The hydrogen gold rush is on. Spurred by the urgency of the climate crisis, and attracted by generous incentives in last year’s Inflation Reduction Act, companies ranging from oil majors to small start-ups are pouring money into the Next Big Thing in energy: a fuel that is flexible, transportable and carbon-free.
Is hydrogen a critical piece of the decarbonization puzzle that needs floods of new funding, or an over-hyped, not-ready-for-prime-time financial boondoggle?
At this point the answer seems to be both.
In his 2022 Energy Plan, Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin touted hydrogen as “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reimagine Virginia’s future and meet energy needs through an abundant, dispatchable, and zero-emission fuel source where water is the only required input.”
This statement has its problems, including the fact that water is actually not the only required input. Making hydrogen from water requires a lot of energy, which must come from some other fuel. Therein lies the rub.
One way to make hydrogen — and the method everyone is talking about — is using electricity to split water (H2O) into its components, hydrogen and oxygen, through electrolysis. Energy is lost in the process, so there is no point in using hydrogen for anything that can plug into the grid. Hydrogen is also more expensive and less efficient than battery storage, which explains why automakers are focusing on electric vehicles rather than ones that run on hydrogen fuel cells.
Yet some kinds of transportation (aviation, long-haul trucking) and many industrial processes are hard or impossible to electrify, at least for now. Hydrogen, ammonia and other products can often replace fossil fuels for these uses, and perhaps also play a role in long-term energy storage for grid power.
Recognizing this potential, last year’s Inflation Reduction Act included a range of incentives to spur investment in so-called green hydrogen, defined as hydrogen made from renewable energy. Growing the supply of green hydrogen will require a massive buildout of wind and solar as well as years of technological refinement, but airlines, steelmakers and other customers are already either starting to use green hydrogen or say they want it for their operations.
Unfortunately, any time the government dangles a subsidy, some businesses will look to exploit any opening to grab free money, even if the result is contrary to the whole point of the subsidy. Those businesses do find champions among politicians who are more interested in generating economic activity than in making sound public policy (or maybe they just confuse the two). But getting the rules right is critical for the climate, and for making sure customers get the carbon-free product they sign up for.
Hydrogen is already used in many industrial processes and in the manufacture of fertilizers but today it is mostly made from methane gas, at half the cost of green hydrogen. Oil companies like Chevron have urged that to build the market quickly, making hydrogen green is “secondary” to making it affordable.
This is all wrong. The great promise of hydrogen is the potential to make it from renewable energy once wind and solar have scaled up so much that there is a glut of cheap, emissions-free power.
That is not the situation today. Nationally, fossil fuels make up 60% of electricity generation, with all renewables together representing 21.5%. The regional grid that serves Virginia includes less than 10% wind and solar in the generation mix. Renewables are growing fast while coal shrinks, but few states have so much renewable energy that some of it occasionally goes to waste. California has experienced this under ideal conditions, and is likely to be the first to have surplus renewable energy on a predictable basis.
The challenge is that a company that invests in the capital costs of a hydrogen production facility may not want to run it only when there is surplus wind and solar. These companies will make the most money by running their electrolyzers around the clock; profitability might even depend on it. Their choices are to build new renewable energy and battery storage for their own purposes and cut back production when they have to, or manipulate the rules.
So as the U.S. Treasury Department writes the rules around eligibility for green hydrogen incentives, corporate America is asking for loopholes. NextEra, the world’s largest renewable power generator, wants to be allowedto use fossil fuels to fill in whenever there isn’t enough wind or solar energy on the grid, without losing the “green” designation and all the subsidies that accompany it. The company proposes buying carbon credits as an offset.
The proposal makes climate advocates very uneasy. We have seen this movie before. When the federal government first offered subsidies for ethanol made from corn in the 1970s, the idea was that blending American-made ethanol into gasoline would reduce our dependence on foreign oil and lower greenhouse gas emissions.
Forty years later, the program still consumes some 30 million acres of corn every year, and is estimated to have cost taxpayers billions of dollars, all while actually harming the climate. But just try scaling back ethanol subsidies today. Any politician who proposes such a thing gets their head handed to them by the powerful farm lobby.
That makes it really important that rules set into place today for hydrogen and other “green” fuels do not compromise on the requirement that they be made from carbon-free sources. Make an exception once, and we’ll never close the loophole.
This article was originally published in the Virginia Mercury on April 25, 2023.
At the heart of the political fight over Virginia’s participation in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) is a seemingly simple question: does a requirement that Virginia power plants pay for the right to spew CO2 actually lower CO2 emissions? Critics argue no; supporters say yes. There is evidence for both, but in the long run, the benefits of RGGI for both Virginia and the climate are clear.
RGGI operates as a carbon cap-and-trade agreement between 12 northeastern states. Carbon-emitting power plants must buy allowances through an auction process. This makes high-carbon fossil fuel electricity more expensive relative to zero-carbon sources like wind, solar and nuclear. The result, in theory, is that utilities are incentivized to buy less of the former and more of the latter. In states like Virginia, where utilities own generating plants, RGGI provides an incentive for them to abandon coal plants and build more zero-carbon sources.
RGGI administrators say it has succeeded in lowering carbon emissions in member states by more than 50%, twice as fast as the nation as a whole. RGGI states typically spend at least some of the money raised in the carbon allowance auctions on energy efficiency improvements that allow people to use less electricity, further reducing emissions.
But RGGI doesn’t operate in isolation. Several RGGI states are members of the PJM regional grid, comprising 13 states, including some that don’t participate in RGGI. Critics point out that, instead of building or buying renewable energy, a utility in a RGGI state can buy electricity produced in a state that doesn’t participate in RGGI. Fossil fuel plants in a non-RGGI state like West Virginia don’t have to pay to pollute, giving them a competitive edge over similar Virginia plants.
This is known as “leakage,” a loophole that lets fossil fuel energy “leak” into RGGI states. If there were enough leakage, lower carbon emissions in RGGI could be offset by the higher emissions elsewhere in PJM, leaving overall emissions unchanged.
Stephen Haner, a respected advocate for low energy rates at the conservative Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy, says this is what’s happening in Virginia. He cites data to show a big jump in electricity imports from 2020 to 2022. According to this calculation, CO2 emissions actually increased under RGGI, when they were supposed to be decreasing.
But there are problems with this analysis, starting with the fact that Virginia entered RGGI in 2020, at the onset of the pandemic. That year saw energy demand — and emissions — plummet. It would be strange indeed if Virginia emissions did not rise when the economy rebounded.
Energy demand is also increasing in Virginia due to the boom in data center construction. Data centers are huge energy hogs, and they are being built faster than our utilities can build new electricity generation to serve them. The new generation will be zero-emission solar and, soon, offshore wind; meanwhile the electricity has to be imported from elsewhere in PJM.
Bill Shobe, an economist with the Weldon Cooper Center at the University of Virginia who has done extensive work in support of Virginia’s energy transition, told me in an email there are other reasons to be skeptical of the conclusion that RGGI caused Virginia’s carbon emissions to increase. I’ll spare you the weedy details, but among other things, Virginia’s nuclear production decreased significantly from 2020 to 2021, which has nothing to do with RGGI. And as Shobe notes, the data centers would get built somewhere, if not here, so perhaps they should not be counted against us.
I am not as forgiving of data centers as Shobe is. Tech companies have chosen Virginia for its fiber optic network and generous tax incentives, and they point to Virginia’s climate laws as progress in meeting their own sustainability commitments. Data centers are taking our money and busting our carbon cap; they owe it to us to procure their own renewable energy, if not in Virginia, then within PJM.
Data centers notwithstanding, Shobe’s own calculations show leakage to be much less than Haner’s data suggests. “It is abundantly clear that emission leakage is relatively modest,” he told me. “In the end, the other advantages of RGGI (lowering compliance costs, revenue for efficiency and flood resilience, etc.) will swamp the small leakage margin.”
