Sustainable energy transition developments in conservative county in Virginia

While the Trump Administration is doing what it can to promote coal over more sustainable options, it is encouraging to read this editorial on the Roanoke Times website. Read it carefully. It is impressive what is going on throughout the US.


Editorial: Here’s the real war on coal

The Botetourt County School Board recently voted to wage war on coal.

Why, exactly, was the school board of a county that is officially defined as part of Appalachia — even if most of it doesn’t feel very Appalachian — voting against coal?

And why was the school board even talking about national energy policy in the first place?

OK, to be fair, coal wasn’t exactly the issue on the table, at least not directly. What the school board did was to approve a 15-year-year contract with Johnson Controls Inc. to make the county’s school buildings more energy efficient. The school board is paying Johnson $6.3 million but figures that contract will more than pay for itself in reduced utility bills.

That is how the school board voted against coal and in favor of renewables.

Let’s step back and take a look at the big picture here: Environmental groups have talked for years about “energy efficiency.” It’s not as sexy as talking up “green energy” but real enough nonetheless. Back in the days of Jimmy Carter, energy efficiency meant turning down the thermostat and putting on a sweater. Now it means new light bulbs that burn less energy, updated heating and air conditioning systems and better insulation.

Energy efficiency is still not a particularly sexy topic, but here’s the thing: It’s making a difference. Over the past decade, the demand for energy has been going down, according to according to PJM Interconnection, the obscure yet vital organization than manages power flows between Illinois and New Jersey (it also covers Virginia).

How can this be? We have more gizmos than ever before that require charging. The recession certainly dampened the economy — and therefore power usage — but PJM says the demand for power was going down long before the recession hit. So what’s going on?

Energy efficiency is what’s going on.

Demand in individual markets might go up (or down) depending on economic conditions, but neither of Virginia’s two big utilities —Appalachian Power in our area or Dominion Energy to the east — foresee big increases in demand over the next 15 years. In the dry language of regulatory reports, Appalachian recently told state regulators that new energy efficient standards for lighting, appliances and building codes are having —and will continue to have — “a pronounced effect on energy consumption.”

The bottom line: There’s not much need for those utilities to add lots of power. They do, though, need to add some, as old plants get retired, or there is some expectation of local demand. That’s leading even a utility called Appalachian Power to move away from coal. Why? Economics. It’s hard to build a small coal or natural gas plant. To be cost-effective, those types of plants have to be big. However, it’s quite economical to add on a small-scale wind or solar farm. So Appalachian is doing that. It intends to add more wind power this year from a wind farm in Indiana, recently announced plans to buy existing wind farms in Ohio and West Virginia, and is looking at adding solar farms in Virginia and West Virginia.

Here’s where there’s a major disconnect between the political rhetoric about coal and the realities of the marketplace.

We have candidates running for office vowing to “bring back coal” and deriding opponents for being “anti-coal.” The reality is that it doesn’t matter whether candidates are “pro-coal” or “anti-coal.” The real “war on coal” is being waged in the free market, and coal is losing.

  • Natural gas is cheaper than coal — and now there’s a lot of it, thanks to the exploitation of the Marcellus Shale formation.
  • Increasingly, even industrial customers are demanding cleaner energy. One of the big growth sectors of the economy is data centers, and companies such as Amazon and Google want green energy. Even utilities must respond to market pressures as they work with state and local governments to try to lure new customers to their service areas.
  • Investors aren’t keen on coal. When a utility builds a power plant, it has to think in terms of a 30- to 50-year time horizon. Former President Obama certainly did coal no favors with his environmental regulations, but utilities say it really doesn’t matter whether President Trump does away with those rules. “Everything we do are very long-term decisions, everything from 30- to 50-year decisions, so a four-year cycle just doesn’t work for us,” Beam told the Gazette-Mail newspaper in Charleston, West Virginia. Or, as Dominion’s CEO recently said in a prepared statement, “Dominion will continue moving toward cleaner power sources with lower emissions, whether the Clean Power Plan lives or dies.”
  • The price of wind and solar power is dropping dramatically and, in some cases, is now cheaper than coal. Coal advocates blame this on subsidies for renewables, but fossil fuels get lots of tax breaks, too. In the end, utilities don’t particularly care why those energy sources are now cheaper, they just care that they are. Appalachian recently issued a “request for proposals” for solar farms. The company was surprised when it received 14 bids, a sign that the market for solar energy firms is a lot more robust than it once was.

The ability to add a little bit of cheap wind here and cheap solar there — and do it cost-effectively — is slowly reshaping where our power comes from. Appalachian now gets less than 5 percent from wind and solar. By 2031, Appalachian expects that share to rise to about 18 percent — with 14.5 percent from wind and 3.2 percent from solar. Environmentalists think that progress is too slow — they’d like to see more coal plants retired. That’s unlikely to happen without government pressure; utilities have too much money invested in those facilities to simply shut them down.

In the meantime, it would be helpful if politicians would level with people in the coal counties rather than try to seduce them with the false hope of coal returning to its former glory. That’s not happening. This isn’t a liberal versus conservative thing. Maybe it was at one time, but it’s not anymore.

The school board in Botetourt County — a conservative county where 70 percent or more of voters routinely cast ballots for Republicans — voted to do a very conservative thing. The board members voted to save money. They also effectively voted against coal and in favor of a wind or solar farm somewhere. That’s something else quintessentially conservative: it’s the marketplace at work

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