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
“A new report found Dominion Energy’s Integrated Resource Plan does not align with Virginia’s climate goals. Dominion wants to keep using gas and coal-fired power plants, citing data center expansion in Northern Virginia but the Virginia Clean Economy Act mandated Dominion to use 100% renewable electricity by 2045. Dominion’s plan does meet Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s energy plan, which relies on both fossil fuels and renewables.”
“PJM Interconnection staff … recommended about $4.9 billion in transmission projects to help address reliability concerns related to new data centers and power plant retirements in its footprint, according to a regional transmission expansion plan presentation…. Under the recommendations, Dominion Energy would build transmission projects totaling about $2.5 billion….” [See opinion pieces below.]
Dominion is replacing infrastructure to improve the electrical grid as part of the “Grid Transformation Plan, which is being approved in chunks by state regulators. The GTP was required by state lawmakers in the 2018 Grid Transformation and Security Act. The plan seeks to make the electric grid more reliable and secure – and flexible for ever-growing distributed renewable energy sources. Regulators just approved Phase III of the plan in September, which runs from 2024 through 2026…. The plan has been criticized by ratepayer advocates and environmentalists over concerns with renewable planning and cost.” The SCC has approved some aspects of Dominion’s proposed grid infrastructure projects but not others.
Dominion and Rappahannock Electric Cooperative received federal grant money “$71.8 million from feds to improve power grid resiliency.”
Data Centers, Energy Storage
“Following a public hearing …, the Spotsylvania Board of Supervisors approved rezoning from rural to industrial for a 127-acre tract …, with plans calling for data centers in an area surrounded mostly by trees and vacant property but also near several neighborhoods and the Spotsylvania Regional Medical Center.”
“Citing a lack of information and numerous unanswered questions, Prince William County’s professional planning staff is recommending denial on the Prince William Digital Gateway—one of the largest and most controversial commercial projects to come before the board of supervisors in decades.” “Staff rejected the applications largely because of the lack of information provided by developers. They pointed out that many of the documents submitted by the developers ‘contain technical errors, are contradictory, and contain nondescript verbiage … that may make enforcement of some of the proffers difficult.’ Staff also determined the project is not in alignment with the county’s Comprehensive Plan, despite amendments made to the document last year to pave the way for the Digital Gateway.” Subsequently, “The two developers behind the divisive PW Digital Gateway data center corridor … submitted amended project applications to Prince William County leaders in response to the county’s professional planning staff rejecting their initial plans…. [The] companies sought to assure officials they were committed to clarifying the imprecise information initially provided about the project’s layout and potential impacts on the surrounding area, which led county staff to pan the project.” Subsequently, Following a 22-hour meeting on November 9th, Prince William County’s Planning Commission “recommended the denial of all three rezoning applications associated with the divisive PW Digital Gateway data center proposal.” “But that decision will not keep the project from moving forward to the board of supervisors for a possible vote on Dec. 12….”
A new “plant [in Southwest Virginia] will focus primarily on data center component manufacturing and containment products to serve customers in Virginia and other data center sites.”
Renewable Energy, Energy Efficiency, and Nuclear
What is, and isn’t “clean” energy? “States grappling to reach goals for renewables and emissions cuts from the power sector are finding a solution on paper: Rebrand what counts as ‘clean.’ That’s what North Carolina lawmakers did … when the state’s Republican supermajority overrode a veto from Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, forcing through a law to rebrand nuclear as clean in the state energy mandate. Similar measures that symbolically or legally redefine natural gas and biomass as “clean,” “green” or “renewable” also passed this year in Ohio, Tennessee and Virginia. While some energy rebranding has occurred for years, the recent action comes as states are increasingly being looked to help meet President Joe Biden’s goals to decarbonize the power sector by 2035.”
