Governor McAuliffe gets his chance on energy and climate

 

Virginia Sierra Club activists Tom Ellis and Ann Moore. Photo by Ivy Main

Virginia Sierra Club activists Tom Ellis and Ann Moore. Photo by Ivy Main

2014 is shaping up to be an exceedingly interesting year for energy policy in Virginia. The rewrite of the Virginia Energy Plan, the re-establishment of the Governor’s Climate Commission, and EPA’s just-proposed carbon rule create three separate pathways that will either intersect to form a coherent and coordinated state policy, or will take us into a chaotic tangle of competing agendas.

Add in the myopia of the State Corporation Commission and the control of the General Assembly by utility and coal interests, and we’ve got an unpredictable plotline here. All you energy watchers are going to want to stock up on popcorn for this show. Or better yet, become a player—read on to find out how.

First there’s the energy plan. Virginia law requires a new iteration every four years, with this year’s due October 1. To help with the work, Governor McAuliffe appointed the Virginia Energy Council two weeks ago. The Council consists primarily of energy industry members, with only one environmental representative and no consumer advocates. (Although come to think of it, that might be because Virginia doesn’t have any consumer advocates. But still.)

The Council will be working with the staff of the Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy, which has already begun holding “listening sessions” and accepting comments to get input from the public. The next one will be held tonight, June 17, in Annandale, Virginia. Get there early and sign up for a speaking slot. Other locations include South Boston on June 19, Abingdon on June 24, Norfolk on June 26, and Harrisonburg on July 1.

The existing energy plan, created under Governor McDonnell, is the sort of “all of the above” hodgepodge that you’d expect from a process where you bring in a bunch of energy company executives and say, “Have at it!” I’d be concerned that the same fate awaits the new one, but for a couple of new factors: the reboot of the Governor’s Commission on Climate Change and the looming threat of EPA’s carbon rule. (Making this the first time ever that I’ve welcomed anything I called a looming threat.)

The Climate Commission was supposed to have launched by now, and if it had, I might have been able to say something definite about how it will interact with the Energy Council. Unfortunately, Governor McAuliffe got a little sidetracked by something you may have heard about: the political chaos that ensued when a certain Democratic senator resigned his seat and threw the Senate into Republican hands under suspect circumstances in the middle of a battle over the Governor’s signature initiative.

(In fairness. the senator’s backers insist he acted only out of the purest self-interest and not because he’d been bribed, there being a legal difference. Still, from now on anyone who screws over a large number of friends at once will be said to have “Pucketted” them.)

As you may remember, Governor Kaine established the first Governor’s Commission on Climate Change back in 2007 to study the effects of global warming on Virginia and to make recommendations on what to do about it. The commission issued a well-thought-out report replete with excellent suggestions. The report was put on a shelf and admired for a while, until Governor McDonnell found out about it. He acted swiftly, taking down the Commission’s web page lest anyone think he believed in rising sea levels and flooding and predictions about the dire consequences of global warming—you know, the sort of thing you can actually see going on now in Hampton Roads, the second-largest metropolitan area in Virginia.

Governor McAuliffe, on the other hand, not only “believes in” climate change and the risks it poses to Virginia, but also believes there are huge job and growth opportunities to be had by taking action in response. He has made it clear he does not want his commission to start from scratch, but rather to pick up where the Kaine commission left off.

McAuliffe’s Energy Plan must also take account of carbon emissions in a way the McDonnell plan never tried to. On June 2, EPA issued a proposed rule to address carbon pollution from existing electric generating plants, intended to reduce overall emissions nationwide by 30% by 2030. Although the rule won’t be final for a year, and states will then have as long as two years to implement it, and there will be lawsuits trying to block it from ever being implemented—still it means no one can ignore carbon now.

If you want to weigh in on the carbon rule, EPA will be holding hearings around the country, including in Washington, DC on July 30, or you can email your comments.

The proposed rule is not simple. Each state has been given a carbon budget for all its electric generating plants combined, expressed in pounds per megawatt-hour, and arrived at by some still-rather-opaque notion of what a given state is capable of. The cleanest states are thought to have policies in place to get even cleaner, so their targets are more ambitious than those of the dirtiest states. The dirty, coal-intensive states, having done so little to clean up in the past, are thought incapable of making a whole lot of progress now, and so are rewarded by being graded on a curve. Interestingly, it is not the clean states crying foul, but the dirty ones.

Virginia’s carbon target falls in the middle, but achieving it will require improvements of 37.5% over 2012 levels. This sounds harder than it is, given that we have several natural gas plants under construction that will presumably count towards lowered emissions as they dilute the coal in the state’s power mix. EPA also assumes that existing plants can operate at higher efficiencies that will reduce emissions per unit of energy produced.

The carbon rule also contains what seems to be a freebie of 6% of existing nuclear power, a provision intended to encourage the continued operation of nuclear plants that still have time remaining on their licenses but are no longer economic. In Virginia’s regulated market, our nuclear plants don’t have to compete on the open market and so aren’t in danger of being shut down for economic reasons, but apparently we get the freebie anyway.

Beyond that, however, the carbon rule will clearly put a thumb on the scale in favor of energy efficiency and carbon-free power sources. The EPA is right to think we have plenty of those to call on. A few years ago, ACEEE released a study showing Virginia could readily achieve energy efficiency savings of almost 20% cost-effectively, and much more if we really rolled up our sleeves. Since then, the few utility programs that have addressed energy efficiency have barely moved the needle. This means the low-hanging fruit still clings there, only now it’s really, really ripe.

Add in offshore wind (which can provide about 10% of state energy needs just from the initial lease area that Dominion Power bought rights to), some land-based wind (a few more percentage points) and solar energy (estimated to be able to produce 18-25% of our demand), and we know we can blow right through the EPA target.

As we also know, though, Dominion CEO Tom Farrell has his heart set on a new nuclear plant, which would suck up all the money that might otherwise go to renewables and dampen the utility’s interest in efficiency. Given nuclear’s high cost, the need for taxpayer and ratepayer subsidies, and the public safety risks involved, the free market isn’t on his side. But with captive ratepayers and the legislature on the company payroll, Farrell’s dream remains a possibility in Virginia.

As I say, it’s going to be an interesting year.

 

 

 

One thought on “Governor McAuliffe gets his chance on energy and climate

  1. Too many things are going on that might make one think that Virginia is trying to become a caricature: Tea party candidates knocking off the House Majority Leader in a statewide primary, Dominion-controlled state legislators, a belief (so I hear) that coal should be considered a renewable resource, and so on. The next big thing will probably involve Liberty University.

    Thanks for the updates

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