Brace Yourself for a Zero-Carbon Electric Grid

Mike Tidwell

The defeat of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline is just one battle in the ongoing war against fossil fuels in Virginia. Consider these statements in a column published by Mike Tidwell, executive director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, in the Virginia Mercury:

It’s no longer enough to say you support wind and solar power. You must be AGAINST fossil fuels. By supporting fracked gas, Democrats have been enablers to Republicans and companies like Dominion Energy who have allowed the destructive fossil fuel era to last much longer than it should have — here and worldwide. …

The mantra for the Democratic Party – and for Republicans when they one day wake up – should be this: No new fossil fuel projects of any kind, anywhere. Period. Stop all the proposed pipelines everywhere. Keep dirty energy in the ground. And rapidly tear down the existing monuments to that bygone era – the drilling towers, the power plants, the compressor stations.

In the historic aftermath of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline cancellation, Virginia should adopt a statutory moratorium on all new fossil fuel infrastructure. This is the next step for a state now moving — albeit belatedly — in the right direction.

Tidwell is not an outlier. He reflects the thinking of the environmentalist mainstream in Virginia. The goal is to achieve a 100% zero-carbon energy grid in Virginia by 2050. 

With the defeat of the ACP, the environmental movement has demonstrated its political clout. Dominion Energy has submitted, committing itself to a “sustainable” energy future. A growing solar and wind industry is flexing its political muscles. Environmentalists increasingly dominate the Democratic Party, which shows no sign of relinquishing its control over of state government. The prospect of a “zero carbon” energy grid is something that every Virginian should take very seriously.

The two huge questions are: (1) How much will zero-carbon cost rate payers? and (2) how reliable will the electric grid be? Will the grid be able to stand up to extreme weather events, and what happens if it can’t?

Environmentalists say that a zero-carbon grid will not significantly raise the cost of electricity to consumers. Sure, rates might go up, but they will be offset by energy-conservation initiatives. They may be proven correct in this, although I don’t take their claims as anything but talking points meant to defuse concerns about higher rates. The fact is, the goal of environmentalists is to achieve a zero-carbon grid, and the cost to rate payers is an entirely secondary consideration.

Zero-carbon grid proponents also suggest that reliability issues created by the intermittency of solar and wind output can be dealt with by investing in a “smarter” grid, moving to a more decentralized grid less dependent upon mega-power stations and mega-transmission lines, and adding battery storage, the price of which they are confident will come down in the years ahead. As long as cost is no object (not something that rate payers want to hear), I suspect they will prove to be right 99% of the time. But every couple of years years, Virginia will experience record heat waves, polar vortexes, hurricanes, or prolonged periods of little sun and low wind in which demand will spike, output will plummet, or both will occur simultaneously. Virginia must build a grid with sufficient redundancy to withstand these rare but foreseeable events.

The zero-carbon grid is politically inevitable. There is no sense in opposing the goal. The task of the loyal opposition is to ensure that this utopian aspiration doesn’t wreck Virginia’s economy, doesn’t impose an unnecessary burden on Virginia citizens and, indeed, doesn’t put lives in danger. The burden is now on environmentalists to show they can make zero-carbon work, and our job is to minimize the adverse consequences.

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56 responses to “Brace Yourself for a Zero-Carbon Electric Grid

  1. re: ” Tidwell is not an outlier. He reflects the thinking of the environmentalist mainstream in Virginia.”

    I really challenge that statement. It’s way too broad brush.

    list the environmental groups in Virginia along with their “no more fossil fuels ever” statement. I bet they do not exist.

    All the discussion about reliability and capacity is really missing the bigger point – which is – the more solar and wind we build the LESS we need gas. We still need it for the times when wind/solar can’t but it’s never been an either/or proposition except in the minds of extremists on BOTH sides… the pro-fossil fuel folks are just as bad as the anti-fossil fuel folks.

