the big here: electricity

Brent Finnegan -- April 25th, 2007

A while back I posted a quiz called “the big here,” which included several questions about the local environment. A few days ago, Thanh posted answers to questions about water. Question number three was, “Where does your electricity come from? How is it generated?”

In most Virginia cities, you pay bills directly to Dominion Power. Here, you pay the Harrisonburg Electric Commission (HEC) which buys its power from Dominion. HEC was set up in 1957 as a way to make additional revenue for the city. It currently accounts for over six percent of the General Fund Revenue Budget. But I digress.

Where does power come from before Harrisonburg buys it from Dominion? According to VEPT, “Virginia’s predominant primary-energy product is coal, as the state is a major coal producer. Virginia is also a producer of natural gas and of small amounts of petroleum. Several of the state’s rivers are harnessed to generate hydroelectric power.”

According to Steven Walz at the DMME (referencing data from December and January) coal generates over 2,700 megawatt hours (MWh) for the state per month. Since coal production in Virginia is on the decline, that number has been slowly, yet steadily decreasing since the 90s. Nuclear power is a close second, generating around 2,500 thousand MWh for the Commonwealth per month. Third is natural gas, with around 300 – 500 thousand MWh per month. Petroleum, hydroelectric, and “other renewables” account for around 200 MWh each. There is no commercial wind in Virginia (at least none from Dominion Power).

Within the city, additional power is generated using gas powered turbines during “peak hours” and emergencies.

Unfortunately for the environment — and the future of Virginia — coal creates the most greenhouse gas pollution per unit of energy (compared to other fossil fuels). JMU prof Erik Curren writes about coal and energy issues on Conserve, an online magazine with an environmental focus. He writes:

… as oil and gas run out, we can no longer rely on coal, whether solid, liquid or gas, to replace them. That will probably mean higher electric bills within a decade and little help from coal to keep transportation and heating costs down either.

And we shouldn’t count on the magic bullets of either nuclear power or renewables to save us. No, what we really need to do is start getting ready as soon as possible for an energy-constrained world. That’ll mean fewer iPods, big-screen TVs and cars for teenagers and more energy conservation all the way around.

Living with less energy will bring much inconvenience, and, if we are not prepared, some suffering as well. But in the long run, running out of coal is the best thing that could happen to slow down global warming pollution and save beleagured coalfield communities in Appalachia and around the world.

Fortunately, there are ways we can reduce energy consumption at home. Whether you believe in the global warming crisis or not, I’m sure many of you gasped when you saw your electric bill this winter, when it was colder than cold. When I saw mine I called HEC. The lady I spoke to said, “Nope. That’s not a typo. Everyone’s been calling and asking us the same thing. It’s a combination of energy production costs and the cold snap.”

Needless to say, I’ve since replaced all the bulbs in my house with fluorescents, turn the heat/AC off when I’m not home, and set my computer to sleep after five minutes of inactivity.

I’m probably missing a few puzzle pieces here. If you have alternate data, post it in the comments and I’ll correct it.

22 Responses to “the big here: electricity”

  1. Barnabas says:

    I’ve been looking into LED lighting. According to most of the lighting industry stuff I’ve read it is the way of the future. People are to used to there lamps and bulbs so it will take a while for it to catch on. If you notice the lighting when your out at a modern building, and the light sorce seams really small and you find yourself asking “How does that little spot let off so much light?” Than it is most likely an LED.

  2. bub says:

    I recently just learned that appliances not in use (computers in hibernate, even cell phone chargers) still draw quite a bit of power. Unplugging these things can save lots of energy……

  3. Bubby says:

    Get a programmable thermostat for your HVAC system. They are cheap and easy to install yourself. You can program the system by hour and day to decrease your energy use while you sleep, and while you are away. We noticed a significant decrease in kilowatt hours.

