Will Governor Youngkin’s energy plan look anything like what the law requires?

September 23, 2022 12:02 am

Workers install solar panels at Huguenot High School in Richmond. (Sun Tribe Solar)

What happens when state law requires an anti-clean energy governor to draw up a plan for a zero-carbon energy economy? We’re about to find out.

Virginia gives a new governor until Oct. 1 of his first year in office to write a plan “identifying actions over a 10-year period consistent with the goal of the Commonwealth Clean Energy Policy set forth in § 45.2-1706.1 to achieve, no later than 2045, a net-zero carbon energy economy for all sectors, including the electricity, transportation, building, agricultural, and industrial sectors.” 

Yet Glenn Youngkin is hardly a likely source for actions addressing the climate crisis. During the campaign he claimed he didn’t know what was causing climate change. He condemned the Virginia Clean Economy Act, the law providing for our transition to 100% clean electricity. He hired as a senior adviser Andrew Wheeler, the guy President Trump put in charge of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to undermine environmental laws. He continues to try to pull Virginia out of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, legally or (as it appears now) illegally.

So if he doesn’t like Virginia’s current legal framework for the energy transition, does he have any better ideas?

His Aug. 19 press release on the topic suggests not. It quotes him as saying, “Our priority is to have a comprehensive Virginia energy plan that considers all energy sources, provides transparent and data-driven information for Virginians about costs, and is an ‘all of the above’ approach.” 

The press release goes on to state, “The objectives of the energy plan will focus on lowering the cost of living, creating jobs, and bringing people to Virginia. Affordability, reliability, capacity, competition, environmental stewardship, choice, and innovation are the seven guiding principles that will inform Governor Youngkin’s ‘all of the above’ approach.” 

These are all nice words, but the failure to mention cutting carbon is a glaring omission. Worse, “all of the above” is typically code-speak for supporting fossil fuels, as suggested by Youngkin’s statement during the campaign that “we need to preserve our clean natural gas.” (“Clean natural gas” rolls off the conservative tongue so easily that it almost seems like a truth instead of an oxymoron.)

If the energy plan falls short in meeting the statutory directive, Youngkin’s loyalty to the gas industry will be the likely reason. That’s a problem. The Commonwealth Clean Energy Policy makes it clear that the role of the energy plan is to guide the transition to a net-zero economy in which fossil fuels have little or no place. But as the RGGI fight shows, Youngkin isn’t the kind of guy who lets a law boss him around.

The Commonwealth Clean Energy Policy makes it clear that the role of the energy plan is to guide the transition to a net-zero economy in which fossil fuels have little or no place.

Still, the governor has good people at Virginia’s Department of Energy working on the plan, and while they got a very late start, they have amassed a great deal of input from the public and stakeholder groups. The ideas are there if the governor chooses to be forward-thinking.

And indeed, Youngkin’s “seven guiding principles” — affordability, reliability, capacity, competition, environmental stewardship, choice and innovation — could as easily support a renewables-focused strategy as one clinging to fossil fuels.

Affordability? Utility bills are skyrocketing because of our over-reliance on fossil fuels; the remedy is to add more price-stable wind and solar. Reliability? You’ll recall the rolling blackouts in Texas in the winter of 2021 when natural gas wells froze but solar performed as projected. Capacity, competition, environmental stewardship, choice and innovation? These principles support not just greater investment in renewables, but also the rest of the agenda laid out for the plan in the Commonwealth Clean Energy Policy.

Follow the money — and the technology

With the federal Inflation Reduction Act making renewable energy even more affordable for both utilities and residents, a good energy plan would call for earlier fossil fuel retirements, a beefed-up renewable portfolio standard, rooftop solar on all new schools and other public buildings, and opportunities for affordable community solar in every utility territory. Federal incentives will also support an emphasis on building solar and wind facilities in low-income areas and in areas of Southwest Virginia where coal employment has fallen steadily for more than two decades.

