Virginia depends on reliable, safe, and economical sources of energy to power its growing transportation, residential, commercial, and industrial needs. But continued reliance on energy imports and mounting concerns over climate change present new challenges. Like every state looking to encourage economic growth, Virginia needs to wisely balance competing priorities for energy affordability and reliability with environmental responsibility.
Why is This Important?
Virginia consumed over 2,430 trillion BTUs of energy in 2014, indicating that energy use has begun to stabilize upward after a general, decade-long decline in energy consumption. Since 2000, indigenous state energy resource production has decreased from 1,354 trillion BTU to 980 trillion BTU. As a result (and despite improvements in consumption), the Commonwealth has been importing significant amounts of energy to meet its needs.
Investing in domestic energy production, clean energy sources, and energy efficiency and conservation practices can help close that gap and bring added economic benefits to the state. A recent study by the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE) estimates that increasing energy efficiency can result in a nearly 2-to-1 benefit-to-cost advantage -- and that these gains also produce new jobs.
How is Virginia Doing?
Virginia's per capita energy use fell from a recent peak of 346 million BTUs per person in 2005 to 292 million BTUs in 2013 and 2014. There have been some fluctuations along the way, including drops caused by decreased economic activity during the years of the Great Recession (2007-2009), as well as minor ticks upward in both 2010 and 2013. Virginia's 2014 rate is lower than the national average of 309 million BTUs and ranked Virginia 21st among US states for energy consumption.
Virginia's per capita consumption was lower than Tennessee (335) but higher than Maryland (234) and North Carolina (257). New York had the nation's lowest energy consumption in 2014, with 190 million BTUs consumed per capita.
Another way of gauging energy consumption is to compare usage rates to annual state GDP. Virginia's consumption rates have dropped from 6.6 thousand BTUs per GDP dollar in 2005 to 5.7 thousand BTUs in 2014. This amount was lower than the national average of 6.2 thousand BTUs per GDP dollar, as well as peer states Tennessee (8.1 thousand BTUs) and North Carolina (5.8 thousand BTUs), and ranked the Commonwealth 18th best in the country. At 4.4 thousand BTUs, Maryland had a lower consumption rate than Virginia in 2014; the national leader was New York, with 3.0 thousand BTUS per GDP dollar.
Clean and Renewable Energy
Virginia's electric power industry generates electricity from a variety of sources. Nearly 40 percent -- over 30 million megawatt hours -- comes from nuclear power, which is considered a clean energy because it produces no carbon. Natural gas and coal power each provide another 27 percent of the state's electricity needs (just over 20 million megawatt hours for each power source).
Renewable energy production -- which in Virginia comes from hydropower, biomass fuels, and landfill gases -- represented 6.2 percent of all electric generation in 2014, a small increase from the year before, ranking the state 33rd in the nation.
However, it should be noted that Virginia has improved very little -- approximately one percentage point -- in its use of renewables since 2004, especially compared to various states (Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Nevada, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Texas, Wyoming) where the percentage of energy produced from clean and renewable sources has doubled, tripled, or more over the same time period.
Not surprisingly, Virginia's rate of renewable power generation is also lower than both the national average and its peer states: In 2014 Tennessee generated 12.8 percent of power from renewables, Maryland 6.9 percent, and North Carolina 6.3 percent. Idaho -- blessed with massive hydropower resources -- again led the US with 82.2 percent of its energy coming from renewables; the national average was 13.2 percent.
The bulk (80%) of Virginia's renewable power generation comes from biomass feedstock: Wood and wood waste, along with municipal solid waste and landfill gas, are among the most commonly used forms. There are six power biomass plants in the Commonwealth that collectively generate approximately 400 megawatts. The remainder of renewable power generation capacity comes from hydroelectric methods.
The state currently has no utility-scale solar or wind power plants. However, several significant installations are in the planning and development stages, including 20 solar installations projected to produce a collective 585 megawatts and two wind power installations for Botetourt County and Pulaski County that would together produce 255 megawatts.
Virginia generates a relatively low amount of energy-related greenhouse gases per capita from electrical power generation, transportation, heating/cooling, and industrial processes. Carbon dioxide constitutes over 80 percent of national greenhouse gases. In Virginia, it decreased from 17.0 metric tons per person in 2004 to 12.5 metric tons in 2013. This level was better than the national average of 16.7 metric tons per capita and ranked 16th best in the country. Virginia's per capita carbon dioxide emissions were also lower than Tennessee (14.9), but higher than North Carolina (12.4) and Maryland (9.7).
Virginia's retail electricity rates are competitive with peer states and the nation overall. In 2014, residential customers paid approximately 11.1 cents per kilowatt hour (kWh), commercial customers paid 8.2 cents per kWh, while industry paid 6.9 cents per kWh. These rates are all lower than the national averages (12.5, 10.7, and 7.1 cents per kWh, respectively) for these customer types.
The average price (combining all customer types) in 2014 was 9.2 cents per kilowatt hour, ranking the state 19th lowest in the US. Virginia's average rate was lower than all its peer states: Maryland (12.0 cents per kWh), Tennessee (9.4 cents), and North Carolina (9.3 cents).
What Influences Energy Use and Composition?
Every state wants to encourage ecomonic growth, which leads to more energy demand and consumption; every consumer prefers cheap (or at least affordable) energy bills. These settled priorities compete daily with other, newer priorities for energy efficiency, environmental protections, and dealing seriously with climate change. States must calculate the best path forward without jeopardizing either their economic or environmental health, which means that certain trade-offs inevitably occur.
