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A Virginia Clean Economy: Perspective from Stanford’s Solutions Project

Massive improvements in Virginia's energy efficiency; massive increases in offshore wind, utility-scale solar...


by A Siegel

In seeking to legislate paths to achieve a “clean economy,” one thing Virginia legislators do not lack are substantive and thoughtful road maps to look at and leverage. As per a post the other day:

For decades, people have been working on and considering how to get Virginia on the path toward a clean energy future. And, with plunging prices for clean energy paths (solar, wind, storage (batteries), efficiency (think LED lights), electric transportation, etc) with increasing climate impacts and understanding of climate risks along with increased business pressure for and actions to advance clean energy along with incoming full Democratic control of the Virginia government, the stage is more than set for moving from considerations and working on to making serious moves to achieve that prosperous, resilient, and secure clean energy future for the Commonwealth and all Virginians.

That post took a quick look at then candidate McAuliffe’s 2009 “Comprehensive Long-Term Plan for Virginia’s Energy Future.” In the spirit of highlighting material worth looking at while formulating “Virginia Clean Economy” legislation, following is a brief discussion of the Stanford Solutions Project and its vision for a 100% renewable powered Virginia by 2050.

Co-founded by Professor Mark Jacobson, the Solutions Project (and the associated 100.org) is analyzing climate mitigation through the energy sector: how to, essentially, eliminate carbon emissions due to human use of/need for energy services. This is about “energy” (total energy uses) and not just “power” (electricity generation). Jacobson and his team have done a wide range of analysis and their work supports a proposition that the humanity’s entire energy requirements can be met (not just cost effectively but with boosted economic performance even without direct consideration of climate impacts) with WWS systems.

WWS? Wind, Water, Solar.

Within their work, The Solutions Project sees no requirement for (actually, rejects) additional investment in fossil fuel infrastructure of any sort nor need for new nuclear power generation. This is due both to an assessment of WWS energy system viability and basic cost analysis showing nuclear electricity generation unable to compete on a level-playing field with WWS anywhere in the world.

Across the board, albeit at different timelines and with significant variations in the WWS mix, The Solutions Project assessment is that humanity can move to carbon-free generation of all required energy services (for the built environment, transportation, agriculture, industry) by 2050 even while, again, fostering improved economics. We’re talking about a clean-energy future that won’t just pay for itself but which will provide indefinite returns on that investment.

The Solutions Project has provided basic road maps and analytical assessments of those returns for the globe, countries, regions, and, within the United States, states. For Virginia (see graphics below), the key points are:

  • 2050 Energy Mix
    • 60% wind (50% offshore, 10% onshore)
    • 38% solar (utility-scale PV 25.5%, Residential rooftop 4.2%, Large rooftop 3.5%, CSP 5%)
    • 2% miscellaneous (tidal turbines, wave, hydroelectric)
  • Significant total reduction in energy demand due to energy efficiency
    • Over 40% reduction in energy requirements
    • Even with economic and population growth
  • Benefit streams include
    • Over 145,000 jobs (permanent positions)
    • Over 1,350 fewer (premature) deaths due to pollution, per year
    • Over $140 lower energy costs, per person, per year
    • Nearly $7,000 in total benefits per person, per year

Something to consider, when thinking about the numbers above and the graphics below, is that this is ‘dated’. Done several years ago, the key data inputs related to clean energy costs are from 2013. Solar, wind, battery prices have continued to plunge since then and are, in many cases, already well below costs then predicted for perhaps a decade from now. In some cases, such as offshore wind, some project prices are now below what were optimistically as the best price that would ever be achieved. E.g., if done with current data, projected total completion and power productions costs would be lower and the energy costs savings would be even (likely significantly) higher.

For creating a path forward to a Virginia Clean Economy, there is much to The Solutions Project vision, even as there are substantive reasons to question and challenge whether it proves “the” path forward.

  • Virginia’s electricity generation currently has a large share provided by nuclear power. Certainly, as long as it can continue to operate safely, this zero carbon emission generation should be maintained — until, at minimum, all fossil fuel generation is removed from the grid and/or all fossil fuels are eliminated from Virginia’s economy. And, that seems likely to be at least until the mid-2040s if not later.
  • The inclusion of CSP – Concentrating Solar Power (which, btw, I have had experienced with) is unclear in specific value for Virginia. Perhaps to support industrial heat requirements? For its energy storage value streams?
  • etc.

Still, the Solutions Project concept should intrigue anyone concerned about creating a Virginia Clean Economy. The next step: securing the research and data behind this infographic to assess the analysis, review the data, and determine how much of this road map can and should be incorporated into Virginia’s Clean Economy path forward.


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