A contributed perspectives piece by the Climate Action Alliance of the Valley (CAAV)
Editor’s Note: This is the latest installment of a regular series of contributed news roundups about statewide environmental and energy news. This piece highlights, with links to further coverage in various media outlets, recent environmental news stories of significance to Virginia, with a focus on energy and the environment.
State Corporation Commission (SCC) and Utilities
“A state-mandated program to cap electric bills for eligible low-income Dominion Energy customers is set to start by the end of the year…. Dominion is proposing [that the SCC approve] a surcharge on other customers’ bills of less than a dollar a month to pay for the program … [to] would cap the participants’ bills…. It is intended for households earning up to 150% of the federal poverty level…. The Department of Social Services estimates that about 45,000 customers will participate in the program during its first year.”
In our May Perspectives Piece, we reported that “Dominion issued its latest long-range Integrated Resource Plan (IRP)”. “The plan calls for “new gas plants [and] advanced nuclear [that Dominion said] will be needed to meet soaring demand”; the company said it “may seek to keep most of its existing power stations online for decades to come and seek to build additional small natural gas and nuclear units.” In submissions to the SCC, “environmental groups and a clean energy trade association told the [SCC] that the plan’s electricity demand forecast is based on an unrealistic view about how many new data centers … are coming. [The] Dominion plan sees carbon emissions rising as electric use soars. [The groups] also say Dominion is not thinking aggressively enough about expanding solar and wind-powered generation [and that its plan] “is based on flawed modeling and assumptions.”
“A coalition of environmental groups have appealed Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s … move to withdraw the state from an interstate carbon-capping program, after the state government made the pullout official [July 31st].” “[T]he groups … informed the Air Pollution Control Board, and the Department of Environmental Quality, and its director, that they will challenge this action in Fairfax Circuit Court.” The lawsuit was filed August 21. The program is the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI). Another group declared “Virginians Will Pay the Costs of Gov Youngkin’s Misguided Efforts to Exit the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative [RGGI].” A Southwest Virginia news editor listed “some projects it’s funded in Southwest and Southside.” He noted that “The weatherization program completed 475 projects statewide, using about $6.7 million in RGGI funds…. Projects include addressing problems like leaky roofs, mold, non-functioning or unsafe HVAC units, water damage and electrical or plumbing problems. The housing program helped create 5,141 affordable housing units with $87.5 million in RGGI money statewide.”
“The U.S. Supreme Court … gave Mountain Valley Pipeline the OK to resume construction activity following a lower court’s orders earlier … to halt such activity.” Subsequently, the “last lawsuits seeking to stop Mountain Valley Pipeline [were] dismissed” by an appeals court. There is still the question of the validity of Congress’ and the President’s action under the Constitutional separation of powers. “While the decision was unanimous, two of the three [appellate] judges raised questions about the precedent that was being set, with one wondering whether recent congressional action to eliminate the 4th Circuit’s jurisdiction over the cases is ‘a harbinger of erosion not just to the environment, but to our republic.’” “U.S. energy company Equitrans Midstream … said it still expects to complete the Mountain Valley natural gas pipeline by the end of the year….” “As construction on the … Pipeline picks back up again, protesters … haven’t held back from making their opposition known.” Some are consideringwhat can be done to ensure developers take necessary safety precautions, for which the state’s Department of Environmental Quality has jurisdiction. “A federal safety agency is calling for additional inspections of pipes that may have been compromised by exposure to the elements along the route of the … Pipeline. The U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration may also require an independent, third-party review of a process to inspect the steel pipes and, where needed, reapply a protective coating designed to protect them from corrosion once they are buried.”
Data Centers and Battery Storage
“By a wide margin, Northern Virginia is the No. 1 site for data centers in the country and the world. These highly specialized buildings house the computer servers and routers that make digital interconnectivity possible…. Ashburn, Va., is the epicenter of “Data Center Alley,” anchoring a collection of nearly 300 data centers, scattered across Loudoun, Fairfax and Prince William counties, handling more than a third of the world’s online traffic. Many more are in the planning stages or currently under construction.”
