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High Stakes (and Costs) in Sweeping Energy Bill

Aerial view of solar panel farm in Louisa County
A solar array operated by Dominion Energy in Louisa County (Photo: Dominion Energy)

Virginians could be seeing a lot more wind farms and solar panels under a bill that passed the House of Delegates on Thursday.

The Clean Economy Act requires utilities to remove carbon from Virginia’s electrical grid by 2045 in what many environmental groups say is a crucial step forward in addressing climate change.

But months of wrangling over the bill haven’t appeased some critics, who say the proposal is costly and doesn’t include enough oversight of Dominion Energy.

The Stakes

There’s broad consensus climate change is coming to Virginia’s doorstep. Jeremy Hoffman, the chief scientist at the Science Museum of Virginia, likes to break it down into four buckets.

“That's basically a hotter, wetter, 'sneezier' and wheezier Virginia,” Hoffman said.

The effects are especially pronounced in the Hampton Roads area, which will see a sea level rise of one to three feet by 2060, according to the World Resources Institute. Scientists say it’s one of the most vulnerable population centers in the country.

“People right now are having to change the way that they get to work or to church or to the store on a given day because of north wind bringing water up into the roads,” Hoffman said.

Flooded parking lot in Norfolk
Hurricane Isabel flooded portions of the Hampton Roads area in 2003, including this parking lot at Naval Station Norfolk. Experts expect coastal Virginia to become inundated more regularly with climate change. (Photo: United States Navy/Creative Commons)

Hoffman thinks we can avert the worst case scenarios if we move quickly. That includes switching to cleaner forms of energy.

“But the longer that we wait to reduce our carbon emissions, the more extreme that process needs to be,” he said.

The Bill

The Clean Economy Act calls for massive new investments in wind, solar and energy efficiency projects as carbon-producing plants are phased out.

Harrison Wallace is the Virginia director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, one of a broad coalition of groups involved in negotiating the bill. He said the effects of the bill will be visible.

“When people drive through Virginia in the next five or so years, you're going to see solar panels all over people's roofs,” he said. “And you're going to see a bunch of new jobs in a blue collar sector.”

Wallace said the bill, which he calls the most ambitious of its kind in the South, will especially benefit communities that live near higher-polluting plants.

“We'll see less asthma attacks across the state," Wallace said. "A lot of areas of color that are near power plants -- those are going to be shut down.”

Costs

Backers of the bill say it would save an average household $3 a month by 2030 thanks to energy efficiency improvements.

That’s in contrast to an estimate from the State Corporation Commission, which projected a $28 a month increase; the bill’s backers say the SCC failed to account for those energy efficiency improvements.

A Dominion Energy power station in downtown Richmond
A Dominion Energy substation in downtown Richmond. The Clean Economy Act calls for the company to make billions of dollars in new investments in renewable energy projects. (Ben Paviour/VPM News)

The SCC estimates Virginia customers will end up paying over $45 billion for wind and solar projects over the lifetime of those facilities, with Dominion keeping over $11 billion of that in profits, according to numbers provided by Ken Schard, a spokesman for the commission.

Those numbers have raised the eyebrows of some lawmakers from both parties. Republican Del. Lee Ware (R-Powhatan) spoke out against the bill on Thursday.

“I have over the course of recent years gotten more and more concerned about the license that we have often given with projects to utilities, and the effect that will have on the ratepayers,” he said. 

Del. Sam Rasoul (D-Roanoke) tried to introduce 11th hour changes designed to increase oversight of those costs. It failed after other Democrats argued it would kill the fragile coalition supporting the bill and undermine financing necessary to complete the projects.

But some environmental groups share Rasoul’s skepticism. Jorge Aguilar, the Southern Director for the advocacy group, Food and Water Watch, said the bill is “riddled with loopholes.”

“The bill just doesn't do what proponents say it will,” Aguilar said.

Aguilar wants to start fresh with the Virginia Green New Deal, which he said offers a more urgent response to the climate crisis.

Women looking into James River
The James River is forecast to see an increase in flash floods due to climate change, with an increased risk of toxic runoff. (Photo: Ben Paviour/VPM News)

“The Green New Deal actually starts with a moratorium on all fossil fuels, including pipelines as well as setting a much more ambitious goal of hitting 100% clean renewable energy by 2035,” Aguilar said.

That bill was left to die in a House committee this year -- a sign it didn’t have the backing of Speaker of the House Eileen Filler-Corn.

Harrison Wallace concedes the only alternative -- the Clean Economy Act -- is flawed.

“But to sit back and do nothing because you can't change the world with one bill is just not the way that we're going to be able to address this crisis,” he said.

The Senate is expected to take up the bill on Friday, and backers are optimistic Gov. Ralph Northam will sign it.

Wallace said he’ll be back again next year, working to make the bill better. He also wants to focus on transportation, which now is the single largest source of carbon dioxide emissions in the U.S.