Workers install solar panels at Huguenot High School in Richmond. (Sun Tribe Solar)
When it was first introduced, and before the utilities and special interests got their grubby little paws on it, the Clean Economy Act was an ambitious and far-reaching overhaul of Virginia energy policy that turned a little timid when it came to particulars.
The bill that emerged from the grinder inevitably allows Dominion Energy to profit more than it should. (Welcome to Virginia, newcomers.) The energy efficiency provisions, which I thought weak, became even weaker, then became stronger, then ended up somewhere in the middle depending on whether you were looking at the House or Senate version. The renewable portfolio standard, complicated to begin with, is now convoluted to the point of farce — and to the extent I understand it, I’m not laughing.
Yet the bill still does what climate advocates set out to do: It creates a sturdy framework for a transition to 100% carbon-free electricity by 2045 (the House bill) or 2050 (the Senate bill).
It’s worth taking a moment to marvel at the very idea of a strong energy transition bill passing in a state that still subsidizes coal mining. Even a year ago, this would not have been possible. That we have come this far is a tribute not just to the Democrats who are making good on their pledge to tackle climate, but to the thousands of grassroots activists who worked to elect them and then stayed on the job to hold them to their promises.
The Clean Economy Act works by tackling the problem from multiple directions in a belt-and-suspenders approach:
• The legislation puts an immediate two-year moratorium on any new carbon-emitting plants. The concept came straight from the grassroots-led Green New Deal, and it creates space for the other provisions to kick in.
• It requires DEQ to implement regulations cutting carbon emissions through participation in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. RGGI uses market incentives to cut carbon emissions from power plants 30 percent by 2030. The Department of Environmental Quality will auction carbon allowances to power plant owners and use the auction money primarily for coastal resilience projects and energy efficiency projects for low-income residents. The Department of Housing and Community Development will be in charge of this efficiency spending, not Dominion.
• The Clean Economy Act takes RGGI out further, ensuring that Virginia reaches zero emissions by 2045 (House bill) or 2050 (Senate bill).
• It requires the closure of most coal plants in Virginia by the end of 2024. The newest of these, the Virginia City Hybrid coal plant, must close by the end of 2030 unless it achieves 83 percent emission reductions through carbon capture and storage, the technology it was allegedly designed for. Biomass plants have to close by the end of 2028.
• In place of fossil fuels, utilities have to build or buy thousands of megawatts of solar, on-shore wind, offshore wind and energy storage. Yearly solicitations for wind and solar will ensure sustained job creation employing thousands of workers. Thirty-five percent of all this must be competitively procured from third-party developers, a requirement that lowers costs and makes it harder for utilities to overcharge for the projects they build themselves.
• The storage requirement in particular is notable because batteries compete directly with gas combustion turbines to serve peak demand. The more storage a utility builds, the weaker its case for building new gas peakers becomes.
• For the first time, Virginia utilities will have to achieve energy efficiency savings, not just throw money at the problem. Under the stronger House bill, Dominion must achieve 5 percent cumulative energy savings by 2025. Appalachian Power must achieve 2 percent. Starting in 2026, the SCC will set efficiency goals every three years. Achieving savings ought to be easy; a new ranking of progress on efficiency puts Dominion at 50th out of 52 utilities. Low-hanging fruit, anyone? The Clean Economy Act also calls for 15 percent of efficiency spending to be allocated for programs benefiting low-income, elderly, disabled individuals and veterans.
• Also for the first time, the legislation requires the State Corporation Commission to consider the “social cost of carbon.” That puts one more thumb on the scales weighing against fossil fuels.
• If by January of 2028 we are still not on track, the House bill empowers the secretaries of natural resources and commerce and trade to put a second moratorium on new fossil fuel facilities.
One other element of the bill is worth mentioning, given the questions about how much all these new projects and programs will cost. The legislation creates a “percentage of income payment program” for low-income ratepayers to cap electricity costs at 6 percent of household income, or 10 percent if they use electric heat. The program includes provisions for home energy audits and retrofits.
