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.
2023 Virginia Budget Amendments Passed, Finally!
- GOOD: Hundreds of millions of dollars are earmarked for the state’s Water Quality Improvement Fund
- GOOD: An extra $286M for implementing pollution-reducing, agricultural best management practices on working farms
- BAD: $100M for Richmond City’s’ combined sewage overflow (CSO) improvements were dropped
Resilience & RGGI Funds
- GOOD: $18M in flood relief funds for Buchanan and Tazewell counties, after the historic July 2022 flooding
- BAD: These funds were generated by raiding RGGI funds that are intended for desperately needed, low-income energy efficiency programs.
- GOOD: $100M for the Resilient Virginia Revolving Fund, a fund that provides greater flexibility for the state to support local governments and individual property owners impacted by flooding
- Note: This is in addition to and should not be viewed as a replacement for the Community Flood Preparedness Fund, the state’s first dedicated revenue stream, from RGGI. This Fund has already raised nearly $300M over 3 years to help Virginia localities prevent flooding.
Land Use & Transportation
- GOOD: $93M is dedicated towards trails funding: 1/3 of the funds will go towards 5 “priority” projects plus the Fall Line Trail as a 6th priority project and the remaining ⅔ of funding will go to projects throughout the rest of the state
- GOOD: Proposed funding to widen the I-81 highway was dropped
- BAD: $140 million in grants for “a data center operator” to incentivize data center development
What’s next? Governor Youngkin will release his proposed 2024-2026 biennial budget this December, which the General Assembly will vote on in the 2024 General Assembly session. See a list of Virginia Conservation Budget Recommendations outlined in the Our 2024 Common Agenda to understand the funding we need to fully protect Virginia’s environment and natural resources.
Data Centers, Energy Storage, Grid Management
“Data centers are warehouse-like buildings filled with computer servers and hardware that powers and stores data for the IT infrastructure. The facilities, often at least two stories tall, require large amounts of water for cooling and consume massive amounts of electricity, which requires most sites to include power substations. Data center growth was spurred by a Virginia program that entices data center development via grants, which require matching funds from localities. The Fredericksburg area is popular because of the fiber optic lines that run along Interstate 95. Data centers also need to be near electrical transmission lines and have access to water, both of which prove crucial to the facilities.”
One of many NoVA examples: “In preparation for the expected incoming development of data centers, Stafford County moved forward with plans to guide how and where the facilities can be built.… [T]he Board of Supervisors approved motions on proposed comprehensive plan amendments for data centers and to remove the facilities from certain by-right uses. The board … voted to send the proposed comprehensive plan amendments back to the planning commission so a public hearing can be held…. Stafford is considering three proposed data centers.”
Data centers are being planned in areas outside NoVA. Some examples:
- Henrico County’s White Oak Technology Park has two large data centers and more may come. “Data centers are much sought-after economic development projects because they represent millions of dollars of investment, and local taxes…. And since that prospect means thinking about infrastructure — in this case, the high-voltage lines necessary to feed electricity into some of the biggest users of power around — a 1,170-page Dominion Energy filing at the State Corporation Commission offers a rare glimpse into the lengthy process that goes into landing a major economic development project. In the case of White Oak and the area around it, that glimpse comes because Dominion wants the SCC to approve a route for two new 4.69-mile transmission lines through mostly undeveloped woods, fields and wetlands.“
- Not too far away, “As a part of a $35 billion data center expansion project across Virginia, Amazon Web Services announced it plans to spend nearly a third of the budget on the creation of two data center campuses in Louisa County…. The data centers will be built in the county’s Technology Overlay District, … developed with “strict development standards” to attract technology businesses and support economic growth in the county while preserving its idyllic rural character, according to the … County Board of Supervisors.”
- “The 7.5 million sq. ft data center proposal in Virginia’s King George County still hasn’t been approved, even after a seven-and-a-half hour-long County meeting.” Developers “are looking to develop an 869-acre data center complex for use by Amazon in the county, a proposal that involves rezoning several land parcels from agricultural to industrial, a change in its Comprehensive Plan, and extending the borders of light industrial development to land adjacent to the Rappahannock River…. [Issues include tax revenues], impact on farmland, [power,] water, and the rural way of life.”
“Fueled by data center development, Dominion Energy projects a 214% growth in power demand in Northern Virginia over the next four years, according to a power delivery presentation for Culpeper County given to the Board of Supervisors [recently].”
Two recent articles address the question of NoVA data center sustainability. [The same question could apply to other areas of the state.
- “Northern Virginia’s Data Center Industry Is Booming. But Is It Sustainble?”
