Lack of local authority hampering Virginia cities’ clean energy efforts, report finds

By: - October 8, 2020 12:02 am

Downtown Richmond at dusk. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

A legal principle embraced by Virginia that strictly curtails local powers is hampering cities from making progress on clean energy goals, a report from the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy found. 

As a Dillon rule state — instead of a “home rule” one — Virginia bars cities and counties from exercising any powers not explicitly granted them by the state. That means that localities that want to experiment with new programs like stricter building energy codes or energy efficiency requirements can’t do so without permission from the legislature, a process that can extend timelines by more than a year or cut off projects altogether. 

When it comes to pursuing clean energy or improving energy efficiency, that legal framework has left Virginia cities at a greater disadvantage than any others in the nation, according to ACEEE, which analyzed 100 of the largest U.S. cities’ progress for its now-annual City Clean Energy Scorecard.

Scores were based on factors such as cities’ adoption of energy-efficient and renewable energy technologies, the establishment or enforcement of performance codes and standards and the existence of long-term commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, save energy and use renewable energy. 

The two Virginia cities included in the analysis, Richmond and Virginia Beach, scored 43rd and 72nd, respectively, largely due to statewide restrictions. 

While state policies disadvantaged cities in states like Arizona and Wisconsin as well as Virginia, due to “either a lack of enabling state legislation or an override (that) prevents them from pursuing requirements for building owners to reduce energy use,” Virginia’s laws “proved to have the most adverse effect on city scores,” the report found. 

Two particular issues — a relatively weak statewide building code and energy efficiency requirements for existing buildings — drove Richmond and Virginia Beach down in the rankings, lead author David Ribeiro told the Mercury. 

(American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, 2020 City Clean Energy Scorecard)

Virginia, like all states except Mississippi, has a uniform statewide building code that is modeled on the International Building Code with specific modifications. But unlike many other states, in Virginia “the localities cannot require more than what’s in the uniform statewide building code,” said Chelsea Harnish, executive director of the Virginia Energy Efficiency Council. 

A hotel in Virginia Beach’s oceanfront resort district. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

“Cities in Virginia have to live with what the state gives them,” said Ribeiro. 

Harnish said that a number of cities and counties in the commonwealth have expressed an interest in adopting more stringent building codes that could reduce energy leakages, which not only increase residents’ and businesses’ power bills but contribute to load growth that necessitates the building of new power generation. 

Alexandria, for example, in its Environmental Action Plan 2040 lists as a legislative priority the need to “advocate for local building code authority to create, implement and enforce a local green building code.” 

“Issues regarding legal authority are shown as legislative priorities and not action items because the ability to take action is outside the authority of the City,” the plan notes in a section explaining the Dillon Rule. 

The second factor that drove down Richmond’s and Virginia Beach’s scores was state restrictions on energy-saving requirements for existing buildings. 

“Virginia is one of three states that do not allow cities to adopt these kinds of requirements for energy efficiency in existing buildings,” said Ribeiro.

Harnish pointed in particular to Virginia’s refusal to allow localities to adopt mandatory benchmarking programs, in which the energy usage of commercial and publicly owned buildings is measured and reported to assess energy performance. Currently localities can only establish voluntary programs, several of which have been created in Charlottesville, Arlington and Roanoke. 

Strengthening the state’s building codes and allowing localities to establish mandatory benchmarking programs for large commercial and industrial users were among the six recommendations provided in the December 2017 Virginia Energy Efficiency Roadmap developed by the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy. 

Del. Richard “Rip” Sullivan, D-Fairfax, has previously put forward legislation to allow localities to require such programs, but those efforts have failed. 

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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.