Advanced energy: Thousands of Virginia jobs rely on it

September 7, 2018 6:01 am

Think about how many people work at your local supermarket. There is a manager, likely a butcher or two, a green grocer, half a dozen stock clerks, a dozen cashiers, maybe a baker or even a pharmacist. Multiply that across your town, county, the commonwealth as a whole and you get a big workforce.

Big as that workforce may be, the advanced energy workforce is bigger. Today in Virginia, 97,700 people hold jobs in wind, solar, energy efficiency, battery storage, electric vehicles and other innovative energy technologies. That’s more than the total number of employees in all of the grocery stores and supermarkets across the commonwealth.

These numbers make it clear: Advanced energy is a vital part of our economy. This industry employs people in every corner of Virginia – from 1,990 people in Roanoke to 4,600 in Virginia Beach, 3,580 in Chesterfield and 19,900 in Fairfax — with a range of skills and degrees: construction workers, software designers, sales professionals, electrical engineers and more.

The advanced energy industry is growing fast. In recent years, its growth in the U.S. has outpaced national GDP. This year we project that advanced energy jobs will grow 5 percent in Virginia. With demand for reliable, sustainable, and affordable energy solutions only growing, and prices for solar panels, batteries and electric vehicles steadily falling, advanced energy should continue to flourish.

Next month, Gov. Ralph Northam is slated to unveil his Energy Plan for the Commonwealth. We urge him, in collaboration with lawmakers and regulators, to commit to three broad policies, outlined below, and detailed here, that will attract new businesses, create jobs, and ensure reliable, clean, affordable energy for all Virginians.

Reform Planning and Procurement — Technological innovation and falling prices have transformed the energy sector. Wind and solar are now among the most affordable sources of energy. Modern information technology lets us monitor and manage our energy use in real-time. The rise of battery storage reduces the need for new plants to meet peak load and new wires to serve that load. Despite this, our utilities and regulators continue to favor conventional (and often more costly) ways to meet demand.

Policymakers can change this by directing our utilities to fully consider energy efficiency, renewables, and battery storage in their planning and to conduct all-source procurement processes to meet specific needs. Advanced energy technologies can serve as cost-effective substitutes for traditional power plants and transmission lines. Utilities should give them a fair shot.

Unlock Energy Data — Timely, accurate data is crucial to saving energy and money. It allows entrepreneurs and utilities to develop products, tailor services and identify where distributed resources, like batteries and rooftop solar, are most in need. None of these things are possible if consumers, building managers and advanced energy companies don’t have secure, streamlined access to useful data. Policymakers should ensure that, as the utilities deploy smart meters, they guarantee access to the wealth of data these meters produce.

Energy data can save taxpayer dollars, too. With a maintenance backlog in the billions, state facilities, including Virginia’s public colleges and universities, are a source of significant energy waste. The Northam administration should track consumption at all state facilities, building on a program piloted during the prior administration, and identify where we’re wasting kilowatts and dollars.

Expand Customer Choice — Customers large and small are looking for reliable, clean, affordable energy. Access to renewable energy is a prerequisite for many data centers and Fortune 500 firms. Virginia’s utilities have provided some opportunities for these buyers, but policymakers should lift unnecessary barriers that keep competitive service providers from offering innovative, cost-competitive options.

At the same time, policymakers should ensure that all Virginians have access to energy options that best meet their needs. This comes by lifting arbitrary caps on distributed generation, permitting more residents and businesses to enter into power purchase agreements with renewable energy developers and letting independent companies own and operate community solar projects.

These sensible, pro-market policies will attract business to Virginia, spur investment, and create new jobs in this burgeoning sector. Above all else, they will help sustain and support the nearly 100,000 people in the Commonwealth already employed in advanced energy. That should be reason enough to support advanced energy in Virginia.

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Harrison Godfrey
Harrison Godfrey

Harrison Godfrey is executive director of Virginia Advanced Energy Economy, a coalition of businesses that seek to make the commonwealth’s energy more secure, clean and affordable.