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State energy plan emphasizes nuclear, ratepayer protections

Gov. Glenn Youngkin speaks in front of the Executive Mansion
Gov. Glenn Youngkin speaks at a 2022 economic development event in front of the executive mansion. On Monday, Youngkin announced updates to the state's energy plan. (File photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Gov. Glenn Youngkin detailed his administration’s update to the Virginia Energy Plan at Lynchburg’s Delta Star Inc. on Monday, outlining a shift in the state’s energy strategy to what he called an “all-of-the-above” approach.

The new plan criticizes the retirement of natural gas power plants, emphasizes innovation in nuclear, energy storage and other technologies, and suggests regulatory changes to protect ratepayers’ pocketbooks. 

“We need an achievable and dynamic energy plan that provides for abundant, reliable, affordable and clean energy,” Youngkin said. 

The Virginia Energy Plan is put together every four years by the state Department of Energy. It includes an inventory of greenhouse gas emissions, a breakdown of energy sources, planning for the future and more. 

In 2021, lawmakers added new requirements, saying the department “shall prepare a comprehensive VEP that identifies actions over a 10-year period consistent with the goal of the Commonwealth Clean Energy Policy to achieve, no later than 2045, a net-zero carbon energy economy for all sectors.” 

That aspect of state law was critiqued Monday by Youngkin: He called out the Virginia Clean Economy Act, saying it was a mistake to mandate the commonwealth’s energy policy for 30 years. The VCEA requires Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power, the state’s two largest power providers, to stop using natural-gas and other carbon-emitting generation by 2045 and 2050, respectively. 

“I have recommended that we, in fact, reassess and reauthorize the Virginia Clean Economy Act next year and 2023. And then every five years thereafter,” Youngkin said at a Richmond press conference later in the day. 

Youngkin said the commonwealth should focus on innovating in fields like nuclear and hydrogen energy. The most concrete proposal to come from the event was the “moonshot” promise of a new small modular nuclear reactor to provide base-line power to Southwest Virginia within the next 10 years. The plan also encourages innovation on battery storage, carbon capture, waste coal and more. 

Reliability is a central theme. Youngkin argued consistent power is needed to continue attracting growing industries like data centers, agricultural technology and pharmaceutical manufacturing. 

He said the state could end up experiencing rolling blackouts like California if it moved to intermittent power sources, like wind and solar, instead of natural gas and nuclear, which largely cover Virginia’s base-load requirements and are relied on 24/7. 

Renewables advocates argue solar and wind can operate as base-load suppliers if implemented correctly with proper storage and end-use efficiency improvements.  

Connor Kish, policy and legislative director for Sierra Club Virginia, said the VCEA contains other reliability safeguards. 

“The companies, [Appalachian Power] and Dominion, can petition the State Corporation Commission to keep any generation unit online for longer [than the VCEA allows] if they can show the State Corporation Commission there’s a need,” Kish said. That includes reliability needs. 

He also disputed Youngkin’s claim that the VCEA would result in rolling blackouts, noting that Virginia’s membership in PJM, a multistate interconnection agreement, provides backup sources. Youngkin argued at the Lynchburg press conference that neighboring states don’t have the same energy policies as Virginia, meaning power sourced from outside the commonwealth might end up coming from coal and natural gas anyway if the state falls short of demand. 

Kish, however, agreed with portions of the administration’s pledge to increase investor-owned utility regulation in the interest of keeping ratepayer costs down.  

The plan calls for the reinstatement of biennial rate reviews for Dominion and Appalachian Power, as well as a workgroup to determine how to reduce costs to ratepayers by changing how the state approaches rate adjustment clauses — which make up about $30 of a standard 1,000 kWh residential bill each month. 

The plan received measured praise from Del. Sally Hudson (D-Charlottesville), who wrote on Twitter that the state needs to address utility control. 

“For too long, Virginia has been captive to utilities — biggest donor to both parties — and their campaign cash bought them the rights to write their own rules at all of our expense,” Hudson wrote. 

Hudson, though, was critical of the plan’s emphasis on nuclear, calling it an "unproven” technology. 

Republicans have been supportive of the plan. In a Youngkin press release, Virginia House of Delegates Speaker Todd Gilbert (R- Shenandoah) said “our existing energy plan, brought about by environmental extremism, might well leave people freezing in the dark. That is the definition of failure. Governor Youngkin’s plan to emphasize clean, safe, nuclear power is a key step forward on the road to a reliable energy future for Virginia.” 

Environmentalists have largely been critical. 

Michael Town, executive director of the Virginia League of Conservation Voters, said “This ‘all-of-the-above' energy plan is really just a thinly veiled attempt to obstruct our transition to a clean energy economy and roll back the climate action policies that are securing cleaner air for Virginia while creating jobs and investment in our state.”