Utility rates are high because our leaders are failing us

by Quenton King

It’s been quite a year, and I don’t mean just 2024. Last month, climate scientists released data showing May was the hottest month on record. More than that, it marked one year of each month being hotter than the last, the first time that has ever happened.

The world is getting hotter and natural disasters are happening more frequently and doing more damage; climate change is happening. We should be doing all we can to both lower our greenhouse gas emissions now and adapt our infrastructure, homes and communities to a changing climate.

Instead, our lawmakers and public officials are trying to keep us rooted in the past and dragging their feet on solutions that the rest of the country is taking to not just lower bills for consumers, but also to address the scale of the crisis that lies ahead.

On June 8, Public Service Commission Chair Charlotte Lane had an op-ed published in which she defended the various utility rate hikes that West Virginians have been experiencing in recent years. The Charleston Gazette-Mail reported that water bills have risen more than 60% since 2014, electric rates shot up 90% between 2005 and 2020 and gas has risen nearly 25% since 2005.

I’d like to focus on electric rates and how both intentional actions and inaction have led us to the point where so many West Virginians are experiencing energy poverty. Lane defends the rate hikes as a cost of doing business, which is true. Fuel — in West Virginia’s case is mostly coal for our power plants — costs money. So does building new sources of power and transmission lines, and also repairing damage to existing infrastructure.

But apart from that, I think Lane is misleading readers by not going into deeper detail about the makeup of our electric system.

Coal has been king in West Virginia, and lawmakers have been hostile to alternative power that is cheaper, at the expense of residents. Over the last decade, utilities in other states have been shifting to gas, because the fracking boom led to an abundance of the lower cost energy source.

To be clear, fracked methane gas contributes to climate change and has polluted the water and air in the communities where it is extracted. The wealth generated from its drilling also hasn’t stayed local and helped tax bases as much as the industry touted it would.

That being said, gas power is cheaper than coal, but leadership in West Virginia has led us to this point where nearly 90% of our power is generated from dirty, expensive coal, and we’re going to continue to pay it, in part due to the PSC’s decision to require three coal-fired power plants to stay open another 15 years, despite them requiring significant upgrades. Regulators in Kentucky and Virginia refused to allow their ratepayers to shoulder any of that cost.

Another source of alternative power, of course, is renewable energy from solar, hydro and wind. As I’ve written previously, West Virginians don’t have the same access to clean energy as others in the country do. If you tune into a legislative committee meeting or floor session where it’s the topic of conversation, you’ll hear lawmakers making false claims about renewable energy, usually solar, and saying it’s not right for West Virginia and that it’s equivalent to pixie dust, as Sen. Rupie Phillips, R-Logan, said in 2023. If that’s the case, why are utilities across the country lining up to install solar? The backlog for renewable energy projects waiting to be built is currently double the size of the entire country’s electric grid.

Another way in which the PSC hasn’t taken action to reduce West Virginians’ utility bills is by not promoting/requiring stronger energy efficiency programs from our two electric utilities. In other states, energy providers invest in and offer statewide energy efficiency and incentives and programs to help residents and businesses decrease their energy usage and monthly bills. This might look like weatherization and direct install programs or financial incentives for ratepayers to implement energy efficient measures in their home or place of business.

However, this has never been a priority to West Virginia’s energy commissioners or utilities. Other states have a strong focus on energy efficiency programs, something our PSC has been hostile to in the past. Lowering energy demand and usage is a way to keep prices low.

Forward thinking leaders should recognize the need to transition to renewable energy — if not for the climate, then for our pocketbooks. Renewable energy projects cost money, and that would have to be recovered by the utilities from ratepayers. But with the incentives available from the federal government for renewable energy, now is the time to do it.

Quenton King works in environmental policy and writes commentaries for West Virginia Watch. He is on the advisory board of Reimagine Appalachia.