The Virginia Clean Economy Act is soon to be the Law

The VCEA becomes law on July 1. The act is not perfect. Its calls for tighter energy efficiency standards could have been more aggressive, and it leaves too much power in the hands of monopolies. But for its focus on decarbonizing Virginia’s electrical power sector by by 2050, the bill is stronger and more practical than it is widely represented as mandating 100% renewable energy.

Click here to read ZCV’s Local Opinions op-ed in the Washington Post

VCEA Energy Efficiency Policy Comes Up Short

The Virginia Clean Economy Act (VCEA) is making its way through the 2020 General Assembly. The bill would move Virginia toward carbon free electric generation by mid-century. Among other clean energy policies, it includes elements that address energy efficiency.

Energy efficiency is an area where Virginia has lagged compared to other states. So, there is a lot of potential for the Commonwealth to make-up ground on decarbonization by aggressively deploying energy efficiency programs. Unfortunately, the substitute bill that was introduced on Thursday, February 6, comes up short.

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The VCEA Substitute – A Few Quick Takes

As February 7th, a substitute for the Virginia Clean Economy Act VCEA (HB 1526) has been introduced and reported out of the Labor and Commerce committee. I am working through the substitute VCEA to understand what is now on the table. Here is what I have gleaned so far:

  • It requires that Virginia join RGGI and get to zero emission credits by 2050.
  • It allocates 45% of RGGI funds to a flood preparedness fund.
  • It allocates 50% of RGGI funds to programs for low-income energy efficiency programs.
  • It uses RGGI revenue to fund reporting that requires GHG reductions resulting from RGGI be tracked and accounted for.
  • It does not allow offsets or fuel-netting to be used to meet CO2 reductions that are required by RGGI.
  • The timing is a bit hard to follow. It appears that the RGGI regulations go into effect in 2025 and that RGGI will regulate emissions from 2031 to 2050. However, it requires that the reporting on RGGI begin in January, 2022.
  • The bill gives biomass wide access to be counted as a renewable energy resource.
  • It removes language that had allowed utilities to recover revenue reductions due to lost revenue from energy efficiency programs. 
  • It makes energy efficiency pilot programs “in the public interest.”
  • It places a pseudo-moratorium on new fossil fuel plants by saying they are only allowed to meet reliability requirements and/or if a utility has met its energy efficiency goals and cannot address anticipated electric energy growth via demand response and storage.
  • It requires that the SCC consider the social cost of carbon in approving any new generating facility (as a benefit or a cost).
  • It increases the amount of utility scale renewables that are “in public interest” from 5,000 MW to 16,100 MW capacity.
  • It removes language that had said planning for new nuclear capacity  is “in the public interest.”
  • It makes 5,100 MW of offshore wind “in the public interest.”
  • It has requirements to direct investment and hiring relating to the provisions of the bill to disadvantaged communities. 
  • It allows existing nuclear power to remain in place and separates it from the calculation of Dominion’s total electric energy for the purpose of RPS calculations.
  • It would get VA’s regulated electric utilities to 30% renewables by 2030. This would get Dominion to about 60% carbon free by 2030.
  • It gets Dominion to 100% carbon free by 2045. It gets APCO to 100% carbon-free by 2050.

I will make updates as I make my way through the bill and other bills related to it.

An Achievable Green New Deal for Virginia

Action on climate change and energy policy in Virginia is within reach. A key to success for states leading on decarbonization, such as California and New York, is overarching legislation (i.e. an omnibus bill) that addresses economy-wide decarbonization, sets clear goals for cutting greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (not just carbon dioxide), and establishes the processes and methods needed to transform each to a net-zero carbon economy. In Virginia, such an omnibus bill has yet to pass. Although Delegate Rasoul’s aspirational Green New Deal Act, HB 77, strives to fill that void, its scope falls short and it is not technically or economically achievable.

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What Does Net-Zero Carbon Really Mean?

The consensus among climatologists is that the world needs to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by mid-century. We are hopeful for meaningful and realistic legislation in Virginia to achieve this goal. We are particularly interested in The Virginia Energy Plan; relating to the Commonwealth Energy Policy (VEP) and The Virginia Clean Economy Act (VCEA).

The VEP (SB94) establishes greenhouse gas emissions reduction standards that target net-zero emissions carbon across all sectors of Virginia’s economy by 2045. It passed subcommittee and the full senate on January 24, with support from Dominion Energy, but only after a change in the target for the electric power sector from “zero carbon by 2040” to “net-zero carbon by 2045”.

The VCEA (HB1526 and senate version SB851) establish a Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS), which steadily increases the electrical generation to 100% renewable energy by 2050. (It is widely believed that the bills will allow zero-carbon nuclear production from existing plants to continue, but unfortunately this is not clearly spelled out.)

A draft alternative to the VCEA, reportedly being circulated by Dominion Energy, advances the RPS scheduled to 2045, but it makes the following changes:

55% Zero Carbon by 2030
65% Zero Carbon by 2036
100% Net-Zero Carbon by 2045

What are we giving up by replacing “zero” carbon with “net-zero” carbon in these bills?