Energy consumption overall is affected by a host of factors: energy prices, climate and weather, economic activity, personal income levels, population characteristics such as age and household size, home size, land use development patterns, industry mix, adoption of energy efficiency measures, government regulations and taxes, technology, and cultural/lifestyle factors. Since some sectors are more energy-intensive than others, state and regional differences in energy consumption per capita may partly reflect differences in economic composition.
Patterns of reliance on clean and renewable energy sources have typically varied over time and region based on market prices of feedstock fuels, differences in natural resource endowments and topography, presence of nuclear power plants, technological changes, and public policies. For example, some states -- California, Idaho, Maine, Montana, Oregon, South Dakota, and Washington -- have been generating at least 30 percent of their power from renewables for over a decade. Others, such as North Dakota and Oklahoma, have more recently benefitted from increased natural gas production as a by-product of fracking; although natural gas is not a renewable resource, it does burn roughly 50 percent cleaner than coal and is often considered a "bridge" to more permanent clean energy sources.
Many states have also made concerted policy efforts to improve their use of clean and renewable energies. According to the National Council of State Legislatures, as of March 2016, 29 states have mandatory Renewable Portfolio Standards which set specific goals for power production from renewable energy sources such as wind, solar, and biomass. Another eight states, including Virginia, have voluntary renewable energy standards or targets; the remainder, mostly located in the South, have issued no public policies for renewable energy.
At the national level, energy policies have recently favored the adoption of renewable energy sources. One result is that wind power has become the fastest-growing source of new electric power generation, almost tripling in generation capacity (now nearly 74 gigawatts) just since 2008. Another has been the sizable growth in the solar energy industry, which in 2015 added jobs at a rate nearly 12 times faster than the overall economy and now employs more workers than the coal industry.
However, the enormous growth in hydraulic fracturing (fracking) to tap shale gas deposits has dramatically increased US gas supplies, lowered natural gas prices, and spurred the construction of (or conversion to) gas-based power generation.
What is the State's Role?
Virginia plans to meet its energy needs by growing in-state energy production, increasing energy efficiencies, and expanding energy production from renewable sources. A 2014 Virginia Energy Plan outlines the state's intent to take an “all of the above” approach to energy that will promote the use and development of all available resources.
Complementing these efforts are targeted financial incentives for adopting energy efficiency improvements, such as the annual tax holiday which includes energy sales; various rebate programs run by the Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy; and the Weatherization Assistance Program. Under provisions of the Virginia Electric Utility Regulation Act, the State Corporation Commission, in partnership with the state's investor-owned utilities, also engages in extensive public education campaigns to alert citizens to the benefits of greater energy conservation and efficiency.
Additionally, the US Department of Energy periodically updates the required International Energy Conservation Codes (IECC) for both commercial and residential properties to improve energy efficiency and cost savings; Virginia works to implement these changes as they occur.
Finally, Virginia has created grants and incentives for growing green jobs in alternative and renewable energy sectors such as biofuels and waste-to-energy facilities and is sponsoring cutting-edge research and development in alternate transportation fuels, nuclear technology, coastal energy production, and carbon capture and storage at state universities.
What Can Citizens Do?
Virginians can make numerous consumer-choice and lifestyle changes that yield significant improvements in energy efficiency and conservation:
- Convert homes to use solar panels that work with existing electrical grids.
- Retrofit work and living spaces with more energy-efficient materials and equipment, such as attic and wall insulation, compact fluorescent or LED light bulbs, hot water tank insulation, etc. Rebates and financial assistance may be available for those who take such initiatives (see at right).
- Purchase appliances rated under the Energy Star program. Energy Star reports that in 2014 alone, Americans saved 360 billion kilowatt-hours (about 5 percent of total US electricity demand) -- and prevented more than 283 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions while saving over $31 billion in energy costs.
- Participate in voluntary renewable energy source programs, available to many electricity consumers across the state.
- Switch to hybrid vehicles, and consciously engage in safe and prudent driving and car maintenance practices.
- Opt to live in pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly mixed-use communities with public transportation options.
- Choose homes and automobiles that meet Energy Star, EarthCraft Home, or LEED standards.
State rankings are ordered so that #1 is understood to be the best.
Data Definitions and Sources
US Energy Information Administration
State Energy Data System (EDS)
Net Generation by State by Type of Producer by Energy Source (EIA-906, EIA-920, and EIA-923)
Average Price by State by Provider (EIA-861)
Note: Renewables include geothermal, hydro conventional, solar, wind, wood/wood waste, MSW biogenic/landfill gas, and other biomass
State-Level Energy-Related Carbon Dioxide Emissions, 2000-2013
Annual Energy Outlook www.eia.doe.gov/oiaf/aeo/index.html
National Conference of State Legislatures
State Renewable Portfolio Standards and Goals, March 2016
American Wind Energy Association
US Wind Energy Capacity Statistics, 2015
2014 Annual Report (pdf)
Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy. Virginia Energy Plan
US Department of Energy, Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy, Building Energy Codes Program, Status of State Adoption.
The Solar Foundation, National Solar Jobs Census, 2015
See the Data Sources and Updates Calendar for a detailed list of the data resources used for indicator measures on Virginia Performs.