CCO Creative Commons via Pixabay.

Forget “all of the above.”

Under Gov. Ralph Northam, Virginia’s next Energy Plan will emphasize the features of a clean energy future: solar and wind, energy efficiency, electric vehicles, energy storage and offshore wind. This marks a welcome departure from previous state energy plans, though whether the end result serves as a blueprint for action or just stuffing for a filing cabinet remains to be seen.

Since 2007, Virginia law has required the Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy (DMME) to write a 10-year energy plan in the first year of every new administration. The statute lists vague requirements for the plan, including that it be consistent with the Commonwealth Energy Policy, itself a toothless statute. That means each new governor can pretty much tell DMME what to focus on.

Previous governors’ plans have read more like campaign rhetoric than like meaningful indicators of an administration’s direction. Tim Kaine’s plan supported carbon reductions, but by the next spring Kaine was promoting construction of a coal plant in Wise County that would become one of the last coal plants ever built in America.

In a bid to push for oil and gas drilling, Bob McDonnell used his energy plan to announce Virginia as the “energy capital of the East Coast.”

Terry McAuliffe had an “all of the above” agenda, heavy on offshore drilling, natural gas and offshore wind. He later backpedaled on offshore drilling, went all in on gas pipelines and forgot about offshore wind.

Northam surely feels the pressure to write a pro-clean energy plan, and not merely because economic trends have swung decisively in favor of wind and solar.

In his short time in office, Gov. Northam has deeply undermined his standing as an environmentalist. Even before his inauguration, his public silence about the Mountain Valley and Atlantic Coast natural gas pipeline projects fed rumors of private support. Once in office, he caved early on in negotiations with Dominion Energy over this year’s energy legislation; reappointed David Paylor, the much-criticized director of the Department of Environmental Quality, and passed up an opportunity to appoint a progressive judge to the State Corporation Commission, which regulates utilities, insurance and banking, among other functions.

One bright spot remains DEQ’s work towards completion of rules to lower carbon emissions from power plants by trading carbon allowances with states to the north of us. But the plan is not yet finalized, and the devil may prove to be in the details.

The Energy Plan gives Northam an opportunity to change the subject, and possibly even to change course. DMME’s presentation at its initial public meeting on June 25 addressed only clean energy topics—no coal, no natural gas, no nuclear, no oil. For some topics, the agency has already proposed recommendations for policy changes and scheduled public meetings to discuss them. The first is today at the Capitol.

Gov. Ralph Northam speaks in May at the commissioning of the Martin Solar Center in Troy. Photo by Ivy Main.

In the solar and wind “stakeholder track,” DMME proposes to “increase the residential cap on net metering from 20 MW to 40 MW; increase the overall net-metering program from 1 percent of the utility’s peak load to 3 percent of peak load; make third-party power purchase agreements available throughout all utility service territories; increase the total PPA installation cap from 50 MW to 100 MW and increase the installation-specific cap from 1 MW to 2 MW.”

These recommendations are guaranteed to be popular with solar advocates and industry members, but probably won’t get past the utility blockade without a fight.

Recommendations for other tracks run the gamut from practical to aspirational. A recommendation to track energy consumption by state agencies through an energy data registry and dashboard is specific and achievable. Less so is the recommendation for Virginia to “reach the voluntary goal of reducing energy consumption by 10 percent by 2020.”

Yes, that would be nice, but getting there would require a level of utility cooperation we have never seen in Virginia, and that neither the General Assembly nor any previous governor has had the tenacity to fight for.

The fact that our utilities are so often barriers to positive change underscores a need for the Energy Plan to address one subject missing from DMME’s list: a comprehensive study of grid transformation. Within the next 10 years covered by the Energy Plan, our electric grid will need to incorporate vastly more wind and solar generation (much of it consumer-sited), plus electric vehicle charging, battery storage, and new metering technology that gives consumers greater control over their energy use.

Left to their own devices, the utilities will create the energy generation and delivery system most profitable for themselves, not the one most efficient and beneficial for the public. If Gov. Northam is serious about a clean energy future, his energy plan should kick off a comprehensive study of grid transformation, managed by an independent expert who can help DMME and stakeholders develop a specific, actionable roadmap for the future of Virginia’s energy economy.

Without such a roadmap, we are likely to make progress only in fits and starts and at greater expense than necessary. Utility bills are rising and will keep going up as a result of the legislation Northam supported. Now the governor needs to make sure Virginians have something to show for it.