An early look at climate and energy bills in the 2021 session
The Virginia State Capitol. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)
Last year Virginia’s General Assembly passed more than 30 separate clean energy bills, which together put Virginia on a path to zero-carbon electricity by 2050, enabled massive investments in renewable energy, storage and energy efficiency and eased restrictions on distributed solar.
But many of the bills that passed were not perfect, and most of the new mandates affect only the electric sector. Only about a quarter of Virginia’s greenhouse gas emissions comes from power plants, so getting serious about a zero carbon economy means finding ways to reduce emissions from transportation, buildings, industry and agriculture.
Unfortunately, building on last year’s progress will be hard this winter, not because there aren’t plenty of opportunities, but because the legislative session that starts Jan. 13 is likely to be exceptionally short and tightly-controlled. If, as expected, Republicans force a 30-day session limit (including weekends and holidays), that means each chamber must dispose of its own bills even faster than that to meet the crossover deadline (around Jan. 28, I’m told), when bills that have passed one chamber “cross over” to be considered in the other. Leadership has responded by strictly limiting the number of bills a legislator can carry, hoping not to overwhelm the committees that have to vet the bills.
One result is that complex bills haven’t got a prayer. Climate advocates and their legislative champions will be focused on bills that are narrowly-crafted (or at least short) and easy to explain.
Adding to the challenge, for those who want to weigh in with their legislators, is the fact that very few bills appear in the Legislative Information System yet, in another departure from prior years.
And then of course, there’s COVID-19, disrupting normal procedures and making it harder than ever for citizens to make their voices heard.
So yeah, ain’t we got fun?
What follows is a list of bills that are far along in the drafting process, have a patron, and are likely to be filed this year. I’m omitting other initiatives that don’t seem likely to make it into legislation this year or that I don’t have enough information to go on. I have not seen the language for any of these bills, so descriptions are based on previous years’ legislation, information from legislators and advocates, or both.
One of the most cost-effective ways to lower carbon emissions from buildings is by constructing them with an eye to saving energy right from the start. If the builder puts more insulation in the walls and attic, reduces draftiness and installs better windows, buyers will save money and future residents will have lower heating and cooling costs for decades. Any small increases in a buyer’s mortgage costs are recouped many times over in utility bill savings.
A national standard for energy efficiency in residential buildings even takes the guesswork out. The standard, known as the International Energy Efficiency Code (IECC), is updated every three years by a national organization referenced in the law setting out procedures for adopting Virginia’s residential building code. Unfortunately, the Board of Housing and Community Development (BHCD) has long ignored its statutory obligation to keep Virginia’s building code at least consistent with these nationally recognized standards.
As a result of that, and BHCD’s slow review process, Virginia’s building code is still behind the 2012-2018 IECC’s consumer protections. Unless BHCD is compelled to protect residents consistent with national standards, sub-standard housing will continue to be built for years into the future.
Ideally, the attorney general or the governor would direct BHCD to correct its latest decision to extend substandard code protections. Regardless, this long history of our building code underperforming national standards calls for legislative action. Sen. Jennifer Boysko, D-Fairfax, is expected to introduce legislation that would require the BHCD to adopt the latest IECC within 12 months.
Right to buy
It’s a strange paradox. The Virginia Clean Economy Act is one of the most ambitious clean energy laws in the U.S., calling on our utilities to add thousands of megawatts of solar and wind energy in the coming years. And yet most Virginia customers still can’t buy solar energy unless they install it on their own property.
This is an absurd position for Virginia to be in today, insisting on an energy transition but not allowing customers to actually go buy electricity from solar. Indeed, this restriction threatens Virginia’s ability to meet its carbon reduction goals, for one reason in particular: data centers.
Data centers are energy hogs, and this sector has grown so fast in Virginia it now makes up 12 percent of Dominion Energy’s total electric demand in the state. Most data center operators say they want to run on renewable energy, and we need them to make good on that. Otherwise, cutting carbon will be harder and more expensive for the rest of us.
But we have to make it possible for them to do so. Right now, only the really big companies, like Microsoft or Facebook, can get Dominion to come to the table on solar deals. The rest don’t have that kind of market power. Neither, of course, do residential customers and small businesses.
Last year saw the passage of a bill patroned by Del. Jeffrey Bourne, D-Richmond, that would give customers the right to go outside their utility to buy renewable energy. But there was a catch: an amendment tacked on at the last moment made the bill effective only if passed again in 2021. Well, folks, now it’s 2021, and time to pass the bill again.
Solar for public schools and other government buildings
Last year the VCEA and Solar Freedom legislation expanded the ability of customers to finance onsite solar projects by raising the cap on third-party power purchase agreements (PPAs) and making the program available to a wider range of customers in Appalachian Power territory, where it had previously been restricted. The new limits in Dominion territory are 500 MW for “non-jurisdictional” customers like local governments and schools and 500 MW for “jurisdictional” customers like residents and businesses; in Appalachian Power territory the new limit is 40 MW for all customers. This year a bill from Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, clarifies that the program in Appalachian Power territory applies to non-jurisdictional customers as well as jurisdictional customers.