For RGGI critics like Haner and Gov. Glenn Youngkin, of course, effects on CO2 emissions are really beside the point anyway. They would gladly accept higher emissions if it meant lower rates.
This is analogous to what happens when American manufacturers move operations to countries with cheaper labor and lax environmental laws. One way to stem the tide would be to lower our own environmental standards and suppress wages in the U.S., removing the incentive to offshore operations by making life equally miserable everywhere.
The better alternative is to raise the bar everywhere so that everyone benefits. That’s not just the right thing to do; it actually works. In the international arena, American leadership on clean energy investment is already forcing other countries to discuss upping their game. Here in the U.S., RGGI has attracted new member states — like Virginia — and prompted discussions within PJM about creating a region-wide clean energy market.
Of course, Virginia alone doesn’t have the market power to force other states to change. Fortunately for us and for the climate, leakage will become less of an issue over time as renewable energy outcompetes fossil fuel power everywhere. PJM’s carbon emissions have trended steadily lower, first as methane displaced coal, and more recently as renewable energy displaces all fossil fuels. That displacement will accelerate with federal clean energy incentives in place and innovation continuing to drive renewable energy costs lower.
Meanwhile, Virginia crafted its energy transition framework with an eye for ensuring our economy gains, no matter what other states do. As Shobe noted, lowering carbon emissions is just one benefit of RGGI membership; carbon auctions fund energy efficiency and flood control projects here, and the switch away from high-emission coal plants means our residents breathe cleaner air.
Our RGGI law is also part of a larger package designed to create jobs and economic development here at home. The Virginia Clean Economy Act provides for utilities to procure electricity from solar and wind generating facilities and battery storage located in Virginia, which will reduce leakage over time. It also requires an increasing percentage of Dominion and Appalachian Power’s electricity to come from renewable energy. After 2025, most of that must come from in-state facilities.
As I’ve shown before, building low-cost wind and solar helps to lower rates and provides price stability when fossil fuel costs spike. Virginia’s energy transition is just getting underway, but it will deliver benefits for years to come.
This article was originally published in the Virginia Mercury on March 29, 2023.
When the Virginia General Assembly convenes this week for the 2023 session, Republicans will once again try to undo the commonwealth’s framework for a transition to renewable energy. Led by Gov. Glenn Youngkin, they will attack Virginia’s participation in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative and the Virginia Clean Economy Act (VCEA) and continue seeking ways to keep a money-losing coal plant in Wise County in operation.
Meanwhile, Virginia’s largest utility has already decided that renewable energy, especially solar, is the future. Dominion Energy’s just-released Climate Report 2022 projects that under every set of assumptions modeled, solar energy will become the mainstay of its electricity generation fleet no later than 2040.
As for coal, it disappears from the energy mix by 2030 even in a scenario that assumes no change from present policy, in spite of the fact that the VCEA allows the Wise County coal plant to operate until 2045. As for fracked gas, it hangs on longer but in ever-smaller amounts, mostly to help meet winter peak demand.
Dominion modeled three scenarios for this report. The “current policy” scenario assumes the policy landscape and technology options stay the same as they are presently, and that Dominion does its part in driving a global temperature increase of 2.1°C by 2050. That’s in keeping with Virginia’s climate law, and also with Dominion’s internal commitment to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050.
That much warming is not a good outcome, considering the climate chaos the planet is experiencing today with barely over 1 degree of warming. Yet even under a 2.1°C scenario, Dominion’s model predicts solar energy will provide 40% of the electricity supply by 2040, followed by nuclear at 30% and (offshore) wind at 19%.
The “emerging technologies” scenario also assumes a temperature increase of 2.1°C by 2050, but adjusts for the likelihood that technological change will lead to “advanced dispatchable zero-carbon technology” options that could displace much of the need for energy storage. These might include hydrogen, carbon sequestration and storage, and methane gas produced as the result of poor animal waste disposal practices at factory farms — what Dominion calls renewable natural gas, or RNG.
Small modular reactors, SMRs, are not included in this scenario (and are hardly mentioned at all in the report), perhaps because operating them as peaker plants would be crazy expensive. Even without SMRs, though, the report says overall cost savings would be slight for this scenario, and solar would still be the leading source of electricity by 2040.
Finally, the report models an “accelerated transition” scenario that reduces emissions more aggressively, in line with an effort to keep the global temperature increase to 1.5°C by 2050. This is the upper bound of warming considered tolerable by many climate scientists, but it would require Dominion’s electricity business to reach net zero by 2035. Dominion’s model shows solar would make up nearly two-thirds of the electric supply in that scenario. Offshore wind would be held to just 17%, apparently because at that point more wouldn’t be needed.
I’d argue that offshore wind should carry more of the load to create a more balanced portfolio, but it’s a moot point: The report writers clearly think this scenario is just a thought exercise. The scenario consistent with keeping global warming to 1.5°C is described in a way that seems intended to discourage anyone from pursuing the matter.
“The heavier reliance on renewable capacity in this scenario,” it warns, “would require significantly greater capital investment at a much more rapid pace in preparation for a net zero mix by 2035. … Achieving such a rapid pace of emissions reductions would require predictable, dependable, and rapid wholesale shifts in public policy and technology advancements capable of maintaining system reliability and customer affordability. Also necessary would be supportive regulatory treatment and timely permitting for significant near-term zero-carbon infrastructure development and transmission system enhancements.”
In other words, the report seems to say, fuggedaboutit. It’s just too hard.
If that feels defeatist, it’s worth remembering how far Dominion has come to reach a point where it is even writing climate reports, not to mention declaring on page 1 that “climate change presents one of the greatest challenges of our time, and we take seriously our leadership role in helping to mitigate it.”
This is new, and you have to look back only a decade to appreciate how radical this declaration is. When 2013 opened, Dominion had just completed construction of that regrettable coal plant in Wise County and had begun a fracked gas plant building spree that would continue even after solar emerged as the cheapest source of new electricity in Virginia. Climate activists like myself were dismissed when we warned that new gas plants would be reduced to giant concrete paperweights well before the end of their design life, leaving ratepayers paying off stranded assets.
Even in 2016, when now-CEO Bob Blue was president of Dominion Virginia Power, Blue was proclaiming natural gas “the new default fuel” for electric generation. As late as the spring of 2020, the company’s integrated resource plan still called for building more gas plants. That plan acknowledged the strategy would violate Virginia’s new climate law, so it argued against the law.
Yet I suspect Blue may deserve credit for the remarkable about-face at Dominion beginning in 2020. That summer Dominion Energy began significantly reducing its investments in fossil gas outside of the electric sector, scrapping plans for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and selling off its gas transmission and storage assets. That year it also sold half of its interest in the Cove Point liquified natural gas export facility. It is reportedly considering selling the other half now as part of what Blue called in November “a ‘top-to-bottom’ business review aimed at ensuring that it is best positioned to generate substantial long-term value for shareholders.”
Maybe Blue got religion on climate, maybe he’s just a savvy businessman. It’s a really good sign of the times that you can’t always tell the difference.
But of course, Dominion is stuck with a heck of a lot of gas generating plants that it has to justify post hoc, which helps to explain its lack of enthusiasm for the 1.5°C scenario. Another part of the explanation lies in Dominion’s remaining gas investments outside the electric sector. Although Dominion Energy Virginia is solely an electric utility and does not supply gas to retail customers in Virginia, a separate Dominion Energy subsidiary sells gas in other states. So far these assets don’t seem to be going the way of the gas transmission business and Cove Point.
Dominion’s climate report tries valiantly to justify holding onto its retail gas business. The report declares, “Natural gas is also part of our long-term vision and consistent with our Net Zero commitment.”
Sure, and the Tooth Fairy is real. Of the greenhouse gas reduction approaches cited — fixing leaks, making “renewable” methane from waste products, blending hydrogen into pipelines, and using creative carbon accounting with “offsets” — none make sense either economically or from a climate standpoint.
