How Virginia’s electric utilities plan to become carbon neutral by 2050
By 2026, as many as 220 massive wind turbines — each taller than the Washington Monument — may be churning away less than 30 miles off the Virginia Beach coast, powering up to 650,000 homes with renewable energy.
The $7.8 billion proposed offshore wind farm would be the nation’s largest such project, but it’s just one component of Richmond-based Dominion Energy Inc.’s plans for achieving its ambitious goal, announced in February, of reducing carbon dioxide and methane emissions from its electricity generation and gas infrastructure operations to net zero by 2050. In addition to wind power, Dominion plans to hit this target by continuing to operate its zero-carbon nuclear power plants, while ramping up its solar portfolio, retiring coal-fired plants and exploring emerging technologies such as battery storage and hydrogen carbon capture.
At the same time, Gov. Ralph Northam and the Democratic-majority General Assembly have formulated their own plan to rid the state of carbon emissions by 2050, passing the Virginia Clean Economy Act during this year’s legislative session. The sweeping legislation overhauls how utilities generate power and sets the stage for the state to shift to renewable energy sources, dramatically reducing Virginia’s carbon footprint, as well as mitigating the impacts of climate change and strengthening the state’s clean energy economy.
Last September, Northam issued an executive order establishing statewide goals to power 30% of Virginia’s electric system from carbon-free sources such as wind, solar and nuclear by 2030 and 100% by 2050.
Having already reduced its carbon emissions by more than 50% during the past 10 to 15 years, Dominion raised the bar in October 2019, saying it planned to reduce its remaining carbon emissions by 80% by 2050. However, the utility upped the ante even more in February, saying it aimed to reach net-zero emissions by 2050.
Dominion previously committed to reduce methane emissions, a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, from its natural gas operations by 65% by 2030 and 80% by 2040.
Dominion officials are confident they can meet both company and government deadlines for large-scale renewable energy endeavors to depose fossil fuel-generated power’s reign in Virginia.
“We can meet net zero by 2050,” says Robert M. Blue, Dominion’s executive vice president and co-chief operating officer. “Our response to Governor Northam’s directive was, ‘Challenge accepted.’”
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Environmentalists might look askance at Dominion’s commitment to protecting the environment, given factors such as Dominion’s agreement in March to pay $1.4 million to settle alleged environmental violations at two power plants in Chesterfield and Prince William counties. In making the settlement with state and federal authorities, Dominion denied the coal-ash pollution allegations and didn’t assume any liability.
Dominion Energy isn’t charting its course for net-zero emissions in a vacuum, however. Across the nation, corporations are turning to green energy to fight climate change, enhance their business and satisfy customers and investors. This January, Microsoft announced its plans to become carbon negative by 2030. The company also plans to remove from the environment all carbon it has emitted either directly or by electrical consumption since its founding in 1975. Meanwhile, in February, Amazon.com Inc. founder Jeff Bezos pledged $10 billion of his personal fortune to fight climate change, and Delta Air Lines Inc. promised to become the first carbon neutral airline by 2030, committing at least $1 billion to reducing its environmental impact.
Corporate efforts to address climate change picked up steam after the January announcement by BlackRock Inc., the world’s largest money manager, that sustainability will drive its investment strategies. In his annual letter to U.S. CEOs, influential BlackRock Chairman and CEO Jeff Fink said the asset manager will require additional environmental reporting from companies it invests in after BlackRock clients listed climate change as their top concern.
BlackRock owns more than 5% of Dominion’s stock and is one of the utility’s top three investors. (About 3% of BlackRock’s global utility and power portfolio is invested in Dominion, which provides power to large parts of Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina and has natural gas and power generation operations across the nation.)
“Dominion Energy has a long tradition of engaging with our shareholders and other stakeholders to obtain their perspectives on a host of issues, including sustainability and the environment. Prior to the publication of Mr. Fink’s letter, we had already begun drafting the core principles of our net zero commitment, which built on our previous efforts calling for a federal carbon policy,” said Dominion Energy spokesperson Ryan Frazier. Dominion is one of 21 companies that make up The CEO Climate Dialogue group, which is working to advance climate action by the federal government. Other member companies include Ford Motor Co., Shell and DuPont.
And with its customers and investors demanding more clean and renewable energy, Dominion has ramped up its longstanding efforts to provide greener energy. “We’re constantly looking at what we think we can achieve with the right technologies and right policies,” Blue says. “We need to do this in a way that maintains the reliability of the electric grid and in a way that’s most cost-effective for our customers.”
