By Peter Galuszka
On frosty mornings, Virginia’s single largest-contribution to global warming can be seen belting out dense steam clouds from its three smokestacks near Interstate 95’s interchange with Route 288. The 1,600 megawatt Chesterfield Power Station provides owner Dominion Virginia Power with enough electricity for four million customers and represents 12 percent of all of the Richmond-based utility’s power generation.
The downside is that the power plant’s four coal-fired and two combined gas cycle units were the state’s top single source last year for carbon dioxide emissions that contribute to climate change. Their output totaled 6.1 million tons of carbon dioxide, according figures recently released by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
That’s not all. Dominion’s Clover Power Station and the Chesapeake Energy Center hold the No. 2 and No. 3 slots on the EPA list. All three produce 14 million tons of the 44.6 million tons of carbon dioxide tallied on EPA’s survey. In all, Dominion was responsible for 20 million tons or 46 percent of the state’s total greenhouse gas emissions.
For Virginia-based environmentalists, the Chesterfield plant and its sisters are powerful examples of what needs to change as they prepare to attend a Feb. 17 rally in Washington to push President Barack Obama to take a harder stand on global warming. “Every year that Dominion delays moving away from fossil fuels and to wind, solar and energy efficiency raises the costs to all of us,” says Glen Besa, head of the Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club.
In his state of the union speech Feb. 12, Obama said that weather phenomena such as Superstorm Sandy and their connection to climate change cannot be denied. He stated: “I will direct my cabinet to come up with executive actions we can take, now and in the future, to reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change, and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy.”
Regarding Dominion’s role in carbon pollution, utility spokesman Dan Genest says that his firm has almost 700 megawatts in its portfolio, including biomass, hydroelectric and wind. As for its Chesterfield plant, Genest notes that it is “one of the cleanest coal facilities” in the country. Dominion has invested $1 billion since 2000 to reduce sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and particulate pollutants, he says. Carbon dioxide, however, isn’t on the list.
It soon could be. Forgive the pun, but after several years of simmering, the campaign against global warming is again gathering steam, as Obama’s speech attests. The bad economy made it politically toxic. During last year’s election, Republican candidates tried to paint carbon-cutting rules as damaging conspiracies to cut kill jobs and the coal industry, the largest single source for electricity generation in the nation.
A contributing factor was the unexpected flood of cheap and less polluting natural gas, some of it produced through controversial hydraulic fracking drilling methods. Gas gives off half the carbon as coal, produces far fewer occupational fatalities and doesn’t cause massive environmental destruction that coal’s mountaintop removal surface mining does. Utility executives love natural gas’s low cost and its user-friendly image.
Obama’s big electoral left the deep-pocketed coal lobby licking its wounds The big questions now: Is Obama free to take big steps towards stemming greenhouse gases? Or, will the glut of cheap gas actually slow the advance of renewable energy such as solar, wind and thermal because they are more expensive and will require government subsidies to get rolling?
Some believe the timing is right for utilities to start engaging in setting rules to reduce carbon dioxide. So far, Obama has proposed new carbon-reducing regulations on new power stations that aren’t in operation yet, but hasn’t really addressed existing power plants that are the biggest polluters. Some foreign countries and the state of California have introduced “cap and trade” systems to control carbon but efforts to set up a similar national system or other solutions have fizzled in the United States. Obama alluded towards renewing setting up some market-based system to control carbon dioxide emissions in his State of the Union address.
From their point of view, utilities might want to join the rule-setting process now so they will have more of a say in what evolves, some environmentalists believe. “Dominion has a tendency to anticipate what the EPA would do and did it,” says Besa. Another big coal-burning power firm, Charlotte’s Duke Energy, “would sue” when confronting changes by EPA, Besa says.”
Manik Roy, vice president for strategic outreach at the Arlington-based Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, says that if any progress comes, it will have come from EPA regulations since “we are not expecting Congress to be very active on this issue” because it has been sidetracked by “more fundamental things.” Roy expects the EPA to start considering carbon dioxide rules for existing power plants within a few months and utilities should start preparing for it.
Another unaddressed problem is that the system that sets goes regarding what percentage of power utilities should plan on getting from renewable energy sources is haphazard and piecemeal. There is no federal plan, at least not yet. States have set a mish-mash of mandatory and voluntary guidelines about what the goals should be as far as renewable power generation. The rules come under what is called the “Renewable Portfolio Standard,” but they vary widely.
In some states, moving to a certain percentage of renewable energy sources must be done but the utility will receive an incentive to do so. New Jersey, for instance, has a tough RPS and already has 900 megawatts from solar sources. That’s the power generated by a middle-sized coal or nuclear plant.
Virginia is one of the few states where the RPS is “voluntary.” The lack of results are predictable. “Virginia is one of only nine states where there is no utility-based wind or solar,” says Dawone Robinson, Virginia Policy Coordinator of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network. Maryland and North Carolina have mandatory RPS goals, leaving Dominion in the peculiar position of having “voluntary” renewable goals in the Old Dominion but facing mandatory ones in northeastern North Carolina where it also provides power.
The complex world of setting goals also leads to what some say are abuses. Atty. Gen. Kenneth Cuccinelli, who is running for governor, issued a scathing report last November charging that Appalachian Power received $15 million and Dominion got $76 million in incentives charged against ratepayers for supposedly using renewable energy sources. In one case, Cuccinelli said, these involved counting an 80-year-old dam that produced hydroelectric power as a “renewable.”
The green community praised Cuccinelli then damned him when he announced a deal with the two utilities to do way with the incentives. Cuccinelli’s office says the goals to promote renewable energy sources remain in place. But the system remains voluntary and ”if you repeal incentives in a voluntary program, why would utilities participate,” asks Robinson.
Meanwhile, the power companies’ firms, along with other sources such as chemical plants and landfills across the state, still pump out carbon dioxide. Some of the sources such as some of Dominion’s power plants in Chesapeake and Yorktown, are due to be shut down because they are decades old and are too expensive to upgrade. “Dominion has a reputation of being pretty constructive,” Roy says.
But unless something serious happens at the federal level, attrition of old and polluting power stations and factories will be the only protection against greenhouse gas emissions.
Note: Portions of this posting appeared in Style Weekly article.