Recent legislative action by the General Assembly has brought solar and wind power plans to the forefront. At the present time, only 1% of Virginia power comes from solar cells. And there is no utility-level wind farm serving the state. In West Texas, wind and solar farms are common. They are commingled with large ranches and farms or oil fields. Or are in scrubby desert land only found attractive by jack rabbits amd snakes. In Virginia we love our rolling meadows too much to cover them up. Recently, however, two new renewable energy projects have been announced: 500 megawatt of solar power in Pittsylvania County and 150 megawatts of wind power in Botetourt County. The question is: are these projects significant in terms of Virginia total power?
First, note that renewable power ratings are MAXIMUM power obtained under ideal conditions. Take solar. 500 megawatts of solar power is the power output with full sun. To get the average power figure, you multiply 500 megawatts by the number of sun hours for Virginia (4) = 2000 megawatt hrs. The average solar power per day is then 2000/24 = 83.3 megawatt. You can get this figure more quickly by dividing the maximum power by 6. For average power for wind just divide the maximum by 4, in this case 150/4 =37.5 megawatts. Together these two project yield an average power of 120.8 megawatts. Is this significant? No. Not even close. According to the Virginia State Corporation Council, total average Virginia power generated from power companies and power co-ops is about 22,000 megawatts. 120.8 megawatts of renewable power is .5% of this. Doesn’t move the Virginia power needle.
What can you expect from renewables? Among large industrialized countries, Germany leads. “On the average,” Germany gets 49% of it’s power from wind and solar. The word “average “is important here. When the sun shines and the wind blows, renewables provide as much as 70% of Germany’s power! But, on cloudy, calm days that drops to 15%. So back up power is needed to address this. For years they had significant nuclear power, which could do this. But in 2011, after the Japanese tsunami nuclear accident, Germany immediately shut down 17 of it’s 22 nuclear power plans, and promised to shut down the remaining by 2022.
To replace nuclear, they have used dirty coal power as a back up, but this has stopped the decrease in their carbon footprint. Another important point is that renewable power, today, is used near where it is generated. Texas and California have achieved 20% wind and solar but it is generated locally. Germany planned to build 7,700 km of power lines to move renewable power from the North Sea area to the industrial south. Due to public opposition, only about 10% of these lines have been built. The public hates transmission lines as much as it hates pipelines.
In summary, industrialized nations can achieve 50% renewable power provided that backup power is available. If you are afraid of nuclear, you use natural gas. That’s why Germany is building a natural gas pipeline with Russia. We need the Mountain Valley Pipeline for the same reason.
Virginia’s Governor Ralph Northam’s administration has set the following goals for renewables as a percentage of total power: 30% by 2030 and 100% by 2050. The 30% goal is not realistically achievable but is worthy of discussion. The 100% goal is laughable, an insult to the intelligence of the Virginia voter. No one knows how to do it.
And don’t mess with the power company like they have in California where they forced them to spend powerline maintenance money on renewable projects. Power companies are not saints but technically they know what to do. And If we have ice storms during January and February and your power goes out, don’t call the Sierra Club. Don’t call the governor. Call Appalachian Power. They will answer, and can fix the problem. In fact, they are probably already on it. And note that the Montgomery County anti-pipeline tree sitters are also probably not in their trees during cold icy weather They are toasty warm in their homes, likely heated by natural gas, which the Mountain Valley Pipeline will provide.
Armstrong is a professor emeritus of electrical and computer engineering at Virginia Tech. He lives in Blacksburg.
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