- “Northern Virginia data center industry faces supply and demand imbalance, report finds.”
“Spurred by an increasing number of power-hungry data centers, the keepers of the electric grid in NoVA are embarking on an ambitious, multi-billion-dollar plan to bring more electricity to the data center zones while shoring up other parts of transmission system. This plan far exceeds the handful of new transmission lines that Dominion executives have been discussing with community leaders and activists in Prince William County.” “Botetourt County supervisors voted … to approve a large battery power facility that would help tame peak demand across the region’s electrical network … [and would use arrays of Tesla batteries to store electricity gathered during non-peak periods, then release the power as needed to smooth demand curves. Similar facilities have been launched elsewhere in Virginia in recent years…. The storage facility would be made up of 144 aboveground installations … [and] would be operated remotely.”
A Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) attorney believes “Rural counties stand to play a critical role in Virginia’s move to solar. Rural counties are in an excellent position to help steer the renewable energy transition…. [He argues that this transition] is crucial if we are to avoid the worst effects of climate change [and that it] … means cleaner air, cheaper energy bills, and new economic development opportunities…. [He also thinks] communities must be in the driver’s seat and well equipped to take advantage of and manage the many utility-scale solar proposals being offered. And we need thoughtful and engaged project developers to support them.”
Mecklenburg County’s Planning Commission voted down a proposal for two dual-use “’agrisolar’ projects [that would enable] the use of open land for farming and solar energy at the same time…. Each of the projects would generate enough power to light up some 1,250 homes [and would be part of] Dominion Energy’s Shared Solar Program. Under that program, Dominion’s retail customers can purchase subscriptions in a shared solar facility owned by Dominion, and in return receive credit on their bills for a share of the project’s energy output.”
Clarke County is considering whether to approve a “50-megawatt solar power plant …proposed for a 400-acre site.” In 2021 a geotechnical consulting firm described the site as being “a karst risk for development.”
“The Town of Halifax is rethinking whether it should allow community-scale solar projects inside town limits, and if so, under what conditions.” Similarly, “Tazewell [County is] taking [a] proactive look at solar farms.”
“Stafford County is set get its first solar power [community solar] facility. The Board of Supervisors … approved a conditional-use permit for a solar facility on 171 acres…. The 5 megawatt site’s raised solar panels will send electricity into the power grid operated by Dominion.”
“Dominion Energy and the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority ceremonially broke ground on [a] 835-acre … solar farm [at Dulles Airport in Loudoun County that] is just a small part of a huge push by Dominion to add 16,000 megawatts of solar capacity — enough to power 4 million homes — by 2035 as it seeks to comply with a state law requiring 100% of its non-nuclear energy production to be zero emission by 2045.” The project is “solar, battery storage and electric vehicle initiative that they said would be the nation’s largest renewable energy project at an airport.” “The [solar]panels — along with carport solar panels on … a parking lot at the airport — are expected to power some of the facilities at the airport and more than 37,000 homes in the region, according to Dominion. In all, it will generate 100 megawatts of solar energy. Batteries on site will be able to store up to 50 megawatts.”
Nuclear and Hydrogen
“Two tech hub bids seek to boost Virginia’s nuclear industry. Proposals led by the Virginia Nuclear Energy Consortium and the Lynchburg Regional Business Alliance have some common goals but also some key differences. They’ll compete for federal dollars against proposals based around additive manufacturing, artificial intelligence and autonomous transportation, among other critical technologies.”
Loudoun County has embraced both data centers and solar facilities. Now, it’s looking “Ahead to Small Nuclear Plants, Industrial Batteries.” As energy demands continue and current solar and wind are “not catching up “to that demand, “government and energy industry leaders [including some in Loudoun] are looking toward small modular reactors, a concept for smaller-scale nuclear reactors produced in an assembly line fashion, which would produce less power than today’s large-scale nuclear energy facilities but would also be quicker and easier to build and require much less land. Small reactors are those that produce up to 300 megawatts.”
“Virginia Tech has been awarded $1.5 million from the U.S. Department of Energy to establish the potential for storing hydrogen underground in depleted Appalachian gas fields. Subsurface hydrogen storage would provide a large amount of space without the need for massive above-ground infrastructure, according to a DOE announcement.”
The proposed new Virginia budget, if the Governor approves it as passed by the legislature, “secured [$35 Million in] funding” for the Shenandoah Rail Trail, which is projected to inject $32.3M per year into local economy. The Trail will pass through “nine towns (Front Royal, Strasburg, Toms Brook, Woodstock, Edinburg, Mount Jackson, New Market, Timberville and Broadway) and three counties (Warren, Shenandoah and Rockingham)….”
