At session’s midpoint, unprecedented progress on climate, clean energy

February 23, 2020 12:03 am

An offshore wind development. (Getty Images)

By Michael Town

In previous years, the midpoint of session was a time when we had a long list of missed opportunities, when we mourned all the good legislation to protect the environment that had died at the General Assembly and when we refocused our attention on the handful of good bills still alive.

This year is vastly different, and my organization invested heavily to ensure that it would be, spending $1.5 million in 2019 to elect a majority of environmental champions to the legislature.

The new “Conservation Majority” at the General Assembly has broken the logjam when it comes to protecting clean air, clean water and our natural resources. Post-crossover, we have close to 100 good pieces of legislation still moving, and for the first time in Virginia’s history, we’re very close to passing serious legislation to address climate change.

On the last day before the midway point of session known as crossover, the House of Delegates and Senate of Virginia passed the most comprehensive and bold package of clean energy and climate action legislation that Virginia’s ever seen.

The Virginia Clean Economy Act reduces carbon emissions from the electric sector to zero by 2050 at the latest. It gets us there through investments in utility-led energy efficiency programs over costly infrastructure, implementing Virginia’s first mandatory renewable portfolio standard, opening doors for rooftop solar and distributed energy and setting benchmarks for carbon emissions that get us to zero by mid-century.

This legislation still has to go through the legislative process, and we’ll be pushing lawmakers to act over the coming weeks. If passed by and signed into law, this legislation will go down in history as the biggest step Virginia’s ever taken to address climate change and will mark a huge turning point in how Virginia generates and consumes electricity.

Studies estimate the act will generate thousands of good-paying jobs in the commonwealth in the clean energy sector. And because the legislation elevates energy efficiency programs, that means Virginians should see significant cost-savings in their month-to-month electric bills.

Virginians paid the nation’s seventh-highest electric bills in 2018, and we are ranked near the bottom for utility-led investments in energy efficiency. That’s not a coincidence. The Virginia Clean Economy Act breaks this mold for the good of our environment and Virginians’ bottom lines.

In addition to advancing the Virginia Clean Economy Act, both chambers have also passed legislation finalizing Virginia’s membership in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, connecting the Commonwealth to a highly successful, multi-state carbon cap-and-invest program. Over the past decade, this program has returned huge economic, environmental and public health gains to its 10 member states, almost every state to the north of us on the East Coast.

At the same time these states saw a 50 percent reduction in harmful power plant pollution, and the billions of dollars of public health benefits that come with it, they also saw electricity bills drop, and their economies grow. And because RGGI puts a price on carbon, the marketplace returned more than $3 billion back to these states, the majority of which went toward energy efficiency and clean energy investments.

RGGI fits hand-in-glove with the Virginia Clean Economy Act’s carbon reduction goals and will provide Virginia with a revenue stream of $100 million per year to invest in energy efficiency programs for low-income residents and to helping frontline communities tackle the climate impacts of sea level rise and recurrent flooding that threaten public safety and disrupt daily life.

While passing the Virginia Clean Economy Act and joining RGGI would be big wins for clean air, our work on energy and climate change is far from done.

We must still address carbon emissions from the transportation sector, which account for roughly half of Virginia’s carbon footprint. We must also do more to protect vulnerable communities from the legacy impacts of fossil fuels and rising seas, and protect fossil fuel workers and fossil-fuel dependent communities in the transition to cleaner energy sources.

These are problems that were created by decades of bad policy-making and will take a number of years and pieces of legislation to correct.

In addition to making progress on climate solutions, the legislature has also moved in 2020 to:

  • Ban offshore drilling and infrastructure in state waters off Virginia’s coast
  • Prevent fracking on top of a massive freshwater aquifer in Eastern Virginia
  • Cut red tape around rooftop solar projects and distributed energy
  • Make fencing cattle out of Chesapeake Bay tributaries mandatory
  • Regulate single-use plastic bags and Styrofoam
  • Protect Virginians’ clean water from forever chemicals like poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).

The 2020 General Assembly is scheduled to end March 7. We have between now and then to get all of these efforts across the finish line and to Governor Northam’s desk. And the legislature still has its work cut out for it.

In addition to passing the strongest environmental safeguards in Virginia’s history, we still have to finalize the Governor’s budget for conservation – the most proposed funding we’ve ever seen to protect land and water, expand clean energy, and strengthen regulatory agencies, and enhance environmental justice protections.

While we still have some work ahead of us, when the dust settles after this legislative session, I’m confident it will have been the most impactful General Assembly yet for the environment and a springboard for years of progress to come for clean air, clean water and conservation.

Mike Town is executive director of the Virginia League of Conservation Voters. Contact him at [email protected]

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