Q&A: WVU College of Law releases report on how Biden, Manchin energy plans could benefit West Virginia

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MORGANTOWN, W.Va. –  A recent report from the West Virginia University College of Law’s Center for Energy and Sustainable Development analyzed President Joe Biden’s American Jobs Plan and the American Jobs in Energy Manufacturing Act sponsored by Senator Joe Manchin. The report finds that the complementary plans will benefit West Virginia in job creation, energy costs, and emissions reduction.

The bills aim to create a “just transition” for families of coal miners and other fossil fuels by providing jobs and economic opportunities in fossil fuel dependent areas. The bills also aim to invest more in renewable resources to reduce CO2 emissions across the country.

We sat down with Tim Cronin, Fellow at the Center for Energy & Sustainable Development, for an exclusive Q&A to get more details on the report.

Q: Could you give us just like a brief summary of what the report is all about? 

A: Absolutely. I think the biggest takeaway is that the energy infrastructure proposals we analyzed from President Biden and from Senator Manchin would be a darn good deal for West Virginia. It would enable us to achieve nearly 80% emission free power generation by 2030, and in the process, it would enable us to create roughly 3,500 jobs and reduce our energy costs by almost a billion dollars — $855 million through 2040. 

Q: Can we quantify those numbers a little bit to fully understand what those numbers mean? Where are we right now compared to how we would be if this was passed? 

A: So, what we did is we analyzed two scenarios. One is essentially our current trajectory, so it’s not complete status quo. We do take into account the fact that our utilities today are trying to build out renewable energy, so we project out that current trajectory, and then we compare that against a trajectory for power resources that would be enabled by the proposals from President Biden and Senator Manchin. 

Source: West Virginia’s Energy Future: Built Back Better report, WVU College of Law

Under the current trajectory, we would still be looking at significant dependence on coal fired power generation through 2030 and 2040. We’re talking about 70-some-percent coal-fired power generation, even through 2040. And then, in contrast with that scenario, looking at the potential build out of emission-free power resources enabled by these energy infrastructure proposals, you’d be looking at 80% emission-free power generation just after 2030, specifically 79.4% in 2023, and then increasing thereafter. 

And then, in terms of the jobs, I think it’s important to note that we looked at this as a full upstream/downstream analysis, so this isn’t saying just that 3,500 jobs would be created. This is looking on a net basis, so taking into account all the changes throughout the economy that this could bring about. You would still be looking at a net job creation of 3,500 full time jobs. I think it’s also important to note that this has a durational element to it. This isn’t just, “Oh, 3,500 jobs are created in 2024, but they go away in 2025.” This takes into account the entire study period of 2021 through 2040 and says that 3,500 jobs would be created throughout that period. 

 I think the biggest takeaway is that the energy infrastructure proposals we analyzed from President Biden and from Senator Manchin would be a darn good deal for West Virginia.

Tim Cronin, Fellow, the Center for Energy & Sustainable Development

Q: The average person is probably going to want to know about these jobs in terms of the quality. Are these good jobs that would be created? 

A: I think the most straightforward metric from our modeling that could stand in for that is the fact that we would not only be looking at net job creation, but also a net increase in incomes, and so it’s not just the fact that you’re ending up with a greater amount of jobs, but you ended up with a greater amount of income for West Virginians. 

So, we don’t get into the precise detail for any given job, the exact salary for it, but just looking at it from a big picture perspective, we’d be looking at increased earnings throughout the state under this scenario. 

Q: I can anticipate that maybe some of our viewers might wonder a little bit about expanding natural gas, which was a part of the plan a little bit, and wonder why we aren’t just trying to focus on only renewables. Do you have like any sort of answer for that? 

A: So, what we try to do is try to come up with the most cost effective way to hit the clean energy goals that are in the plan from the President. Specifically, trying to get to 80% emission free power generation by 2030 and getting on a pathway to 100% by 2035, and what we found is we can deploy wind and solar today in a very cost effective way. 

But, we also think that to get to 100%, it’s possible we’re going to need some other technologies, and so there’s also been an emphasis from our policymakers to make sure we’re investing in innovation, and having natural gas in the portfolio is an opportunity to do that because it allows for the possibility of down the road, converting those facilities to either carbon capture and storage natural gas facilities or hydrogen fired facilities. Specifically, we talked about constructing two combined cycle natural gas units in West Virginia, and those are the type of units that experts say that we could down the road convert to hydrogen firing in a way that’s economical. 

