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The Oceans Are Dangerously Heating, Australia’s on Fire, and…Virginia’s Not (Yet) Serious Enough About Combating the Climate Crisis

Virginia energy guru Ivy Main has posted her take on two major clean energy bills.


As usual – and today being a day ending in the letter “y” – there’s more godawful news about the climate crisis humans have gotten ourselves, and every other species, into. For instance, see:

And that’s just a small sampling from one, typical, disastrous day in the anthropocene, aka “Earth’s sixth mass extinction” (great job, humanity – not!).

So with the massive, overwhelming, scientific evidence pointing in the direction of disaster unless humanity takes urgent, drastic action to reverse course, one would naively expect humanity to…take urgent, drastic action to reverse course! But…nope. At least not yet. And certainly not here in Virginia, where fracked-gas-loving Dominion Energy rules, and where until recently, climate-science-denial/fossil-fuel-industry-tool Republicans were in charge of the Virginia General Assembly.

Now, though, with Democrats in charge, we can look forward to a brighter day, as Virginia races ahead aggressively towards a 100% clean energy future, as rapidly as possible (e.g., by the mid 2030s). Right? Oh wait. Unfortunately, I just read Virginia energy policy guru Ivy Main’s authoritative take on “two very different omnibus bills, the Clean Economy Act and the Green New Deal Act,” aimed at getting Virginia’s collective, and heretofore pathetically weak, ass in gear.  And now I’m even more frustrated than ever. Here are a few of Ivy’s key points:

  • The VCEA is “massive” and sprawling, yet “surprisingly restrained in its ambitions,” with “a zero-carbon electricity supply by 2050, a goal that allows nuclear energy to keep its role in the mix, and also one that, after an initial kick, requires a ramp-up of renewable energy of only 3% per year from 2021 to 2050.” Obviously, none of that is even close to as ambitious as we need to be, given the magnitude and scope of the crisis – and business opportunity – we’re facing.
  • “The very modest pace of the required investments in renewable energy and efficiency leaves no room for utilities to argue that the targets cannot be met or will cause economic pain. On the contrary, critics can justly complain they are too easy.” So yeah, basically there’s not a lot of reason for Dominion to complain about the VCEA’s renewable energy targets. In fact, my guess is that Dominion could easily achieve FAR more ambitious targets in terms of energy efficiency, utility-scale solar, offshore wind, etc., than are spelled out in this bill. To put it another way, as Adam Siegel pointed out on this blog the other day, VCEA “does not appear to leverage very real (already announced + expanded plan) possibilities for significant offshore wind, incredible decreases in solar/wind/offshore wind/battery costs, and other real-world trends that could enable achieving far more, far earlier than the plan.”
  • Another problem with VCEA is that its Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) goals are: a) much weaker than they should be, with a timetable stretching to 2050, instead of perhaps the mid-2030s; b) weakened even further by some tricky language in the bill, making “RPS percentages look 30% bigger than they really are” – ugh!; and c) the bill “chose not to change the code’s existing kitchen-sink definition of renewable energy, foregoing an opportunity to fix the mischief Dominion has got up to lately with what I call its Green Power for Suckers program and the Great Thermal REC Boondoggle.” IMHO that all needs to change, big time, for VCEA to ever be something that environmentalists can and should get excited about.
  • “On the other hand, the bill has lots of elements utilities still won’t like, including an energy storage mandate, community solar, net metering reforms and a limited moratorium on new fossil fuel generation.” So that’s good at least, and the hope is that once these elements are in place, they can be built upon/strengthened going forward.
  • VCEA would also have Virginia join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), which I’d argue on balance is a good thing; allows for some out-of-state “RECs,” which is both good (“market efficiency and cost”) and bad (means you don’t actually have to build new clean energy resources here in Virginia); “includes community solar provisions and removal of certain barriers to net metering,” which is good but could be even more aggressive; has “a mandate for 2,400 megawatts of energy storage by 2035” (again, good, but could be even more aggressive, particularly by increasing the role for distributed energy resources, electrifying the vehicle fleet, etc.); and contains “a one-year moratorium on the permitting of any new carbon-emitting generating units that an investor-owned utility might want to build, until the government produces a report with recommendations for achieving a carbon-free electric sector by 2050 at least cost to ratepayers” (again, good, but preferably would have a stronger moratorium on new fossil fuel infrastructure).
  • As for the GND, Ivy Main writes that it has: “a moratorium on any new fossil fuel infrastructure; a very aggressive timetable for 100% renewable energy by 2036; energy efficiency standards and a mandate for buildings to decrease energy use; low-income weatherization; job training; a requirement that companies hire workers from environmental justice communities; and assistance for workforce transition for fossil fuel workers.” All of which is very good.
  • Two excellent elements of GND are: 1) it “directs DMME to develop a climate action plan that addresses mitigation, adaptation and resiliency, supports publicly-owned clean energy and incorporates environmental justice principles”; 2) its “energy efficiency mandates are much tougher than the CEA’s, requiring savings of 2.4% per year beginning immediately.”
  • However…bad news: “With all its aims of putting the energy transition on steroids, the Green New Deal also has a surprisingly weak RPS. In fact, it appears utilities would not have to build renewable energy projects in Virginia at all — or for that matter, close any fossil fuel plants.” And: “the bill contains no requirement to build wind and solar in Virginia, and utilities can run their fossil fuel plants as usual. That’s not the energy transition a lot of people are looking for.” So that’s not good.

