Offshore Wind Cover

Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind Project, Hampton Roads

After passage of the Virginia Clean Economy Act (VCEA) three years ago got the ball rolling toward a cleaner, more productive energy future, the Commonwealth of Virginia’s 2022 Energy Plan has the Commonwealth poised to meet significant needs in the future.

“Virginia is in a good position to take advantage of clean energy,” said Will Clear, managing partner of Bristol-based Virginia Energy Strategies and former chief deputy director of the Virginia Department of Energy (VDOE). He said the state’s excellent wind and solar resources would “create opportunities that will benefit all of Virginia.”

The trick will be to maintain proper balance on the path to a decarbonized energy system, Clear said. Every energy system sits on a three-legged stool: reliability, affordability, and environmental stewardship. Collectively leveraging all three will be the crucial challenge as the Commonwealth seeks to meet the VCEA’s stated goal of 100% renewable energy for electricity generation by 2050. New nuclear power generation may be placed into service after 2030 and continue to operate after 2050 as a carbon-free energy source. 

Jonathan Miles, a professor at James Madison University (JMU) and executive director of the university’s Center for the Advancement of Sustainable Energy, said the Commonwealth has been on a gradual trajectory of expanding renewable energy for the last two decades. Now, he says, three long-term developments have coalesced to drive Virginia’s clean energy generation forward:

  • Investment in new energy infrastructure over many years by the state’s main electric utilities, Richmond-based Dominion Energy, Inc. and Appalachian Power, a part of American Electric Power Company Inc.
  • Development of technology that brought the cost of renewable energy down sharply
  • Continued development and investment in a tech-savvy workforce with the skills needed to build and maintain cutting-edge energy infrastructure

Both Clear and Miles believe the Commonwealth will be faced with policy adjustments on the path to 2050 as technologies evolve. Both agree with April Wade, executive director of the Virginia Nuclear Energy Consortium (VNEC), that nuclear power is likely to play an important role in providing Virginians with carbon-free electricity. The VNEC was created by the legislature to advance the nuclear industry by bringing together state energy officials, institutions of higher education, nuclear energy-related companies, and other organizations to advance the nuclear industry.

Framatome

Framatome Inc., Lynchburg

Nuclear generating stations can provide all-important baseload power that complements intermittent sources such as wind and solar energy. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission defines baseload as “the minimum continuous load or demand in a power system over a given period of time.” Loads on such systems change throughout the day and from season to season. Daily swings in demand are usually met by peaking plants, which are plants that turn on quickly during times of rising demand — for example, on summer afternoons when air conditioners may be running at full blast to beat the heat.

Not surprisingly, solar energy production varies with daylight and generally peaks during midday, just about the time it is needed to supply those electricity-hungry air conditioners during summer. When night falls, solar generation disappears. And while the wind can howl at night, it can also stand still. This is why baseload power is so important to maintaining the electricity grids’ reliability.

Energy storage systems — essentially large batteries for electricity from wind, solar, and other sources — are mandated to grow substantially in Virginia. But the ability to build enough affordable storage to supply electricity when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow remains a question mark for the 2050 target date when utilities must complete the shift to renewables, with an allowance for nuclear power.

That brings us back to nuclear energy, which provided about 30% of Virginia’s electricity in 2021, according to the latest figures from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). “We have a well-rounded nuclear industry,” Wade said. Virginia is home to a diverse nuclear energy with commercial electrical generation, advanced manufacturing and service capabilities, defense (including BWX Technologies in Lynchburg, the sole manufacturer of naval nuclear reactors for U.S. submarines and aircraft carriers), and research and development. This has resulted in a nuclear-trained workforce of 100,000, many of whom work for commercial entities and civilian contractors.

Dominion Energy solar facility, Buckingham County

Dominion Energy solar facility, Buckingham County

Dominion Energy owns two commercial nuclear power stations: the North Anna Power Station in Louisa County and the Surry Power Station in Surry County, the U.S. nuclear plant with the longest existing licensure agreement. 

With demand for electricity in the state set to double in the decades to come, Wade predicted that “we will see small modular reactors or other advanced reactors built here in Virginia at some point.” Of special interest are small modular reactors (SMR). While not yet a commercial reality, these reactors are designed to be mass-produced more cheaply than large site-built reactors, and they can be used to add increments of generation capacity as needed. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission certified the country’s first SMR design in January 2023.

Wade pointed out that Virginia is the only state with a nuclear advocacy organization created by the legislature — the organization she runs, VNEC — and a nuclear strategic plan for the Commonwealth mandated by the legislature. “I think Virginia is a leader in the industry,” she said. As further evidence she cites one of VNEC’s initiatives, the Virginia Innovative Nuclear Hub, a collaboration among several Virginia universities and the nuclear energy industry.

For the moment, however, natural gas is the primary fuel for generating electricity, providing about 57% of Virginia’s electric power in 2021, according to the EIA. About 85% of that gas comes from outside the state. Natural gas is low-carbon, has other advantages as compared to coal, and is useful for both baseload and peaking power, but contributes to climate change nonetheless. 

Reducing use of natural gas for electricity generation to zero by 2050 while maintaining all three legs of the energy system stool — reliability, affordability, and environmental stewardship — will be challenging, Clear said. 

Another aspect of Virginia’s energy needs may figure prominently in how it manages its electricity supply. Right now, Virginia imports its transportation fuels, including diesel and gasoline, from other states.

As the transportation system moves toward electric vehicles, demand for electricity will rise considerably. This is both a challenge and an opportunity, Clear said. If Virginia can build enough renewable and nuclear energy capacity to meet that demand, then money which Virginians are currently sending out of state for motor fuel would stay in Virginia to nurture economic activity and employment in the Commonwealth.

Commonwealth of Virginia 2022 Energy Plan

Source: Commonwealth of Virginia 2022 Energy Plan' Historical data from U.S. Energy Information Administration

Boosting renewable and nuclear electricity generating capacity sufficiently will be a tall order. In 2021, only about 9% of the state’s electricity was generated from renewable sources, including hydroelectric power, and only about 30% came from nuclear energy. These sources would have to grow substantially and quickly if they’re going to meet the coming increase in demand and replace natural gas, the current dominant fuel for energy generation.

Miles said ongoing efforts are addressing barriers to wind and solar power deployment, some that are being driven by the VDOE with support from JMU and other Virginia universities. These efforts include educating the public about benefits while addressing concerns raised, assisting localities in which projects are being considered, and providing nonpartisan, data-driven resources.

“We all want to get clean power,” Clear said. But for that to happen, citizens across Virginia will have to accept wind and solar installations as part of the landscape. Both Clear and Miles believe they will, just as Wade believes Virginians will see the wisdom of nuclear power as part of an energy mix needed to create a carbon-free energy system for the Commonwealth. 

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