Source: West Virginia’s Energy Future: Built Back Better report, WVU College of Law

Now, we don’t know today whether that’s going to be the case or not. We don’t know whether it’s going to be hydrogen; we don’t know whether it’s going to be carbon capture. We don’t know if in fact wind and solar will just continue to get cheaper — battery storage will continue to get cheaper, and maybe those resources will make more sense, but it leaves the door open for that, and it also allows us to take advantage of our very affordable natural gas resources today in the meantime, while we pursue that future. 

Q: In your opinion, how likely do you think it is that these plans will pass? 

I’d say there’s a decent chance. I think what a lot of folks are recognizing is that there’s an opportunity to make a deal here. You have a lot of folks that are saying we absolutely need to get to 80% emission free power generation by 2030, but they’re also recognizing that we have a lot of communities, especially in West Virginia, that have made a lot of sacrifices and contributions through the fossil fuel economy to power America’s economic rise throughout the 20th century and 21st century, and we need to make sure that West Virginia and other communities like ours play a role in this evolving energy economy. So, let’s make sure we’re making a major reinvestment into those communities.

The utilities in West Virginia, they’re already planning to retire their coal fired power plants. FirstEnergy is looking to retire their plants by 2050 or earlier. The scheduled retirement dates for the Appalachian Power and Wheeling Power coal fired power plants are 2040, so they’re already planning to retire these. This is an opportunity to maybe move a little bit faster than we are planning, but also receive a really major reinvestment in our coal communities and our energy economy. 

Source: West Virginia’s Energy Future: Built Back Better report, WVU College of Law

Q: So, I know in some of the stories that I’ve done before, even before Biden took office, a lot of people were excited for this year because Manchin has a bigger role in the environmental aspect of things. Have we seen sort of, I guess hope that not only can we get into this just transition, but also sort of have it be West Virginia-centric in the sense that we won’t get left behind? 

A: No question. I think we’re extremely fortunate for Senator Manchin to be in the position he is, to really be shaping what this evolving energy economy is going to look like, and to make sure that West Virginia has a robust role in that, so there’s no question. 

The recent bipartisan infrastructure legislation that was passed in the Senate, that included a lot of proposals from Senator Manchin, including part of what we modeled in our analysis, which is a major investment in energy manufacturing. A portion of that ended up being included in the bipartisan legislation and a further expansion of that is being considered in the budget reconciliation plan that is still being considered. 

I also think it’s worth noting that while we’re very fortunate to have Senator Manchin in this position, we’re also fortunate that Senator Capito in the position she is in on the Environmental Committee in the Senate, and she also has played a significant role in making sure that there are a lot of investments in West Virginia through this bipartisan push for energy infrastructure. 

Q: Why is a swift transition so important? 

A: Well, I think you can kind of take two views on this. My personal view is that it’s important to do from a climate perspective because it seems like just about every scientist in the world agrees now that if we don’t do this, then these major flood events, these winter storms, these hurricanes, all these things that are affecting our region, they’re only going to get more and more devastating as time goes by. 

The reality is that the private sector has already committed to getting to zero emission power generation by 2050, if not sooner. We’re talking about not only major employers in West Virginia like Walmart and PNG and Toyota, but also utilities and also the investors in our economy that decide where money is going to flow and where new investments are going to be coming in. 

TIM CRONIN, FELLOW, THE CENTER FOR ENERGY & SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT

But then, let’s say that you don’t quite subscribe to that. There are also the economic considerations. The reality is that the private sector has already committed to getting to zero emission power generation by 2050, if not sooner. We’re talking about not only major employers in West Virginia like Walmart and PNG and Toyota, but also utilities and also the investors in our economy that decide where money is going to flow and where new investments are going to be coming in. 

So, regardless of the extent to which you might be following and subscribing to the scientific view on this, there’s also just the economic view that we need to make sure that West Virginia has a robust role in this evolving energy economy, so you might occasionally just want to set your personal views aside and figure out what sort of economy do we want the state to have in the future, and what economy do we want our children to have a chance to play a role in in the future? 

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