2017: The Year Virginia Fought Back

Part of NRDC's Series Reviewing 2017 Energy & Climate Developments

While Virginia’s state legislature hangs in the balance, one outcome is clear for 2017: this is the year Virginia jumped into the race for a cleaner energy future.

The year started badly, as the Trump Administration pushed a climate-wrecking, fossil-fuel agenda that threatened to intensify climate change and the sea level rise that imperils Virginia’s coast line. But Governor McAuliffe’s last year in office proved to be a big first year for climate action in Virginia.

For the first time, Virginia made the big move to reduce carbon emissions from its power sector, 30 percent by 2030, a strong response to the federal government’s failure to recognize reality—climate change is here and already hurting communities, and smart clean energy investments are the way to move forward.

Virginia plans to cut power plant pollution with a cap-and-invest strategy that links it to the successful Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI). That’s the job-creating, nine-state coalition of mid-Atlantic and northeastern states that has helped cut greenhouse gas emissions from power plants in the region by 40 percent while contributing at least $2.9 billion in regional economic growth and boosting regional employment by more than 30,000 job-years (one year of full-time employment for one person). RGGI has also helped save consumers $618 million on energy bills, with billions more expected, thanks to energy efficiency and renewable energy investments.

McAuliffe’s proposed carbon-cutting plan will be a huge step forward for Virginia, though it still needs work: in its current form, the proposal gives a free pass to polluters who burn wood for electricity, even though burning trees for energy is inefficient and polluting. This is a wrinkle that needs to ironed out of the final proposal.

The proposal also punts the important issue of carbon auction revenue re-investment over to Virginia’s State Corporation Commission (SCC), the economic regulatory body. The SCC has a poor track record of investing in utility energy efficiency programs, which is the cheapest, cleanest climate (and bill-lowering) solution. RGGI states have successfully invested carbon allowance auction revenue into energy efficiency and saved consumers many millions as a result. Without additional guidance on how to invest allowance revenue, Virginia runs the risk of missing out on energy efficiency benefits. 

But as long as those issues are addressed, McAuliffe’s reduction of power plant pollution will put Virginia on the path to clean energy development—and that means jobs. The clean energy sector has more jobs than the fossil fuel electricity sector, but so far Virginia stood idly by while North Carolina, West Virginia, and Maryland have taken advantage of the clean energy boom. Now it’s Virginia’s turn to capitalize on energy efficiency savings, grow its nascent solar industry, and tap into Old Dominion’s vast offshore wind resources.

One more major issue of 2017 is the two large fracked gas pipelines that energy companies are asking Virginia to host. These costly pipelines are a bad deal for Virginians, who will likely bear the burden of much of the costs and see no benefit, all to simply have fracked gas piped into, across, and then out of the state. The McAuliffe administration’s Water Control Board unfortunately recently granted key permits to each of the ill-conceived pipelines.

Thankfully, however, the Board included caveats that create room for the state to exercise more diligent assessments of the pipelines’ possible impacts on Virginia resources, and if the burden is too great, to simply say no to the projects. For Virginia to keep its eye on the clean energy future, state authorities should indeed closely scrutinize unneeded fossil fuel infrastructure like this, to instead focus Virginia investment on cutting—not growing—carbon pollution and improving its energy efficiency.

Despite that significant, to-be-determined fracked gas caveat, there’s been significant climate and clean energy progress to celebrate this year in Virginia. And 2018 could be another great year, if state leaders avoid locking in long-lived, dirty energy mistakes and capitalize instead on clean energy successes like RGGI.