“Warning of the ‘wholesale destruction’ of historic landscapes related to major Civil War camps and troop burials, the new superintendent of Manassas National Battlefield Park [wrote Prince William County officials stating] his strong concerns about the Prince William Digital Gateway, a plan to build 28 to 34 new data centers on 2,133 acres directly north of the national park.” Nonetheless, county Supervisors rejected “a request to consider a county historic designation for two areas within the proposed data center corridor…. The board did, however, vote to initiate an evaluation of Blackburn’s Ford Battlefield, located near the county’s border with Fairfax County, as a possible new ‘county registered historic site.’” In “King George County, the Planning Commission recommended approving most of the rezonings sought by … [developers] to build a complex of several data centers that would total 7.5 million square feet and ultimately be operated by Amazon… [and located] … near the … [county’s] Regional Landfill.”
“As the construction wave of new data centers pushes west from Ashburn, the Town of Leesburg [in Loudoun County is] preparing to welcome them, but on its own terms. …, [with] the council [adopting] two amendments to the town Zoning Ordinance designed to better accommodate the needs of the industry, which is expected to significantly boost the town’s commercial tax base in coming years.”
Aside from the land use questions and concerns raised in opposition to the proliferation of data centers, there is the matter of who’s paying for them and the issue of how much of Virginia’s energy consumption they will require. One commentator asks: “Why are the rest of us expected to pay for infrastructure that’s only needed for data centers? Does the Governor understand that his deal to bring another $35 billion worth of new Amazon data centers to Virginia is driving up energy rates for everyone else? [She adds] Virginia’s data center problem is well known. Northern Virginia has the largest concentration of data centers in the world, by far. Data centers are Dominion’s single largest category of commercial power users, already consuming more than 21% of total electricity supply and slated to hit 50% by 2038. In addition to the new generation that will be required, data centers need grid upgrades including new transmission lines, transformers and breakers, with the costs spread to all ratepayers.”
Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency
“The corporate segment of the renewables industry has been one of the fastest growing markets over the last five years and it is no coincidence that data centers also rapidly increased their footprint over the same timeline. Of the roughly 26,000 MW of corporate-tied renewable capacity online or planned in the U.S., over 16,600 MW are contracted to technology companies with substantial data center operations.”
As numerous past Perspectives Pieces have highlighted, Virginia counties, cities, and towns have passed different zoning requirements regarding large utility scale solar facilities, with some favoring and some restricting them. The second July piece offered some examples of differing outcomes for such permit requests. It also described positions of two Virginia land conservation organizations on this subject. Prior pieces have included many other examples. “New laws passed by U.S. counties and townships are putting land off limits to renewable developers in a dynamic that could pose problems for decarbonizing some regions of the country, according to a new study by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.” The study showed that “setbacks could reduce resource potential by up to 87% for wind and 38% for solar.” (“’Setback limits’ … require projects to keep a certain distance from houses or infrastructure.”) One of the authors said “’local restrictions may be going unnoticed in projections of renewables’ technical potential, which are sometimes cited in policymakers’ plans for decarbonization.’” The same author also noted: “The ordinances are shrinking the country’s untapped space for zero-emissions electricity…. Paradoxically, that could actually be a good thing for renewable development in some cases, since some ordinances may give companies clear signs as to where their projects may be best accepted.” The dilemma is described at length in this article titled “The Clean Energy Future Is Roiling Both Friends and Foes. Resistance to wind and solar projects, even from some environmentalists, is among an array of impediments to widespread conversion to renewables.”
Fauquier County Supervisors’ recent decision illustrates the above dilemma (the same county that is considering data centers): “Solar farm developers with an eye on the open spaces of Fauquier County are finding an increasingly difficult road to win approval even as demand for energy grows. The Fauquier County Board of Supervisors voted … to uphold an earlier planning commission ruling which blocked construction of a proposed 80-megawatt solar farm…. The decision presents a serious hurdle for the growth of solar energy in Fauquier County. Only one solar project has made it past the county planning commission since 2017 despite rising energy demand.”
“The Prince William Board of County Supervisors … allocated $1.2 million from the county’s year-end savings fund… [for a] one-time fee reduction program for residential solar [that] will waive all county fees associated with installation to incentivize residents and solar contractors to install equipment on houses in the county….. Neighboring Fairfax County waives all permitting fees related to residential solar installations. Prince William’s program takes effect Sept. 1, but the future of the program in subsequent years will be subject to funding availability and board approval…. The residential solar industry has seen exponential growth in Prince William County, from 14 total applications in 2016 to more than 1,000 in 2022 … [with] a 297% increase in solar applications between 2021 and 2022.” The growth is expected to continue.