“The Interior Department approved the largest offshore wind project in the country …, marking the fifth massive wind array cleared for construction in U.S. oceans under [the current Administration]. The Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind project will include up to 176 turbines, located roughly 27 miles from Virginia Beach. The Dominion Energy-backed project will be the largest offshore wind project in the United States, able to zap enough electricity back to the grid once it’s constructed in 2026 to power roughly 660,000 homes….” “The Biden Administration [also] announced that it will be providing over $39 million in funding for an offshore wind logistics facility in Norfolk.”
“But the Virginia project approval comes amid an economic storm for offshore wind, due to inflationary costs that threaten the 30-gigawatt target. Rising prices to build offshore wind farms have threatened the viability of some of the first proposed projects in the country, off the coasts of New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts…. (Two “offshore wind power projects in New Jersey [were recently scrapped because of] supply chain issues.”) Still the Virginia project represents a big step forward for the nascent industry and secures a footprint for offshore economic activity in the central Atlantic. The first four offshore wind projects approved in the United States — two are under construction already off the coast of Massachusetts and Rhode Island — are in New England.
The Virginia project is expected to create roughly 900 jobs a year during construction and support 1,100 jobs annually during operations, particularly in Virginia’s Hampton Roads coastal region.” Dominion is seeking “outside investor interest” in the project, notwithstanding the canceling of the New Jersey projects. “A business model that allows Dominion Energy Inc. to be both a wind farm developer and a customer-facing utility is helping the company succeed in sharp contrast to others in the industry that are delaying or canceling US projects.” Dominion said it lowered its “cost estimates for power” … [for its wind project and] will decide by early 2024 whether or not to take on a partner….” Virginia’s regulated monopoly utility model allows Dominion to recoup costs of such projects from ratepayers.
On the other hand, the project faces challenges. “Amid failing turbine components and financial challenges, Siemens Gamesa Renewable Energy said [on November 10 that] it has ‘discontinued’ its plans to build the nation’s first offshore wind-turbine blade manufacturing facility at the Port of Virginia’s Portsmouth Marine Terminal [because] … ‘development milestones to establish the facility could not be met….’” Though long-term implications remain to be seen, Dominion said “This announcement has no impacts on our project.” [See opinion pieces below.]
“A new Occoquan Elementary School [in Prince William county] is set to completely replace the original 97-year-old building by 2026 and will be the county’s first “net-zero” school that produces as much energy as it consumes. Through solar panels and geothermal heating, the new school building will produce its own electricity and heat and will use half as much energy as a normal school building.”
“Solar advocates in southwestern Virginia say being local, proving the technology works and building a coalition to support it have been key” to bringing solar to their region. “In 2016, a coalition of businesses, nonprofits, colleges, local governments, and citizens launched the Solar Workgroup of Southwest Virginia, which collaborates with Secure Solar Futures. It includes experts in every aspect of the green transition, from community organizers who tell neighbors about the benefits of solar to legal experts who propose legislation.” [See opinion pieces below.]
“In August, the USDA announced $266 million distributed nationwide to ‘energy-efficiency projects to lower costs, generate new income and strengthen the resilience of operations’. A total of $1 million went to eight Virginia projects. The money was distributed through loans and grants, one of which went to Regeneration Cycle Farm, LLC, a 94-acre poultry farm in New Market.”
“Governor Glenn Youngkin … announced a landmark land development agreement establishing a public-private framework to transform up to 65,000 acres of previously-mined coal properties in Southwest Virginia…. Energy DELTA Lab, in coordination with Wise County, VA officials and landowner Energy Transfer, will serve as the primary developer partnering with energy companies and electric utilities to deploy a diverse range of conventional and innovative energy technologies on reclaimed coal mine lands as part of this public-private regional economic development campaign.” The “Abandoned mine reclamation project [is expected] to create ‘game-changing opportunities’ in Virginia.”
Lynchburg is looking to support the nuclear industry and be part of Virginia’s transition to small nuclear reactors. A “Lynchburg company … will supply nuclear fuel for [an] Air Force spacecraft program [and] … will work on a team developing a nuclear fission reactor that would provide electricity to space vehicles.” “A French nuclear power company with its United States headquarters in Lynchburg is ramping up hiring to meet a growing global need for clean, low-carbon energy.”
