A Candidate’s Guide to Clean Energy and the Pipelines

Anti-pipeline activists gather at an event called Hands Across the Appalachian Trail on August 19. Photo courtesy of Chris Tandy.

Recently I attended a forum where a candidate for statewide office discussed his energy policies and voiced his support for wind and solar. He embraced a goal of Virginia reaching at least 30% renewable energy by 2030, which was roundly applauded. But then he added that we couldn’t get started on it without advances in battery storage, because, he said, without storage there is no way to put surplus wind and solar on the grid.

People around the room look dumbfounded. They weren’t energy experts, but they knew that was flat-out wrong. Later he made other statements that showed he misunderstood facts about energy, climate change and the grid, hadn’t questioned what he’d been told by utility lobbyists, or just hadn’t been paying much attention.

Maybe you are a candidate yourself (or you work for one), and you don’t want to embarrass yourself by saying so, but you frankly don’t understand what was wrong with that statement about wind and solar. Or perhaps you are an activist and you’d like to help your local candidate for office bone up on some of the most important issues he or she will have to vote on while in office.

Allow me to help. Here is what you need to know about the hot-button energy issues in Virginia today. I’ll also offer my opinion about where you should stand on those issues, but that part is up to you.

Solar is coming on strong—and it is the cheapest energy in Virginia today. This astounds people who don’t keep up with energy trends, but it’s what Dominion Energy Virginia’s latest integrated resource plan (IRP) reveals. Utility-scale solar farms, 20 megawatts (MW) and up, can produce electricity at a cost that beats coal, gas and nuclear. That’s why Dominion’s IRP proposes a build-out of 240 MW of solar per year. It’s why Amazon Web Services has been building 260 MW of solar in five Virginia counties to supply its data centers. It’s why, over the past year, developers have proposed more than 1,600 MW of additional solar capacity in counties across the state. It’s also why today, solar already employs more Virginians than coal.

None of the solar under development includes battery storage. It doesn’t have to, because electricity from solar all goes into one big grid.

The grid is HUGE. If you’re from around here, you probably remember the earthquake of August 2011. It was centered in Mineral, Virginia, but did damage all the way to Washington, D.C. It also caused an immediate shutdown of Dominion’s two nuclear reactors at North Anna that lasted for more than three months. That meant 1,790 megawatts (MW) of generating capacity, enough to power 750,000 homes, suddenly went offline. Do you remember what happened to your power supply at home? You probably don’t. Why not? Because your power didn’t go out.

That’s because the North Anna nuclear plants are only two out of more than 1,300 generating units (power plants) feeding a 13-state portion of the transmission grid managed by independent operator PJM Interconnection. When one unit fails, PJM calls on others. PJM’s job is to balance all this generation to meet demand reliably at the lowest cost.

The grid has no problem with solar. While solar makes up less than 1% of its electricity supply currently, a PJM study concluded the grid could handle up to 20% solar right now, without any new battery storage. Wind and solar together could make up as much as 30% of our electricity with no significant issues. The result would be less coal, less gas, and less carbon pollution—and $15.6 billion in energy savings.

Virginia already has energy storage. You could even say we are swimming in it. Bath County, Virginia is home to the world’s largest “battery” in the form of “pumped storage.” A pair of reservoirs provide over 3,000 megawatts of hydropower generating capacity that PJM uses to balance out supply and demand.

Actual batteries are also an option today, not sometime in the future. The price has dropped by half since 2014, to the point where solar-plus-storage combinations compete with new gas peaker plants. Batteries are also being paired with solar today to form microgrids that can power emergency shelters and other critical functions during widespread outages.

If Virginia goes totally gangbusters with solar, a day will come when there is so much electricity being generated from the sun in some areas that we’d need batteries. But, sadly, we aren’t anywhere near there yet.

So, you should definitely get on board with battery storage; just don’t make the mistake of thinking we can’t ramp up renewable energy today without it.

Make renewable energy your BFF. It probably polls better than you do. Renewable energy has favorability ratings most politicians only dream about. A Gallup poll last year showed 73% of Americans prefer alternative energy to oil and gas, a number that rises to 89% among Democrats. Republicans love it, too; North Carolina-based Conservatives for Clean Energy found that 79% of registered Republicans in their state are more likely to support lawmakers who back renewable energy options.

Distributed renewable energy—think rooftop solar—is especially popular with the greenies on the left and the libertarians on the right, and pretty much everyone in between. It offers benefits that utility solar does not. The policy that makes it affordable is called net metering. It gives solar owners credit for the excess solar electricity they put on the grid in the daytime, to be applied against the power they draw from the grid at night. If you want to support your constituents’ ability to power their own homes with solar, you should protect and expand their right to net meter their electricity.

People who understand Dominion’s pipeline hate Dominion’s pipeline. The proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline would carry fracked gas 600 miles from inside West Virginia through the heart of Virginia and into North Carolina. Instead of following highways, it cuts across mountains, rivers, forests and farms, and requires land clearing 150 feet wide the whole way. Landowners along the route are furious, as are lovers of the national forests and the Appalachian Trail, people who care about water quality, people who care about climate change, and fans of caves, bats and other wildlife.

