By Paula C. Squires
America needs to have a “serious conversation” about energy. And it needs a national energy policy that strikes a balance between environmental protection and the creation of jobs, particularly in an economy where the unemployment rate is 9.1 percent.
That was one of the key messages from leaders of two of Virginia’s largest energy producers who kicked off Monday’s opening plenary session of Gov. Bob McDonnell’s second annual Governor’s Conference on Energy. Nearly 1,000 people gathered at the Greater Richmond Convention Center for the first day of the conference, which runs through Wednesday.
Thomas F. Farrell II, chairman, president and CEO of Richmond-based Dominion and Mike Quillen, chairman of Alpha Natural Resources in Abingdon, told the audience that Virginia and the U.S. needs a diversified portfolio of energy sources to meet a growing demand for electricity, fueled in part by Americans’ love affair with electronics.
“Today, for the first time in our national history, Americans are spending more on electronics that they are on durable goods,” said Farrell. “In 1980, for example, the average U. S. household had just three consumer electronic products — three. Today, the average is about 25.”
In developing countries such as China and India, a rising level in the quality of life also is boosting electric demand, said Quillen. He added that it is in those countries where coal companies such as Alpha see the greatest potential for growth.
Currently in this country, there seems to be a “disconnect,” Farrell said between what the America people want in terms of clean, renewable energy and what it actually takes to keep the lights on. While renewable energy sources such as wind should be in the mix, they don’t provide the scale that coal-fired and nuclear power plants provide.
“Does that mean we should not build them? No … It only means that we need to be realistic when we talk about what renewable energy can actually accomplish. “
Quillen, who helped build Alpha into the fifth largest coal producer in the world, said, “A lot of it comes down to math. We have to take the emotion out of it.” For instance, he noted that in Southwest Virginia, coal is a major employer. A 40-kilowatt wind power station might provide five permanent jobs and 15 jobs during construction, which could replace 30 coal jobs each paying $71,000 a year. “We will need all the energy sources. But we need to study the numbers. Instead of green jobs, he prefers to think about “net” jobs.
Also serving on the panel was Michael Petters, president and CEO of Huntington Ingalls Industries in Newport News. “I come not as a producer, but as Tom’s largest customer,” he said.
He noted that the Newport News shipyard has built 72 nuclear-powered ships and 96 nuclear reactors for those ships, nearly as many as the 104 commercial nuclear reactors in use in the U.S.
As renewable energy continues to develop, there are opportunities for partnerships, such as Huntington’s work with Gamesa, a Spanish wind power equipment company that plans to build rtest wind turbineat the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. “We don’t know about wind, but we know about marine structures,” Petters said. He also mentioned the company’s partnership with Areva in building a nuclear components plant in Newport News — a project he said has been temporarily delayed because of the economy.
He prefers to look at the energy industry from the “caboose” end of the train. The repairing of turbines, transmission lines and working through issues such as distribution, storage and disposal will help Virginia grow its energy industry, so it doesn’t have to be the second largest importer of energy behind California. Wouldn’t it be better, he asked, to follow Mississippi’s example and create a market for energy investments, becoming a net energy producer rather than an importer?