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.”

Sierra Club’s 2015 Legislative Scorecard Reflects Partisan Divide on Climate Change

Photo credit: Corrina Beall

Photo credit: Corrina Beall

The Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club just published its second annual Virginia General Assembly Climate and Energy Scorecard. The Scorecard grades Virginia’s state elected officials on the votes they took during the 2015 General Assembly Session on legislation that will have a direct impact on Virginia’s energy policy and strategy to mitigate and adapt to climate change.

This was the General Assembly’s first opportunity to weigh in on the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan, the nation’s first effort to deal with carbon pollution. The plan gives new momentum to the transition underway in the electric sector away from dirty coal and towards clean energy like efficiency, wind and solar. The plan won’t be finalized this summer, but a lot of Republicans have already decided they’d rather fight than switch.

So although two-thirds of Virginians support government action to reduce climate pollution, Republican legislators in the Commonwealth mostly toed the party line when it came to voting on climate bills. This brought down their GPAs on the Scorecard.

Another problem—affecting members of both parties—was a tendency to toe the Dominion Virginia Power line. As we have seen, bills Dominion liked got passed, and ones it didn’t like were killed. Virginia Sierra Club Director Glen Besa put it this way: “Too many legislators from both parties defer to Dominion Virginia Power on energy policy matters, and that is why Virginia continues to lag in energy efficiency, and solar and wind investments compared to our neighboring states.”

Yet a number of legislators received perfect scores, and some received extra credit for introducing important bills, even when they did not pass or even make it out of small-but-hostile subcommittees.

Looking at the scorecard, you might wonder about all the clean energy bills we tracked this year, but which don’t show up as scorecard votes. The reason is that most of those good bills were killed in House subcommittees, where votes aren’t recorded. If the House leadership would kindly change that practice and ensure that all bills get recorded votes, we would have a lot more to work with.

Even with these limitations, people who have lobbied in the General Assembly will find the Scorecard a reasonably accurate reflection of members’ positions on energy and climate. Yes, we would have expected better scores for a handful of Republicans who have been real leaders on clean energy; it is unfortunate that their climate votes dragged down their grades.

But that’s what happens when climate change is treated as a political zero-sum game and party members are forced to choose whose side they’re on. Perhaps next year, with the Clean Power Plan finalized, legislators will find themselves able to move past the political posturing and turn their attention to the pressing need for solutions. Certainly, we’d like to see more “A” students.

Thirteen Senators scored a perfect 100%, including Sen. Barker (D-39), Sen. Colgan (D-29), Sen. Dance (D-16), Sen. Ebbin (D-30), Sen. Favola (D-31), Sen. Howell (D-32), Sen. Lewis (D-6), Sen. Lucas (D-18), Sen. Marsden (D-37), Sen. McEachin (D-9), Sen. Miller (D-1), Sen. Petersen (D-34) and Sen. Wexton (D-33).

Twenty-five Delegates scored a perfect 100%, including Del. Bulova (D-37), Del. Carr (D-69), Del. Filler-Corn (D-41), Del. Futrell (D-2), Del. Herring (D-46), Del. Hester (D-89), Del. Hope (D-47), Del. Keam (D-35), Del. Krupicka (D-45), Del. Lopez (D-49), Del. Mason (D-93), Del. McClellan (D-71), Del. McQuinn (D-70), Del. Morrissey (I-74), Del. Murphy (D-34), Del. Plum (D-36), Del. Preston (D-63), Del. Sickles (D-43), Del. Simon (D-53), Del. Spruill (D-77), Del. Sullivan (D-48), Del. Surovell (D-44), Del. Toscano (D-57), Del. Ward (D-92) and Del. Watts (D-39).

To view the Scorecard online, visit the Virginia Sierra Club’s website at vasierraclub.org or on Facebook.

Mother Nature to be sued for copyright infringement

Hurricane Sandy, in an image clearly copied from “The Day After Tomorrow”

To: Mother Nature, d/b/a “Hurricane Sandy”

Re: Copyright infringement

Dear Ms. Nature,

It has come to our attention that you and/or your agents have made unauthorized use of certain intellectual property belonging to our client, Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation (“Fox”), including images, illustrations, plotlines, audio and video unlawfully appropriated from “The Day After Tomorrow,” a motion picture owned by Fox. This letter is to notify you that we believe your actions constitute a violation of U.S. copyright law, 17 U.S.C. § 101 et seq.

