Welcome to Virginia’s Energy Conference, with your host King Coal

Posted by Nathan Jenkins | October 11, 2012 at 2:04 pm


Last week, Appalachian Voices and members of the Wise Energy for Virginia Coalition attended the Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell’s Energy Conference. Looking at the agenda, we were prepared for what would surely be a biased conference. But we didn’t know it would be this bad.

At every stage of the conference, the coal companies and electric utilities that survive on dirty energy completely suppressed the arguments for investment in energy efficiency and renewable generation. The state’s largest utilities, Dominion Virginia Power and Appalachian Energy, along with mountaintop removal giant Alpha Natural Resources, were the conferences top sponsors. Those sponsorships influenced the agenda, just as they influence in the Virginia General Assembly.

Virginia's energy policy is so concerned with how to keep coal relevant, Gov. McDonnell might as well wear his sponsors on his sleeve.

Dominion spent more than $5.5 million during the last decade in exchange for a hand in writing the laws under which it is regulated. That investment has proven worthwhile considering that Dominion stands to take in a $76 million bonus for spending less than $8 million on “clean” energy from other states, while building no new wind or solar in Virginia. This is just one of examples of corporate influence on energy policy reported in a white paper written by Appalachian Voices, the Sierra Club, and the Chesapeake Climate Action Network.

Use of coal for electricity generation is declining in the Southeast, largely due to market forces. While there is a lot of natural gas coming out of some of our neighbor states, we do not have much in Virginia. What we do have is a vast potential for energy efficiency and renewable generation, yet this conference refused to acknowledge this or take the rapidly growing wind and solar industries seriously.

One trademark of a good conference is a realistic, yet visionary opening session – one that takes off from where the industry is, with its latest on-the-ground successes, and then lays out an optimistic plan of where the industry could be in a decade or beyond. The Governor’s Energy Conference came nowhere close to reaching that ideal. Instead the speakers at the opening session entrenched themselves in Virginia’s current energy policy.

Inside the energy conference, coal remained king. Only outside was there a real discussion investing in Virginia's energy future.

The message was not where we can be or what we can do, it was where we have been and what we cannot do, or rather, should not try to do.

The CEO of American Electric Power, took the stage to caution consumers that they would be forced to pay for environmental controls necessary for coal plants to make them cleaner. He did not argue against the impact of regulations or their benefit to human health, but reminded everyone that shareholders need their guaranteed return or they will not invest. Another speaker from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said that we will have no change in our fuel sources for at least two decades even though “no one wants this.” Apparently, new coal plants need to be forced on us for our own good. Ironically, each speaker saw EPA regulations as overbearing, paternal, crushing – even as they spoke about shoving coal down our throats.

The conference went on in this form for two days. The natural gas industry got a nod, but coal was a foregone conclusion and the conference focused on how to make it relevant – over legal concerns, over environmental concerns, over everything but return on investment, coal must remain king.

What the conference seemed to forget is that there are other ways to get energy. It’s not just coal and natural gas. Yes, we want to turn our lights on, but we do not want to blow off a mountaintop to see our dinner. There are other ways to fuel our lifestyles and most of us would rather spend a bit more to get there. Dominion is charged with worrying about its shareholders, but Virginia’s energy policy needs to focus on all of us.

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