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Two years ago, former New York City mayor and very rich guy Michael Bloomberg announced that he was prepared to spend $500 million of his own money in support of the Beyond Carbon initiative. That’s a campaign, in partnership with the Sierra Club, to close all of America’s coal-fired power plants and stop the construction of natural gas power plants.

West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice is not the kind of guy to take that lying down. He quickly assembled a news conference featuring a who’s who of fossil fuel users and producers, including the West Virginia Coal Association, West Virginia Business and Industry Council, Independent Oil and Gas Association of West Virginia, the West Virginia Oil and Natural Gas Association and First Energy Corporation. After a few opening remarks by Justice, the others took turns talking about our fossil fuels with an enthusiasm usually reserved for Jesus at a camp meeting.

This is no surprise. The Justice fortune comes from coal; the rest of them are paid to praise their industries.

What might have slipped by in the fossil fuel lovefest was what Justice said about alternative energy. Before the others had even been moved to testify, he mentioned of renewables, be they “windmills, or solar, or whatever, of which I am an absolute proponent.”

After the testimonials, the governor waxed eloquent again: “I believe, if you look at the renewables, the first thing, the thing everyone here needs to understand, is I think every single person here — I know me — we’re all for the renewables. Every one of us is for the renewables. Every day that the renewables grow and everything, more power to us. Everybody’s for that.”

Although I appreciate the governor’s natural enthusiasm, sometimes he lets it get the better of him. I doubt it is true that, “Every one of us is for the renewables.” Although the guy from the Independent Oil and Gas Association did say we “need coal, oil, gas, renewables,” I doubt that there was much genuine enthusiasm on the stage for anything but coal and natural gas. Fish got to swim, birds got to fly. They got to praise fossil fuels till they die.

The governor does, however, speak for himself. Now, the self-described “absolute proponent” of wind and solar power has a chance to demonstrate his enthusiasm. There is a bill in the West Virginia Legislature that would remove barriers to solar power. He has a chance to lobby, preach, arm-twist, or do whatever he thinks best, to see that it becomes law.

The legislation — Senate Bill 30 — tears down the barriers that the structure of the Public Service Commission puts up before solar energy producers.

The PSC is set up to deal with big power companies, companies that have monopolies in big chunks of the state. American Electric Power (doing business as Appalachian Power) and First Energy get to be the only electric company in their parts of the state. In exchange, they have to agree to be regulated by the PSC. The aggravation of being regulated is worth it, because the companies get monopolies in their areas.

This works for a big company serving half the state; it does not work for small companies. Right now, there are companies that would like to make their living installing solar energy collectors on a single house, school, business or factory. The companies would own the collectors and sell the electricity to the homeowner, etc. The company makes money; the owner gets a supply of electricity at a predictable cost. Everybody’s happy. Or they would be, were it not illegal.

As soon as the installing company starts selling the electricity, it is a public utility that is subject to regulation by the PSC. If building small-scale solar facilities makes the builder subject to the PSC, that business model might as well be illegal.

The bill before the Legislature would fix that. It would allow builders to build solar collectors on a single house or building, and then agree to sell the electricity to the home or building owner (under what is called a Power Purchase Agreement), without becoming subject to PSC regulation. It does not force anybody to use solar power. It just removes a barrier to those who want to.

So, there you have it. A bill that our “absolute proponent” of alternative-energy governor should support is all teed up, ready for him.

So far as I have heard, he has not made a peep. Unless he was just winking at alternative energy before going home with the one that really makes him go weak in the knees, now is the time to say something.

Your move, Big Jim.

John McFerrin is a Gazette-Mail contributing columnist.

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