    The truth is that most folks in the middle – not card carrying enviros – want to cut back on fossil fuels – as much as we can by using more and more wind /solar – but reserving gas for the times we do need it – but again , using less and less…

    pick yourself out of the poll below:

  2. The zealots don’t really care about the economic consequences of their zealotry. If clean energy costs more than traditional energy poor people will find it harder to afford energy. To liberals, this is a feature not a flaw because the overpriced energy will become another rationale for wealth redistribution.

    Of course, if the cost of living in materially higher in Virginia than in North Carolina people and businesses will move from the former to the latter. First to move will be those people with the most wealth to redistribute. One thing that seems destined for permanency after the COVID-19 era is an increased level of working from home. Facebook already told its employees that it will allow those employees to work from home forever more. Now, repeat after me … there is nothing special about Virginia. No great weather. No towering mountain peaks. There is some overdeveloped beachfront and some beautiful rural areas. But we’re far from the top of any list of most scenically beautiful states and weather-wise … not great. Will the cleanest air in America make a difference? We’ll never know since we won’t have the cleanest air in America unless we convince a lot of states in the Mid-Atlantic to follow our lead.

    • Virginia: Come for the Federal jobs. Stay for the….????

    • Poor people will be able to afford it because the rest of us will be taxed, on our monthly energy bills, to pay the bills of the low income customers. The process is now underway at the SCC and the billing will start January 2021. Electricity first, but gas and water will follow. Maybe we’ll get a new gas tax to fill their cars, too!

      It is becoming more and more clear that the panicky, overblown claims of impending climate catastrophe are wrong. In some cases, knowing lies. Most of the predictions are not coming close. Another few years that will be more clear. As the new “Apocalypse Never” argues, climate change is real but not near as dangerous as you’ve been told. And if CO2 is the culprit, we are cutting our economic throats while China, India and other undeveloped areas rush to build fossil generation. Unfortunately, and this will also be expensive, we now need to hope that Dominion gets to extend the licenses of the four nukes. Without those, we’re screwed big time.

      • Those who seek to redistribute wealth don’t care if the climate impact of fossil fuel use is exaggerated. More expensive energy can be subsidized by more freshly printed money. If that doesn’t work then the assets of the billionaires can be seized. If that’s not enough there are millionaires and upper middle class people to tap for funds.

        Eliminating fossil fuels is a theoretically good idea. Things like acid rain certainly do exist. Gasoline powered cars do emit noxious fumes. The problem comes when the economic consequences are considered irrelevant.

        And yes … China, India, Vietnam, etc will not play by our rules. But that’s of no consequence to this latest generation of liberals because the United States is a miserable, irredeemable nation that should be driven to failure so that it might someday come back in the form of the Communist Chinese government now in place. A utopia of socialist fairness. Ask the Uigers.

    • After giving it some thought I have come to the conclusion that Virginia is quite “special”, bless her heart.

  3. Some of the reasons that RGGI state liberals can think fossil fuels can be banned are (1) import of hydro power from Canada helps the northernmost, (2) we can also import electric from other power-export regions eg; WVa and Pa, (3) large amounts of natural gas is being pumped directly to homes in other RGGI states for home heat, etc. (less so in Va. due to heat pumps) and of course (4) significant reliance on nuclear power, which is questionable if we should/will be able to maintain.

    There is starting to be liberal opposition to the home-heat natural gas, with some demanding switch to electric heat pumps en masse in the Northeast. But can you imagine that?

    Bottom line though, if you can import electricity, and send natural gas directly to homes, rely on nuclear, you do not necessarily need fossil fuel electric plants in your state, if you want to ban them out of some religious belief.

    But speaking of religion, I once knew a (Unitarian woman) minister who said a successful religious philosophy has to be like good plumbing: it has to hold water. It does not hold water to say we can ban fossil fuels (for electricity) because we can divert fossil fuels to the house for home heat, and import electric from Canada. That is nice if you can do it, but it does not imply we have a stand-alone energy solution that fits for all states.

  4. Jim. stop listening to the Koch Toadies.

  5. What is a Soros Toady? You mean Bloomberg? What?

  6. I’m braced. Sitting on the deck with a very sweaty G&T. As someone using a mixed grid already (diesel, solar) I wholeheartedly agree with less fossil.

