Earlier this month, a regional energy cooperative announced a deal to buy electricity from a wind farm in Pennsylvania.
Old Dominion Electric Cooperative (ODEC) is proud of its efforts to diversify beyond conventional generation sources and into more renewable ones for its customers in Delaware, Maryland and Virginia. Rightly so.
The announcement mentions other contracts to buy power from a landfill gas-to-energy project, a hydroelectric project and another wind power project yet to be built.
It's heartening to see a commitment to clean power, and any efforts — however small-scale — to purchase and transmit electricity generated by renewable sources.
That only leaves one big, dirty elephant in the room: ODEC's proposed coal plant in Dendron. This is the $4 billion coal-fired facility planned for a 1,600-acre site in this tiny town in Surry County. If built, it could generate up to 1,500 megawatts, enough to supply power to 375,000 customers.
By comparison, the 101 megawatts from the Pennsylvania wind farm is a puff of air.
This is not to downplay ODEC's relatively modest investments in clean energy. It's to encourage it to make even more of them.
Ideally, ODEC and every other power provider would drop plans for more outmoded, dirty power generation to aggressively pursue green energy and efficiency.
In fact, studies show that greater energy efficiency alone would enable Virginia to meet its increased energy needs even without the plant in Dendron. To that end, state Sen. A. Donald McEachin, a Democrat from Henrico, submitted a bill to require utilities to use energy efficiency to reduce consumption by 12.2 percent by 2022.
According to the Natural Resources Defense Council Web site, making just 5 percent of American homes twice as energy efficient per year would eliminate the need for almost 300 power plants by 2030 and save consumers billions in energy costs.
McEachin's supporters claim his bill could also create 10,000 new jobs in the state.
The Council says investments in clean energy create four times as many jobs as investments in traditional fuels. Spending $100 billion, for instance, would mean 2 million new jobs nationwide over two years.
If so, it would be more cost-effective to drop plans for the Dendron plant and invest that $4 billion in clean energy development, instead.
The debate over energy usually gets whittled down to money and jobs — necessary, but short-sighted. The long view is, for many of us, the more compelling.
Coal is called our dirtiest energy source for a reason. A lump may keep our lights on for a while, but its impact is nearly forever.
First, extracting it often involves highly controversial mountaintop removal — most prevalent in Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee. The mountain is blasted and scraped away to get to the coal seams beneath — our commonwealth has already lost 67 mountains this way.
Scientists writing in Science magazine this month called for an end to this practice for its "pervasive and irreversible" damage to the environment, human health and aquatic life.
Burning coal then pollutes air, land and water, and generates millions of tons of contaminated waste containing about 100,000 tons of toxic metals every year, which we can only hope to dispose of safely. There are no federal regulations over how to store it, and state rules are inconsistent.
The pollutants can cause heart attacks, strokes, cancers, respiratory ailments, birth defects and asthma, and take nearly 25,000 lives a year.
Finally, lest we forget, coal is considered our country's leading source of global warming pollution.
James Hansen, NASA's top climate scientist, calls coal "the single greatest threat to civilization and all life on our planet." He calls coal plants "death factories."
Hyperbole? Coal companies and power producers would certainly say so.
But even if coal were only the second, or fifth or 10th greatest threat, wouldn't that be incentive enough to think twice about committing billions of dollars and the next 50 years — a typical life span for a large coal plant — and turn instead to safer alternatives?
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