A Path to Zero Carbon: Comments on the Virginia Energy Plan

The Virginia Energy Plan is currently being updated as required under Virginia Code § 67-201. The plan is updated every four years and covers a ten year period. The Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy is leading the effort and has hosted a number of public input sessions. They also are accepting written comments through Virginia Regulatory Town Hall online forum. Below are the comments made by Zero Carbon’s Dr. Harrison Crecraft at the August 16 public input session at George Mason University.

We have all heard the alarms about greenhouse gases (GHGs) and global warming. I would like to start by offering a bit of geologic perspective. Since the start of the industrial period, CO2 has soared from 290 to 410 ppm. Its timing and isotopic signature leave no question that this spike in CO2 is from burning fossil fuels. At current rates, CO2 will reach 500 ppm within 45 years.

The last time CO2 was at today’s levels was 3 million years ago. Geologically speaking, this is the recent past. At that time, according to a 2017 Yale University report, global temperatures were 4-5°F warmer; the arctic was 20° warmer; and sea levels were at least 60 feet higher. Although the precise response of elevated GHGs on climate is complex and the details are debated, there is no debate about the basic science: elevated heat-trapping gases requires higher global temperatures in order to balance the solar energy input.

It is likely that we are already seeing these effects. The six hottest years globally have been during the last eight, with much faster warming in the arctic. We are also seeing accelerating ice melt at the poles and rising sea levels. The economic and social impacts of continuing to burn fossil fuels will be staggering.

The good news is that getting to zero-carbon electrical generation is technologically and economically feasible. Dominion Energy has already stated that solar is cost-competitive with natural gas, and it has declared its intentions to modernize the power grid, to build solar and offshore wind facilities, and to increase its energy storage capacity. We can reach near zero-carbon electrical production by mid Century and mitigate the impacts of climate change, but it will require political vision and legislative action to facilitate the transition. In particular, Virginia needs to:

  1. Restructure regulated utilities’ incentives away from fossil fuels and toward the storage and delivery of reliable power from carbon-free energy sources.
  2. Enable property-assessed PACE programs to finance private and community-based renewable power generation and efficiency improvements.
  3. Set targets to accelerate implementation of smart grids and provide enabling legislation to integrate distributed power and energy storage systems into the grid.
  4. And finally, although current nuclear power technology is expensive, the Commonwealth should support next-gen technologies under development, which could offer affordable and safe alternatives for zero-carbon power by mid-century.

By setting ambitious goals, by keeping all options open, and by providing the political and legislative framework to allow market forces to find the solutions to reach these goals, I believe near zero-carbon electrical production by mid-century is still within reach. But, we need to act now.  

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