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Virginia Energy Policy: Electricity Production & the Renewables Option

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On September 12, 2007 Governor Kaine released the Virginia Energy Plan (VEP), a proposal to promote the Commonwealth’s energy independence and to educate consumers on energy conservation and efficiency. While the VEP does not have specific goals for renewable resources, the plan mentions renewables as a source of energy. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Information Administration (EIA) states that Virginia has established a voluntary renewable portfolio goal that encourages utilities to generate 12 percent of base-year 2007 sales from renewable sources by 2022.

What are renewables? The Virginia State Corporation Commission (VSCC) defines renewable energy as: energy derived from sunlight, wind, falling water, sustainable biomass, energy from waste, wave motion, tides and geothermal power, excluding energy derived from coal, oil, natural gas or nuclear power.

Are renewables currently being produced and used in Virginia and can they be produced in the quantity and to the quality for commercial electricity production?

Commercial electricity production is composed of base-load and peak-load production. Base-load power is the power that is “always on,” and must operate continuously to meet the minimal demand created by customers. Most renewable technologies depend on weather-related phenomena and thus provide electricity intermittently. As a result, most renewable energy systems – especially wind and solar are viewed as inappropriate for base-load applications. Peak-load power refers to those generators that are switched on during times of high demand to supplement base-load generators. Many peak-load facilities use natural gas turbines because they can be started and turned off quickly, unlike most coal-and nuclear-fueled base-load units, which require hours to start up. Peak-load power also costs more to produce, making renewable energy systems more cost competitive, so renewables may play a role here, generating electricity when customers demand exceeds base-load capacity.

In 2005, Virginia Tech’s Virginia Center for Coal and Energy Research (VCCER) released a report for the Virginia Commission on Electric Utility Restructuring (CEUR) entitled A Study of Increased Use of Renewable Energy in Virginia. The study provided an initial assessment on the status and potential for renewable energy development in Virginia, evaluated costs, and detailed incentives and impediments to development; It is an excellent comprehensive study that needs to be updated at least every five years as the resource for planning and implementing the use of renewables in Virginia.

Based on 2002 data from the DOE’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and the EIA Virginia had 583MW of non-hydro renewable energy capacity, including 168 MW of landfill gas and municipal solid waste generation and 415 MW of wood or waste wood-fired plants. Virginia also has 757 MW of conventional hydro and 2329 MWs of pumped storage. EIA does not track hydro under 1 MW in size and does not report any wind or solar photovoltaics (PV).

NREL estimates in the VCEER state that Virginia has the potential to develop 15,000 MW from renewable energy. However, this estimate does not consider the cost of developing these resources. VCCER presents a Black & Veatch study that estimates of this 15,000MW only 930 MW could be economically developed in the next 15 years. This analysis of costs indicates that hydro, biomass co-firing, wind and landfill gas are currently cost-competitive with fossil-fuels.

While the VCCER study covers all the VSCC renewables I will only provide comment on the three areas that may provide additional peak-load electricity production: hydro, wind, and solar.

Virginia currently has 26 hydro electric facilities that have a capacity of 2302 MWs (17 <10MW, 5 >10MW, 4 >50MW) and two pumped storage facilities with a capacity of 11.6 MW.  While these plants may be updated or expanded they represent the extent of hydroelectric capacity in Virginia because many influences will prohibit any more dams.

On-shore wind energy is limited in Virginia. The DOE NREL wind map shows the vast majority of Virginia has low quality winds (less than Class 3 or 14.3 mph). That level precludes commercial production. The only exception is in Highland County where a proposed wind farm is meeting stiff local opposition.

Off-shore wind energy potential, however, is considerable. Virginia’s Class 5 and Class 6 offshore wind resources have the technical potential to support 32,000 MW of wind energy generating capacity and 1,300 MW within 20 miles of transmission (important because of cost).   The major impediments are cost, environmental concerns, transmission lines and legal and regulatory issues. Additionally no off-shore wind systems have been built in the US to show commercially viability.

Virginia has moderate photovoltaic (solar) resources relative to other parts of the United States.  Our geographic location provides Virginia with less than optimal hours of sun light. Estimates of potential for solar vary greatly depending on how you estimate. Some include residential and commercial roof area while others estimate land area available for solar farms. Due to the high cost of manufacturing solar panels, building transmission lines and installing smart grids the availability of solar electricity in the mid-term (15-25 years) is very low. Solar electrical systems impediments are: capital cost, intermittency, transmission lines and land intensity required for large projects.

Can renewables be produced in a quantity and quality in Virginia that can be used for commercial electricity production? The answer is a very big maybe, hinging on proof of commercial viability, cost, new smart transmission lines and acceptance by Virginians. The utilities also need to figure out how to integrate these intermittent resources to act as a peak-load resource. Given all these variables renewable resources are not a near term answer. It will take a number of years to develop a system than can integrate renewables. That number could be as little as 15 years or more than 25, but the chance that Virginia will reach a renewable portfolio goal for utilities to generate 12 percent of base-year 2007 sales from renewable sources by 2022 is zero.


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