Legislative Success for Clean Energy and Tackling Climate Change in Virginia

The Virginia Way was at work this year in Richmond, with lawmakers doing the people's will in moving toward the safer, cleaner, and cheaper energy future of the new Virginia economy.

Clean energy received its due when the Virginia General Assembly wrapped up last week, having approved several measures that will expand the state's energy economy and help address climate change. The bills also affirm Governor McAuliffe's own commitment to pull Virginia into the 21st century economy by tapping into the 21st century energy supplies of renewable energy and energy efficiency.

While it's true that Virginia is still far behind where it could be in the clean energy economy, these laws are nonetheless a solid step forward and will help Virginia blow through its carbon pollution reduction goal under the U.S. EPA's Clean Power Plan. That's the plan to finally limit the climate-change causing carbon pollution that currently spews unchecked from fossil fuel electric plants, imperiling Virginia's coast and the health of her citizens.

Reducing that pollution makes sense not just for public safety, but for the public purse as well: instead of continuing down the path of a more hazardous coast and more extreme weather, this year's clean energy legislation recognizes that we're all on the hook if climate change grows worse. Instead of that high-risk, high-cost path, Virginia has chosen to unleash more reliable energy technologies of zero fuel cost renewables and energy efficiency.

In solar energy (an industry in which Virginia trails far behind neighboring North Carolina's solar boom), two bills clear the way for its increased development: the first declares solar energy to be in Virginia's public interest, and the second sets up a solar development authority. McAuliffe, in line with his own Energy Plan and his commitment to address climate change as Governor, followed with an executive directive to ensure a minimum of 400 MW of solar energy is deployed in Virginia by 2020. A third solar energy bill ensures that those who produce their own solar energy for the grid can be better compensated for providing that clean energy benefit to the rest of us (this is also known as "net metering").

Now Governor McAuliffe can maximize the value of that solar commitment, and fulfill his own commitment to address climate change, by writing a strong state program that implements the Clean Power Plan.

The legislature's work this year also starts to tackle Virginia's chronic underperformance in energy efficiency, which is deployed to help us do the same amount of work (e.g. heat and cool our homes) with less energy and thus less pollution and out-of-pocket cost. Whether it's the fact that Virginians have higher electricity bills than Californians, or that neighboring Maryland is about to achieve a whopping 15% improvement in energy efficiency this year while Virginia ranks near the bottom among states, the General Assembly passed several bills to put the state on stronger footing to reduce our energy costs.

One bill, for example (with an assist from Governor McAuliffe), provides for utility energy efficiency programs that will help disadvantaged populations lower their energy bills by improving access to efficiency improvements in their homes. Another bill paves the way for electric consumers to spread out the upfront cost of energy efficiency improvements over time, so they recognize the net savings of efficiency improvements immediately (this is called "PACE," or Property Assessed Clean Energy).

These decisions by the legislature to open up the market for clean energy resources is an inspiring example of democracy at work: a recent bipartisan poll showed that the vast majority of Virginians support this expansion of renewable energy and energy efficiency, and moreover know that doing so will reduce long-term energy costs. The poll also showed that most Virginians would have a more favorable view of Governor McAuliffe if he shows state leadership on the Clean Power Plan. Signing these pieces of legislation will be a step in that direction.

The General Assembly's actions couldn't be better timed. Just days after a legislative session that elevated renewables and efficiency to its rightful place as a cost-effective energy source for Virginia, PJM, the operator of the world's largest electricity market (which encompasses Virginia) affirmed that expanding renewables and energy efficiency will result in lower energy costs for Virginia under the Clean Power Plan.

PJM is the entity charged with ensuring the lights stay on in Virginia at the lowest cost, and their analysis of the Clean Power Plan reflects similar rigorous analyses that show that cutting carbon pollution will be good for Virginia's bottom dollar. PJM's analysis is thus also an authoritative correction of other, flawed analyses that erroneously predicted cartoonishly inflated costs, rather than benefits, from the Clean Power Plan.

In addition to repudiating those flawed studies, the renewable energy and energy efficiency legislation that passed are also a resounding rejection of the failed polluter-backed efforts in the General Assembly to obstruct the Governor from moving ahead with implementing the Clean Power Plan. In keeping with similar failures by polluters across the country, of at least five polluter-backed bills introduced, exactly zero passed.

So rather than passing obstructionist bills that would impede Virginia's path to lowering pollution and energy costs and increasing energy jobs, the General Assembly instead passed clean energy bills that will help ensure those benefits in Virginia.

Now it is up to Governor McAuliffe to lock in those wins by writing a strong state Clean Power Plan that will profit from the state's growth in the clean energy economy.

Sine die!