (305 feet).

The New Creek Wind Farm began commercial operations in December 2016. Spread over 6,000 acres on New Creek Mountain, it has the capacity to power about 23,000 homes.

The Beech Ridge Wind Farm in Greenbrier County is a 100.5 MW facility with 67 turbines. The project is owned by a subsidiary of Chicago-based Invenergy, LLC. It’s built on land owned by MeadWestvaco.

The project came to public notice in 2005 when it owners filed an application for a site permit with the PSC. The proposal stirred considerable controversy. Supporters touted its economic benefits, while opponents decried its impact on the local viewshed and voiced a fear that it would have a negative impact on the region’s tourism. The PSC ultimately approved the permit.

AES Wind Generation Inc. has constructed 61 turbines at its Laurel Mountain Wind Farm in Randolph County. The facility can generate up to 98 MW of electricity.

The Laurel Mountain facility features the largest battery installation attached to the power grid in the continental United States. The purpose of the 1.3 million batteries is to tame the wind, but only slightly. AES described the batteries as a shock absorber of sorts, making variations in wind energy production a little less jagged and the farm’s output more useful to the grid.

When it came on line in 2002, Mountaineer Wind Energy Center, a wind farm on Backbone Mountain in Preston and Tucker counties, was the first wind farm in West Virginia. Owned and operated by Florida Power & Light, its 66 turbines can produce 66 MW of electricity.

Pinnacle Wind Force, LLC, operated by Edison Mission Energy in Mineral County, has 23 turbines that generate 55 MW of electricity.

Selling down the river

Hydropower is one of the world’s oldest sources of energy. It was used thousands of years ago to turn a paddlewheel for purposes such as grinding grain. The first U.S. hydroelectric power plant opened in Wisconsin in 1882.

Hydroelectricity is produced by capturing the energy of flowing water. Both swiftly flowing water in a big river and water descending rapidly from a very high point have a great deal of energy in their flow. In either instance, the water flows through a pipe, or penstock, then pushes against and turns blades in a turbine to spin a generator to produce electricity. In a run-of-the-river system, the force of the current applies the needed pressure. In a pump storage system, water is accumulated in reservoirs created by dams, then released as needed to generate electricity.

West Virginia’s streams have been harnessed for their energy since the days of early settlement. Countless water-powered gristmills and sawmills once crowded the banks of the state’s many rivers and creeks. In the 19th century, flowing water powered factories on the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers at Harpers Ferry. By the 1890s water power was being used for the production of electricity in West Virginia.

Unlike the huge dams and power plants in the western United States, hydroelectric plants in West Virginia are smaller and usually situated on existing dams. Built primarily for flood control and recreation, some of the dams have been retrofitted for the production of electricity. The Ohio, Cheat, Kanawha, Gauley, Potomac, Shenandoah and New rivers have all been used to produce electricity.

Perhaps the best-known hydroelectric facility in the state, the 102 MW Hawks Nest-Gauley Bridge complex on the New River, is also associated with one of the nation’s worst industrial disasters. Beginning in 1930, workers began building a massive three-mile tunnel through Gauley Mountain to increase the fall of the water captured upstream at the dam. Hundreds of the workers who dug the tunnel died from silicosis.

The Hawks Nest plant is the largest producer of hydroelectricity in West Virginia and today is managed by Brookfield Renewable Power, which has committed $50 million to a 20-year capital investment program for the plant.

In 2012, Brookfield successfully completed the rehabilitation of a hydropower project located at Glen Ferris on the Kanawha River. The company invested $25 million to bring the closed plant, the oldest part of which was built in 1899, back into full production. The project included the overhaul and modernization of the facility’s eight turbine units. Today, the Glen Ferris hydropower plant generates more than 38,000 MW hours a year of renewable power for the West Virginia electricity market. That’s enough electricity for 4,500 households.

The city of New Martinsville operates one of only two municipal electrical systems in the state. Its 36 MW hydroelectric plant on the Ohio River produces enough power for a city seven times the size of New Martinsville, which has a population of 7,000. The plant has used the Ohio River to generate its power since 1988. The power is sold to Allegheny Energy for distribution to the nation’s electric grid. The plant design uses the natural flow of the river to generate electricity.

In 2001, a $53 million power station on the Summersville Dam on the Gauley went into service. The 80 MW facility is operated by the Gauley River Power Partners, a consortium which includes the city of Summersville.

Less than a fourth of the hydroelectricity produced in West Virginia is produced by the electric utilities, the remainder being generated by independent producers, such as American Municipal Power Inc. (AMP), which has built and operates hydroelectric plants at the Belleville and Willow Island locks and dams on the Ohio River.

AMP constructed a 42 MW power plant on Belleville Dam, which began producing power in 1999, and a similar 44 MW facility at the river’s Willow Island Dam. It entered commercial operation in 2016.

Advocates of hydroelectric power note that it’s a carbon-free renewable resource that’s available 24/7 every day of the year. By comparison, wind and solar are more intermittent renewable energy sources: When the wind isn’t blowing or the sun isn’t shining, they can’t produce electricity. So adding reliable sources of power that generate electricity at all hours is a big push for people trying to get more renewables onto the grid. Advocates for hydropower say their resource could fit the bill.

If all goes as planned, that future will include construction of a hydroelectric facility at the Jennings Randolph Dam. Built by the Baltimore District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the dam lies on the North Fork of the Potomac River along the border of West Virginia and Maryland.

Meanwhile, a mammoth new pump storage hydropower project is on the drawing board in Tucker County. A Harpers Ferry company, FreedomWorks LLC, has proposed what it calls the Big Run Pump Storage Hydro Project.

In August, the company applied to the Federal Energy Management Commission for a preliminary permit to study the feasibility of the $1.2 billion project. FERC accepted the preliminary application on Oct. 29, 2018, and opened a 60-day window for comments and motions to intervene.

Responding, Friends of Blackwater, a citizen group, has written FERC voicing its opposition to the Big Run Project, saying it would drive away tourists and threaten endangered wildlife.

Related articles:

Appalachian Power betting on wind energy

Daily Mail Opinion: West Virginia can lead in renewables too

James E. Casto is the retired associate editor of the Herald-Dispatch in Huntington and the author of a number of books on local and regional history.