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Fossil, Nukes Got Support,
Why Not Renewables?
by Peter Galuszka
Virginia is typically behind the rest of the country when it comes to addressing new problems and finding solutions. Renewable energy is yet another example.
In the middle part of the past decade, undeniable evidence of the threat of climate change became obvious across the globe. A movement began to shepherd a shift to renewable energy-sources – solar, wind, geothermal and others -- by passing laws making it mandatory that utilities obtain a specific percentage of their energy from such sources by set deadlines.
Thirty states and the District of Columbia -- including all of Virginia’s neighbors -– joined the movement for Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS) as have other countries, such as the United Kingdom, Poland and Belgium. True to form and genuflecting to big business interests, Virginia made its RPS voluntary.
It offers rate credits if utilities Dominion and Appalachian Power (APCO) make progress towards a modest goal of having 12 percent of their power come from renewable sources by 2025. Neighboring North Carolina has a similarly modest goal, except that it is mandatory. Other neighbors Maryland and West Virginia have more stringent mandatory goals of 20 percent by 2020 in Maryland’s case and 25 percent by 2025 in coal-rich West Virginia.
So what’s happened with renewable energy the Old Dominion with such soft targets? The voluntary goals were set up by a 2007 law, so there’s been plenty of time to get things moving. But very little has happened.
APCO reports that in 2012, it had reached 4 percent of its renewable goals. Dominion had reached 68 percent of its goals in 2012 through such biomass projects as a hybrid coal-burning plant near St. Paul and its plans for a couple of experimental wind turbines off of Virginia Beach, although it did win an auction to develop a bigger field nearby.
The dearth of progress is so obvious that even arch-conservative Attorney General Kenneth Cuccinelli issued a scathing report in 2012 stating that an added fee guaranteeing Dominion and APCO a return on equity bonus for supposedly meeting RPS standards “has not served to advance the environmental concerns that led to its inclusion in the (2007) act because, by and large, the utilities have not built any renewable facilities to comply with the RPS goals…”
Instead, the utilities were getting utility rate gravy through such ruses as claiming credit for pre- World War II hydroelectric projects. Because of the Cuccinelli report, last year’s General Assembly ended the bonus payments that could have eventually cost consumers $1 billion while resulting in no new, in-state renewable generating capacity.
But don’t think Cuccinelli is a saint when it comes to the RPS. He later ended up playing games to get rid of the RPS, which has been hotly opposed by the Edison Electric Institute which protects large, base-loaded power companies and their suppliers. This is despite an industry that some groups such as the American Solar Energy Society claim can create up to 4.5 million jobs by 2030.
Another opponent is the familiar American Legislative Exchange Council, a national conservative group that offers state legislatures paint-by-numbers laws that fit its views. ALEC has plans to get this year’s General Assembly to dump Virginia’s limp RPS.
ALEC and its allies tout the refrain that renewable energy must arise from free market forces. True, renewable needs a boost to get started, but so have fossil and nuclear and they still are awash in government benefits.
By some accounts, Big Oil and Gas have received upwards of $600 billion over 60 years from the oil depletion allowance tax break and federally-funded research and royalty giveaways.
Nuclear is even more dependent upon big government funding. From its very inception, nukes were protected by federal accident insurance limits. The industry has been helped on a massive scale for decades by the U.S. Navy, Atomic Energy Commission and the Department of Energy. New nuclear plants are so expensive that they can’t be built without federal loan guarantees.
King Coal, producing about 35 percent of the nation’s power, has long gotten government aid through lax environmental and mine safety standards, research and tax breaks. As Glen Besa of the Virginia Sierra Club points, out, Virginia’s tiny coal industry still gets millions in incentives from Richmond.
The solution is to make Virginia’s RPS mandatory. The challenge, sadly, will be to keep even the current, lame RPS. Another problem is that the sudden glut of cheap natural gas has taken the heat off utilities to move on to renewables.
The gas boom can’t last forever. When it flares out, Virginia will be far behind other states, especially its neighbors with mandatory RPS goals, when it comes to building the well-paying, profitable renewable energy sector that is undeniably the future.