The latest session of the Virginia state legislature ended with a flurry of activity on renewable energy, climate change, and grid renewal, including a 100% renewable energy target, one of the most ambitious energy storage targets in the United States, a carbon cap-and-trade program compatible with the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), and a bill aimed at putting ratepayers first as mammoth utility Dominion Energy moves to shut down high-emitting coal- and gas-fired power plants.
The action comes just a month after Dominion announced its own 2050 deadline to hit net-zero emissions.
The Virginia Clean Energy Act, with its push for 100% renewables by 2050, 2.4 gigawatts of storage by 2035, and 5.2 GW of new offshore wind capacity by 2034, was originally adopted by narrow votes in the state House and Senate in February, then finalized and sent to Governor Ralph Northam’s desk last week, Utility Dive reports. It codifies a clean energy goal that Northam first issued as an executive order last September.
“Other provisions of the legislation give regulators additional powers to block the construction of new power plants that emit carbon dioxide, a potentially significant change for a state that has attracted criticism for an alleged glut of natural gas-fired power plant construction in recent years,” the industry newsletter states. The close votes last month—52-47 in the House, 21-19 in the Senate—“reflected a regional split,” with “Republicans who represent rural parts of Virginia claiming the bill would increase costs for ratepayers. Costs related to the RGGI program have been particularly controversial.”
Last month, Food & Water Watch Southern Region Director Jorge Aguilar called the legislation a “weak foundation for renewable energy transformation,” on the basis that it “mostly mirrors what utilities have already committed to.” But Environment Virginia said it “incorporates best-practice policies with data-driven roadmaps that will put Virginia on an aggressive but practical path to curb emissions while protecting ratepayers.”
Ratepayer protection was also on state legislators’ minds when both the House and Senate opted to give state regulators more control over Dominion’s cost recovery calculations for fossil plant closures, despite fierce objections from the utility. “The bill would require the Virginia State Corporation Commission to determine the length of time that a utility can recover ‘any appropriate costs’ from retiring coal and gas generation early,” Utility Dive states. “The measure undoes a former provision that gave Dominion the flexibility to skirt refunds” on those shutdowns.
The legislation is being interpreted as “a key example of the Democrat-led legislature standing up to Dominion, despite nearly a decade of successful lobbying from the utility,” the news story adds. “However, Dominion saw many wins as the legislative session winds down, including the advancement of bills that would guarantee utility cost recovery of offshore wind development.”