“Dominion Energy employs 17,000 people across the country. Now, about 1,000 sheep work for the power company as well. In a process known as solar grazing, sheep consume vegetation on solar farms to reduce the need for lawnmowers and other landscaping machinery. More research is being conducted in recent years to look into the benefits of solar grazing. Reducing costs and emissions from landscaping are two of the biggest pluses…. Richmond-based Dominion Energy started using sheep for solar grazing in October. The company deploys sheep at six of its solar farms….”
“The city of Hampton is working with a Virginia nonprofit to teach people about solar panels and to make installing them more affordable. Since 2014, the local energy alliance program has installed more than 1,000 solar system installations across Virginia.”
A Botetourt County project that has been in the works for eight years is facing more delay. “Apex Clean Energy [project developer] says it hopes to begin major construction of its proposed wind farm next summer or fall, and complete it by the end of the following year. Earlier plans had called for work to begin this summer. A detailed site plan for how 13 turbines, each 643 feet tall, will be arranged and built along a ridgeline of North Mountain has yet to be approved by Botetourt County’s community development department…. Called Rocky Forge Wind, the renewable energy project has been slowed by permitting delays, legal action from opponents, design changes, the COVID-19 pandemic, and a lengthy search for a buyer of the power it will produce.”
“A grant from Clean Virginia will help local organizations get the word out about weatherization and energy efficiency programs for both homeowners and renters.” The organization leading the Harrisonburg and Rockingham County effort is profiled in this Appalachian Voices article.
“Virginia’s two big electric monopolies are stalling on a regulatory order asking them to detail their roles in what is forecast to be a $700 million annual cost for the charging infrastructure needed for electric vehicles, the Sierra Club says. Dominion Energy, which serves most of the state, and Appalachian Power, the main utility in the western part of Virginia, filed their plans to address EV growth with the State Corporation Commission this spring.” The Sierra Club believes “these plans are inadequate and lack specific details for future investments and rate plans to handle the increased electricity demand from EVs…. [It] is urging the SCC to intervene and order the electric monopolies to submit compliant plans that include concrete details on how they plan to accommodate the charging needs of EVs. Currently, the utilities have made little progress and only offer vague plans for the future.”
A state transportation advocate believes “$3.2 million in rural rail crossing federal” funding will enable “upgrades [to] increase safety [and] lay the tracks for high speed rail” between Virginia and North Carolina.”
Arlington County buys electric buses for its fleet. Arlington’s transit system, ART, is getting its first batch of battery electric buses, or BEB, as it pursues carbon neutrality by 2050, according to a press release. The vehicles will be deployed in late 2024 after work wraps up on the new Operations and Maintenance Facility on Shirlington Road. With $3.3 million in state and $1.2 million in local funds, the county is buying four American-made buses by the company Gillig, which drivers and riders tested out along with other options over the last year.
“To cut air pollution and long-term energy and maintenance costs, Loudoun County Public Schools is adding 16 electric buses to their fleet. The vast majority of the school division’s approximately 750 buses run on diesel fuel. The school division’s first five electric buses hit the road in 2021 through Dominion Energy’s electric school bus program, which began in 2019 as part of a long-term effort to replace diesel buses.”
“A $50,000 grant will go toward the installation of a new e-bike charging station and the construction of an amphitheater in the Russell County town of Honaker. The grant, which comes from the Virginia Coalfield Economic Development Authority’s Tourism Capital Improvement Matching Fund, will help fund the projects in a park that’s situated along the TransAmerica Bicycle Trail.”
“The US Department of Transportation awarded the City of Harrisonburg a $14,368,180 RAISE Grant to convert one driving lane of US-11… to a two-way separated bicycle facility between the intersections of Main Street and Noll Drive, and Grattan Street and Liberty Street…. The new bicycle and pedestrian facilities are anticipated to increase bicycling and walking in the City, supporting Harrisonburg’s environmental sustainability, mobility, community connectivity, and economic development goals…. For more information about this project, view this City of Harrisonburg News Release.”
Climate and Environment
The “bipartisan Chesapeake National Recreation Area Act… would establish a new Chesapeake national park site, the Chesapeake National Recreation Area…. [The bill] would bring land‑based areas of the world’s largest estuary under the protection of the National Park Service [and] this new national park site would expand public access to the Bay’s shores and waters.” A Tidewater-area editorial board believes the new park would greatly benefit all of Hampton Roads.
