Home Climate change Thoughts on Virginia’s “Goldilocks Moment” for a 100% Clean Power Future

Thoughts on Virginia’s “Goldilocks Moment” for a 100% Clean Power Future

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by A Siegel

The Virginia General Assembly’s 2020 session is about to open in Richmond. The Democratic majorities, in the House and Senate, clearly seem prepared to act on legislation to move Virginia on a path toward a clean power (e.g., low-to-no carbon electricity) system. Framing this discussion are two different approaches, the Virginia Green New Deal (GND-VA) and the Virginia Clean Economy Act (VCEA). (Also on the table is a bipartisan bill which would drive real restructuring of the electricity system but this does not have the same clean electrons focus.) Putting aside (quite) important issues of differences like equity, ownership, and worker protections, let us focus (again) for a moment on the bills’ differences when it comes to cleaning up Virginia’s electricity grid:

  • The Virginia Green New Deal Virginia‘s key legislation introduced by Rep. Sam Rasoul (HB77) “mandates … retail electric suppliers in Virginia to generate 80% of electricity from renewable resources by 2028 and 100% by 2036″.
  • The Virginia Clean Economy Act (VCEA) targets 60 percent renewable electrons by 2036 and 100% by 2050. [Update: with a major caveat as to what that is a % of … see below.]
Like Goldilocks, asking: Which one is ‘just right’?

Very simply, Goldilocks’ search for the most comfortable furniture and food ready to eat seems appropriate for a situation. The GND-VA might be too ambitious for the political moment while the VCEA is not nearly ambitious enough considering business-case opportunities and climate reality.

While it seems technically possible to map out a path to the GND-VA’s 80 percent renewable electricity by 2028,

  • The GND-VA does not have not robust modeling and road-mapping of how to move from today’s under 10 percent renewables to 80 percent in this eight-year period. This is a significant undertaking that requires real planning to enable effective investments, identify (solve) key roadblocks, prioritize critical early steps, etc …
  • While it seems possible, as a real stretch goal, to achieve this sort of target, this sort of rapid shift will end up having inefficiencies, will create disruptions, will have unexpected impacts, will create demands … much as occurred across the United States during World War II as the “Homefront” played an essential part in enabling, eventual, victory over the Axis powers.
  • Although a “World War II-like mobilization” is often invoked to support climate action, we should recognize that the (vast) majority of Virginians simply are not on board (yet …) with mandating a WWII-like mobilization: there are not ‘climate victory gardens’, people are not collecting scrap metal, they are not …
  • When it comes to Goldilocks, her comment on the GND-VA might just be that it is “too hard” (at least for now) to crawl into bed with.

On the other hand, the VCEA’s objective of 60% renewables by 2036 and 100% by 2050,

  • 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.
  • Does not tackle, in many ways, significant barriers (The Virginia Way!) to achieving a clean economy future nor does it seem inventive enough in creating solutions to enable surmounting (perceived) challenges.
  • Falls short of marrying ambition with climate realities, technical possibilities, and business(-model) opportunities.
  • Goldilocks might just try the VCEA and say that it is too just too soft for comfort.

In considering these two, while I applaud the GND-VA’s philosophy and appreciate that the VCEA would represent a significant shift for the better from the existing structure, I am a Goldilocks finding reasons for uncertainty and discomfort with both leading me to seek an appropriate middle-ground of comfort and appropriateness.

Seeking to find the ‘just right’ moment for 100% clean electrons

Writ large, legislation should set an “objective” (what we would like to see) and “threshold” (what is the minimal acceptable). Within the context of achieving a 100% clean electron grid (see below, including nuclear and not just renewables), the GND-VA might just be too ambitious for the moment while the VCEA might not reasonably seize the day (political, economic, technological, business, climate, …). With that carpe diem thought, what might be that Goldilocks 100% clean electrons objective/threshold moment?

