2016 Virginia bills show King Coal still calling the shots

Virginia rorschach test: some see a destroyed landscape, others see campaign contributions.

Virginia rorschach test: some see a destroyed landscape, others see campaign contributions.

Legislation introduced in the General Assembly would keep Virginia’s gravy train rolling for coal companies. SB 44 (Charles Carrico, R-Alpha Natural Resources) and HB 298 (Terry Kilgore, R-Alpha Natural Resources) are framed as “limits” because the taxpayer-financed subsidies for coal mining would top out at $7.5 million per year. But watch your wallets: the primary objective of the legislation is to extend the coal subsidies an extra three and a half years, through 2019. So these bills should more accurately be seen as $25 million giveaways. The bills have been referred to the committees on Finance.

It appears the coal companies need the money to pay bonuses to their executives. Alpha Natural Resources, which filed for bankruptcy in August to avoid paying creditors, plans to pay its top executives bonuses worth up to $11.9 million. Meanwhile, Alpha laid off more than 160 coal miners a week before Christmas.

According to the Virginia Public Access Project, Alpha Natural Resources gave almost $500,000 in campaign contributions to Virginia legislators during the 2014-2015 election cycle. Carrico was the top recipient, raking in $24,267 from Alpha; Kilgore snagged fifth place with $20,000.

Consol Energy gave over $236,000 to legislators over the same time period. Kilgore was their top recipient, at $12,500, while Carrico received $10,000. Note that both Carrico and Kilgore ran unopposed.

In a separate attempt to give back to the coal industry, Ben Chafin has introduced SB 365 (referred to Transportation), a bill that would remove the Coalfields Expressway from the transportation prioritization process. If it were to pass, this strip mine disguised as a highway wouldn’t have to meet the normal standards required of real roads to be eligible for state funding. The disastrous Route 460 would also be excused, in case any future administration is dumb enough to revive it. Chafin is another Coalfields Republican who ran unopposed while hauling in more than $100,000 from donors in the energy and mining industries, including $15,000 from Alpha Natural Resources and $9,500 from Consol.

The bankruptcy of Alpha, like that of dozens of other coal companies in recent years, threatens more than the campaign coffers of Virginia legislators. Coal mining has declined steadily in Virginia, leaving displaced workers who could make much better use that $7.5 million annually if it were redirected for job retraining and education. Right now, in contrast to the Republican rhetoric, only the Obama Administration seems to care about out-of-work coal miners.

While ignoring workers, legislators are at least waking up to the threat posed to taxpayers when bankrupt coal companies walk away from their obligations to clean up and reclaim the land they’ve mined. HB 1169 (Todd Pillon, R-Abingdon, referred to Agriculture) would increase the amount of the reclamation bonds that mine operators must post, and give the Commonwealth a lien against the land.

Coal ash pollution prompts legislation on proper closure of storage ponds

Meanwhile, Virginia’s coal legacy continues to have repercussions for communities across the state, wherever waste from burning coal has piled up in toxic ponds next to rivers and streams. For years utilities have taken an out-of-sight, out-of-mind approach to coal ash, quietly ignoring the potential for devastating spills like the one that contaminated the Dan River.

In Prince William County, Dominion Virginia Power proposes to close one of these leaky coal ash ponds by draining the water out of it and slapping on a cover. A compliant Department of Environmental Quality just issued Dominion a permit to discharge the partially-treated wastewater into Quantico Creek, which flows directly into the Potomac River.

In response, Democratic Senator Scott Surovell, whose district includes this section of Prince William County, has filed SB 537 (referred to Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources) to require the removal of all waste from closed coal ash ponds for proper disposal in permitted landfills that meet federal standards.


UPDATE: A January 21 news report informs us that Alpha Natural Resources owes Wise County, Virginia, nearly $1.46 million in unpaid taxes for 2015, with another $1 million owed to Dickenson County. Please feel free to make the appropriate snarky comments; I’m still stuck in a “you gotta be kidding” loop.

UPDATE 2: Not content to let Senator Carrico get all the glory giving away Virginia taxpayer money to pay multi-million dollar bonuses to tax-evading coal bosses, Ben Chafin has filed his own bill to do the same thing.  SB 718 appears to be the same as SB 44 and has also been referred to Finance.

 

McAuliffe vetoes coal subsidy bills, but Republicans vow to keep the corporate welfare flowing

Your taxpayer dollars at work!

Your taxpayer dollars at work!

Governor Terry McAuliffe has vetoed the two bills that would have extended Virginia’s coal subsidies through 2019. It’s a laudable act of fiscal responsibility, and surely no more than Virginia taxpayers had a right to expect in a time of tight state budgets. And yet it was also an act of courage in a coal state where mining companies have had far too much political power for far too long.

You’d like to think legislators would now focus on working with the Administration to help southwest Virginia communities shift away from their unhealthy dependence on coal mining and instead develop new, cleaner industries. The tens of millions of dollars that have been spent annually on coal subsidies could be much better directed to job diversification efforts. Unfortunately, legislators representing coal companies—I mean, coal countieshave already vowed to reintroduce bills next year to keep the taxpayer largesse flowing. They have time; the subsidies won’t actually expire until January 1, 2017.

It’s been 20 years since Virginia began subsidizing coal mining via these two tax credits, bleeding the state treasury of more than $500 million in all. And it’s been three years since the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee (JLARC) issued a critique of the various Virginia tax credits that included an especially harsh assessment of the handouts to coal companies. Yet instead of canceling the credits in light of the report, the General Assembly promptly extended them. Even Governor McAuliffe didn’t actually try to end them completely this year. Legislators rejected his efforts simply to scale them back, leading to this veto.

So if we didn’t get jobs for our $500 million, what did we get? Most of the money has gone to enrich coal companies, but a portion went to fund the Virginia Coalfields Economic Development Authority (VACEDA). VACEDA’s board includes coal executives, a fact which has served to intensify rather than lessen coal’s hold on the area.

Perhaps VACEDA’s economic diversification mission would prove more successful if the state were to fund it directly, with money not tied to coal, and were to insist on reforms to VACEDA to ensure board members don’t have a conflict of interest.

In addition to propping up the coal industry, the tax credits also serve to lower the price of Virginia coal purchased by our utilities. This shifts energy costs from ratepayers to taxpayers, but it also makes it easier for coal to compete against other forms of energy, including renewable energy like wind and solar. And since making taxpayers subsidize electricity rates artificially cheapens electricity, it also lessens the incentive to conserve energy. In an age of climate change, this is simply bad energy policy.