“The Chesapeake Bay Conservation Acceleration Act of 2023 would fast track conservation goals in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.” A bipartisan group of Virginia and Maryland representatives introduced the legislation, which would “focus federal resources on approximately 83,00 farms in the Chesapeake Bay watershed to boost voluntary conservation efforts that help achieve water quality goals, increase soil health and provide economic benefits. The legislation would also provide solutions for developing a more robust agriculture workforce to get more technical assistance on the ground, and would simplify harvesting invasive blue catfish from the Bay.” Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania senators introduced a similar bill.
“Chesapeake Oyster Alliance members from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation [CBF] and Minorities in Aquaculture [recently dropped] around 12,000 young oysters and oyster spat-on-shell into the York River. The oysters will settle onto a sanctuary reef where they will grow to continue efforts to save the oysters and the bay. The oysters, including the oyster spat, were all grown by CBF…. Spat is a term for infant oysters that grow on recycled shells….”
“In the Chesapeake Bay, osprey are the region’s top avian predator, but recent research found many of their young aren’t surviving. In light of the research, the Richmond Audubon Society asked state fisheries regulators at the end of July to temporarily suspend the use of large fishing nets in the Chesapeake Bay for 30 days starting in August to allow osprey more menhaden to feed on ahead of their migratory travel south for the winter. The change would primarily affect the operations of Virginia’s long-established Omega Protein, which operates out of Reedville and uses purse seine nets to catch menhaden in the Bay before reducing the fish to meal and oil, as well as the menhaden bait fishery…. But Omega Protein disputes the conclusion that menhaden fishing is depleting stock to the detriment of ospreys.”
“A [federally funded] study is underway to see if a plan to shore up a disappearing island in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay is feasible. Tangier Island, Virginia, has lost about two-thirds of its land mass since 1850. Studies estimate what’s left will become uninhabitable wetlands around 2050 if nothing is done.”
Land Use and Wetlands Conservation
Virginia’s senators have sponsored “The Shenandoah Mountain Act … to establish a 92,562-acre scenic area in Rockingham, Augusta and Highland counties…. [The legislation, if passed, would] protect the scenic, historic, recreational and natural resources in the specific areas, while allowing compatible uses such as outdoor recreation activities. The legislation would also boost local economies, protect drinking water sources and preserve endangered wildlife.”
“With a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision sharply curtailing federal oversight of streams and wetlands, environmental groups working to restore the Chesapeake Bay say they’re worried about gaps in state laws and enforcement practices that now leave those waters vulnerable to unrestricted development and pollution…. In the Bay watershed, the impact is somewhat muted. Five of the six states and the District of Columbia provide at least some protection under their own laws for wetlands and streams now removed from federal jurisdiction…. Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia each have comprehensive state laws that provide protection from disturbance for their wetlands and all waters, even groundwater…. [Environmental groups believe] ‘many questions remain’ about … Virginia’s response to the court ruling.”
“Ground broken in Chesterfield County is set to grow fresh produce – 30 feet in the air. Plenty Unlimited Inc. … has begun construction on a vertical indoor farming campus that, when completed, is expected to be the largest such operation in the world. The campus, to be developed in phases totaling $300 million, will sit on 120 acres in [a technology park]. Several structures will be built, with the first planned to be a 100,000-square-foot vertical farm that’ll be used to grow Driscoll’s strawberries.” Near Danville, “AeroFarm grows crops on a gigantic scale without soil or sunlight, and its executives say indoor vertical growing, one form of controlled-environment agriculture (CEA), produces nearly 400 times the harvest (in this case, greens) than farms using traditional methods.… At 138, 670 square feet, the AeroFarm operation is the largest operation of its kind in the world [though not for long.]”
“Despite the mounting impacts of climate change, more people are moving into the country’s most flood-prone areas than out of them. Migration into high-risk regions … has more than doubled since the start of the pandemic, according to new analysis from Redfin, a national real estate brokerage. But the opposite is true in Hampton Roads: More people are moving out of the region than in. It’s the only major coastal area Redfin analyzed on the East Coast where that’s happening.”
“The city of Virginia Beach has broken ground on a massive project set to reduce stormwater flooding — and bring new recreational opportunities — over the next several years. The concept is called a ‘stormwater park,’ which cities across the country have begun using as flood prevention infrastructure. But after several years and a hefty price tag, the idea has come to fruition.”
