Inside Clean Energy: With a Pen Stroke, New Law Launches Virginia Into Landmark Clean Energy Transition

One lawmaker compared the passage of the statute, which requires the state to move to 100 percent carbon-free energy, to landing on the moon.

Apr 16, 2020
Virginia State Capitol. Credit:  Zach Gibson/Getty Images

Virginia is the latest state to make a committment to clean energy, after Gov. Ralph Northam signed a bill requiring the state to achieve 100 percent clean energy by 2045. Credit: Zach Gibson/Getty Images

Inside Clean Energy

During the months that Virginia state Sen. Jennifer McClellan worked to pass a groundbreaking clean energy law, she liked to say that the process was like trying to land a plane that was on fire.

Then, when it passed, she found a new metaphor: It was like landing on the moon.

"I literally wanted to jump up and say, 'The eagle has landed,'" she said.

 

The bill, which Gov. Ralph Northam signed on Sunday, makes Virginia the latest state to require a transition to 100 percent carbon-free or renewable energy, and the first in the South. This club now includes five other states—California, Hawaii, New Mexico, New York and Washington—plus Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C.

Also, Maine and Nevada have enacted laws that set goals—as opposed to requirements—for 100 percent clean energy.

(A note on terminology: Renewable energy means wind and solar and other renewable sources. Carbon-free energy includes nuclear plus renewable sources. "Clean energy" doesn't have a clear definition, but people often use it interchangeably with "carbon-free.")

The '100 Percent' Club

The Virginia law was made possible after Democrats gained control of the Virginia House of Delegates and Senate in last November's elections, to go along with the party's existing control of the governor's office.

McClellan was a lead sponsor of the measure, which says the state must end the use of fossil fuels in the electricity system, by 2045 for large utilities and by 2050 for other electricity producers.

This transition begins with a moratorium on new fossil fuel power plants that begins now and will last until 2022, at which time the legislature could extend it. This is a big shift for a state that got 61 percent of its electricity from natural gas last year, plus 3 percent from coal. Nuclear is the other major source with 31 percent, and all renewables are in the low single digits.

While closing the door to fossil fuels, the law sets the parameters for big expansion of renewable power. It says Virginia must develop 5,200 megawatts of offshore wind power by 2034, more than double the previous target. The law also increases caps that otherwise were limiting the growth of rooftop solar and allows for new financing methods for customers who want rooftop solar.

Energy conservation gets a big boost with requirements that big utilities meet new targets by 2025 for helping customers find ways to use less electricity.

Virginia's Path to Carbon-Free Electricity

The law will have a transformative effect on Dominion Energy, the Virginia-based utility that serves a majority of the state's customers.

Rather than oppose the bill, Dominion engaged in the process and helped to shape the measure in a way that gives the company an opportunity to grow by building and owning renewable energy projects.

McClellan said the bill was able to pass because its supporters built a coalition of clean energy businesses and environmentalists. One of the central players was Advanced Energy Economy, a trade group for clean energy companies that acted as a bridge to the broader business community, she said.

The coalition worked with lawmakers to come up with a bill that could get enough support to pass. It was the culmination of work McClellan had been doing since she was first elected to the legislature in 2006.

"The real lesson is patience and persistence," she said. "You may not get what you want the first time, but you keep at it, you keep at it, you keep building that coalition."

What May Be the Next Southern State to Require 100 Percent Clean Energy?

As recently as two years ago, it was unthinkable that Virginia would set a timetable to eliminate fossil fuels from its electricity system.

But considering how fast states and utilities are moving to embrace clean energy, it is now plausible that other Southern states might soon follow Virginia's lead.

I asked Will Cleveland, a senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, what states might be next.

Maintenance workers on a solar farm. Credit: Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

States are quickly moving toward renewable energy to replace fossil fuel energy sources. Credit: Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

At the top of his list is North Carolina, if Democrats can pick up enough seats in the November election to gain control of the state House and Senate and if Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, is re-elected.

I want to be careful when talking about the partisan differences. Some Republicans, in North Carolina and other states, support legislation that would accelerate the transition to clean energy. But these plans so far have not gained traction in any state under Republican control.

North Carolina's largest utility is Duke Energy, which has announced a corporate plan to get to net-zero emissions by 2050. Cleveland said he sees this as a sign that the company may be willing to work on a state plan the way Dominion did in Virginia. North Carolina also is a leading solar power state, ranking second in the country in installed solar.

After North Carolina, the next candidate would be South Carolina, Cleveland said. This assumes that North Carolina would go first and that South Carolina would have evidence from the other states of how a clean energy plan can help the economy. The two biggest utilities in South Carolina are subsidiaries of Duke and Dominion.

"If Dominion and Duke in South Carolina were to decide that clean energy was the future of growth for their business ... it creates more potential," Cleveland said. "It's no longer just these fringe environmentalists, but the business interests as well."

But the most important part of all this is that Virginia is leading the way.

"It's massive," he said.

The rest of the South is very challenging territory for clean energy advocates who want to pass far-reaching legislation. To underscore this, eight of the dozen or so states that have no renewable energy requirements are in the South. The exceptions in the region are—you guessed it—Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina.

Coronavirus Will Hit EV Sales. Here's a Forecast of How Much.

We're getting a better idea of how coronavirus is affecting demand for electric vehicles, and this is bad news for anyone who hopes for progress on EVs this year.

Wood Mackenzie said last week that it projects global EV sales to decrease by 43 percent in 2020 compared to 2019, with a forecast of 1.3 million cars and trucks sold.

Sales in the United States would be down by about 50 percent, with a forecast of 166,500 units sold.

"Most new EV buyers are still first-time owners of the technology," said Ram Chandrasekaran, a Wood Mackenzie analyst, in a statement. "The uncertainty and fear created by the outbreak has made consumers less inclined to adopt a new technology."

Sales of electric vehicles are expected to drop in 2020 amid the coronavirus pandemic. Credit: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Sales of electric vehicles are expected to drop in 2020 amid the coronavirus pandemic. Credit: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

China, the world's leading market, will return to the sales pace of 2019 by about November, while the United States will be behind last year's sales pace for the rest of this year, the report says.

One of the leading drivers of EV sales is businesses buying the vehicles for their fleets. The economic disruption caused by the virus means businesses are less able to make these purchases.

This doesn't mean the surge we expected in EV sales is going away. It's just delayed into 2021.

"The shift towards sustainability is the driving force behind the electrification of transport. Uncertainty caused by the oil price war and global catastrophes will only serve to strengthen that resolve, not deter it," Chandrasekaran said.

An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified when Democrats gained control of the state Senate. It was in the 2019 election.

Inside Clean Energy is ICN's weekly bulletin of news and analysis about the energy transition. Send news tips and questions to dan.gearino@insideclimatenews.org.

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