Maybe he cares about climate, but apparently Blue doesn’t want to give up yet on a profitable business. Fortunately, at least for the planet, the retail gas business is about to enter a terminal decline as homes and businesses electrify. Getting out now would be the smart move from both the business and climate perspective.
Because what will eventually power all these homes, no matter which scenario you choose? Renewable energy, and especially solar.
This article was originally published in the Virginia Mercury on January 6, 2023.
Governor Glenn Youngkin issued a press release on October 3 presenting what he says is his energy plan. Accompanying the press release was 26 pages labeled “2022 Virginia Energy Plan,” but that can’t be what he’s referring to. I mean, the Virginia Code is pretty specific about what makes up an energy plan, and this isn’t it.
Under Virginia law, the energy plan must identify steps the state will take over the next 10 years consistent with the Commonwealth Clean Energy Policy’s goal of a net-zero carbon economy by 2045 “in all sectors, including the electric power, transportation, industrial, agricultural, building, and infrastructure sectors.” Not only does Youngkin’s document not do that, it doesn’t even mention the policy it’s supposed to implement.
It’s also missing critical pieces. The plan is supposed to include a statewide inventory of greenhouse gas emissions, but it’s nowhere to be found. The inventory is the responsibility of the Department of Environmental Quality, which reports previous inventories on its website from 2005, 2010 and 2018. The one specifically required to be completed by October 1, 2022 isn’t there, nor is there any indication it’s in the works and just unfortunately delayed. Did I miss some fine print about how the requirement doesn’t apply if the governor is a Republican?
In fact, there is no discussion about climate change in Youngkin’s energy plan. The word “climate” appears nowhere. He simply ignores the problem: a modern Nero, fiddling while the planet burns.
Instead, Youngkin’s document mostly attacks the laws Virginia has passed in recent years to implement its decarbonization goals, including the Virginia Clean Economy Act, legislation allowing the state to participate in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative and the Clean Cars law. In their place he offers a bunch of random ideas — some with merit, some without, some spinning off on tangents.
I did not really expect a conservative Republican with presidential aspirations to embrace all the recommendations for the energy plan that I laid out last month, or those from the many environmental, faith and consumer groups that support Virginia’s clean energy transition. Going further and faster down the road to decarbonization is a tall order for politicians beholden to fossil fuel interests, no matter how much it would benefit the public.
Yet Youngkin doesn’t have a lot of ammunition to use against the switch to renewable energy. With soaring coal and natural gas prices, it’s hard to keep pretending that fossil fuels are low-cost. The insistence that we need them for reliability is the only straw left to grasp at.
And indeed, underlying Younkin’s attack on the VCEA is a misunderstanding of how grid operators manage electricity. The critique boils down to “baseload good, intermittent bad.” But baseload is not the point; meeting demand is the point. Demand fluctuates hugely by day and hour. If grid operators had nothing to work with but slow-ramping coal plants or on/off nuclear reactors and no storage, they’d have as much trouble matching demand as if they had nothing but renewable energy and no storage. Pairing low-cost wind and solar with batteries makes them dispatchable — that is, better than baseload.
That’s not to say there aren’t good reasons to invest in higher-cost resources, but “baseload” is a red herring that stinks up Youngkin’s entire argument.
To his credit — and notwithstanding his “baseload” fixation — Youngkin supports Virginia’s move into offshore wind energy even with the high cost of the Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind project and other early U.S. developments. (The plan notes that Virginia’s project will be the largest “in the Free World,” a weirdly retro way to tell us China has leapt far ahead in installing offshore wind.)
The plan also supports removing barriers to customer purchases of solar energy, including shared solar and a greater ability for renewable energy suppliers to compete with utilities for retail sales. This is all phrased as a consumer choice issue rather than an endorsement of greater utility investments in solar; regardless, these would be welcome moves.
It’s also good to see the governor’s endorsement of rate reform. Republicans have been at least as much to blame as Democrats for Dominion Energy’s success in getting laws passed that let it bilk ratepayers. It will be interesting to see if Youngkin actually pursues the reforms he touts.
Less encouraging are Youngkin’s desires to jump into hydrogen (I’m guessing not the green kind, since we hardly have an excess of renewable energy) and, worse, to deploy “the nation’s first” commercial small modular nuclear reactor (SMR) in Southwest Virginia within 10 years.
You know what will happen there, right? Ratepayers will foot the bill, and it will be very expensive.
But unlike offshore wind, SMRs aren’t proven technology; they remain firmly in the research phase. The U.S. Department of Energy is hoping for a demonstration project “this decade.” If successful, the industry believes SMRs will eventually be able to produce electricity at a price that’s only two or three times that of solar and wind energy. Which begs an obvious question: Is there a reason to build SMRs?
Nor has anyone figured out the nagging problem of what to do with the radioactive waste, including the waste piling up at today’s nuclear plants because it’s too dangerous to move and there’s no place to put it. So Youngkin’s plan also “calls for developing spent nuclear fuel recycling technologies that offer the promise of a zero-carbon emission energy system with minimal waste and a closed-loop supply chain.” Great idea! But how about focusing on that first, Governor?
That’s not where Younkin is putting his focus, though. Last week, he proposed spending $10 million on a Virginia Power Innovation Fund, with half of that earmarked for SMR research and development. The announcement said nothing about waste.
Look, I happen to know some earnest climate advocates who believe SMRs are the silver bullet we’ve been waiting for. I follow the research with an open mind while also noting the astonishing advances in renewable energy technology announced almost daily. But the climate crisis is here and now. We can’t afford to press pause on known carbon-free technologies for 10 years in the hope that something even better will pan out.
Investing in research and development of new technologies is an important role for government, but kicking the climate can down the road isn’t an option. Rather than attacking our energy transition, Youngkin would have done more for Virginia by using his plan to build on it.
It was the best of summers, it was the worst of summers. It was the summer the United Nations declared a healthy environment a universal human right, and a summer that shattered heat records across the globe. The U.S. enacted a historic climate bill not long after the Supreme Court struck down the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan. Climate scientists said there was still hope for keeping global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius, while the American West’s worst drought in 1,200 years continued for its 22nd summer.
The struggle to keep climate change from spinning out of control feels nothing short of epic, as if ordinary mortals were powerless observers to a battle between giants that will determine whether and how we survive. Yet if we weren’t collectively doing what modern humans do — burning fossil fuels, clearing land for agriculture, raising and eating billions of animals, driving on the roads we paved, making things in factories, consuming and consuming — there would be no epic struggle. We are the giants.
But being integral to the problem also makes every person integral to where we go from here. Powerlessness is an illusion. Like a murmuration of starlings wheeling through the air in a synchronized but unchoreographed ballet, small choices by individuals cascade across society and shift its direction, unpredictably and sometimes radically.
This is why there remains a case for hope, if not actual optimism, even as climate change accelerates toward climate chaos. Humans, working individually and collectively, have removed the biggest technological barriers to stopping the rise in greenhouse gas emissions. Most of the policy and economic barriers continue to crumble too, especially when it comes to replacing fossil fuels with wind and solar. As a result, our power supply will continue to get cleaner even in states that prefer their air polluted.
Government must still do much more, and many technical challenges still need to be worked out. For the first time, though, a decarbonizing grid finally gives ordinary people a role in determining the continued habitability of our planet, through individual actions that collectively push society in a new direction.
We’ve done this before. Consider the anti-littering campaign of the 1960s that made a once-commonplace behavior unthinkable for millions of Americans. Or take the public response to the ozone hole crisis of the 1970s, when scientists discovered that the chemical aerosols emitted by spray cans were migrating up to the stratosphere and reacting with sunlight to eat away at the Earth’s protective ozone layer. While the federal government dithered, consumers acted. They abandoned aerosols in favor of pump bottles for cleaning products, roll-on deodorants and sprays reformulated to remove the chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) causing the problem. The public response led to government action, culminating in the 1987 Montreal Protocol phasing out CFCs worldwide.
