James M. Van Nostrand is director of the Center for Energy and Sustainable Development at the West Virginia University College of Law and author of “The Coal Trap: How West Virginia Was Left Behind in the Clean Energy Revolution.” (Cambridge University Press, 2022). The book pulls no punches in describing a “lost decade” — from 2009 to 2019 — in which West Virginia almost completely missed out on the clean energy revolution gathering force in America and the world, in the face of the onrushing climate crisis.
Why? Because of “the Coal Trap” — a powerful, interlocking set of political, legislative, regulatory, and cultural roadblocks, which forestalled making a clear-eyed, well-planned transition to a post-fossil fuel future, in favor of gathering the wagons around a crumbling, coal-centered economy.
Below are excerpts from a ZOOM conversation between Van Nostrand; Perry Bryant, founder of the West Virginia Climate Alliance; and WestVirginiaVille.com editor Douglas John Imbrogno (who worked from 2020 to the start of 2022 as the West Virginia Climate Alliance communications coordinator). We begin with an excerpt from “The Coal Trap,” which sums up a fundamental takeaway from the book.
FROM “THE COAL TRAP: How West Virginia Was Left Behind in the Clean Energy Revolution”
“Leadership in West Virginia needs to have the courage to tell West Virginians what they need to hear rather than what they want to hear. What they need to hear is that the energy industry has undergone and is continuing to undergo a fundamental transition and the source of energy upon which West Virginia built its culture and reputation ceases to be economically viable. Clean coal technology and identifying new products that can be manufactured with coal are not the answer. Coal is already out of the money as a fuel for the generation of electricity, and adding hundreds of millions of dollars of additional investment to implement clean coal technology does not improve the economic analysis. It’s time to embrace the technologies of the 21st century. And those are the clean energy solutions of renewable energy, energy storage, and energy efficiency. And West Virginia has missed out completely on the clean energy revolution that has been underway since the beginning of the last decade. But it is not too late to position the Mountain State to catch up.”
WESTVIRGINIAVILLE: Jamie, you use two very evocative frameworks in your book: the idea of “the Coal Trap” and then “The Lost Decade.” These are powerful narratives for where West Virginia finds itself in 2022. Don Marsh, my old editor at the Charleston Gazette, used to say that the coal in West Virginia’s hills has been as much a curse as a blessing for the state. Given the way the world is changing — while West Virginia’s politics still circles around coal, even with some important changes now afoot in the state — it feels like a full-on curse in 2022.
JAMES VAN NOSTRAND: Yeah, I agree. I think that one of the challenges in West Virginia is honoring the legacy of the coal miners in its history — and that coal mining has been a source of pride in the state. Which makes it so difficult to move on. It’s, like, you’re giving up on coal or you’re giving up on the miners. And a real part of the challenge is because of that, because of that history.
WESTVIRGINIAVILLE: The book takes a deep dive into how successful — and brilliant, really — has been the “War on Coal” messaging and marketing campaign in West Virginia. How do we change this narrative so that former coal communities — and so many families with coal mining legacies — recognize it is in everyone’s best interest to move toward jobs in energy efficiency and clean energy production? That it is in the best interest of the state to round this corner, recognizing how much the well has been poisoned with: ‘There is no other option than to stick with coal …’
JAMES VAN NOSTRAND: I think it starts with political leadership — which is leaders who are saying the right thing about the need for a transition. And that’s what was missing over “The Lost Decade” from 2009 to 2019. That’s why in the last chapter I mentioned Pittsburgh and Eastern Kentucky as good examples, where leaders actually step forward and acknowledge: ‘We need to think about a change.’ And then they provide the leadership and the structure to manage that change. And that has never happened in West Virginia. It was all blaming everything on ‘The War on Coal’ — like everything would be fine in the coal industry if the EPA would just leave us alone.
That’s why I went back to 2009. What did we know in 2009 about the shale gas revolution? Well, we knew it was going to be a fundamental transformation. And it was going to drive down electricity prices. Even Senator [Shelley Moore] Capito acknowledged that. Well, if it drives electricity prices, then isn’t it going to make it more difficult for coal to compete? And, sure enough, it was the largest source of the demise of the coal industry — the shale gas revolution.
And we knew this in 2009, as it was already starting to ramp up considerably. Wholesale power prices started dropping, Obama became president, so, we started focusing on greenhouse gas regulations, which also had huge implications for the coal industry. So, we had a lot of things that were very apparent in 2009 — that life as we knew it was over in terms of the coal industry in West Virginia, and it wasn’t going to change. It wasn’t going to come back. And what did our political leaders do for 10 years? Nothing.