Most economists agree that energy policy should seek to make electricity rates reflect the true cost of producing energy. This should include costs imposed on the public in the form of higher health care costs for asthma and heart disease as a result of power plant pollution—costs known as “externalities.” The coal subsidies do the exact opposite; instead of making utilities and coal companies internalize pollution costs, they actually shift more costs onto the public.

All this was done in the name of supporting employment in the Coalfields areas. However, the coal subsidies aren’t linked to jobs; they are based on coal tonnage, so mining companies that increase mechanization while cutting jobs don’t lose anything. And cutting jobs is exactly what has happened in Virginia. As the Governor’s veto statement noted, coal mining jobs declined steadily from their highs in the early 1990s to about 3,600 today, notwithstanding the subsidies.

A reading of the JLARC report also shows that most of the drop occurred before President Obama took office and the EPA imposed tighter pollution standards. The fact is, coal is in decline, and Virginians will be better off not throwing good money after bad.

Indeed, the coal jobs number is barely twice the number of people working in Virginia’s tiny solar industry, which gets no state subsidies. Just this year a House subcommittee killed a bill that would have provided $10 million a year in support for renewable energy projects.

Solar is growing by leaps and bounds across the country, while coal fades. Governor McAuliffe has taken the right lesson from that. It’s too bad so many Virginia legislators have not.

Your 2015 Virginia legislative session cheat sheet, part 2: Fossil Fuels

Photo credit: Corrina Beall

Photo credit: Corrina Beall

My last post covered clean energy bills introduced into the 2015 legislative session, which began last week and ends at the end of February. Time to hustle on to the oil, gas, and coal bills.

Coal subsidies

Coal companies claim to be victims of a “war on coal,” but for nearly two decades they’ve been conducting a war on Virginia taxpayers. Virginia’s tax code offers so many preferences that a 2012 study concluded the coal industry costs Virginia more than it gives back. Among other preferences, two different subsidies in the Code have allowed coal companies to siphon off tens of millions of dollars annually from the General Fund since 1996.

The subsidies come with nominal sunset dates, currently January 1, 2017. Over nearly twenty years, no matter how fat or lean the state’s financial condition, the legislature has repeatedly passed extensions, and they are being asked to do so again this year. HB 1879 (Kilgore) and SB 741 (Carrico) would extend the giveaway out to 2022.

(According to VPAP.org, Delegate Kilgore, chairman of the Commerce and Labor Committee, gets a check for $10,000 every year from coal giant Alpha Natural Resources. Alpha also gives ten grand a year to Senator Carrico, who just happens to sit on Senate Finance, which will hear the bill. I mention these facts only in passing. It would be cynical to suggest a connection.)

Supporters of the subsidies seem to believe coal companies need the inducement to blow up our mountains and dump waste into stream valleys. And they maintain this is a good thing for the people of Southwest Virginia, who can enjoy gainful employment by participating in the destruction of their communities.

The coal companies certainly do benefit from this arrangement, but coal jobs have declined to less than 5,000 total in Virginia today, and it’s clear to everyone that Southwest Virginia needs to diversify its economy or face a future of poverty and high unemployment. The coal subsidies suck up money that could be spent on new jobs and a better-educated workforce.

The McAuliffe administration, facing a budget shortfall, has suggested cutting the subsidies way back, and has no plans to extend them. HB 2181 (Toscano) reduces the amount of the subsidies for 2015 and 2016 but does not eliminate them. It also limits the amount that can be claimed on any one tax return to $500,000 under each Code provision.

HB 1877 (Krupicka) would end the subsidies altogether a year early. His bill goes further: it would redirect the savings into a fund to provide grants to students enrolled in Virginia public colleges and universities. Half the money would be required to go to students from the Coalfields region.

Natural gas

SB 1338 (Hanger) repeals a provision of the Code known as the Wagner Act (after Senator Frank Wagner, who introduced the legislation ten years ago). That provision allows interstate natural gas companies to enter private property without the consent of the owner in order to make “examinations, tests, hand auger borings, appraisals, and surveys.”

The Wagner Act gained notoriety last year when Dominion Power sued landowners who resisted efforts to survey their land. We think of Dominion as an electric utility, but Dominion Resources also owns a gas transmission company, and it plans to build a huge new pipeline to bring fracked gas from Ohio and West Virginia and deliver it to industrial customers and export facilities on the coast. Turns out, a lot of people don’t like strangers coming on their land without permission, especially when the point is to let the strangers decide whether they might want to seize the land for a pipeline. Well, who could have expected that?

But in case the GA doesn’t have an appetite for repealing the Wagner Act, how about making it harder to use? SB 1169 (Hanger again) amends it to add a pre-condition. Before any natural gas company can enter someone’s property without permission, the governing board of the locality must have adopted a resolution in support of the pipeline or gas works. Moreover, the resolution “shall not be adopted unless the governing body has found that locating the line or works within the city or county is consistent with its comprehensive plan, master plan, or any general development plan and that there exists a demonstrated public need for the line or works.”

HB 1475 (Ware) and SB 1163 (Saslaw) allow natural gas utilities to expand their systems to reach more retail customers. This legislation is not related to the interstate gas pipelines sought by Dominion and others. It deals with pipelines within the state that would connect customers who currently don’t have access to natural gas for heating and cooking (a more efficient use of energy than burning gas for electricity to perform the same functions).

But the gas utilities have taken a page from the Dominion playbook and overreached with their legislative language, including by declaring its plans and business goals to be “in the public interest” (the magic words that limit SCC review). We hear the bill is likely to be amended to take out the offending language.

Really a bill about energy efficiency, SB 1331 (Petersen) changes how the SCC evaluates natural gas conservation programs proposed by utilities. It instructs the SCC to determine the cost-effectiveness of a program by looking at the utility’s whole portfolio of conservation programs and not each judged separately. This should make it easier to get conservation programs approved, and it’s to the credit of the retail gas companies that they want it passed. Senator Petersen’s office informed me the bill originated with the governor’s office, which supports it.

Offshore oil drilling

Virginia doesn’t control the deep waters off our coast where oil may be lurking, and drilling is still years away, if it happens at all. But that has never stopped state lawmakers from making plans to spend the money we might earn from oil drilling, if Congress were to share some of the revenue with us. Most of us will recognize this game as, “Imagine if you won the lottery.”

Back in 2010, Governor McDonnell pushed through a bill to fund transportation projects with the imaginary money. In 2014, the law was amended to put $50 million into an emergency response fund to combat what would have to be a pretty small imaginary oil spill, with all the extra imaginary money going to the General Fund.

