Virginia’s General Assembly sent a bill to the governor’s desk last week that would create the South’s first mandate for 100% carbon-free power and effectively remake the state’s grid with clean energy.
The "Clean Economy Act," as it’s known, passed the state Senate on Friday after clearing the lower chamber earlier in the week. A spokesperson for Gov. Ralph Northam (D) stopped short of saying the governor would sign it but noted that the administration "has been actively involved in shepherding" the bill.
"The Governor is thrilled to see transformative clean energy legislation pass the General Assembly," wrote spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky
in an email to E&E News.
"Governor Northam strongly supports moving the Commonwealth towards a sustainable, clean energy future. … He looks forward to reviewing this legislation when it reaches his desk," she added.
The act would bring an infusion of renewables into a state without a single large-scale wind farm and with a solar sector that provides about 1% of all power.
A newly created renewable portfolio standard would require Virginia’s main power utilities — Dominion Energy Inc. and Appalachian Power — to scale up their proportion of clean power beginning in 2021. By 2045 and 2050, respectively, they would have to derive all of their electricity from carbon-free sources.
That could include nuclear, although a clause supporting planning and development work for new facilities was cut from the final bill. In 2018, over 30% of Virginia’s power came from its nuclear fleet, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
The text doesn’t ban the use of fossil fuels for power generation, but environmentalists who campaigned in support said it would likely lead to a "de facto" phaseout.
"This is by far the boldest piece of climate action that’s ever come out of the South," said Will Cleveland, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center who was involved in drafting the bill.
The act found support from Dominion, which called it a "clear path forward" for the state, and Appalachian Power. Both utilities — or in the case of Appalachian, its parent company — recently declared informal goals of reaching net-zero emissions by 2050.
But the cost of the plan has troubled some legislators, including Republicans who cited impacts on ratepayers in voting against its passage, despite provisions to strengthen regulators’ hand in rate cases and keep down costs for low-income residents.
The State Corporation Commission, Virginia’s utility regulator, found in an analysis this year that the average power bill in the state would increase $27.80 per month, to $143.98.
Carve-outs for solar and offshore wind power were projected to pose the largest new sources of cost, at $11 to $16 and $11 to $12 more per month, respectively, according to the study.
"The ratepayer’s gonna suffer this year," said Republican state Sen. Richard Stuart (Energywire, March 6).
Clean energy advocates disagreed with the cost criticisms, saying the plan would bring new investment to Virginia.
The plan "will reduce Virginia’s carbon emissions, drive economic growth and create tens of thousands of new jobs, all while reducing monthly electric bills for customers," said Harry Godfrey, director at Virginia Advanced Energy Economy, which called the bill passage "historic" and a "remarkable leap."
Saving the ‘cleanest’ coal plant
The plan’s most immediate effects on the energy mix would be a mass build-out of renewables and a pause on new fossil fuel proposals.
Both major utilities would need to meet a schedule of company-specific targets for wind, solar and energy storage capacity.
By 2035, for instance, Dominion would have to source 16,100 megawatts of solar, about 10 times more than it currently has planned and the equivalent of about 3 million homes.
New energy efficiency mandates would also require the companies to hit annual targets for energy savings, reaching up to 5% in 2025 for Dominion and 2% for Appalachian Power.
Despite those carve-outs, the act leaves open the question of how exactly the state could decarbonize fully — and whether sources other than renewables and existing nuclear plants could have a role.
In 2022, officials from four state agencies would have to submit a report detailing specific paths. Until then, regulators are prohibited from granting permits for any carbon-emitting facility.
That short-term moratorium, said Cleveland, would effectively turn into a long-term one.
Utilities weren’t likely to bet on building new gas plants rather than renewables, under the assumption that carbon capture technology would reach a point where it would reliably eliminate all emissions, he argued.
Republicans in the Legislature did, however, manage to keep a recently built coal plant in business longer than originally provisioned.
The Virginia City Hybrid Energy Center, which began producing power in 2012, would have to close by 2045 rather than the 2030 date contained in earlier versions.
Advocates of the southwest Virginia facility say it’s the "cleanest" coal plant in the country, in part because it opened eight years ago and because of the type of technology it uses.
Del. Terry Kilgore, a Republican, said he was glad that extending the closure date "ensures that Wise County and the town of St. Paul will continue to receive nearly $8 million in tax revenue as well as protecting approximately 400 jobs."
"It also ensures that the plant will continue to reclaim gob coal (also known as waste coal) throughout Southwest Virginia," Kilgore said in an emailed statement.
Kilgore previously said that closing down the plant by 2030 amounted to "a slap in the face to southwest Virginia," the Associated Press reported last month.
Harry Childress, president of the Virginia Coal and Energy Alliance, said the plant accounts for roughly 14% of Wise County’s tax revenue and that its closure would be a "major economic loss" for local communities.
He expressed concerns about power reliability and called VCEA an "all-of-the-above supporter" of different energy sources, including renewables and nuclear.
Several environmental advocates of the bill said that although the Wise County plant wouldn’t have to close until 2045, the economics around coal make it unlikely that the plant would be operating at that time anyway.
But the plant’s importance as a source of tax revenue for the rural county, located near the border with West Virginia, made it worth compromising, they said. "You can’t pretend like that’s not real," said Cleveland of the Southern Environmental Law Center.
Childress said the VCEA was disappointed in the "Clean Economy Act" overall.
"I worry that we will come to regret it," Childress said, "that … we’re going to lose natural gas and coal as a baseload power source."