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Energy highlighted at business summit

August 30, 2018

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. — West Virginia needs to be open to economic change, particularly when it comes to renewable energy, an energy company official said at a business gathering Wednesday that touted a “comeback” of coal and the state’s economy at-large.

Bob Orndorff, Dominion Energy’s state policy director, said at the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce’s annual business summit at The Greenbrier resort that the state needs to be mindful of wind and solar power’s increasing appeal to companies looking to invest in new places.

“For years, coal was the base of everything we did,” Orndorff said in a panel discussion on energy’s future in the state. “It still is, and it still has a role, but we need to talk about wind. We need to talk about solar, because the Procter & Gambles of the world want that.”

West Virginia “needs to make a quantum leap” when it comes to both cheap and renewable electricity options and should be willing to adapt, Orndorff added.

“If we are to recruit companies to work in West Virginia, to invest in West Virginia, we need to meet their needs,” he said.

Dominion is heading the construction of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which will transport natural gas from West Virginia to Virginia and North Carolina.

Appalachian Power President Chris Beam, who participated in the same panel Orndorff did, said the electric company is still open to renewable energy power sources after the state Public Service Commission denied its bid to acquire a wind farm in

Greenbrier County. However, any renewable energy source must “be economical for customers,” he added.

Orndorff and Beam’s panel came near the end of the summit’s first day, which saw speeches from Gov. Jim Justice and others who touched on West Virginia’s economy, including its coal industry, being a “comeback story” since 2016.

That message was further advertised by signs scattered throughout the event, noting in the past two years increases in mining and construction jobs, along with severance and personal income tax collections. One sign addressed the state’s unemployment rate dropping from 6.8 percent to 5.1 percent in the past three years.

“It’s a miracle from God to look at how the numbers have changed,” Justice said during his speech at the Justice family-owned resort.

As of July, the state’s unemployment rate sits at 5.4 percent, the highest in the country outside of Alaska and Washington, D.C. The national average in July was 3.9 percent.

Justice added later that “our coal miners are back to work” — industry jobs have risen since 2016, with U.S. labor force data saying industry jobs rose to 13,551 people in the state. But the numbers are still far behind where the state was just seven years ago, when the industry employed more than 23,000 people. A recent report from West Virginia University’s College of Business and Economics forecasts a long-term decline in coal production.

Justice said people need to thank President Donald Trump, who visited Charleston earlier this month, for his work at the federal level in lifting regulations and promoting business growth. He continued that Republicans cannot lose their majorities in the West Virginia House of Delegates and Senate so the state can continue gaining momentum.

Kirsten Hillman, deputy ambassador of Canada to the U.S., was not at the event to speak. She was originally scheduled to speak at 1 p.m. on trade and “the West Virginia advantage.”

Brian Dayton, who handles communications for the Chamber, said she had to remain in Washington, D.C., for trade talks. Representatives for both the U.S. and Canada are in negotiations to rework NAFTA — or agree to a new trade deal altogether — after the U.S. and Mexico struck a new trade deal earlier this week that could replace that agreement.

Canada is West Virginia’s largest trading partner. In 2017, more than 37 percent of West Virginia’s imports came from Canada and more than 21 percent of its exports went to Canada.

Also at the summit Wednesday, Bill Bissett, president of the Huntington Regional Chamber of Commerce and moderator of a panel on broadband expansion, relayed a message from newly elected House of Delegates Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay. Hanshaw anticipates an omnibus bill focused on broadband internet connectivity to be introduced in 2019, and he wants to hear from the industry and consumers about that bill, Bissett said.

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