  7. One has to wonder why anyone would write an article opposing less use of fossil fuels… who does that and why?

  8. LarrytheG. You mean those EUROenviroweanies. Tip top Bacon nomenclature!

    • Yeah, the Euroenviroweenies have failed just like the EuroVIRUSweenies. “It will magically disappear…. along with 200,000 (low estimate) lives.”

  9. Quick, quick. Write something that draws attention away from a failed fossil fuel project.

    • Maybe write a bit more about a ridiculously expensive and unreliable offshore wind boondoggle? If we got the politics and posturing out of this deciding what to build would be based on engineering and economics. There would still be solar and wind, but also base load gas and nuclear. And guess what, in 20 years I’m still pretty sure that’s where Virginia will still be.

  10. Has anyone laid out what a solar/wind grid would involve? How many windmills, how many solar panels, etc.?

    • there are different estimates but 100 square miles maybe.

      There is 100 times that available in Virginia in unused and fallow land. We are no longer a big AG state… and we have many more abandoned farms than working farms.

    • The integrated resource plans are on record. The case is active at the SCC. Those 2600 MW off Virginia Beach plus enough solar panels to cover the land area of Fairfax County, with all the existing nuclear and natural gas plants still in operation for up to 30 or 40 more years. Way more electricity than we will need and my guess is at double the cost per kWh. Larry thinks electricity generation at 25% capacity is a higher value land use than growing food or leaving the trees in place to capture CO2….wow.

  11. I’m fine with Nukes. I’m even more fine with modern nukes that have the ability to quickly ramp up and down in concert with solar/wind.

    But if we build enough wind/solar – we’ll need less and less gas – and that should be our goal – not to plan on using gas for base load.

    And if we were not hostage to Dominion – we’d have wind/solar out the wazoo in a few years… and that’s the problem because if we do that, Dominion loses and so it’s not “engineering” that is holding us back – it’s plain old corporate welfare and truth be known, it’s corporate welfare that got us the offshore boondoogle – not “engineering”.

    • You’re going to get the same four old nukes you now have, working past age 60 to age 80. The nukes on the carriers retire at 50 years, on the subs at 30….

      One day even you, Larry, will understand that the games played by Dominion have been copied, learned and played back by the money behind Big Wind and Big Solar. Corporate welfare works all ways. Oldest and most powerful rule of the GA, what goes around comes around.

      • Yep – and they are old-design and basically only work as baseload. They can pretty much power the night in Virginia most of the time.

        And we could have enough wind/solar to add to the Nukes to power the day – most days.

        Gas would be the “gap filler” – not the primary generation.

        This can work. The main problem is that Dominion wants it to be very profitable….

  12. Let’s think beyond the capacity of an editorial writer. Most people can do that before they are five.

    Unless you have a massive subsidy program, people just above the subsidy cap will be hurt financially. Even ignoring Dominion’s cap on customer-provided solar connections, many people won’t be able to install solar for many sensible reasons. Their house doesn’t have a good west or southern exposure. They don’t plan to live in their home for the payback period and aren’t willing to gamble that they can recover the rest of their investment in the sales price of their home. They are elderly and don’t expect to live in their home (or maybe, even be still alive) for the payback period. They are renters. How many landlords are going to invest in solar to lower their tenant’s electric bills, which may, in turn, cause them to raise the rent?

    The environmentalists and their lackeys in the GA have screwed a lot of people. Moreover, it’s not realistic to expect all but the wealthiest property owners to reconstruct their buildings to make major reductions in energy use. A few years ago, the MWCOG and its many left-leaning members asked staff to examine the feasibility of reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the residential home market. The estimates were so ridiculously high that even the greenest among the green said to drop the project.

    And one of the most outrageous aspects of the law is its creation of massive transfers of wealth: 1) to Dominion through rate base inclusion of these investments; 2) to manufacturers, installers and operators of renewable energy equipment and systems; and 3) owners of property near bodies of water that would otherwise flood due to rising waters. Query: do more wealthy people, nonprofits or companies own land near water than non-wealthy people?

