Senate committee gives the nod to nuclear as part of renewables transition

By: - January 21, 2020 12:01 am

Dominion Energy’s North Anna Nuclear Power Station in Louisa County. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

After a slow start, the General Assembly is beginning to take up energy bills.

The Senate Commerce and Labor Committee on Monday signed off on a set of updates to the Commonwealth Energy Policy, as well as proposals to classify nuclear energy as clean energy and develop a strategic plan for how nuclear energy contributes to the state’s renewable energy goals.

All of the measures now head to the Senate floor. 

Under a revised Commonwealth Energy Policy put forward by Sen. Barbara Favola, D-Arlington, the General Assembly would set new energy goals for Virginia of achieving net-zero carbon emissions statewide by 2045 and within the electric power sector by 2040.

Those goals outstrip the target set by Gov. Ralph Northam’s Executive Order 43 this September of having a carbon-free electric grid by 2050.

“I wanted to do better,” said Favola after Commerce and Labor gave her bill the thumbs up. “Time is moving. … There’s no reason to relax.”

Favola’s bill has received support from not only Dominion Energy, the state’s largest electric utility, and Washington Gas, but also environmental groups such as the Sierra Club’s Virginia chapter and the Virginia League of Conservation Voters.

A late amendment to the bill presented Monday would also identify as state policy the aim of “ensur(ing) the adequate supply of natural gas necessary to ensure the reliability of the electricity supply and the needs of businesses during the transition to renewable energy.”

Greg Habeeb, a former member of the House of Delegates who now lobbies on behalf of industry group Advanced Energy Economy, told the committee that the organization sees the bill as “in line with the broader Virginia Clean Economy Act” being put forward in the House by Democratic Dels. Rip Sullivan, D-Fairfax, Jennifer Carroll Foy, D-Arlington, and Alfonso Lopez, D-Arlington. That legislation is shaping up to be the primary challenger to Democratic Del. Sam Rasoul of Roanoke’s Green New Deal. 

Only two members of the committee, Republican Stephen Newman of Bedford and Republican Mark Obenshain of Rockingham, voted against the proposal. Sen. Tommy Norment, R-James City County, abstained.

How will Virginia get to net-zero emissions? Two other steps taken by Commerce and Labor Monday indicate the General Assembly may be eyeing nuclear as a key vehicle.

Currently, although about one-third of Virginia’s energy comes from the nuclear plants operated by Dominion at Lake Anna and Surry, the energy source has mostly flown below the radar in debates over Virginia’s transition to renewables. 

While Northam did not explicitly mention nuclear in Executive Order 43, the careful wording of his directive left the door open for the energy source to be included in a statewide plan. That order sets a target of deriving 30 percent of Virginia’s electricity from “renewable sources” by 2030 and 100 percent from “carbon-free” sources by 2050. The language is significant: By statute, “renewable energy” cannot include any energy derived from nuclear sources, but “carbon-free” has no such restriction.

A measure by Sen. Lynwood Lewis, D-Accomack, to identify nuclear energy as clean energy would clarify the energy source’s status, formally greenlighting it as a component of Virginia’s clean energy portfolio. 

Commerce and Labor showed little concern with the move, voting to report it on to the full Senate with almost no discussion Monday. Also peremptorily approved was a measure from Newman that would direct the state to “develop a strategic plan for the role of nuclear energy as part of the commonwealth’s overall strategy for moving toward renewable and carbon-free energy.”

What did run into a roadblock was another proposal by Lewis to equate “carbon-free” and “clean” energy and enumerate exactly what kinds of energy can be designated as such. Lewis’ original bill included solar, wind, hydro, wave, tidal, geothermal and nuclear energy but omitted biomass, a gap he told Commerce and Labor’s energy subcommittee last week “caused some consternation” within the industry. 

The addition of biomass, however, has slowed the bill’s progress. After questions Monday about what “sustainable residual biomass” is, the committee opted to put off its decision on whether to forward it to the House until a later date. 

CORRECTION: This story has been updated to correct that Greg Habeeb’s comments were addressing the Commonwealth Energy Policy bill, not the amendments to it.

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Sarah Vogelsong
Sarah Vogelsong

Sarah is Editor-in-Chief of the Mercury and previously its environment and energy reporter. She has worked for multiple Virginia and regional publications, including Chesapeake Bay Journal, The Progress-Index and The Caroline Progress. Her reporting has won awards from groups such as the Society of Environmental Journalists and Virginia Press Association, and she is an alumna of the Columbia Energy Journalism Initiative and Metcalf Institute Science Immersion Workshop for Journalists.