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.
Regulations and Utilities
Last month, we included articles about the General Assembly’s failure to fill two of the three vacancies on the State Corporation Commission (SCC). A former judge, who served temporarily, left for another position leaving only one. Another former judge will step in temporarily. The SCC needs at least two judges to carry out its work.
We previously shared articles about Virginia Beach residents’ opposition to power lines coming ashore from wind farms through their neighborhoods. This concern will affect many coastal and inland communities. “As Chesapeake Bay drainage states and the nation move to fulfill bold commitments to convert to renewable energy in the next few decades, an inconvenient truth has become apparent: It can’t be done without many more transmission lines. Through neighborhoods, along roads and across mountains, the nation’s network of power lines needs to double or triple in the next decade if the clean energy revolution is to succeed, warn the U.S. Department of Energy, scientists, environmental groups and many policymakers.”
There is growing concern about the lack of regulatory oversight of ratepayer costs from utilities’ transmission line growth. An Ohio consumer group has filed a complaint with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) that “electric customers have fallen into a ‘regulatory gap’ that’s allowed billions of dollars of transmission construction to happen without oversight of need, prudence or cost effectiveness…. [T]he same concern exists across much of the nation, so much so that the commission itself has weighed whether more monitoring of transmission spending is necessary.”
“[T]he Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (“DEQ”) published a Notice of Intended Regulatory Action (“NOIRA”) concerning amendments to the Small Solar Renewable Energy Projects Permit Regulation (the Solar PBR), 9VAC15-60. The Solar PBR regulation allows solar developers to obtain a state permit to construct and operate solar facilities without obtaining a Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity from the … [SCC]. DEQ intends to conform the Solar PBR regulation to Chapter 688 of the 2022 Acts of Assembly to require a mitigation plan detailing reasonable actions to avoid, minimize, or otherwise mitigate impacts to prime agricultural soils and forest lands. This regulatory action would apply to solar projects that disturb more than 10 acres of prime agricultural soils, or 50 acres of contiguous forest lands, and to projects that would disturb forest lands enrolled in a forestry preservation program. However, projects would be grandfathered if the interconnection request is applied for and received by December 31, 2024.”
A Wason Center for Civic Leadership survey “of 800 interviews of Virginia likely voters” found that “a majority (65% to 26%) of Virginia voters also support staying in … [RGGI], a program that enters the Commonwealth into a carbon cap and trade program with other states in the region to reduce carbon pollution. Younger voters also show higher support for remaining in RGGI than voters age 45+ (71% to 62%), while more women prefer to stay in the program than men (70% to 59%).” See opinion pieces below. **
Data Centers, Energy Storage
“Data centers should be further away from homes, schools and national parks. They shouldn’t be allowed to tower over their neighbors and they should be required to be less noisy. Those are among the recommendations three organizations of residents from Fauquier, Loudoun and Prince William counties proposed in an effort to guide local government officials on siting data centers and to avoid negative impact on local residents. Leaders of the groups said they planned to deliver their packet of proposals to their respective county boards immediately.”
“How [a Haymarket-area] project was approved—with little public opposition, little skepticism from county officials, and the acquiescence of the homeowners’ association—is a rich tale. The stew includes apparent misrepresentations or misunderstandings, an agreeable county planning office and resident apathy amid the COVID epidemic. Pointedly, the record shows that key decision-makers mainly fretted about the routing of power lines to the project and missed the elephant in the room—the sheer size of the buildings.” Neighbors to another Prince William data center found its noise levels intolerable and worked with Amazon’s engineers to alleviate the problem. So far, the decibel levels have been halved. “The work is not done. Residents say the screechy part of the noise remains, and Amazon is working on that too.”
“Two families who agreed to sell their properties to a data center developer involved in the controversial Prince William Digital Gateway want out of the deal. Lawyers for both families say their contracts are no longer valid because they include a rezoning date that wasn’t met. The matter is now playing out in federal court…. The court documents also shed new light on the deadlines set in the landowners’ sale contracts and the rush to set public hearings on the rezonings before the end of the year.” “A U.S. district court judge … ruled against [the] two families who wanted out of the deal they made…. The ruling, which says the land sale agreements are valid and landowners have no basis to terminate their contracts, removes a legal hurdle for developers involved in the massive new data center corridor proposed near the Manassas National Battlefield Park.”
