Virginia’s climate and energy future comes into focus

Virginia’s climate and energy future comes into focus

Virginia Beach climate and energy resilience
Sea-level rise is one climate risk facing Virginia.

Virginia is at an economic, energy and climate change crossroads, with seas rising faster (PDF), and Hampton Roads, our greatest military assets and Tangier Island all seeing increased flooding that literally could put them under water.

Meanwhile, Virginia’s economic growth is nearly flat, while the state spends over $8 billion (PDF) per year for utility-supplied electricity.

What do these things have in common?

An integrated resource plan, or IRP (PDF), which Virginia’s two electric utilities will release early next week. These will outline their long-term energy plans for the Commonwealth, clarifying not just how they will spend the annual $8 billion their Virginia customers pay, but also how they will do their part to address the even more costly climate change that is swallowing the state’s coastline.

This is an important moment. Electric power plants are the nation’s largest source of climate change-driving carbon pollution. That’s why the U.S. EPA’s Clean Power Plan is requiring states to get their carbon pollution under control, just as we’ve already successfully done for acid rain, mercury, arsenic and other dangerous pollutants from our power plants.

In these IRPs, we’ll hear the utilities’ assessments of how they will reduce their carbon pollution, and how they will do so at the lowest possible cost.

While previous long-term energy plan filings left room for improvement, these plans could and should protect both Virginians’ pocketbooks and address the worsening threat of climate change by reducing the utilities’ total carbon pollution.

Indeed, Virginia’s utilities can reduce their carbon footprint while also reducing that $8 billion Virginia spends on utility supplied electricity each year.

How do we know this?

Because study after study, from energy providers to the operator of Virginia’s electric grid,and even Virginia’s coal-heavy next door neighbor, have concluded that reducing carbon just isn’t that hard or expensive to do, and probably will reduce our energy costs if done the right way.

In fact, advanced electric sector modeling recently conducted by NRDC and others shows that Virginia, like much of America, easily will achieve the carbon reductions required by the Clean Power Plan. In fact, advanced modeling shows that if Virginia pursued the lowest cost energy mix and continued to rely on interstate transmission to access the lowest cost energy, it already would be on its way to reducing the tons of carbon the state emits in order to comply with the CPP.

That’s a very similar conclusion to Virginia’s electric grid operator’s recent finding that the states in its footprint likely will reduce their carbon pollution with the Clean Power Plan in a business-as-usual future of low fuel prices and continued explosive growth in renewable energy.

Even better, the same modeling shows that by meeting the goals of the Clean Power Plan, Virginia can reduce electric bills and increase energy independence through lessened imports, while also protecting human health. That’s good for the people, the pocketbook and the safety of the coast.

Virginia best can accomplish these goals of not just limiting and including in its long-term energy plans the total pollution of not just existing power plants, but the pollution of plants that have not been built yet as well. (This is known as a "mass-based" plan, so called for the "mass" of actual tons of carbon pollution the plan would cover.)

Such a mass-based plan would result in actual reductions in total tons of carbon pollution (beyond those already in the works).

Another benefit to a mass-based plan covers current as well as future sources of pollution. As discussed above, Virginia already would make carbon reductions under least-cost planning that takes advantage of the interstate electricity grid that sends power from wherever it is most cost-effective to produce. By reducing Virginia’s carbon footprint within the state, Virginia also could help other states comply more cheaply by selling Virginia’s excess carbon allowances. (Allowances are essentially permits for each ton of pollution that power plants are allowed to emit into the air, and they’re used to ensure that plants don’t pollute more than is acceptable to human health and safety.)

There are, of course, more than one way to skin a cat, and another means of CPP compliance is "rate based" compliance, where plants reduce not the amount of their total pollution they emit, but rather their overall rate of pollution per megawatt hour of electricity (much like getting more miles per gallon in a car). 

In Virginia, models show that this means of compliance likely would be higher polluting and higher cost over the long haul, mainly because it would lead to an extensive reliance on a single fuel source: natural gas, which emits plenty of carbon pollution if gas plants pollute above what Virginia could achieve under a mass-based plan.

A natural gas-heavy future would not be good news for Virginia: In addition to locking into one dominant fuel supply — and a fossil fuel to boot — carbon pollution from new natural gas plants could grow in unlimited amounts under a rate-based plan.

That’s not something the Virginia coast, Tangier Island or folks across the Old Dominion can afford.

So here’s hoping the IRPs of Virginia’s utilities show the same good news we’ve all been hearing — that Virginia can and will cut its pollution, grow clean energy and reduce bills through a mass-based plan to meet the Clean Power Plan.

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