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.”

McAuliffe, on his way out, makes his bold move on climate–and drives Republicans crazy

Governor Terry McAuliffe signs an Executive Directive on climate.

Terry McAuliffe dangled climate bait in front of Virginia Republicans, and they swallowed it hook, line and sinker.

Three weeks ago Governor McAuliffe announced he was directing the state’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) to develop a rule capping greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. His Executive Directive gives DEQ until the end of December to put out a draft rule for public comment—meaning McAuliffe will be out of office before any rule takes effect, and its fate really lies with the winner of November’s gubernatorial election.

Democratic contenders Ralph Northam and Tom Perriello praised the initiative, but Republicans were too much in campaign mode to react rationally. Instead they went ballistic, ensuring that climate change will be an election issue in Virginia for the first time. Ed Gillespie, the frontrunner in the Republican primary, denounced the directive as “job killing and cost-increasing,” and used the opportunity to make common cause with coal companies. Corey Stewart called global warming “obviously a hoax” and promised to restore the taxpayer subsidies Virginia once lavished on the coal barons. Frank Wagner used his status as a state senator to convene a committee hearing so he could inveigh against McAuliffe’s directive.

Last week President Trump further elevated climate as an issue when he announced he was pulling the U.S. out of the international climate accord. ExxonMobil and ConocoPhillips criticized the move, but the Republican Party of Virginia celebrated it with a “Pittsburgh, not Paris” rally at the White House.

Only Virginia and New Jersey will elect governors in 2017, so our election is widely regarded as a bellwether for the 2018 federal electons. With almost 60% of Americans backing the Paris accord, Trump’s pullout—and the choice of Virginia Republicans to embrace an unpopular president over a divisive decision—makes McAuliffe’s directive look like a winning move for Democrats.

It is long past time for climate to become an important issue in national discourse. On the other hand, it’s painful to see it used as a political cudgel in partisan fights, and even worse to see Republicans double down on denying that a threat exists or that we have the tools to address it. Climate change is not something that happens only to one party’s target voter demographic. God sendeth the rain on the just and on the unjust. We are all in this together.

To be fair, there are Republicans who take climate change seriously and believe we need to address it. Unfortunately, the ones who hold elected office rarely have the courage to say it. Their party does not have their backs.

Political clickbait or not, the climate rule McAuliffe envisions is conceptually simple and economically efficient. It would have DEQ set greenhouse gas emissions limits from power plants pegged to those of the eleven states that currently regulate emissions, with a goal of enabling our utilities to trade emissions allowances with utilities in other states.

In effect, Virginia utilities would trade with those of the northeastern states that are members of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), but Virginia would not actually join RGGI. That’s too bad; joining RGGI would let the state auction emissions allowances instead of giving them away, bringing in money for climate adaptation and clean energy programs. According to Deputy Natural Resources Director Angela Navarro, however, joining RGGI would require passage of legislation. Republicans in the General Assembly have blocked such legislation for the past three years in a row.

Auction revenue would be welcome, but the carbon reduction plan still makes sense. Navarro told me the RGGI states are currently achieving reductions of 2.5% year over year and driving clean energy investments. Using this approach would enable Virginia to achieve the 30% by 2030 reductions that the environmental community has been urging. It would also put Virginia in a stronger position when the U.S. eventually adopts nationwide carbon limits. Indeed, McAuliffe’s plan looks better than the Clean Power Plan the Trump administration is trying to scuttle, which applies only to existing power plants and might allow unlimited construction of new fracked gas plants.

A market-friendly cap-and-trade approach is the kind of solution that would appeal to Republicans, if they cared to get into the solution business. Unfortunately, Senator Wagner’s response is likely to be typical of what we can expect from Virginia’s Republican General Assembly when it reconvenes in January 2018. The ink was barely dry on McAuliffe’s directive when Wagner called a meeting of the Joint Commission on Administrative Rules to give himself a pre-primary platform to attack the climate initiative.

Wagner expected a member of the Administration to attend the meeting so he’d have someone to lecture—but wouldn’t you know, it turned out that every single Administration official with any connection to the issue was busy that day. That did not stop Wagner and his fellow Republicans from attacking McAuliffe’s directive as expensive and potentially unconstitutional. (Attorney General Mark Herring had released an opinion the previous week supporting its constitutionality.)

Democrats on the committee were unimpressed with Wagner’s grandstanding, and complained of being summoned to review a rule that hadn’t even been drafted yet. Even more to the point was the testimony from Virginia residents who came to speak in favor of climate action, not as a matter not of politics, but of public health. Dr. Janet Eddy of Virginia Clinicians for Climate Action and Dr. Matthew Burke of the Medical Society Consortium on Climate and Health described how a warming climate means more asthma and heat stroke, longer allergy seasons, and the northward spread of malaria and other infectious diseases.

These are serious problems, and they deserve serious attention. The Republican Party line that global warming isn’t happening, it isn’t our fault, and we can’t afford to stop has all the coherence of the thief who tells the judge he didn’t steal anyone’s wallet, and anyway there wasn’t much cash in it (and he can’t mend his ways because he has a gambling addiction).

Virginia voters will go to the polls on Tuesday to choose their party’s nominees for statewide office and the House of Delegates, so citizens are thinking about the issues that matter to them. The good news is that this year, climate may finally be one of them.