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Audio: Chesapeake Climate Action Network, VA Sierra Club, Del. Rip Sullivan Conference Call on Virginia Clean Economy Act

"This is the best first step that any state in America has taken on climate change"

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See below for audio of the highly informative conference call Thursday evening with Mike Tidwell and Harrison Wallace of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, Bob Shippee of the Virginia Sierra Club, and Virginia House Democratic Caucus Chair Rip Sullivan, regarding the Virginia Clean Economy Act (VCEA)  Some highlights are below the audio as well, including answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about the VCEA. Also, to read the blog post by Harrison Wallace that’s referenced in the call, click here.

  • At the beginning of the call, CCAN director/founder Mike Tidwell said he’s “really excited to be here to discuss by far the strongest climate and clean energy bill ever to have the prospect of final passage in the Virginia General Assembly.
  • Tidwell added: “This bill would effectively shut down all of Dominion’s coal-fired power plants in Virginia by the year 2030 and all the state’s utility-owned gas plants no later than 2045 in the House-passed version of the bill. The bill mandates that at least 40% of the state’s non-nuclear grid come from renewable electricity by 2030 and a hundred percent by 2050, and that puts Virginia in the ballpark of states like California and Maryland. It also commits half a billion dollars in energy efficiency investments in low-income households by 2030.”
  • According to Tidwell, the House version of VCEA has “stronger features” than “the still strong Senate version,” including a “robust energy efficiency goal,” and “supporters hope to get the stronger House version to the governor’s desk by early March.”
  • Del. Sullivan, who describes himself as the General Assembly’s “energy efficiency nerd,” correctly referred to energy efficiency as “the fastest, cheapest way for us to reduce our…carbon footprint” and added, “one of the things I’m most excited about with the [VCEA] is a really strong [Energy Efficiency Resource Standard] EERS.”
  • Del. Sullivan said the bill’s not “perfect,” but he stands by calling it “transformative and frankly even historic.” According to Del. Sullivan, Dominion understands that it’s now a “new world [in Virginia] given what happened in last year’s elections…that has changed the game and Dominion is going to have to swallow some things that it never dreamed it would have to.”
  • According to Del. Sullivan, the “the future of the VCEA…will be decided quite literally over the next several days here in Richmond and I think we’ve got a great opportunity to do something that frankly just a year ago we couldn’t have dreamed of doing here in Virginia.”
  • Del. Sullivan said that, in addition to the EERS, the VCEA has “a mandatory [Renewable Portfolio Standard – RPS], obviously offshore wind, and the bill has a lots and lots of consumer protections built into it and a real focus on issues having to do with environmental justice.”
  • According to Bob Shippee of the Sierra Club, he’s “in this to help move the Commonwealth forward to a cleaner energy future.” Shippee said that “where we stand right now in the [General Assembly] does show the power of grassroots actions, both in the political and the legislative arenas…It’s a complete shift in power in the building as well, in terms of you know progressive ideas having having a chance, and frankly…putting Dominion on their heels in many regards.”
  • Shippee described the VCEA as having four main “pillars” – the mandatory RPS, the EERS, “a lot of great solar provisions…and of course then the carbon reduction piece of it, which is kind of revolving around RGGI but it goes further than…now we have a bill that has all four of [those pillars] in it.”
  • Shippee added: “In past sessions…I would see bills get worse as the session went on, and this time I would agree with the delegate’s comments that it’s gotten better.
  • According to Harrison Wallace of CCAN, the House bill is “more ambitious” than the Senate bill, and “the vehicle that we’re really excited about.” Wallace particularly touted the mandatory energy efficiency provisions of the House bill, and said it would result in a savings of $17/month on people’s energy bills.
  • The RPS mandates 100% clean energy by 2045 for Dominion and 2050 for Appalachian Power. Wallace calls this bill “the biggest first step I’ve ever seen on climate. And just to give us a little bit of a picture here, this will get us over 40 percent of our non-nuclear load to be clean energy. And in Maryland, where my boss Mike has been working really hard to make them a leader on climate, they passed a bill last year to get the 50 percent by 2030, and that was their third or fourth try on RPS. So for us to do that in the first time with a clean energy majority is setting us up to go way past that in the future, because…when we pass this we are not done.”
  • Wallace said CCAN is “super-excited” that “this bill was the only bill in the General Assembly that made sure that all fossil fuel emissions are ended.” And “we also got rid of biomass in the 2031 through 2045 RGGI period, so that…fuel is not omitted from the carbon reduction cap.”
  • According to Wallace, VCEA will “make it economically nearly impossible for anyone to think that they should build something that has a 30-year lifespan that has to be shut off by 2045 – so that’s just another way that we’re making sure that the current fossil fuel emissions that are worsening climate change now have an end date, and that is all before 2050, and that the dirtiest of all of them, coal, is getting shut down over the next decade…having that set is really the end of the fossil fuel industry we believe in Virginia.”
  • On environmental justice, Wallace said that VCEA “allows for low-income Virginians to have a capped energy bill that matches 6% of their income if it’s not electric heat, 10% of its electric heat, and provides a bit of a cushion for a lot of people who are facing really hard energy burdens, especially in the winter when it’s really cold and they have to turn on their heat a whole bunch.”
  • Wallace concluded: “I think [VCEA] will get better…and the most important part is that we’re not done; this is something that I think will launch us into a new realm…in the ranking of clean energy states…We still will have more work to do, but at least now we have a lot of the infrastructure we need to be able to win this race against the climate crisis.”
