When the Virginia General Assembly convenes this week for the 2023 session, Republicans will once again try to undo the commonwealth’s framework for a transition to renewable energy. Led by Gov. Glenn Youngkin, they will attack Virginia’s participation in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative and the Virginia Clean Economy Act (VCEA) and continue seeking ways to keep a money-losing coal plant in Wise County in operation.
Meanwhile, Virginia’s largest utility has already decided that renewable energy, especially solar, is the future. Dominion Energy’s just-released Climate Report 2022 projects that under every set of assumptions modeled, solar energy will become the mainstay of its electricity generation fleet no later than 2040.
As for coal, it disappears from the energy mix by 2030 even in a scenario that assumes no change from present policy, in spite of the fact that the VCEA allows the Wise County coal plant to operate until 2045. As for fracked gas, it hangs on longer but in ever-smaller amounts, mostly to help meet winter peak demand.
Dominion modeled three scenarios for this report. The “current policy” scenario assumes the policy landscape and technology options stay the same as they are presently, and that Dominion does its part in driving a global temperature increase of 2.1°C by 2050. That’s in keeping with Virginia’s climate law, and also with Dominion’s internal commitment to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050.
That much warming is not a good outcome, considering the climate chaos the planet is experiencing today with barely over 1 degree of warming. Yet even under a 2.1°C scenario, Dominion’s model predicts solar energy will provide 40% of the electricity supply by 2040, followed by nuclear at 30% and (offshore) wind at 19%.
The “emerging technologies” scenario also assumes a temperature increase of 2.1°C by 2050, but adjusts for the likelihood that technological change will lead to “advanced dispatchable zero-carbon technology” options that could displace much of the need for energy storage. These might include hydrogen, carbon sequestration and storage, and methane gas produced as the result of poor animal waste disposal practices at factory farms — what Dominion calls renewable natural gas, or RNG.
Small modular reactors, SMRs, are not included in this scenario (and are hardly mentioned at all in the report), perhaps because operating them as peaker plants would be crazy expensive. Even without SMRs, though, the report says overall cost savings would be slight for this scenario, and solar would still be the leading source of electricity by 2040.
Finally, the report models an “accelerated transition” scenario that reduces emissions more aggressively, in line with an effort to keep the global temperature increase to 1.5°C by 2050. This is the upper bound of warming considered tolerable by many climate scientists, but it would require Dominion’s electricity business to reach net zero by 2035. Dominion’s model shows solar would make up nearly two-thirds of the electric supply in that scenario. Offshore wind would be held to just 17%, apparently because at that point more wouldn’t be needed.
I’d argue that offshore wind should carry more of the load to create a more balanced portfolio, but it’s a moot point: The report writers clearly think this scenario is just a thought exercise. The scenario consistent with keeping global warming to 1.5°C is described in a way that seems intended to discourage anyone from pursuing the matter.
“The heavier reliance on renewable capacity in this scenario,” it warns, “would require significantly greater capital investment at a much more rapid pace in preparation for a net zero mix by 2035. … Achieving such a rapid pace of emissions reductions would require predictable, dependable, and rapid wholesale shifts in public policy and technology advancements capable of maintaining system reliability and customer affordability. Also necessary would be supportive regulatory treatment and timely permitting for significant near-term zero-carbon infrastructure development and transmission system enhancements.”
In other words, the report seems to say, fuggedaboutit. It’s just too hard.
If that feels defeatist, it’s worth remembering how far Dominion has come to reach a point where it is even writing climate reports, not to mention declaring on page 1 that “climate change presents one of the greatest challenges of our time, and we take seriously our leadership role in helping to mitigate it.”
This is new, and you have to look back only a decade to appreciate how radical this declaration is. When 2013 opened, Dominion had just completed construction of that regrettable coal plant in Wise County and had begun a fracked gas plant building spree that would continue even after solar emerged as the cheapest source of new electricity in Virginia. Climate activists like myself were dismissed when we warned that new gas plants would be reduced to giant concrete paperweights well before the end of their design life, leaving ratepayers paying off stranded assets.
Even in 2016, when now-CEO Bob Blue was president of Dominion Virginia Power, Blue was proclaiming natural gas “the new default fuel” for electric generation. As late as the spring of 2020, the company’s integrated resource plan still called for building more gas plants. That plan acknowledged the strategy would violate Virginia’s new climate law, so it argued against the law.
Yet I suspect Blue may deserve credit for the remarkable about-face at Dominion beginning in 2020. That summer Dominion Energy began significantly reducing its investments in fossil gas outside of the electric sector, scrapping plans for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and selling off its gas transmission and storage assets. That year it also sold half of its interest in the Cove Point liquified natural gas export facility. It is reportedly considering selling the other half now as part of what Blue called in November “a ‘top-to-bottom’ business review aimed at ensuring that it is best positioned to generate substantial long-term value for shareholders.”
Maybe Blue got religion on climate, maybe he’s just a savvy businessman. It’s a really good sign of the times that you can’t always tell the difference.
But of course, Dominion is stuck with a heck of a lot of gas generating plants that it has to justify post hoc, which helps to explain its lack of enthusiasm for the 1.5°C scenario. Another part of the explanation lies in Dominion’s remaining gas investments outside the electric sector. Although Dominion Energy Virginia is solely an electric utility and does not supply gas to retail customers in Virginia, a separate Dominion Energy subsidiary sells gas in other states. So far these assets don’t seem to be going the way of the gas transmission business and Cove Point.
Dominion’s climate report tries valiantly to justify holding onto its retail gas business. The report declares, “Natural gas is also part of our long-term vision and consistent with our Net Zero commitment.”
Sure, and the Tooth Fairy is real. Of the greenhouse gas reduction approaches cited — fixing leaks, making “renewable” methane from waste products, blending hydrogen into pipelines, and using creative carbon accounting with “offsets” — none make sense either economically or from a climate standpoint.
Maybe he cares about climate, but apparently Blue doesn’t want to give up yet on a profitable business. Fortunately, at least for the planet, the retail gas business is about to enter a terminal decline as homes and businesses electrify. Getting out now would be the smart move from both the business and climate perspective.
This article was originally published in the Virginia Mercury on January 6, 2023.