Hoppy Kercheval’s recent opinion piece about the reliability of electricity service was interesting, but its conclusion that “the rush to green energy to replace traditional baseload power sources could leave us in the dark” felt hyperbolic and unsupported by the rest of the piece.
His column repeated arguments made by utility/coal advocates in favor of power plant bailouts. It also ignores the real issue with reliability of service: delivering electricity.
Kercheval raised fears of rolling blackouts during the December 2022 Winter Storm Elliott in his anti-renewable piece, but wind and solar performed better than coal and gas did during that storm. Look it up.
He discusses a report about future generation needs that has some basis, but it also has some shortcomings. For one, it does not seem to consider that markets are designed to meet demand if/when energy supply actually comes close to being short. Grid markets operate years in advance, giving time and space for investors to receive market signals and invest in new, cost-effective generation. Capitalism works at its best when there is room for competition to act like that.
But the reality is that lots of West Virginians are already left in the dark — not from a lack of generation, but a failing electric distribution system in our state. Three of the four major electrical utilities — Appalachian Power, Wheeling Power and Mon Power — have among the highest interruption times in the country, but there are no utility programs to incentivize battery backup. Much of the state has no access to gas lines, so, even if a gas generator is affordable, it isn’t a possibility.
If there was a robust network of battery backup systems, in addition to having more reliable power, families and businesses could sign up to get a modest payment from the utility to switch to their batteries during peak demand times.
A similar Appalachian Power program already exists, where some customers (including me) let Appalachian Power turn off our air conditioner for a few minutes during summer peak demand times, in exchange for around $50. Fifty bucks is less than the value to the utility for reducing the demand, but we don’t even feel the difference, so it’s money for nothing. A battery version could curtail more demand, last longer and give more benefit to ratepayers.
Reducing peak demand has two benefits for all ratepayers. First, it reduces how much power the utility needs to buy from the free-market grid, during the times when power is at its most expensive. Second, the summer peaks are what set the requirements for how much power plant capacity each utility needs to have. By lowering that number, utilities can reduce capacity costs or can even sell excess capacity.
This is a free-market approach to meeting energy needs. Unlike recent proposals for power plant bailouts, it does not solely rely on ratepayers — instead, ratepayers would share costs with participants. It also encourages self-reliance among electric customers — meeting their own energy needs when their government-regulated monopoly fails them.
I would encourage our conservative leaders to consider a return to conservative principles, like free markets and self-reliance when it comes to energy, instead of government forcing us to subsidize their friends’ power plants.
Emmett Pepper is policy director for Energy Efficient West Virginia and a member of the Charleston City Council.