Wise plant: symbol of looming state energy debate?

Wise plant: symbol of looming state energy debate?

The proposed Wise County plant has come to symbolize growing debates about the importance of a region’s economic health verses the actual health of its residents, the power of Dominion in state government and the looming battle over the future of public investment for our energy.

While Dominion and government officials tout the proposed plant as clean, by the power company’s own estimates it will produce over 5 million tons of carbon dioxide annually, the equivalent, opponents say, to adding one million cars to the road. Newspapers such as The Daily Press, The Virginian-Pilot and the Bristol Herald Courier just across the state line in Tennessee have published editorials against the plant.

City Mayor Dave Norris doesn’t know what the economic impact will be of local energy tax incentives. "It’s sort of uncharted territory right now because we’re in the lead."

They argue that Dominion misrepresents the plant as clean (it would be in the state’s top ten polluters); that the Virginia General Assembly has essentially greased the wheels for its approval; and that the added 585 megawatts of power would be used not in Wise County—of which a fourth of its surface has already been strip mined—but to meet the energy demands of a fast-growing Northern Virginia population.

The creation of jobs would be a shot of lifeblood to the economically depressed region. According to Dominion, that’s 800 temporary construction jobs, 75 permanent jobs and 250 mining jobs once the plant is operational. But many residents see a bleak choice in front of them: Jobs or health. And many are skeptical of reaping any economic benefit should the plant come to their home.

“Coal is killing Southwest Virginia,” said Wise County resident Larry Bush, speaking at a public hearing at the State Corporation Commission (SCC) in Richmond on January 7. “This economic crap they’re putting out is just that.”

A 2004 General Assembly bill deemed any power plant that uses a percentage of Virginia coal to be in the public interest. While Dominion’s rates are regulated by the state, the General Assembly has essentially relieved Dominion of any economic risk in building a new plant, even at a time where the 2008 presidential election may well result in carbon taxes or cap-and-trade systems that would impose large financial burdens on power companies.

If the plant is approved by the SCC, Dominion would be able to raise rates enough to cover not only the costs of building the Wise plant, but also to guarantee an almost 14-percent rate of return on its investment. If carbon taxes are introduced, they are sure to significantly drive up the price of operating coal plants. With its guaranteed return, however, Dominion will be able to pass on almost all of those costs to rate-payers.

But even as opposition to the plant grows across the state, the state’s population too is growing, especially in Northern Virginia’s ever-expanding suburbs and exurbs across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. The push for clean energy and rising energy demands are fast bringing the debate about Virginia’s energy future to a head.

If not coal-fired plants like the one at Wise and new nuclear reactors like the one Dominion is set to build on Lake Anna, how will Virginia satisfy its demand for electricity?

Three cities, including Charlottesville, have passed resolutions against the proposed plant in Wise. Charlottesville Mayor Dave Norris was one of the 176 people who signed up to speak at the hearing, though due to the number of speakers, he had to leave before he was called up. Norris says he had planned to present the city’s recent resolution that calls for the state to place a moratorium on new coal-fired plants and invest those resources in sustainable energy.

“I’m not convinced that increased emphasis on conservation, efficiency and renewables isn’t a viable alternative,” he says. “It’s only in the last few months, frankly, that Dominion has gotten serious—and I’m not even sure that they’re even real serious—about development of renewables and conservation.”

The other cities that oppose the plant, Blacksburg and Arlington, are part of a movement to turn the state’s energy future away from what they see as dirty energy—coal and nuclear—and towards a future of reduced consumption, efficiency and a reliance on sustainable energy production such as wind, geothermal and solar.

Tom Cormons, the Virginia Campaign Organizer to Appalachian Voices, says the proposed Wise plant is “a step in exactly the wrong direction.”

“If we take what is essentially low-hanging fruit, cost-efficient, energy efficiency measures, building the plant could, at the very least, be postponed until the 2020s and likely never be needed at all,” says Cormons, who works in Appalachian Voices’ Charlottesville office.

According to the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy, Virginia is tied for last in the nation in investments in electrical energy efficiency. The “low-hanging fruit” Cormons talks about are immediate measures like using florescent light bulbs, better housing insulation and more efficient HVAC systems.

Charlottesville is leading the charge in measures like these. At its last City Council meeting, councilors conceptually approved an Energy Efficiency Property Tax Incentive. If council approves such an ordinance—and that possibility is more than likely—city homeowners who live in what the state defines as “energy-efficient buildings” would receive a one-time, one-year property tax reduction of 50 percent.

The new incentive was made possible by 2007 General Assembly legislation putting energy-efficient buildings in a separate class and giving localities the power to levy lower taxes on them. According to Norris, Charlottesville’s 50-percent tax break is one of the largest in the state, though such programs are new. Roanoke, he says, was the first city to enact similar breaks, though its reduction was not near Charlottesville’s proposed 50-percent cut.

“We want to do something bolder,” says Norris. “We want to send a strong signal that we value energy efficiency and we value it enough to pay for it, frankly.”

Norris says Council is unsure what the economic impact the incentive will be.

“It’s sort of uncharted territory right now because we’re in the lead,” he says. “But because it’s just a one-year hit, it’s not going to be a major, long-term budget impact. There’s not a whole lot that local governments can do to promote green building. But this was something that we could do.”

These tax incentives and city resolutions are indicative of a movement towards a much different energy futures that is growing at local, grassroots levels. Tried of waiting for change to come from Richmond, localities are taking the lead.

“I think that’s the way all great change happens,” says Josh Tulkin, of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network (CCAN). Tulken helped Norris in drafting the clean and renewable energy resolution, and says that clean energy is an economically viable option for Virginia.

“We have a lot of natural resources,” he says. “I think that what Charlottesville realized is that if the Commonwealth is not going to take the lead, then cities like Charlottesville, Arlington and Blacksburg need to do what they can now. And Dave Norris and the rest of Charlottesville realized that they can save money and switch over to clear energy and reduce their impact on the environment all at the same time.”

Wind and solar technologies are not without their own debates, Cormons acknowledges. A shift from coal to wind energy would likely not lessen any debates over the sites of plants. Just as people do not want a coal-fired plant down the road from their houses, there are people who oppose gangly and visually obtrusive wind-powered turbines on top of pristine mountains. The debate over wind-powered plants, of course, leaves behind the question of the plant eventually killing you.

The nuclear debate, though, is ongoing and charged, as evidenced by Dominion’s proposed third reactor at Lake Anna. The rising temperatures of the lake seem to contradict claims that nuclear energy is a clean alternative to coal. Charlottesville’s clean energy resolution also opposes the Lake Anna reactor.

“I think right now we need to focus on the cleanest energy possible,” says Tolkin of CCAN. “And right now the cleanest energy possible is going to be wind, solar, geothermal and biomass. Nuclear energy is expensive, and it’s highly subsidized. If we’re going to subsidized something, let’s subsidize the cleanest energy first. Not coal and nuclear.”

Norris agrees. To him, moving the state in a direction toward renewable energy and conservation can satisfy energy needs without, as he says, “blowing up more mountains and contributing to climate change.”

“I’d like to see us invest a lot more energy—pardon the pun—in that direction because I think the payoff is tremendous,” he says. “It’s also more cost-effective. If you’re looking at it purely as what the most cost-effective way to proceed—forget about the environmental benefits—I truly believe we’ve got to give it a chance.”

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