As I said at the outset, the bill is not without its flaws. The cost of offshore wind energy is “capped” in the bill at 1.6 times the cost of energy from a gas peaker plant, though I’m told negotiations continue and the adder may be reduced. Regardless of the number, this makes as much sense as capping the cost of apples at some number above the cost of Cheetos. Why are we comparing a carbon-free source of energy that is getting cheaper every year with one of the dirtiest and most expensive fossil fuel sources? On behalf of the offshore wind industry: Please, I’m insulted.
Virginia will be a leader on offshore wind, but we are not the first, and we know the price of electricity from the other U.S. projects already under contract. Prices are already well below gas peaker plant levels. The CEA ought to cap the cost of the Virginia project at 10 or 20 percent above the lowest-priced comparable offshore wind project, which would allow plenty of room for differences in wind speeds, distance from shore and other variables.
On second thought, as a point of pride, Dominion should reject any adder at all, and insist on capping its costs below those of all the northeastern projects. Have some confidence in yourselves, people!
My other complaint is that the Clean Economy Act’s nearly incomprehensible renewable portfolio standard fails to deliver. Yes, other provisions of the bill require the utilities to build a lot of wind and solar. But nothing requires them to use the renewable energy certificates (RECs) associated with those facilities for the RPS.
If I totally lost you with those acronyms, it’s okay. Just know that RECs are the bragging rights associated with renewable energy, and they can be bought and sold separately from the electricity itself. If Dominion builds a solar farm in Virginia and sells the RECs to Microsoft or the good people of New Jersey, those folks have bought the right to claim the renewable energy regardless of whether they actually get their electrons straight from the solar farm. Virginia would be left with a solar farm, but legally, no solar energy.
RECs also fetch different prices according to the kind of renewable energy they represent and how many are on the market. Everyone wants solar, so solar RECs cost more. RECs from hundred-year-old hydroelectric projects are not in demand, so they are cheap.
As written now, the Clean Economy Act sets up an RPS that doesn’t require any wind or solar RECs at all (excepting a miniscule carve-out for small wind and solar that can also be met with “anaerobic digestion resources,” possibly a reference to pig manure).
The RPS can be met with RECs from several sources less desirable than solar, and therefore cheaper. These include old hydro dams, Virginia-based waste-to-energy and landfill methane facilities and biomass burned by paper companies WestRock and International Paper. As a result, utilities will buy RECs from those sources to meet the requirements.
Only once utilities run out of cheaper RECs from eligible sources will they be forced to apply RECs from any of the wind and solar they are building. Until that time, Dominion and APCo will sell the RECs from the new solar farms to the highest bidder, while Virginia customers shell out potentially hundreds of millions of dollars for RECs no one really wants.
That’s not fair to the Virginians who are paying for the wind and solar projects to be built and who have a right to expect wind and solar will be a part of their energy supply as a result. Legislators can correct this with a very simple requirement that RECs from the new facilities mandated by the law be applied to the RPS.
And, while I am telling legislators what to do, they ought to remove the eligibility of paper company biomass. This provision seems to have been added to the bill (in obscure, coded language) simply because WestRock has talented lobbyists and the political power to demand a cut of the action. But do we ratepayers want to buy their RECs? No, we do not.
WestRock is doubtless unhappy about losing the nice stream of unearned income it’s been getting from selling thermal RECs to Dominion under Virginia’s voluntary RPS. But there is no good reason for electricity customers to subsidize a Fortune 500 corporation whose CEO earned $18 million last year and whose Covington mill, according to EPA data, spews out more toxic air emissions than any other facility in Virginia including Dominion’s Chesterfield coal plant. That’s not clean energy.
Fortunately (I guess), the RPS is not the heart and soul of the Clean Economy Act. For the next several years, its slow ramp-up makes it barely even relevant, and it is the next several years that matter most in our response to the climate crisis.
Joining RGGI, cutting emissions, implementing energy efficiency, building renewable energy and storage, closing coal and biomass plants: those are the mechanisms of the Clean Economy Act that will drive Virginia’s transition to 100% clean energy.
And so, having offered my helpful suggestions to improve the nutritional content of this sausage, I will add just one more thing:
Pass the bill.
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