Writ large, with a bit of waving hands (an informed, but not detailed assessment-based, opinion), 2035/2040 could well be reasonable numbers:

  • Objective 2035
    • (Nearly) 100% clean electricity (nuclear + renewables +, if it exists, carbon-capture operations) by 2035.
    • Likely achievable with strong economic benefits and without serious disruptions (external to specific impacted industries/plants, with need to address/mitigate such impacts, where appropriate).
    • Would have significant secondary/tertiary benefits: improved health, job creation, increased economic activity, keeping Virginian $s inside the Commonwealth rather than importing fuels and electrons, reputational value as a leader in climate action.
    • Would position Virginia ready to undertake a far more aggressive path that could, if trends develop, enable pulling the timeline to a ‘mean (e.g., resilient), green, and economically strengthening clean energy economy’ into the early 2030s. And, to be ready, if/when Virginians are ready for a WWII-like mobilization to treat climate change like what it has become … an emergency.
    • It might, however, become evident as seeking to execute a clean power path that real barriers exist to this timeline: from securing Federal permits for offshore wind areas, to weaknesses in supply chains, to technical challenges to achieving this level of renewable energy generation in the grid within this time frame and thus …
  • Threshold 40
    • (Nearly) 100% clean electricity (nuclear + renewables +, if it exists, carbon-capture operations) by 2040.
    • The existing plans and opportunities in the clean power space clearly align with a twenty-year project to eliminate fossil fuels from Virginia’s electricity sector. This should be the ‘minimum’ (threshold) target for any legislative moves to clean up the grid.

Objective 2035/Threshold 2040 seems to be a reasonable Goldilocks target timeline for a 100% clean power sector in Virginia considering the political moment, economic opportunities, and technology realities.

Nuclear into the future

As an important aside, both the GND-VA and VCEA focus on “renewable power” (renewable electricity) rather than “clean power”. Renewable is WWS: wind, water, solar (plus, dependent, some minor additions like methane from (animal) waste and biomass). “Clean” includes nuclear power, which is currently a significant part of Virginia’s electricity grid. For those focused on climate impacts, the core issue is “clean” — low-to-no carbon emission electricity. Thus, for me, the key target should be “clean” with serious moves to go 100% renewable only (if still appropriate) after eliminating fossil-fuel/carbon-dioxide significant electricity from the grid. Retiring safely operating nuclear power plants while keeping carbon-dioxide spewing fossil fuel (both coal and fossil* gas) plants operating is, inherently, not to take climate change seriously.

NOTE: The VCEA is, happily, stronger than what was expected based on the two-page press release and analysis of key supporting research. Most importantly, the use of “clean” in its discussions and nuclear electricity showing up its supporting research indicated that nuclear power would count in its targets. The bill, itself, does not have nuclear in its targets and thus it is a more aggressive renewable bill than (not only I) expected. It is still a complicated bill (which, to be honest, I (and many others) do not fully understand), with areas meriting cleaning up and strengthening, but it is stronger than (many of us) expected. When first heard, it appeared to merit perhaps a “C”, at best, considering the moment. It now might merit a B+.

Additionally, the VCEA is the “Clean Economy Act” but focuses, primarily, on the power (electricity) sector and doesn’t deal with many other elements of the economy in a serious way.

UPDATE/CORRECTION: As per “I … do not fully understand” VCEA above, there was an important paragraph (see below) that I (and, sigh, others) saw but didn’t absorb fully in a first read through. The VCEA does, sort of, ‘count’ nuclear power within its process.  Nuclear-power plant generated electrons are to be subtracted from the total electricity and then the remaining amount (total production – nuclear generation) is to be called the “total electric energy sold in the previous calendar year”which  would then be the basis for determining the percent then is renewable energy.  to be called the “total electric energy sold in the previous calendar year”.

Sigh, a mea culpa for getting it wrong. But, if you are (were) confused, you aren’t the only one … count me in too. Anyone not believe that confusion isn’t part of the objective here (who wrote that paragraph?)?

This path significantly downshifts the VCEA’s ambitions and the meaning of its “60% by 2036”.  That downshifting easily merits pushing down that grade from a B+ to a B or B-. And, well, highlights the criticality of a close read to discover “areas meriting cleaning up and strengthening”.

UPDATE: The discussion of VCEA was based on draft legislation. Multiple VCEA related bills seem to be dropping (energy efficiency, renewable portfolio standard).  The second has the nuclear power exclusion paragraph from above.