HB 1702 (Davis) proposes to amend the law again to take half of the imaginary General Fund money and put it into public schools. Well, who could object to that? Except for the imaginary part, of course.

Virginia’s amazing year in energy: gas rises, coal falls, and solar shines (but it’s still not okay to say “climate change”)

Virginians rally in front of U.S. EPA Headquarters in Washington, DC in support of the Clean Power Plan

Virginians rally in front of U.S. EPA Headquarters in Washington, DC in support of the Clean Power Plan

Nobody laughed a few years ago when former governor Bob McDonnell dubbed Virginia the “Energy Capital of the East Coast”; we were all too astounded by the hyperbole. And today, even “Energy Suburb” still seems like a stretch. Yet, if you measure achievement by the sheer level of activity, Virginia is making a play for importance. The year’s top energy stories show us fully engaged in the worldwide battle between fossil fuels and renewable energy. Of course, while the smart money says renewables will dominate by mid-century, Virginia seems determined to drown rather than give up its fossil fuel addiction.

Coal falls hard; observers disagree on whether it bounces or goes splat. Nationwide, 2014 was a bad year for the coal industry. Coal stocks fell precipitously; mining jobs continued to decline; and the one thing electric utilities and the public found to agree on is that no one likes coal. Even in Virginia, with its long history of mining, coal had to play defense for what may have been the first time ever. So when Governor McAuliffe released the state’s latest energy plan in October, what was otherwise a paean to “All of the Above” omitted the stanza on coal. And this month, the governor proposed a rollback of the subsidies coal companies pocket by mining Virginia coal.

Of course, coal is not going quietly; Senator Charles Carrico (himself heavily subsidized by Alpha Natural Resources) has already responded with a bill to extend the subsidies to 2022.

EPA opens a door to a cleaner future, and Republicans try to brick it up. Speaking of hard times for coal, in June the EPA unveiled its proposal to lower carbon emissions from existing power plants 30% nationwide by 2030. Instead of targeting plants one-by-one, EPA proposed a systemic approach, offering a suite of options for states to reach their individualized targets.

The proposal drew widespread support from the public, but Virginia’s 38% reduction target set off howls of protest from defenders of the status quo. The staff of the State Corporation Commission claimed the rule was illegal and would cost ratepayers $6 billion. Republicans convened a special meeting of the House and Senate Energy and Commerce Committees, where they tried out a number of arguments, not all of which proved ready for prime time. The rule, they said, threatens Virginia with a loss of business to more favored states like—and I am not making this up—West Virginia. Also, Virginia should have received more credit for lowering its carbon emissions by building nuclear plants back in the 1970s when no one was thinking about carbon emissions.

Meanwhile, the Southern Environmental Law Center analyzed the rule and concluded that actually, compliance will not be hard. Virginia is already 80% of the way there, and achieving the rest will produce a burst of clean-energy jobs coupled with savings for consumers through energy efficiency.

Undaunted, Republicans have already introduced a thumb-your-nose-at-EPA bill developed by the fossil fuel champions at the American Legislative Exchange Council.

The “solarize” movement takes Virginia by storm. For the last few years, solar energy has been exploding in popularity across the U.S., but Virginia always seemed to be missing the party. So it surprised even advocates this year when pent-up consumer demand manifested itself in the blossoming of local solar buying cooperatives and other bulk-purchase arrangements. “Solarize Blacksburg” made its debut in March, going on to sign up hundreds of homeowners for solar installations. It was followed in quick succession by the launch of similar programs in Richmond, Charlottesville, Harrisonburg, Northern Virginia, Halifax, Floyd, and Hampton Roads.

The main reason for the solarize programs’ success was the steep decline in the cost of solar energy. 2014 saw the cost of residential installations in Virginia fall to record low prices, making the investment worthwhile to a broad swath of homeowners for the first time.

Utilities say maybe to solar, but only for themselves. Virginia still boasts no utility-scale solar, but utilities elsewhere signed long-term power purchase contracts for solar energy at prices that were sometimes below that of natural gas: under 6.5 cents/kilowatt-hour in Georgia, and under 5 cents in Texas. Compare that to the estimated 9.3 cents/kWh cost of power from Dominion Virginia Power’s newest and most up-to-date coal plant, the Virginia City Hybrid Energy Plant, and you’ll understand why Dominion has suddenly taken an interest in solar projects. Sadly, it’s own foray into rooftop solar so far stands as an example of what not to do, and a testament to why the private market should be allowed to compete.

Yet Virginia utilities continued their hostility to customer-owned solar. Dominion put the kibosh on a bill that would have expanded access to solar energy through community net-metering, while Appalachian Power matched Dominion’s earlier success in imposing punitive standby charges on owners of larger residential systems.

Fracking, pipelines, and gas plants, oh my! Renewable energy may be the future, but the present belongs to cheap natural gas. Yes, the fracking process is dirty, noisy and polluting, and yes, methane leakage around gas wells is exacerbating climate change. But did we mention gas is cheap?

2014 saw proposals to drill gas wells east of I-95, while the Virginia government began updating its regulations to govern fracking. Dominion Power started construction on a second new gas power plant, and talked up its plans for a third. The utility giant, a major player in the gas transmission business, also got approval to turn its liquefied natural gas import terminal in Cove Point, Maryland, into an export terminal. With visions of customers dancing in its head, it also announced plans for a major new pipeline to bring fracked gas from West Virginia through Virginia and into North Carolina—one of three proposed pipelines that would cut through the Virginia countryside and across natural treasures like the Appalachian Trail. The pipeline created an instant protest movement but gained the wholehearted approval of Governor McAuliffe.

Flooding in Hampton Roads becomes the new normal; it’s still not okay to ask what’s causing it. A cooler-than-normal year for the eastern United States gulled many landlubbers into believing that global warming was taking a breather, but meanwhile the ocean continued its inexorable rise along Virginia’s vulnerable coastline. It’s one thing to shrug off the occasional storm, said residents; it’s harder to ignore seawater that cuts off your parking lot at every high tide. 2014 will go down as the year everyone finally agreed we have a problem—even in the General Assembly, which passed legislation to develop a response to the “recurrent flooding.” But while the bill recognized that the problem will just get worse, it avoided noting why.

The public gets it, though. The Richmond Times-Dispatch reports that climate change was the number one topic of interest to writers of letters to the editor in 2014. And loud cheers greeted Governor McAuliffe’s announcement that he would reestablish the state’s commission on climate change, which Bob McDonnell had disbanded. As one environmental leader quipped, “People in Tidewater are tired of driving through tidal water.”

