Despite GOP Gains in Virginia, the State’s Landmark Clean Energy Law Will Be Hard to Derail

Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin said during the campaign that he wouldn’t have signed the law, but support remains in the Senate and at two key regulatory agencies.

Republican Glenn Youngkin greets supporters after giving remarks at a breakfast at Anchor Allie's on Oct. 25, 2021 in Virginia Beach, Virginia. Youngkin defeated Democratic candidate and former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe to serve as governor of Virginia. Credit: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

Republican Glenn Youngkin greets supporters after giving remarks at a breakfast at Anchor Allie's on Oct. 25, 2021 in Virginia Beach, Virginia. Youngkin defeated Democratic candidate and former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe to serve as governor of Virginia. Credit: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

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Twenty months ago, Virginia became the first state in the South to pass a comprehensive clean energy law designed to transform and boost its economy and take on climate change.

Then, on Nov. 2, the state’s voters elected a new governor, Republican Glenn Youngkin, who during the campaign said he never would have signed the Virginia Clean Economy Act, saying it was too costly and “puts our entire energy grid at risk.”

Voters also flipped control of the 100-member House of Delegates from Democrats to Republicans; there were no elections in the state Senate, which remains run by a narrow Democratic majority.

The election brings a measure of uncertainty to Virginia’s energy policy over the next four years. But even with those Republican gains, energy experts said that Youngkin will have a hard time significantly weakening, or slowing down, the law, given its ongoing support in the Senate and the staggered board terms at two key regulatory agencies. 

“The Virginia Clean Economy Act placed into code a mandate, the phasing out of carbon dioxide emitting power generation in the Commonwealth,” said Cale Jaffe, a University of Virginia law professor and director of the Environmental Law and Community Engagement Clinic there. “This is not something that can be undone by executive order. It’s not something that any governor can amend with just a stroke of a pen.”

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While Jaffe declined to handicap the General Assembly’s likelihood of holding onto the clean economy law, it passed in the Senate by a vote of 22-17, with all Democrats and one Republican backing it. That political dynamic did not change in the election and will likely remain for at least the next two years, when all 40 Senate seats are up for reelection. 

The law also relies on a couple of political bodies to oversee its implementation, and Youngkin’s control of them is limited and delayed, Jaffe said. The State Corporation Commission, which regulates electric utilities, is run by three commissioners who are appointed by the General Assembly, not the governor, and they serve staggered, six-year terms. The State Air Pollution Control Board has seven members, also serving staggered terms.

“It should be very durable,” said Will Cleveland, a Virginia-based senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, of the clean economy law, which the SELC worked to get passed last year. “For one, it’s just good policy. It’s good for the climate and it’s good for the economy.” 

Cleveland said the law has also shifted momentum in the state in a way that’s becoming baked into how businesses operate. “I wouldn’t think it’s a good idea to yank some of our biggest Virginia corporations back and forth and pull the rug from them when they have been making commitments,” he said. 

‘The Eagle Has Landed’

Virginia state Sen. Jennifer McClellan, a Richmond Democrat, worked for the clean energy law, and after it passed in early 2020, she compared it to a lunar landing, telling Inside Climate News at the time: “I literally wanted to jump up and say, ‘The eagle has landed.’”

On Friday, despite the difficult election for Democrats, Cleveland looked back on passage of the clean energy law and said it was “huge.”

“It was months of negotiations and policy discussions and working with allies and legislators, utilities and clean energy companies to fit all the pieces together,” Cleveland said. “Not only was it a big deal for the South, but nationwide, to have a Southern state demonstrating a commitment to climate change and reaping the economic benefits at the same time.”

Nine other states plus Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C. have passed laws that set timelines for getting to 100 percent carbon-free or renewable electricity, according to an Inside Climate News analysis. They are Illinois, California, Hawaii, Massachusetts, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island and Washington. Also, Maine and Nevada have enacted laws that set goals—as opposed to requirements—for 100 percent clean energy.

The 100 Percent Club

The Virginia law establishes a 2050 deadline for a zero-carbon electricity grid and powerful renewable energy portfolio standards for electric utilities. 

Dominion Energy must be carbon-free by 2045, and Appalachian Power has a 2050 deadline. With a few exceptions, the law also requires “all coal-fired electric generating units operating in the Commonwealth” to be retired by Dec. 31, 2024.

As part of the law, Virginia last year joined the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a market-based cap-and-trade system for greenhouse gases, known as RGGI.

The law also calls on Virginia to develop 5,200 megawatts of offshore wind power by 2034, more than double the previous target. And it increases caps that were limiting the growth of rooftop solar and allows for new financing methods for customers who want such systems.

Energy conservation also received a boost with requirements that big utilities meet new targets by 2025 for helping customers find ways to use less electricity. There are also utility targets to develop 3.1 gigawatts of energy storage by 2035.

The transition is already under way, said William Shobe, director of the UVA Center for Economic and Policy Studies and a professor of public policy. 

In late October, Siemens Gamesa of Spain, a manufacturer of wind turbines, announced plans to create up to 310 jobs in the Hampton Roads region as part of the ramp-up to building what could be the largest offshore wind farm in the United States. The plant will produce turbine blades for supplying offshore wind projects throughout North America.

It’s not a given that the state will develop all the wind energy called for in the clean economy act, Shobe said, adding that offshore wind energy is more expensive than solar. But, he said, the offshore wind development has some political winds of its own behind it.

“There’s a sense” that wind energy will “have economic development benefits in that region,” he said.

More broadly, he said the future belongs to renewable energy, particularly solar, because of its economics.

“Suppose we decide to get rid of the renewable portfolio standards and get rid of RGGI,” Shobe said. “If we are going to build more generation right now, we are going to build solar. That will be done whether we have the clean economic act or not.”

‘Energy Policy is a Bipartisan Issue’

Youngkin is a Republican businessman who is getting credit for navigating a tricky path to victory—wooing moderates while securing Republican base voters who remain loyal to former President Trump. By defeating former Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe—the former fundraiser for the Clintons’ presidential campaigns—Youngkin will become the first Republican Virginia governor since 2009. The state has voted for Democratic presidential candidates since 2008.

During a debate in September, Youngkin was asked whether he would have signed into law the clean economy bill.

“No, sir, I wouldn’t have,” he said. “I believe that, in fact, we can tackle bringing down emissions in Virginia without putting forth a plan that not even executives at the utilities believe is doable.”

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He said the law “puts our entire energy grid at risk. All in play for some political purpose. I believe in all energy sources, we can use wind and solar, but we need to preserve our clean natural gas and we can, in fact, have a reliable energy grid.”

McAuliffe supported the law and promised to speed up its clean energy deadlines.

“We supported the final version of the Virginia Clean Economy Act,” said Rayhan Daudani, manager of media relations for Dominion. “We remain supportive of legislation that provides clean, affordable and reliable energy to our customers.”

In an apparent nod to the election results, however, Daudani elaborated that “our view is that energy policy is a bipartisan issue.”

He said the company was “focused on continuing to provide customers reliable, affordable and clean energy,” while “transforming the state’s electrical grid with clean energy and that doing so is creating thousands of green jobs.”

“The Virginia Clean Economy Act requires Appalachian Power to be carbon-free by 2050,” said Teresa Hamilton Hall, a spokesman for Appalachian Power in a written statement. “We will continue to abide by the law.”