Last week, 40 drivers traveling on the George Washington Parkway had to be rescued near National Airport when a flash flood brought water up to their car doors. This week, Northern Virginia experienced a tornado, more flash flooding and road closures, more rescues and more power outages.
Extreme weather events like these are among the effects climate scientists were warning about in 2007, when Fairfax County adopted the Cool Counties Climate Stabilization Declaration. The County committed to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 20% below its 2005 baseline by 2020 and by 80% by 2050.
So how is the County doing with that? Not so good.
Last week, more than 10 years after its Cool Counties Declaration, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors finally adopted what it called an Operational Energy Strategy for its own facilities, vehicles, and other operations with specific—but astonishingly weak—targets and deadlines for action. Supervisors who voted for the plan called it “a step forward” or “a baseline.” (Watch the video here; discussion begins at 1:29:22.)
Local activists were less kind. “It may not be fiddling while Rome burns, but it comes close,” wrote the co-founder of Faith Alliance for Climate Solutions (FACS) Scott Peterson in a Washington Post op-ed.
To their credit, Supervisors John Foust (Dranesville District) and Dan Storck (Mt. Vernon District) urged their colleagues to adopt stronger measures. “We are out of the mainstream on renewable energy,” Foust told his colleagues.
“Do we really believe this effort is proportional to the challenges or the opportunities?” asked Storck. “The waters are rising, and they are rising in the Mt. Vernon District.”
The Board’s action is yet another disappointment for Fairfax residents interested in aggressive action to combat climate change and to reduce the county’s long-term energy costs. The Sierra Club, FACS and others have tried for years to get Fairfax County to live up to the commitment it made in 2007. (In those days I was part of a citizen’s group that offered advice to the County on ways to implement energy savings. Our suggestions were ignored, and in 2009 the County disbanded our group.)
The County Board is dominated by Democrats who say they care about climate change, but even meeting the County’s obligations as a member of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (MWCOG) seems to lie beyond their ambitions. A chart prepared by the Sierra Club comparing Fairfax County’s climate and energy goals for its local operations to those of MWCOG and other local jurisdictions makes the County’s shortcomings clear. The most striking example: MWCOG says its members should meet 20% of their electricity needs with renewable energy by 2020. Fairfax County’s plan for renewable energy begins and ends with a single solar facility on one warehouse in Springfield.
Moreover, in sharp contrast to D.C., Arlington, and Montgomery County, Fairfax County has not implemented a community energy and climate action plan to address the 97% of GHG emissions contributed by the private sector. In fact, the county has not even begun to develop such an action plan. The recommendations of a 2012 Private Sector Energy Task Force, initiated by the Board Chair, have languished.
Fairfax County’s inaction is as puzzling as it is disappointing. With a population of over 1.1 million, Fairfax is Virginia’s largest county as well as the second-richest county in the nation, after neighboring Loudoun. One in seven Virginians lives in Fairfax. We’ve got 414,000 homes and 116,000 businesses, including a strong tech sector that increasingly demands renewable energy—not least of all because it can save them money.
Nor is Fairfax held back by politics. The county has steadily grown more Democratic in elections. In 2017, Democrat Ralph Northam beat his Republican challenger by a whopping 36 points.
So what would it take to move Fairfax County from left-behind to leader? Advocates agree the County needs to make three big changes: commit to serious targets for renewable energy and energy efficiency in county operations; actively assist residents and businesses to save energy and go solar; and become an advocate for stronger state policies, including removing barriers to customer-sited solar.
A ten-point action plan might look like this:
1). Ensure that County staff provides a thorough one-year review of the approach, cost savings, and GHG reductions under the County Operations Energy Strategy, including the consideration of options necessary to meet the goals of the MWCOG Climate and Energy Action Plan for 2017 to 2020.
2). Expedite the proposed Request for Proposals for Solar Purchase Power Agreements (PPA) announced on July 11th(but curiously not included in the Energy Strategy). By late 2018, the County should finalize a PPA contract to facilitate the installation of on-site solar on county buildings. By drafting the RFP and contract to allow the Fairfax County Public Schools and other localities to ride the contract, Fairfax County government could jumpstart solar development and jobs in Northern Virginia.
3). Participate in a September 7 workshop at the County Government Center on budget-neutral clean energy funding alternatives (e.g., Energy Savings Performance Contracts, Solar Power Purchase Agreements, public-private partnerships). This workshop will provide an improved understanding of the opportunities provided by these funding alternatives to support more aggressive energy and climate goals while limiting impacts on county real estate taxes. FCPS has achieved several million dollars in energy savings using ESPCs to obtain GHG reductions and can serve as a model of success.
4). Complete its ongoing Commercial Property Assessed Clean Energy (C-PACE) initiative by enacting an ordinance necessary to support a C-PACE Program and by implementing the program by late 2019. This action will provide critical financing to supercharge the inclusion of energy efficiency and renewable energy measures in eligible buildings, thereby supporting the County’s goals to repurpose and revitalize underutilized buildings.
5). Develop and implement a County-wide Energy and Climate Action Plan to address GHG emissions from residents and businesses.
6). Develop and implement an action plan to increase county resiliency in order to prepare for the impacts of climate change and help reduce the impact and costs of extreme weather events.
7). Meet all obligations under Cool Counties and the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments Climate Plan.
8). Support county staff by increasing staffing levels for energy and climate functions and by establishing a dedicated Energy Office reporting directly to the County Executive. Without an effective organizational structure and adequate resources, implementation of key recommendations is highly uncertain and the county is unlikely to maximize energy cost savings or meet its own climate goals.
9). Engage in strong advocacy with the General Assembly and the Governor to promote the enactment of legislation removing barriers to customer-sited solar. This legislation has already been endorsed by the county’s Environmental Quality Advisory Committee. Removing these barriers would allow the County to pursue the installation of a major solar array on the Lorton Landfill.
10). Work with the Virginia Association of Counties to enlist its support for legislation to remove barriers to on-site solar.
Given its size and resources, Fairfax County can’t continue to sit back and wait for others to do the hard work. Climate change has reached us. To paraphrase Supervisor Storck, the waters are rising, and they are rising here.