Northam calls for carbon-free electric grid by 2050

A solar array. (Getty Images)

In a surprise executive order Tuesday morning, Gov. Ralph Northam issued a sweeping directive committing Virginia to making its electric grid 100 percent carbon free by 2050.

“Virginia’s policy structures have historically focused on the traditional power sector model of large, centralized power stations and conventional transmission and distribution infrastructure,” the text of the order proclaims. “In the coming years, renewable energy technologies and distributed energy resources such as rooftop solar, smart meters, and battery storage are likely to make up an ever increasing share of our energy system.”

The announcement, delivered at the beginning of the state’s inaugural Clean Energy Summit in Richmond, was greeted largely with excitement by the 400-strong crowd, many of whom represented renewable energy industries. Others, however, struck a note of skepticism.

“Here we can lock arms with APCo and Dominion and PJM” to move toward more renewable energy, said Sierra Club Virginia chapter chair Daryl Downing, referring to the state’s two largest public utilities and the regional transmission organization that manages the grid for all or parts of 13 states, including Virginia. But to meet those goals in the “real world,” he cautioned, “some of it requires legislative changes.”

Northam’s Executive Order 43 outlines four broad goals, with a host of specific targets for Dominion and Appalachian Power.

The first, and most consequential, directs the state’s Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy to work with Virginia’s secretaries of commerce and natural resources and the Department of Environmental Quality to develop a plan to ensure that 30 percent of Virginia’s electricity comes from renewable energy by 2030, with 100 percent drawn from “carbon-free sources” by 2050.

While neighbors such as North Carolina have recently set statewide emissions reduction targets, Northam’s order makes Virginia the first southeastern state to commit to a 100 percent carbon-free grid, noted Cyrus Bhedwar of the Southeast Energy Efficiency Alliance, a regional nonprofit working in 11 states (“anywhere you can get grits and sweet tea,” said Bhedwar).

The second and third goals, called “lead-by-example targets” by Northam, commit state agencies and executive offices to getting 30 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2022 and at the same time reducing their energy consumption by 10 percent through the use of energy performance contracting.

Finally, the order directs that an energy workforce plan be created to ensure that Virginia “has the workforce in place to meet the growing needs and technological advancements of the clean energy sector.”

Environmental and energy groups issued a flurry of reactions in the hours following the order.

“Governor Northam’s announcement today shows real leadership on climate change in the face of its absence at the federal level,” said Will Cleveland of the Southern Environmental Law Center. “It’s time for this kind of cost effective, smart and modern solution to bring Virginia into the future.”

Others, like the Sierra Club, Chesapeake Climate Action Network and Appalachian Voices, applauded the directive but criticized the ongoing development of the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley natural gas pipelines as being at odds with the order’s stated intent of combating climate change through decarbonization.

Those projects “directly contradict the executive order’s ambitious goals,” said Appalachian Voices executive director Tom Cormons.

In a panel on transforming the electricity grid that immediately followed Northam’s announcement, Dominion Vice President Joe Woomer said that the governor’s goals are “aligned” with the utility’s own.

“When is now. We cannot afford to keep kicking the can on investments,” he said.

In the same panel, Steve Hauser, CEO of the GridWise Alliance, a coalition of energy stakeholders concerned with grid modernization, voiced caution about the complexity of the task.

“To be honest, I don’t think we know how to get to 100 percent renewables or clean energy by 2050,” he said.