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, Legislation and Utilities
“After securing control of both chambers of the Virginia General Assembly in the November elections, Democrats will have a new opportunity during the 2024 session to fill two long-time vacancies on the State Corporation Commission, the state body that regulates utilities, insurance, banking and business in Virginia. [The] incoming Senate Commerce and Labor Committee Chair … [stated] the goal is to have the vacancies filled ‘as quickly as possible.’ …The State Corporation Commission, a powerful state body of nearly 700 staff members, is charged with regulating Virginia’s utilities and banks, overseeing the state’s insurance marketplace and granting businesses their limited liability licenses, in addition to other responsibilities.”
“Dominion Energy’s Virginia ratepayers could be in line for one-time credits totaling $15 million under a settlement reached with the Office of the Attorney General, State Corporation Commission staff and major commercial customers. For a typical residential customer, the credit will amount to roughly $2.25. The credits are to be reflected in customers’ bills by Sept. 30, 2024, if the SCC approves. The commission’s decision is expected early next year. The settlement, if approved by the SCC commissioners, would mean no change in Dominion’s base rate — the charge that accounts for nearly half a typical $133 a month residential bill for 1,000 kilowatt-hours. The rest of the bill comes from a dollar-for-dollar pass-through of the company’s fuel costs as well as several surcharges meant to pay for new plants and programs.”
“State regulators … [approved] Appalachian Power rate hike. An average Appalachian Power residential customer’s monthly bill will increase by about $16, starting in 60 days. Meanwhile, regulators did not approve a proposed monthly service charge exemption for low-income customers. [See opinion pieces below.]
Virginia Conservation Network sponsored gatherings of Virginians at 13 locations in early December, including Harrisonburg, to preview the upcoming General Assembly session that begins January 10. “The watch party for locals representing Rockingham, Augusta and Page counties and their respective cities was hosted by the Shenandoah Valley Bicycle Coalition and the Alliance for the Shenandoah Valley…. VCN hosted this year’s virtual preview with the intent of informing and encouraging advocates of all types to reach out to legislators and lobby for the issues that matter to them. While the presentation covered a wide range of current topics, the final section focused on transportation — an issue that has been heavily discussed in the small governing bodies of Rockingham County and Harrisonburg City as well…. That’s where the importance of the watch party event shone brightest. Leaders from SVBC and the Alliance were able to pinpoint local issues and then answer questions from those in attendance…. In summary — this area needs to educate new legislators about conservation policies and projects that matter….”
Data Centers, Energy Storage
“Virginia is home to the largest data center market in the world, but citizens and lawmakers have urged leaders to temper the onslaught of development and consider the impact. Data centers have brought hundreds of millions in tax revenue and thousands of jobs to Northern Virginia, and increasingly, other areas of the state. But among environmental groups, there is mounting concern that the rapid growth of the industry might offset climate goals laid out in past legislation.”
“Nonprofit organizations, homeowners’ groups, and residents from all over Virginia have joined forces to form a coalition that is calling for industry-wide data center reform. [The Virginia Data Center Reform] coalition is made up of more than 20 environmental, conservation, historic preservation and climate advocacy groups, as well as representatives of communities and neighborhoods across the state. Together, they are urging the state to study the cumulative effects of data center development on the state’s electrical grid, water resources, air quality and land conservation efforts and to institute several common-sense regulatory and rate-making reforms for this industry.”
“Nine months after the Devlin Technology Park [in Prince William County] was put on hold, about 100 residents turned out to a town hall meeting [last month] to raise questions, voice concerns and express their opposition to allowing 80-foot-tall data centers behind residential neighborhoods along Devlin and Linton Hall roads in Bristow…. The project, a controversial plan to build up to nine data centers on 270 acres behind several Bristow neighborhoods, will come up for a vote at this week’s Prince William County Board of Supervisors meeting. The planning commission voted back in July 2022 to recommend approval on the project’s fourth submission, which would have allowed up to 11 data centers on the 270-acre parcel. In its latest update, Stanley Martin [the developed] has pledged to leave about 85 acres closest to Chris Yung Elementary School free from data centers. The area is being pledged for parks and recreational purposes, according to the application.” Subsequently, the “Board of Supervisors voted … to approve the controversial Devlin Technology Park …. The decision followed about five hours of public comment time during which about 80 residents expressed near unanimous opposition to the project, citing concerns over living amid a noisy and ugly data center industrial zone that they fear will lower their property values and degrade their quality of life.”
