Virginia's Energy Transition From Laggard to Leader in a Decade...And Ambitions for the Work Ahead - by Dr. Dale Medearis

The Threat of Climate Change

Given the recent images of suffering from the fire-ravaged landscapes in Australia, California and other parts of the globe, it can be easy to despair about the threats from climate change. It is an understatement that the imperative to reduce greenhouse gases has never been greater as evidence emerges daily that current multilateral and national governmental efforts are insufficient. The darker news about greenhouse gas emissions pushing global average temperatures beyond the 2.0 Celsius threshold, the rising levels of the oceans, droughts and more frequent and intense storm events fuels even further a sense of despair and powerlessness.

But while the global and national-level governmental programs struggle to respond adequately to the threats of climate change, inspiration is still to be found in the US by the work of local and regional governments. This is especially the case at the start of 2020 in the Commonwealth of Virginia and the Northern Virginia region where local governments are the driving forces of innovation, leadership and outcome-oriented energy and climate planning. (Photo credit: LAist)

State Leadership

In September 2019, Virginia Governor Northam issued Executive Order 43 which orders that by the year 2050 100 percent of Virginia’s electricity will be produced from carbon-free sources such as wind, solar and nuclear. The Governor’s goal was not a baseless aspiration. It was grounded in the reality and confidence of the Commonwealth’s progression from energy laggard to energy leader.

This evolution started in 2007, and at a time when Virginia was ranked 43rd in the US for installed solar photovoltaic capacity, with fewer than 900kW. By 2020, Virginia had leap-frogged to 17th in the US with over 950 MW of installed capacity (Source: DMME). The forecast under conservative scenarios is that solar power potential in Virginia could be capable of providing 32.4% of electricity by 2030 (Source: NREL 2016). The effects of this progression can be seen state energy-related carbon dioxide emissions that dropped nearly 19%, between 2008 and 2016, from 128.9 to 104.2 million metric tons. (Source: EIA) (Photo Credit: VA-REA)

Growth of solar in Northern Virginia through December 2018. (Source: MWCOG)
In 2019 construction began on the Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind (CVOW) project with two turbines. The construction is being undertaken by Orsted in partnership with Dominion Energy. It is anticipated the work will be completed and turbines in service by the end of 2020. In September 2019 Dominion filed an interconnection request with PJM, the regional transmission organization that coordinates the electrical grid in all or parts of 13 states and Washington, D.C., to bring online more than 2,600MW of offshore wind. This commercial offshore wind project would be installed in three phases of approximately 880MW each. Pending regulatory approval, the first phase is expected to begin delivery of renewable energy in 2024, with additional phases coming online in 2025 and 2026. All three phases combined will provide enough energy to serve more than 650,000 customers. (Photo credit: Orsted)

Electric Schools Buses and Electric Vehicle Charging

Sustainable energy planning in Virginia and the Northern Virginia region is impossible to imagine without modernizing the state’s energy infrastructure, especially its transportation infrastructure and grid. By 2025, it is estimated that approximately 20% of Northern Virginia’s vehicles will be electric cars. But there is insufficient “fast-charge” infrastructure to manage this rising demand. As part of the Volkswagen settlement with the Commonwealth of Virginia, the Commonwealth has contracted with EVgo to install fast charger equipment in the region and beyond as funded by the settlement.

To complement this effort, Dominion Energy is making available an initial 50 electric school buses for 16 school districts across the Commonwealth, including Arlington County, Alexandria, Fairfax County and Prince William County. Dominion supports efforts to make 100% of all new school bus purchases electric by 2030 and is helping cover costs for wiring and charging stations for the school districts. (Photo Credit: Office of the Governor of VA)

Grid modernization for the Commonwealth will rely on the implementation of the Dominion Energy 2019 Grid Transformation Plan and especially the installation of smart meters to help inform customers about sustainable purchase and usage options. The work to build a resilient and self-healing grid must consider the important contributions of distributed energy systems, and specifically, the importance of ensuring resiliency of the system at the community level.

Ribbon cutting for new electric vehicle fast chargers installed by EVgo as part of contract with the Commonwealth of Virginia. Joining at the event were Delegate Mark Keam and State Senator Scott Surovell. Top right photo is of announcement of electric school buses by the Governor and Dominion Energy.

Regional and Local Leadership

While global and national-level market forces had a significant role in shaping and diversifying Virginia’s “energy transformation,” especially through the reduction of coal as a primary energy source, local governments such as Arlington and Loudoun counties played equally pivotal roles. For example, in 2009 Loudoun County developed and approved its precedent-setting Community Energy Plan – among the first comprehensive, data-driven and goal-oriented strategic climate mitigation plans in the United States. In 2011, Arlington County followed Loudoun with the development of its own Community Energy Plan. These two plans, and the others that have followed, provide a powerful demonstration of the ways that localities of Northern Virginia have pushed climate innovation and leadership.

Arlington County. The outcomes of this innovative spirit are substantial. For example, between 2009 and 2018, Arlington County’s solar PV capacity increased from 138 kW to over 2.8 MW. Arlington County has built three zero-emissions schools and was among the earlier pioneers of the Commonwealth to apply solar Purchase Power Agreements (PPA). Between 2007 and 2016, Arlington has dropped emissions of greenhouse gases nearly 30%, from 12.9 tons per person to 9.1 tons per person. At the same time, Arlington County was proving that “green” economic development helps fuel sustainable climate policies as it reduced total energy use in the non-residential sector (commercial buildings) by 14% amid expansion of the commercial office, hotel and retail development (Source: Arlington County 2020 Climate Report).