Also, on the GND, I’d point out – as smart friends of mine have already explained – that it doesn’t really mandate anything, as it it “doesn’t really touch the code where what utility companies can and cannot do is defined in endless, gory detail.” Which, for better or worse, is essential.

Now, let’s get down to brass tacks here: the political reality is that GND has no chance of passing the Virginia General Assembly as its currently constituted, including Dominion Energy’s – and the Virginia business community’s – continued, powerful role behind the scenes, combined with the fact that Republicans continue as the extremist outlier, climate-science-denial, fossil-fuel-industry-puppets party, while Democrats still have some members who are, let’s just say, favorably inclined towards Dominion’s worldview and policy preferences. So how many votes might there be for the GND? It’s hard to say for sure, but…probably zero Republicans, and definitely not enough Democrats to even come close to passing it in the Senate. That starts with Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, who yesterday supposedly said, “Now listen, I’m not supporting your stupid Green New Deal. Do you want me to call the police and have them throw you out? No? Shut up and leave.” And even if that quote isn’t completely accurate, it’s very clear that the GND is not Saslaw’s cup of tea. At all.

And the VCEA? Now *that* bill might actually have a chance, given the fact that it’s patroned by House Democratic Caucus Chair Rip Sullivan and by Sen. Jennifer McClellan (SB710), an influential and respected member who is rumored to be a possible 2021 candidate for governor. Which appears to mean that VCEA could very well be the main legislative “vehicle” for comprehensive energy legislation this session, unless of course Dominion and its allies come in with their own bill, which is certainly possible as well.

Regardless, IMHO what needs to happen now is that VCEA needs to be strengthened, specifically by making the RPS and energy efficiency goals *much* more aggressive (e.g., ditch the far-too-late 2050 goal and make it 2035 or whatever; double energy efficiency improvements); incorporate some of the best elements of the GND, such as a focus on environmental justice, on a fossil fuel moratorium, and on protections for workers; and move to a less “stovepiped” approach, preferably, addressing building and transportation sector energy efficiency and electrification in a much more aggressive way. Oh, and I’d also put a LOT greater emphasis on increased competition/retail customer choice (e.g., see Del. Lee Ware’s bill here) in Virginia power markets, including from homeowners and business owners who want to move towards rooftop solar or other forms of “distributed power.”

Again, the bottom line is that we are in the midst of a massive, urgent climate crisis, one which requires a response from humanity – including Virginia humanity! – that’s commensurate to the challenge. We also have an enormous business and economic opportunity if we seize this moment and move, aggressively, to make Virginia a leader in the multi-trillion-dollar cleantech industry of the 21st century. Are there any *serious* arguments for *not* doing that? If so, I haven’t heard them.


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