Individual choices change history when people recognize the need to alter their behavior, but only if they have acceptable alternatives that others can copy easily. Once it becomes commonplace, the planet-friendly choice can even feel like the only morally acceptable option. Individuals and even companies want to avoid the stain of public opprobrium — the reason so many corporations today have adopted sustainability goals.
Many threats are too great to leave to voluntary action, or too hard for enough people to understand or act on individually. We needed top-down policies to decarbonize the electric sector; voluntary investments in rooftop solar alone could never do it. We will always need government agencies like the EPA and the Food and Drug Administration to regulate toxins and dangerous products. Simply trying to empower consumers can backfire, as Californians found when a right-to-know law enacted by proposition led to companies labeling pretty much everything as cancer-causing, just to be on the safe side.
But consumer choice will be a key factor in decarbonizing buildings and transportation now that renewable energy is taking over the electric grid. As people learn about the dangers of using natural gas indoors, they will opt instead for high-efficiency heat pumps and electric induction stoves, and builders will respond to changing demand by no longer connecting homes to gas lines. The new Inflation Reduction Act, with its generous rebatesfor home electrification, sped up the timeline for the demise of gas, but consumer preference will be the deciding factor.
Similarly, the IRA’s rebates for electric vehicle purchases will make consumers the killers of Big Oil. The transportation sector makes up the biggest slice of U.S. carbon emissions, and most of that is attributable to personal automobiles. Getting people out of their cars and on to bicycles or mass transit has been frustratingly hard because most of our communities were built around the automobile. The arrival of electric vehicles finally offers such an attractive alternative to the gas guzzler that it’s just a question of when, not if, the internal combustion engine goes the way of the horse-drawn buggy.
The battery technology that makes electric vehicles possible also allows every gasoline-powered tool to be electrified, including lawn mowers, weed-whackers and leaf blowers. Gasoline-powered lawn equipment is astoundingly polluting, in terms of both carbon emissions and smog-creating volatile organic compounds. It’s also so noisy that neighbors will pressure neighbors to switch to electric as the technology gets better and cheaper. California, Washington, D.C. and many localities have banned gas-powered leaf blowers, but consumer preference alone should eventually eliminate the market for them.
Consumer choice could also lower carbon emissions in sectors of the economy that are famously difficult to electrify. Within a few years you may be able to fly on a plane using biofuel or live in a building made with low-emission steel and concrete that sequesters carbon. As we’ve seen with other technologies, though, mass adoption depends on these alternatives being cheaper, better-performing or both. That will take time.
Eating a plant-based diet stands out as the individual action with the greatest climate impact, according to the climate solutions handbook Drawdown. People are beginning to catch on to the meat industry’s outsized impact on climate change, but it’s the second condition — people having alternatives they really like — that keeps the meat industry in business. Veganism is on the rise (led, of all people, by athletes), but meat consumption continues to grow too.
If some visionary thinkers are right, in a few years we will all happily be eating lab-grown meat and healthy plant-based meat substitutes because they will outcompete animal products on price, taste and convenience. Removing animals from our food supply will have cascading beneficial effects as it frees up land now used to grow animal feed for more planet-friendly uses such as carbon-sequestering forests and wildlife habitat.
For now, as anyone who has tried to stick to a diet can tell you, knowing what you ought to do is the easy part. Getting all of humanity to adopt a carbon diet is the challenge of our time. If we’re lucky and make the right choices, we may still have time to redirect the human murmuration toward a sustainable economy.
On Sunday the U.S. Senate passed the historic climate legislation package hammered out between Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin. The House is expected to follow suit this week, giving President Joe Biden a huge win on one of his administration’s priorities and finally making good on his pledge to tackle climate change.
The bill is titled the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), apparently because the senators think inflation is the only thing most Americans care about right now. But whether it reduces inflation is beside the point. The IRA marks the federal government’s most significant investment in clean energy and transportation ever. Its $370 billion of climate spending will cut U.S. emissions roughly 42% below 2005 levels by 2030, only slightly less than the reductions that would have been achieved through Biden’s signature Build Back Better bill.
This is a huge piece of legislation, though, and some of the compromises Schumer was forced to make are not climate-friendly. Manchin, after all, is a coal baron representing a state so dominated by the extraction industries that it has lost sight of any other future. Climate hawks have to hold their noses (beaks?) to accept some noxious provisions, such as the bill’s requirement for new offshore drilling lease sales. No doubt that one will cheer motorists who wrongly assume the government could lower gasoline prices just by turning on a spigot, if only it wanted to.
The bill also comes with a side deal meant to ensure completion of the Mountain Valley Pipeline, which starts in Manchin’s home state. That news promptly soured many activists in Virginia on the whole package.
Hang in there, people. The pipeline deal isn’t actually part of the IRA, and Manchin knows better than anyone that a promise of some second bill to be voted on in the future is a castle in the air. Maybe he’ll get it, maybe he won’t. Meanwhile, the IRA’s incentives for renewable energy, energy storage, energy efficiency, building electrification and electric vehicles are overwhelmingly more impactful than provisions designed to increase oil and gas production. The business case for new pipelines will only get worse.
Three recurring themes stand out in the IRA. One is the attention paid to ensuring benefits flow to low- and moderate-income residents and communities impacted by fossil fuel extraction. A second is the effort to incentivize manufacturing and supply chain companies to bring operations back to the U.S., using tax credits for manufacturing and requirements for U.S.-made components. The third is job creation and training for career jobs that pay well. The combined effect is that the law will benefit former coal workers in Southwest Virginia looking for employment at least as much as Northern Virginia suburbanites jonesing for Teslas.
Every state will see clean energy investments soar if the bill becomes law, but Virginia is especially well positioned. Though we have embarrassingly little wind and solar in our energy mix today, we have huge potential for both, a strong tech sector and a well-educated workforce.
Just as important, laws passed by the General Assembly in the past few years already provide the framework for our energy transition. Among them, the Virginia Clean Economy Act and participation in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative are pushing our utilities to decarbonize, including through investments in energy efficiency, solar and offshore wind. Solar Freedom removed barriers to private investments in distributed solar, while the Grid Modernization Act authorized upgrades to the distribution grid, and the Clean Cars Act started us down the road to vehicle electrification. For all of these, the IRA’s incentives make compliance easier and less expensive for both utilities and customers.
Renewable energy tax credits with an emphasis on equity and jobs
The IRA is a big bill with a lot of fine print detailing incentives for a wide range of technologies, mostly clean but with a few clunkers. (Hydrogen made from fracked gas, anyone?) Still, the largest share of the renewable energy tax credits will go to companies involved in the wind and solar industries. The credits will remain fixed for 10 years before ramping down, finally providing the business certainty and long planning window that clean tech companies have been begging for.
The more utilities take advantage of the law to install renewable energy, the greater the benefit to electricity customers. Renewable energy helps stabilize electricity costs, dampening the impact of high fossil fuel prices. The IRA’s tax credits will lower the cost of building wind and solar, saving money for Virginia customers as our utilities meet and exceed the VCEA’s targets for solar, storage and wind. (So, yes, the Inflation Reduction Act will live up to its name when it comes to electricity prices.)
For utility-scale projects like solar farms and offshore wind, obtaining the maximum tax credit requires that a steadily increasing percentage of the equipment used be American made. Credits available to manufacturers are intended to draw the supply chain back to the U.S. and will help those parts be cost-competitive. New prevailing wage and apprenticeship program requirements favor union labor and middle-class incomes for careers in green energy.