Public corruption: in Virginia, it’s not just for politicians. Everyone can agree that it was a really bad year for the Virginia Way, that gentlemanly notion that persons of good character don’t need no stinkin’ ethics laws. But we also saw plenty to prove the adage that the real scandal is what’s legal. As we learned, Virginia law allows unlimited corporate contributions to campaigns, and puts no limits on what campaigns can spend money on. So if some legislators act more like corporate employees than servants of the public, well, that’s how the system was set up to work.

But the system only works when corporations get their money’s worth from the politicians, and that quid pro quo usually comes at the public’s expense. For example, take Dominion Power’s North Anna 3 shenanigans (please). In an exceptionally bold exploitation of the Virginia Way, Dominion Power secured passage of legislation allowing it to bill customers for hundreds of millions of dollars it had spent towards a new nuclear plant that it is unlikely to build. (And the irony is that ratepayers will still be better off throwing the money down that rathole than they will be if Dominion does manage to build it.)

So as we look ahead to 2015’s energy battles, anyone wondering who the winners and losers will be needs only one piece of guidance: in Virginia, just follow the money.

Fiscal and environmental sanity get a boost as McAuliffe proposes to roll back coal subsidies

Your taxpayer dollars at work!

Your taxpayer dollars at work!

Thanks to the state’s budget deficit, Virginia may finally scale way back a notorious fossil fuel subsidy that currently transfers tens of millions of dollars annually from taxpayers to the pockets of corporations that mine Virginia coal. The Richmond Times Dispatch reports that if Governor McAuliffe has his way, the Virginia Coal Employment and Production Incentive Tax Credit and the Coalfield Employment Enhancement Tax Credit will be limited to $500,000 per year, saving the government $20 million per year.

The refundable tax credits were intended to make Virginia coal cheaper for utilities to buy, and thus more competitive with coal mined in other states. In theory, that was supposed to mean more coal mining jobs in southwest Virginia. In practice, the subsidies meant some coal companies paid no state taxes, and actually received significant cash handouts, even as coal jobs declined. And because the subsidies are based on tons of coal mined and not on the number of people employed, mining companies suffered no penalty from capital investments that maximized production while cutting jobs.

Critics of the subsidies thought they had won their point three years ago when the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee (JLARC) issued a critique of the various Virginia tax credits that was especially critical of the handouts to coal companies. As it describes beginning on page 67, the subsidies did not stop coal employment from falling 54% since 1990, or slow the steady decline in production:

“The precursor to one of the current coal credits was in place before the decline began, while the other was enacted shortly thereafter. It is important to note that with or without the credits, the decline in Virginia coal production was predicted by numerous analysts because over two-thirds of recoverable coal reserves in Virginia have already been mined.”

Indeed, the report continued, coal employment and production was actually worse with the credits in place:

“In the process of developing and refining the credit, analysts projected that coal employment and production would decline by 28 percent between 1996 and 2005 without the credit. However, actual mining employment was substantially lower than expected during this period, declining 36 percent.”

In spite of this damning analysis, in 2012 the General Assembly actually extended the expiration date of the coal subsidies until 2017. Insiders say Senate Democrats were persuaded to vote for the extension as a favor to coalfields senator Phil Puckett, who needed the backing of coal companies to hold his seat in 2013 and keep Democrats in control of the Senate. (Some might say he failed to return the favor.)

The coal subsidies have long infuriated environmentalists and community activists in the Coalfields region. In their view, Virginia taxpayers should not be forced to reward mining companies for blowing off the tops of our mountains, filling ancient stream valleys with rubble, poisoning wells and rivers, and destroying homes to get at the last, thin seams of Virginia coal.

So Coalfields activists welcomed the Governor’s proposal as a “good first step” in planning a future where coal is no longer the economic engine it once was. “We need to take our heads out of the sand and invest heavily in diversifying our economy in Southwest Virginia,” said Wise County resident Jane Branham, Vice President of Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards. “Supporting outdoor recreation, tourism, sustainable agriculture, reforestation and a new generation of entrepreneurs is the path forward in the mountains, not subsidizing bad actor coal companies that continue to poison the natural resources our future depends on.”

Renewable energy advocates have also complained that by making coal cheaper, the subsidies make it harder for other forms of energy to compete. One would expect this argument to resonate with free market advocates, a category that supposedly includes all Virginia Republicans and a lot of the Democrats. Yet in spite of criticism from some Democrats, the subsidies have not faced serious opposition before now.

Acquiescence in such an expensive and counter-productive corporate welfare program mostly reflects the influence of the Virginia coal industry. (See last week’s post for a sampling of how coal companies work to buy votes with campaign cash.) But the drafters sweetened the deal with a provision that siphons off a portion of the excess cash to fund the Virginia Coalfield Economic Development Authority (VACEDA), which is supposed to help the region diversify beyond coal. (It might work better if coal executives didn’t sit on the board.)

Under McAuliffe’s proposal, VACEDA would get a direct appropriation of $1.2 million to replace the money it would lose by the scaling back of the tax credits. That should satisfy those legislators whose primary concern is helping residents of southwest Virginia.

Those whose primary concern is helping coal companies, however, aren’t likely to be happy. Congressman Morgan Griffith has already been quoted as suggesting Governor McAuliffe’s proposal to scale back the coal subsidies amounts to a “war on coal.”

He expressed no concern about coal’s war on the people of southwest Virginia. For those who care about that, Governor McAuliffe’s move feels like a breath of clean air.

——————–

Addendum: Senator Bill Carrico (R-Alpha Natural Resources) has now filed a bill, S741, to extend the coal subsidies until 2022. 

Tiny Virginia subcommittee tasked with deciding future of bills related to EPA’s Clean Power Plan; meeting set for December 17

Photo credit: Sierra Club

Photo credit: Sierra Club

The EPA’s proposed Clean Power Plan could reshape Virginia’s energy future for the next fifteen years, and possibly permanently. If the state takes advantage of this opportunity, it will reduce carbon pollution, improve human health, save money for consumers, drive job creation in the fast-growing technology sector, and make our grid stronger and more secure.

If the state doesn’t act, EPA will design its own plan for Virginia, ensuring reduced carbon emissions but without the flexibility the state would have by doing it for itself.

This presents a conundrum for Virginia’s General Assembly, which is not known for embracing federal environmental regulations. The usual skepticism was on display on November 19, when the Senate and House Commerce and Labor Committees met in a joint session to take up the Clean Power Plan—or more precisely, to give utilities and the State Corporation Commission staff the chance to attack it.

