How soon can students begin thinking about their energy future? Try 6th grade, at least in Charlottesville, Virginia
In preparing for public hearings dedicated this spring to public comments about the Integrated Resource Plan for Dominion Virginia Power, the Virginia State Corporation Commission in Richmond recently received a unique notice. Teachers at the Mortimer Y. Sutherland Middle School in Charlottesville, VA advised the commission that 10 sixth graders were signing up to testify.
After a commission staffer tried to winnow down the number of students to two or three, Rachel Benham, one of the teachers, said each of the 10 students intended to appear and would stand ready to be cross-examined, as hearings rules permit. Neither of the three judges, as members of the State Corporation Commission are known as, chose to ask the students any questions. All of them – Mark C. Christie, James C. Dimitri, and Judith Williams Jagdmann – were present, as were officials of Dominion Virginia Power.
“We were told they had never done this before,” said Benham. Their combined testimony might be one of the few such appearances by young students about utility resource planning not just in Virginia, but the entire U.S.
The students were inspired after reading a book by William Kamkwamba and seeing his TED talk about the hurdles he overcame to build a wind turbine from scratch that could supply electricity to his village.
The students took from that book the power of one individual’s ability to change his community and better the lives of those around him. So the students, all of them interested in how electricity is generated and its impact on them and future generations, researched the power options and drafted their individual three minutes of testimony.
What most of them discovered and chose to address was Dominion’s predisposition to supply power with fossil fuels and nuclear energy. They practiced delivering their testimony in front of Benham, who teaches mathematics, and teaching colleagues Kathleen Haan (language arts) and Greg Crow, including Crow’s social studies class. Crow purposely pushed back on some of their remarks to get them used to feeling uncomfortable under the lights at the testimony table (see photo).
When the April 23 hearing date arrived, the students joined dozens of interested parties trying to steer Dominion off its default path and to achieve its voluntary goal of 12% of base year electricity sale from renewable sources by 2022. At present, Dominion has achieved about 2%.
Each of the students had a bone to pick over Dominion’s reliance on burning coal and operating four nuclear reactors without a facility to permanently dispose of the spent nuclear fuel. The most common theme: Dominion should not build a third reactor at its North Anna nuclear power plant as the utility is contemplating. Instead, it should deploy available funds to increase the amount of electricity generated from renewable sources, led by offshore wind, solar and biomass.
Some of the students acknowledged the growing role that relatively cheap natural gas is playing for utilities. Use it during the transition they asserted, but stay focused on a cleaner energy future for Virginia.
To be sure, 6th graders cannot be fully aware of how complicated it has become to meet future energy needs for 2.4 million customers amid a growing array of environmental regulations. That said, after meeting with them at their school in Charlottesville a week after their testimony, it is clear to this writer that they see enough of the big picture to express an opinion about what can be done, especially for themselves and future generations.
Below are selected highlights of their testimony. While not always providing sufficient context with their assertions and sometimes not providing facts to back up their assertions, one has to give them and their teachers credit to begin thinking about solutions to one of the most vexing challenges their generation will inherit. In general terms, their views were shared by several expert witnesses who have built careers abiding by or trying to influence utility regulations.
You can watch them briefly summarize their testimony at the links embedded in their name. These were filmed with permission from their parents unrehearsed in their school May 1.
“The decisions you are making now impact my generation significantly . . . At some point in the future, access to non-renewable energy sources will decline and costs will increase. When this occurs, it is critical that Dominion Power has established a strong renewable energy position . . . It seems that Virginia has a lot of room for improvement and that raises the question “why is a company as powerful as Dominion lagging behind others in pursuing renewable energy sources?”
“Coal’s abundance should not persuade us to use it as a main energy producer. We do want to help the economy, but most importantly, we need to help our Earth. For example, we do not go home and decide that we are going to release a mass of sulfur dioxide into our house. Coal releases nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide, carbon dioxide and mercury methane, as does petroleum . . . Non-renewable resources might not be hurting the Earth several in this century, but what about in 200-300 years?”
“The way solar costs are dropping, solar has the potential to be 2 cents per kilowatt hour in the future. I also encourage Dominion to put their 113,000 acres of offshore wind farms to good use by building more wind turbines . . .since (it) bought the (leases) for only $1.6 million.”
“No one has found a permanent way to contain the nuclear waste and it is extremely costly to store. It also stays radioactive for thousands of years after the power is made. People that didn’t even get to use the energy that came from the nuclear waste will have to deal with it. I understand that nuclear power is not going away; but to save expenses, Dominion Power could choose not to build Lake Anna Three.”
“Dominion Power needs to use more renewable resources. I have a plan that would make this work: Dominion should invest in solar energy instead of building a third nuclear power (reactor). This is for three reasons. First of all, (Dominion) is only at 1.5% of their renewable resource goal that ends in 2022. Secondly, solar energy has a positive environmental impact and it does not leave behind radioactive waste. Finally, solar energy will cost less.”
“I’m worred about the mercury emissions coming out of the coal plants. The mercury is found in bodies of water and then bioaccumulates in fish . . . Instead of destroying ecosystems and losing money in the future, wouldn’t it be easier to just fix the problem now? Coal plants also produce coal ash. Many tons of coal ash have found their way into rivers. If there was a coal ash spill in Virginia, according to ecowatch.com it could take more than $1 billion to clean it up. Dominion Power would have to pay for that spill by raising prices.”
“I think the best energy sources to use today for Virginians are natural gas and solar power. I believe this because natural gas is a very clean burning fossil fuel . . .and solar energy is renewable and can be used here in Virginia where it is sunny most of the days.”
“Biomass is a good source for today’s energy because it solves multiple problems. It rids the world of trash and waste, as it it’s recycling, and it is a renewable and reliable source . . . it is not very expensive and it is easy to access, due to so much organic material . . . I like the company’s ideas about emission-free power sources but there is one thing I strongly disagree with: nuclear energy . . . in the 2011 after a 5.8 (Richter scale) earthquake originating in Louisa County, the plant at Lake Anna had to shut down. Moreover, there have been several other examples of nuclear power plant disasters and failures as with Chernobyl a while back, the Fukushima leak, and the Oak Ridge (security complex) break-in more recently.”
“Because there is no perfect answer . . . we should have more solar, natural gas and wind . . . they are still better than nuclear energy . . . Nuclear may appear not to pollute, but what if waste leaks out, or if there is a meltdown? Dominion Power should include more solar, offshore wind and natural gas in their integrated resource plan, and less nuclear and coal.”
A full audio recording of the April 23 hearing featuring these students and numerous other parties can be accessed here.
In testimony rebutting witnesses calling for a cleaner and more efficient path forward, Dominion Virginia Power Senior Vice President Thomas Wohlfarth said the company has prepared what it believes to be “the best mix of supply-and demand-side resources, including solar energy resources, for reliably meeting expected load requirements at the lowest reasonable cost under a wide range of potential market conditions.”