While large renewable energy facilities will contribute most to decarbonizing the grid, the most generous incentives in the IRA are reserved for distributed generation facilities under 1,000 kilowatts AC (1,300 kW DC), a category that includes most rooftop solar. For these projects, the investment tax credit will return to 30% for the next 10 years, with adders available if the facility is located on a brownfield or in an “energy community” (10%), uses domestic content (10%) or serves low-income residents (10-20%). The credits can be combined, making it entirely possible for a solar project on low-income housing in Virginia’s coalfields, built using American-made equipment, to qualify for tax credits of up to 70% of the cost.
Not only that, but taxpayers will be allowed to sell the credits, so people with no tax liability can still take advantage of the discounts. This feature will make solar affordable for homeowners who don’t owe enough in federal taxes to use the tax credits themselves. It will also make it possible for installers to discount the upfront cost of a solar array by the amount of the tax credit so customers don’t have to wait months for a tax refund.
A final feature is that the tax credits will now also be available as direct payments to tax-exempt entities like local governments, schools and churches. Direct pay will have the biggest impact in states that don’t allow third-party power purchase agreements (PPAs), but it’s a great option anywhere.
The “adder” for brownfields will be of interest to many Virginia localities that want to find ways to safely use closed landfills and old industrial sites, while Virginia’s government has already identified brownfields as a great opportunity for solar.
But the biggest market opportunities would seem to be for solar on low-income housing and in areas impacted by fossil fuel extraction. Carrie Hearne, associate director for renewable energy and energy efficiency at Virginia’s Department of Energy, said the many federal funding programs laid out in the IRA “would provide great opportunities for energy infrastructure investments in communities that are most in need, and in turn, help to lower energy bills. These federal funds could also contribute to the commonwealth’s goal of competitive rates, reliable and responsible delivery of energy alongside rural economic development.”
To understand how the solar industry sees these opportunities, I called the leaders of three solar companies that develop onsite solar in low-income areas and in the coalfields: Dan Conant of West Virginia-based Solar Holler, Tony Smith of Staunton-based Secure Futures and Ruth Amundsen of Norfolk Solar. Not surprisingly, they all predicted stunning growth in both distributed solar and jobs as a result of the IRA.
Solar has made fewer inroads in Southwest Virginia than in other parts of the state, which Conant sees as an opportunity. One of the few unionized solar companies in the area, and the only one I know of focused exclusively on Appalachia, Solar Holler has been expanding into Southwest Virginia and hiring workers at a steady clip. (Disclosure: I own a tiny stake in Solar Holler.)
The company already uses American-made components, so Conant said coalfields residents will be able to take advantage of two of the adders to install solar on their homes and businesses at half price, with low-income residents paying even less. The IRA’s manufacturing tax credits for American solar companies will further reduce the cost of the projects.
Conant was especially excited about the IRA’s impact on jobs in Appalachia. He expects to ramp up hiring significantly once the IRA becomes law. It took no prodding from me for him to add, “I truly believe this bill will let us get to 100% clean energy in 15 years.”
Secure Futures also has projects underway in Southwest Virginia as well as elsewhere across the state. The company uses third-party PPAs to allow tax-exempt customers like schools and nonprofits to go solar with no money down, paying just for the electricity produced by the panels. Although the IRA allows these customers to get the tax benefits without a PPA, Secure Futures president Tony Smith said tax-exempt entities will still do better using PPAs to take advantage of accelerated depreciation.
Smith said the IRA will make an already strong solar market in Virginia even stronger, as the higher tax credits will push down prices and the transferability of the credits will make it easier to attract more investors to solar. At the same time, a provision of the VCEA requiring Dominion Energy Virginia to acquire renewable energy certificates (RECs) from distributed generation facilities has created a strong market for these certificates, helping to finance projects and making solar even more affordable for institutional customers that sell their solar RECs.
On the other side of the commonwealth, Norfolk Solar also installs solar in low-income communities, offering PPAs to both commercial customers and low-income residents in economically distressed areas that qualify for special tax treatment as Qualified Opportunity Zones. (Under Virginia law, residential PPAs are available only to low-income customers.) Amundsen pointed out that the 10-year time horizon of the tax credits is an added benefit of the IRA to both her customers and potential investors because it allows for long-range planning and multi-year projects.
Energy storage will stand on its own
The VCEA established one of the most ambitious goals for energy storage development in the nation. But current federal law offers tax credits for energy storage only when it is part of a renewable energy project. The limitation has led to the proliferation of solar-plus-batteries projects around the country. It’s an ideal combination because it allows solar energy to be used when it is needed, unshackled from the time of day that it’s produced.
But uncoupling storage from renewable energy projects is a more efficient way to manage the grid, said Steve Donches, a Loudoun County attorney who represents battery storage companies and recently served on the Virginia Energy Storage Task Force.
“In many instances, the best location for storage supporting the grid is not where the renewables are located but rather near grid chokepoints or inside load pockets,” he said. “Moreover, site selection flexibility can often be important from a zoning permitting perspective. The new approach allows developers to be more nimble and locate where it is most useful and cost efficient.”
Recognizing this, the IRA provides a tax credit of up to 30% for energy storage whether or not it is part of a renewable energy facility.
This will make grid storage less expensive and easier for our utilities to install, and it will also benefit customers who want to put batteries in their buildings for back-up power. Amundsen noted that her customers sometimes can’t afford to include a battery at the time they install solar; the IRA will let them take the tax credit for storage even if they buy the battery later. This is especially important, she said, for resilience in low-income neighborhoods, where adding a battery to a solar-powered church or community center allows it to “island” during a power outage and provide a refuge for neighbors.
Homeowners will see huge benefits from building electrification
A cleaner electricity grid makes it possible to decarbonize other sectors of the economy by substituting electricity for fossil fuels in transportation and buildings; hence the climate advocates’ mantra “Electrify everything.” Yet while new electric appliances have become more energy efficient and attractive to consumers than the ones they replace, the switch comes with a price tag.
Under the new law, price will no longer be a barrier. The IRA offers rebates to residents to upgrade their homes with new electric technology such as heat pumps for heating and cooling (up to $8,000), electric induction stoves ($840), heat pump water heaters ($1,750) and upgrades to home electrical systems to support all the new load ($4,000). The rebates phase out for higher-income earners. Lower-income families replacing old and inefficient appliances will see the greatest energy savings as well as the highest rebates.
The federal rebates are a fantastic complement to existing Virginia programs for low-income energy efficiency upgrades. A major attraction of Virginia’s participation in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative is the hundreds of millions of dollars it raises for low-income efficiency programs such as those devoted to upgrading multifamily housing like apartment buildings. Coordinating the state programs with the new federal rebates should be an urgent priority to ensure the broadest possible benefits to low-income Virginians.
Meanwhile, gas utilities had better start planning for the end of their business. There is no longer any reason to expand and upgrade gas distribution pipelines, because from here on in their customer base will be shrinking, not growing, resulting in stranded assets.
Electric vehicles aren’t just for the rich any more
The IRA provides a $7,500 EV tax credit for new vehicles, including those made by manufacturers like Tesla and Toyota that had reached volume caps in previous law. Restrictions apply, including income limits, vehicle price caps and supply chain sourcing rules. The act also now adds a credit of up to $4,000 for used vehicles, making ownership possible for more people at all income levels.
Virginia is committed to vehicle electrification through its adoption of clean cars legislation in 2021 and a 2022 law requiring state agencies to buy electric light-duty vehicles whenever the total cost of ownership is less than it would be for a vehicle with an internal combustion engines. But further speeding up the transition to EVs will create ripple effects requiring careful planning. Electricity demand will increase and do so unevenly, requiring load management programs and upgrades to parts of the distribution grid.
Charging all these vehicles will also be an issue. Many would-be EV customers lack the ability to charge at home, either because they don’t own the space where they park or because their homes aren’t wired for easy installation of a charger. The problem is especially acute for people who rent apartments in buildings that lack charging stations.
No matter how generous the credits, people won’t buy EVs if they can’t charge them. Virginia must require multifamily buildings to include enough charging stations for all the residents who want them, ensure public charging stations are plentiful and convenient in low-income neighborhoods and improve its residential housing code to ensure new homes are wired to facilitate installation of chargers.
