Every minute of every day, as Virginians turn on lights and computers and air conditioners, the new power plant in Wise County will send on average 10 tons of greenhouse gases into the already overheated atmosphere. That’s 605 tons an hour, a fearsome 5.3 million tons a year. That’s because last month, Dominion Virginia Power turned on its massive new facility that burns coal but includes zero technology for controlling the carbon-dioxide emissions that contribute to heating the planet. Estimates are that this 585-megawatt facility will increase Virginia's output of carbon dioxide to more than that of New Jersey, which has 1 million more people than Virginia. The commonwealth will also have the odious distinction of having one of the last coal plants to come online in this country — odious because its emissions far exceed inevitable federal regulations designed to capture power plant pollutants that are baking the planet and wrecking the climate.
Dominion’s timing in firing up this plant couldn’t be more poignant or distressing for Virginians. Less than two weeks before the plant went online, more than a million homes and businesses in the commonwealth lost power for days after a sudden and deadly “derecho” that was fueled along its 600-mile course by energy from an intense heat wave that stretched from Illinois to Washington. No one storm or heat wave can be directly linked to climate change, but scientists say that burning coal and other fossil fuels traps heat in the atmosphere, which in turn can trigger record-breaking temperatures, droughts, forest fires and extreme storms like this summer’s deadly onslaught. In May, for example, the contiguous United States experienced the “warmest spring, warmest year-to-date, and warmest 12-month period the nation has experienced since recordkeeping began in 1895,” the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported.
So, Dominion better hire more linemen and a bigger PR team, because more extreme weather and resulting outages are forecast in the years ahead.
Dominion named its new plant a Hybrid Energy Center, an Orwellian marketing ploy that would have you envision green and clean. True, Dominion made modifications that significantly cut the amount of air pollution in the original application, including large decreases in mercury and sulfur-dioxide pollution. But these improvements came only after vigorous protests: Over five years and through several lawsuits, a united front of students, human rights activists, environmentalists and faith groups fought Dominion over this plant. Our supporters testified and protested, argued in lawsuits and sang; they delivered a petition with 42,400 signatures on a roll of paper that stretched for a mile; some went to jail. They knew that Dominion was building for the short-term when we needed solutions for the long-term. But Virginia regulators allowed the plant to move forward anyway.
The plant is “hybrid” in that 20 percent of what it burns is wood. But the latest science says that burning wood to make electricity won’t reduce carbon emissions for 35 to 50 years, far too late to prevent the worst outcomes from global climate change. If this biomass is Dominion’s definition of “renewable,” then the company simply doesn’t get it. Meanwhile, Virginia has no utility-scale wind or solar power, the technologies that truly help to lower greenhouse gas pollution.
Dominion’s shareholders and executives will profit from this new plant, but have no doubt that the average Virginian will not. Although Dominion claims this was the most economical way for it to produce energy, customers will pay dearly in the short and long run for this insistence on burning fossil fuels. When extreme weather brought on by climate change knocks out the power, we will pay when we have to toss out a refrigerator’s worth of spoiled food. We will pay when we have to stay at a hotel to escape a steamy home. Some will even pay with their lives, as 16 Virginians did in the recent heat wave and derecho.
Virginians will also continue to pay mightily to be on the frontline of climate change as rising temperatures lead to rising seas. Coastal Norfolk residents pay to replace appliances when their houses flood. Taxpayers pay to subsidize insurance there, to elevate houses and roads and even to raise the piers at the Norfolk Naval Station.
Meanwhile, Dominion’s dependence on burning fossil fuels will continue to bring extreme weather and rising oceans. As the temperatures climb, we will rely even more on our air conditioners, and Dominion will pump a few more tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere on our behalf, heating the planet a little more, making our air conditioners work harder, and so spewing even more carbon into the atmosphere—guaranteeing an even warmer planet, more heat waves, the need for more AC, more droughts, more extreme weather, more power outages … and on and on.
Dominion customers want the company to start generating clean wind and solar power, instead of expanding its greenhouse-gas-belching fleet. We'll applaud Dominion the day that its first utility-scale wind or solar power facility goes online in the commonwealth. Until then, Virginia remains one of only nine states with none.
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