The majority of Virginia’s electricity is based on burning fossil fuels, mainly natural gas and coal. The effects of the resulting climate change are all around us. For example, the six hottest years recorded have occurred over the last decade. Tens of millions of dollars are spent annually to harden Virginia’s coastal military bases against sea level rise. Science tells us that we must hold global temperature increases under 2°C (3.6°F), or suffer staggering economic and social upheaval. To realize this goal, the major economies must pursue ‘deep decarbonization’, reducing carbon emissions by approximately 80% by mid-century.
In addition to producing heat-trapping gases, the burning of fossil fuels produces particulates and gases, which cause toxic ground level ozone. This is a big problem in many parts of the developed and developing world, including Virginia (The American Lung Association gives out letter grades for air quality; Loudoun County’s air gets a ‘C’, Fairfax’s an ‘F’). Public health provides a second strong incentive to reduce fossil fuel-based energy production. We all have to do our part in reducing fossil fuel emissions, including Virginia. Delay is not an option.
Fortunately, Virginia is in an excellent position to become a leader in renewable energy. Renewable energy is extracted from resources that are naturally replenished. Practically this refers to converting sunlight and wind to electricity; neither process produces heat-trapping gases or air pollution. So far, renewables have played a negligible role in Virginia’s energy mix, in contrast to our neighbors to the north and south. For example, North Carolina harvests ten times as much energy from the sun as Virginia and is planning to further double this capacity over the next few years. Virginia has plenty of sunlight. In addition, the costs of photovoltaics (PV), the devices that convert sunlight directly into electricity, are dropping rapidly. Dominion Energy, Virginia’s largest monopoly utility, regularly publishes an Integrated Resource Plan (IRP). According to Dominion’s IRP (2018): “solar photovoltaic (PV) technology is cost-competitive with other more traditional forms of generation, such as natural gas.” Virginia also has outstanding conditions for off-shore wind farms. These are windmills that harvest energy from the high wind speeds on the oceans. Again according to Dominion’s IRP: ‘Virginia has a unique offshore wind opportunity due to its shallow continental shelf …, proximity to load centers, availability of local supply chain infrastructure, and world class port facilities.’
The demand for energy in Virginia is expected to increase by 15% in the next 15 years (IRP, 2018, Figure 1.31). Virginia is now at a crossroads. Will this so-called ‘capacity gap’ be closed with polluting fossil fuel power plants, or with clean renewables? Inexplicably, Dominion is proposing to close the gap mostly by building eight additional natural gas power plants that spew greenhouse gases and other pollutants (IRP, 2018). Because power plants have an expected life time of 40 years, Dominion’s plan would lock Virginia into decades of unsustainable pollution.
The current plan makes no sense from an environmental and public health standpoint. The plan is also short-sighted economic policy. Renewable energy is cost competitive now, but it will be a bargain in the future. Politicians and economists from across the spectrum agree that carbon will eventually be taxed, accompanied with a sharp increase in the price of fossil fuel-based power and higher rates to consumers. Fossil fuel power plants built today might be affordable for the next couple of years, but they will turn into costly stranded assets in the future.
For these reasons we urge you to support Renewables First Act, HB 1686, Patroned by Delegate David Reid (32nd District) and Delegate Jennifer Boysko (86th District), with input from Zero Carbon Virginia and others. In short, this law will place a moratorium on constructing new fossil fuel capacity until renewable energy generation facilities with 5,500 megawatts capacity are in operation in Virginia.
Why the 5,500 megawatt target? First, 5,500 megawatts are already on the books as being ‘in the public interest’ as part of the Grid Transformation and Security Act. Second, 5,500 megawatts is roughly North Carolina’s current solar energy capacity. The NC precedent proves that 5,500 megawatts intermittent renewable capacity is compatible with low rates, which takes an anticipated counterargument off the table. Obviously, the Renewables First Act is only one in many steps in a long journey, but the bill packs a punch.
We hope you will agree to support the bill.