“Following four public hearings …, the Spotsylvania County Board of Supervisors approved rezoning requests for four projects related to data center development. With the rezoning approvals, the county moved closer to joining the data center boom in Virginia as developers move from Northern Virginia to less populated areas in Spotsylvania, Stafford and King George counties.”
The Fairfax County Planning Commission approved a new data center in Chantilly “over vocal protests from members of the public…. This recommendation comes after months of discord over the project and amidst a broader debate over data centers in the county. Ultimately, county staff concluded that a data center or warehouse was an acceptable use for the land in question.”
Renewable Energy, Energy Efficiency, and Nuclear
“Energy Firms, Green Groups and Others Reach[ed a] Deal on Solar Farms. The agreement could help speed up the development of large solar projects that are often bogged down by fights over land use and environmental concerns.” It remains to be seen what effects the deal will have in Virginia.
“[Bristol Virginia] City leaders are considering a new use for the city’s vexing landfill once all of its issues are eventually resolved: as a possible solar energy site…. [Its] City Council unanimously approved seeking a state brownfields grant that could be the first step toward locating solar panels there to generate electricity.” Augusta County residents are speaking up about a proposed large-scale solar facility near New Hope. “The Stop Big Solar in Staunton group has filed a legal challenge against the project.” Botetourt County supervisors approved a small-scale solar project that is part of “Dominion Energy’s Virginia Community Solar Pilot Program.” “The South Central Virginia Business Alliance held a membership and networking meeting … to attract new local businesses looking to tap into the burgeoning solar sector and get their piece of the pie from projects being developed across Southside Virginia.” See opinion pieces below. ***
“Scheduled to begin offshore construction in 2024, [Dominion’s] Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind [OSW] is a 2.6‑gigawatt offshore wind energy project that will consist of 176 wind turbines located 27 miles off the coast of Virginia Beach, three offshore substations, undersea cables and new onshore transmission infrastructure to deliver emissions-free wind power to homes and businesses.” “The first monopiles for the … Wind project … arrived at the Port of Virginia…. In total, … [there will be] 176 monopile foundations that are up to 83 meters long, weigh 1,538 tons and have a diameter of up to 9.5 meters.” Despite anticipated pullback from OSW investors and developers following a New York regulator’s decision about passing costs along to ratepayers, Dominion Energy is apparently planning for its 2nd “Massive Offshore Wind Farm Off Virginia.”
Fairfax County “hosted the county’s first Climate Action Conference last month…. [Its purpose] “was to give residents ‘all the actionable information and the tools you need to reduce your emissions and save money.’… Low-income households can apply for the Weatherization Assistance Program, which offers home energy audits and makes necessary improvements and repairs to heating and cooling systems. The improvements are free of charge and may include work on windows and doors, roof repairs and HVAC sealing, thereby improving efficiency and lowering lower energy bills.” Other programs were also highlighted. We previously provided information about this program happening now in the Valley. For Dominion customers there is a “Virginia solar program [that] delivers clean energy to elderly, low-income households. A three-year pilot spurred by 2019 legislation, the Dominion Energy program offers weatherization services and solar panels to qualified customers free of charge.” This story highlights the experience of a Dominion customer in Augusta County who benefited from the program.