The Governor’s Office of Regulatory Management, headed by “Andrew Wheeler, a former EPA administrator, oversees the agency, [whose aim is to] reduce regulations by one-quarter…. The  proposed actions [in this fiscal year’s plan] touch on multiple aspects of life in Virginia and 13 percent of those reviewed for change or elimination will be environmental rules. These 48 actions include amending and reissuing expiring stormwater construction regulation, implementing emission standards for vehicles and removing Virginia from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative.”
Last month, a blogger gave Dominion’s latest Integrated Resource Plan the “benefit of the doubt”, given its plan to extend the use of fossil fuel plants beyond 2045 because of data center growth, even though saying the plan shouldn’t be taken seriously. This month, noting the sky-high projections Dominion offered in all of its scenarios, she argued they may be way too high. “With none of its plans meeting the basic requirements of Virginia law, Dominion should be ordered to go back to the drawing board. The company should … design a demand-response program tailored to [the data center] industry. Then it should re-run its computer model with energy efficiency allowed as a resource, with no artificial constraints on battery storage and renewable energy, with federal and state compliance costs associated with fossil fuels fully included and with cost estimates for solar and storage consistent with industry norms.”
Climate and Environment
“Nearly 5% of the Chesapeake Bay watershed is covered by areas that block the filtration of water, according to a new analysis of data from the Chesapeake Bay Program. These areas are “impervious surfaces,” and include pavement and rooftops…. Soil, forests and wetlands, called pervious surfaces, act as sponges and soak up rainfall. The majority of Hampton Roads has a high percentage of impervious surfaces.” Losses of tree canopies exacerbate the effects of impervious surfaces.
For example, “In Newport News, there has been a net loss of about 200 acres of tree cover between 2014 and 2018 according to the analysis from the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Forestry Workgroup. Each year, the city’s tree cover reduces an estimated 302.6 million gallons of stormwater runoff. In Norfolk, there has been a loss of 128 acres in the same timeframe. Hampton has only lost 33 acres, and Virginia Beach has lost 1,893 acres.”
The “Virginia director of advocacy and outreach for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said climate change leads to extreme heat and more intense flooding — and one way to protect residents of the watershed area from such events is to invest in tree canopy.” “The Virginia Department of Forestry is making use of state and federal funds to plant more trees in communities throughout the commonwealth…. The Virginia Trees for Clean Water Grant Program is offering $500,000 in grant funding to plant trees in community areas through the remainder of 2023…. The program was established in 2013 and is supported primarily by the Virginia Water Quality Improvement Fund, a special state fund created in 1997 to assist local governments, soil and water conservation districts, state agencies and others with reducing and controlling water pollution.
Recent budget surpluses have led to hundreds of millions of dollars being deposited in the fund, with over $644 million earmarked for deposit in a budget deal the General Assembly passed last week. An estimated 150,000 trees have been planted as part of the program to date, and nearly 50,000 of those plantings happened last year…. In addition to state funds, the Virginia Department of Forestry received $6.6 million in federal funding this year from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service as part of the Inflation Reduction Act. The funds are intended to increase tree canopy and access to nature in disadvantaged communities.”
“Ten census tracts in Hampton Roads are among the most at risk in the nation to the effects of climate change and natural disasters, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The local spots are part of 483 nationwide announced this week as the first set of Community Disaster Resilience Zones. Each new resilience zone is a census tract that is especially vulnerable because of both environmental risks and social factors like lower incomes, language barriers and transportation challenges.”
Drought and Flooding
Drought warnings were declared or anticipated for “for seven counties in the Shenandoah Valley’s northern region, including Clarke and Frederick” as well as Augusta and Rockingham, Stephens City, the City of Staunton and the City of Winchester. “Droughts have scientists concerned about a key drinking water source: the Potomac River [and] levels detected last week are the lowest seen since 2010 and have scientists beginning talks about whether steps should be taken to bring more water into the region…. The Potomac River supplies 75% of the region with its drinking water. For the District and Arlington, Virginia, the river is the only source for tap water.”
The proposed new Virginia budget, if the governor approves it as passed by the legislature, includes “a $10 million infusion for a new project designed to curb flooding and promote redevelopment near the Virginia Beach Oceanfront.”
“High tides alone could cause flooding in Norfolk for up to 19 days this year, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. That’s more than anywhere else on the East Coast and would be the area’s worst year of high tide flooding on record. Within a few decades, Norfolk could see high tide flooding for about a third of the year. The predictions are part of NOAA’s national high tide outlook …, which covers the time period from this May through next April.”
