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Virginia's energy transition: More power from the sun than from coal in 2021

If you think back on why 2021 was an important year, you might find little to celebrate, but for Bill Shobe, who studies energy economics at the University of Virginia, it was historic.

In 2021 Virginia generated more power from solar than from coal.
In 2021 Virginia generated more power from solar than from coal.

“Virginia was number four in the country among the states in installation of solar facilities, and in 2021 we actually generated more electricity using solar energy than we did using coal!” he says.

And nationally, another renewable resource had its big moment on March 29th of 2022. The U.S. generated more electricity from wind than it did from coal.

You might think that was bad news for this state’s coal industry, but Shobe says we’ve actually been importing coal for years.

“People usually think about our coal as coming from southwestern Virginia, but in recent years the coal we have used for generating electricity has come from Pennsylvania, Kentucky and West Virginia. The coal in southwestern Virginia is actually of a quality that makes it better for use in making steel.”

That’s because our resource – known as metallurgical coal -- burns hotter than what other states produce, so our coal industry is actually doing well, and he argues the shift to solar power has been good for the state’s economy overall.

“The money that we would have spent buying coal from Pennsylvania and Kentucky and from West Virginia is now being spent locally, so we have sort of a double benefit. We’re getting cheaper electricity, because we’re using a less expensive way of generating the electricity, and we’re buying it from ourselves, rather than sending the money outside the state.”

Companies that produce natural gas are also faring well. For years there was an oversupply – pushing prices down, but the Sierra Club’s Ivy Main says that changed over the last two years, with prices for methane tripling.

The war in Ukraine has produced growing demand for U.S. gas, pushing its price even higher, making solar and its falling prices even more attractive. Bill Shobe adds that solar arrays are especially popular in rural areas with few ways to pay for public services.

“Once the facility is built, it’s paying into the tax base without making any substantial demands on local services." he explains. "For localities rich in land resources, this can be a very substantial contribution.”

And Dominion Energy is still committed to building the nation’s largest offshore wind farm. Shobe says that will be expensive, since there are no economies of scale, and Virginia might be wise to wait until other states take the plunge. Once New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts and North Carolina put turbines off their coasts, he thinks the price of offshore wind will drop dramatically. On the other hand, he and Ivy Main can see why Virginia might press ahead.

“If Virginia sat back and waited, we would not be getting the investments in port infrastructure and the manufacturing -- the supply chain businesses,” she says.

Whatever the state decides to do, Shobe notes we are already seeing a big benefit from our growing reliance on green energy. Right now the sun produces just four percent of our power – but coupled with hydro-electric plants, the state has cut its greenhouse gas emissions from power generation by ten percent.

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief