What Donald Trump says and what Donald Trump does are often two vastly different things. So there is no guarantee the president actually will seek to pay Eastern utilities a subsidy to burn Appalachian coal, as West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice recently claimed.
Coal subsidies would please the residents of Southwest Virginia, and you can’t blame them for that. But propping up coal with federal subsidies ought to be a political no-go: Liberals will hate it for environmental reasons, and conservatives should hate it for free-market reasons.
Coal has largely been undone by low prices for natural gas, made possible by the revolution in fracking technology. Meanwhile, another revolution has been taking place in renewable energy. The levelized capital cost for solar energy has fallen more than 80 percent, from $396 per megawatt-hour in 2010 to less than $75 per megawatt-hour today. That in turn has encouraged the development of solar farms like the 17-megawatt facility off Old Buckingham Road in Powhatan, which went live in December.
Virginia lags behind neighbors such as North Carolina in the development of solar power, but lately it has been taking steps to catch up. Case in point: a new state law creating a pilot program for “community solar,” which requires Dominion Power and Appalachian Power to buy electricity from third-party providers and sell it to consumers. Another measure the General Assembly passed this year opens up agricultural land for solar-power generation, and allows farmers to sell whatever they don’t use.
Regulatory obstacles still remain, though. Until just a few weeks ago, for instance, Albemarle County did not permit solar farms within its boundaries. In June, the supervisors finally amended county zoning rules to allow utility-scale generation. Even so, rules governing the tax treatment of solar farms can discourage local governments from approving such projects, lest they lose state school funding (trust us, it’s complicated).
Until home batteries become much cheaper and smaller, solar power will never be able to provide base-load generation. But it is reaching the stage where it can compete without government subsidies — which is more than West Virginia’s governor seems to be saying about coal.