Virginia is located on the East Coast of the United States, midway between the southern tip of Florida and the northern coast of Maine. The state stretches almost 430 miles west to east and includes the southern tip of the Delmarva Peninsula on the eastern side of the Chesapeake Bay. The coastal plain that occupies the eastern part of Virginia includes the nation’s largest coal export port. To the west, the flat coastal plain meets the rolling hills and basins of the Piedmont region along a boundary known as the Fall Line because it is characterized by rapids and waterfalls. However, most of the state’s hydroelectric power plants are further west, where the rolling hills of the Piedmont rise into the Blue Ridge Mountains. The valleys and ridges that occupy the western part of the state are parallel to the spine of the Appalachian Mountains and, along with the Appalachian Plateau, contain most of the state’s coal, the primary energy resource produced in Virginia. The Appalachian Plateau, which cuts across the southwestern corner of Virginia, also holds almost all the state’s crude oil and natural gas fields. Nearly two-thirds of Virginia is forested, and the state’s widely distributed forests hold abundant biomass resources. Virginia has offshore wind energy potential as well. Uranium, the source for nuclear fuel, has been discovered near the state’s southern border. The deposit, although not developed, may be one of the nation’s largest.
Natural gas fueled 60% of Virginia’s electricity generated in 2019 with nuclear supplying 30%, renewables 6% (which includes hydroelectric, biomass and a bit of solar).
Virginia’s climate is changing. Most of the state has warmed about one degree in the last century, and Virginia is one of seven states in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast to have record sweltering heat in July, 2020. Predictions are that by 2050, the typical number of heat days will increase from more than 10 days to nearly 60 days a year. Temperatures are not the only noteworthy statistic in Virginia. The sea is rising one to two inches every decade. Higher water levels are eroding beaches, submerging low lands, exacerbating coastal flooding, and increasing the salinity of estuaries and aquifers. And, in 2020 two Virginia cities experienced their wettest year on record. In the southwestern part of the state the city of Lynchburg picked up nearly 70 inches of rain, surpassing 2018 as the wettest on record. It was also 0.1 degree shy of their warmest year on record. Things played out similarly in the city of Roanoke, which saw nearly 63 inches of rain beating the previous record from 2018. Roanoke also tied 2012 and 2019 for the warmest year on record, with an average temperature of 59.5 degrees.
Any doubt about the state’s long-term commitment to renewable energy faded when Gov. Ralph Northam signed the Virginia Clean Economy Act in April 2020. Not only does it require Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power to be carbon-free by 2045 and 2050 respectively, but it also specifies that having a target of 16.7 gigawatts of solar power produced in Virginia would be in the “public interest.” Additionally, the bill promises to make the state a leader in offshore wind and in energy storage, to shutter nearly all of its coal-fired power plants, and includes provisions to cap energy bills for low-income households. By August, the governor officially joined the Regional Gas Initiative (RGGI), a cap-and-invest program in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic that places a limit on electricity sector emissions. Virginia is the first southern state to join.
The largest utility in Virginia, Dominion Energy began its response by divesting its natural gas holdings in November 2020 and then selling its Questar Pipeline subsidiary in October 2021. Dominion Chair, President and CEO Robert M. Blue said in a statement. “This transaction represents another significant step in our evolution as a company, allowing us to focus even more on fulfilling the energy needs of our utility customers and continuing growth of our clean-energy portfolio, including development of the largest offshore wind farm in North America.” Dominion also responded with solar and batteries, proposing 15 new energy projects and 32 third-party power purchase agreements, including 11 utility-scale solar projects, a standalone battery energy storage project, and a collaboration between Dominion and the Nature Conservancy to develop one of the first utility-scale solar projects on former surface mines in the coalfields of Southwest Virginia.
Five years ago, there were no utility-scale solar facilities in Virginia. Since then, they have exploded. In 2020, more than 1.4 gigawatts of solar were installed, making Virginia 4th in the country (behind only California, Texas and Florida). With this growth has come a building friction between the state’s ambitious renewable energy goals and the desire of many rural communities to preserve productive farmland and, their agricultural heritage.
Virginia is one of twenty-four states, along with Puerto Rico, committed to the U.S. Climate Alliance, which is working to implement policies that advance the goals of the Paris Agreement.