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To Be or Not To Be a Clean Energy State, That Is the Question

Democrats remain committed to a renewable energy future...Youngkin and most Republican legislators cling to the familiar (dis)comfort of fossil fuels."

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by Ivy Main, cross posted from Power for the People VA

Democrats remain committed to a renewable energy future to address pollution, high electricity costs and the causes of catastrophic climate change. Gov. Glenn Youngkin and most Republican legislators cling to the familiar (dis)comfort of fossil fuels. Republicans are still lobbing grenades at the Virginia Clean Economy Act (VCEA) and the Clean Car Standard; Democrats are holding the line on those advances.

Last year House Republicans used small subcommittees to kill Democrats’ energy bills, even those that passed the Senate on a bipartisan basis. This year the Democrats’ slim majority in both chambers will let more bills get to the governor’s desk. But with the threat of a veto tempering expectations, the party of clean energy is not running big, ambitious bills, but is instead focused on solving problems that have popped up along the march to zero carbon.

Committees have already begun work on the hundreds of energy bills filed in past days. That’s too many for even the Mercury’s dedicated readers to review without more caffeine than is good for you, so let’s focus on just some that would have the most consequence for the clean energy transition.

To be: Democrats work to further the clean economy

Many of the Democratic bills contain small fixes to existing law that add up to big gains for clean energy. One of these is HB 638, from Del. Rip Sullivan, D-Fairfax, and SB 230, from Sen. Ghazala Hashmi, D-Richmond. Most of its provisions are tweaks to the VCEA. Among them are increasing from 1% to 5% the percentage of Dominion Energy Virginia and Appalachian Power’s renewable energy purchasing that must come from small projects like rooftop solar; streamlining the State Corporation Commission’s review of energy efficiency programs by creating a single cost-effectiveness test; and supporting competition in the development of renewable energy and energy storage facilities by specifying that “at least”35% of projects must come from third-party developers, instead of the simple 35% number currently in the law.

The bill also contains a provision that goes beyond the VCEA. It states that the SCC has an “affirmative duty” to implement the Commonwealth Energy Policy at “lowest reasonable cost.” (Two other bills, one from Sen. Jennifer Carroll Foy, D-Fairfax, and the other from Del. Phil Hernandez, D-Norfolk, contain only this provision.) The energy policy is separate from the VCEA, and it sets ambitious goals for the decarbonization of Virginia’s whole economy, including a faster timeline for achieving net zero in the electricity sector. The catch is that the policy does not have teeth, and for that reason it is routinely ignored. Requiring the SCC not just to take account of it, but also to implement it, is a step towards broader decarbonization, though it is not clear how it would actually play out at the SCC.

Legislation from Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax and Sullivan would resolve problems with the shared solar program in Dominion territory (including putting restraints on the minimum bill that the utility can charge) and expand it to Appalachian Power territory.

SB 79, from Sen. Barbara Favola, D-Arlington, would save taxpayers money by requiring new or substantially renovated (over 50%) public buildings to have solar-ready roofs or, if solar is deemed impractical, to meet one of two high-efficiency alternatives. New or substantially renovated schools would have to be designed and built to net-zero energy standards, unless the locality determines that to be impractical or the school is a historic building.

Sullivan and Sen. Suhas Subramanyam, D-Loudoun, have introduced legislation to resolve the interconnection problem that has stalled commercial solar projects across Dominion territory. The House and Senate bills specify that customers are responsible for costs on their side of the meter, while the utility pays for costs on its side, including upgrades to the distribution grid.

A few bills seek to break through the local-level gridlock that has bedeviled utility-scale solar and wind projects. The most significant of these is HB 636from Sullivan and SB 567 from Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Charlottesville, which provides an alternative permitting process for larger utility solar (50 MW or more), wind (100 MW or more) and renewable energy storage projects (at least 50 MW nameplate and discharge capacity of 200 MWh or more) that go through the local permitting process but end up without permits. Developers get a second chance at the SCC if they meet a list of requirements. These include safeguards for farmland protection, stormwater, setbacks, wetlands, wildlife corridors, etc. Applicants are also charged $75,000 to cover the locality’s cost of participating in the SCC proceeding. (There is some irony here that small projects, which have less impact, are left at the mercy of local whims, while the most impactful projects have what amounts to a right of appeal.)

Vehicle electrification would also get support from Democratic legislation. One bill of particular interest is Sullivan’s HB 118, which requires Dominion and Appalachian Power to take charge of upgrades to the distribution grid needed to support EV charging by non-residential customers. The utilities are also tasked with filing detailed plans to “accelerate widespread transportation electrification across the Commonwealth in a manner designed to lower total ratepayer costs.”