“It’s been about a year since Dominion Energy began offering its Virginia customers discounts on installing infrastructure to charge electric vehicles and no one has signed up to take advantage of them, according to a recent bi-annual report filed with electric utility regulators. Despite a lack of participation, Dominion sees the program, known as the Charging Tariffs, as a way to help Virginia’s transition to electric vehicles (EVs) by making the ability to charge them more accessible to business and low-income communities.” “The number of folks driving electric vehicles in Virginia has grown by roughly 31,000 since 2021, according to data released by the Department of Motor Vehicles. That number is expected to keep climbing as Virginia works toward a goal of requiring all new cars sold to be electric by 2035…. A spokesperson for Dominion Energy said Virginia will need thousands more charging stations to support electric vehicle adoption over the next decade. That’s why the energy company is rolling out programs and offering incentives to encourage businesses and residents to install infrastructure.”
“Charlottesville … relaunched an electric vehicle charging grant program to incentivize commercial sites to deploy new charging stations. Preference will be given to charging stations located near retail and commercials sites which would allow EV drivers to patronize local businesses while charging their vehicles.”
“After criticism over parts of a proposal to overhaul the state’s transportation funding system, Virginia officials are considering creating a middle-tier application cap for transportation projects in more suburban or smaller urban areas, including several cities in Hampton Roads, Roanoke and Alexandria.” “Planning officials in the Shenandoah Valley and central Virginia fear proposals to change Virginia’s transportation funding system could significantly reduce state funding for smaller transportation projects for cyclists and pedestrians…. Some of the proposals being considered by the [Commonwealth transportation] board include favoring larger transportation projects over smaller ones, lowering the number of applications local governments and planning organizations can submit and reducing the weight given to land use in applications. Significantly, many bike and pedestrian projects could go unfunded under the proposed changes.” The Commonwealth Transportation Board will adopt changes in December.
“The New River Valley Regional Commission recently developed an interactive plan to highlight existing bikeway, walkway, and water trails throughout the region. Community stakeholders, local government, and transportation professionals identified areas where infrastructure could enhance alternative transportation capabilities in the New River Valley. The Bike-Ped-Paddle Plan presents a vision of safe, reliable, healthy, and environmentally-friendly alternatives to motorized transportation.” [See opinion pieces below.]
“A federal appeals court … denied a request from six landowners to stop construction of the Mountain Valley Pipeline on their property while their lawsuit is pending. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia turned down a petition for an emergency injunction …. In what is believed to be the last pending legal action involving pipeline construction in Virginia, the landowners are challenging Mountain Valley’s use of eminent domain, which it employed in 2018 to take their land for the natural gas pipeline.”
The company has proposed building a natural gas facility in Chesterfield, Virginia, despite laws mandating it reach zero-emissions by 2045.”
Climate and Environment
Chesapeake Bay, Air, Water, Land and Wildlife
“The Chesapeake Bay Program recently announced water quality standards attainment measurements for 2009 through 2022. Those measurements indicate that Virginia’s reported pollution controls achieved 84% of the 2025 reduction goal for nitrogen, 70% of the reduction goal for phosphorus, and 100% of the reduction goal for sediment…. DEQ staff … [concluded] the modeled pollution load reduction for phosphorus in Virginia could reach 100% of the federal planning target….”
“Agriculture is the largest source of nutrient pollution to the Chesapeake, and states are relying on farmers to achieve the overwhelming majority of nutrient reductions needed to meet Bay goals. But those largely voluntary actions often cost farmers money, increase their workload and reduce productivity, which in turn hurts future income. Uncertainty over what is expected of farmers and whether their actions are making a difference can make it more difficult to get people to act…. Bay Program records show that state and federal agencies have spent more than $2 billion to help reduce runoff from farms over the last decade. But it remains unclear what has been achieved, at least in computer models used to assess progress.”
