Panelists talk energy storage, policy, and education at Tom Tom Fall Forum

A panel of Virginia energy industry leaders discussed Virginia’s role in the coming renewable energy revolution on Friday during the inaugural Tom Tom Founder’s Festival Fall Forum.

The panel, moderated by Virginia Deputy Secretary of Natural Resources Angela Navarro discussed challenges facing Virginia as solar and wind energy slowly take over from oil and natural gas, as well as how the commonwealth could position itself as a leader in the move to renewables.

“There’s a fundamental proposition [here] about what the energy revolution is, and then, also, what is Virginia’s role in that revolution,” Navarro said.

Panelist Danny Van Clief, chief operating officer of Coronal Energy, said Virginia could leverage competitive prices to gain a foothold.

“I’m speaking on behalf of [the] solar industry in particular,” Van Clief said. “What I’m excited about, and what’s driving development, growth and investment, is our ability to compete on price.”

Solar energy, which Van Clief said is clean, renewable and affordable, will be an important piece of the puzzle.

Panelist Tony Smith, CEO of Secure Futures Solar, said his company and others balance economics and the greater good.

Smith said that a deficit in watts of solar energy per capita in Virginia, compared to surrounding states, is symptomatic of the need for innovative business models and policies.

Will Cleveland, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, said that three main forces are driving the energy revolution.

“First and foremost,” he said, “is the price,” referring to the speed at which energy prices are falling. The other forces are the effect of climate change on customer decisions and an evolving understanding that renewable energy is viable on a large scale.

Panelist Katharine Bond, senior policy adviser for Dominion Energy, agreed. Dominion has noticed a change in the attitudes of its customers, she said.

“Many years ago, all we heard from our customers was, ‘Keep our lights on, keep our rates low,’” she said. “Customers are [now] exercising … a social conscience they didn’t necessarily have a few years ago.”

Panelists agreed that effective energy storage is the biggest challenge facing reliable wind and solar energy.

The issue involves not only the need to generate solar and wind energy, but the ability to use that energy when reliable sunlight and wind are unavailable. Gas and oil currently are used to fill those gaps.

“[Natural gas] is a crucial piece of the diverse mix [of energy sources]. It is not an either/or situation,” she said.

Cleveland pointed out the need to invest in solar energy as a reliable solution and to eliminate liabilities connected to solar and wind energy.

The panel also briefly discussed how decades-old energy infrastructure will need to be updated. 

In the audience was Del. David J. Toscano, D-Charlottesville, who asked the panel about lawmakers’ role in the energy revolution.

There are numerous state and federal policies in place that often work against renewable energy development, panelists said, but there also was consensus that these policies will not easily be removed or changed.

Bond said Solar for Students, a program run by the Dominion Energy Charitable Foundation, is an example of ways to prepare students for a future with renewable energy. The foundation this year awarded a free solar installation to the Charlottesville Albemarle Technical Education Center.

The program also provides teacher training and data sharing across other installations in Virginia.

The Fall Forum opened the Tom Tom Founder’s Festival’s sixth Tomtoberfest, which runs through Saturday. The one-day event featured more than 60 Virginia business executives, policymakers and civic innovators.