Part 2 of 5
12:43 pm
Wed April 16, 2014

Going Green? Wind vs. Public Opinion

Virginia is blessed with wind – in the mountains and along its shores, so you might expect this state to jump quickly into the business of generating electricity from  turbines. 

Likewise, there’s plenty of sunshine, but Dominion Virginia Power’s preferred plan for 2027 shows just four percent of our electricity coming from renewable sources. Appalachian Power will be at 9% by 2020, but most of that energy will come from existing hydro-electric dams. 

Sandy Hausman tells why Virginia utilities aren’t counting on wind or solar power any time soon.

Saifur Rahman is director of Virginia Tech’s Advanced Research Institute.  He’s working with Dominion to win a federal grant that would fund a wind power demonstration project off Virginia Beach. “Virginia is one of the few states in the country which has very high quality offshore wind.  Our continental shelf is quite shallow.  We can go out 20-25 kilometers and still be within 30-meter depth of water, which is very good, unlike California and the west coast.”

Dominion has already leased land offshore, and the lines needed to carry power from the shoreline to other parts of the state are already in place.  Still, Senior Vice President Mary Doswell says  power from offshore wind will be expensive to install, and it’s many years away. “The only offshore wind turbines are in Europe, and although that’s great – it gives us good data,  it’s very different conditions, so we have a lot  to learn in the U.S.  We are thinking that that, plus the permitting process could take five years  after we file to get the turbines in the water.  I can’t see anyone else doing it faster than we do.”

Actually, Maryland’s energy director says her state will have a full-fledged wind farm in operation, with forty turbines generating power by 2017. “We have mapped the ocean.  We have talked to the commercial fishermen, the recreational fishermen.  We’ve mapped all the ecosystems out there.  We’ve looked at the coast guard, we’ve looked at the shipping lanes, talked to the Department of Defense,  so we understand what’s happening out there.”

Abigail Hopper says her state has also figured out how to finance its first offshore wind farm, and nine  companies have expressed interest in the project – including Dominion.

As for onshore wind power in Virginia, Professor Rahman says topography and public opinion are against it.  “Our onshore wind resource is not as strong as in Iowa, Texas, Pennsylvania, California, Oregon and so on.  I did a project in the Shenandoah Valley.  I tried to do a project.  There was very strong local opposition to wind power.  They just don’t like to see wind turbine on a hilltop.”

The pace of solar development in Virginia has also been slowed in part by Dominion, which fought to preserve its status as a monopoly.  When a small company in Staunton began building a solar array at Washington and Lee with a plan to sell power to the university, developer Tony Smith says  Dominion sued him. “We were halfway through the construction of that project when we received the first of two cease and desist letters from Dominion. Needless to say, opening a letter like that was a bit of a shock.  We fully believed that we were well within our legal rights, but in a situation like this, it’s not a matter of whether you’re right or wrong.  It depends on how many lawyers you can afford.”

The law did not prevent companies from generating their own electricity, so Smith’s firm, Secure Futures, ended up leasing their solar panels to the university.  Dominion, which got a flood of bad publicity over the incident, did change its policy, agreeing to let solar companies sell a small amount of power in the state, but Vice President Mary Doswell says the utility is concerned, since customers leaving the grid would no longer pay for the lines needed  to supply other customers. “We know that’s happening, and we are trying to make sure that our other customers aren’t getting hurt because of that – the ones that can’t afford to put in solar.”   

One way to do that, Dominion says, is to charge customers who have solar or wind power an average of $33 a month for the right to tap into the grid when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing.  At the Sierra Club, state director Glen Besa argues that stand-by charge is excessive. “I think in Arizona the statewide charge is something like $5 a month.  These are people who are willing to spend thousands of dollars on their home to address climate change, and they’re going to be penalized for that by Dominion.  That’s just not fair.”

Dominion doesn’t’ see it that way, and  he firm has clear marching orders.  Stockholders want it to make money, and state regulators demand Dominion supply power cheaply and reliably. Saifur Rahman is director of Virginia Tech’s Advanced Research Institute and a consultant to the utility. “Any money a power company invests, ultimately has to be added to the rate base – meaning you and me have to pay for it, and in many states the state regulatory body is willing to take more risk and let the public pay for it at the end anyway – California, New York and a few other states.  Virginia is very, very conservative – which is good or bad.  Good in the sense that we are not wasting money so to speak, and bad in the sense that we are not trying new things which could benefit us in the long run.

In our next report, we’ll consider two other factors that are likely to delay the adoption of solar and wind energy here.