By Conor Griffith
October 4, 2017 - During the West Virginia Energy Expo Wednesday morning, a panel shed light on the future of energy in the Mountain State and the perks that come from embracing multiple sources of it.
West Virginia Coal Association President Bill Raney said the region's coal is still highly sought after with plenty of reserves left even though it's getting more expensive to reach. West Virginia remains the number one underground coal producing state and second highest overall.
Raney also made the case that coal mining is helping to diversify economic activity. Initiatives included agriculture on reclaimed mine sites. The City of Weirton and Mylan Park itself were examples of post mining land use.
He also said the U.S. military is looking at coming to West Virginia to use old sites to train and maneuver. Because so many of the larger bases are becoming subject to urban sprawl, Raney said space is getting tighter to conduct large scale live fire exercises particularly east of the Mississippi River.
Between those and the possibility of converting coal into liquid form and extracting rare earth elements from it, Raney said coal has a major strategic role to play.
Charlie Burd, executive director of the Independent Oil & Gas Association of West Virginia, said the biggest gas mine in the world lays 6,000 feet below the feet of those attending the expo.
Citing the potential of ethane cracker plants to produce plastic from shale gas, he called the development of the Appalachian Storage hub for liquid natural gas "absolutely crucial" for the state's future in terms of job creation and investment.
In view of downstream economic development, he urged all the industries connected to energies such as engineering, environmental consulting, safety specialists, etc., to get in on their respective trade organizations to stay up to speed.
Karan Ireland, representing the solar non-profit West Virginia Sun, said that while West Virginia ranks 45th among the states for solar deployment, one fifth of the state's 5.3 megawatts of solar power was installed last year alone. The price for going solar, she said, has dropped by 64 percent in the past five years as technology improves.
"It's definitely growing but we've only scratched the surface," Ireland said. "The only way to go from here is up."
Xavier Walter, of Energy Efficient West Virginia, took a different approach by highlighting the dynamics of using less energy. Through personal experiences Walter said he discovered the industry that exists in the form of energy efficiency, saving homes and businesses money through insulation, upgrading to better equipment and even improving health in the long run.
Employing such methods, he said, saved a chicken farm from going out of business and noted the expo venue itself made use of cost saving technology. Moving over to this field can even offer job opportunities to laid-off coal miners.
Walter also noted that a study by West Virginia University showed West Virginia could save $250,000 a year if state parks and buildings made themselves more efficient.
"That's money back into taxpayers' pockets or to programs that can put miners back to work," he said.
Raney admitted that relationships between these normally competitive businesses can be cooperative. Examples he noted were using the flat land on old mine sites for solar panels or utilizing energy efficient tech and know-how in the mining process which — despite some diesel-fueled machinery — is mostly electrically driven.
"Believe it or not, it's a closed circle," Raney said reflecting on the fact that the energy producing sector is also one of the biggest energy consumers.
(Left to right) Panelish Xavier Walker, Karan Ireland, Charlie Burd and Bill Raney discussed the future of energy in West Virginia from respective angles of energy efficiency, solar power, natural gas and coal.