    About 20% of your electricity goes to refrigeration. Do you have a newer refrigerator? Refrigerators today use less than 1/3 the energy of a 70’s era frig. Based on valley rates (~0.10/kilo watt hour) the older frig uses $130 more electricity per year. Federal energy efficiency standards brought the change and if an appliance beats the average requirement by at least 10% the appliance will have an “energy star” rating. Buy those, they pay for themselves over the life of the frig.

    Turn down your water heater. 120 deg. F is fine. Wrap it with additional insulation. Get a low flow shower head. The good ones have adjustable flow.

    Use a front loading washing machine, most use only 1/3 the water (so less hot water from that heater).

    There is lots more info here:

  4. Frank Witt says:

    Another hint of refrigeration, if your fridge is full…even if it is gallons of water, it will use less energy over a period of time. Once the items get cold, they stay cold = less run time.

    Same with your freezer. More is better !

    Great link BTW ! Thanks

  5. Thanh says:

    Cool beans. Thanks for the post finnegan!

    Just more ideas & thoughts:

    – Although Frank is correct about a full fridge retaining cold better than an empty one, don’t overfill your fridge because that will interfer with air circulation. The key is to buy the right size fridge for your family.

    – Governor Kaine issued Executive Order 48 in April 2007, which directs brach agencies and Virginia Institutions to reduce energy and consumption costs. (

    – Here are some links to green buildings in Virginia: Although most of us do not have the luxury of buying brand new green homes, like the examples provided by commenters here, we can all take a little time to retrofit parts of our homes to make it more energy efficient. You can make a lot of difference by checking around your doors and windows for air leaks and caulking it.

    – Erik Curren doesn’t paint a pretty picture, but I think he’s totally on point with everything you quoted him saying. We are a society that is too wired. To be frank, I think that there are additional social benefits to less electronics – a lot more social interaction. Its hard to say hello to the girl on her cell phone walking past you; or when someone you want to talk to at home is spending all of his/her time reading online blogs (:oP); when children watch a lot of TV they’re not outside playing. This is a pretty interesting story I heard on npr yesterday “TV-Turnoff Week – Helping Parents Unplug”

    – Speaking of LED, all of the traffic lights/signals in Harrisonburg have been switch over to LEDs, which has shown a significant reduction in cost. We should encourage HEC to switch their street lights to LEDs or something more energy efficient too. I believe they’re incandesants, or at least not as energy efficient as they could be.

  6. Thanh says:

    Oh, just another added note. The cost of compact flourescent light bulbs (CFLs) has definately gone down in the last several years. My fiance and I replaced all of our bulbs (except 2 fixtures that we couldn’t find CFLs to fit in) when we moved into our new house, and I recall buying a pack of 6 bulbs for $10. I might be a little off, but it was around that much. Still more expensive than incandescents, but CFLs last up to 10 times longer and use way less electricity!

  7. David Miller says:

    Buy your CFLs in bulk at Lowes. They are much cheaper that way (i bought a pack of 24 last year for $35. Two were broken of course but it was still cheap. As far as water heaters are concerned-If you need to replace yours, buy an inline water heater. They are amazing. First, you can never run out of hot water (unless you run out of electricity/natural gas). Second they are around 90% efficient compared to apx 60%. I was paying around $90 in propane for my new but previous model, now my electric bill went up $10 after the switch, saving me $80 a month at least. This is partially because the unit only heats water that you use, mainly i think that it is such a big difference because water heater design hadn’t changed since the 30’s except for better insulation and burning capability. The cost for the inline water heater was around $700 but its a tax write off and with my propane bills gone, its a bargain.

  8. Lowell Fulk says:


    Did you notice any difference in flow?
    Where did you purchase your inline heater?

    We installed a LP inline heater in our cabin on the mountain in 1988 and it has been great.

    I did a cost/benefit analysis of incandescent vs. fluorescent for our poultry operation back in the early ’80s and we figured the initial cost to purchase would be paid back in far less than half the life of the new bulbs. The only thing available at the time was a circle type of light made for residential use that used 25 watts to produce around the same light as a regular 60 watt bulb. The folks at Lowe’s looked at us like we had lost our minds when we bought their entire stock.

