When President John Kennedy declared in 1961 that the United States aimed to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade, he not only launched the country into an ambitious space race, he also invented a metaphor that now gets applied to any audacious goal.
President Joe Biden has declared finding a cure for cancer to be a “moonshot.” In fact the program is officially called “Cancer Moonshot.”
The nation’s biggest coal-producing state – Wyoming, not West Virginia – six years ago invested in carbon research in what was called a “moonshot” to save the state’s coal industry by finding ways to capture emissions and turn them into marketable products.
Companies embarking on some radical plan often dress up their goal by calling it a “moonshot.”
Now Virginia has its own “moonshot.” On Monday, Gov. Glenn Youngkin went to Delta Star, a transformer manufacturer in Lynchburg, to announce his energy plan. To the surprise of no one, he was critical of the current Virginia Clean Economy Act, which mandates a carbon-free electrical grid, which he said would make the state’s power system both too expensive and too unreliable. Instead, he spoke warmly about natural gas and called for the state’s energy policies to be reviewed and reauthorized every five years – which, quite naturally, set off the expected left vs. right political arguments over energy policy. The real news in Youngkin’s plan, though, was the governor’s enthusiasm for nuclear energy.
“We have to be all in on nuclear energy in Virginia,” Youngkin declared. In particular, he declared that a small nuclear reactor – the technical term is “small modular reactor,” or SMR – be built in Southwest Virginia within 10 years. “I want to call our moonshot,” he said.
For more on what these small modular reactors are, see the report by Cardinal’s new reporter in Southwest Virginia, Susan Cameron. They are basically small nuclear reactors, no more than one-third the size of a conventional nuclear reactor. So far, none have been deployed anywhere in the world, although China has started construction on one and the United States, Canada and Great Britain have all expressed interest in building their own. It’s not completely clear why Southwest Virginia is the projected location for what could be the nation’s first SMR – how much of this is because Southwest Virginia (through the Southwest Virginia Energy Authority) has been trying to position the region as an all-purpose energy capital as the world transitions away from coal, and how much is simply that Southwest Virginia might be the least objectionable place for such a project. “Why Southwest Virginia?” said Chelsea Jenkins, deputy secretary for commerce and trade. “Because of geography, history and a talented workforce, Southwest is in a great position. They have always been about energy and will always be about energy.” Or, as Youngkin put it while speaking to journalists after the event: “Southwest Virginia has to get a real shot.”
What is clear is that SMRs are thought by some to be a big deal, and that Virginia is now prepped for at least a debate on the wisdom of such reactors, and possibly an actual reactor itself someday. There will be plenty of time to debate all that. The actual moon program stretched over three presidents; Youngkin’s 10-year timeframe for a small modulated nuclear reactor in Southwest Virginia would stretch over three governors.
Instead, I’m struck by some other aspects of Younkin’s energy plan. The only time he mentioned coal was to say that other states will continue to burn coal and that will make their electricity more expensive if we have to import it, so we need enough Virginia-produced power to avoid that. Youngkin might be our first post-coal Republican governor; there was no Trump-like declaration about how we’ll “bring back coal.” That doesn’t make Youngkin a post-fossil fuel governor, though. He’s previously backed the Mountain Valley Pipeline and said Monday it’s a mistake to shut down gas-powered plants. That’s not much different from former Gov. Terry McAuliffe (who also endorsed natural gas pipelines) or even former President Barack Obama, who talked up natural gas in his 2014 State of the Union address (although many Democrats have since moved away from the concept of natural gas as a “bridge fuel”).
My big takeaway, though, was how Youngkin repeatedly emphasized how there will be, must be, technological innovation in how we produce and deliver energy. For him, that’s a reason not to commit long-term to the Clean Economy Act: Other technologies might emerge. The act’s proponents would counter by saying the law is part of what is driving those innovations. Either way, I’d like to think that here is some common ground – one way or another, there’s going to be a lot of innovation in the energy sector in the years ahead. Maybe all that’s pretty obvious, but it still seems important. It’s also likely that some of that innovation will take place in the western third of the state. Youngkin noted that Lynchburg is already a hub for nuclear energy, thanks to BWX Technologies and Framatone, two Hill City companies that have long supplied the nuclear industry. He also said that one reason Southwest Virginia is a natural site for an SMR is that the region “has a feedstock in academia through Virginia Tech.”
Youngkin went on to spin a bright future: “We can be the leader in wind, we can get solar, we have an opportunity to be the leaders in small modular reactors – we should grab it and run,” he said. “We can build a whole industry.” And that’s what I want to talk about today.