It is clear that the plotline of Hurricane Sandy has been substantially copied from portions of “The Day After Tomorrow.” The motion picture is a dramatization in which a storm of epic proportions bears down on the eastern United States, causing massive destruction and widespread flooding, including in Manhattan. Scientists in the movie say human-induced climate change is the reason for the storm’s unusual size and damaging force.

Your agent, Hurricane Sandy, was a storm of epic proportions that bore down on the eastern United States, causing massive destruction and widespread flooding, including in Manhattan. Scientists in real life say human-induced climate change is the reason for the storm’s unusual size and damaging force.

Certain scenes from Hurricane Sandy appear to be copied directly from portions of the motion picture. Photographs taken during and after your storm depict waves swamping buildings, taxicabs in floodwaters up to the windows, lower Manhattan completely dark, and a flooded subway system—images closely replicating events in “The Day After Tomorrow.” We believe this demonstrates a clear infringement of our client’s copyright.

Moreover, we feel it is incumbent on us to point out that your actions in turning a fictional and hypothetical entertainment into actual fact violate the expectations of the public that climate change is and will remain a matter of mere speculation concerning events that are firmly in the future. The American audience expects the continued burning of fossil fuels to produce entertaining epics like “The Day After Tomorrow,” while having no actual effect whatsoever on their lives. Your insistence on demonstrating that a warming ocean will produce larger and more damaging hurricanes is, frankly, in poor taste.

This letter will serve as notice of our intent to pursue any and all remedies available to our client under applicable law, including an injunction against further infringing activities.

Yours truly,

I.M. Cole

Law Offices of Cole & Oyle, LLC

Coal and the big lie

Hurricane Sandy swept into town this week, reminding Americans that climate change may be the Issue That Cannot Be Talked About, but that doesn’t mean it has gone away. Suddenly the fact that the two presidential candidates have been trying to outdo each other in professing their love for coal comes across as unseemly, if not downright perverse. Surely this would be a good time to acknowledge the impossibility of preventing the catastrophic effects of increasing carbon emissions if we are unwilling to stop burning the things that emit carbon—chief among them, coal.

So a war on coal might be a good idea, although the idea that the Obama Administration has been waging one is nonsense. The reasons for the decline of the coal industry are primarily the flood of cheap natural gas, which is out-competing coal as a fuel for electric generation, and the increasing cost of coal, especially in Appalachia.

Indeed, the Appalachian coal industry has been on the decline for years. The richest and most easily-reached coal has been mined, leaving thin seams that take more effort and expense to extract, pushing the price of Central Appalachian coal well above that of coal from the Powder River Basin further west.

From 1990 to 2006–before the recession, before the Obama presidency, and before the price of natural gas collapsed–Virginia coal mining declined from about 10,000 workers to about 4,500.  The U.S. Energy Information Agency projects that Virginia coal production will continue to decline through the rest of this decade.

But coal executives prefer to lie to workers than admit they can’t compete in the free market, and the politicians who’ve taken hundreds of thousands of dollars from the coal companies would rather parrot their lies than admit they have failed their constituents. Coal companies and their political bedfellows have been exploiting coal miners for two centuries; it’s no surprise to see them using these workers now as pawns in the presidential campaign.

But fingering the real culprits for coalworkers’ distress is the easy part; what’s harder is helping the residents of the coalfields areas find new jobs to replace the ones that are never coming back.

Ironically, in Virginia it has been environmental groups like the Sierra Club and Appalachian Voices that have championed a plan to do just that. For several years they have been urging an end to the approximately $45 million annually in state taxpayer subsidies that currently go to enrich coal companies, and replacing them with incentives to support new jobs in tourism, technology, clean energy and other industries.

This proposal should have gotten traction last year, when a report by the state’s Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC) concluded that the subsidies do not achieve their goal of supporting coal employment, and indeed that  “changes in coal mining activity appear unaffected by the credits.”

One would have thought that Republicans especially might have jumped at the chance to cut $45 million per year of wasteful spending, or that Governor “Bob-for-Jobs” McDonnell would have gladly seized the opportunity to build a jobs program that did not add a new line-item to the budget.

Following the release of the JLARC study, the legislature and the Governor did act—to extend the coal company subsidies for several more years. The message to the residents of southwest Virginia could not have been any clearer: it’s the coal company executives and their money we care about, not the miners and their families.

The presidential election will be over in a few days. Regardless of who wins, the Virginia coal industry will continue its decline. The only question left is how long the miners will accept being lied to.