The dirty secret behind D.C.’s high-tech Virginia suburbs
There’s a chance the presidential election will come down to who wins the state of Virginia. And the key to winning Virginia comes down to who does well in the D.C. suburbs of northern Virginia. This area is an economic powerhouse where no fewer than one in three Virginia voters live. Just mention the words “northern Virginia” across the mid-Atlantic region and the hyphenated adjectives come back at you: Fast-growing, high-tech, well-educated, high-income.
No wonder the presidential candidates can’t seem to stay away from the area. Despite perennial traffic congestion, “NoVa” has that certain gleam of 21st century life, from the glitzy high-rises of Rosslyn to the corporate campuses around the Dulles airport to the performing arts stage at a place called Wolf Trap. Fairfax County alone, the heart of the region, has a higher percentage of high-tech workers than Silicon Valley.
So, as the election approaches, here’s the surprising question for every Northern Virginia voter: Why is this high-tech region, so dedicated to a “knowledge-based” economy, utterly dependent on an energy system as old as the Confederate States of America? Northern Virginia gets the lion’s share of its electric power not from wind turbines or solar farms, but from coal. A shocking 1,180,400 tons of raw coal each year, nearly half of the area’s total load. And it’s not “clean coal” or “high-tech” coal. Just black, sooty, rip-it-from-the-ground-and-set-it-on-fire coal.
You’d think it would be different. You’d think Northern Virginia would be a leader in developing clean, sustainable energy at a level equal to its high-tech, high-education status.
You’d think. But two roadblocks stand in the way: Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine (D) and mega-utility Dominion Power. Both Kaine and Dominion are implacably wedded to coal. Forever, apparently. No matter what the economic and ecological cost. Indeed, while the equally high-tech suburbs of Denver build new wind-turbine factories and the outer-D.C. suburb of Frederick County, Maryland, is expanding a major solar-panel plant (owned by British Petroleum), Dominion Power just broke ground on a new coal-fired power plant it says is necessary because of rising energy demand throughout Virginia. Where is demand rising fastest, according to Dominion? Northern Virginia. And the threat is explicit, Dominion says. Unless the new 585-megawatt plant, using mountaintop-removal coal and totally lacking any equipment to capture global-warming pollution, is built, there will be rolling blackouts and brownouts across Virginia soon.
Did you know that, Northern Virginia? Did you know Dominion is building a massive coal-burning energy complex essentially in your name? In addition to emitting more than 5 million tons of greenhouse gases annually, the coal plant in southwest Virginia will dump 5.4 pounds of mercury into local streams and lakes annually.
But perhaps the biggest tragedy is Gov. Kaine’s argument that the plant will actually create jobs. The state’s own official analysis, performed by the State Corporation Commission, concluded otherwise. It determined that the high price tag of the plant — a whopping $1.8 billion — would actually raise ratepayers’ rates so much as to cause the entire Virginia economy to shrink by 1,400 jobs. The plant would hurt, not help, working families in the state.
If you want jobs, look at what Xcel power is doing in Colorado. Until recently, Xcel was a coal-at-all-costs company like Dominion. But the firm has now seen the truth: In a world of rapid global warming and rising fossil-fuel costs, the future lies in wind and solar. As you read this, Xcel is preparing to voluntarily shut down two old coal plants. It is simultaneously investing heavily in wind power and solar; construction of two new turbine manufacturing plants near Denver was just announced, creating 1,350 new jobs in the state. Doesn’t that sound like an approach more befitting of Virginia’s high-tech corridor?
Ironically, Gov. Kaine was just in Denver for the Democratic convention. Did the Governor tour the new Xcel wind-turbine factory sites? Did he meet with company officials to see how they do it? No. Instead, he was a guest of honor at a fancy convention party thrown by, yep, Dominion Power. The same company building the coal plant in Virginia. The same company that’s given Kaine nearly a quarter million dollars in campaign contributions since 2001. Hmmm.
The truth is this: Virginia doesn’t need more power in the future. Virginia uses too much power in the present. The state is one of the most energy inefficient states in America, ranking 32nd in terms of utility and state government investment in efficiency programs. Its people use more electricity every day than 75 percent of the rest of America. Surely we could do much, much better.
Just switching to high-efficiency light bulbs will save energy equal to half of what the proposed new coal plant will create. Installing “Smart Meters” in homes and offering rebates for high-efficiency refrigerators would save several times more power, making the new coal plant and the alleged threats of blackouts utterly impossible. And consumers will save money not lose jobs in the process. Then add a couple of large offshore wind farms along the Virginia coast, and suddenly Virginia is a clean energy leader, not laggard.
If it’s true that Obama and McCain are listening to the wishes of Northern Virginia voters more than ever, then it’s time for the wealthiest, best-educated, and most high-tech people in this region to finally speak with a loud voice: Coal was for yesterday. Clean energy is for today. It’s time to choose.