At the conclusion of that meeting, the two Republican committee chairs, Senator John Watkins and Delegate Terry Kilgore, named three members of each committee—two Republicans and one Democrat from each chamber—to a special subcommittee tasked with deciding what kind of legislative action the General Assembly should take in response to the Clean Power Plan. Kilgore also put himself on the subcommittee, which will now take up any bills that Virginia legislators introduce related to the Plan.

This subcommittee has scheduled its first meeting for December 17 at 1:00 p.m. in Senate Room A of the General Assembly building in Richmond. By law, all committee meetings are open to the public.

According to General Assembly procedure, before anyone else in the entire legislature can consider a bill, it will have to pass muster with these seven men. So who are these hugely important people, and what is the likelihood that they will seize this historic opportunity to make Virginia a leader in clean energy?

The Senate members consist of Republicans Frank Wagner and Benton Chafin and Democrat Dick Saslaw. Wagner and Saslaw were obvious choices given their seniority on the committee and active role on energy issues. Chafin—well, we’ll get to him in a moment.

Frank Wagner is from Virginia Beach and is known for his interest in energy generally, and especially in promoting new projects. He sponsored the legislation that led to the Virginia Energy Plan in 2006 and has been an important supporter of offshore wind development, perhaps reflecting his undergraduate degree in Ocean Engineering and his Tidewater residence.

The General Assembly website says Wagner is the president of Davis Boatworks, a vessel repair facility whose principal customer is the Defense Department. Living in the Hampton Roads area, Wagner is aware of how real sea level rise is; presumably he understands the connection to climate change.

In spite of his interest in offshore wind, coal rules when it comes to funding Wagner’s political campaigns. The Virginia Public Access Project shows coal giant Alpha Natural Resources was Wagner’s second-best donor over the years, with a total of $43,643 in campaign money since 2003, ahead of Dominion Power’s $37,350. Energy and mining interests combined gave gifts totaling $188,152. Of this, $350 came from Highland New Wind Development LLC back in 2008 and $250 came from the offshore wind company Seawind in 2010.

Of course, who gives money to an elected official does not necessarily dictate how that official votes. But it probably should be mentioned that for the 2014 session, Wagner earned an F on the Sierra Club’s Climate and Energy Scorecard, disappointing clean energy advocates who have sometimes had reason to see him as an ally.

Also a low performer on the energy scorecard is Dick Saslaw, scraping by with a D. Saslaw is a career politician who was first elected to the GA in 1976, when he was 36. (He is now 74.) His biography lists his background as an owner and operator of gas stations.

Saslaw is the Senate Democratic Leader and used to be Chair of the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee, until his party lost the Senate. In theory, his leadership position in the Democratic Party should make him a defender of President Obama’s climate initiative. In practice, not so much.

Although he is a Fairfax County Democrat, Saslaw does not share his constituents’ enthusiasm for wind and solar, nor in general, their concern for the environment. Somebody once told him that renewable energy costs a lot; that’s been his story ever since, and he’s sticking with it, facts be damned.

Saslaw is proud of his close ties to Dominion Virginia Power, whose interests reliably predict his votes on any given bill. The Virginia Public Access Project reports that Dominion has given more money to Saslaw than to any other legislator. In 2014 alone, Dominion gave Saslaw $25,000. Over the years, Dominion’s contributions to Saslaw have totaled $240,508, making the utility Saslaw’s top donor.

Saslaw has also received more money from Appalachian Power than any other Democrat–$44,000–even though that utility does not provide service anywhere in his district. In addition, coal interests gave him $90,250, natural gas companies ponied up $50,250, and the nuclear industry chipped in $28,000.

A single contribution of $250 makes up the only entry under “alternative energy.”

This brings us to new Senator Ben Chafin, the Republican delegate from Southwest Virginia who replaced Democratic Senator Phil Puckett (he of the Tobacco Commission scandal). Chafin is a lawyer and farmer, and as his website informs us, “Ben Chafin has a proven record fighting for the coal industry. Ben sponsored successful legislation (House Bill 1261) to fight against Obama EPA’s effort to kill the industry through over-regulation. Ben will continue to work in Richmond to protect coal and grow other Southwest industries like natural gas.”

Not surprisingly, coal interests led all other industry donors to Chafin’s 2013 campaign for Delegate and his 2014 campaign for Senate ($59,000 altogether), though he did pretty well by natural gas, too ($14,150). As a delegate, Chafin earned a gentleman’s C on the Sierra Club scorecard, but it would probably be a mistake to pin our hopes on his becoming a clean energy champion. His role on the subcommittee is surely to give Coal a voice.

On the other hand, Chafin must recognize that the economics of fracked gas and ever-more competitive wind and solar means Virginia coal has no chance of ever regaining its former glory. Southwest Virginia now needs to craft a strategic retreat from mining and work on economic diversification. That’s not inconsistent with the Clean Power Plan.

On the House side—but here I have to digress for a moment to comment on the seemingly random composition of the House Commerce and Labor Committee. The Senate side is bad enough; any Democrat who has evinced environmental sympathies over the years has been dumped from the Senate Commerce and Labor, and when he was in power, Saslaw did a lot of the dumping.

But it’s worse over at the House. The leadership keeps reshuffling its energy committee, as if in a frantic effort to make sure nobody learns anything, while the delegates who actually came to the job with an interest and knowledge of energy never seem to get a turn. Energy law is a hard area to learn. It’s complicated, and if you don’t have time to master it, you are even more likely to accept guidance from either the party leader who tells you how he wants you to vote, or the glib industry lobbyists who assure you they have the public’s welfare at heart just as much as you do. (Plus they give you money!)

So Chairman Terry Kilgore had little enough to work with on his committee. The three delegates he named to this incredibly important subcommittee, though they are undoubtedly smart and hardworking people, bring no discernable expertise on either climate or energy to the General Assembly’s review of the Clean Power Plan.

Well, digression over.

Terry Kilgore himself is a lawyer and a 20-year member of the House from the coalfields region of southwest Virginia. Dominion is his top individual donor, at $122,000, but coal interests together make up the single biggest category of givers to his campaigns, at $243,188, with electric utilities at $218,680, natural gas at $97,830, the oil industry at $16,400, and nuclear energy at $8,500. Just since 2013, he’s taken in over $136,000 from energy and mining interests.

That’s awfully good money for a safe seat, and his votes have reflected it. His energy votes earned him a D on the Sierra Club scorecard. It’s unlikely that he will abandon his coal friends, but like Senator Chafin, he will serve his constituents best if he works to attract new business to his struggling region. Home weatherization and energy efficiency programs would be popular there, and solar energy is one of the fastest-growing industries in America.