For best results, lean in
Virginia law requires each new governor to produce an energy plan in October of the first year in office, so Virginia’s Department of Energy is currently in the process of writing a plan that will have Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s stamp on it. The plan must be one that “identifies actions over a 10-year period consistent with the goal of the Commonwealth Clean Energy Policy set forth in § 45.2-1706.1 to achieve, no later than 2045, a net-zero carbon energy economy for all sectors, including the electricity, transportation, building, agricultural, and industrial sectors.”
Governor Youngkin hasn’t shown much enthusiasm for Virginia’s energy transition to date, having tried to gut the VCEA and repeal RGGI. Yet with the IRA making so many incentives available for clean energy and electric vehicles, leaning in to the energy transition now will allow the commonwealth to reap huge rewards in the form of economic development, job growth, cleaner air and lower energy bills.
The opportunities for Virginia are enormous; the governor should make the most of them.
Dear readers: Many of you know that although I write independently of any organization, I also volunteer for the Sierra Club and serve on its legislative committee. The Sierra Club’s Virginia Chapter urgently needs funds to support its legislative and political work towards a clean energy transition. So this summer I’m passing the hat and asking you to make a donation to our “Ten Wild Weekends” fundraising campaign. Thanks!
I grew up with brothers, so I knew from an early age that the surest way to make friends with guys was to feed them homemade cookies. I took this strategy with me to college, commandeering the tiny kitchenette tucked into the hallway of my coed dorm. The aroma of chocolate chip cookies hot out of the oven reliably drew a crowd.
One fan was so enthusiastic that he wanted to learn to make cookies himself. So the next time, he showed up at the start of the process. He watched me combine sugar and butter, eggs and flour.
Instead of being appreciative, he was appalled. It had never occurred to him that anything as terrific as a cookie could be made of stuff so unhealthy. It’s not that he thought they were created from sunshine and elf magic; he just hadn’t thought about it at all. He left before the cookies even came out of the oven.
I felt so bad about it, I ate the whole batch.
Cookies are practically health food compared to other things we consume without really understanding the dangers.
It’s not just food. Plastic packaging, chemical additives, PFAS, phthalates and numerous other chemicals enter our homes and bodies without our conscious acquiescence, causing havoc for ourselves, our children and the rest of life on earth. It’s hard to know the risks, harder still to avoid them. So maybe you carry reusable bags and water bottles, buy organic if you can, and otherwise, try not to think too hard about it.
Where ignorance is bliss—or at any rate, a state of mind sufficient to keep you from a complete mental breakdown — you could be excused for feeling ‘tis folly to be wise. Why not just eat the cookies?
Well, because sometimes reading the ingredients can make a difference. Public pressure has been the major driver of government action on climate, particularly in decarbonizing the electric sector. People saw the recipe for their power supply and recoiled at all that fossil fuel. Short of installing solar panels on their rooftops, individuals in most states have little control over their source of electricity. It was a collective outcry that led to nearly half of all states setting carbon-free electricity targets.
It seems odd, then, that we have not seen the same outcry when it comes to fossil fuel use in buildings, including natural gas in homes. As our electricity gets cleaner, buildings must become all-electric on the way to a fully decarbonized energy economy.
Turns out, that’s a tall order. About 48 percent of American homes use natural gas for heating, and many also have gas appliances like stoves and hot water heaters. Starting in 2019, a few cities started banning new gas connections in an effort to speed the transition to all-electric homes. But in response, the gas industry persuaded legislatures in 20 states to prohibit localities from enacting such bans. (An industry effort to “ban the bans” in Virginia failed mainly because no localities have tried to go that route.)
For now at least, the industry seems to have public sentiment on its side. Natural gas is truly the chocolate-chip cookie of fossil fuels: it heats the air reliably, chefs love it and it’s lower in calories—I mean, carbon—than coal. Even the name sounds benign. What can be wrong with something “natural?”
Those beloved gas stoves leak methane even when turned off, and burning gas in buildings causes high levels of indoor air pollution. Cooking with gas releases respiratory irritants, including nitrogen dioxide, ultrafine particulate matter (PM 2.5), carbon monoxide and formaldehyde. The effect is particularly harmful to children, with studies showing children living in homes with gas stoves are 42 percent more likely to suffer from symptoms of asthma.
It used to be that gas outperformed electricity in buildings, but no longer. Recent advances in technology mean electric heat pumps provide heating and air conditioning efficiently and effectively even in very cold climates. Every gas appliance has an electric counterpart. Even for cooking, gas has met its match in electric induction stoves, which have been winning over chefs nationwide. In a few years, we will wonder why we ever allowed open flames in our kitchens.
Cost and convenience also favor all-electric buildings. An electric heat pump instead of both a gas burner and electric air conditioning means only one system to maintain and one utility bill instead of two.
The question isn’t why homeowners would give up gas, but why builders still include it. Clearly, no one is reading the recipe.
With so much gas infrastructure already in place, and so little public awareness of the dangers, getting the gas out of buildings will be a slow process. In Virginia, gas companies continue to propose pipeline projects that would actually increase supply, in the hopes of locking in new customers. This is, to use the technical term, nuts. Those pipelines will have to be abandoned within a couple of decades, not “just” because the climate crisis demands it, but because consumers won’t keep buying.
Certainly, it will take time for most people to grasp how harmful methane is and how superior the alternative is. Once consumers begin insisting on all-electric buildings, however, gas utilities will enter a death spiral as they are forced to raise prices for remaining customers, who will then switch to electricity, too.
At that point, electrification of the building sector will be complete, and we will begin to close the (cook)book on gas.
Dear readers: Many of you know that although I write independently of any organization, I also volunteer for the Sierra Club and serve on its legislative committee. The Sierra Club’s Virginia Chapter urgently needs funds to support its legislative and political work towards a clean energy transition. So this summer I’m passing the hat and asking you to make a donation to our “Ten Wild Weekends” fundraising campaign. Thanks!
Even before taking office, Governor Glenn Youngkin made two rookie mistakes: he declared his intention to pull Virginia out of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) by executive order, not realizing it can only be done by legislation; and he nominated the much-reviled Trump-era EPA chief Andrew Wheeler to be his Secretary of Natural Resources, apparently unaware the appointment would need approval from the Democratic-led Senate he had just infuriated with the RGGI announcement.
Evidently not a man to admit a blunder, on his first day in office Youngkin signed an executive order directing the Department of Environmental Quality to notify RGGI of his intent to withdraw Virginia from the carbon-cutting program, and to develop an “emergency regulation” to send to the Air Pollution Control Board for the same purpose. The language in the order is a little less than he pledged, and yet still not legal.
These are unfortunate signs that Youngkin, who ran for governor as a moderate Republican, intends to govern as a burn-the-house-down extremist when it comes to the environment.
It’s surprising to see Youngkin pursuing Trumpist energy policies, and not just because they failed so dismally when Trump tried them. As the former CEO of a multibillion-dollar private equity investment company, Youngkin is, presumably, not an idiot. He has acknowledged climate change is real and affecting Virginia, and he has access to the same polls the rest of us do that show Americans are concerned and want government action to address the crisis. Corporate America is also calling for action; CEOs of more than 70 of the world’s largest corporations wrote a letter last June calling on governments to adopt policies capable of capping the global rise in temperature at no more than 1.5 decrees Celsius.
The legislation that put Virginia into RGGI will lead to a 30 percent cut in the Commonwealth’s electric sector CO2 emissions by 2030. Companion legislation, the Virginia Clean Economy Act (VCEA), extends the carbon cutting out to 2050, to hit zero carbon emissions from the electric sector. Youngkin complains that RGGI costs ratepayers money, but it’s not like the money raised through carbon allowance auctions disappears into the ether: it pays for coastal flood-control projects and low-income energy efficiency programs that Virginia wasn’t funding before. Maybe Youngkin intends to replace these hundreds of millions of dollars with some of the federal funding coming to Virginia through the federal infrastructure bill—you know, the legislation that Virginia’s Republican congressmen voted against.
