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Autumn Long: WV needs office holders to represent voters, not energy monopoly

It’s time for candidates to declare their independence from electric utility influence.

For too long, West Virginia’s monopoly electric utilities have maintained their power by keeping politicians in their pockets. These corporations rely on our elected officials to make it harder for us to take control of where our electricity comes from. They secure this support not by persuasive arguments, but with paid lobbyists and campaign donations.

Between 2004 and 2018, Ohio-based American Electric Power and FirstEnergy — the parent companies of Appalachian Power, Wheeling Power, Mon Power, and Potomac Edison — donated more than $1.1 million to West Virginia political candidates. And at the national level, since 1990, electric utilities have contributed more than $452 million to federal, state, and local candidates and committees throughout the country.

Utilities are able to use their influence at state capitols to put laws into place — in the words of former AEP CEO Mike Morris — and to defeat common-sense legislation that would benefit electric customers and the public.

For example, third-party power sales are illegal in West Virginia. This prevents community members from pooling their resources to build community-owned solar installations, and it bars independent solar developers from selling the power generated by rooftop solar panels.

Moreover, FirstEnergy has led the charge against energy efficiency legislation in West Virginia, despite the fact that energy efficiency programs have been proven to save families and businesses money.

These are just two examples of how electric utilities prevent West Virginia residents and businesses from saving money on their electric bills and discourage economic development and new business growth in the state.

The electric utility industry is not alone in using campaign contributions to create a policy environment advantageous to its interests. But West Virginia’s electric utilities are unique in that their entire business model is predicated on regulators allowing them to maintain a monopoly over their service areas.

Because West Virginia’s electricity market is regulated, the rates we pay for electricity are set by appointed commissioners. These commissioners are chosen and approved by the same politicians who receive substantial campaign donations from the utilities they are supposed to regulate. This process allows utilities to slant the regulatory process in their favor.

The regulated utility model may have made sense decades ago, when the most efficient way to distribute electricity was from large, centralized power plants. We no longer live in that world.

The advent of energy technologies like solar power and battery storage is allowing regular people to take control of where their electricity comes from. It no longer makes economic sense to rely solely on monopoly utilities for our power.

That’s why Solar United Neighbors of West Virginia has launched the “Represent Us, Not Utilities” pledge campaign. We are urging all candidates for public office in West Virginia to decline campaign contributions from electric utilities. The pledge is simple:

“To maintain independence from monopoly utility interests, and to avoid the perception of undue influence on my positions concerning West Virginia energy policies, I will take no money or gifts from AEP and FirstEnergy or their Political Action Committees, lobbyists, and executives.”

This pledge campaign builds on the momentum of an effective citizen-led campaign to stop FirstEnergy from putting West Virginia ratepayers on the hook for its unprofitable Pleasants power plant. The success of that effort demonstrated what can happen when West Virginians stand up for our energy rights. It also revealed the extent to which utilities like FirstEnergy depend on government protection to remain profitable.

Together, we can insist that our elected officials in Charleston shape energy policy to benefit all ratepayers and the public interest, not just corporate executives and shareholders. If you believe politicians should be independent from monopoly utilities like AEP and FirstEnergy, urge your candidates to sign the “Represent Us, Not Utilities” Pledge at solarunitedneighbors.org.

Autumn Long is program director for Solar United Neighbors of West Virginia.

Funerals for Monday, September 16, 2019

Campbell, James - 2 p.m., St. Anthony Catholic Church, Charleston.

Chaney, Doris - 6 p.m., Ridenour Lake Gazebo, Nitro.

Conger, Jacqueline - 2 p.m., Roush Funeral Home, Ravenswood.

Daugherty, Roy - Noon, Deal Funeral Home, Point Pleasant. 

De Roo, Mary - 11 a.m., Blessed Sacrament Church, South Charleston.

Garrett, Barbara - 1 p.m., Grace Episcopal Church, Ravenswood.

Jennings, Betty - 4 p.m., Chapman Funeral Home, Hurricane.

Legg, Phyllis - 1 p.m., Bell Creek Missionary Baptist Church, Dixie.

Lyons, Ronald - 1 p.m., Bartlett - Nichols Funeral Home, St. Albans.

Parsons, Joan - 2 p.m., Keller Funeral Home, Dunbar.

Persinger, Patsy - 1 p.m., White Funeral Home, Summersville.

Petry, Jo Ann - Noon, Cunningham - Parker - Johnson Funeral Home, Charleston.

Stirling Sr., Robert - 1 p.m., Stump Funeral Home & Cremation Inc., Grantsville.

Waldron, James - 1 p.m., Curry Funeral Home, Alum Creek.

Woodard-Thomas, Carolyn - 1 p.m., West Virginia Memorial Gardens, Calvin.