“Another large data center application in the technology zone area just east of the town of Culpeper is headed to the County Board of Supervisors. The county planning commission unanimously recommended approval … [of needed rezoning] …. Including 2022’s approval of an Amazon data center …, now under development, the town and county of Culpeper have approved over 6.8 million square feet of data centers in recent years, most of them this year. The … [latest] project will push that to over 9 million square feet.”
“PJM Interconnection, the regional power transmission coordinator, opened a window in February this year to accept proposals on how to meet the growing need for power in Northern Virginia that has stemmed from rapid data center growth. Out of the 72 proposals submitted, PJM’s Transmission Expansion Advisory Committee is preparing to make its final recommendation to the organization’s board Dec. 5. Included so far in the list of finalists is a proposal of 500 kV lines that cuts diagonally across western Loudoun from West Virginia.” Piedmont Environmental Council is assisting residents in expressing concerns about and opposition to the proposal.”
“Dominion Energy Virginia is partnering with Virginia State University to develop a battery storage project [in Chesterfield County] that would provide backup power to the school’s multi-purpose center, which hosts athletic events, conferences, concerts and other community events…. At another location in Henrico County, Dominion Energy plans to test two other pioneering battery storage technologies, including one that can discharge power for up to 100 hours. Most battery storage in the U.S. is currently limited to four hours or less. The VSU pilot is the latest in a series of efforts to advance battery storage, including the August groundbreaking of what will be Dominion Energy’s largest battery storage facility at Dulles International Airport. The company operates four other battery storage sites, in Powhatan, Hanover, New Kent and Chesterfield counties, and has a sixth installation under development in Sussex County.”
“The [Loudoun] county Planning Commission on Tuesday approved an application to construct a 20‑megawatt electric battery storage facility … south of Leesburg. The panel was reviewing the project for its compliance with county planning policies to issue a commission permit required for utilities. However, most of the discussion focused on concerns about the new technology, including the fear of fires, environmental impacts and its proximity to homes and a school.”
Renewable Energy, Energy Efficiency, and Nuclear
Virginia Beach “city leaders have sunk an offshore wind energy company’s plan to bring high-voltage cables through a beachfront neighborhood, at least for now. Avangrid Renewables plans to build the Kitty Hawk Wind Offshore Wind Project … off the North Carolina coast. The company wanted to bring transmission cables ashore in Sandbridge, a residential and tourist beach community … [near Virginia Beach]. City leaders announced … they met with Avangrid officials to inform them there is not support for the Sandbridge landing, given the amount of community pushback. Members of the Sandbridge Civic League have vehemently opposed the project, citing concerns about potential safety and health hazards. A group of citizens opposing the landfall formed Protect Sandbridge Beach Coalition to their voice concerns.”
“Work is now underway to lay down the path energy will travel, that’s being produced from Dominion’s Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind project. During a Virginia Beach City Council briefing … Dominion gave city leaders an update on how long the onshore construction for the project will take. The entire project is expected to be completed in 2026. … ‘The onshore bit we go about 4.4 miles underground from the beach to Naval Air Station Oceana and then just under 14 miles from Oceana to Fentress [substation] in the city of Chesapeake,’ … [ a Dominion spokesperson] said. For the next two years, work will be done to create a more than 17-mile-long path of lines to bring that energy to a substation in Chesapeake.”
“After Siemens turbine plant cancellation, can Hampton Roads still be a hub for offshore wind?” A Sierra Club spokesperson responded: “Despite recent struggles, ‘the train is out of the station on offshore wind’…. That means all of the thousands of components needed for a turbine to be functional, from blades to internal gears, will have to be constructed and that could lead to different regions along the East Coast specializing in the manufacture of different parts.” Dominion is moving ahead and “is creating a $9.8 billion road map for offshore wind. Close to $22 billion in U.S. offshore wind projects have been delayed or canceled, but the Virginia utility is moving forward with the largest facility in U.S. waters.”