The other House subcommittee members Kilgore appointed are Republicans Jackson Miller and Ron Villanueva and Democrat Mathew James. Jackson Miller is a Manassas Realtor and former police officer who has been in the House since 2006. The bills he has introduced primarily reflect his interests in real estate and criminal law, although he also introduced legislation supporting uranium mining. He has received a total of $79,252 from energy and mining companies since 2010, primarily electric utilities, natural gas, coal, nuclear, and uranium. He earned a D on the Climate and Energy Scorecard. Why he is on this subcommittee is anyone’s guess, but certainly Northern Virginia stands to gain a lot of technology jobs if the state develops its clean energy industries as it should.

Virginia Beach Republican Ron Villanueva has not been as popular with the energy and mining companies, whose donations to his campaigns have totaled $20,550. Villanueva’s website says he was the first Filipino-American elected to state office in Virginia when he became a delegate in 2009. Villanueva has been friendly to the solar industry, and while he received a D on the scorecard, he also received an award from the Sierra Club for his work on a bill to provide a tax credit for renewable energy projects. (The bill was converted to a grant in the Senate but not funded.)

Like Delegate James and Senator Wagner, Villanueva lives in an area that is feeling the effects of climate change sooner than any other part of Virginia, so his constituents know how much the Clean Power Plan matters. For that matter, his day job as a partner with SEK Solutions, a military contractor, should mean he’s aware of the Pentagon’s focus on climate change as a national security issue, as well as a threat to its coastal assets.

Portsmouth Democrat Matthew James also hasn’t been especially popular in the energy industry. Since 2009, when he first ran for delegate, he has accepted a mere $5,000 from Dominion, $3,500 from coal interests, and $3,350 from the natural gas companies—token amounts by Virginia standards, but they may be due for a sudden increase.

James does not seem to have introduced any energy-related bills. However, his votes earned him an A on the Sierra Club scorecard. James is listed as the President and CEO of the Peninsula Council for Workforce Development. Maybe he will see an opportunity in the Clean Power Plan to develop jobs in the solar, wind, and energy efficiency industries, which have outperformed the economy generally.

So there you have the five Republicans and two Democrats who get first crack at any bill either facilitating Virginia’s compliance with the Clean Power Plan, or hostile to it. If they like a bill, it moves to the full Commerce and Labor committees. If they scuttle a bill, no one else in the entire legislature will get to vote on it.

That’s how it works, or doesn’t, in the Old Dominion.

McAuliffe’s Energy Plan has a little something for (almost) everyone

On October 1, the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy released the McAuliffe administration’s rewrite of the Virginia Energy Plan. Tomorrow, on October 14, Governor McAuliffe is scheduled to speak about the plan at an “executive briefing” to be held at the Science Museum of Virginia in Richmond. Will he talk most about fossil fuels, or clean energy? Chances are, we’ll hear a lot about both.

Like the versions written by previous governors, McAuliffe’s plan boasts of an “all of the above” approach. But don’t let that put you off. In spite of major lapses of the drill-baby-drill variety, this plan has more about solar energy, offshore wind, and energy efficiency, and less about coal, than we are used to seeing from a Virginia governor.

Keep in mind that although the Virginia Code requires an energy plan rewrite every four years, the plan does not have the force of law. It is intended to lay out principles, to be the governor’s platform and a basis for action, not the action itself. This is why they tend to look like such a hodge-podge: it’s just so easy to promise every constituency what it wants. The fights come in the General Assembly, when the various interests look for follow-through.

Here’s my take on some of the major recommendations: IMG_3954

Renewable energy. Advocates and energy libertarians will like the barrier-busting approach called for in the Energy Plan, including raising the cap on customer-owned solar and other renewables from the current 1% of a utility’s peak load to 3%; allowing neighborhoods and office parks to develop and share renewable energy projects; allowing third-party power purchase agreements (PPAs) statewide and doubling both the size of projects allowed and the overall program limit; and increasing the size limits on both residential (to 40 kW) and commercial (to 1 MW) net metered projects, with standby charges allowed only for projects over 20 kW (up from the current 10 kW for residential, but seemingly now to be applied to all systems).

It also proposes a program that would allow utilities to build off-site solar facilities on behalf of subscribers and provide on-bill financing to pay for it. This sounds rather like a true green power program, but here the customers would pay to build and own the project instead of simply buying electricity from renewable energy projects.

Elsewhere in the recommendations, the plan calls for “flexible financing mechanisms” that would support both energy projects and energy efficiency.

In case unleashing the power of customers doesn’t do enough for solar, the plan also calls for the establishment of a Virginia Solar Energy Development Authority tasked with the development of 15 megawatts (MW) of solar energy at state and local government facilities by June 30, 2017, and another 15 MW of private sector solar by the same date. Though extremely modest by the standards of Maryland and North Carolina, these goals, if met, would about triple Virginia’s current total. I do like the fact that these are near-term goals designed to boost the industry quickly. But let’s face it: these drops don’t even wet the bucket. We need gigawatts of solar over the next few decades, so let’s set some serious long-term goals for this Authority, and give it the tools to achieve them.

Finally, the plan reiterates the governor’s enthusiasm for building offshore wind, using lots of exciting words (“full,” “swift,” “with vigor”), but neglecting how to make it happen. Offshore wind is this governor’s Big Idea. I’d have expected more of a plan.

And while we’re in “I’d have expected more” territory, you have to wonder whatever happened to the mandatory Renewable Portfolio Standard that McAuliffe championed when running for office. Maybe our RPS is too hopeless even for a hopeless optimist.

Energy Efficiency. Reducing energy consumption and saving money for consumers and government are no-brainer concepts that have led to ratepayers in many other states paying lower electricity bills than we do, even in the face of higher rates. Everyone can get behind energy efficiency, with the exception of utilities that make money selling more electricity. (Oh, wait—those would be our utilities.) The Energy Plan calls for establishing a Virginia Board on Energy Efficiency, tasked with getting us to the state’s goal of 10% savings two years ahead of schedule. But glaringly absent is any mention of the role of building codes. Recall that Governor McDonnell bowed to the home builders and allowed a weakened version of the residential building code to take effect. So far Governor McAuliffe hasn’t reversed that decision. If he is serious about energy efficiency, this is an obvious, easy step. Where is it?

