RICHMOND, Va. — Virginia recently released its Energy Plan for 2018, which includes a continued focus on renewable energy and less on coal.

But that outlook does not sit well with a Southwest Virginia delegate who says using coal to generate electricity is still a viable and more affordable option.

According to the plan released by Gov. Ralph Northam, in 2016, the latest figures available, coal-fired plants generated only about 11 percent of the electricity in the state, with 52 percent from natural gas, 28 percent from nuclear, 6 percent from renewables and 2 percent from hydroelectric.

“Changes in dispatch from coal to natural gas have impacted the overall electricity profile,” the plan said. “The use of natural gas in Virginia has increased significantly over the last five years, from 410,106 million cubic feet in 2012 to 541,620 million cubic feet in 2016. Coal use in Virginia has declined steadily since 1991, and 2016 consumption of approximately 9.5 million short tons was primarily through the electric power sector (82 percent) and industrial sectors (18 percent).”

The energy plan predicts doubling the commonwealth’s renewable energy use to 16 percent by 2022, primarily with small-scale solar on a consumer’s home, energy storage facilities in Southwest Virginia, medium-sized wind farms on ridge tops, and large-scale offshore wind off the Virginia coast.

Del. James W. “Will” Morefield, R-Tazewell County, said he is well aware of the decrease in the use of coal around the country, but it’s still a viable alternative.

“The production of electricity from coal is substantially cheaper per kilowatt hour than wind and solar,” he said. “This is very important because higher electricity prices have a direct negative impact on the poor, middle-class working families, the elderly, and the economy as a whole. Higher energy costs result in the price increase of goods and services. This is a very real issue in Southwest Virginia.”

Morefield said it’s not unusual to see studies showing solar and wind energy being competitive with fossil fuels, but too often those studies are conducted by special interest groups with agendas to kill the coal industry regardless of the cost to consumers.

Although the Trump Administration’s efforts to eliminate and scale back unnecessary federal regulations related to the coal industry have been welcome, much of the damage has already been done, he said.

However, the focus on renewables is short-sighted, Morefield said, and the need for metallurgical coal will remain.

“I suspect the United States will be in a similar situation that Germany and many European counties are now facing,” he said. “Those countries made significant efforts years ago to move to renewable energy and now as a result they are suffering because of the tremendous cost associated with renewable energy. They are now scaling back on renewables and focusing on utilizing more fossil fuels.”

Morefield supports renewables and thinks they will be a “significant player in the future.”

“But for the time being we need to invest in research and further develop those renewable technologies instead of imposing extremely high costs on a population that can no longer afford any increases in the cost of living,” he said. “I believe the majority of policy makers on both sides of the aisle want a clean environment and want to be good stewards of the environment, but we must take into consideration how such policies will impact those who struggle everyday to support themselves and their families.”

The Virginia Energy Plan also includes stored electricity for on-demand use, as is the case for the possible $2 billion hydroelectric pump storage facility that may be built in Tazewell County.

Those facilities, like the one in Bath County, which is the largest in the world, include two large water reservoirs, one at a higher elevation than the other. As water is released into steep tunnels from the upper to the lower reservoir the force of the water rotates turbines to generate electricity.

That process can quickly generate needed electricity.

The plan also sees a future where consumers will be more in control of their needs, choosing how they consume electricity and understand the cost through an “interactive grid” with utilities that better able to respond to consumer needs.

— Contact Charles Boothe at cboothe@bdtonline.com