“Increasing resistance to new greenfield wind, solar and storage development, as well as massive backlogs in the queues to connect new power projects to the grid, mean former mine lands and the plants that burned the coal they produced are increasingly attractive spots for new renewable development…. Sun Tribe, along with another solar developer, Washington, D.C.-based Sol Systems, is working with The Nature Conservancy to build solar projects on former coal mine lands in Southwest Virginia, Eastern Tennessee and Eastern Kentucky, that fall within its Cumberland Forest Project, one of the group’s largest conservation efforts at 253,000 acres. In Virginia, the state Energy Department, formerly the Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy, helped The Nature Conservancy identify non-forested former mine lands near existing utility lines and other infrastructure, which were then whittled down to avoid areas with important wildlife, habitat or other considerations that made them unsuitable for solar development.” [See opinion piece below.]
“US solar company Summit Ridge Energy has acquired a portfolio of community solar projects in the state of Virginia, with a total capacity of 100MW. The portfolio consists of 19 projects currently under construction, and Summit Ridge Energy expects to commission the entire portfolio by the end of 2024. Summit Ridge Energy’s new portfolio also accounts for two-thirds of the capacity of projects funded under Virginia’s Shared Solar Program, an initiative implemented in 2020 to encourage the development of new solar projects in the state. Under the program, solar developers sell power produced at their facilities to utility Dominion Energy, which offers its customers credit towards their energy bills by using this power, allowing citizens who are unable to install solar panels on their rooftops an opportunity to use solar power.”
“The termination of the first small modular nuclear reactor power plant project in the U.S. will have no impact on the state’s plans to deploy a commercial SMR, say both the director of the Virginia Department of Energy and the head of the Nuclear Engineering Department at Virginia Tech. That’s because the project was canceled due to escalating costs, in part because of interest rate hikes, and not as a result of problems with the design or technology….” [See opinion piece below.]
“Virginia continues to pursue rail service to Bristol. Efforts to extend passenger rail service to Bristol presently are in the hands of the Federal Rail Administration [FRA] …. [The FRA is evaluating] the corridor ID program for Washington D.C. to and through Bristol. That would give rail through Southwest Virginia into Tennessee…. The federal agency is in the midst of a multi-year process to identify, review and partially fund potential passenger rail corridors.”
Valley Interfaith Action (VIA), based in Harrisonburg, is advocating for on-demand transportation for Rockingham County residents. “VIA hosted a large-scale listening campaign in January 2022 in which the organization’s members participated in 1,000 face-to-face conversations to find out what issues are most prevalent in the community and how might VIA work to address them. One of the problems that floated to the top was transportation. During those meetings, VIA learned that there was a significant need for transportation among members in church congregations … [and also among County residents more broadly]. VIA came across a private company providing a public transit service in the Charlottesville area [called JAUNT] and surrounding counties that was willing to extend its services …. Two demographics in Rockingham County affected by the transportation desert are the manufacturing and hospitality workforces…. Rather than running fixed routes, JAUNT is a demand-response transportation service that has the ability to curate routes to meet the needs of its riders.” VIA continues its efforts to pursue its services for the County.
One of the first bills proposed for the upcoming session is HB3, by Delegate Tony Wilt, that would “repeal a 2021 Democrat-backed law that tied Virginia’s vehicle emissions standards to California’s rather than following the federal government’s less strict limits.”
Climate and Environment
Chesapeake Bay, Air, Water, Land, Wildlife, and Waste
“The 2023 Chesapeake Bay dead zone is the smallest on record. The combination of pollution reduction practices and below-average rainfall results in a historically small dead zone…. Dead zones are areas of low oxygen … that form in deep Bay waters when nitrogen and phosphorus (nutrients) enter the water through polluted runoff and feed naturally-occurring algae…. In addition to … weather conditions, the size and duration of the Bay’s dead zone is affected by the amount of nutrients entering the Chesapeake from its surrounding watershed…. [The] Chair of the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Principal Staff Committee said: ‘These results show that the ongoing work to reduce pollution across the Bay’s watershed is making the Chesapeake Bay a better place for fish, crabs, oysters, and other marine life. As we focus our cleanup efforts during the next decade, we can accelerate and build on this progress.’”
