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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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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Governor Terry McAuliffe’s Actions on Climate Change

During his time in office, Governor Terry McAuliffe led action on climate change through a number of executive actions. These actions took steps to move Virginia forward and provide a road map for near-term to bring cleaner energy and economic growth to Virginia. Some of Governor McAuliffe’s actions are summarized below.

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Support the Renewables First Act

The majority of Virginia’s electricity is based on burning fossil fuels, mainly natural gas and coal. The effects of the resulting climate change are all around us. For example, the six hottest years recorded have occurred over the last decade. Tens of millions of dollars are spent annually to harden Virginia’s coastal military bases against sea level rise. Science tells us that we must hold global temperature increases under 2°C (3.6°F), or suffer staggering economic and social upheaval. To realize this goal, the major economies must pursue ‘deep decarbonization’, reducing carbon emissions by approximately 80% by mid-century.

In addition to producing heat-trapping gases, the burning of fossil fuels produces particulates and gases, which cause toxic ground level ozone. This is a big problem in many parts of the developed and developing world, including Virginia (The American Lung Association gives out letter grades for air quality; Loudoun County’s air gets a ‘C’, Fairfax’s an ‘F’). Public health provides a second strong incentive to reduce fossil fuel-based energy production. We all have to do our part in reducing fossil fuel emissions, including Virginia. Delay is not an option.

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