“A year ago, the governor said he wants the region [SWVA} to host an SMR [Small Nuclear Reactor]. A study identified [seven] sites across four counties; many are on former coal mine lands, and several are close to population centers…. SMRs are smaller, simpler versions of traditional nuclear reactors that produce about a third of the power produced by the big reactors. They can be … cheaper than constructing a large reactor…. No SMRs have yet been built in the United States …. [S]everal environmental groups have raised concerns about some of the sites, particularly those that are in or near towns and so are closer to homes and businesses. But the biggest complaint has been that so far, the public is being left out of the process.” See opinion piece below. ****
The Governor has made known his opposition to a federal regulation, and a Virginia law, that would accelerate the use of EVs. His energy plan objected to the Virginia Clean Economy Act and challenged legislation passed by Virginia in the 2021 session to adopt vehicle emissions regulations set forth by California ….” “West Virginia and neighboring Virginia have joined a 26 state coalition that is challenging a Biden administration rule that seeks to expedite the nation’s transition to electric vehicles. The states are challenging a proposed National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) rule … [to] effectively mandate automakers to shift to electric vehicles.” See opinion pieces below.*
“Virginia’s Community Climate Collaborative (C3) released a new report [“Alternative Fuels for Transit Buses: What’s the Best Option for Your Transit Agency? (Vol.1)] to inform localities on the best alternative fuel options aligned with climate objectives, public health, environmental justice, fiscal responsibility, and service quality…. The report … focuses on three alternative fuel choices — battery-electric buses (BEBs), compressed natural gas (CNGs) buses, and fuel-cell electric buses (FCEBs) — and their ability to meet ridership needs as a sustainable solution for public transit.”
“A new report finds Virginia has “poor” transportation infrastructure in multiple areas .… The report, “Keeping Virginia Mobile: Providing a Modern, Sustainable Transportation System in the Old Dominion State,” was released by TRIP, a transportation non-profit in Washington DC. The report first highlighted how Virginia transportation has improved thanks to past state and federal funding.”
The Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP) construction continues and so does the opposition and concerns about safety and further destruction. “After years of protests and lawsuits, the natural gas pipeline is almost finished.” This story describes how the lives of those who live near the path are being affected by what it calls “Joe Manchin’s … Pipeline.” Proximity to construction is bringing “fear and anger” following the negative effects of construction and its accompanying destruction of property. “In the past, the joint venture of five energy companies building the pipeline has paused construction during the winter months, in the years when it was not already stalled by litigation that has long delayed the $6.6 billion project.”
“A Montgomery County judge declined to issue an injunction … against a woman described by Mountain Valley Pipeline lawyers as a leading opponent of the highly divisive project.” “Three protestors were arrested after attaching themselves to … MVP… equipment.” “A group of landowners is seeking an emergency injunction from a federal appeals court that would pause construction of the … Pipeline on their property while their lawsuit is pending. Three couples who own three tracts of land along the pipeline’s route are challenging the company’s use of eminent domain, which it invoked in 2018 to take their land for the natural gas pipeline.”
This fall and winter, work will continue when it is safe to do so [according to the developer] .… State environmental regulators have cited Mountain Valley more than 300 times with violating erosion and sediment control regulations since 2018, allowing harmful sediment to be washed from the pipeline’s 125-foot wide right of way.” “After repeatedly telling investors and the public that it planned have the natural gas pipeline in service by the end of this year,” the developer announced a delay in the anticipated completion date to 1st quarter 2024. Costs will be greater than previously stated.
“A federal safety agency is ordering … [MVP] to take additional steps to inspect and repair any sections of pipe that may have been damaged by exposure to the elements during long delays in construction. The action, which [followed] an informal consultation with [the] lead pipeline partner …, was taken to address concerns that prolonged exposure to sunlight may have worn thin a protective coating on the pipe meant to curb corrosion once it’s buried.” “Following a federal government agency’s proposed safety order, the pipeline’s operator says an independent third-party engineering firm will evaluate the integrity of the pipeline for the remainder of the project’s construction.”
North Carolina’s legislature overrode the Governor’s veto of a bill that “loosens water quality requirements for a controversial pipeline project called MVP Southgate. The N.C. Department of Environmental Quality has denied water quality certifications for the project in the past, but the bill would make it easier for MVP Southgate to get certified.”
The Sierra Club explained its opposition to “Dominion Energy [‘s proposed] … Gas-Burning Chesterfield Plant Near Disadvantaged Communities [noting that the] … peaker plant, if built, would be the largest in Virginia…. Peaker plants like the one Dominion is proposing are also known for emitting pollutants harmful to human health such as small particulate matter, nitrous oxides, and ozone. These can form particulate matter (PM2.5), which can enter the bloodstream and intensify health conditions and lead to premature death. The company wants to site the plant near the James River—a waterway that is already rife with pollution from heavy industrialization—near neighborhoods that are historically disadvantaged and primarily composed of communities of color.”