The future state of the Bay, however, is complicated and, arguably, uncertain. The “state-federal Chesapeake Bay Program, which …marks its 40th anniversary this week, still drives the science and policymaking behind the Bay restoration effort…. [Despite initial optimism,] reality has long since set in, along with an understanding that the Bay will never be “restored” — whatever the future Chesapeake looks like, it will be different from its past, as population growth, development and climate change spur irreversible changes…. When it comes to the bottom line — whether the Bay is getting better — the answer is mixed. Nutrients have decreased, and many areas show improvement from their mid-1980s condition. But less than a third of the Chesapeake has met its water quality goals. The amount of underwater grass beds, which are a critical habitat for fish, waterfowl and blue crabs and a closely watched indicator of Bay health, have doubled since reaching their low point in 1984. Last year, they covered more than 76,000 acres, though they remain far from their 185,000-acre goal…. Now, as the Bay Program celebrates its 40th anniversary, its partners are contemplating what comes after 2025, the deadline for meeting most of the 31 outcomes set in its 2014 agreement. Of those, 15 are on track, 10 are off-course and the status of four others is unclear. Nutrient goals will be missed by a large margin.”
“The 2023 Winter Blue Crab Dredge Survey, published jointly by Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources and the Virginia Marine Resource Commission, shows there are 323 million blue crabs living in the Chesapeake Bay. That’s a 42% increase from last year when the population was the lowest in the survey’s history at 227 million…. [T]here might be hope for Virginia’s blue crab population — though numbers are still below the long-term average…. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation has previously reported that the blue crab commercial harvest value has ranged from $22 to $38 million annually in the commonwealth.”
“Ghost forests line parts of the coast on … [Virginia’s] Middle Peninsula. Large swaths of dead trees stretch toward the sky…. When salty water reaches coastal forests that rely on freshwater to live, it means destruction of coastal riparian forests, many of which have stood the test of time for centuries. But in a region where sea level rise and sinking land is inevitable, scientists and researchers are looking at the benefits that could come from flooded land…. Since the mid-1800s, Virginia has lost 150 square miles of uplands, or areas above sea level, in its Chesapeake Bay region, according to the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. Those areas total about 96,000 acres and are now tidal marshes…. [The] local environment group Wetlands Watch … said ghost forests are one of the biggest signs of climate change.”
“Climate change is claiming farmland at “an alarmingly high rate” in one of the Mid-Atlantic’s most productive agricultural regions, inflicting tens of millions of dollars in economic damage, a team of scientists says in a new study. Their research spotlights a pernicious side effect of sea level rise: the salt left behind from water washed onto land after storms or unusually high tides. The resulting “salt patches,” supercharged by evaporation, can poison large swaths of cropland, reducing yields and farm profits.
The “Rappahannock River level hit … [a] low mark for [this] century…. For months, people have been able to cross the Rappahannock, on foot, as boulders that usually are submerged have become stepping stones. At the same time, more normal modes of river transportation — trips by kayak, canoe and tubes — have been canceled because there’s so little water to navigate. This year’s recreational season was almost over before it started….”
“For those who wonder if sorting cans and bottles from the rest of their trash is worth the effort— or if it all ends up in the landfill anyway—Fauquier County has an answer. It’s worth it if items are brought to their facility. That’s because Fauquier County does more actual recycling than many Virginia counties—but only of items handled by the county’s recycling collection sites…. Fauquier County has one of the few county-run facilities in the region. In 2023, the program earned $494,567 through sales of recovered materials, and it saved the county $205,195 in disposal fees, which are incurred when trash is shipped to a landfill in Richmond at a rate of $56 per ton…. While the county doesn’t have its own recycling mandate, it is subject to a federal mandate based on population that requires 25% of waste be recycled….“
“With the removal of its 29th abandoned boat, Hampton Roads nonprofit Vessel Disposal Reuse Foundation has cleared more than 300,000 pounds of hazardous debris from local waterways. This also means nearly 17,000 pounds of metal has been recycled since October 2021, said executive director Mike Provost. His organization focuses on the removal of “abandoned and derelict vessels,” or ADVs.”