Feel free to draw your own conclusions about whether Youngkin’s energy policy is a) a retreat from our commitment to clean energy or b) a forward-looking plan that is based on realistic expectations. Feel free, too, to draw your conclusions about small modulated nuclear reactors. However, broadly speaking, Youngkin is absolutely on target with one thing: We do have an opportunity to establish ourselves as an energy hub, whatever that energy is.
Toward that end, Youngkin’s energy plan presents an opportunity to tie together two separate ideas, neither of which has gone anywhere yet. Both came from Democrats, but a Republican governor shouldn’t let that stand in the way of making these ideas his own, because both fit squarely within his emphasis on innovation in energy technologies.
In 2017, when Ralph Northam was running for governor, he proposed expanding the University of Virginia’s College at Wise by adding research programs on renewable energy. “It’s a great opportunity to have expertise in solar and wind and energy storage,” he said, and to help coal country with the energy transition that’s underway – plus the region’s population challenges. “If you bring in talent, big talent, talent attracts other talent,” he said. This seemed a masterstroke: UVA Wise at the time was one of just two state four-year schools without any graduate programs. (Virginia Military Institute was the other; UVA Wise now has a master’s-level program in nursing.) Further, my research showed that no other school in coal country had anything like what Northam was describing. Virginia Tech certainly has lots of energy research programs but Tech isn’t in coal country. Unfortunately, nothing ever happened to Northam’s proposal and I was always baffled why. Universities are well-known economic engines; it seemed a missed opportunity that the state wasn’t investing in energy research at the only four-year college in Virginia’s coal country. Hold that thought.
The other idea came out of Pittsburgh. In November 2020, Mayor Bill Peduto of the Steel City joined with the mayors of seven other cities in the Ohio River Valley down to Louisville. These Rust Belt mayors proposed a “Marshall Plan for Middle America,” with major investments in renewable energy to help a region dependent on fossil fuels to transition to a new economy. Nothing seems to have come from that proposal, either. Peduto, who seemed to be the driving force, lost his Democratic primary for reelection in May 2021, so I may be doing more now to champion this idea than he is – just in a different geographic footprint. I wrote several times, though – first for The Roanoke Times, later for Cardinal News – that this seemed an idea worth stealing. I suggested that community leaders from Lynchburg to Lee County organize themselves to pitch that region as an energy capital – and, more importantly, a place for energy investment capital. That most recently took the form of my August column, “Why we need a national clean energy summit in Southwest Virginia.” The particular impetus then: The climate bill that Congress passed and President Biden signed into law – the so-called Inflation Reduction Act – creates $4 billion worth of tax credits for clean energy companies that set up shop in “energy communities,” which would cover Virginia’s coal country and some other localities. Somebody’s going to get that money; why shouldn’t this region be first in line to pitch itself?
Youngkin’s emphasis on energy innovation offers a chance to tie these two ideas together.
He could propose his own energy research center at UVA Wise, thus helping advance both his energy policy and the economic interests of a county that gave him 83.9% of its votes last November.
He could organize the Lynchburg-to-Lee County energy summit. Of course, local leaders there could organize their own, but a governor has unique convening powers to get the attention of those whose attention we want. The point of such a summit would be to convey to the world a message that Youngkin surely wants to convey: that we are open for business. (Youngkin took the stage in his Lynchburg appearance to the tune of Bachman-Turner Overdrive’s “Taking Care of Business.”)
Youngkin laid the foundations for this Monday: He talked up Lynchburg as a nuclear center. He talked up the research capabilities of Virginia Tech. He talked about how Virginia has an opportunity to be a leader in this emerging field of SMRs, plus other forms of energy. The InvestSWVA economic development group has already been pushing the opportunity for Southwest Virginia to get a piece of the wind industry supply chain, assuming that Dominion Energy’s offshore wind farm comes to pass. (Disclosure: Dominion is one of our donors but donors have no say in news decisions; see our policy. You, too, can be a donor and have no say in news decisions.) Now Youngkin says “we can build a whole industry” around energy innovation and how Southwest Virginia “has to get a real shot.” Soon there will be a more formal announcement about the Southwest Virginia energy lab and what that will do. The governor didn’t mention it, but Southside has already witnessed a boom in solar energy.
All that’s missing is for someone to tie all these things together and put a bow on them. The eastern part of the state has its “urban crescent.” There’s no reason why we can’t be the “energy crescent.” Or, perhaps as Youngkin might prefer, an “energy innovation crescent.”