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Blowin’ in the wind

SoVaNow.com / January 24, 2018

You don’t have to look beyond Mecklenburg County to tell which way the winds are blowing in the energy world: with gale-force velocity against coal, a bit sideways for solar, but overall in a direction tilting strongly away from fossil fuels.

The latest blow to Southside’s ever-frail economy came this week with Dominion Energy’s decision to sideline the Mecklenburg Power Station in Clarksville (better known among those of us old enough to remember as the Mecklenburg Co-Gen plant, for the steam it once provided to Burlington Industries and Russell Stover Candies, two other relics from the past.) The Clarksville station is one of five old coal-fired plants in Virginia that Dominion is placing in “cold reserve storage,” which sounds like a description you could use for a burial casket. The move will cost the town and county some 30 jobs, which is cause for genuine sorrow. By dumb luck, I ran into a worker at the power station some months ago as we were standing in a store checkout line. He hinted this move was coming. “There’s no future in coal,” he said.

Employees usually know things. For all the talk about Making Coal Great Again, the handwriting on the wall is clearer than ever: According to Forbes magazine (Dec. 18, 2017), 27 coal-fired plants in the U.S. closed in 2017 — “roughly one every 15 days since Trump’s election,” the magazine notes — and just keeping existing coal plants open is often more expensive than building new solar and wind facilities. Advocates for coal generally try to pin the industry’s demise on Obama-era regulations, but what really has happened is that the market has spoken and coal’s day is over. All that’s left is the great unwinding.

The sting of losing the county’s only coal-fired generation station (after Kerr Dam, our only other generation facility, period) is lessened somewhat by the promising rise of solar power: in that area at least, Mecklenburg and Southside Virginia are hot properties. Construction of solar facilities offers the promise of hundreds, if not thousands, of short-term construction jobs locally — much the same way that the Virginia Southside Expansion, a natural gas pipeline running from Pittsylvania County to the new Dominion gas-fired power station in Brunswick, created hundreds of good-paying jobs in the area as it was being built. Whereas the gas pipeline was a one-and-done deal, solar projects are likely to be an ongoing source of employment. There are enough planned projects in the pipeline already (with more on the way) to create construction work in the county for years. Fun fact: the fastest growing jobs in America over the next decade will be as solar installers, followed by wind turbine techs, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. There’s money for all kinds of folks under the sun.

As I read headlines of the new administration doing demonstrably terrible things — pushing offshore drilling, opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska for oil exploration, approving permits for the Keystone XL pipeline — the one thing that provides some comfort is the knowledge that expensive, risky oil exploration becomes less feasible by the day with the rise of renewables. Over the next three decades, Bloomberg New Energy Finance estimates that investment in zero-carbon energy (which includes nuclear and hydropower) will be six times greater than fossil fuels, with wind and solar alone capturing nearly two-thirds of the expected $10 trillion in spending. This represents a sea of change in the world of energy and the environment. It’s also a huge opportunity for rural areas such as our own, where open land, sun and wind are ready-made resources.

So why, as noted above, is the wind blowing in an uncertain direction at the moment for solar? On Monday, the Trump Administration slapped a 30 percent tariff on imported panels from China and other low-cost producers. Unlike much of what the Trump White House does, this action does have some justification: low-cost imports have driven most solar panel makers in the U.S. out of business. (This is the story of Solyndra, which went belly up during the Obama Administration after receiving federal loan guarantees. It’s interesting how right-wingers have sought to scandalize a company that failed for the same reason so many have before, because of low-wage foreign competition.) There are two major manufacturers of solar panels left in the U.S., SolarWorld and Suniva, which account for relatively little solar-related employment. The real action on the jobs front comes with the building of new facilities, and the imposition of tariffs will be a drag on that. Not surprisingly, the biggest players in the solar business are opposed to the Trump Administration action that putatively is supposed to be of help to them.

Who knows, maybe this is all shaping up as a small part of the White House’s America-First trade policy — which won’t be nearly as straightforward as it sounds — or perhaps the Trumpies are deliberately trying to sabotage renewable energy development in the U.S. in order to prop up fossil fuel incumbents such as coal. If it’s the latter, the strategy is doomed to failure. Policy by Twitter is no match for the power of the marketplace. And for once, the greater market is shining on our area as brightly as the sun itself. We should embrace it.

Which isn’t to say we should take any comfort in the closing of Dominion’s Clarksville plant. What the energy marketplace gives (two new gas-fired plants in Brunswick) it can take away (a hometown coal installation.) It will be interesting to see how long bigger projects — such as the Clover Project in Halifax County, and Duke Energy’s two coal-fired plants in Person County, N.C. — hold out against the trend. (The larger of the two Duke facilities, the Roxboro Steam Station near Semora, is one of the largest coal plants in America, with four units producing 2,422 megawatts of electricity. It’s also a polluter with few equals.) The immediate pressure on coal may be alleviated by the Trump Administration’s contempt for clean air rules, but the overall dynamic is plain to see. And for once, the upside may play in our favor.

***
Winners, losers, blah blah blah: there’s your summary of the coverage out of Washington with the end of the three-day federal government shutdown Monday. The conventional wisdom says Democrats caved after refusing to go along Friday night with a budget continuing resolution to keep the government running. By Monday, Democratic leaders in Congress (see: Charlie Schumer) cut a quote-unquote deal with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to pass a CR that runs through Feb. 8. The deal includes six years of funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP, which in Virginia takes the form of FAMIS) and a pledge, more or less, by McConnell to bring up a floor debate on legislation to allow Dreamers to stay in the country. These, of course, are young immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children and for whom this is the only country that the vast majority knows.

The problem with scorekeeping in Washington is two-fold: (1) Big headlines today are forgotten tomorrow, and (2) tables are quick to turn. The United States is now a country, after all, where our chief executive is credibly accused of paying $130,000 in hush money to a porn actress that he slept with in order to keep the affair hush-hush, and people hardly batted an eye at the news. As for the part about tables turning, tactical retreats are a time-tested battlefield maneuver. We’ll see where the armies stand three weeks from now.

These things I know: extending the CHIP funding was a big deal, and sooner or later Republicans are going to have to address the issue that resided at the heart of the Democrats’ complaint: the uncertain status of the Dreamers. In September, Donald Trump rescinded the Obama-era DACA program that protected young immigrants from deportation, and gave Congress until March 5 to come up with an alternative solution. Time’s almost up for Republicans to make a decision: on whether they want to carry forward the Obama program — in spirit if not exactly in word — or condemn up to a million young people to living in the shadows, constantly fearful of being expelled from the country they consider home. Before declaring any winners in the Great Three-Day Government Shutdown of 2018, let’s see what happens once February rolls around. Just a thought, you can’t very well spell retreat without some “R”s in the name.





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