Regardless of the fate of these bills, Virginia’s efforts to transition to a zero-carbon economy will be swamped by new demand from the fast-growing data center industry, unless the industry itself can be made part of the solution. A dozen or so bills seek to put conditions on the industry in one way or another, but one takes on the energy demand directly. HB116, from Sullivan, and SB192, from Subramanyam, condition data center operators’ receipt of tax credits on demonstrating compliance with minimum standards for energy efficiency and renewable energy procurement, as well as not using diesel generators for backup power.

Not to be: Republicans try out arguments against the energy transition 

Many of the Republican anti-clean energy transition bills are blunt instruments that are more about campaigning in Trump country than low-cost energy. For example, HB 397, from freshman Del. Tim Griffin, R-Bedford, would repeal most of the important provisions of the VCEA, while declaring that development of new nuclear is “in the public interest” (a phrase that pretty much means “watch your wallet”).

Similarly, five bills seek to repeal outright the Advanced Clean Cars law passed in 2021, which effectively put Virginia among the states that follow California’s path to vehicle electrification. The law does not kick in until 2025, but trying to repeal it has become a Republican standby. A more subtle bill from Del. Lee Ware, R-Powhatan, would condition repeal on the Virginia Automobile Dealers certifying that Virginia is not meeting its annual EV sales targets.

Some anti-EV bills are merely performative. One non-starter, from Griffin again, would provide a tax credit for purchases of vehicles with internal combustion engines. A bill from Sen. William Stanley, R-Franklin, would require any business selling an EV or any EV component to a public body to provide a sworn declaration that there was no child labor involved not just in the manufacturing but at any point anywhere along the supply chain, starting with mining minerals abroad.

If Stanley were truly concerned about child labor violations, of course, he would seek to apply this sworn declaration requirement to all industries. He could start with the domestic meatpacking industry, where child labor violations are rife, including in Virginia. Ah, if only that were the point.

It’s not just state-level decarbonization that comes in for a brute-force attack. A bill from another new delegate, Eric Zehr, R-Lynchburg, makes its target any federal regulations that “may threaten the production or supply of affordable, reliable, and secure energy within the Commonwealth.” If alerted to such a threat by a utility or the SCC, the Attorney General’s office would be required to intervene. This sort of bill is not intended to survive its first committee hearing, if it even gets a hearing. Its only purpose is to show off the patron’s hard right bona-fides.

To be fair, there are Republicans who are actually trying to solve real problems in the energy sector. As one example, take SB562 from Sen. Travis Hackworth, R-Tazewell. His bill would create a ratepayer-funded pilot program for utilities to figure out a way to use coalbed methane for electricity without burning it (perhaps with fuel cells?). The problem is, he proposes to make this electricity eligible for Virginia’s renewable portfolio standard (RPS). It’s a creative, if expensive-sounding, response to the real climate problem of methane leaking from old and often abandoned coal mines, part of the true cost of coal. But calling fossil methane renewable is, shall we say, counterfactual. Some problems are more effectively tackled head-on, using tax dollars or tax credits, rather than being used to undermine the integrity of the RPS.

To be: somewhere else entirely

The reality of renewable energy is that we have to build a great many wind, solar and storage projects, each one taking months or years of design, permitting and construction work and requiring acreage we would rather use for something else. Yes, it means economic activity, investment and jobs, but it’s also something of a slog. Wouldn’t it be nice if we had a magic solution that could just provide carbon-free electricity without all that bother?

That’s the dream that continues to attract both Democrats and Republicans to nuclear energy. Opinion is divided on whether small modular reactors (SMRs) could hold the answer to all our energy woes, or are just the latest con from an industry looking to attract a new set of deep-pocketed suckers.

Three things are clear at this point. One, SMRs are still many years away from commercialization, coming too late to solve the climate problem that is here and now. Second, SMRs are going to cost a lot. Not only is there no free nuclear lunch, there isn’t even a low-priced breakfast. And third, Dominion is frothing at the bit to build an SMR – but only if customers have to pay for it.

Some legislators are happy to oblige, even with all these drawbacks. The most concerning of the bills are HB 1323 from Del. Danny Marshall, R-Danville, and SB 454 from Sen. David Marsden, D-Fairfax. The legislation would allow Dominion or Appalachian Power to charge ratepayers “at any time” to recover development costs of a small modular nuclear reactor, defined as a nuclear reactor not larger than 500 MW. Not only is that not small, but by the language of the bill it need not even be modular or use advanced technology. Heck, it doesn’t even have to be in Virginia. Dominion could build any kind of nuclear plant, anywhere it chooses, and satisfy the terms of the bill.

But it’s that “at any time” language that should be a red flag for lawmakers. Charging customers for a nuclear plant before and during construction, including cost overruns and with no guarantee of completion, is precisely how residents of South Carolina got stuck paying billions of dollars for a hole in the ground.

That amount of money buys a lot of low-cost renewable energy and storage, right in the here and now. Virginia needs to be a clean energy state for the sake of ratepayers, the economy and the climate, and there is no time to waste.

 

This article was first published on January 21, 2024 in the VIrginia Mercury.

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