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WV group hopes to create green jobs by promoting residential solar

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Residential solar power may get a boost in West Virginia in the coming legislative session.

A suite of bills could provide incentives and reduce barriers for owners of small solar systems. The bills are the legislative agenda of an informal group of solar power advocates.

"This is a booming business," said John Christensen of Mountain View Solar and Wind in Berkeley Springs, referencing an industry report showing almost 120,000 jobs in the industry in 2012 and 140,000 expected in 2013. 

"This is a very significant time in our history, and we have a chance to take advantage of it," he said. 

One bill the group has in mind would create what is known as a "solar carve-out" in the state's 2009 Alternative and Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard, or AREPS.

The structure of the AREPS could create a more diverse power mix by requiring utilities to source target amounts of the power they sell in the state from a set of alternative and renewable sources: 10 percent by 2015, 15 percent by 2020 and 25 percent by 2025. They can generate it themselves or they can buy credits from other generators. 

A solar carve-out would reserve a small part of that specifically for solar generators, creating a market in the state for their credits. 

"It sets a goal of a percentage, very small, 0.5 to 1 percent, of total generation," Christensen said, "and we want to reserve a good portion of that for residential so as not to have it taken up with one large project."

A carve-out would be a goal-setting step, Christensen said. Other policies would support the attainment of the goal.

One of those other policies is reauthorization of a $2,000 residential solar energy tax credit that went into effect in 2009 and expires this year. 

"The five-year energy plan put out by the state Division of Energy specifically targeted that bill to be reauthorized," Christensen said. "At the same time, we want to find out if we can make it better because the original bill did not give credits to businesses — so we might add that, or we might try to increase the tax credit a little."

Finally, Christensen would like to see a bill reintroduced that has gotten stuck in committee in the past — one that would reduce the appraisal value of an installed solar generation system in order to keep the personal property tax down.

"If an appraiser comes out to your house after you do the solar installation and increases the value of your property by the amount the system cost, that's unreasonable," he said. "We're asking for a decrease in that — I think it's 30 percent of the install value as opposed to the full value. The normal salvage value is 5 percent, so we bumped it up to make it better for the tax department, but we still want something because, although chances are they won't reassess your property, they could."

Ultimately, Christensen said, the hope is that policies supporting the development of solar energy in West Virginia would attract a major solar manufacturing company to the state. 

West coast manufacturer Solar World, he said by way of example, distributes in the east but does not have an eastern manufacturing facility. 

"They need an east coast presence, and I think if they built a plant in West Virginia, that would be fantastic," he said. 

"We have the raw materials necessary to make a panel right here: the silicon, the glass, the aluminum. It would be a good thing all around from the standpoint of economic development."

The three bills are being drafted now. 

The solar carve-out and tax credit re-authorization are on this year's legislative agenda of the West Virginia Environmental Council, according to Legislative Coordinator Don Garvin.