The sun rises over the Virginia Capitol. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)
This week the Virginia Mercury is launching a five-part series on the commonwealth’s transition to a carbon-free electric grid. First: Full speed ahead for offshore wind.

The 2020 General Assembly session will be remembered as a sea change in Virginia’s approach to not only energy, but climate change. From a fossil-fuel friendly state with only a small renewables presence, Virginia went to one with a mandatory schedule for phasing out fossil fuels by 2050, participation in a regional carbon market and some of the highest renewables targets in the nation. 

Much of this transition will occur under the aegis of the Virginia Clean Economy Act, a law described by Sigora Solar policy chief and Solar Energy Industries Association board member Karla Loeb as “the single largest shift in energy policy as it relates to the electricity sector that’s ever been achieved in any state.” But that law wasn’t the only major clean energy legislation to get the General Assembly’s stamp of approval. Other measures sought to give local governments more power in negotiating permits with large-scale solar developers, to give apartment-dwellers access to solar and to pump money into low-income energy efficiency efforts. 

Given the scale and complexity of the clean energy transition mapped out by these laws, the Virginia Mercury set out this fall to try to disentangle what’s been done, what’s underway and what people can expect in coming years. What will the 16.7 gigawatts of solar mandated by the VCEA actually look like? What steps does Virginia need to take to become an offshore wind hub? What are we talking about when we talk about energy storage? 

To figure out the answers to these questions, we spent almost three months interviewing dozens of players in Virginia’s energy sphere, from agency officials and representatives of advocacy organizations to academics and business groups. We dove into State Corporation Commission dockets, laws and a host of industry reports. 

The public deserves a detailed snapshot of the early days of Virginia’s clean energy transition. Although the new laws will take decades to fully implement, these are the months when frameworks for action are being crafted and policy decisions hammered out. Concern about climate change is rising among Virginians as it is among Americans at large and the 2020 session’s clean energy laws were designed to address a significant amount of the carbon emissions that scientists know cause climate change.

Over the next five days, the Mercury is publishing stories about the five major fronts on which Virginia is attempting to reduce emissions from its electric grid: wind, utility-scale solar, distributed solar, energy storage and energy efficiency. Each represents a different approach to the problem, with different concerns, costs and challenges. Together, policymakers hope they will be able to replace the fossil fuels on which Virginia has relied for more than a century. 

The costs of the Clean Economy Act and other legislation continues to be heavily criticized, with a wide variety of estimates of just how big they will get. State regulators have projected Dominion customer bills could rise by as much as $800 annually by 2030. But many energy experts say that figure is based on an unrealistic and overdeveloped implementation plan proposed by Dominion. Litigation of these issues is ongoing before the State Corporation Commission. 

The cost question is a critical one — but costs are shaped by policy decisions made in countless arenas, from local permit hearings held in school auditoriums to the somber halls of the SCC. This series aims to demystify some of those decisions and put them in wider context.