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Virginia is Well-positioned to Create Jobs by Addressing Climate Pollution

Walton Shepherd

Posted June 12, 2014

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There was good news last week in Virginia for job creators, coastal economies, electricity customers, and our children’s health when the US Environmental Protection Agency announced its new Clean Power Plan proposal: Virginia is well positioned to show that reducing its climate-change inducing carbon pollution is easily within reach, contrary to the already-debunked claims of big-polluter special interest groups.

Businesses are right to embrace the Clean Power Plan: by 2020 alone, according to NRDC modeling, limits on carbon pollution could create more than 5,600 new jobs in Old Dominion, contribute $517 million in energy savings for Virginia households, and significantly cut pollution in ways that will help prevent thousands of asthma attacks, heart attacks, lung cancer diagnoses and other illnesses. These benefits will accrue while also limiting the pollution that contributes to the sea level rise that already imperils Norfolk, Virginia Beach, and all of Virginia’s coastal communities.

These readily available economic and security benefits from shifting to a cleaner and cheaper economy are not surprising: the proposed rule is specifically tailored to the opportunities that already exist in Virginia.

So let’s take a look under the hood.

How Va’s target was set

Virginia’s target is NOT based on a national target, but is based on where Virginia’s energy supply already is, and where it can cost-effectively go. The EPA conducted extensive “bottom up” analyses that took into account the unique starting point, energy mix, and untapped resources of Virginia, to establish a specific and achievable emissions target.

As my colleague David Hawkins explains, and as is spelled out in more detail in this fact sheet, EPA took into consideration the carbon pollution reductions Virginia could cost-effectively achieve through four “building blocks”:

1) improved coal-plant efficiency (getting more electricity out a ton of coal);

2) making greater use of existing natural gas plants and those already under construction instead of burning dirtier coal;

3) growing renewable energy like wind and solar that is already being successfully tapped under existing (if modest) state policies -- in this case, Virginia’s Voluntary Renewable Energy Portfolio Goal -- and assuming 6% of existing nuclear generation; and,

4) ramping up energy efficiency savings from utility programs, such as weatherization and upgraded appliance rebates, that help families, businesses, and industry save energy and the money they spend on it.

Based on this formula of four achievable building blocks, Virginia has a carbon intensity reduction target of 38% in 2030 from 2012 levels.  (Carbon intensity is a measure of the amount of carbon pollution produced per unit of electricity generated.)

(And Virginia’s 2012 starting point is a rate of 1,297 pounds per megawatt hour (lbs/MWh), to decline 38% to 810 lbs/MWh in 2030. There’s also a 2020 “interim” target of 884 lbs/MWh, to be sure we are on the right track to hit the final goal.)  

But despite these “building blocks” used to set the target, the Commonwealth is the master of its own destiny: while EPA has set the final target based on what Virginia can already achieve, Virginia herself chooses exactly how to achieve that target. That’s the beauty of the Clean Air Act: it taps into the strengths and ingenuity of each state to curb dangerous pollution.

EPA also leaves it up to Virginia whether to enter into regional agreements for reductions, such as the successful Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative model. For example, since Virginia imports a great deal of electricity from its neighbor West Virginia, those two states might agree to more efficiently tackle their pollution together.

Where Virginia is now, and where it’s already going

Virginia has some good models already in place that will help achieve the state’s target in 2030.

EPA used conservative assumptions to generate its estimates for Virginia’s renewable energy and energy efficiency potential; Virginia could get significantly greater cost-effective reductions from efficiency and renewables  as part of a well-designed plan.

For starters, Virginia is already on a downward carbon trajectory, having reduced its carbon intensity by decreasing its reliance on the highest-polluting fuel sources. It is well-positioned to reduce its carbon output even further by tapping its considerable efficiency reserves and ongoing renewable energy innovation.

Virginia is already a hub of energy efficiency innovation in the private sector, as home to hundreds of companies, such as OPower, in a $300 million industry that already employs at least 9,400 people.

The public sector is making efficiency gains as well, with commitments by Arlington County, the City of Roanoke, and the University of Virginia to increase efficiency by at least 20%.

But this is just the beginning, as a recent report showed that Virginia could cost-effectively reduce its emissions via energy efficiency by 23% by 2030, using currently available technology. (In contrast, for purposes of setting Virginia’s target, EPA assumed cumulative energy savings in 2029 of only 12%.)

On the renewable energy front, while the state’s voluntary AEPS definitely needs to be strengthened, Virginia is poised to ramp up clean energy production.  The state will likely be the East Coast’s leader in zero-carbon offshore wind power, with over 100,000 acres leased and over $50 million in funding secured, to eventually produce up to 2,000 MW of electricity.  Already, a 12 MW demonstration project is underway.

Virginia is tapping its considerable solar potential as well, with a 2,000-panel project recently taking the lead as the state’s largest rooftop solar system, and up to 33 MW of additional capacity already slated for installation on rooftops across the state.

Unsurprisingly, then, both of Virginia’s investor-owned electric utilities have already exceeded the state’s voluntary renewable portfolio standard, which can be vastly improved in response to the Clean Power Plan.

With an administration committed to growing the state economy by further deploying clean energy technology, and with built-in momentum towards a diverse and lower-carbon energy system, Virginia has much to gain from the forthcoming carbon standards.

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James Richard TyrerJun 12 2014 09:17 PM

Just exactly how do you expect that (#1) improved coal plant efficiency could be accomplished? Wouldn't it be necessary to replace both the boiler and the turbine?

Have you done any analyses for Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina which are going to have new nuclear power plants? Georgia and SC now have them under construction and expect them to be in operation well before the end of the decade.

Walton ShepherdJun 16 2014 10:46 AM

Mr. Tyrer,

These are good questions: thank you for asking.

For improved coal plant efficiency, there is a whole slew of ways to improve efficiency, and it will be up to the states and plant operators to decide which ones make the most sense for each unit.

Overhauling the turbine is certainly one method (albeit one of the more expensive measures for improving heat rate efficiency). You’re correct that a variety of boiler system upgrades or optimizations might be made as well (e.g., the boiler control system can be upgraded with better software, the sootblowers can be made more “intelligent,” air heater leaks can be plugged, etc.).

Beyond the turbine and boiler, equipment upgrades can also be made across the plant, such as economizer replacement or improved acid dew point control. Additionally, there are also a number of no-cost or low-cost “best practices” like condenser cleaning and feed pump rebuilds.

The bottom line is, depending on the type of coal plant (pulverized coal combustion, fluidized-bed combustion, etc.), there are several, if not dozens, of cost effective ways to improve efficiency across the entire operation of the plant. Some of those methods may or may not have already been taken by the operator: which measures are most cost-effective will likely differ on a unit by unit basis.

Taken together, however, the EPA has estimated that a collective 6% heat rate improvement is possible (assuming Virginia decides to go that route in its own state plan).

For an exhaustive look at possible heat rate improvements at coal units, take a look at this study by Sargent & Lundy:

And here is the EPA’s own description of utilizing heat rate improvement at coal units as a way of reducing carbon pollution (see chapter 2):

As for your second question, states with nuclear units under construction (GA, SC, & TN) do indeed have higher carbon pollution reduction standards that must be met. Presumably, if the nuclear units under construction in those states are completed and the units come online, that portion of each states’ required reductions will be met.

For a visual representation of this, take a look at page 6 of this fact sheet, where the large green bars for those three states is largely made up of the addition of nuclear capacity:

Thank you again for your clarifying questions!

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