The gas it will carry is extracted from shale formations deep underground using hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a loud, dirty and dangerous practice that doesn’t poll well in Virginia. More quietly (but in many ways worse), leaking wells, pipes, and storage reservoirs are estimated to emit enough greenhouse gases to cancel out the climate advantages of burning gas over coal, and increase smog. An analysis using industry data found that building the ACP and a second controversial pipeline project, the Mountain Valley Pipeline, would more than double the carbon footprint of Virginia’s power sector.

Sea level rise is already taking a toll in Virginia with “sunny day” flooding regularly crippling low-lying areas of Hampton Roads. If you’ve pledged to address climate change, you need to understand how building gas pipelines will undermine the very efforts to reduce such threats.

Now, if you don’t want to oppose Dominion, you might be inclined to minimize all these issues, or to tell voters the destruction of all we hold dear is just the price we pay for cheap energy. I’m sure you can phrase it better than that.

Before you do, though, you should also spend a few minutes to understand why critics say the ACP will raise energy prices, not lower them. That’s because Dominion’s gas-burning electric generating plants already have long-term contracts to use another company’s pipeline, for less money. Using the ACP instead of cheaper alternatives means raising costs to consumers.

Dominion also plans to build more gas-fired power plants so it can fill the pipeline. Gas plants are built to last 30 years or more, pipelines 50 years. Locking us into gas infrastructure for decades when solar is already cheaper than gas now is a seriously bad bet.

And if you think Dominion is going to shoulder the loss of a bad bet, better think again. That’s what its captive ratepayers are for.

Another name for those people is “voters.”

8 thoughts on “A Candidate’s Guide to Clean Energy and the Pipelines

  1. Superb! The only thing that would make it even more superb: adding a summary explanation of the significant HEALTH adverse effects of pipelines & natural gas. MAYBE you would update for that? As a physician, Northam should be aware of & receptive to health info. Here are some key links re adverse health effects:Re health impacts of natural gas:
    (1) Feb 2017 report by Physicians for Social Responsibility [PSR] “Why Health Pros Reject Natural Gas….” http://www.psr.org/resources/too-dirty-too-dangerous.html
    (2) Ozone, Asthma & Oil & Gas Connection: https://insideenergy.org/…/ozone-asthma-and-the-oil…/
    (3) PSR: Health Impacts of Natural Gas INFRASTRUCTURE http://www.psr.org/resources/health-impacts-natural-gas-infrastructure.html
    (4) PSR compendium of Scientific & Med effects of fracking [fracking supplies the gas for the pipelines] http://www.psr.org/resources/fracking-compendium.html

    Why requiring rigorous env review & safety standards– as Northam proposes, does NOT solve problems—pipeline breaks & resulting TOXIC effects on AG, people’s health, water & air quality WILL OCCUR:
    (1) 202 SIGNIFICANT pipeline spills in 2016 alone…. https://www.nationofchange.org/…/220-significant…/
    (2) 30 yrs of pipeline spills MAPPED by CityLab: https://www.citylab.com/environment/2016/11/30-years-of-pipeline-accidents-mapped/509066/
    Conclusion: history of pipelines proves that even the “most technologically advanced, safest” pipelines described by industry DO NOT stay safe—“leaks” & resulting toxic contamination of air we breathe & water we drink or grow crops with occur —they LEAK. Install them over unstable, steep terrain —and over or under water resources–and even more breaks & “leaks” will occur with toxic effects that CANNOT BE ELIMINATED. “Leaks” are a euphemism from fossil fuel corps. to avoid the truth, that when they occur they are toxic health emergencies for public health & safety. LOTS of news reports from last 2 yrs of leaks & impossibility of preventing damage or reversing damage. “Cleanup” is another euphemism LIE—most recently proven by scientific studies of lasting toxic effects & damage of DeepWater Horizon 5yrs later.

    other useful refs
    (1) Utility cos. KNEW of fossil fuel-climate connection but ignored & continue investmt in fossil fuel power: http://www.energyandpolicy.org
    (2) PSR “Climate Communicator’s Guide” http://www.psr.org/resou…/climate-communicators-guide.html

  2. Thank You for sharing Ivy, if I can get this in another format, I will place it on the friends of Buckingham site. Okey Dokey?

    On Fri, Aug 18, 2017 at 1:21 PM, Power for the People VA wrote:

    > Ivy Main posted: “Recently I attended a forum where a candidate for > statewide office discussed his energy policies and voiced his support for > wind and solar. He embraced a goal of Virginia reaching at least 30% > renewable energy by 2030, which was roundly applauded. But the” >

  3. Your reference to the immediate shutdown of North Anna nuclear power generation due to the 2011 earthquake a very insightful way to explain the interconnectedness of the electric transmission grid and why, for now, battery storage is not a barrier to increased renewable power generation.

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