County supervisors kicked off their effort for a greener Loudoun with a workshop on updating the county’s energy strategy Wednesday.
During the Sept. 29 session, supervisors got a briefing on where Loudoun and the region stands today from Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments Senior Environmental Planner Maia Davis, COG Climate, Energy and Air Program Director Jeffrey King, and energy expert Steve Walz. That included an update on COG’s regional goal to reduce carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2050, from 71.8 million metric tons in 2005 to less than 20 million by 2050.
Across the region, the vast majority of carbon dioxide emission are attributable to commercial energy and transportation, with residential energy coming in third. In Loudoun, that is weighted even more heavily.
According to their presentation, Loudoun’s greenhouse gas emission since 2005 have grown from more than 3.8 million metric tons of carbon dioxide to almost 6.3 million metric tons in 2018. And the biggest driver of Loudoun’s greenhouse gas emissions increase is not the growth in population, but the increasing size and energy demands of the commercial sector. The biggest offset to that growth is the mix of energy sources as electricity generation moves beyond fossil fuels to renewable energy sources.
While residential energy usage across the region has held relatively flat and grown slightly in Loudoun since 2005, commercial electricity usage has increased by more than five times. Loudoun’s commercial consumption of electricity grew form less than 2 million megawatt hours in 2005 to more than 11 million megawatt hours in 2020.
In Loudoun, the biggest drivers of energy usage are data centers—an industry that both uses massive amounts of energy, and has pushed energy producers to use more renewable energy sources. Loudoun supervisors varied on how tightly to control data center emissions, with data centers being one of the county government’s largest sources of revenue.
Their presentation also pointed out that the poorest families spend the largest percentage of their income on electricity and gas, as much as 13%.
“I think that is so important, especially when we talk about the different households who are able to afford to update their homes and make sure that they are saving energy,” said Supervisor Sylvia R. Glass (D-Broad Run). “Households with lower incomes may not be able to do that.”
Supervisors now will try to figure out how that information—and the limits of their authority as a local government—will shape their strategies to tackle climate change.
“I don’t think [we have] just have an opportunity to do something here in Loudoun County about it, I think we have a responsibility and an obligation to do something about it,” said Supervisor Juli E. Briskman (D-Algonkian). “Because this is a climate crisis based on energy emissions, and Loudoun County is through the roof right now.”
While Loudoun’s government has quietly been making its facilities greener for years, with measures such as energy-efficient buildings and lighting, County Chair Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large) said the Loudoun County government should lead by example—and that it’s hard to ask the business community to do things that the government hasn’t invested in itself.
“When I said government by example, wheat I meant is, there are some things that we’re asking the community to do but we’re not doing yet ourselves, [electric vehicle] charging stations being a great example,” Randall said.
And a big part of tackling the climate change problem even locally will be finding ways to fund the solutions.
“It costs money on the front end to do energy efficient things,” Randall said. “It saves money on the back end, but it costs money from the front end, and how does that work, and what’s the financing, how soon can that money be returned—and all those issues.”
Supervisor Michael R. Turner (D-Ashburn) compared some current solutions to rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.
“Not to put too fine a point on it, but we’ll get what we’re getting now,” Turner said. “I think if this is going to be meaningful, we really need to step up the game in a major, exponential way, and let’s not kids ourselves: it’s going to cost us money.” And he said emissions from transportation and the built environment will be “the key to the game.”
But supervisors also all agreed that they will need much more information to make any policy decisions, such as which of those decisions would have the most impact.
“I think that it can’t be only carrots, to be frank,” Briskman said. “I think that we are going to need something in our zoning ordinance rewrite that addresses these issues.”
For next steps, county staff members will conduct more research on the feasibility and cost of different strategies and begin work to draft a new energy plan. They are expected to bring that work back to the Board of Supervisors for further discussion in mid-2022.