A solar array. (Getty Images)

A strange thing happened at the House Commerce and Labor Committee Tuesday.

A sweeping and ambitious (probably overly so) bill by Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, that would dramatically overhaul Virginia’s energy landscape made it out of the GOP-controlled committee over the fervent opposition of utilities and energy interests that generally hold lots of sway there.

(You can watch the episode here.)

Rasoul’s bill, which has 11 Democratic co-sponsors, includes a fossil fuel moratorium and clean energy mandate that prevents state agencies or political subdivisions from approving new fossil-fuel electric generation as well as barring approval of a host of maintenance for import/export terminals, pipelines and refineries.

It would also require retail electric suppliers like Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power to generate at least 80 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2028 and and 100 percent after 2035, among other provisions.

Nuclear power, which accounts for about 30 percent of Virginia’s electricity according to Dominion, doesn’t count as clean energy under the bill.

Consider that in New York, Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo has just called for the state to go to 100 percent renewable power by 2040, which the AP says is the “most aggressive clean energy goal of any state.” That mix includes nuclear, which, despite the radiation risks it poses and the long-running debate over what to do with the waste, is believed by many experts to be an essential part of any serious solution to quickly move away from fossil fuels to mitigate climate disaster.

Rasoul’s fellow Democrat, Del. Mark Keam, D-Fairfax, called his bill “a bold progressive idea for where we need to go in the future in setting a policy marker,” which seems to acknowledge it is more of a vision statement than practical policy, at least for now.

Even the energy and utility interests at Commerce and Labor, accustomed to swatting down yearly attempts to expand renewable energy in Virginia, seemed a bit bowled-over at the scope of Rasoul’s bill.

“The blanket ban on fossil fuels is irresponsible and it places the reliability of the electric grid at risk,” said Jack Rust, Dominion’s customarily cool and collected lobbyist and a former delegate.

At first, Rasoul’s bill died on an 8-8 vote. Then, it got another vote, courtesy of a motion to reconsider by Del. Kathy Byron, R-Bedford. This time, it passed, with one Republican, Del. Tim Hugo, R-Fairfax, voting yes. (Two Democrats, Dels. Joseph Lindsey and Stephen Heretick, voted no and six Republicans didn’t register a vote).

The palpable confusion and muttering in between the votes seemed to suggest something else was at work.

“Now let’s get it right,” Chairman Terry Kilgore, R-Scott, said before the second vote.

What does that mean?

“I guess we’ll have this discussion on the floor,” said Kilgore, who voted against the bill, amid chuckles from the room.

That of course, could have been the idea all along, given what Sen. Tommy Norment, R-James City, pulled on a minimum wage bill earlier this week.

Republicans seem to think that holding onto their slim majority requires letting bills that terrify big business get to the floor, all evidently to send a message about who corporate donors need to back in the coming elections this year, when every House and Senate seat is up.

“I think we’re going down the wrong road here,” Kilgore said. “All the folks are very misguided when they think that green energy is going to be a lot cheaper.”

We have been going down the wrong road. For too long, access to renewable energy and the jobs and customer savings it could create have been stifled by the utilities that have long dominated Virginia energy policy. But as the growing flood of bills filed each year suggests, they won’t be able to bar the door forever.

By the way, Kilgore, a major recipient of utility campaign cash, was much more sanguine about renewable energy last year, when he was helping Dominion push through its mammoth utility regulatory overhaul, including a declaration that thousands of megawatts of wind and solar are in the public interest, and the year before, when he carried Dominion’s $2 billion pumped storage facility bill.

But Rasoul says he’s not afraid of the vote or the debate.

“I’m thrilled that the committee has chosen to have this conversation on the House floor so we can really debate and understand just how many jobs are being left on the table,” he said.

He acknowledged, though, that his bill is a longshot.

“I think it’d be very difficult for this bill to pass out of the House. What it does do is allow us to have an elevated conversation,” he said.

Whether that serious conversation about Virginia energy policy will happen in an election year remains to be seen.

 

 

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Robert Zullo
Robert has been winning and losing awards as a reporter and editor for 13 years at weekly and daily newspapers, beginning at Worrall Community Newspapers in Union, N.J., where he was a staff writer and managing editor. He spent five years in south Louisiana covering hurricanes, oil spills and Good Friday crawfish boils as a reporter and city editor for the The Courier and the Daily Comet newspapers in Houma and Thibodaux. He covered Richmond city hall for the Richmond Times-Dispatch from 2012 to 2013 and worked as a general assignment and city hall reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette from 2013 to 2016. He returned to Richmond in 2016 to cover energy, environment and transportation for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. He grew up in Miami, Fla., and central New Jersey. A former waiter, armored car guard and appliance deliveryman, he is a graduate of the College of William and Mary.