How the G.A. Can Rack Up a Big Climate Equity Win in 4 Days

Four short days are left, and Virginia can act fast to recover from monopoly utility attacks on HB1450 to deliver big climate and consumer benefits, with a side of electric monopoly business model reform.
The General Assembly Has a Sure-shot Climate and Ratepayer Win on HB1450

Two clocks are ticking in Virginia. Loudly.

The first is the countdown on taking collective, global action in time to tackle the climate change that our inaction accelerates. And because of the limited time we have to make that adequate global response, a second clock ticks even more loudly, and this one much closer to home: on Saturday of this week, the 2020 Virginia General Assembly will gavel out for the year.

So that’s the deadline—4 scant days—for Virginia to finalize into law our own Commonwealth’s contribution to substantive, lasting, and sustainable climate action that can tackle the burgeoning global climate crisis that is also all too local.

Amid that urgent countdown to Saturday is a prime legislative opportunity—right now—for the climate and consumer protection champs in our legislature to leap directly into action. The most significant immediate action the legislature can take on climate action is the truly ripe-for-the-plucking HB 1450.

That energy efficiency bill—despite still needing some serious fixes in conference after getting banged up by the monopoly utilities in the legislative process—is climate action bread-and-butter, and is thus a bit unassuming, even demure, among larger, flashier packages.

But make no mistake, HB1450 could give a serious, pro-consumer jolt to making near-term but long-lasting carbon slashes in Virginia. It has not only already passed through each chamber, it did so with significant bipartisan votes on both ends of the Capitol (not bad!). HB1450 now merely awaits what should be swift and decisive conference action to reverse the monopoly utilities’ unfortunate and frankly egregious kneecapping of its provisions (more on those necessary but gettable fixes below) to then sail a restored bill up to the Governor’s desk, and pronto.

(And there is also, of course, even greater additional potential for even more sweeping climate action via the Clean Economy Act. As fate would have it, the VCEA will need the same rehabilitative amendments to its efficiency provisions as discussed for HB1450 below, as that bill also wends its own way through the legislative process this week.)

The imperative for our legislature to act on efficiency is crystal clear: robust energy sector efficiency is Virginia climate action at its most straightforward and impactful, particularly in Virginia’s infamously leaky economy. Commonsense efficiency improvements are often as easy (and cheap) as screwing in a lightbulb (or a million of them). And whether it’s just one basic technology upgrade or a million of them, they deliver around-the-clock upstream carbon reductions at the fracked gas plants we most need to actively phase out to set an sustainable, economy-wide glidepath down to zero carbon.

With efficiency newly-established by HB1450 as a bedrock, first-order energy resource, Virginia will directly reduce our carbon for the lowest upfront investment, a modest cost even further offset by both direct bill savings and avoided supply-side fuel and generation costs. Efficiency improvements are both immediate and long-lasting, and sufficient investment will bend Virginia’s “demand curve” downward and establish a long-term glidepath to ultimately achieve absolute zero-carbon at the lowest possible cost. Efficiency also boosts the carbon-reducing effectiveness of Virginia’s current and future renewables: every MW of solar and wind added to a truly energy efficient system supplies a “bigger slice” of clean electricity to displace the carbon-emitting resources, within a smaller (more efficient) overall “pie” of demand. 

To get to these benefits, however, the task that remains to be done—and done today—is quite simple: the House must simply name its three L&C conferees to parley with three Senate Ag conferees over the final form of HB1450 that must go to the floors for a final, bipartisan vote on what must be a key plank if Virginia is truly serious about climate action in 2020.

But First, Some Climate and Consumer Friendly Amendments Are Very Much in Order

To deliver a timely floor vote by Saturday on an efficiency-based climate bill Virginians can be proud of, the conferees have some important corrective work to do. 

Or rather, undo.

Because a funny thing happened as the unassuming HB1450 wended its way through the committee rooms and chambers. As too often happens to promising pro-clean energy and pro-consumer bills in Virginia, the long arm of Virginia’s largest, most expensive, and overly-influential carbon polluter reached in during the legislative process and severely hacked at an HB1450 that, as introduced, could have been nation-leading.

Unfriendly monopoly utility amendments—with zero demonstrated justification for doing so—watered down the energy savings and associated carbon reductions that were the very purpose of HB1450.

But that’s nothing six climate and ratepayer champion conferees can’t dispatch in conference in the next few days, and with great alacrity.

The Biggest Fix: Restore a Meaningful Level of Energy Savings—and Therefore Cheap Carbon Cuts—That Our Electric Monopolies Must Deliver Virginians

Most unfriendly to HB1450 was the utilities’ sweeping reduction—by about 80%—in the amount of energy savings and therefore lower bills ratepayers can expect from HB1450. As introduced, over 42,000 gigawatt hours of delivered efficiency by 2030 would have saved over $17 a month in monthly Virginia electric bills. Those savings would have also cut Virginia carbon pollution enough to serve up over a third of Virginia’s carbon reductions required under the RGGI program by 2030—all while lowering our 7th-highest in the nation electric bills. 

Unfortunately, Virginia's largest carbon-intensive special interest with an anti-consumer bent watered down HB1450’s efficiency standard to just a fifth of the introduced bill: ~9,000 GWh by 2025, down from 42,000 GWh by 2030, with a commensurate loss of low-cost upstream carbon cuts. Take a look at the below chart for a visual of how much of a bite utilities took out of HB1450’s required energy savings.

(For anyone with a morbid curiosity to see exactly where such a deep cut occurred in the bill: compare the metric of “incremental savings” (lines 95-99) in the introduced bill to the current watered down metric of “total annual savings” (lines 179-185) in the amended bill. That change in the bill’s foundational metric (how we actually add up kWh savings that occur in any given year) plummeted the total number of new MWhs in electric savings that must be brought online each year, and Virginia will be an outlier in relying on “total annual” savings rather than the usual “incremental,” among the 27 states that have already adopted more rigorous efficiency policies. Lastly, the annual standards in as-filed lines 998, 1008, and 1010 were also chopped out, which stripped out many years of binding efficiency standards.)

Not So Fast, Electric Monopolies: You Can’t Always Get the Final Word on Climate in 2020

As disheartening as the amendments are that watered down HB1450’s savings and carbon cuts, there’s good 2020 news: 6 House and Senate conferees, including Richmond’s reigning climate champ and HB1450 sponsor Delegate Rip Sullivan, can readily re-amend HB1450 in conference to boost additive and long-lasting climate gains via Virginia efficiency growth. And they can do so today, to get this bill to the Governor’s desk pronto, before the Saturday legislative doomsday clock tolls midnight.

So as conferees get named, we get closer to a big chance to put bipartisan, efficiency-based climate action on the books in 2020 (and maybe even prove to ourselves that utility monopolies don't have to run the entire show in Richmond.)

In the meantime, the clocks tick louder.