Or maybe he doesn’t really care about the human consequences of his actions, since Virginia governors can’t run for reelection. Even last fall Youngkin was being talked about as a potential presidential candidate based on his ability to say nothing of substance for an entire campaign season. It was a good trick, but it’s a hard one to pull off twice. If Youngkin runs for president, he’ll be doing it as the guy who started his governorship by torching Virginia’s climate action plan.
Whether they are fellow flame-throwers or not, General Assembly Republicans are rallying around the new governor. Two bills filed last week seek to do legally what Youngkin wanted to do by executive fiat. SB532 (Stuart) and HB1301 (Kilgore) would repeal the Clean Energy and Community Flood Preparedness Act, direct DEQ to suspend the Commonwealth’s participation in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative and remove provisions for using revenues from the auctions.
SB81 (Stanley) would prohibit the Air Pollution Control Board from considering health, environmental, scientific, or economic factors when making regulations—an attack on both RGGI and clean car regulation, as well as on the independence and very mission of the Air Board. SB657 (Stuart) also attacks the Air Board’s authority (and that of the Water Board for good measure).
HB118 (Freitas) goes bigger. It repeals key features of the VCEA, including achieving zero carbon emissions by 2050; allowing the SCC to approve new fossil fuel plants only if a utility has met energy-saving goals and can prove cost-effectiveness; allowing utilities to recover costs of compliance with Virginia’s new renewable portfolio standard; and making wind, solar and offshore wind projects “in the public interest,” magic words that assure utilities they will get paid for making these investments.
The Freitas bill might pass the House, now that Republicans hold a slim majority, but neither of these two bills should pass the Senate with Democrats in charge. Creating the framework for the energy transition was a signature success for Virginia Democrats, and it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which they will let it be taken from them.
That isn’t stopping other Republicans from taking their own shots. Several bills seek to undermine the energy transition in various ways; all of them are bad policy.
HB74 (also Ware) would subsidize certain large industrial customers by allowing them to share in the benefits, yet exempting them from the costs, of the energy transition, shifting their share of the costs onto all other customers.
HB5 (Morefield) raids the RGGI funds to get money for his own district.
HB892 (Kilgore) and SB398 (McDougle) subsidize RGGI costs for certain fossil fuel generators, another raid on the funds.
HB1204 (Kilgore) prevents the RPS from taking effect until 2025 and guts the carve-out for distributed generation permanently. It also removes the authority of the Air Pollution Control Board over air pollution permits for “minor” sources of pollution.
HB1257 (Kilgore, on a roll!) guarantees customers access to natural gas in the name of “energy justice,” banning local electrification efforts, and making it really hard for the city of Richmond to terminate its gas utility.
HB1261 (Bloxom) also strips the Air and Water Boards of their permit-granting authority.
HB73 (Ware) and SB761 (Sutterlein) eliminates language putting wind, solar and offshore wind in the public interest, undercutting the market certainty that put Virginia into the top ranks for solar energy in the past year and attracted a major offshore wind turbine blade manufacturing facility to Portsmouth. (The bill also lets the SCC put costs of new facilities into a utility’s rate base instead of tacking on a rate adjustment clause. If this were the only thing the bill did, it would be worth supporting.)
Not all the bills we are likely to see this year have been filed yet, so there is a good chance we will see further attacks on climate action, all with the pretense of saving money. I will continue updating this post when I hear of other bills like these.
Speaking of things that cost ratepayers money, bills to subsidize coal are back this year. As we have all learned, coal is no longer a competitive fuel in Virginia. It lost out first to fracked gas, and more recently to solar. But in a compromise with coalfields Republicans, the VCEA excluded one coal plant, the Virginia City Hybrid Energy Center (VCHEC) in Wise County, from a requirement that Dominion Energy Virginia close its Virginia coal plants this decade. In theory, VCHEC could stay open until 2045, when the VCEA requires Dominion to reach zero carbon across all its generation.
In reality, though, the reprieve isn’t enough to save the coal plant. Dominion’s own analysis, from its 2020 Integrated Resource Plan case, assigned VCHEC a net present value of negative $472 million just for the ten years from 2020-2029. Dominion didn’t try to extend that analysis out to 2045, but clearly the cost to customers from running a money-losing coal plant for 25 years would top a cool billion. Not surprisingly, the SCC is considering requiring Dominion to retire VCHEC to save money for its customers.
Given concerns about RGGI’s cost to consumers, you might think Southwest Virginia Republicans would lead the charge to retire the money-losing coal plant in their midst. You would be wrong. To understand why, it will help you to know that the counties making up Southwest Virginia are not in Dominion’s service territory, but in Appalachian Power’s. The people who benefit from keeping a coal plant open in Wise County are not the same people who have to pay for the plant’s spectacular losses.
As an excuse to keep the plant open, coalfields Republicans claim it’s to help the environment. Yes, really. Some of VCHEC’s fuel is waste coal excavated from the piles of mining waste that litter the coalfields, a toxic legacy of the era when coal was king and environmental regulations went unenforced. Burning the waste coal is one way to get rid of it, though not the only way or, for that matter, the right way.
As a new report from the Appalachian State School of Law discusses, the federal infrastructure bill (again, the same one Virginia Republicans voted against) will provide millions of dollars to Virginia to remediate abandoned minelands, including these piles of toxic waste. (The report, titled Addressing Virginia’s Legacy GOB Piles, has been sent to General Assembly members but is not yet available online.)
In a letter to Senator John Edwards, report lead author Mark “Buzz” Belleville expressed his strong disagreement with bills aimed at encouraging the burning of waste coal. As he wrote, “Waste coal is of lower quality, requiring additives for combustion and resulting in even greater CO2 emissions and traditional air pollution than newly-mined coal. As the report notes, existing GOB piles can be disposed of or remediated in other manners that do not undermine Virginia’s commitment to a transition to clean energy.”
Rather than use the coming federal funds to remediate GOB piles, Republicans would prefer that Dominion customers be forced to pay hundreds of millions of dollars in higher energy costs and put more pollution into the air.
So at the same time they rail against the costs of RGGI and VCEA, Republicans are using waste coal as a reason to raise costs even more.
HB656 (Wampler) dangles a tax credit for using waste coal.
SB120 (Hackworth) and HB657 (Wampler) declare waste coal a “renewable energy” source and exempts VCHEC from the requirement that it close by 2045.
HB894 (Kilgore) outright prohibits the SCC from requiring Dominion to retire VCHEC “before the end of its useful life.” (Would that be before or after Virginia becomes so hot we all move to Canada?)
HB1326 (Kilgore, trying everything he can think of) makes it “in the public interest” for utilities to use waste coal, and gives utilities a way to charge ratepayers extra for doing so.
Electricity customers had better get used to being used as a political football by legislators who attack the costs of the energy transition but have no qualms about making ratepayers subsidize coal.
This post originally appeared in the Virginia Mercury on January 20, 2022. It has been updated to include bills filed since then.
Election Day was a tough day for climate advocates.
After two years of historic progress that included passage of the Virginia Clean Economy Act (VCEA), the centerpiece of the Commonwealth’s plan to decarbonize the electric sector by 2050, voters handed a narrow victory to its critics. Republicans will take over as governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general and, barring any surprises in two recounts, the House of Delegates.
During the campaign, former Carlyle Group CEO Glenn Youngkin criticized the VCEA for raising rates and putting “our entire energy grid at risk.” While largely supportive of solar and wind (especially offshore wind, which he “wholly supports”), Youngkin also argued for more natural gas to feed “the rip-roaring economy that I’m going to build.” This is, essentially, the old “all of the above” strategy we hoped had been buried for good, coupled with unfounded fear-mongering about power outages.
