Cale Jaffe is the Director of the Virginia Office of the Southern Environmental Law Center, a nonprofit leveraging the power of the law to protect the environment of the Southeast. www.southernenvironment.org.
Both President Obama and Governor McDonnell have highlighted “all-of-the-above” energy policies, suggesting that coal, natural gas, onshore wind, offshore wind, solar energy, nuclear power, biomass, hydropower, and energy efficiency are all on the menu. It’s as if making energy choices is as simple as selecting side dishes at a buffet. A little bit of this, a dollop of that.
But if you look at the existing energy portfolio for Dominion Virginia Power—the electricity provider serving Charlottesville and most of Albemarle County—you’ll see that almost all of our electricity comes from just three sources: coal, natural gas, and nuclear. Renewable power accounted for only 1.1 percent of Dominion’s energy sales in 2012, mostly from hydropower and biomass. Of the more than 17,000 megawatts of capacity in Dominion’s fleet for 2013, just one lonely megawatt came from solar power.
If our president and governor agree that a full menu of options should be on the table, then why aren’t we seeing cleaner, renewable options in Virginia?
To begin answering that question, we need to make a road trip
to 1300 E. Main St. in Richmond. That’s the address for the State Corporation Commission, the regulatory agency charged with overseeing Virginia’s public utilities, including Dominion.
Dominion is required to biennially file with the Commission a long-term Integrated Resource Plan, or IRP, that contains a forecast of future energy needs and a strategy for meeting those needs. After an evidentiary hearing, the Commission will determine whether that IRP is “reasonable and in the public interest.”
Here’s what the utility foresees based on its latest IRP, released just last month. For the next several years, the overwhelming majority (more than 90 percent) of our electricity will continue to come from coal, natural gas, and nuclear. In other words, more of the same.
We can do better, and engaging on Dominion’s IRP is critical to increasing common-sense investments in wind, solar, and efficiency.
On wind, Dominion secured a lease from the Department of Interior to develop 2,000 megawatts of wind power off the coast of Virginia, enough to power 700,000 homes. But despite holding this lease, Dominion’s IRP only includes two “test” turbines. Those test turbines account for less than one percent of the lease area’s potential.
The story is similar on solar. Dominion’s IRP outlines a plan to develop 220 megawatts of solar—sufficient to power 36,000 homes—over the next ten years. It pales in comparison to what’s happening in Georgia. There, state regulators are requiring Georgia Power to develop more than three times what Dominion envisions for Virginia—and to do it in one-third of the time, by the end of 2016. Georgia authorities recognize that there’s a strong business case for solar, having determined that these investments can be made without raising electricity rates.
Of course, the cheapest and cleanest kilowatt is the one that the power company never has to generate in the first place. That’s where energy efficiency programs plug in. Back in 2007, the General Assembly set a modest efficiency goal of 10 percent. Dominion’s IRP, however, projects only meeting half of this target.
The Southern Environmental Law Center will be in front of the State Corporation Commission when it comes time to review Dominion’s IRP. We will be in the courtroom, making the case for increased investments in wind, solar, and efficiency.
The public is encouraged to weigh in as well. In fact, the Commission already has a comment box for the case up on its website (www.scc.virginia.gov). If you’d prefer to make your voice heard in person, the public hearing—back at 1300 E. Main St.—convenes on April 23, 2014, the morning after Earth Day.—Cale Jaffe