Fracking_Site_in_Warren_Center,_PA_04

Natural Gas. Did I say offshore wind was the governor’s Big Idea? Well, now he’s got a bigger one: that 500-mile long natural gas pipeline Dominion wants to build from West Virginia through the middle of Virginia and down to North Carolina. Governor McAuliffe gets starry-eyed talking about fracked gas powering a new industrial age in Virginia. So it’s not surprising that the Energy Plan includes support for gas pipelines among other infrastructure projects. As for fracking itself, though, the recommendations have nothing to say. A curious omission, surely? And while we are on the subject of natural gas, this plan is a real testament to the lobbying prowess of the folks pushing for natural gas vehicles. Given how little appetite the public has shown for this niche market, it’s remarkable to see more than a page of recommendations for subsidies and mandates. Some of these would apply to electric vehicles as well. But if we really want to reduce energy use in transportation, shouldn’t we give people more alternatives to vehicles? It’s too bad sidewalks, bicycles and mass transit (however fueled) get no mention in the plan.

Photo credit Ed Brown, Wikimedia Commons.

Coal. Coal has fallen on hard times, indeed, when even Virginia’s energy plan makes no recommendations involving it. Oh, there’s a whole section about creating export markets for coal technology, as in, helping people who currently sell equipment to American coal companies find a living in other ways. These might be Chinese coal mining companies; but then again, they might be companies that mine metals in Eastern Europe, or build tunnels, or do something totally different. The Energy Plan seems to be saying that coal may be on its way out, but there’s no reason it should drag the whole supply chain down with it. Good thinking.

Nuclear. If you think the coal industry has taken a beating these past few years, consider nuclear. Nationwide, the few new projects that haven’t been canceled are behind schedule and over budget, going forward at all only thanks to the liberality of Uncle Sam and the gullibility of state lawmakers. But there it is in the Energy Plan: we’re going to be “a national and global leader in nuclear energy.” Watch your wallets, people. Dominion already raided them for $300 million worth of development costs for a third plant at North Anna. That was just a down payment.

Photo: U.S. Coast Guard

Photo: U.S. Coast Guard

Offshore drilling. As with nuclear, favoring offshore oil drilling seems to be some kind of perverse obsession for many Virginia politicians. Sure enough, the energy plan says we should “fully support” it. As for the downside potential for a massive spill of crude oil fouling beaches, ruining fishing grounds, destroying the coastal tourism economy, and killing vast numbers of marine animals, the plan says we must be prepared “to provide a timely and comprehensive response.” I bet Louisiana was at least equally prepared.

Who’s afraid of a Carbon Rule?

Climate activists urge action to curb carbon emissions at a demonstration in Richmond, Virginia. Photo by Josh Lopez, courtesy of the Sierra Club.

Climate activists urge action to curb carbon emissions at a demonstration in Richmond, Virginia. Photo by Josh Lopez, courtesy of the Sierra Club.

When I was a law student working at the U.S. EPA in the ‘80s, we sued a company that had been polluting a Maine river for years. Back then, EPA calculated penalties based on the amount of money a polluter saved by ignoring the requirements of the Clean Water Act. The idea was to take away the economic benefit of pollution so that companies would make out better by installing treatment systems than by imposing their toxic waste on the community.

Not surprisingly, the company’s lawyers tried to prevent their client from having to pay a penalty for all those years it had been dumping pollution into the river. But their reasoning was interesting. Faced with the lawsuit, the company overhauled its industrial process and eliminated most of its waste products, which turned out to be a money-saving move. Thus, said the lawyers, the company hadn’t gained any competitive advantage by polluting the river; it had actually lost money doing so. Really, they’d have made a lot more money if we’d forced them to clean up their act sooner.

Needless to say, the argument didn’t fly, and the company paid a fine. But its experience turns out to have been a common one. When it comes to environmental regulation, industry screams that the sky is falling, but then it gets to work to solve the problem, and frequently ends up stronger than ever.

This is one reason to be skeptical of ad campaigns from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Mining Association trying to convince the public that the EPA’s new regulations on carbon pollution from power plants, to be announced on June 2, will destroy the American economy. They’ve cried wolf so many times they have lost all credibility.

And in case you are of a generous nature and inclined to forgive previous false alarms, it’s worth noting that the National Mining Association campaign earned the maximum four Pinocchios from the Washington Post fact-checker—meaning, it’s a pack of lies. The EPA has been scarcely kinder in its analysis of the Chamber’s campaign, and the economist Paul Krugman says the Chamber’s own numbers actually prove compliance with the carbon rule will be cheap.

At least we can understand the American Mining Association’s fabricating facts. These are coal mining companies, after all; of course they are opposed to limits on carbon! They’re like the tobacco companies fighting limits on smoking. In fact, they’re in a worse position, because a good many smokers say they like tobacco, whereas nobody who isn’t making money from it likes coal.

But we can’t cut the Chamber the same kind of slack. There is little reason to fear the economy will suffer by continuing the gradual phase-out of coal that is already underway. No one was building new coal plants anyway; they are too expensive compared to natural gas plants and wind farms. The old, dirty, but fully amortized coal plants will gradually be retired, and good riddance. We have paid dearly for that “cheap” power in health care for asthma and heart disease, in premature deaths, and in babies born with neurological damage from mercury in their mothers’ bodies.

Nor does the Chamber’s anti-carbon rule stance accurately reflect the opinions of the energy sector as a whole. Even those electric utilities that once relied heavily on coal have proven to be fickle friends. Many of them have already said they can live with a carbon rule that lets them swap fuel sources.

And while coal declines, other energy industries are growing and flourishing. The breathtaking pace of advances in wind, solar and battery technologies make it clear that the age of fossil fuels will end in this century. There will be winners and losers, as there always are in a free market, but the new energy economy offers so many opportunities for American companies and workers that one wishes the fear-mongers at the Chamber would stretch their necks out of their bunker far enough to see the horizon.

As for society in general, we have seldom seen a limit on pollution that didn’t make us collectively better off, and carbon will be no exception. It is always easier and cheaper to stop pollution at its source than to clean it up later or pay for the damage. That will be true here in spades, where the damage includes hotter summers, more crop losses, more disease, more destructive storms, and whole communities swamped by rising sea levels. These are already happening, and they affect both our health and our wallets. Failing to limit carbon condemns us all to economic decline and slow self-destruction.

Surely, all we have to fear about the EPA’s upcoming carbon rule is that it might not be strong enough.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Can carbon sequestration save Virginia’s coalfields?

Mountaintop removal coal mining

Mountaintop removal coal mining

Many elected officials who care about the stark challenges confronting America’s coal-producing regions today are pinning their hopes on carbon capture and sequestration. This technology takes carbon dioxide out of power plant emissions and stores it underground. Since coal is the number one emitter of carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas primarily responsible for heating the planet, carbon sequestration might be the only way to continue our use of coal in a world increasingly worried about climate disruption.