  • Del. Rip Sullivan was asked, who wrote the bill? Del. Sullivan responded: “by a coalition of environmental groups first and foremost that’s really unprecedented in scope and depth…Virginia Poverty Law Center…Southern Environmental Law Center…NRDC…CCAN…Sierra Club…LCV…a really deep, deep group of stakeholders…These are all people who want to get to the same place.”
  • Del. Sullivan noted that Dominion is still an “influential force,” but there are “some cracks in its armor” now, “the ground has shifted under them,” and they came to this negotiating table in a much weakened position.”
  • On a fossil fuel “moratorium,” Shippee said VCEA represents a “de facto moratorium.” Del. Sullivan added that VCEA “shifts the market forces in Virginia…changes all the economics of energy in Virginia over the course of the next 30 years…as a practical economic matter it will no longer be possible to profitably build a fossil fuel plant in Virginia, and the way the market will be shifted by this transformative bill will force any profit-making entity to be looking at renewable ways to produce energy rather than fossil fuel ways.”
  • What positive changes are being made to the bill? According to Harrison Wallace, “we are continuing to see more and more oversight from the [State Corporation Commission] getting inserted into the bill.”  Harrison said he hasn’t seen how the bill’s gotten worse…only better.
  • “Will be Virginia General Assembly be able to come back in subsequent years and improve this bill?” According to Del. Sullivan, the answer to that is YES – “we will be back if there are things we don’t get in this bill, that we want to continue work on; we can come back next year. There’s certainly certainly nothing in the bill that says this is now set in stone for the next 30 years…none of us know what kind of technology might exist five to ten years from now…We will have an annual possibility to come back and now tweak or even make major changes to the bill.”
  • VCEA also means that “35% of the power being produced can be produced by people and entities other than Dominion, so we’re gonna have new players coming into the market in Virginia, and you can be sure that as they start to be successful, they’re going to continue to press to do more and more. So as I said earlier…a big part of what I see the VCEA doing is unleashing market forces that right now are stifled…I think we can do this even faster than 2045; none of the bill says we can’t go faster than 2045.”
  • Is this bill bad for consumers? According to Wallace, adding the stronger EERS will help matters significantly. “What is happening in the Commonwealth around the new wind generation that’s going to be coming off our coast, the bill does have more competitive procurement. And as I mentioned, those costs are a worst-case scenario. I think it’s going to be a lot cheaper by the time those turbines go in the water in a few years and this allows for a competitive process and a cost cap… keeping it from getting to be way overblown. And in this bill we also got rid of the basis point adder for wind, which was just an extra bonus that Dominion didn’t need, which can save a billion dollars on those costs.” Del. Sullivan pointed to a “lot of protections in here for particularly low-income Virginians,” and also that the SCC “is now required by the General Assembly to consider the social costs of carbon...What’s happening all around the world in terms of the cost of wind coming down is really dramatic, like we see in so many industries it’s expensive at first and then it comes down. Look at solar right now versus solar ten years ago…[the cost] is dramatically reduced. So we are very mindful of the ratepayer in this bill…across the spectrum and certainly the lower socioeconomic part of the spectrum, and really confident that in the final analysis this is going to be a something that saves people money and obviously at the same time can help us save the planet.”
  • Does this bill in any way exempt pipelines? Del. Sullivan responded, NO, and added “We are changing the economics of energy in Virginia…if you could fast-forward to 2015…what we’re trying to put in place is an economy that’s not going to need…and would make pipelines like Mountain Valley and Atlantic Coast Pipeline uneconomic to build.”
  • On biomass, Wallace said: “We’re shutting down every Dominion biomass plant by 2028. Existing biomass does have a role in the RPS – it is a shrinking role and one that I think especially once we get to the point to where RGGI starts covering biomass will just shrink more and more each year. Because again, we’re not letting anything new in, there’s nothing coming in from out of state in this RPS, but…the stuff that is already in the state as of this year has a small role that is slowly getting constrained by all the other market forces that come in to reducing carbon, which biomass does produce.” Shippee added, bluntly, “We’re putting these companies out of business…It’s just miraculous in my opinion that we we’ve actually been able to phase out all of those companies from doing business in Virginia over a fairly short number of years despite their lobbying….We have negotiated basically an end to these businesses in business-friendly Virginia in the name of clean energy.”
  • Tidwell concluded by saying that “we have tried to candidly and truthfully and honestly as advocates talked about the features of the bill which are overwhelmingly positive…We are moving forward with a good bill that will not be perfect, but will be a game changer, as Delegate Sullivan said. And that we fully intend in 2021 and 2022 and for as long as it takes to come back year after year and improve features of the bill, expand the reach of clean energy in Virginia to cover transportation and degasifying buildings and all the things we know we need to do. But as we like to say, as part of this coalition in the clean energy economy initiative, to win the race you need a vehicle, and this is an incredible initial vehicle. As Harrison said, this is the best first step that any state in America has taken on climate change…[and] I’ve worked on campaigns in Maryland, DC and on Capitol Hill, and I am in touch with state and regional direction directors across the country – in California, Washington State, New York State – and no state, no blue state that has gotten out of the block ahead of Virginia, has ever passed a first omnibus bill to get into the race as strong as the [Virginia] Clean Economy Act.”