Climate and Environment
Chesapeake Bay, Air, Water, and Wildlife
“More than a dozen environmental groups have petitioned that the EPA be more strict on regulations regarding coal pollution from open-top trains, and the group cites communities in Hampton Roads as evidence of a need for change…. The petition — signed by the Sierra Club, New Virginia Majority and 14 other groups — calls for the agency to require coal train operators to obtain a permit for their water pollution. In the petition, the groups argue that coal pollution is damaging local aquatic life and human health with heavy metals and toxic chemicals including arsenic, cadmium, chromium and mercury.”
“The commercial harvest of blue crabs has been extended in Virginia as the crab population trends upward…. The blue crab is an iconic part of the Chesapeake Bay, commercially and culturally. Their harvest brings in tens of millions of pounds of crab annually. The Chesapeake Bay is home to hundreds of millions of blue crabs, according to a yearly survey by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science and the Fisheries Service of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources…. The Bay’s blue crab population had been on a four-year decline before this year. The crabs were at their lowest population in 33 years in 2022, according to the survey. The recent 42% increase prompted state agencies to expand commercial fishing timelines.”
“The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will invest $9.6 million into restoring the Chesapeake Bay with projects funded by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. More than $1.9 million in Watershed Restoration Grants will go toward two organizations in Virginia to help protect and restore Virginia’s portion of the Chesapeake Bay watershed.”
Drought, Flooding, and… Earthquakes?
“The city of Norfolk … secured its first federal grant to help offset the cost of building a 20-plus acre park in the St. Paul’s neighborhood that will double as a flooding mitigation tool. [The $4 million grant] is… from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service…. ”
“More than a year after a devastating flash flood hit Buchanan and Tazewell counties, residents whose property was damaged or destroyed can finally start the process of applying for state flood relief money. … [The delegate] instrumental in securing the $18 million, said … he hopes those who qualify will receive the money before the end of the year.”
Augusta County experienced a trifecta of earthquakes over eight days this month according to “the U.S. Geological Survey website…. Small earthquakes are uncommon in Virginia as a whole. However, there have been roughly 100 earthquakes in the last 23 years throughout the state, according to the USGS. Most register under 3.0 magnitude. Mineral, Va., has been the site of higher magnitude quakes with one registering 4.5 and one registering 5.8 in 2011. In the last 10 years, smaller earthquakes have also been registered in Louisa, Deerfield, Forest and Verona.”
* “Transition to electric vehicles faces a bumpy road” by the “president of Skyline Policy Risk Group and a former deputy assistant secretary for policy at the U.S. Department of Transportation” – The Virginian‑Pilot
* “Virginia should make its own decisions about EVs [by] a distinguished fellow at The Heritage Foundation” — The Virginian-Pilot
* “Want to help Virginia consumers? Reverse course on electric vehicle mandate” by a former Virginia governor – Richmond Times-Dispatch
** “Youngkin’s RGGI repeal is a bad deal for Virginians” by the Executive Director of Virginia League of Conservation Voters – The Virginian Pilot
** ”What’s at stake if RGGI disappears in Virginia?” – Bay Journal article
** Letter to the Editor (LTE) by a Virginian Pilot reader in response to preceding opinion. “We can’t afford to wait on Davis’ vague claim that the marketplace will eventually do its magic. This is not a “tomorrow” problem; it is a “two weeks ago yesterday” problem.”