    This is virtue-signaling on the backs of the public and a perversion of the public interest. It’s legislating economics and engineering.

  13. re: ” Unless you have a massive subsidy program, people just above the subsidy cap will be hurt financially.”

    So… those that can – will install solar and lower their bills…

    that would not be much different than installing a ground-based heat pump which uses maybe 1/2 the energy and pays for itself in 10-15 years.

    or someone installs an on-demand water heater which uses about 1/3 as much energy as a standard water heater.

    or replaces all their lights with LED.

    or – all of the above –

    Now – you’d not want to penalize these folks for reducing their energy use and saving money… no more than if they bought a very fuel efficient car, right?

    This is basic freedom of the individual, right?

    they should not be penalized because the State and Dominion made bad choices… no?

    • Are the standby losses of a tank water heater really 66% of it’s energy consumption?

      That’s the only way that ” an on-demand water heater which uses about 1/3 as much energy as a standard water heater.”

    • By the way, I can tell you right now that the biggest energy waste in the typical older (built prior to the blower door test requirement) Northern Virginia home is because it leaks air like a sieve and it’s not insulated very well (cathedral ceilings and kneewalls are among the usual places where the thermal camera shows problems).

      Installing HVAC ducts and equipment in the attic is another thing that wastes a lot of energy, but is very common.

      • ” For homes that use 41 gallons or less of hot water daily, demand water heaters can be 24%–34% more energy efficient than conventional storage tank water heaters. They can be 8%–14% more energy efficient for homes that use a lot of hot water — around 86 gallons per day. You can achieve even greater energy savings of 27%–50%”

        https://www.energy.gov/energysaver/heat-and-cool/water-heating/tankless-or-demand-type-water-heaters

        re: other energy losses..

        yep – and those that can afford the up-front costs will actually use less energy in the longer run.

        Most people installing a ground source heat pump can expect to pay between $10,000 and $30,000 dollars for the system; air source heat pumps, on the other hand, cost between $3,500 to $5,000 per indoor head for ductless systems and between $12,000 to $20,000 for central, ducted systems.

        Geothermal wins on efficiency: air source heat pumps generally have heating efficiencies around 300 percent, meaning every 100 kilowatts of electricity consumed produces roughly 300 kW of thermal energy. Geothermal heat pumps, on the other hand, can reach efficiencies as high as 600 percent.

        compare this to poorly insulated homes using low efficiency heat pumps – and they can pay 2-3 times as much for electricity which Dominion likes very much.

        • It really doesn’t cost that much extra to properly insulate and seal a home…BEFORE the walls go up.

          Note I said “seal”. Insulation without sealing is just an air filter. And it does a fine job of filtering all the air coming through it, turning black in the process.

          It isn’t “gee whiz” techno-wizardry, but caulk, polyurethane spray foam and insulation goes a long way to reduce the energy use of a building. Start there before getting into more advanced concepts like solar, geothermal, etc.

        • By the way. Great Stuff spray foam has been around since 1980. How long did it take our homebuilders here in Northern Va to start using it? As of 2017 they still don’t seal the top plate in the attic. I had to do that myself (I did it before they put the insulation in).

          I can tell you that my old house built right here in Northern Virginia in 1994 was among the most draftiest pieces of crap I ever had the displeasure of living in. I actually saw an interior door move one day when a huge gust of wind blew outside. Someone should have told the construction crew (during a rare moment when they were sober; I found plenty of beer cans in the walls) that they were building a house, not a barn.

    • Larry, how many people cannot expect to stay in their present home for the 10-15% payback period? Wouldn’t intelligent legislators look into this before they passed a law to increase electricity rates by 20 some percent? And what about tenants? Explain to me why my wife and I should install solar on our rental house in Manassas Park? Then think about an apartment building.

      The GA picked winners and losers.

      • TMT – Nope. I’m asking would you prevent others from buying and installing more efficient equipment because it results in less profit for Dominion and they recover it from others who do not take those steps?

        Would you deny people the right to install more efficient stuff because it causes increases in rates for others?