Indeed, clean energy incentives will now be so numerous that Virginia’s energy department could do a great public service by developing a website with one-stop shopping for residents, businesses and local governments to understand what incentives exist, who qualifies, how to access them and how to find reputable companies to work with.

Can Southwest Virginia remake itself as a laboratory for renewables?

Virginia should also help residents save energy and money by closing the loopholes in our residential building code that make Virginia homes less efficient and less well-insulated than the national standard. Updates to the code should also help buyers by requiring that new homes be wired to accommodate solar and electric vehicles, and be either all-electric or easily converted to all-electric when the homeowner wants to make the switch.

This last is especially important because methane is on its way out as a heat source in buildings. Technological innovation has made electric heat pumps, stoves and water heaters more efficient and safer than their gas counterparts. Now they will be cheaper too due to the federal rebates becoming available next year.

As a result, consumers will increasingly abandon their gas utilities, and builders won’t connect new homes to gas lines. Within the 10-year planning frame of the energy plan, gas utilities serving residential and commercial customers will enter the first stage of a death spiral. Rather than fighting against the inevitable, Virginia must help gas utilities make realistic plans for winding down business in a way that doesn’t leave local governments and taxpayers — especially those least able to afford it — paying for crumbling infrastructure and cleaning up the gas industry’s mess.

This leaves a role for methane only in some industrial processes, where technological innovation will eventually make — but has not yet made —  gas obsolete. Yet this customer base is too small to support existing gas transmission infrastructure, let alone new pipelines like the Mountain Valley Pipeline. Again, Virginia should not allow its residents to be left holding the bag when these assets become stranded and owners go bankrupt.

Just as technology will make natural gas in buildings obsolete, the same is happening with gasoline for vehicles. This spring Youngkin signed bipartisan legislation that requires state agencies to buy electric cars instead of gasoline-powered vehicles unless a calculation of the lifetime cost of ownership shows them to be more expensive. Bill proponents expect electric vehicles will be the clear winners because their operating costs are up to 44% less.

What’s true for state agencies will be true for residents as well, particularly as federal rebates make both new and used electric vehicles more affordable. Virginia must ensure the widespread availability of EV charging, especially for multifamily housing residents and areas with only street parking. 

But cars should not have to be anyone’s only transportation choice, or their first choice. The energy plan should prioritize walking, bicycling, electric scooters and mass transit as ways to help residents save money and energy and make Virginia communities more attractive places to live. Electrifying bus fleets across the commonwealth will also result in cleaner air, especially in cities. Technology can help route planning to give more residents the option to take a bus, both within communities and between cities.

The common denominator: jobs

Youngkin says he wants to bring more people and more jobs to Virginia, and he understands the need to improve job training programs to better match trainees with employer needs. This is one more reason to align the energy plan with our ongoing energy transition. Careers in the solar and offshore wind industries are among the fastest-growing in the country, and the Inflation Reduction Act requires clean energy developers to meet prevailing wage and apprenticeship metrics to qualify for the maximum tax credits. As a result, clean energy jobs will provide upward mobility for young people, returning citizens and those changing careers.

Virginia attracted manufacturers and supply chain businesses when it committed to building its first offshore wind farm, and Hampton Roads’ role as a manufacturing hub will grow further if we raise our ambitions for future offshore wind development. New federal incentives for domestic manufacturing of clean energy components give manufacturers a reason to expand in states that want them. For example, Arizona-based First Solar has already announced plans to expand its solar module factory in Ohio and invest $1 billion in a new factory in the Southeast.

Fighting against the clean energy tide won’t gain Virginia anything but dirty air and a bad reputation. Leaning into the energy transition would allow Youngkin to meet his goals of creating good jobs, lowering energy costs and attracting people to Virginia.


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Ivy Main
Ivy Main

Ivy Main is a lawyer and a longtime volunteer with the Sierra Club's Virginia chapter. A former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency employee, she is currently the Sierra Club's renewable energy chairperson. Her opinions are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of any organization.