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Virginia clean energy champion expects legislative session to be ‘a wild ride’

The Virginia State Capitol in Richmond. Environmentalists here are optimistic about their proposed clean energy bill after voters in November flipped both the state House and Senate blue for the first time in a generation. Photo by Elizabeth McGowan / Energy News Network

Virginia environmentalists have reason to be giddy and emboldened as the General Assembly delves into lawmaking this month.

For one, Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam has been on a green tear. And, voters flipped both the House of Delegates and the Senate from red to blue during the November election for the first time in a generation.

Conservationists view this scenario as ripe for passage of the ambitious and comprehensive Virginia Clean Economy Act. The bill faces up to climate change by streamlining a transition to renewable energy while setting energy efficiency benchmarks and ensuring that poorer households can afford their electric bills.

Specifically, the measure establishes the state’s first mandatory renewable portfolio standard that calls for the electric grid to operate with 30% renewables by 2030 and be 100% decarbonized by 2050.

In tandem, the bill unblocks Virginia’s stalled effort to become part of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. RGGI, an 11-year-old market-based cooperative made up of northeastern and Mid-Atlantic states, is designed to boost investments in renewable energy by capping and reducing carbon emissions from fossil fuel-powered plants.

Kristie Smith, policy and campaigns manager for energy and transportation issues at the Virginia Conservation Network.

Kristie Smith is the policy and campaigns manager for energy and transportation issues at the Virginia Conservation Network. Her statewide network championed the Clean Economy Act.

Smith’s family has deep roots in the state: Her grandparents were longtime owners of the Virginia Diner in Sussex County. She was born in Virginia and raised in the mountains of southwestern Pennsylvania.

She earned a master’s degree in social work — with a focus on policy — from Columbia University. She majored in the same field as an undergraduate.

Smith began work at the conservation network three years ago after directing public affairs at the Montana Budget and Policy Center.

In this Q&A with the Energy News Network, she delves into the nitty-gritty of the Clean Economy Act. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

“With this new General Assembly session, it will be a paradigm shift from ‘no, not this’, to ‘yes, this,’” Smith said. “It’s going to be a wild ride and I’m all in.”

Q: First, what is the Virginia Conservation Network?

A: The nonprofit is a coalition of 125 environmental organizations from Big Green to small volunteer-led groups. I like to say we include all groups from the Sierra Club to the garden club — and everything in between. We have a unique role in Virginia to promote sound conservation policy and we’re now 50 years strong.

We don’t agree 100% of the time; otherwise, we would be one organization and not a coalition. The beauty of the coalition is that members have diverse perspectives, but our goal is to help the conservation community speak with one voice because there’s nothing more powerful than an echo chamber.

Q: In September, Northam issued Executive Order 43, which commits Virginia to a carbon-free grid by 2050. Why is the Clean Economy Act necessary?

A: We applaud Gov. Northam’s leadership and embrace the executive order. This is the legislative path to accomplishing what he wants to do.

What I want people to understand more than anything else is this legislation was drafted by stakeholders in Virginia with the intention of addressing the climate crisis, providing market certainty, keeping the lights on and making sure ratepayers are protected.

Q: Virginia environmentalists have long clamored for the mandatory renewable portfolio standard that this bill establishes. The state’s voluntary standard had suggested that the major utilities — Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power — provide 30% of their energy from renewables by 2030. Why does mandatory matter?

A: It addresses the urgency of taking on climate change, the defining issue of our time, by transitioning away from fossil fuels and deploying renewable energy.

Market certainty doesn’t come with a voluntary standard. These specific numbers are in place so developers can secure financing. A mandatory renewable portfolio standard, which can unlock the market, is one of the four pillars of this legislation.

Q: Neighboring Maryland is considering legislation that would achieve 100% clean energy by 2040. Is your Virginia bill ambitious enough?

A: All of the coalition members recognize the urgency with which we need to act. To set the underpinnings of this bill, we asked ourselves three questions: Does it address the climate crisis? Does it keep the lights on? And will it protect ratepayers? We answered those questions yes, yes and yes.

It’s important to understand the context in Virginia when we have these conversations about transforming our energy future. Dominion Energy has the seventh-highest utility bills in the nation and Virginia residents experience high energy burdens. We have to be exceptionally mindful of that fact when we think about energy policy.

There have been repeated attacks on climate legislation at the federal level. It’s important that state leaders are standing up and doing something.

Q: Didn’t Northam already commit to Virginia becoming the first Southern state to link with the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative last year?

A: Yes, until Republicans in the House and Senate (then in the majority) inserted language into the budget that made it impossible for the state Department of Environmental Quality to work on the regulatory process to link with RGGI. Those regulations are from the state’s Air Pollution Control Board.

It was a multi-headed beast we were fighting. In his new budget, Northam took out that language. That allows the RGGI regulations to move forward and for the Department of Environmental Quality to be the administrator. While the budget calls for linking, Northam is committed to passing legislation to join RGGI.

The Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy would oversee proceeds from the carbon allowance auctions. The bill invests that money toward energy efficiency and coastal resilience.

Q: Why is it necessary to pair the joining of RGGI with requiring Virginia’s grid to become fully carbon-free?