Here are some of the ways Virginia’s power utilities are planning to migrate to renewable energy by 2050:
Offshore wind is a major component of Dominion’s renewable energy initiatives. The utility is preparing to launch the country’s largest offshore wind project with 220 wind turbines installed in 112,800 acres of federal waters 27 miles off the coast of Virginia Beach. Scheduled to be built in three 880-megawatt phases from 2024 to 2026, the $7.8 billion project will be capable of generating 2,650 megawatts of energy. The State Corporation Commission has to approve the project by 2023 in order for Dominion to complete it by 2026.
The wind farm would be adjacent to the two, 6-megawatt test turbines Dominion and Denmark-based power company Ørsted are installing this year on 2,135 acres of federally owned waters as part of Dominion’s $300 million Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind pilot project, the nation’s first offshore wind endeavor owned by an electric utility company. At peak winds, the turbines are expected to provide electricity to 3,000 homes when they go into operation later this year. The U.S. Bureau of Ocean and Energy Management awarded final approval to the test project last fall. It is the only permitted offshore wind project in federal waters.
Aside from providing renewable energy, the wind farm could also establish Hampton Roads as a supply chain hub for offshore wind projects being launched up and down the East Coast, stimulating the region’s efforts to diversify its economy. Turbines, blades and other components currently are manufactured and shipped from Europe, but a U.S. supply chain is expected to emerge as more commercial wind farms come online. In January, Northam announced that Ørsted will lease part of Portsmouth Marine Terminal from the Port of Virginia to stage materials and equipment for its offshore wind projects across six East Coast states. Ørsted will initially lease 1.7 acres at the terminal through 2026, with the option to expand to 40 acres.
“There is the potential for thousands of jobs and for this area to be the epicenter for supplying offshore wind off the East Coast,” says David C. White, executive vice president of the Virginia Maritime Association. The industry, he adds, will attract new businesses to the region, including manufacturing services. “This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity. We really need to take steps to make sure Virginia makes the most of it.”
Despite its potential impacts on Dominion’s grid and Virginia’s economy, wind energy generates power only when the wind is blowing — or an estimated 25% to 30% of the time.
While wind power kicks up at night and in the winter, solar power is prevalent on warm, sunny days. Dominion is expanding its solar fleet capacity with projects to power more than 375,000 homes. The nation’s fourth-largest utility operator of solar power facilities, Dominion has more than a dozen projects completed or under construction in Virginia and could add at least 5,200 megawatts of solar in the state over the next 25 years.
Blue says Dominion has applied lessons learned from its initial solar energy activities in the Southwestern U.S. to Virginia. “We’re committed to building substantial solar projects and have them in production by 2022. We’re more than halfway there.”
Those projects include a solar farm the utility is building in Pittsylvania County from which Amazon will purchase nearly 70% of the output to offset power generation at its HQ2 East Coast headquarters in Arlington, while Arlington County will procure the remaining power to offset local government operations after the farm goes online in 2022.
Dominion also is partnering with the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority on the development of a large-scale, 100-megawatt solar energy project on about 1,200 acres at Washington Dulles International Airport. It would be one of the largest solar facilities in Northern Virginia, powering 25,000 homes at peak output. The facility could go into operation as early as 2023.
In addition, one of the utility’s subsidiaries, Dominion Generation, last year purchased two solar projects that will generate power for telecommunications company T-Mobile USA Inc. The solar facilities near Emporia and in Suffolk are expected to come online later this year.
And Dominion’s 80-megawatt Grasshopper Solar Project in Mecklenburg County was one of four new solar farms issued permits by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality last fall.
In addition to Dominion’s projects, other solar farms are sprouting up across Southern Virginia, especially in Danville and neighboring Pittsylvania County. Two, 5-megawatt solar plants are slated to go online this summer, providing energy for Danville Utilities’ 42,000 customers. The city already has two other solar power plants in operation, including the 6-megawatt Kentuck Solar Farm, which began operations two years ago. Serving about 1,200 homes, Kentuck is the largest municipal utility solar farm in Virginia.
Kentuck provides about 1.5% of Danville’s total energy needs, says Jason Grey, director of Danville Utilities. “That’s not a lot, but it’s still a renewable asset.” The city’s two new solar projects are expected to provide an additional 6.5% in solar energy.
Solar farms also have helped boost Danville’s economy, which had been battered by the shuttering of textile mills and tobacco warehouses. Former tobacco fields are being used for solar farms, increasing property values and attracting new businesses to the area. “Solar farms are a great economic development tool,” Grey adds. “A lot of companies when looking at sites ask what portion of the portfolio is renewable. At least 20% of Danville’s portfolio is renewable.”
