By - Jim Vess

Energy a big focus for Virginia legislature which passes sweeping clean energy bill

Energize Weekly, February 26, 2020

The Virginia legislature, on a pair of razor-thin votes, has passed a sweeping energy bill that will bolster renewable generation, energy storage and efforts to set a carbon dioxide cap and trade program.

While the Clean Economy Act was the most far-reaching and visible piece of energy legislation at the state legislature this session it was far from the only one as there was a flood of bills on issues including, energy efficiency, customer bill transparency,  and consumer energy choice.

Two the energy choice bills – which would enable consumers to purchase 100 percent renewable energy from any supplier – have passed the Assembly are still awaiting action in the Senate.

The surge in activity came as the Democrats took control of both houses of the legislature for the first time in more than two decades, while the governorship is also held by a Democrat, Ralph Northam.

The Clean Economy Act is in line with Northam’s September executive order to expand clean energy and clean energy jobs in the state.

“I think we are in a day in Virginia in which we are reassessing our energy structure,” Jay Jones, a Democratic delegate to the Virginia House, said at a press conference as the session opened.

Also pushing clean energy initiatives were a group of companies – particularly high tech and online companies – that have located computer servers and regional distribution centers in the state.

In May, nine companies with Virginia data centers – including Apple, Salesforce and Microsoft – scored Dominion Energy, the main regulated utility in the state, for its proposal for future power generation saying the plan “fails to fully take into account the energy preferences of the data center industry – by limiting the amount of competitively-procured solar energy, neglecting to consider energy storage as a cost-effective and beneficial energy resource, and continuing to plan for the development of additional natural gas infrastructure.”

Data centers are one of the drivers for increase electricity demand in the state, according to Dominion.

In December, many of those companies and Ceres, a nonprofit organization working with companies to promote a sustainable economy, came out in support of the Clean Economy Act.

“Greening Virginia’s electricity mix will help attract major companies working to meet ambitious sustainability goals and unlock private sector investments in Virginia’s clean energy economy,”  Alli Gold Roberts, Ceres director for state policy, said in a statement at the time.

The Clean Economy Act sets a goal of 2.4 gigawatts of energy storage by 2035, one of the most ambitious targets in the country, and requires 100 percent renewable energy generation from electric utilities and suppliers by 2045 in the House version and 2050 in the Senate version.

Dominion announced a commitment to 100 percent net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 on Feb. 11, the same day the Clean Economy Act passed.

“Our mandate is to provide reliable and affordable energy – safely. We do that every day, all year long,” Thomas F. Farrell, II, Dominion CEO, said in a statement announcing the plan. “But we recognize that we must also continue to be a leader in combatting climate change.”

The legislation also gives state regulators the power to temporarily block new power plants that emit carbon dioxide while the state studies whether to permanent ban is needed to meet state emission reduction goals.

One of the most controversial parts of the bill is a requirement that state regulators develop a carbon dioxide cap and trade program that complies with the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a carbon emission trading market among 10 Northeastern states.

In assessing an earlier proposal for cap and trade in Virginia, Dominion had calculated it would cost consumers $530 million between 2020 and 2030.

The bill passed the House 52-47 and the Senate on a straight party line vote of 21-19. There was a sharp split between rural legislators who said the bill would drive up electricity costs and hurt the competitivity of their districts and urban and suburban lawmakers.

“What we’re doing is creating economic isolation of the rest of Virginia from the more affluent parts of the state,” Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin, said during the debate. “Industry will not come to our area because of these regulations.”

Differences between the House and Senate bills, such as the target date for zero emissions, still must be resolved before it is sent to Northam for his signature.

Meanwhile a few additional energy bills are trying to work their way to passage before the legislative session ends March 7.

Two of those bills aim to make it easier for customers to leave Dominion service for renewable energy option and then to rejoin Dominion. They would also remove barriers that limit the ability of individual customers to contract with outside suppliers of 100 percent renewable energy.

“Virginia’s energy policies should promote choice and clean energy development; but the reality is choice is limited and affordable clean energy development has not been a priority of our utilities,” Mike Mullin a delegate from Newport News and a sponsor of one of the bills, said in a statement. “It’s no surprise that Virginia customers of all sizes are asking the General Assembly for the ability to shop for clean energy. We should be promoting more ways to purchase clean energy, not fewer.”

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