I mean, just blame it all on ‘The War on Coal.’ Blame it all on ‘Obama’s job-killing EPA …’ Just completely abdicate your responsibility to manage the state through an energy transition that we knew was inevitable. Then, of course, by the end of ‘The Lost Decade,’ wind and solar were cheaper than coal.
WESTVIRGINIAVILLE: You don’t mince words when it comes to some of the main actors responsible for the state ending up in a ‘Coal Trap.’ Chief among them on the regulatory side has been the West Virginia Public Service Commission (PSC), which you have called the worst in the country. A phrase that popped into my head while reading your book was ‘regulatory capture.’ The way that federal agencies are sometimes perverted and their mission taken over by the industries they’re supposed to regulate and oversee. It feels like the West Virginia legislature, the PSC, are in a kind of a state of regulatory capture with the coal industry. Is that a fair way of looking at it?
JAMES VAN NOSTRAND: Yes, definitely. I mean, I don’t usually think of regulatory capture in connection with legislators. It’s political influence, obviously. Campaign contributions and lobbying and all that stuff. And there’s no question the coal industry has tremendous clout in the legislature. You know, reducing the severance tax was a good example. The Pleasant Stations bailout, it was like 89 to 5 — I mean, nobody votes against those things. No one even asked the tough questions.
And the legislation that got proposed to reduce mine safety — as though that was going to help mines stay open by cutting their costs. We’re talking about overwhelming market forces. But, oh, let’s try to cut some costs by reducing the protections available for miners. I mean, that dog just shouldn’t hunt in the legislature. But it does because of the influence, [although] I think it is declining in recent years.
Obviously, with all my years of background in doing utility rate cases, working for the Public Service Commission in New York … I know utility regulation, forwards and backwards. And so that’s what I spent a lot of time in the book talking about, and that’s what is the probably the wonkiest parts of it. I did cases in front of eight different commissions and I’m familiar with many, many more. And this commission has just done a truly miserable job of protecting ratepayers. It’s whatever is good for the coal industry is good for West Virginia. And the consequences have been really devastating for our ratepayers. I mean, it’s truly shameful.
WESTVIRGINIAVILLE: In addition to clean energy development, your book goes deep into the importance of energy efficiency, which may sound like a jargony phrase, but actually speaks directly to the electric bills West Virginians pay and the houses where we live. Can you talk about that?
JAMES VAN NOSTRAND: Even though our rates are still relatively low compared to most states in the country, our bills are well above the national average, because we have a bunch of leaky homes in West Virginia. Because we don’t have energy efficiency programs.
First Energy and AEP have all these great energy efficiency programs in the states all around us. Why? Because the PSC in those states makes them or they have state laws that tells them they need to do that. It makes economic sense. But at the Public Service Commission, we have a staff that tells AEP to shut down your programs. It’s, like: ‘Why would we promote energy efficiency? That means we’re going to use less electricity. Which means the coal plants are going to run less …’
PERRY BRYANT: One of the frameworks I find really helpful about climate comes from the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. They have five areas [of focus], but I think the beginning three are most important. One is energy efficiency. Cars and homes and refrigerators and hair dryers — everything — make them more efficient. Then, de-carbonize the grid and switch from coal and natural gas to renewables. And then electrify everything.
Electrify transportation with electric vehicles. Electrify heating and cooling with heat pumps. Electrify cooking with getting rid of gas stoves and getting electric stoves.
I think that framework is really important to help understand how it is we actually accomplish climate. But the foundation part of that is energy efficiency. And I think it often gets overlooked. If we can make our homes and everything more energy efficient, and if we can adopt distributive energy, we’re not going to have to build all these transmission lines. And Jamie’s book did a great job of underlining how important this is, as being the first step.
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WESTVIRGINIAVILLE: So, even in West Virginia the news has not been all bad. The Infrastructure bill and the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) that the Biden Administration got through Congress both direct a whole lot of money and programs the state’s way.
JAMES VAN NOSTRAND: We have real good opportunities with these two pieces of federal legislation. [Among other things] the Infrastructure bill that got passed in November of 2021 throws a lot of money at plugging abandoned oil and gas wells and a lot of money at mine reclamation — $16 billion or $11.3 billion for mine reclamation and $4.7 billion for plugging abandoned oil and gas wells. Well, those are pretty good paying jobs. And they’re addressing some real big issues in West Virginia, which is the number two state for the amount of acres of mine land that need to be reclaimed. And, of course, plugging abandoned oil and gas wells also helps to deal with climate change by reducing methane emissions.
