Recently, Gov. Ralph Northam (D), signed state Executive Order 43, which sets goals for Virginia institutions, such as JMU, to have 30% of their energy consumption come from renewable sources by 2022. Additionally, it calls for the state to produce 100% carbon-free electricity by 2050.
Over the next two years, JMU will have to make the shift to consuming a greater amount of energy from renewable sources than it has in the past.
“Institutions like JMU and other state agencies are going to need to determine how to adjust their power procurement so that a greater portion is coming from non-carbon emitting sources,” John Miles, professor and executive director for JMU’s Center of Advancement of Sustainable Energy, said.
Other state universities, such as the University of Virginia, have been exploring options for clean energy as ways to contribute power to the school’s energy grid since 2015.
“U.Va. is involved in large solar projects off their campus and also installing solar on their campus,” Miles said. “The need for JMU now is to explore additional options for clean power, both on campus and off.”
JMU currently produces energy from solar panels and a wind turbine on campus that generates about 1,000 watts of energy, roughly enough to power one classroom, but will need to explore more sources of renewable energy production in accordance with the executive order.
“[The solar panels and wind turbine] were intended primarily for educational purposes,” Miles said. “They both function, and they both produce clean power, and that power is transmitted to the university’s power grid. But the amount of power they produce is minuscule in the overall demand for power on campus.”
Dustyn Vallies, the outreach coordinator for the Center for the Advancement of Sustainable Energy, emphasized the need for these renewable energy systems on a larger scale to provide more power.
“There are power plants specifically that use coal and natural gas,” Vallies said. “Well, you can also have similar, larger renewable energy systems. Like where you see thousands of acres of solar panels.”
The order doesn’t address the current use of fossil fuels in Virginia, which some, such as Food and Water Watch, were quick to criticize. The use of fossil fuels like gasoline and diesel is federally regulated and not something Northam could change in one executive order.
“Standards for things like gasoline and diesel that are national in scope … States don’t have the authority to do their own standards or different standards unless they get a waiver under the Clean Air Act,” Jim Caldwell, an environmental engineer for the Environmental Protection Agency, said. “We also have renewable fuel standards, which require that refiners use a certain amount of renewable content in their gasoline and diesel fuel.”
Much of this renewable content in gasoline and diesel comes from ethanol found in corn. Cleaner fuel, in addition to the move to incorporate more renewable energy at the state level, is an important step toward a greener country, Northam said.
“There’s a lot of interesting things going on with renewable energy,” Caldwell said. “Solar farms, I think, have the most promise.”
He pointed out that it’s interesting to consider that the potential for solar farms in and near Harrisonburg is “good” due to the large amount of farmland.
Additionally, under the order, Apex Clean Energy, Dominion Power and the state of Virginia came to terms of agreement regarding the creation of many large solar projects and a wind farm. Apex will build Virginia’s first wind farm by 2021 in Botetourt County, which is two hours south of JMU. This means that homes in the Shenandoah Valley will be powered in part by commercially produced wind energy, something that hasn’t happened in Virginia before.
“Virginia has been a little bit slow to engage in this way,” Miles said. “We’re one of only a handful of states in the mid-Atlantic up to the northeast that doesn’t yet have a wind farm. So, we will soon join those ranks.”
Vallies is one of the administrators for the Distributed Wind Assistance Program. The DWAP helps small businesses and agricultural producers in Virginia better use natural wind resources.
Wind resources across the state aren’t as consistently available as solar energy due to Virginia’s climate and geography, but there are many ideal locations in southwest Virginia and offshore for large, utility-scale wind farms. While Harrisonburg itself may not be the ideal location for a utility-scale wind farm, renewable wind energy is already used on a small scale throughout the Shenandoah Valley, Vallies said.
“In this outreach, we really have to focus on not only where the farmers and small businesses are, but we also have to find where it’s windy and can be economically viable,” Vallies said.
Vallies explained how renewable energy generated from small-scale projects such as these count toward Northam’s energy production goals. Meeting these goals isn’t entirely the responsibility of large companies like Apex Clean Energy.
“The individual has a role to play as well, and that’s with distributed energy generation,” Vallies said. “Individuals, small business owners, farmers, even small residences can take advantage of renewable technology and also contribute to achieving this vision and this goal of having more renewable energy as part of [Virginia’s] energy portfolio.”
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