We reported last month on a new state study … [that] 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. [See opinion piece below.]
Climate Change and Climate Action Planning
We reported last month on “The federal government[‘s] latest National Climate Assessment, its first since 2018. Scientists from across the country contributed, detailing the country’s current climate risks.
The report breaks the states into 10 sections, and Virginia fell under the southeast region. Authors for the assessment analyzed several aspects of the country’s climate, including adaptation projects, potential threats to the United States’ supply chains and current trends.” A subsequent analysis in The Virginian Pilot detailed specifics, including what Tidewater can expect to see by way of flooding, air pollution, recreational fishing, and heat impacts.
“Carbon emissions are down by 44.6 percent at the University [of Virginia], per the Committee on Sustainability’s 2022-23 annual report. According to the report, the group remains on track to achieve the goals of its long term sustainability plan, including becoming carbon neutral and fossil fuel free by 2030. These goals are housed under the University’s 2030 Plan, which outlines long-term plans to make the University the ‘best public university by 2030.’”
“Construction including improved drainage systems is being planned to reduce flooding along Hampton Boulevard, a major artery that provides access to some of the largest and most critical institutions in the city…. In September, the city received almost $2.7 million from a U.S. Department of Defense grant to address the flooding….”
“The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers … [is seeking] funding to reevaluate how Norfolk defends two areas from flooding and storm surge as part of its $2.6 billion flood mitigation plan. The Coastal Storm Risk Management project includes an eight-mile long floodwall around downtown Norfolk, but also includes property-specific measures, such as home elevations and filling of basements, to protect houses in the city’s southside neighborhoods. When the City Council approved the plan in April, it asked the corps to consider reevaluating elements of the plan based on concerns raised by southside residents. The corps expects a determination by spring on whether it will go forward with the reevaluations.” [See opinion piece below.]
Opinions, Letters to the Editor (LTEs), and Blogs
- “Excess Profits Finally Squeezed Out of Dominion Rates” by a Bacon’s Rebellion blogger
- “Appalachian Power rate increase will raise bills more than RGGI does. If Virginia’s exit from the RGGI isn’t overturned through new legislative action, air pollution will be more profitable, climate change will be negatively exacerbated and new housing will lose access to energy conservation measures” by the former executive director of Open Door Community, a nonprofit housing and food organization based in Wytheville – Cardinal News
- “Smart, sustainable solar in the South” by a staff attorney at Southern Environmental Law Center
- “Virginia offshore wind project proceeds despite industry setbacks” by The Virginian-Pilot Editorial Board
- “Virginia Beach Nixes Kitty Hawk Wind Cables” by a Bacon’s Rebellion blogger.
- “Virginia must embrace small modular reactors for energy security, the environment”, LTE in The Virginian-Pilot
- “Virginia’s focus on nuclear energy is misguided” by the “founder of Cool Planet Solutions and … [past] president of the Smart Energy Consumer Collaborative – The Roanoke Times
- “As hurricane season ends, the need to address flooding remains” by The Virginian-Pilot Editorial Board
- “A pastor’s plea to combat coal dust in Newport News and Norfolk” by the “senior pastor at Pray First Mission Ministries in Newport News’ Southeast Community.”
Check out …
- These five creative ways to reduce your household waste.
- This documentary, “Clear Day Thunder”, about rescuing the American Chestnut, produced by The American Chestnut Foundation and starring, Dolly Parton, E O Wilson, and Barbara Kingsolver, among others.
- This blogpost by a long-time Augusta County “Farmer, conservationist, educator, and award-winning writer…” to learn about ” Ash Trees, Shrikes, the Roanoke Logperch, and the Endangered Species Act at 50.”
Why not …
- Listen to WMRA’s fall 2023 episode of Shenandoah Valley Ever Green [that] is focused on the Shenandoah River and measures that are ongoing throughout the Valley to keep water clean and plentiful? The station produces quarterly episodes as part of its Shenandoah Valley Ever Green seasonal programming, presenting information from its producers, JMU students and professors. “During each episode, listeners will hear ideas about getting outside and connecting to Nature. Episodes will also describe actions that individuals can take to help sustain the health of the local environment.”
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.