        • Yes, the GA did pick winners and losers. There is nothing to prevent consumers from purchasing energy-efficient devices and solar panels, etc. The problems are that many people are not in a position to make major investments (say install rooftop solar, reinsulate their homes, replace all their windows, install in-ground heat pumps) for the reasons I’ve set forth before; and the GA is causing an artificial increase in the price of electricity. Many people are simply not in a position to respond to the artificial increase in price and, as a result, will see their expenditures increase and quality of life decrease.

          When legislatures raise the tax on cigarettes, smokers can quit and can often get help doing so. But what about a family whose home has only an unobstructed north-facing roof? Even if they stay in their home for the 10-15 year payback period (based on having good exposure to the sun), they wont’ get the payback in that period of time.

          What about the couple who are in their late 70s or early 80s and don’t plan to be in that house for 10-15 years? What about renters, who cannot install solar?

          The GA put its thumb on the scale.

          • I’m probably being dense, but exactly did the GA do to cause this?

          • TooManyTaxes

            Larry, the GA’s energy legislation forces ratepayers to pay for the costly wind energy in Dominion’s rate base; forces ratepayers to pay for carbon emission credits; and subsidies for low-income and race-based(?) customers. If everyone was in a position to install rooftop solar and totally insulate their homes, these actions would theoretically balance out. But a lot of customers simply cannot afford to take those actions.

          • Okay, but that’s a different issue than people upgrading their own homes.

            The thing with the GA also includes, letting Dom not pay back excess profits, not giving money back from their tax rebates, charging profits for coal-ash cleanup, and more…

            it’s not just about renewables/green energy – it’s about how the GA just folded up – across the board – on a range of issues that adversely affected ratepayers… and basically crickets from most folks until it involved solar/wind. That tells me this is really a partisan issue … the same folks who are now complaining had almost nary a word about the prior non-renewable rip-offs.

          • TooManyTaxes

            I’ve been writing smack about Dominion for years. I guess what I’m reacting to is the countless times I heard Democratic legislators in Fairfax County promise things would be different if they controlled the GA.

            Lots of ordinary people will be harmed by the new energy bill that became law.

          • Will you give the Dems as many years as the GOP had – to do better or they only had one shot and now they’re goats forever?

            I don’t think the Dems are done. It might turn out they’re no better than the GOP – but in most Dem states – they do better with the utilities.

            Of course, when they do , the critics on the right talk about how horrible the Dems have hurt the private sector and the grid…so no matter what they do, they’ll not gain support from Conservatives.

            I don’t know if you knew it or not but Virginia changed the law on hybrid cars and now they have to pay an additional tax based on how many miles they have driven and not paid equivalent gas tax.

            So now, everyone is paying more of their share of the road costs.

            You may or may not realize also that on your electric bill – it’s broken down into parts… one part for the infrastructure and a second part for the amount of electricity used so everyone has to pay their fair share for the grid…

          • Larry- re: Hybrid cars … I am not aware of anything new, I think you mean electric cars have to pay a (small) substitute gaso tax fee.

          • based on miles driven …was about 130 bucks

  14. There are several misconceptions that are causing a lot of turmoil in this discussion:

    Solar and wind are the lowest cost sources of generating electricity today and are decreasing in cost. The increase in the cost of energy from these units is because we have elected to allow our main utility to place them in the ratebase and receive a guaranteed profit. Nearly 40% of other states are avoiding this unnecessary price increase.

    Deploying solar in farm-size arrays is not necessary. In fact, that makes our energy supply more vulnerable, just as it does with using large central station conventional generation.

    NERC, the North American Reliability Corporation, will not allow Dominion or any other utility to build a system that fails to meet reliability standards. Claiming one extreme or another will happen in the immediate future is scare tactics. It is not going to happen. That should not be the proposition that begins a discussion.

    We are already on the path for huge energy cost increases in Virginia doing exactly what we did in the 20th century. Wind and solar have been around since at least the 1970s, they were just a lot more expensive then.