The bill also expands a pilot program for municipal net metering established in 2019 that allowed a local government to use surplus electricity generated by solar panels on one building for another building also owned by the locality. As originally enacted, however, the pilot program did not allow the locality to use PPA financing for its solar panels, a restriction that prevents budget-conscious local governments from using the program. Senator Edwards’ bill will let local governments of both Dominion and APCo use PPAs for solar projects installed under the pilot program. In addition, the previous caps on the municipal net metering pilot program are removed in favor of the general PPA program caps.
What RGGI does for the electric sector, the Transportation Climate Initiative (TCI) is supposed to do for transportation. As Sarah Vogelsong reported last week, Virginia is participating in the development of the multistate compact designed to lower carbon emissions from the transportation sector 30 percent by 2032, but it hasn’t yet pledged to join the compact. There may be some details to work out before that happens, including resolving concerns from environmental justice leaders who believe more of the revenues should go to historically underserved communities. So whether we will see a TCI bill this year is anyone’s guess, but I’ve included it here because of the impact it would have if it does show up.
Three other transportation bills are more certain. One, called the Clean Car Standard, simply requires manufacturers of electric vehicles to send some of their vehicles to Virginia dealers, so consumers can actually buy them. (Weirdly, many dealers are opposed.) Del. Lamont Bagby, D-Henrico, is expected to carry the bill; its passage is a priority for a long list of environmental and grassroots groups.
A bill from Del. David Reid, D-Loudoun, would have Virginia offer incentives for the purchase of electric vehicles, following recommendations from a 2019 study. I’m told we should also expect at least one bill from Del. Mark Keam, D-Fairfax, and one from Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, to get more electric school buses on the road.
Another bill would require a Transit Modernization Study, which would gather information about how the public is currently being served by the existing transit system, including details as specific as which bus stops in which communities have benches and covered facilities. The study will determine which transit systems have infrastructure needs related to safety, reliability and environmental impact, such that when funding is available, the results of the study can ensure that funding is allocated equitably and to be used to make non-car options more appealing. A patron will be announced soon.
Del. Shelly Simonds, D-Newport News, and Keam are expected to introduce a bill that will expand last year’s Environmental Justice Act to change how the state forms and carries out environmental justice policies within agencies, and to ensure greater public involvement in the permitting process at DEQ. Among other issues, residents often learn too late that Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality has finalized a permit for a facility that will add to the pollution in their community. The legislation would also require DEQ to consider the cumulative impact of polluting facilities — that is, to take into account whether the community is already overburdened.
Low-income ratepayer protections
The State Corporation Commission has been busy writing implementing regulations for many of the programs established by 2020 legislation. Some of the rules that have come out of the SCC are disappointing enough that I wouldn’t be surprised to see corrective legislation, but probably not until next year. One exception, where legislation is needed right away, concerns the Percentage of Income Payment Program.
The PIPP is an important feature of the Virginia Clean Economy Act that caps utility bills for qualifying low-income customers. The SCC convened a stakeholder group to hammer out the details, but concluded the statute did not provide enough information to go on. An SCC order issued Dec. 23 left open critical elements of the program, and urged the General Assembly to provide additional legislative guidance. It is very late in the year to craft a response and secure a patron, but the administration and advocates are trying.
A bill from Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, adds specificity to the currently vague process that governs small to medium changes in pipeline routes and may impact permit conditions like erosion control measures. Currently it is unclear under what conditions DEQ must re-examine plans it has previously approved. The legislation will bring clarity and explicit direction to all parties involved.
At least one and possibly two other bills that would affect pipeline construction are also said to be in the works, but I have no details.
Fossil fuel moratorium
Last year’s Virginia Clean Economy Act contains a two-year moratorium on new fossil fuel electric generating plants. Del. Joshua Cole, D-Fredericksburg, is expected to introduce legislation expanding this into a permanent moratorium on all new fossil fuel infrastructure, to take effect in 2022. The bill would exempt retail projects like local gas hook-ups but would otherwise affect not just electric generation, but pipelines, fracking infrastructure, refineries and processing facilities.
Last year saw a number of bills that would affect how our utilities do business. These issues have not gone away, so we should expect to see legislation to strengthen SCC oversight and pare back the ability of utilities to pocket overearnings.
Will there be bad bills?
Yes, we should expect to see a few bills from Republicans attempting to roll back parts (or all) of the Virginia Clean Economy Act, or trying to block Virginia’s participation in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. These aren’t expected to get far in the Democratically-controlled General Assembly.
Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.