Northam Brings Virginia's Energy Future into Sharper Focus

While the Trump administration puts the nation in reverse on cleaning up vehicle pollution, Governor Ralph Northam put the Commonwealth on the road to cleaner energy. By announcing yesterday a $14 million investment in electric vehicle (EV) charging stations across the state, Northam made Virginia the first state to commit VW settlement funds. Better yet, Virginia is deploying the maximum amount that can be allocated to EV charging infrastructure.

This is a smart decision, and Northam and his team deserve praise for charting a course toward cleaner and more sustainable transportation options for Virginians.

The $14 million investment, derived from VW’s settlement for gaming emissions standards in their vehicles, is meaningful for several reasons:

  1. it will help move Virginia’s transportation fleet in the right direction, precisely when the Trump administration is mindlessly trying to push us backwards;
  2. it’s a commonsense investment for our economy and driving public;
  3. it’s an opportunity for Northam to show simultaneous leadership on the environment, economy, and climate change; and
  4. it sends a signal on the kind of modern electric grid that utilities should be investing in for their customers.

Northam’s EV Investment Drives Virginia Forward, While Trump Goes in Reverse

Yesterday’s announcement is timely, as it follows close on the heels of Trump’s attempt to gut commonsense and economy-boosting fuel efficiency standards. Since that mindless, expensive giveaway to the oil lobby will hurt Virginians’ pocketbooks, increased uptake of EV can be a strong countermeasure.

So as Trump continues his assault on the environment and climate action from across the Potomac, yesterday’s announcement was a good start in Governor Northam’s efforts to show state-level leadership in the face of Trump’s nihilistic polluter giveaways. Doing so will make Virginia safer, healthier, and more vibrant by modernizing our transportation fleet for the 21st century. 

EV Investments Are A Winning Investment for Virginia

First, in terms of putting the right kind of steel in the ground and how Virginia uses its VW settlement, maximizing EV charging station investment is spot on. That investment will very easily double if not triple the number of charging stations in Virginia, making EV purchases even more attractive. 

And attractive they are: talking strict dollars and cents, EVs cost less to own and operate than traditional gas-guzzlers, simply because filling up at the outlet is cheaper than at the pump. With EV technology improving year-over-year, the corresponding decrease in range-anxiety is projected to increase EV purchases, with a cleaner, more efficient Virginia economy as a result.

This modernization especially makes sense in Virginia’s often car-centric and congested eastern crescent, though the whole state will benefit from the economic boost and cleaner environment.

Clean Cars Can Be Northam’s Central Environmental Legacy

The VW settlement announcement is a welcome step in the right direction, though much work is ahead of us if we are going to truly clean up Virginia’s tailpipe pollution by electrifying our fleet. Governor Northam is coming out of the gate strong by hastening the uptake of clean EVs through charging availability, and he can build on that progress by plugging into regional efforts to accelerate transportation electrification and curb vehicle emissions.

The cleanup of Virginia’s power plant sector is much further along, especially now that renewable energy is often cheaper than fossil fuels, energy efficiency technology is finally beginning to be deployed, and a commonsense limit on carbon pollution is in the works. So now that Virginia’s power sector is coming into the 21st century and is moving beyond overinvestment in generation from outdated fossil fuels like natural gas, it’s logical that Northam would simultaneously begin to focus on transportation.

From a climate change perspective, electrifying our vehicles is a no-brainer: the transportation sector, with its many millions of tailpipes across the Commonwealth, is our largest source of climate change pollution.  Virginia is uniquely threatened by climate change, given our already-occurring sea-level rise and existing health impacts. That gives our state, and Northam, a very clear motivation to take the lead in addressing not just power plant pollution, but tailpipe climate pollution as well.

Widespread electric car deployment accomplishes this nicely, as EVs are not only tailpipe-free, but their more efficient electric motors reduce total economy-wide pollution as well.

To build on yesterday’s good first step, the Northam administration should take commonsense follow-ups to build to greater success, such as by joining the Transportation & Climate Initiative, to help identify explore the best state policies for both decreasing tailpipe pollution and increasing EV sales, in ways that also grow the economy. Indeed, Virginia has a clear a present opportunity to join in a regional dialogue that has garnered resounding support for cleaning up out transportation sector in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic (including our neighbors in both Maryland and D.C. among others).   

Because if this economy-boosting cleanup and modernization can be done in the power sector, by increasing solar, wind, and energy efficiency technology, we can do it in transportation too, by investing in a more equitable and clean transportation sector (as outlined in this recent NRDC report).

Northam’s EV Investment Offers a Road Sign toward True “Grid Modernization”

Electrifying Virginia’s vehicle fleet should be an important component of true “grid modernization,” as it was envisioned in the law Governor Northam crucially helped enact. Virginia’s utilities should take note of that opportunity as they put forth (and hopefully improve) their grid modernization plans.

Because if done right, EV charging, in addition to decreasing climate change and local pollution like soot and smog, offers an opportunity to better utilize Virginia’s existing and planned electric grid assets. That includes balancing the uptake of clean electrons from solar and wind energy at “non-peak” times. That optimization is not only cleaner, it also balances our use of the grid.  Increased numbers of EVs in Virginia—coupled with smart utility regulations from the SCC to drive charging at optimal times—offer a way to intelligently use other foundational elements of a truly modern grid, especially smart meters, rooftop solar, and time-of-use rates that reward EV charging at optimal hours.

As Virginia invests in modernizing its grid to increase the integration of clean renewable energy, EV charging offers an opportunity to enhance that investment, and utilities should take note of this week’s lead-by-example from Governor Northam.

While there is much work to be done in the race to cleaner cars and the stronger economy and safer climate they can deliver, Governor Northam’s cars announcement gets Virginia fast out of the starting gate.

So here’s to miles of smiles on the road ahead!

About the Authors

Walton Shepherd

Virginia Policy Director, Climate & Clean Energy Program

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