City of Alexandria. The City of Alexandria experienced and equivalent progression. In 2009, Alexandria became among the first cities in the United States to approve a comprehensive roadmap to frame sustainable development goals and guide implementation in climate and energy management. Alexandria’s “Eco-City” plan fused a range of City-wide energy efficiency, renewable energy, and comprehensive planning efforts. The outcomes have been stunning. For the period 2009 to 2018, Alexandria’s solar PV capacity grew from 97 kW to approximately 1.5 MW. For the period 2005 to 2015, and a 12% growth in population, Alexandria reduced per capita emissions of greenhouse gases by 22% to 11.0 MTCO2e (Source: MWCOG and City of Alexandria).

Energy Efficiency. Multiple regional energy and climate programs have also played fundamental roles in shaping Northern Virginia’s energy transformation over the last decade. Programs supporting energy efficiency of commercial buildings has been strengthened by the adoption of “Property Assessed Clean Energy” program (PACE).

PACE is a long-term loan (20-years or more), secured by liens with a priority status of a tax assessment that support clean energy on commercial buildings for applications of renewable energies, building retrofits or financing energy efficient lighting are often slowed in Northern Virginia by the absence of long-term, no-money-down finance tools. In Northern Virginia Arlington County, Fairfax County, Loudoun County and the Town of Dumfries have adopted PACE ordinances.

Solarize NoVA

Local solar programs in Northern Virginia have been supported over the past decade by broader regional efforts, especially the NVRC-led “Solarize NOVA” program. Solarize NOVA, is a non-profit, community-based outreach initiative sponsored by the NVRC and the Local Energy Alliance Program (LEAP) in which local governments support the expansion of solar PV. The core of Solarize NOVA is the facilitation of solar PV installation through bulk purchasing and free solar site assessments. Solarize NOVA also features the “NOVA Solar Map” that shows homeowners and business owners how much solar energy can be generated by the rooftop of their home and/or business. Concurrently, NVRC, in partnership with the National League of Cities worked to introduce more efficient means of administrating solar permits and approvals to overcome the often-cumbersome permitting processes that can account for as much as 64% of the total installed residential system price.

Since its inception in 2014, Solarize and the parallel efforts with SolSmart have contributed nearly 3MW of new solar PV power, 369 contracts worth over $8.7 million – as well as Northern Virginia’s recognition as one of the first SolSmart “Gold” regions in the entire United States.

Looking Beyond 2020 – “Sic Semper Climate Mutatio”

Looking ahead to 2050 and the attainment of Governor Northam’s climate objectives compels a greater urgency to act than that which characterized the last decade. To that end, Northern Virginia’s “energy transformation” will rely on four critical areas:

  1. Maintain focus on expanding renewable energy (especially solar);
  2. Sustainable energy management of data centers; and,
  3. Sustainable infrastructure; and,
  4. Maintaining sustainable climate partnerships with the Region's commercial, research, civil society and academic partners.

Solar Energy. Moving Virginia into the ranks of the top 10 solar producers of the US within the next decade is very much within reason. But this will require the Commonwealth to first raise this year the power purchase agreement (PPA) cap from 50 MW to 500MW and that for individual projects be raised from 1 MW to 3 MW. The establishment of state-level mandatory renewable portfolio standards would further benefit applications of solar in Virginia. A likely consequence is that trends such as those of Fairfax County will only continue to become stronger.

Last December, Fairfax County completed the largest PPA by a local government in the Commonwealth. The PPA included the purchase of solar energy generated by rooftop and carport/canopy solar arrays on county buildings. Approximately 1.73 MW hours are expected to be delivered to the County resulting in approximately $60 million in savings. The collateral economic effects from these changes could be huge. It has been estimated that every 20MW of added solar photovoltaic energy installed in Virginia currently generates $11.2 million of economic output and $5.4 million in earnings from salaries and wages, and 85 full-time equivalent jobs. At the present, Virginia employs approximately 4,000 solar workers at a growth rate of approximately 9% per year (Source: 2018 National Solar Jobs Census, Solar Foundation).

Data Centers. Northern Virginia is home to the most valuable data center market in the world. Hosting over 100 data centers and approximately 70% of all global Internet traffic, there are enormous environmental and economic benefits to focusing on the sustainable management of this energy attribute. The demand for energy to power Northern Virginia’s data centers is substantial and are projected to rise substantially – by 2019, there was over a Gigawatt of collectively commissioned electricity from data centers in the region. That the major data center and colocation providers of the region declared ambitious carbon neutrality targets is a massive advantage for the state and region’s climate programs.

For example, Amazon aspire to be climate neutral in their operations and parked purchases and use of renewables such as solar at the center of their data center business strategies. Given that data centers constitute approximately 3 percent of the current world’s greenhouse gases and that these emissions are projected to triple within a decade (Source: Computer world, August 2019). Northern Virginia’s success offers not only local, regional and national benefits, but global as well. The region’s economic and environmental health is tightly tied to the sustainable development and operationalization of its data centers.

Partnerships for Adopting Technical and Policy Innovations. A critical but overlooked element that has marked Virginia’s climate success and will remain a fundamental part of its energy future is the continued use of domestic and international partnerships to transfer and apply energy policy and technical innovations. Virginia Tech, George Mason University, and other research institutions have played critical roles as technical advisors in aiding local governments assess the multitude of technologies, outcomes and economics associated with energy transformation in Virginia.


The need to act on climate change in Virginia has never been greater. Governor Northam’s 2050 target has stirred new passion into the potential for Virginia to meet this goal. Local governments in the region are proud leaders of this innovative and creative drive.

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