“This summer was “favorable” for species in the Chesapeake Bay, according to a recent report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. In the report, researchers said the bay experienced a “cooler-than-average summer” from June to August. The report used data from the past 20 years, and in addition to cooler temperatures, healthier oxygen levels were found in the bay’s water.”
“The James River’s health has slightly improved but its ‘founding fish’ haven’t returned”, according to the “nonprofit James River Association [that] gave the waterway an overall B grade… in its biennial assessment.”
“Virginia is furthering efforts to combat the illegal reptile and amphibian trade in the Commonwealth through a resolution passed … by the Board of Wildlife Resources. The resolution mainly prioritizes the protection of Virginia’s native turtle species — considered one of the most vulnerable groups of vertebrates worldwide — which face significant threats and population decline due to unsustainable poaching.”
“In the Chesapeake Bay region, states such as Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia have added protective laws and funding to keep common species common and save dwindling species. But the species they champion face increasing threats. The agencies cite unrelenting destruction and fragmentation of key habitat, as well as diseases; invasive plants, insects and animals such as wild boar and nutria; impacts of overabundant deer; the poaching and illicit sales of rare specimens; and a changing climate…. No wonder the endangered species list for all three states is at an all-time high…. Altogether, Pennsylvania has 428 living organisms in danger of disappearing from the landscape. Maryland has 346 and Virginia, which uses a “critically imperiled” category, has 873.”
“Residents in Newport News’ Southeast Community and Norfolk’s Lamberts Point have complained for decades about coal dust pollution from passing trains, saying it causes sickness and dirties their homes…. Coal mined from Appalachia has been transported through these communities for more than a century…. Residents say their homes, yards, and anything left outside is coated in coal dust by the passing open top trains…. A new state study … [will deploy] monitors to test air quality and assess potential health risks associated with dust from the coal storage and transportation facilities in Newport News and Norfolk. The Department of Environmental Quality [DEQ] study, called the Tidewater Air Monitoring Evaluation project, will measure and analyze toxic metals and particulates in the air in the two communities and use the information to conduct health risk assessments. While residents appreciate the effort to further study the issue, many are skeptical it will result in meaningful changes.”
“As of 2022, data shows that 9.1 million acres of land in the Chesapeake Bay watershed is permanently protected from development. The acreage accounts for approximately 22 percent of the total land in the region. Nearly 1.64 million acres have been added to permanent protection since 2010, achieving 82 percent of the Protected Land Outcome in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement. The overall Protected Lands Outcome is expected to be achieved by its 2025 deadline. Protected lands are areas throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed with cultural, historical, ecological and agricultural value that have been permanently protected. Chesapeake Bay Program partners secure land conservation by holding easements, accepting donations and purchasing properties and development rights.”
“From atop McAfee Knob, hikers can take in a spectacular panoramic view of the Catawba and Roanoke Valleys, North Mountain, and Tinker Cliffs. Now a significant section of that vista … [has] been conserved thanks to a multi-year effort by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) and The Conservation Fund.”
“Governor Glenn Youngkin announced $14.7 million in Virginia Land Conservation Foundation funding for 29 new projects…. Grants were awarded based on farmland preservation, forest preservation, historic preservation, natural area protection, and open spaces and parks. The project includes land acquisitions for new public outdoor recreational areas and conservation easements to protect active forests and farmland.” In the Central Valley, only Shenandoah County received funding through the grants for two projects.
“An effort to preserve dark skies in Great Falls recently got a vote of support from the Fairfax County Planning Commission amidst contention within the community…. Proponents called the proposal a necessary step to preserve dark skies, reduce light pollution, and ensure astronomers can continue to get clear views. Opponents said the changes would decrease safety, were being considered without direct community engagement, and did little to result in a meaningful impact on light pollution. The regulations, which limit outdoor lighting with a half-mile of the observatory, have been in the works for years.”
