On Saturday, a coalition of environmental, “social justice” and similar groups will descend upon the Executive Mansion to demand that Gov. Terry McAuliffe adopt policies more to their liking. They want him to oppose offshore drilling and the Atlantic Coat Pipeline, support a cap on carbon pollution, and join their call for “energy justice, democratic renewal, and healthy communities in Virginia.”
The groups — which include well-known ones such as Virginia Organizing and lesser-known ones such as the Green Grannies of Charlottesville — have written an open letter to the governor spelling out those demands. But while it is long on lofty rhetoric about “love and energy justice for all” and ending the “environmental racism and energy racism that have for centuries harmed indigenous nations and people of color,” it is remarkably short on specifics about the real trade-offs that energy policy decisions entail.
For instance, the groups complain that “Massive pipelines and compressor stations for fracked gas could rip a thousand-mile swath across our state.” This sounds awful. But consider: While the Atlantic Coast Pipeline would affect roughly 8,600 acres, replacing the energy it would provide with solar power would consume 1.7 million acres. That’s more than 26,000 square miles. (Utility-scale solar generation can require up to 10 acres per megawatt, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. By comparison, Dominion Virginia Power’s new 1,300-megawatt gas-generation plant in Warren County takes up only 39 acres.)
The letter does mention distributed generation, and it’s possible for some companies and individuals to install their own rooftop solar arrays, which would mitigate the land impact. But nothing prevents them from doing so now — in fact, various government incentives encourage it — and yet few actually do. The most optimistic predictions show only 4 million homes with installed solar generation — nationwide — by 2020.
Replacing the ACP with onshore wind generation would consume somewhat less land — perhaps a little more than 406,000 acres, or 634 square miles. But it’s worth noting that in their letter to the governor, the groups say “we believe that 21st-Century energy is better derived from the sun and from ocean winds.”
That is not exactly a ringing endorsement of land-based wind generation. And indeed, efforts by Dominion and other utilities to build land-based wind farms have met resistance at every turn. Tazewell, for instance, adopted a height-restriction ordinance to keep a wind farm out. “Industrial-scale wind farms have altered the rural landscape in places where the natural environment and quiet living are high priorities,” observed the Chesapeake Bay Journal a few years ago. “Some local residents and conservationists say wind turbines are an assault on both.” The headline on that article: “Clean May Not Always Be Green Where Wind Power Is Concerned.”
Any plan to de-carbonize the energy sector will have to include nuclear power, and lots of it. Don’t take our word for it: No lesser light than James Hansen says the failure to include nuclear power in global-warming solutions is “crazy.” Yet the environmental groups’ letter to the governor does not mention nuclear power once.
What would a Virginia powered only by solar and offshore wind actually look like? Might it look, say, like Germany? Three years ago Der Spiegel reported on “Germany’s Energy Povety: How Electricity Became a Luxury Good.” That nation’s “agressive and reckless expansion of wind and solar power,” the magazine said, “has come with a hefty price tag for consumers, and the costs often fall disproportionately on the poor.” If Virginia’s poor one day can’t afford to pay their electric bills because of environmentalists’ pressure, does that represent “justice”?
The marchers probably would contend they are simply trying to offset the massive political power of Dominion, which doles out hefty campaign contributions to Democrats and Republicans alike. As another newspaper recently put it, Dominion has long been “Virginia’s most generous corporate campaign donor.” Well, yes and no.
Dominion might be the most generous for-profit campaign donor, but nonprofit corporations — including environmental groups — shell out hefty sums themselves. When McAuliffe ran for governor, he received $75,000 from Dominion. That’s a pittance compared with the $1.7 million he got from the League of Conservation Voters, the $1.6 million he got from NextGen Climate Action (a group set up by reformed fossil-fuel investor Tom Steyer of New York) and the $468,000 he got from the Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club.
The environmental and other groups marching on the governor’s mansion raise serious concerns. But if they want to be taken seriously, then they should be pressed with hard questions of the sort that are routinely put to the other side. Are they willing to answer such questions? Could they?