** A Loudoun Times-Mirror reader voiced similar support of RGGI.
*** “Unfounded concerns about photovoltaic module toxicity and waste are slowing decarbonization” by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory – published in Nature magazine and reported in Inside Climate News
*** “Solar farms and agriculture can coexist” by a Frederick County resident – Winchester Star
*** “Utility Scale Solar is Coming to a Farm Near You” by an Augusta County farmer – Getting More on the Ground
**** “Small modular nuclear reactors: Unlikely, unaffordable, dirty and dangerous” by The Appalachia Peace Education Center in Abingdon – News
**** LTE by a Bedford County resident. “Nuclear power is harmful” – Roanoke Times
“Up for a vote in this election: clean energy, data centers and utility influence” by a Virginia Energy expert – Virginia Mercury
“Leaky pipes, unpaid bills: Richmond really needs a public utilities commission” by “an active volunteer with Electrify RVA and a renewable energy software engineer” – The Richmond Times-Dispatch
“Virginia General Assembly must build on the cost savings of the IRA” by “the executive director of Freedom Virginia [and] … the policy director for the Virginia League of Conservation Voters” — Dogwood
Check out …
- The Garden Club of Virginia’s 65th Annual Conservation Forum: EcoLandscaping, Nov. 2, 9 am to 1 pm, in person in Charlottesville and via on-line screening. Learn how to unlove your lawn, leave your leaves, rewild, and much more from three of Virginia’s leading environmentally-minded horticulturalists. Register here.
- Sierra Club’s 2023 Report “The Dirty Truth about Utilities Climate Pledges”. Dominion Virginia’s scores (page 13) are Ds.
- What recent sitings of manatees in the Chesapeake Bay could be telling us about the Bay itself.
- Grid upgrade and climate resilience funding that Virginia received through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and other funding areas from the Inflation Reduction Act.
- This riparian buffer walk along the Middle River at a Swope farm and learn just how these buffers benefit the land, river, and wildlife.
- Charlottesville Area Tree Stewards’ Tree Basics virtual class “Select, Plant, and Care for Trees”, November 2, 7:00 to 9:00 pm. Learn how to select a tree for your property that will have the best chance to survive and flourish in the place that you choose for it. Register here.
- Join the Blue Ridge Prism’s webinar “Restoring the American Chestnut to the 21st-Century Forest,” November 1, 11:30 am to 1:00 pm. Hear about all the progress that’s being made; you can enter into a drawing to get two chestnut seedlings to plant on your property. Register here.
- “The acclaimed documentary ‘King Coal’ [that meditates] … on the legacy of coal mining, exploring its influence on tradition and culture, and examining its impact on health and the environment. The movie, described by critics as beautiful and poetic, serves as an elegy for a way of life that is disappearing, and raises questions about the future of Appalachian mining towns, questions which are left unanswered.”
Why not …
- Take the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Service survey about current broadband services, especially if you aren’t satisfied with your current internet services? Find it here.
- Complete the Virginia State Trails Office survey to share your enthusiasm for the Shenandoah Rail Trail? The Friends of the Shenandoah Rail Trail would like you to add your comment at the end asking the state to move forward on the Shenandoah Rail Trail and expressing your support for the project! “A multi-use path from Broadway to Front Royal not only connects community neighborhoods to schools, shopping and parks, but it also strings nine towns together, potentially catalyzing other local trail projects within the communities, and even beyond, to complete a region-to-statewide network.” Take the survey here.
- Complete this Rockingham County Transit Study Survey, especially if you are a county resident or travel into the county? The County “is evaluating the demand for public transit in your community … [and seeks public] input to help … understand travel needs and barriers … [in moving to and from the] County and the surrounding area.” Response deadline is November 6.
- Learn two meteorologist’s answers to the question “What does El Niño’s return this winter mean for Eastern U.S temperatures?”
- Learn why “Mulching leaves in yards, instead of removing them, actually benefits lawns and gardens”?
- Visit Virginia’s newest state park, Sweet Run State Park, to walk, hike, see old farmhouses and outbuildings, ride horseback, picnic, learn some Virginia history, and more? There is an 11-mile trail network. Photos here.
- Learn about oysters? Tom Horton, a Bay Journal columnist, wrote that “Oysters are embedded in the culture, the economy, the politics, the history…. The Bay Journal film, A Passion for Oysters, by Tom Horton, et al., will be available for free viewing beginning Nov. 1 at bayjournal.com/films.”
- “Plant a Few Trees for You and The Bees”? Details here.
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.