Mere weeks after Governor Ralph Northam signed a partisan “Clean Economy Act” that had been rushed through the state legislature, Dominion Energy Virginia announced it would reach “net zero” greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. To do so, the utility company will raise family, business, hospital and school electricity bills by 3% every year for the next ten years – as they and state and local governments struggle to climb out of the financial holes created by the ongoing Coronavirus lockdown.
Just as bad, renewable energy mandates and commitments from the new law and Dominion’s “integrated resource plan” will have monumental adverse impacts on Virginia and world environmental values. In reality, Virginia’s new “clean” economy exists only in fantasy land.
The infamous Vietnam era quotation, “We had to destroy the village in order to save it,” may or may not have been uttered by an anonymous US Army major. It may have been misquoted, revised, apocryphal or just invented. But it quickly morphed into an anti-war mantra.
For Virginia, it could reemerge as “we had to destroy our environment in order to save it.” (The same will be true for any state that travels this make-believe “clean, green, renewable, sustainable” energy path.)
Supposedly to reduce emissions of plant-fertilizing carbon dioxide, Dominion Energy plans to expand the state’s offshore wind, onshore solar and battery storage capacity by some 24,000 megawatts of new (pseudo)renewable energy by 2035 and far more after that. It will retain just 9,700 MW of existing natural gas generation, and only through 2045, build no new gas-fired units, and retire 6,200 megawatts of coal-fired generation. The company also intends to keep its four existing nuclear units operating.
To “replace” some of its abundant, reliable, affordable fossil fuel electricity, Dominion intends to build at least 31,400 megawatts of expensive, unreliable solar capacity by 2045. Dominion estimates that would require a land area some 25% larger than Fairfax County, west of Washington, DC.
Fairfax County is 391 square miles (250,220 acres). It has more than 23,000 acres (36 square miles) of parks. That means Dominion Energy’s new solar facilities alone will blanket 490 square miles – 313,000 acres – of what are now beautiful croplands, scenic areas and habitats, teeming with wildlife.
That’s nearly half the land area of Rhode Island. It’s eight times the District of Columbia – and nearly 14 times more land than all Fairfax County parks combined. All will be blanketed by imported solar panels, plus more land for access roads and new transmission lines. Just for Dominion. Just for solar.
And those solar panels will actually generate electricity maybe 20-25% of the year, once you factor in the nighttime hours, cloudy days, and wintertime, early day and late afternoon to evening times when the sun is not shining brightly enough to generate more than a tiny smidgeon of electricity.
Dominion and other Virginia utility companies also plan to import and install over 400 monstrous 850-foot-tall offshore wind turbines – and tens of thousands of half-ton battery packs, to provide backup power for at least a few hours or days when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing. They will supposedly prevent the economy from shutting don’t even more completely during each such outage than it has during the Corona lockdown.
Most of these solar panels, wind turbines and batteries – or their components (or the metals and minerals required to manufacture those components) – will likely come from China or from Chinese-owned operations in Africa, Asia and Latin America … under mining, air and water pollution, workplace safety, fair wage, child labor, mined land reclamation, manufacturing and other laws and standards that would get US companies unmasked, vilified, sued, fined and shut down in a heartbeat.
However, those laws and regulations do not apply to most of the companies and operations that will supply the supposedly “clean-tech” technologies that will soon blight Virginia landscapes.
Thus far, no one has produced even a rough estimate of how much concrete, steel, aluminum, copper, lithium, cobalt, silica, rare earth metals and countless other materials will be needed. All of them will require gigantic heavy equipment and prodigious amounts of fossil fuels to blast and haul away billions of tons of rocky overburden; extract, crush and process tens of millions of tons of ores, using explosives, acids, toxic chemicals and other means to refine the ores; smelt concentrates into metals; manufacture all the millions of tons of components; and haul, assemble and install the panels, turbines, batteries and transmission lines, setting them on top of tens of thousands of tons of cement and rebar.
No one has tallied up the oil, natural gas and coal fuel requirements for doing all this “Virginia Clean Economy” work. Nor the greenhouse gases and actual pollutants that will be emitted in the process.
Nothing about this is clean, green, renewable or sustainable. But neither Dominion Energy nor Virginia government officials have said anything about any of this, nor about which countries will host the mining and other activities, under what environmental and human rights standards.
When will we get a full accounting? Just because all of this will happen far beyond Virginia’s borders, does not mean that we can ignore the global environmental impacts. Or that we can ignore the health, safety and well-being of children and parents in those distant mines, processing plants and factories. This is the perfect time to observe the environmentalist creed: think globally, act locally. Will that be done?
Will Dominion and Virginia require that all these raw materials and wind, solar and battery components be responsibly sourced? Will it require independently verified certifications that none of them involve child labor, and all are produced in compliance with US and Virginia laws, regulations and ethical codes for workplace safety, fair wages, air and water pollution, wildlife preservation and mined lands reclamation? Will they tally up all the fossils consumed, and pollutants emitted, in the process?
Science journalist, businessman and parliamentarian Matt Ridley says wind turbines need some 200 times more raw materials per megawatt of power than modern combined-cycle gas turbines. It’s probably much the same for solar panels. Add in the backup batteries, and the environmental and human health impacts become absolutely mindboggling in their scale.
If you ignore all the land and wildlife impacts from installing the wind turbines, solar panels, batteries and transmission lines – you could perhaps call this “clean energy” and a “clean economy” within Virginia’s borders. But beyond those borders? A compelling case could be made that the world would be far better off if we just built modern combined-cycle gas turbines (or nuclear power plants) to generate electricity in the first place – and avoided all the monumental human and ecological impacts of pseudo-renewable energy.
And when it is time to select sites for these 490 square miles of industrial solar facilities, will Virginia, its county and local governments, its citizens, environmentalist groups and courts apply the same rigorous standards, laws and regulations – for scenic views, habitats, wildlife and threatened or endangered species – as they do for pipelines, drilling, fracking, coal and gas power plants, and other projects? Will they apply the same standards for 100-foot-tall transmission lines as they do for buried-out-of-sight pipelines?
Virginia’s Clean Economy Act will likely plunge every project and every jurisdiction into questions of race, poverty and environmental justice. Dominion Energy and other electric utilities will have to charge means-tested rates (even as rates climb 3% per year) and exempt low-income customers from some charges. They will have to submit construction plans to environmental justice councils – even as the utility companies and EJ councils ignore the rampant injustices inflicted on the children and parents who are slaving away in Chinese, African and Latin American mines, processing plants and factories.
Talk about breaking new ground. It will be interesting to see how Governor Ralph Northam, Attorney General Mark Herring, Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, and other Virginia government, utility and industry officials handle all these fascinating issues.