Residents of Buchanan County, which experienced two significant flooding events in August 2021 and July 2022, have struggled with their losses. “FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] helped rebuild public infrastructure such as roads and bridges after both disasters, but the agency turned down two state requests for direct aid to individual homeowners.” “Virginians in flood-prone areas have more than just rising sea levels to worry about. They have rising flood insurance rates to worry about too…. [FEMA] announced its “new model for calculating rates, which went into effect last year for new policyholders and will be used for current policyholders when they renew their policies…. To encourage local governments to adapt to and prepare for flooding, FEMA administers a Community Rating System [CRS] that incentivizes localities to adopt floodplain management measures by allowing their residents to receive discounts on their premiums…. There are 28 localities participating in the CRS in Virginia, with most on the coast and in Northern Virginia. Roanoke City and Roanoke County are the only localities in Southwest Virginia to participate.” Not all localities have resources to participate. Part of RGGI funds are designated for community flooding preparedness.
“Virginia’s aptly named overlooked cave beetle is one of 10 species found in the state scheduled to be considered for protections under the Endangered Species Act. In response to a federal lawsuit filed by the national environmental nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agreed July 24 to expedite its decisions on 33 species…. Five species found in Virginia and throughout the Southeastern region of the U.S. – the Cumberland moccasinshell, Tennessee clubshell, Tennessee heelsplitter and Tennessee pigtoe freshwater mussels along with crustacean Morrison’s Cave amphipod – require a decision by Aug 15. Four species found exclusively in Virginia – the Hubbard’s cave beetle, Little Kennedy cave beetle, Shenandoah cave beetle and overlooked cave beetle – require a decision by Dec. 15. The spiny scale crayfish, also found in Virginia and throughout the Southeast, requires a decision by Sep. 1, 2025.”
A long-time Virginia energy policy analyst and blogger wrote “I’m a climate alarmist (and you should be too), but we aren’t dead yet.” She offered relatively direct and brief summaries of where we are now in terms of the numerous implications of the climate crisis, where we (or our children and their descendants) will be by 2100, and what is and will be happening to improve our dismal prospects.
Inside Climate News chatted with a Virginia State Senator “on the Commonwealth’s progress on reigning in the monopoly utility’s sway over legislation, and how Dominion may view Gov. Youngkin’s move to exit RGGI.”
A “retired professor, science educator, environmentalist and peace and justice activist who was awarded Plowshare Peace Center’s Peacemaker of the Year Award in 2013”, penned a Commentary titled “The time to act on climate change is now, locally and globally.”
His piece was published just ahead of the August 14 decision from a “Helena District Judge … [who] ruled in favor of plaintiffs Our Children’s Trust and a group of youth…. [They] challenged the state of Montana claiming the state had not upheld its constitutional obligation for a clean and healthful environment.” The judge wrote “’The right to a clean and healthful environment is a fundamental right protected by [the Montana Constitution]….’” Question is: Is this right protected by other states’ constitutions?
Check out …
- The Hahn Horticulture Garden on the Virginia Tech campus [that] is the site of the annual Simply Elemental outdoor art show now through Sept. 30.”
- This “free webinar on residential solar co-hosted by Appalachian Voices, Solar United Neighbors, and the IRS at 5:30 pm on Thursday, September 14th. This conversation will cover new financing mechanisms, solar installation resources, and how you can go solar in Virginia! … [It] will also include 30 minutes of Q&A so that you can directly ask experts about all of your questions and concerns.” Register here.
- Sierra Club’s new podcast on Virginia Offshore Wind (OSW), interviewing the authors of its new OSW Footprint report.
Why not …
- Find out how to control the invasive Japanese stiltgrass? Listen to this recording and read this fact sheet.
- Go see some of Virginia’s “Big Trees” located in the Central Shenandoah Valley? There’s a “stately Fraser fir tree” in Harrisonburg’s Woodbine Cemetery and a “majestic Chinkapin oak” on a riverbank in Rockingham County. “The Virginia Big Tree Program, housed at Virginia Tech, keeps track of the largest specimens of more than 300 tree species across the state. Its database includes six national champions in the Shenandoah Valley and Central Virginia.”
- Take your kids to “A new electrifying exhibit at the Explore More Discovery Museum …? [It’s] a partnershipbetween the museum and the Harrisonburg Electric Commission. The exhibit, “It’s Electric,” explores the world of electricity … and is for Kids of all ages [who] will be introduced to electricity through hands-on activities, interactive displays and imaginative play.”
The Climate Action Alliance of the Valley (CAAV) is a non-profit, grassroots group in the Central Shenandoah Valley that educates legislators and the public about the implications of the Earth’s worsening climate crisis.