    Since that time fluorescent bulb technology has greatly improved so that they are more efficient (13 watts) and much more durable. The circle lights were quite delicate.

    Flat panel LCD computer screens also offer great savings. I read an article a few years ago that if all government computers in California had had LCD monitors, they would have used enough less electricity that the state would not have suffered the power failures and brownouts of that year. Not only do they use far less electricity than a tube type monitor, but they also generate far less heat-therefore less need for conditioned air.

    An idea which I think has much merit, and spoke of in my last campaign, would be to replace all government automobiles with hybrid gas/electric cars. Not all at once, but transition them in as the already owned vehicles need replacement. We purchased a Toyota Prius for Dianne to replace her Ford Taurus and she now uses far less than half the amount of gasoline. Her average is staying around 50mpg.
    In 2005 VA government had a fleet of more than 7,000. (figure using averages: 10,000 miles per year per vehicle = seventy million miles @ 20mpg = three point five million gallons of fuel. Same miles driven @ 50mpg = one point four million gallons of fuel for a savings of one point six million gallons per year.)
    A bill seeking to do just this was introduced by Delegate David Poisson D-32 but was left to die in committee.
    Pubs don’t like such ideas…
    Oh well…

    Great thread! Great discussion! Thanks Finnegan!

  9. Frank Witt says:

    Lowell ~ great info but how is it that important bills, especially with all the hype about going green and global warming, di without getting votes. Do the people that the delgates represent not give a damn about money?

  10. JGFitzgerald says:


    I wondered if the question about bills dying was rhetorical. When you consider the dependence on sound-bite issues, especially in primary campaigns, and the danger of being called a tree-hugger or Al Gore with a Virginia address, there is more value for a member of the majority party in doing nothing than in appearing to support an environmental bill. The green issues have swung on the same political pendulum as everything else the past decade or so, and are probably still an election away from the point where the sentiments of the majority outweigh those of the largest financial contributors on that side.

  11. Lowell Fulk says:


    Great question! One that has multiple answers.

    Let me think just a bit on how best to offer my opinion. Right now my inner smart alec is trying oh so hard to answer for me and I need to calm that aspect of my personality down before I reply. ;o)

  12. Lowell Fulk says:

    Joe posted what is likely the best way to answer but,
    sorry Joe, I can’t just let it go at that.
    See you folks in a bit.

  13. JGFitzgerald says:


    Bet you can’t say it in fewer words.


  14. linz says:

    I think it’s awesome that others have posted some good energy saving resources and I wanted to add mine. I’ve been working off of this Top 10 Ways to Make Your Home Green list for several months to update our home. You’ll see a few repeats of what’s already been mentioned, but I’ve found it very helpful and informative.

  15. Good site linz, thanks. These are all measures that are simple, yet I find myself not adhering to them all the time. I didn’t know about the light bulb thing. I’ll be changing that real soon! Lowell has some great tips also.

  16. Bubby says:

    Anybody hear about the new fishkills in the North and South Forks of the Shenandoah?

    Are redbreast sunfish disappearing from the Shen?

    Wanna get involved?

  17. finnegan says:

    Bubby, check your email… or just email me.

  18. Frank J Witt says:

    Hey All, just went to pay my water bill today/yesterday and found a questionable charge of $5.71 for re-connection fee. When I asked the woman at the counter, she could not find such a charge on the online bill. Seems they have a second party doing the billing but they still took the extra money because she said the bill was correct as “read”. I am still curious where that money came from and where it went. PLEASE keep all charges in mind when paying your bills…that is almost 2 gallons of gas for your car.

    Coming soon, weekly updates from Pilgrims Pride in Timberville, we just bought 8…yes 8…whole seasoned roasters for $1 each! ! ! ! ! and they are delicious. I will be putting these specials up on Twitter on Thursdays when Barb goes by. Enjoy…and goodnight.

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