    I hope those complaining about cost today will remain consistent when they see the cost of energy that will be generated by the four refurbished nuclear units in Virginia. There should be an in-depth evaluation of what to do with those units. There are many pros and cons. But they will produce the most expensive electricity in the state. We will have to decide if it is worth it. We won’t solve that issue on Bacon’s Rebellion, but it might be worth discussing.

    But it would be useful for us to discuss what we want in our future energy systems. There are many technological developments underway now that show promise for the future.

    Do we want a system that will allow them to be implemented according to our standards, or will we leave that up to a few large energy companies to adopt (or not adopt) them in a way that serves their interests, but not necessarily ours?

    We need top-notch, financially healthy utilities. But maybe we no longer need them to do exactly what they are doing now.

    • Tom, are you paid for these comments? If so, who pays you for your writing of these comments?

      • No Reed, I am not paid for these comments. I am not paid for most of the energy work that I do, including comments to FERC, the SCC, etc.

        I have spent a good deal of time working in the utility industry, advising utilities and communities, and commenting on energy issues.

        I am concerned that in Virginia we are creating an increasingly expensive and more brittle energy system that is going against the trends to modernize energy systems that are happening elsewhere.

        Since BR provides one of the few public discussions of these issues, I just wanted to add my perspective.

        • Unlike the paid pro-fossil-fuel hacks that Jim allows to parrot their message here……….

          😉

          I don’t agree with everything TomH says, but I respect his viewpoint enormously and appreciate that he is willing to share his knowledge and views here.

  15. Well, I would want to hear a discussion of the grid in Virginia if North Anna and Surry were to be retired.

    And I agree about the scare tactics WRT wind/solar/reliability, but at the same time – without the nukes, pretty sure there would have to be a solid plan to replace as well as maintain reliability with more than “promising” technology! 😉

    My perception of both Germany and California’s problems is that wind/solar alone is not enough to maintain reliability.

    All I’d respectfully ask for a discussion here though is super simple discussion – in short dollops… about real existing technologies that could supplant nukes and gas.

    All along, I’ve expected the nukes to stay and gas to be the fall-back.

    Unless we see some really monumental breakthrough – I just don’t see batteries doing it. If they did wind/solar/batteries would replace all those diesel units on the worlds islands.

    Thank You Tom H – you almost always ADD to the discussion!

  16. James Wyatt Whitehead V

    I hope they don’t come after the emissions on antique cars. No way my aircooled VW Bug and VW Bus from 1970 will ever pass.

  17. Larry,

    I agree. There needs to be a solid plan to add or replace any of our basic sources of energy. I was only pointing out that continuing the nukes past 60 years of service is unprecedented and will be expensive.

    My recommendation is that we thoroughly review the options and the costs well before billions are spent on them and the licenses are renewed in 2032, 2033, 2038 and 2040. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is already reviewing the issues.

    This will be another huge profit opportunity for Dominion, for just 20 years of service. Would they refurbish them if they had to operate them as a merchant generator, as they do their Millstone nuclear plant? Or is there a better option for ratepayers?

    I don’t know the answer. I am only suggesting we begin to figure it out before it happens by default.

    • Thanks Tom. I just don’t see an alternative to the Nukes right now or in the near future. I have no problems retiring them as soon as we have a viable alternative – perhaps the newer SMRs.

      If we go away from nukes entirely, I fear we’ll end up with even more reliance on fossil fuels.

      My bet is that if we were presented with that choice – more gas or more nuclear – even though more expensive – we’d choose the nuclear.

      If we want to look ahead 20, 30, 40 years.. we should, but again, I’m leery of any technology that is depicted as “promising”.

      If a major breakthrough occurs and my bet is that it’s time for one -then everything we think now may change.

      But the essential question is (to me) – what do we want Dominion to do in the next 5-10 years – assuming technology is what it is right now?

  18. The environmental trope is just so much nonsense from people who are well off and don’t care about electricity rates and economic growth. Proponents should take a look at Germany to get an idea of what our green future could look like. Solar and wind are only attractive because of large subsidies and mandates. Take those away and see how much investment they attract outside of niche areas. The economics are clear to anyone who wants to take an honest look at it.

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