A: It closes a loophole. We coupled the RGGI piece with zero emissions by 2050 to make sure power companies wouldn’t keep burning coal or natural gas and exporting that electricity out of state. It shuts down that option. A critical mass of governors in PJM (the regional transmission organization that coordinates the movement of wholesale electricity) is acting to join RGGI. Utilities can’t export or sell something that they can’t produce.

Q: Can you explain the timeline to the carbon-free grid?

A: Wind and solar would be 30% of the total electricity load by 2030, 45% by 2035, 60% by 2040 and 72% by 2050. By including the 28% of the load already supplied by nuclear power plants, that takes us to 58% clean energy by 2030, 73% by 2035, 88% by 2040 and 100% by 2050.

Q: Critics such as Food & Water Watch question leaving the door open to nuclear energy, which they categorize as neither clean nor safe. They also fault the bill for being connected to RGGI; not placing a moratorium on fossil fuel infrastructure; and having an unambitious timeline. How do you answer those criticisms?

A: For one, Food & Water Watch is not part of the coalition as the organization is based in Washington, D.C.

There will always be people who demand that we go further faster. Coalition members also recognize that we have a responsibility not to overburden low-income families with massive spikes in bills. That’s a cornerstone of this legislation.

We understand the urgency with which we need to act. But we also see what some of our neighbors are experiencing. We can do this well and do it right.

Q: Crafting legislation is tricky. Is there something your organization would like to see included in the bill that was left out?

A: That’s a very, very good question. Crafting good transformative legislation is even trickier. We are very fortunate to work with stakeholders who are engaged and intelligent and who view this as a collaboration.

The coalition has been working on this since spring when the last General Assembly session ended. This bill has evolved over time and gotten stronger. We’re happy with it as it is. However, we had hard conversations before we rolled it out. There is a give and take.

Q: This bill addresses the power plant sector, but not transportation, which is now categorized as the largest emitter of heat-trapping gases contributing to climate change. How do you respond?

A: That’s right. We have been working to address Virginia’s transition to clean energy for a number of years and we’re excited to get that over the finish line.

Our partners are hard at work addressing the transportation part. Bolstering investments in rail and transit, and moving more people in trains is at the core of what they are trying to do.

Gov. Northam is addressing commuter, passenger and freight rail issues. He’s also looking for regional solutions by having Virginia join the Transportation and Climate Initiative. (Editor’s note: TCI is a collaboration of 12 Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states and the District of Columbia that seeks to improve transportation and reduce carbon emissions from the transportation sector.)

Electric vehicles are part of the solution. But from an equity perspective, not everyone can afford a car or an electric vehicle. To reduce congestion, we need to plan for communities to have access to rail, buses and micro-transit, not widen roads. Electric vehicles can come more into play once we have more smart growth.

Q: Virginia’s investor-owned utilities have ranked consistently low on energy efficiency. The Grid Transformation and Security Act (SB 966), enacted by the General Assembly in 2018, required Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power to invest $1.3 billion in energy efficiency over the next decade. Does the Clean Economy Act measure results beyond dollars spent?

A: Absolutely. Utilities must demonstrate that they are delivering actual energy savings. The bill includes a tool called an Energy Efficiency Resource Standard. That requires utilities to meet certain savings requirements each year, until they reach 2%. From a more technical perspective, utilities will have to deliver kilowatt-hour savings that are equal to a percentage of the previous year’s energy sold. This will ensure that dollars spent have real impact for the environment and Virginia families. 

Q: On a related front, SB 966 called 5,000 megawatts of utility-scale wind and solar power over the next decade to be in the public interest. That works for utility-scale solar projects, but what about residential rooftop and community solar?

A: In the current state of play, Dominion Energy has a pilot program that it calls community solar. A very important piece of this legislation charges the utility regulators, the State Corporation Commission, with laying out clear regulations to allow residential customers to participate in true community solar.

This bill also clears the way for more power purchase agreements for solar projects. For residential customers, the cap on distributed generation increases from 1% to 10% of peak load. And for commercial and industrial customers, the cap is raised from 1 MW to 3 MW.

The legislation also fully embraces the value of rooftop solar by removing a suite of restrictions that are artificially stifling the market. 

Q: Environmental justice has advanced beyond buzzword status in Virginia. Will a shift to renewables mean electricity rates will be too high for low- and middle-income households?

A: This bill is designed to move the state from the Virginia Way to a more just and inclusive Virginia Way. It’s misleading for utilities to just talk about rates when it’s the total electric bill that customers are paying. 

The average energy burden in Virginia is higher than the national average, in some cases three times higher. We need to be fair, just and equitable so we don’t leave low- and middle-income ratepayers behind.

For instance, utilities are required to ramp up their energy-efficiency programs for those customers. And, much of the RGGI revenue directed to energy efficiency will help those with a higher energy burden. 

Q: Does the measure address clean energy jobs in any fashion? 

A: When you create market certainty, you will spur jobs. We want to make sure that Virginians have access to good-paying jobs and we want to capitalize on the growth in green jobs. This bill includes provisions to promote the use of local labor, mostly with offshore wind. People in Hampton Roads, for instance, are trained and ready for those jobs.

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