In Virginia, Glenn Youngkin can’t stop the clean energy revolution

November 9, 2021 12:04 am

A solar installation on the Henrico Mental Health East Clinic. (Sun Tribe Solar)

By Mike Tidwell

The outcome of last week’s election in Virginia might spell trouble for many progressive issues. But on climate change, there’s no need for immediate panic.

That’s because President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better Act, if passed, will bring a whopping $14 billion or so in clean energy investments and climate justice spending to Virginia over the next 10 years. For perspective, that’s roughly seven times more than all spending by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality over the past decade.

Despite bickering on Capitol Hill, the Build Back Better framework released last week is very likely to become law later this month. It includes half a trillion dollars for climate programs nationwide and more than double that in “social infrastructure.”

But as widely noted, the bill did not pass in time to save Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe and seven Democratic House candidates. All of them acknowledged the reality of human-induced climate change during the campaign and supported bold action on clean energy. Conversely, Governor-elect Glenn Youngkin (R) expressed confusion over basic climate science during the campaign and said he would not have signed the state’s signature climate legislation, the Virginia Clean Economy Act of 2020.

But there’s nothing Youngkin and a Republican-controlled House of Delegates can do to repeal the Clean Economy Act now. Democrats who support the bill still control the Senate. Nor can Youngkin stop the continued dramatic fall in prices for wind and solar power and battery-storage technology. Even Dominion Energy, a longtime mega-polluter and climate equivocator, has pivoted massively to clean energy while planning to retire all its coal plants this decade.

But most importantly, there’s nothing Youngkin can do to turn back the $1.75 trillion in climate and social spending that would flow from the Build Back Better Act, if it passes. Given the results of the Virginia races, one assumes nervous Democrats on Capitol Hill are now even more eager to pass that bill to have something to show ahead of their elections in 2022.

And again, if it passes, the consequences for climate policy are breathtaking for all states, including Virginia. Forecasting the precise flow of money to each state is impossible right now, but assuming a figure proportional to population, Virginia would get $14.2 billion of the bill’s $555 billion in climate spending benefits over a decade. By itself, the federal bill would reduce the state’s carbon emissions by roughly 26 million tons, or a quarter of the state’s total emissions today, by 2030. Added to the Clean Economy Act and other policies already on the books, that gives Virginia a shot to cut emissions 50 percent below 2005 levels by 2030 (the president’s goal for the whole country).

Much of the Build Back Better funding will be direct payments to people who buy solar panels, electric cars, or batteries. Tens of billions will go to a Civilian Climate Corps, employing hundreds of thousands of Americans to plant trees, conduct home energy audits, and more.

The Build Back Better Act also gives tens of billions of dollars to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy to spend in partnership with states. Virginia will suddenly have access to funds to do everything from mitigating sewage overflows to creating walkable communities to cutting pollution from ports to electrifying school buses to removing lead from buildings, and more.

Of course, if Glenn Youngkin as governor turns out to be a true clean-energy opponent and climate denier, then implementing both the Virginia Clean Economy Act and the Build Back Better Act will be harder. But with Dominion Energy, of all companies, going green and many of Youngkin’s friends in the world of corporate America moving toward 100 pecent clean power (Amazon, Mars Inc, etc.), it’s hard to imagine he’ll be a fire-eating intransigent.

The energy markets have already shifted toward more clean energy. They will shift even faster over the next four years. One needs no greater proof than the October announcement of mega-corporation Siemens-Gamesa to manufacture offshore wind turbine blades right in Portsmouth, Virginia. When manufacturing investments pile up – along with new state and federal legislation on the books – there’s just no turning back.

The role of clean energy advocates in Virginia over the next four years will be to make sure Glenn Youngkin – if he doesn’t want to lead – simply gets out of the way. That task will surely keep us busy, but with the world of energy changing so fast, we’ll continue to see enormous progress despite the election outcomes last week.


Mike Tidwell is executive director of CCAN Action Fund, the political advocacy arm of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network.

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