UNDER pressure from environmental groups pushing for renewable energy and the bipartisan 2018 Grid Transformation and Security Act, Virginia’s largest utility has embarked on an ambitious plan to zero-out its greenhouse gas emissions over the next 30 years.
But “net zero” does not mean that by 2050, Dominion Virginia Power will be relying entirely on solar and wind power. Although Dominion’s portfolio will include a lot more of those renewable energy sources, nuclear power and electricity made from natural gas will remain the mainstay of its power generation for the foreseeable future.
“We are raising the bar. We’ve made a new commitment to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions across all operations by 2050,” Dominion spokesman Aaron Ruby recently told The Free Lance–Star.
But what exactly does “net zero” mean in the real world?
For one thing, it means that the utility will be phasing-out its remaining coal-fired power plants in 18 states, including Virginia, although there is no firm target date yet on when that will happen. Ruby said the elimination of coal will depend on a combination of public policy initiatives, regulatory mandates and practical considerations, including the necessity of maintaining electric reliability.
And getting to net zero does not mean no more fossil fuels.
Dominion has already reduced its carbon dioxide emissions by half, and its methane emissions by a quarter by transitioning many of its coal-fired power plants to natural gas. But to complete the transition from coal, natural gas and nuclear power will necessarily have to remain a large part of the equation, contrary to the view of many fossil-free advocates who think that net-zero emissions can be achieved without them.
“There’s no way to get to net zero without natural gas,” Ruby acknowledged. “We’re retiring a large amount of coal-fired plants, but we still need to produce reliable energy around the clock.”
Even with the utility’s rapidly expanding portfolio of renewable energy projects, “we need quick-start natural gas plants to back it up,” he explained. A gas-fired “peaker plant” can be up and running, producing electricity, in under 10 minutes to provide backup power when intermittent sources like wind and solar fail to keep up with demand.
So how will Dominion get to “net zero” if it’s still using natural gas, which, though much cleaner burning than coal, still produces some emissions?
For one thing, Dominion plans to continue to generate electricity at its Surry and North Anna nuclear plants, which currently produce 40 percent of Virginia’s electricity with 100 percent zero carbon emissions. The utility has submitted 20-year license renewal applications to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and may ask for an extension to the extension if the nuclear plants are still needed beyond 2040.
Dominion is also increasing its carbon capture, particularly in agricultural operations where technology already exists to turn waste into clean energy. For example, a joint venture last year with Smithfield Foods will capture methane from hog manure and use anaerobic digesters to turn it into renewable natural gas that can be injected directly into pipelines.
After that, reforestation will be used to offset any remaining emissions from the utility’s natural gas plants—including replacing all the trees cut down to build new solar farms.
Some fossil-free advocates claim that natural gas can be eliminated altogether if Dominion would merely invest enough resources in its wind and solar facilities, and solve the intermittency problem with large-scale battery storage. But the people who actually produce electricity every day point out that the technology to do so is currently unavailable and will be for the foreseeable future.
In February, Dominion announced four new utility-scale, lithium-ion battery storage projects totaling 16 megawatts in Hanover, New Kent and Powhatan counties. The $33 million pilot project is designed to provide data on how to store and release power generated by solar farms and wind turbines, especially during times of high energy demand, and also how to manage the voltage differences caused by reverse energy flow into the grid.
“Dominion is investing in small-scale battery storage projects, and they have a lot of potential, but the technology is not mature,” Ruby said. “The available batteries do not have the capacity to power a major metropolitan area, much less during a winter blizzard in February. They’re nowhere close.”
That’s why natural gas cannot be phased out like coal, and why Dominion’s net-zero future will not be fossil-free, but is much more likely to look a lot like the present.