Virginia Regulatory Town Hall
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8/29/22  11:13 am
Commenter: Anonymous

Virginia power

You bet I have comments!  I wrote the editorial below shortly after the Virginia Clean Economy Act became law in 2020.  Some numbers may have changed in the past 2 years, but I believe my conclusions are reasonably (but likely not 100%) accurate.


This April 2020, Governor Northam signed the Virginia Clean Economy Act into law.  It doesn’t seem to have gotten much press coverage, even though it promises to have a revolutionary impact on Virginia’s electricity supply.  Here’s the opening sentence of the legislation summary:


“Establishes a schedule by which Dominion Energy Virginia and American Electric Power are required to retire electric generating units located in the Commonwealth that emit carbon as a byproduct of combusting fuel to generate electricity…”


That’s a pretty bold statement – it’s now Virginia law that virtually all current power plants in the state are required to be shut down.  The law also requires the electric utilities to produce their electricity from 100 percent renewable sources by 2045-2050, using energy derived from solar or onshore wind.  In addition, it requires them to acquire 3,100 MW of energy storage capacity (batteries), and to build 5,200 MW of offshore wind projects by 2035.


The shutdown of existing power plants is probably the most harmful feature of this law.  When fully implemented, it leaves Virginia with potentially zero capability to provide electricity during times of reduced sunlight or wind.  And prior to full implementation, Virginia’s current power plants will slowly wither and die, because no company in their right mind would invest in constructing, maintaining, expanding or modernizing any existing plant with a known shutdown date.


Who doesn’t like clean energy, right?  I think it’s amazing that energy can be produced by sunlight.  Wind turbines seem cool.  But as an engineer, my first thought was – is this really feasible?  I want to be very clear that I’m not an energy expert, but I do have a reasonable ability to analyze data and do a little math.  So, I searched for publicly available data on existing clean energy capacity.


According to the US Energy Information Administration, Virginia uses about 118,000 gigawatthours (GWH) of electricity per year.  How does that compare to the current state of the art?  I searched for the largest solar power facility in the world.  That title goes to Solar Star, which is located in the sunny Mojave Desert in California.  This facility covers an area of over 13 square kilometers and produces about 1,700 GWH per year.  So, if Virginia wanted to provide 100% of their electricity needs thru solar power, we would need to build a facility approximately 70 times the size of the world's largest, covering an area over 900 square kilometers!!!  And I’d like to remind you, Virginia is somewhat less sunny than the desert!  The reality is it would have to be even larger than 900 square kilometers.


Okay, I know we wouldn’t rely 100% on solar – there’ll be some sort of split between wind and solar.  How about wind power?  The largest onshore wind power facility in the world cost $2,900,000,000 to construct, has 600 turbines, covers 3,200 acres and produces 3,179 GWH of electricity per year.  So, if Virginia wanted to provide 100% of their electricity needs thru onshore wind power, we would need to build a facility almost 40 times the size of the world's largest!  Over 22,000 wind turbines coming soon to a location near you in Virginia – I’m sure that will go over well with the locals.  And if costs were linear, this new facility would set us back a cool $107 billion dollars.


Now let’s move on to the mandated 5,200 MW of offshore wind power, which is one of the world’s most expensive forms of energy productionThe world's largest offshore wind farm is off the east coast of Britain.  It consists of 174 wind turbines (1,218 MW total capacity), and cost approximately $4 billion dollars.  In order to comply with Virginia law, we have to build a wind farm over 4 times the size of the world’s largest.  740 huge wind turbines off the coast of Virginia at an initial cost in the $10's of billions of dollars - mind-boggling!  I’d also like to mention that the English Channel is relatively shallow.  The continental shelf off Virginia is approximately 10 times deeper than the channel – is it even possible to construct turbines that deep?  And because wind farms typically produce about 20-30% of their stated capacity because the wind doesn’t always blow, this mega-billion-dollar investment will produce a laughable 1,500 MW (or 1.5 GW) of electricity.  And finally, the lifespan of these massive machines exposed 24/7 to a saltwater environment is likely to be very short, requiring frequent and expensive rebuilding or replacement.  The costs are likely to be gigantic.


And now the final piece of the puzzle, the mandated 3,100 MW of energy storage capacity.  The most well-known current storage system is the Tesla Powerwall 2.0 battery, which stores 0.0135 MWh of electricity, costs about $6,000 apiece and last about 10 years under ideal circumstances.  I estimate we would need several hundred thousand of these units in order to comply with Virginia law, at massive cost (every 10 years).  Are you wondering how long this storage capacity would provide Virginia’s electricity demand?  Based on Virginia’s annual consumption, I calculate Virginia’s hourly consumption at 13,500 MW, which means these batteries would be used up after about 14 minutes.  (I sure hope my calculations are wrong, but I ran it several times because it seems so ridiculous).  So, if the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow for more than 14 minutes, Virginia’s electricity supply will equal zero!  And there’s no backup system because all the current power plants in the state will have been required to be closed.  I think it’s time to stock up on candles and electric generators!  Last time I checked, it’s dark more than 14 minutes per night.


If you’ve read this far, you might be thinking “hey, wait, we have tons of time to get all this in place, and I bet there’s going to be massive leaps in technology during that time to make these systems more efficient/less costly.”  The first parts of this new system need to be in place 15 years from now.  An immense undertaking like this, many, many times larger than any current effort on the face of the earth, is not going to magically appear overnight.  The process of design, environmental impact studies, permitting, inevitable lawsuits, procurement and construction will take many years to get rolling, so we don’t have nearly the amount of time you might think.  Finally, I agree (and am hopeful) that there will be increases in efficiency and decreases in cost in the future.  Great – even if we assume a doubling in solar and wind output efficiency and a 50% drop in costs, we’re still talking about an absolutely mind bogglingly expensive system sprawling across vast swaths of the state, and with virtually no capability to provide electricity during certain times (like, nighttime).


And don’t even get me started about the environmental impact of this system!  The vast amounts of farmland or forest gobbled up for ‘green’ energy farms, the massive quantities of steel, concrete, copper supply cables and environment-destroying rare earth elements required, and the waste produced to basically replace nearly 100% of this new system roughly every 10-15 years due to its short lifespan.


I almost forgot to talk about the financial impact on Virginia residents.  The Virginia State Corporation Commission (utility regulator) estimates that electricity rates will increase by a minimum of 24%.  Or, as I like to call it, a massive tax increase on the poor.  There are subsidies in the law to attempt to help the very poorest, but the hit will still be felt by almost all, especially at the lower end of the income scale.  The law also specifically ensures that the profit margins of the electric utilities don’t take too much of a hit.  This is a win-win for the utility companies.  They get to pass the costs on to consumers, while also earning a halo for their supposed investment in clean energy.  These increases in energy costs will ripple through the economy too, driving up costs of everyday items as companies raise costs to compensate for spending more on electricity.  And companies looking to expand or relocate to Virginia will take notice of the higher rates, likely causing an ‘invisible’ cost due to the loss of business-related tax revenue.


My assessment is that this scheme (which is now law) is the most foolish, ill-conceived, technically non-feasible, massively costly, unreliable and possibly life-threatening idea ever cooked up.  Ridiculous!

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