Virginia’s newly-elected governor, Terry McAuliffe, has high hopes for carbon sequestration. McAuliffe is confronting a problem that confounded his predecessors: how to deal with the continuing economic decline of southwest Virginia’s coal-producing counties. But, enthusiastic as he is about new technology, McAuliffe should be skeptical of suggestions that carbon sequestration offers a solution to Virginia’s coal decline. It does not.

This decline has been going on for decades. It predates the recession and the Obama presidency and tighter regulations aimed at protecting public health. It predates the explosion in natural gas fracking that has made gas cheaper than coal. Coal employment in Virginia has steadily dropped and is now below 5,000 workers, less than half of what it was in 1990. The best coal seams have been mined out, exacerbating the problem that Virginia coal is more expensive to mine than coal from other states. To get at the remaining seams as cheaply as possible, coal companies increasingly resort to mountaintop removal, destroying vast tracts of the Appalachians with explosives and giant machines (but very few workers). Even if carbon capture and storage proves successful, coal employment in the commonwealth won’t recover.

We aren’t the only Appalachian state facing this problem, but others are tackling it head-on. Kentucky, facing an even steeper decline in its coal-producing areas, has launched a bipartisan effort to help the region move beyond coal. This doesn’t mean they are happy about it, but they are willing to look facts in the face.

In Virginia, on the other hand, the response for some years has been to throw money at the coal companies and hope for the best. Virginia taxpayers shell out millions of dollars every year to corporations that mine Virginia coal. Legislators keep renewing the coal subsidies even though a 2011 review by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee concluded they aren’t effective.

If throwing money at coal companies can’t halt the slide in Virginia coal, it’s hard to see how carbon sequestration technology could do it, even if the government were to pay for it. And given the environmental destruction involved in mountaintop removal mining, prolonging the end of the coal era in Virginia shouldn’t be anyone’s priority.

The start of a new administration offers a chance for a new strategy. Admittedly, it won’t be easy. The challenge of bringing new industries to a remote and mountainous region is a tough one, and support for coal still remains high in the area. Why, then, insist on confronting cold reality?

Because it has to be done.

Terry McAuliffe campaigned on jobs, and has given every indication he means it. Given his background, connections and talents, he is in as good a position as any governor in recent times to take on the challenge of helping southwest Virginia diversify its economy. He can work with the legislature to redirect the millions of dollars currently going to ineffective coal subsidies into tax credits for jobs in new industries and support for projects like home weatherization that create jobs and make a difference in people’s lives. He can challenge the entrenched interests, twist arms, enlist allies, recruit businesses, use the media—in short, make this a priority. The residents of the coalfields deserve as much.

For electric power generation, the end of fossil fuels is in sight

The rap on renewable energy is that it’s too variable to meet society’s demand for a constant supply of electricity. The answer to the problem turns out to be: More renewables.

111022-N-OH262-322Climate change is acting like an ever-tightening vise on our energy options. Each year that passes without dramatic decreases in our use of carbon-emitting fuels means the cuts we have to make simply get more drastic. By 2030, say experts, we must entirely replace coal with efficiency and renewable energy, or fry. Even the most intrepid environmentalists wonder if it can be done without huge price hikes and wholesale changes in how we live and use energy–changes that society may not accept.

A new study out of the University of Delaware shows it is possible to power the grid 99.9% of the time with only solar and wind energy, at a cost comparable to what we are paying today. This counters the conventional wisdom that we will always need large amounts of fossil fuel as a backup when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine. It also means the goal of getting largely beyond fossil fuels by 2030 is not just achievable, but practical.

The study focused on a regional transmission grid known as PJM, which encompasses parts or all of fourteen states, mostly in the Mid-Atlantic. Researchers ran 28 billion computer simulations to find the most cost-effective combinations of wind and solar that could power the entire grid, at the least possible cost and with minimal amounts of energy storage. The winning combination relied on natural gas turbines for backup on only five days out of the four years modeled.

The study authors looked for the least cost taking account of carbon and other external costs of fossil fuels, which are not being accounted for today, but they also assumed no technology improvements over time, making their cost estimates conservative overall. All the least-cost combinations used much more storage than we have today, but needed it for only 9 to 72 hours to get through the entire four years modeled.

The secret to dealing with the inherent variability of wind and solar, it turns out, is to build even more wind and solar. One wind turbine is unreliable, but tens of thousands spread across a dozen states greatly reduces the variability problem, and tens of thousands of wind turbines balanced with millions of solar panels is better still. To get to 99.9% renewables, you keep adding wind turbines and solar panels until you are producing three times the electricity that you actually need to meet demand. To power the grid with renewables just 90% of the time, you would have to produce “only” 1.8 times the electricity needed. (And yes, we have the windy sites and the sunny places to support all those projects.)

While it may sound strange to build more generation than you need, that is already the way grid operators ensure reliability. To take one example, if you were in Virginia when the “Big One” struck in 2011, you will recall that the earthquake caused the North Anna nuclear plant to shut down for four months. Nuclear energy provides a third of the electricity in Dominion Virginia Power’s service territory, and yet the lights stayed on. That’s because the grid wizards at PJM simply called on other power sources that had been idle or that had spare capacity.

The other component of reliability is the ability to match demand for power, which rises and falls with the time of day, weather, and other factors. So-called “baseload” plants like nuclear, coal, and some natural gas turbines don’t offer that flexibility and must be supplemented with other sources or stored energy. PJM currently uses more than 1,300 different generating sources, as well as about 4% storage in the form of pumped hydro. The right combination of other sources can replace baseload plants entirely.

wind turbine-wikimedia

Pairing wind and solar improves their ability to meet demand reliably. Onshore wind tends to blow most strongly at night, while solar energy provides power during the peak demand times of the day. Offshore wind power is also expected to match demand well. Combining them all reduces the need for back-up power.

But until now policy makers have assumed that solar and wind won’t be able to power the grid reliably, even when combined and spread out over PJM’s more than 200,000 square miles, and with the addition of wind farms off the coast. Critics have insisted that renewable energy requires lots of back-up generating capacity, especially from some natural gas turbines that can ramp up and down quickly. New gas turbines have even been designed specifically to integrate with renewables in anticipation of increasing amounts of wind and solar coming onto the grid.

This makes the work of the U. Delaware researchers a game-changer by showing that wind and solar can be backed up primarily by more wind and solar. And so we can begin planning for a future entirely without fossil fuels, knowing that when we get there, the lights will still be on.