Commentary

To lower cost of living, legislature should override governor’s veto of energy efficiency bill

April 26, 2022 12:02 am

Electric meters in Richmond. Gov. Glenn Youngkin vetoed a bill designed to lower the electric bills of veterans, low-income, elderly and disabled ratepayers. (Sarah Vogelsong/ Virginia Mercury)

By Chris Meyer

With Richmond’s focus on reducing Virginia’s energy costs, it was surprising to see Gov. Glenn Youngkin veto a bill designed to lower the electric bills of veterans, low-income, elderly and disabled ratepayers. The bill — Senate Bill 347 (Sen. John Bell, D-Loudoun) not only passed with overwhelming bipartisan support, but also directly advances the governor’s very own top priority, of lowering Virginians’ cost-of-living. In this case, it would accomplish that lowered cost through targeted, optimized energy efficiency programs for those ratepayers that need cost-of-living savings the most. 

Electricity bill savings, after all, are truly needed, and efficiency offers a ready solution to the governor’s oft-cited problem of high costs. Even before inflation hit, Virginians already paid among the highest electric bills across the South, according to federal data. High electric rates are especially a problem in the hardest economically-hit counties across Southwest Virginia, where Appalachian Power rates have risen over 75 percent since 2007, and with more cost increases on the way.

Energy efficiency’s very purpose is to chip away at those high energy bills. SB347 does so through a very simple mechanism, one any successful business venture understands: through a performance standard. That is, by setting a minimum energy-savings target that, moving forward, utility programs for veterans, disabled, low-income, and the elderly must achieve. That guarantees those efficiency programs work as intended, in delivering households energy bill reductions. A performance standard is not only a widely-used, outcomes-based approach. It’s just good governance, to hold programs accountable to a minimum standard, and thus ensure return on investments in lowering total costs across the board.

The vetoed SB347 even further targets electricity bill-savings, by focusing efficiency projects on those homes that are so dilapidated, and therefore inefficient, that they are difficult to weatherize, and which thus languish perpetually on what we call the “deferral list.” Absent SB347’s reform, those worst-off homes are rarely weatherized. That has left the biggest electricity bill savings unrealized, all across Virginia.

Greater efficiency is just the kind of cost solution the commonwealth clearly needs, given the significant electric bill increases this past decade. Indeed, in addition to high bills, Virginia homes and businesses gobble the second-highest amount of electricity among our six neighbors. That energy waste and associated rate increases are largely avoidable, through SB347’s high-performing efficiency programs.

The Local Energy Alliance Program (LEAP) delivers these efficiency programs every day to working class, low-income Virginians across the state. We insulate and air seal, we swap old lighting for LEDs, and we repair and replace HVAC, to cut $500 winter-heating bills in half. Those dramatic, and sometimes life-changing cost-of-living reductions are possible because so much housing — especially mobile homes of the working poor — were built before code required insulation; have not been maintained for lack of resources (thus, are placed on the aforementioned deferral lists); and have decrepit, decades-old HVAC. 

One of LEAP’s clients, Ms. B is an example. Her modest house was built in 1967, back when code required minimal insulation. Her house never feels warm, despite wearing at least 3 layers and sleeping under five blankets: heat literally flows out of her barely-insulated attic. Despite not ever feeling warm, Ms. B spends $300 a month on winter heating alone. Under Dominion Energy’s transformative low-income and elderly efficiency program, LEAP is insulating and sealing her attic, to cut her $300 heating bills in half. That is a cost-of-living reduction far higher than the gasoline tax holidays garnering so much attention in Richmond. 

And SB347 efficiency projects are not just good for everyday Virginians struggling with inflation: Virginia should be deploying as much modern efficiency technology as possible, to increase our energy independence.  Efficiency is not only a hedge against high electric bills and inflation. Efficiency also reduces consumption of natural gas, that costly, carbon-based global commodity that Virginia over-relies on, to generate most of our electricity.  But regardless of the global geopolitics of oil and gas, right here at home is where SB347 would deliver the most value, by expanding and improving already-proven energy efficiency programs. 

I’m hopeful that when the legislature comes back Wednesday, the General Assembly will focus on SB347’s electricity bill cost savings, as much as it has focused on gasoline prices and taxes. If it does, it would override Youngkin’s counterproductive veto. SB347 was a strong bill when it passed last month with overwhelmingly bipartisan support. To help people that need it most pay their electricity bills in inflationary times, SB347 is still a strong bill today. 

To lower energy-related costs-of-living, it should now become law.

Chris Meyer is the executive director of the Local Energy Alliance Program, which is a nonprofit serving low-income Virginians with energy efficiency and renewable energy programming throughout the stat

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