Despite concerns about climate change, Virginia’s largest electric utility still generates more than half of its electricity from fossil fuels, and by 2027 Dominion Power expects to get nearly 60% of its power from coal and gas.
The state’s other electric utility, Appalachian Power, is also big on carbon-based fuel. By 2020, parent company AEP says 79% of its power will come from burning coal and gas.
Coal is a major source of energy in this part of the world – and no wonder. It’s mined close to home and is relatively cheap. Environmental regulations have reduced its appeal, but another source is taking its place. Fracking has freed huge amounts of natural gas, which produces half as much greenhouse gas as coal.
Dominion also owns two nuclear plants, which generate 44% of its power. Their operating costs are relatively low, and utility Vice President Mary Doswell says they help Dominion comply with clean air requirements. “Nuclear has no emissions, so that’s a great option.”
The public may be uneasy about nuclear power after seeing what happened at Fukushima, and some people are nervous about the environmental impact of fracking, but in the absence of a crisis, the public and the politicians who represent them may be more concerned with the monthly cost of energy. The proof lies in a program that allows Dominion customers to pay an average of $13 a month more to get their electricity from a renewable source. Out of 2.3 million customers, only 20,000 people have signed up – among them Glen Besa, who heads the Sierra Club in Virginia. “As a practical matter this program does very little to bring renewable energy online. In fact, most of the renewable energy that Dominion is providing for this power goes someplace else. They just invested in a big solar farm in Connecticut.”
Consumers in Connecticut pay a lot more for power, and unlike Virginia, it’s one of 30 states that require some percentage of electricity come from renewable sources. Northern Virginia Delegate Scott Surovell thinks that’s a great idea.
“I would love to have a mandatory renewable energy portfolio standard in Virginia, where utilities were required to purchase a certain amount of their energy from renewable resources and in the Commonwealth, but politically that will never fly."
He says the state’s two large utilities generate better returns for their shareholders and lower rates for customers by relying on coal, gas and nuclear power – and the electric companies are big campaign donors. Last year alone, Appalachian Power contributed more than $230,000 to candidates for state office, and Dominion gave more than $900,000. That can change the way legislators vote, according to State Senator John Edwards of Roanoke. This year, he offered a bill that would allow cities to generate and sell solar power.
“Several localities have indicated interest in having municipal net metering and also townhouse communities and other small groups like that would like to get together and, as a group, have a solar energy plant on top of their roofs for example, and the part that they don’t use themselves sell it back to the utilities.”
That bill died in committee – as did several others designed to promote adoption of solar power.
“The public is way ahead of the policymakers, and the policymakers are very influenced, of course, by the utilities.”
A couple of green energy bills were approved in the last legislative session. We’ll tell you why and talk with people who think Virginia will eventually develop its renewable energy sources for one four-letter reason -- jobs.