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.

The Green New Deal Act’s (GND) preamble states that its goal is to get Virginia to a clean energy economy. However, the bill focuses on the electric power sector. It mentions agriculture, heating, cooling, and transportation in the context of the Climate Action Plan, but it sets no carbon emission reduction targets for these sectors. Furthermore, the GND makes no mention of industry, which accounted for 19% of energy use in Virginia in 2017. An effective omnibus bill must include an economy-wide goal for reducing GHG emissions to net-zero by 2050. Additionally, intermediate milestones must be established to ensure that Virginia is on track to meet the 2050 goal.

The GND effectively requires all electricity to come from solar and wind by 2036. Solar and wind will play a major role in decarbonizing Virginia’s power sector. However, these intermittent resources, even when coupled to new storage, cannot provide a reliable energy supply sufficiently quickly and at reasonable cost. Nuclear energy, hydro-electric energy, and future innovations in producing carbon free power, including carbon capture technologies, must be part of any omnibus bill if the necessary decarbonization of the power sector is to be achieved.

The GND addresses the important topic of energy efficiency, requiring that electric power consumption be reduced by 36 percent by 2035 for heating, cooling, lighting, and appliances. However, the bill focuses on residential buildings and defines specific energy efficiency measures that are to be pursued. To ensure energy efficiency programs reach their fullest potential, an omnibus bill must define energy efficiency goals across Virginia’s whole economy, and it should emphasize results for energy efficiency programs over itemizing specific elements to be included in energy efficiency programs.

Lastly, the GND requires a Climate Action plan to address all aspects of climate change and to implement the requirements established by the bill. This concept needs to be further developed. An effective omnibus bill must establish dedicated entities, structures, and binding processes to transform Virginia’s whole economy to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions. It also must require that technical, policy, and economic analysis be employed to select pathways to net-zero to ensure that they are effective in cutting emissions and optimize economic development.

As climate activists, we base our calls to action on science and evidence. We must not abandon that foundation as seek to put new climate and energy policies in place. We can decarbonize Virginia’s economy while creating economic growth and a more equitable commonwealth, but as the Green New Deal Act illustrates, more work is needed to enact the kind of omnibus climate and energy bill required to move Virginia forward.