The IRA has some really good stuff for West Virginia. Another big thing is that a certain percentage of your workforce needs to be an apprentice. So, we’re addressing the need to retrain.
An even bigger thing for West Virginia is the definition of ‘energy communities’, where you get a 10% kicker for investing in energy communities. Those are defined as communities that are disproportionately affected by the decline of fossil fuels. Closing of a coal mine. Closing of a coal plant. Closing a natural gas plant. Or just high unemployment or unemployment generally. If you look at a map of West Virginia and see what portions of the states qualify under that definition of ‘energy community,’ almost the entire state is one color or another.
Because if you’re thinking about some major players who have options where they’re going to locate their facilities, and to get a 10% kicker by locating in an energy community — that’s a big deal. So, I think there’s a lot of incentives being offered in the inflation Reduction Act that could really help jumpstart the clean energy economy.
WESTVIRGINIAVILLE: Let’s talk about a specific company — Berkshire Hathaway Energy — lured to West Virginia recently with a project in Jackson County for a new solar and industrial plant that features its own separate ‘microgrid’ power. Yet to get them here, as Alexa Beyer writes in a Mountain State Spotlight story, “landing the project required an unusual move by state lawmakers and the Justice administration: cutting West Virginia’s utility regulator — the Public Service Commission — out of any oversight over the project’s plan to use green, renewable energy.“
JAMES VAN NOSTRAND: The Berkshire Hathaway deal— featuring a 200-megawatt renewable energy micro grid — that is a big deal. The fact that they decided we needed to go around to the PSC should tell us what the real source of the problem is in the state. But the legislature stepped up in a day and made that happen. I can guarantee you Berkshire Hathaway said: ‘These are the terms under which we’re going to come to the state and one of those terms is we’re not going to be regulated by the PSC.’
I was talking to Alexa Bayer at the Mountain State Spotlight. She says: “Well, why would the PSC allow this to happen?” I said, “I guarantee you, the PSC did NOT want this to happen …”
“To land green energy plant, West Virginia lawmakers bypassed their own utility regulators” | by Alexa Beyer, Mountain State Spotlight, SEPT. 26, 2022
“How Berkshire Hathaway Energy Escaped ‘The Coal Trap'” | by Ken Silverstein, Forbes, SEPT. 18, 2022
WESTVIRGINIAVILLE: You make a big point in the book, Jamie, of underscoring that large corporations, which are chiefly responsible for bringing significant numbers of jobs to West Virginia, will not relocate to an area where they cannot ensure access to renewable energy as part of their energy portfolio.
JAMES VAN NOSTRAND: I think the the great thing about that is it’s not the government. It’s not the federal government through some renewable portfolio standard, or some EPA action. These are your large employers. And in West Virginia, it’s Walmart, it’s Procter and Gamble, it’s Toyota. They have corporate sustainability goals along the lines that: ‘We’re going to be 100% renewable energy-powered by 2040, or 2050.’ And that is a big driver. That’s one of the first questions they ask. If you’re gonna attract jobs, you’ve got to meet that demand. And that demand is coming from your large employers, your large utility customers — and you can’t ignore it.
It’s the people at economic development agencies that are on the front lines. They’re talking to these job creators. They are just sort of like: ‘Well, this is what it’s going to take to get industry to come to West Virginia. We have to listen.’ And, the legislature, to their credit, they’re responding.
WESTVIRGINIAVILLE: You and Perry have mentioned a couple of other significant bills out of the legislature …
JAMES VAN NOSTRAND: One was the bill that Evan Hansen started with — the solar on abandoned mine lands [that turned into] that utility scale solar bill. But, nonetheless, that was a way for utilities to build solar in 50-megawatt increments and to be able to earmark that to these job creators who want access to renewable energy.
And then a year later, again, Roger Hanshaw and Moore Capito got the bill passed that says we’re going to allow third-party financing for solar panels, right? Power purchase agreements. So, that was a big deal. Potential employers want to have their own solar array and they want to have the ability to not to have that financed by somebody else.
