Critics say Virginia lags behind neighboring states in the development of wind and solar power, in part because lawmakers are influenced by two monopolies – Dominion and Appalachian Power.
It’s more profitable for them to stay with fossil fuels and nuclear power, and the state requires them to keep prices down, but supporters of renewable energy say lawmakers are coming around.
Tony Smith is a Staunton businessman who’s been trying to sell Virginia on solar energy since 2009.
“We fondly refer to Virginia as the dark state of the mid-Atlantic, not because it doesn’t receive enough solar. It actually receives quite a bit of solar irradiation – more so than Germany, which now powers 25% of their electricity from renewable energy sources.”
But government policies here don’t promote solar development , so Smith has spent the last few years lobbying for change. He got a positive reception from Alonzo Lopez , a delegate representing South Arlington and Eastern Fairfax.
“Virginia should be a leader in the entire mid Atlantic when it comes to renewable energy. Solar in the Shenandoah Valley, hydro-kinetic in our Shenandoah and James rivers, wind off the coast, and you know the best place in America to grow switch grass is Martinsville, Virginia.”
In the last session, he was one of the few lawmakers who succeeded in getting green energy legislation passed -- a bill that requires Dominion to buy new renewable energy credits every five years. Those credits allow Dominion to market a program in which customers pay more to assure that their energy dollars are not spent burning coal or gas.
State lawmakers also voted to exempt solar panels from the machine tool tax. That will make solar investment more profitable, and supporters say it will create jobs. Likewise, backers of wind energy say it’s time for the state to recognize the economic benefits of a green energy revolution. The Sierra Club’s Glen Besa cites the potential of wind farms off the coast.
“We’re talking something in the order of 10,000 jobs in Virginia that could be realized through not only maintaining and building those wind farm, but through the supply chain -- supplying the materials there. You look at solar and land based wind across this country, and those are the largest growing job sectors in the economy right now.”
We may also see a shift to solar and wind power as old coal plants are retired and large reserves of natural gas shipped overseas. Again, solar entrepreneur Tony Smith:
“There are some LNG plants being built in New Orleans and elsewhere with plans to export this gas to power hungry countries like China, so we anticipate that the bubble of cheap gas will quickly evaporate.”
Finally, public demand is growing, along with concern about climate change. Once a passion of left-leaning environmentalists, wind and solar are now favored across the political spectrum. Tony Clifford is past president of a solar organization representing Virginia, Maryland and Washington, DC.
“One of the most conservative parts of the state of Maryland is the Eastern Shore. I think there’s more solar per capita on the Eastern Shore than anywhere else in the state.”
In our final report, we’ll visit a community where 40% of households have solar panels on their roofs, and wind turbines generate 500% of local electrical needs.