“Counties and towns across the Northern Shenandoah Valley will make significant upgrades to recycling infrastructure after receiving a nearly $4 million grant from the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA selected the Northern Shenandoah Valley Regional Commission for its Solid Waste Infrastructure for Recycling (SWIFR) grant program …, with the aim of upgrading tire-grinding operations and expanding curbside recycling pickup throughout the region. The commission, which covers five counties and the city of Winchester, was one of only 24 recipients of the grant nationwide.”
“At the edge of Shenandoah National Park … Virginia Department of Forestry [staff] are getting acorns and chestnuts into the ground…. In about 18 months [their efforts] would result in a crop of seedlings that could be sold to landowners and the timber industry. In this way, Virginia’s arboreal future would be secure — thanks in part to acorn enthusiasts who donated more than a million specimens this year as part of a state program…. The operations at the Crimora nursery use contributions from an acorn donation program that Virginia’s forestry department has run for about a decade. Last year, the harvest was a formidable eight tons of acorns and nuts — enough to produce 1.5 million seedlings. This year, donors sent 12 tons.”
Climate Change and Climate Action Planning
“The National Climate Assessment is the government’s most comprehensive report on how climate change is affecting the U.S., and offers people across the country a window into what we can expect in the years to come…. The report looks at how the climate impacts everything from health and housing to agriculture, transportation, air quality and local ecosystems. The U.S. Global Change Research Program released the first such assessment in 2000…. [The latest] report is the fifth – and most dire. It confirms that climate change, driven primarily by the burning of fossil fuels, is already impacting the lives of Americans, and that the country needs to adapt to those impacts even while acting to slash greenhouse gas emissions to prevent the worst-case scenarios. The report finds especially strong impacts in the Southeast region, which includes Virginia and North Carolina.”
“In a partisan vote …, the Prince William Board of County Supervisors approved a plan created by sustainability officials to help the county meet its climate mitigation goals. The Community Energy and Sustainability Master Plan, backed by the board’s Democratic majority, outlines a vision for how the county can take steps toward being a regional leader in environmentally friendly practices and policies. Republicans in the minority who opposed the plan said it was half-baked and worried about the fiscal implications of eventually implementing policies that address the recommendations. The board in 2020 adopted its climate goals and authorized the Office of Sustainability to develop the master plan to meet those goals. The goals include: Cutting greenhouse gas emission to 50% below 2005 levels by 2030; sourcing all countywide electricity from renewable sources by 2035; achieving 100% renewable electricity in the county government operations by 2030; reaching full carbon neutrality in the county government operations by 2050; becoming a ‘climate ready region;’ and making significant progress to toward the goals by 2030.”
Drought, Fires, Flooding, Winter Weather Forecast, and… Earthquakes?
We previously provided details about the replenishment of aquifers in Tidewater VA that some jurisdictions are undertaking. Some additional details were recently reported: “Southeast Virginia’s massive aquifer is being replenished. Here’s why that matters…. Hampton Roads Sanitation District [is drilling and constructing] 10 wells … in the park near the James River Wastewater Treatment Plant…. [The] wells are designed to inject water back into the aquifer, which is an essential source of freshwater in the region, and, like many aquifers across the nation, is in danger of being overdrawn…. The goal of the sanitation district’s SWIFT Project, or Sustainable Water Initiatives for Tomorrow, is recharging the aquifer by bringing wastewater to drinking water standards, treating it to match existing groundwater chemistry, and injecting it back into the earth. Doing so addresses several environmental concerns, including conservation, saltwater intrusion and land compaction. Water exits the aquifer faster than it can recharge.”
“Norfolk’s draft priorities in the state house this year include asks on … funding for one of the city’s largest projects in a generation. The $2.6 billion Coastal Storm Resiliency Management project is slated to encompass almost 8 miles of floodwalls with various other storm management infrastructure when totally completed over the next decade.” “Thirty-eight years after the Flood of ’85, Roanoke is still preparing for the next one. Thanks to the city’s flood reduction project, 44% of the parcels in the city’s flood control map are now in a lower risk category.”