WESTVIRGINIAVILLE: Let’s talk a little more about where we go from here. Because reading “The Coal Trap,” it’s, like, I wanted to take West Virginia by the shoulders and shake it. I find it a shocking number that in the book, Jamie, you say 88% of the state was still coal-fired as of 2020 …
JAMES VAN NOSTRAND: 91 percent as of 2021 …
WESTVIRGINIAVILLE: Just a shocking number in the year 2022. This book feels like you took West Virginia to the Cleveland Clinic and had a complete workup of why it feels so sick. And there is a whole list of things to do to get better. In the back of the book, you list a bunch of highly specific, very wonky, but very specific steps the state can take to get out of ‘The Coal Trap.’ First, Perry, you’ve been on the frontlines of advocating for Build Back Better and what became the IRA. Can you weigh in on this?
PERRY BRYANT: Part of the IRA will allow us to bypass the West Virginia Legislature and the PSC, particularly in regards to energy efficiency. It really comes down to homeowners and contractors. The homeowner wants to have a heat pump, they want to add insulation, they want to replace their windows, they want to reduce their energy bills — they get a contractor, they do the work. In many cases, particularly for low and moderate income families, they will get the tax rebate at the point of of the purchase. So it’s not like a tax credit, where you have to wait an entire year to get the payment. So, I’m somewhat optimistic.
WESTVIRGINIAVILLE: I have long felt with communicating about climate that we need storytelling narratives. All of us who have been in the trenches of climate activism, we can get very wonky. While reading your book, Jamie, one of the narratives that kind of rise up out of it is we are talking about jobs. I think you said most of the of the new clean energy jobs are in energy efficiency.
JAMES VAN NOSTRAND: Going back to what Perry said in terms of that you don’t need to tie it to climate. You don’t need to tie it to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. It’s called saving money. And putting that money in your pocket by having a lower electric bill every month … If you’re a ratepayer, by not having to write that big check to First Energy every month.
And then all the jobs [energy efficiency and clean energy production] create. And the rap is, well, they’re not as high paying as coal mining jobs. No. But they exist, and they’re going to be growing. These are jobs with energy auditors as people will be putting insulation in your walls. And we’re changing out your doors and windows. And installing heat pumps. I mean, this is where all the jobs are. So we’ve got economic growth.
WESTVIRGINIAVILLE: There certainly are some big challenges ahead to tackling all these interlocking issues.
PERRY BRYANT: There are some significant obstacles to how we get to decarbonizing the grid and taking all these steps. I think we need to act like water. You know, where we get blocked off one direction — maybe it’s the legislature — we find a different way around.
You know, you always want to have big systemic changes. I think in West Virginia, it’s going to have to come more at a consumer level. We need to build an ethos. I think that’s going to be easier to accomplish than to change the composition of the West Virginia legislature. I keep thinking more: How do we educate West Virginians?
JAMES VAN NOSTRAND: I agree with Perry. It’s kind of a long-term education process. And that’s one of the drivers for writing the book. The Public Service Commission has gotten away with a lot of bad decisions because … well, it’s just complicated: ‘Trust us, we’re doing the job.‘ It’s very hard to write about it, because it’s very wonky stuff. I was trying to explain the way this whole process works. You know — why your electricity rates have gone up as much as they have. Of course, everybody wants to support the coal miners. But do you want your electricity rates to be going up that much? Do you realize that the pro-coal decisions made by this agency have caused your rates to go up up that much?
WESTVIRGINIAVILLE: You have said, Jamie, innovation is important, yet you do not find it in the coal industry.
JAMES VAN NOSTRAND: Whether we agree with natural gas or not, we developed a technology that allows us to do the horizontal drilling, right? Technology is driving down wind and solar prices. That’s what we do in America: we innovate, we create. It’s a good story! But the problem is that the coal industry has done nothing to innovate. They spend all their money whining about the war on coal. And, so, one of the drivers for this book was just, like, tell the story.
We’ve been sold a bill of goods for at least as long as I’ve been in West Virginia, by politicians who know better. There’s no question Joe Manchin knows better … Manchin and Capito would actually stop using that term [‘The War on Coal’] because, I mean, I think they figured it had worn out its welcome. It wasn’t really true. And they knew it wasn’t true.
And then you had Trump and Jim Justice, who say, ‘Oh, the coal jobs are coming back.’ And Justice runs for reelection in 2020: ‘Jim Justice, he never gave up on coal.’ I mean, come on! How can you have a serious conversation about a transition when you’ve got political leaders who are saying that we don’t need to talk about a transition — because the coal jobs are coming back?
So, that was one of the things I wanted to accomplish. To try to make some progress in this longer-term education and that we’ve been sold a bill of goods. We need to learn the truth and and start asking the tough questions.
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