Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

Dominion Energy, which lights up 7 million customers in 18 states, has been paying special attention to Arlington.

Last month, our county signed a long-term agreement to purchase renewable energy from the Richmond-based company. That solar project in rural Pittsylvania County (Danville), in turn, will be carried out by our other corporate citizen known as Amazon. And the energy firm’s media and communications manager, Peggy Fox, hired last summer, has been cultivating Arlington’s green enthusiasts while standing ready to respond to some of her company’s vocal critics.

What set things in motion was Arlington’s decision back in September to aim high in its community energy plan — committing to carbon neutrality by 2050. Interim goals were set in for conversions to renewable electricity in government operations. In January, Amazon announced that its new Crystal City HQ2 would be powered by the new 120-megawatt solar farm, with a third of the renewable power generated, on the wholesale marketplace, to our county government for 17 years.

“To address the climate crisis and transition to a low-carbon economy, the majority of the world’s energy must come from zero-carbon power sources, but renewable energy buyers face regulatory and market hurdles,” said Patrick Leonard, senior manager of the renewable energy procurement team for Amazon. “My role working with the team in Arlington County involved sharing perspectives on how to strategically assess a renewable energy project that is right for a business or a government and the environment.”

Present during the county board vote was newshound Fox, coming off of 24 years as a familiar face on local Channel 9. In her new role at Dominion, she recruited county board Chair Libby Garvey for a Channel 9 interview in February alongside Dominion’s business development director. “With this agreement, we’re 80 percent to our goal,” Garvey said. “One of our concerns was if we were harming the environment in Pittsylvania. We were reassured by Dominion’s regulations” and planting of “vegetation around the solar farm.”

This month, Fox gave me a tour of Dominion’s regional HQ in Herndon. I met staff engineers at the 24/7 operations center, where they work in regional desk “pods” responding to outages. When Yorktown High School went dark on Feb. 28, Arlington Public Schools did not call the hotline, Fox noted, so Dominion learned of it only when reporters called. (The problem was internal, and a delivered part allowed the school to reopen the same day.) But Dominion wants to know, she said.

“It’s nice to work in Arlington and help meet renewable energy goals,” she said, pointing to a bulletin board photo showing Kenmore Middle School’s “solar for students” activities. Dominion’s people “are not climate deniers.” Everyone wants environmental justice, Fox said, but there’s also economic justice — “affordable and reliable energy” which currently requires natural gas along with renewables. Dominion’s engineers must ask, “Can we get there? Is this real?”

Dominion is helping Arlington and 15 other jurisdictions convert school buses from diesel to electricity. But controversy follows Dominion, from its campaign spending to its pipelines. The nonprofit Clean Virginia recently blasted Dominion, saying its Richmond lobbyists were “trying to ram through a deeply flawed bill that would significantly raise customer bills and handcuff public schools to its profit incentives.”

Fox’s response: “This electric school bus program will provide a wide range of benefits for the customers and communities we serve, including cleaner air, cost savings for school districts, and enhanced grid reliability. Dominion Energy is committed to lowering carbon emissions and helping our customers do the same.”

Past as prologue offered as Arlington adjusts to the Corona shutdown: The famous 1918 flu epidemic hit us hard, as Professor Mark Benbow reported in the 2017 Arlington Historical Magazine.

On Oct. 1, Arlington closed six schools: Fort Myer Heights, Clarendon, Barcroft, Columbia Pike, Ballston, and Cherrydale. On Oct. 3, 50 flu new cases were logged, a one-day record.

When buildings reopened in November, 54 Arlingtonians had died of the epidemic.