“Drought is getting to be a big problem over a wide part of Virginia. Wildfires are breaking out as there is yet to be any sign of an El Niño-charged wet pattern.” The drought is expanding in the DC, Maryland, and Virginia region. “
In early November, the Governor declared a state of emergency because of wildfires. “Virginia currently has five active wildfires that have each consumed more than 1,000 acres and are only partly contained…. The U.S. Forest Service … announced restrictions on fires in the George Washington & Jefferson National Forest.” “Four of the five biggest wildfires burning across the western part of Virginia grew] … over the [Nov 11-12] weekend, but four of them are also more contained….” [The light rain on that weekend] did little to quell the widespread and intensifying drought, [and] cooler temperatures and higher humidity helped slow fire spread and allowed crews better opportunity to contain existing fires.” “Updated figures from the scene of the Quaker Run Fire [in Madison County] suggest the blaze has consumed more than previously reported.” The Blue Ridge Parkway and Shenandoah National Park announced restrictions. Counties doing so included Albemarle, Augusta, Rockbridge, and Rockingham counties and the cities of Harrisonburg, Waynesboro, and Staunton. The Virginia Forestry Department recommends all outside burning be delayed.
NOAA, “the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration … released its winter outlook, and for many it is good news – predicting both a warmer winter and a snowier winter than [Virginia saw] last year. The winter weather patterns will be affected by the Pacific Ocean climate pattern known as El Nino.”
“A “much larger earthquake” is possible in Stuarts Draft after a series of three small earthquakes over eight days, according to a Virginia Tech professor. All three earthquakes in Augusta County measured between 2.2 and 2.4 magnitude with a depth starting on Oct. 15 at 2.4 km; progressing on Oct. 22 at 3.5 km; and 8.5 km on Oct. 23.”
Opinions, Letters to the Editor (LTEs), and Blogs
“A conservative endorsement of solar energy in Orange County” by the Director of Conservatives for Clean Energy Virginia – Daily Progress
“Why it’s better to let counties review solar projects case-by-case” by the Virginia Policy Advisor for The Center for Infrastructure and Economic Development – Virginia Mercury
Fauquier Webert PJM Routing Concerns Letter 101823 – by a Virginia Delegate representing Fauquier County to the Chairman, Transmission Expansion Advisory Committee, of PJM (grid manager for Virginia and other nearby states).
“Wind turbines looming on our horizon” LTE by a Stephens City resident – The Winchester Star
“Developing offshore wind in Virginia takes time. That’s a good thing.” By the clean energy and climate justice policy manager at Virginia Conservation Network and the offshore energy program director at Sierra Club Virginia Chapter – The Virginian-Pilot
Check out …
- The Virginia Native Plant Finder tool if you’re seeking native plants.
- The Virginia Sierra Club Potomac Group’s Webinar: “The Good, the Bad, the Breezy: Offshore Wind in Virginia and Nationwide…. [T]he picture is currently not so clear for other East Coast offshore wind projects [though Virginia’s project is looking good]. Learn about the challenges overcome and still facing offshore wind, the implications of those challenges have on our one current Virginia project AND future offshore wind projects in the works off Virginia’s coast.” The event will happen December 4 at 7 pm. Register here.
- This Blue Ridge Country editor’s piece on “The Beauty of Rail Trails – Riding (Farther) to Lunch.”
Why not …
- Read about the EMU professor named as “among the top wildlife photographers in the world” and view his “’Pool of Wonder’ [that] captures a cluster of spotted salamander eggs nestled on a bed of sphagnum moss just under the surface of a vernal pool in Augusta County, Virginia”?
- Give the Shenandoah Valley Bicycle Coalition your views “to guide the future development of Massanutten’s Western Slope trail system“? The survey is here. Deadline is November 30.
- Review “How does climate change threaten where you live?” As Southeast Energy News reported in a recent email newsletter: “A new federal report details how climate change is affecting every region in the U.S., and the Southeast’s geography and inequities make it especially vulnerable. (Grist, WFAE, Atlanta Journal-Constitution).
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.