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What Happens When the Sun Isn't Shining? Virginia's Need for Renewable Backups

Solar panels gather sunlight.
John Raoux
Solar panels gather sunlight in Florida.

Virginia is in the midst of a transition from fossil fuels to renewable sources of energy. And, that transition will require new ways to store energy for when it's needed.

Solar power is great when the sun is shining, and wind energy is fine when the wind is blowing. But what happens when Virginia has transitioned away from fossil fuels and energy demands peak during the hottest day of the summer or coldest day of the winter?

Harry Godfrey at Virginia Advanced Energy Economy says the transition to renewables will require innovation.

"The fossil fuel plants are generally dispatch-able. You flip a switch and the plant turns on and it provides more electricity provided you have the coal provided you have the natural gas or oil flowing into it," Godfrey explains. "With wind or solar, we can't flip on a switch and turn on the wind or turn on the sun. So as we make that transition we need backup power to bridge those differences."

Andrew Foukal at Charlottesville-based East Point Energy says large-scale battery projects are one solution.

"Lithium ion batteries have been around for a long time. Most of us have cell phones and laptops that have lithium ion batteries that we sleep next to every night," says Foukal. "But the reality is that when you have larger projects, especially in urban environments, which is an important part of where we’re headed, that's something we need to address."

Boards of supervisors and city councils across Virginia will need to wrestle with these land-use issues as Virginia makes the transition to renewable energy; one land-use proposal at a time.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Michael Pope is an author and journalist who lives in Old Town Alexandria.