August 22, 2015
Opinions, Virginia

Pulling the plug on Virginia’s bogus coal-vs-renewables argument

By Peter Galuszka | The Washington Post | August 21 |

Jenna Portnoy has a very interesting piece about the conflicts over plans by Dominion Virginia Power to put wind turbines on mountains in the heart of the coalfields of Southwest Virginia.

Despite the decline of the coal industry in the state, many local residents oppose the wind turbines because they would soar 400 feet in the air and ruin views of the Appalachian Mountains that are truly spectacular.

This is a pressing point because as the area weans itself away from coal, one alternative is tourism banking on the region’s natural beauty. If that beauty is tarnished, then it will be harder to attract visitors. Thus, the Tazewell County’s Board of Supervisors is opposing Dominion’s plans to erect 40 turbines along eight miles of remote ridgelines.

I am particularly interested in the region because I spent part of my childhood in West Virginia and have reported from the area many times.

Even more interesting than the conflict that Portnoy explores is how the blogosphere is reacting.

A left-leaning Blue Virginia blogger points out that wind is a far less destructive power source than mountaintop-removal strip mining for coal. He has a point.

Right-leaning Bearing Drift is using the story as a kind of “A-Ha!” moment that supposedly shows the fallacy of renewable energy.

Trouble is, Dominion Virginia Power has the worst record in the Mid-Atlantic for putting up wind or solar. Utilities in Maryland, West Virginia and North Carolina are far ahead. One reason is that thanks to Dominion’s political donations, the General Assembly has made it voluntary for energy companies to set renewable portfolio standards that require that a certain percentage of generation come from renewable by certain dates.

Such standards are mandatory in North Carolina and Maryland. They were as well in West Virginia until the legislature there made them voluntary this year, in part to provide a cushion against the collapse of the coal industry because of a flood of natural gas from fracking and tougher regulations.

The bottom line, however, is that the coal-versus-renewable argument in Southwest Virginia is bogus. Virginia has never been a major coal producer. Coal employment peaked in the 1990s. The region has been trying to diversify its economy with other jobs, such as call centers, for years.

What’s more, a lot of the coal in Virginia is the very-high-quality type that can be used either for electricity generation or to make steel. There’s no point comparing wind turbines with digging up coal that’s going to be exported to blast furnaces in South Korea, China or Europe.

One point remains constant, however: Southwest Virginians, as with all of the residents of the Central Appalachians, still are pawns of players outside of the region. In late 1800s, many were cheated out of mineral rights by out-of-town coal firms or railroads. They had to endure coal mine fatalities of loved ones. They ended up with some of the nation’s highest cancer rates because of water and air pollution from surface mining. They still suffer some of the worst poverty rates in the country since most of the wealth from coal left the region in rail cars.

So, it’s no wonder they feel threatening by outsiders pushing big turbines on them. As for Dominion, it is curious it is pushing wind power on mountaintops when it pulling the plug on pilot-project turbines offshore of Virginia Beach where they can’t be seen.

Peter Galuszka is a regular contributor to All Opinions Are Local.

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