The meaning of zero carbon is clear: it means producing power without emitting any carbon to the atmosphere. Wind, solar, hydro, and nuclear are all zero-carbon sources of electric power. Virginia’s potential for hydropower is limited. Nuclear currently produces about 30% of Virginia’s power. Although nuclear power is a reliable (non-intermittent) and clean energy source, significant expansion of nuclear energy faces political hurdles. Wind and solar are expected to undergo major expansion over the next three decades, largely due to rapidly falling costs. However, over-reliance on intermittent energy sources poses reliability risks, even if combined with substantial energy storage capacity. Achieving true zero-carbon energy by mid-century is likely to require either major technological advances in energy storage or a renaissance in nuclear power or both.

Lacking these developments, achieving net-zero carbon emissions is a more realistic target. Net-zero carbon emissions is widely understood to mean offsetting any emissions of carbon by a corresponding removal of carbon from the atmosphere. For example, ‘net-zero’ would allow natural gas peaker plants to fill the gaps between energy demand and intermittent renewable energy supply, thereby dramatically improving power reliability. Combining peaker plants with carbon capture or the use of biogas could substantially reduce, but would not eliminate, carbon emissions.

Technologies to offset carbon emissions by carbon removal from the atmosphere are currently unproven. But improvements in technologies to reduce carbon emissions by carbon capture at the source and to remove carbon from the atmosphere would expand the potential pathways to achieve reliable power with net-zero carbon emissions. Developing these carbon removal technologies, needed for net-zero emissions, would also provide the potential to achieve net-negative emissions.

Replacing zero carbon with net-zero carbon emissions would appear to be a worthwhile compromise to set realistic goals and get legislation passed. Notably, however, the language in SB-94 and in Dominion’s draft alternative for the VCEA does not state net-zero carbon emissions, and it does not define net-zero carbon. For example, Dominion is pushing their electric school bus program, which on balance, is laudable. Could Dominion claim net-zero carbon, even while their own carbon emissions actually increased, by offsetting their carbon emissions with reductions of carbon emissions in other sectors, such as electrification in the transportation sector? If a cap and trade market for carbon emissions is established, could Dominion purchase carbon emission credits and claim a net-zero carbon with no decrease in its own carbon emissions? These are not acceptable net-zero strategies.

Net-zero carbon must be defined as balancing carbon emissions with carbon removal in Virginia’s code. With that in place, establishing carbon reduction targets as part of clean energy standards are effective policy for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

2020 Bill Endorsements

Virginia’s General Assembly is considering a large number of bills that address our energy economy, climate change and the environment. Unlike prior years, several bills are likely to pass. The Zero Carbon team reviewed the 100-plus House bills and the 50-plus Senate bills. The topics range from updates to boards and committees to overhauling the structure of regulated utilities and banning fossil fuel use.  We identified bills that are consistent with ZCV Legislative Priorities and  that would generate immediate results.

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Virginia Senate Gets to Work on Clean Energy

Attention Virginia Climate and Clean Energy Advocates!

The work to decarbonize Virginia’s economy begins in earnest on Monday, January 13. The Senate’s Commerce and Labor Sub-Committee on Energy meets in Senate Room A of the Pocahontas Building (900 E Main St, Richmond) and will take up a number of bills key to decarbonizing Virginia’s economy. 

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Zero Carbon Virginia Hosts Energy Transition Summit

Zero Carbon Virginia, a citizen’s group seeking a non-partisan path toward a zero-carbon energy future, hosted the Virginia Energy Transition Summit in Richmond, Virginia, on Saturday, August 24, 2019. The educational and informational event provided a group of Virginia General Assembly members and staff the chance to discuss the opportunities and challenges of the ongoing transition to cleaner energy resources that are developing across the United States.

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State Capitol of the Commonwealth of Virginia

Now, Are We Serious About Climate Change?

Climate news in 2019 is starting off where 2018 left off. Just this past week we learned that our oceans are warming faster than expected and that US carbon emissions rose 3.2% in 2018. This rise ends three years of declining emissions and is the largest increase since 2010. In November, the Black Friday Report  showed how the impacts of climate change are already being felt across the US, including in Virginia. And, in October, we learned that aggressive reductions in carbon emissions are our only chance to avoid catastrophic temperature rise.

There is no doubt, climate change is a serious issue. Yet, as scientists sound these alarms, we are busy debating a border wall, who should run for president in 2020, troop withdrawals from Syria, and how much the Russians are influencing our elections. It is as if we are driving along a challenging roadway but cannot take our eyes off our mobile phones long enough to see the cliff that we are about to drive over.

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It is Time to Stop Digging

Below is a transcript of my comments from the Virginia Environmental Justice Rally on October 28, 2018. The rally was held in support of Juliana vs US, the case where 22 youth are suing the federal government for causing climate change. (Photo credit Chris Tandy)

The law of holes says… when you find yourself in a hole, step one to get out…  is to stop digging. Climate change is a hole dug by burning fossil fuels for decades. The hole is deep, getting deeper, and its ill effects are being felt now. It is time to stop digging.

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