Grey says his community has largely supported solar farm development. “If you had to pick a generating asset to have around you, you would pick solar,” he adds. “There’s no noise, and a lot of the developers we’re working with have built-in setback areas so they’re not as noticeable from the road.”
Virginia’s other major electric utility, Appalachian Power, also is pursuing solar power as it strives to meet mandates set under the governor’s executive order and the Virginia Clean Economy Act. When its first appeal for large-scale solar farms did not result in viable projects, the utility issued a second request for proposals for up to 200 megawatts of solar energy resources to power more than 30,000 homes. Developers also can include up to 10 megawatts of a battery energy storage system.
“We think we will get better proposals by lumping in battery storage and get more favorable pricing,” says Chris T. Beam, Appalachian’s president and chief operating officer.
Appalachian also plans to purchase solar power from the 15-megawatt Depot Solar Center in Campbell County, slated to be completed this year. “We’re focusing more on renewable energy,” Beam says, noting that the company plans to close its Clinch River Plant, its last fossil-fuel energy generator in Virginia, in 2026.
Serving about 500,000 customers in Virginia, Appalachian is the only electric company in the state to offer customers the option of obtaining 100% of their power from renewable energy, including wind, hydro and solar. About 200 customers pay a premium rate for the service, which Beam says was implemented due to customer demand. Hydro power, which includes facilities at Smith Mountain, Claytor and Leesville lakes, comprises about 11% of Appalachian’s fuel mix, while about 7% of the utility’s power comes from wind farms in West Virginia, Indiana and Illinois.
Onshore wind energy has had less success in Virginia, largely due to the state’s topography. “We try to situate wind facilities to where the wind blows the most constant,” Beam says. “There are a couple wind corridors in Virginia that make sense. … If we find a bidder with favorable pricing and landowners willing to lease property, we would certainly consider it.”
Charlottesville-based wind and solar power developer Apex Clean Energy is encountering opposition to its planned 75-megawatt Rocky Forge Wind Farm in Botetourt County, which would be Virginia’s first-ever onshore wind project. Apex obtained approval from the county Board of Supervisors for turbines up to 550 feet tall in 2016, but later asked to install turbines up to 680 feet tall, citing changes in technology that would allow for the construction of fewer but larger turbines.
Steve Neas, a civil engineer who lives near the proposed wind farm, scoffed when he learned about Apex’s plans. “My issue is the amount of energy produced is minimal,” he says. “Wind resources in the Allegheny Mountains are marginal at best, but the impacts created by large turbines would be significant.” Neas asserts that the turbines would disrupt the environment and create both audible noise and low-frequency vibrations.
Botetourt County is holding public hearings about the proposed turbine height change. Apex hopes to begin construction on the wind farm by the end of this year, with the project coming online in late 2021. Last fall, Virginia agreed to purchase the wind farm’s output, creating the largest state contract for renewable energy in the U.S.
Like Appalachian, Dominion does not have onshore wind farms in Virginia. “What we’ve found is onshore wind resources are fairly challenging,” Blue says, noting local pushback. “The best wind resources are on top of ridge lines, but that’s where people see it the most, and you can get community opposition.”
However, Dominion does not expect any opposition as it renews licenses for its Surry and North Anna nuclear power stations, which together provide electricity for one-third of Dominion’s 2.5 million Virginia customers and are the largest sources of carbon-free energy in Virginia. U.S. nuclear reactors are initially licensed for 40 years, with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission issuing 20-year renewals.
“The continued operation of those two plants is extremely important,” Blue says. “Nuclear power plants are essential. They operate 24 hours a day, whereas solar operates when the sun is shining and wind farms when the wind is blowing.”
As Dominion continues to deploy renewable energy, the company also is investigating new storage technologies to ensure the grid’s effective operation. The State Corporation Commission earlier this year approved the utility’s four battery storage pilot projects in Central Virginia. Totaling 16 megawatts, the projects are the largest of their kind in Virginia and will help Dominion better determine how best to use batteries to integrate renewable energy sources and maintain reliable service. Battery storage technology is in its early stages, Blue notes. “We want to make sure it works before we deploy it on a large scale.”
But, he adds, the utility is committed to achieving a carbon-free electric grid within the next three decades. “There are lots of steps that need to be taken between now and 2050,” Blue acknowledges. “By no means is this something that’s going to be simple, but the basic building blocks are already in place.”