“Roanoke… announced the approval by the Federal Emergency Management Agency of new floodplain maps for the Roanoke River that reflect decades of flood mitigation work along the banks of the waterway. The new maps indicate the likelihood and severity of flooding for more than 1,400 parcels along the approximately 10-mile Roanoke River corridor within city limits, according to a news release from the city. Land development and flood insurance requirements are also updated.”
“[T]he University of Virginia’s Virginia Flood Resilience Initiative released an online “roadmap” to help southern Virginia areas assess their flood risks and resilience. A partner in the project is the Southside Planning District Commission, which spans Halifax, Mecklenburg and Brunswick counties. The Virginia Flood Resilience Initiative features a flood hazard dashboard that assesses flood risks in specific areas throughout the region. The dashboard provides a wealth of granular data to help Southside communities assess their vulnerability to overflowing rivers and flash flooding, an understanding that planners and builders have historically lacked — at times, with disastrous consequences.”
A Hampton Roads-area paper, in an editorial, praised the “Plan for waterfowl [that] protects the environment as HRBT expansion proceeds.” The HRBT expansion is “a $10 million plan to build a new, permanent island for the migratory seabirds” displaced by construction of the Hampton Roads tunnel.
Three op-eds weigh in on Virginia’s opportunities in becoming part of the non-fossil-fuel energy transition:
- “Virginia must not miss the clean energy revolution” – authored by the Environmental Defense Fund director of climate and clean air policy.
- “Virginia’s clean energy revolution begins in the Southwest” – jointly authored by the managing partner of Coalfield Strategies and the executive director of the LENOWISCO Planning District Commission and member of the Southwest Virginia Energy Research and Development Authority.
- “We can use the free market to lower energy costs — so why is Glenn Youngkin fighting it?” – by the president of Conservatives for Responsible Stewardship
Check out …
- The new Raider’s Run mountain bike trail at Hungry Mother State Park.
- October and November events at the JMU Edith Carrier Arboretum, including Harrisonburg Songtuary Oct 21st at 2:30, Remarkable Trees Field Trip to a Virgin Red Spruce Forest Oct 7th 8 to 5:30, and 15th Annual Harvest Festival Saturday, October 28th | 11am-2pm, and others.
- Canary Media’s “end-of-summer reading list” of “climate books.”
- These two EV events – your chance to learn more about electric vehicle technology:
- National Drive Electric Week, Shenandoah Electric Vehicle Show, Saturday, September 23, 2023, 1:30 – 5:00 pm EDT, at Massanetta Springs Camp and Conference Center, 712 Massanetta Springs Rd., Harrisonburg.
- Ribbon cutting for EV Chargers at Jon Henry Country Store, 9383 N Congress St, New Market, 4pm, September 27th
Why not …
- Learn VA Tech’s Science Corner’s answer to “Are bullfrogs a sound of summer or sign of trouble?”
- Visit the “Shenandoah Electric Vehicle Show in Harrisonburg, Sep 23, 2023, 1:30 – 5:00 pm EDT, at Massanetta Springs Camp and Conference Center, 712 Massanetta Springs Rd, Harrisonburg”? Register here to attend.
- Help out our feathered friends by installing a birdbath? Here’s how.
- Sign the “#STOP the MVP Petition? The pipe meant to complete construction of MVP has been sitting in the open sun, in some cases, for 4-6+ years. This reduces the pipe’s integrity and potentially leading to weld failures & leaks, and increasing the risk of explosion. SIGN THIS PETITION to FERC urging them to issue a Stop Work Order until all MVP pipe safety concerns are met. [NOTE: In a formal notice, FERC “Federal Regulators Raise[d] Safety Concerns Over Mountain Valley Pipeline.”]
- Create a butterfly habitat at your home to alleviate habitat loss? Here’s how.
- Try some cider at Big Fish Cider? The cidermaker “is part of a wave of makers who are branching out from the juicy, sweet stuff in the grocery store. They’re creating what they call ‘vintage cider’ in smaller batches, toying with foraged fruit and wild fermentation that’s more like natural wine….”
- Join the “Harrisonburg Climate March“, September 22nd from 12pm-3pm, organized by JMU’s Environmental Management Club? Details are here. Goals:
- Keep the global temperature rise below 1.5 °C compared to pre-industrial levels.
- Ensure climate justice and equity.
- Listen to the best united science currently available.
- Bring a sense of locality and community organization, using this day to support groups with a common interest and learn from each other.
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.