On the bright side, Governor-elect Youngkin has acknowledged that climate change is real and is causing damage here in Virginia. At the same time, he supposedly told a Norfolk State University audience in October that he didn’t know what is causing climate change. It seems likely this was a clumsy lie prompted by political expedience, rather than a reflection of actual ignorance. Two years ago Youngkin touted Carlyle Group’s record as “the first major private investment firm to operate on a carbon-neutral basis.” That’s not something you do just to be on trend.
So yes, Youngkin knows that increasing greenhouse gas emissions are driving the warming of the planet, and at Carlyle he was willing to do something about it. But now that he’s a politician, Youngkin is embracing natural gas in a way that suggests he’d rather ignore the truth about methane than take a stance unpopular in his party. Heck, for all we know, he may now even subscribe to the plan recently laid out by U.S. Senate Republicans to address climate change by increasing natural gas production and exports.
Wait, you say, isn’t this also the Russian plan? Sell more gas and, if worse comes to worst, Siberia heats up enough to become a vacation destination? Let’s just say it’s not a coincidence that the senators promoting this “solution” come from North Dakota, Alaska and Wyoming—all states that are big energy exporters, but more importantly, where people think a few degrees of warming would be kind of nice. But given that the population of all three states combined is significantly less than the population of Northern Virginia alone, we probably don’t want them making policy for us.
The fact that we have no idea where Youngkin stands on the need for climate solutions is only one part of the problem facing climate activists in Virginia’s upcoming legislative session. The bigger problem is that a lot of our Republican legislators are outright hostile to climate science and Virginia’s framework for the energy transition. These folks are loaded for bear, and they will use their narrow win to flood the House with bills aimed at rolling back the energy transition.
In addition to VCEA, the Republican hit list includes the Clean Energy and Community Preparedness Act, which directed Virginia to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI); the Clean Car Standard, which promotes sales of electric vehicles; and the Commonwealth Clean Energy Policy, which makes the transition to a net-zero-energy economy official state policy.
Whether these bills will pass the House is less certain, given the benefits these laws are already delivering. The VCEA spurred “incredible growth” in solar installations, making Virginia fourth in the nation for new solar generation in 2020, and the world’s biggest offshore wind blade manufacturer just announced plans for a facility in Portsmouth, Virginia. Does anyone really want to stop that momentum? Tens of millions of dollars are already flowing to climate adaptation projects in coastal areas thanks to RGGI’s carbon allowance auctions. Pulling the plug on that cash flow would hurt Republicans representing the area.
Notwithstanding the rhetoric, the VCEA is good for business and consumers. Ratepayers will save money through the mandated closure of uneconomic coal, oil and biomass plants, and by the removal of barriers to distributed renewable energy generation. Solar’s low cost positions it to overtake fossil fuels as the go-to generation source for utilities, but the VCEA creates the market certainty that attracts investment. And offshore wind—the most expensive part of the VCEA, but the part Youngkin apparently likes—is also popular on both sides of the aisle as an engine of investment and job creation.
That doesn’t mean anti-VCEA bills won’t pass the House; being bad policy is never enough to kill legislation, or even stop people who ought to know better from voting for it. In 2019, an anti-RGGI bill from Del. Charles Poindexter (R-Franklin) passed both the House and Senate on party-line votes. It was prevented from taking effect only thanks to a veto from Governor Northam. Today, I can count very few House Republicans who won’t toe the same party line.
With Democrats still in charge of the Senate, Youngkin isn’t likely to find a RGGI or VCEA repeal on his desk. Creating an energy transition framework was one of the Democrats’ biggest successes in the past two years, and protecting that success will be a party priority.
But there are many ways Republicans can undercut climate action. They might attract just enough Democratic votes with bills that, for example, grant exemptions for powerful industries that have friends among Senate Democrats. They could also use the budget process to undermine the transition by starving agencies and grant programs of funding.
If politics doesn’t completely get in the way, though, there should be room for consensus on some new areas of progress. Highly efficient schools with solar roofs save money for taxpayers; electric school buses are good for children’s health; solar on abandoned mine sites promise employment to residents of Southwest Virginia.
Beyond the General Assembly, executive agencies have had the job of implementing all the various parts of the RGGI program and the VCEA. And the agencies, of course, answer to the governor. The Department of Environmental Quality will have signed off—or not—on the Mountain Valley Pipeline’s permits before Younkin takes office, but after that, we can expect DEQ to return to being the easy-permitting, lax-enforcing agency it was of old.
As for the Department of Energy, that agency has been going gangbusters turning Virginia into a clean energy leader and promoting new models like brownfields redevelopment and clean energy financing. Hopefully those efforts offer so much in the way of economic opportunities that a businessman like Youngkin will want them to continue.
A while back I was engaged in an online discussion with other solar advocates about renewable energy — specifically, how to get more of it built. Some of the participants I knew, others I did not. The conversation was lively, ranging from the need for better education to public policy and incentives.
But then one of the participants threw in an unexpected comment. His email read, “Aren’t we all tired of synagogues?”
The question stopped me cold. I had never heard anyone express weariness of synagogues, much less understood that to be a consensus sentiment. However, I’m not Jewish, so if it were something my Jewish friends grumbled about among themselves but did not share more widely, then I wouldn’t necessarily know about it.
But our discussion was about renewable energy, so surely the comment could not really be about a physical house of worship. “Synagogue” had to be shorthand for something else. If someone said “aren’t we all tired of church,” it might be understood to refer to doctrinal thinking, or more likely, to preaching. You could see how someone would be tired of renewable energy advocates preaching about the benefits of wind turbines and solar panels. Could “synagogue” be meant as a sort of metaphor for haranguing people?
It seemed like a stretch, even assuming the person who had made the comment was Jewish, which I didn’t know. I looked back at the email to see if the name might give me a clue. At that moment, another email came through from him: “Sorry about that autocorrect, it was supposed to be ‘subsidies.’”
I was relieved that synagogue fatigue was off the table, but now I had a new question to ponder: Are we, in fact, all tired of subsidies?
Opposition to subsidies is one of the touchstones of free-market capitalism, and even within the wind and solar industries you will find believers in the proposition that if a technology can’t attract enough customers on its own merits, it deserves to remain niche, and the government ought not to put its fat thumb on the scale.
Republican attacks on the Virginia Clean Economy Act, passed last year by the Democrat-controlled General Assembly, are often framed as opposition to the government “picking winners and losers.” The law certainly does that, by directing utilities to close coal plants and incorporate an increasing percentage of electricity from wind and solar.
Some Republicans are raising the same objection in response to the Biden administration’s plans for addressing the climate crisis. Technological advances and market forces are already moving us inexorably towards a clean energy economy—but not fast enough. So Biden’s initiatives rely on the full range of government powers, subsidies among them, to drive down greenhouse gas emissions nationwide in an effort to avoid a worldwide climate catastrophe.
But here’s the thing: to the extent the U.S. has anything resembling an energy policy, subsidies have always been a tool of first resort. Indeed, this has been the case literally since the nation’s founding. Often the difference between Republicans and Democrats is not in whether they embrace subsidies, but which ones they favor.
Cash grants, tax credits, loan guarantees, low-cost access to public land, public purchasing requirements, protective tariffs and federal R&D funding all shape the way energy is produced, delivered and consumed, and they are responsible for the fossil-fuel heavy energy economy we have today. Even U.S. foreign policy and our military have been deployed for the benefit of extractive industries. A century ago, the National Guard came to the aid of the coal barons against striking miners. More recently, a think tank crunched numbers to estimate the U.S. spends $81 billion per year to protect global oil supplies. That figure rises to over $3 trillion when you count the Iraq war.
Externalities matter, too. If an industry is allowed to inflict damage to a community’s air and water, that is a form of subsidy that can be partly measured in dollars spent on health care and clean-up. Regulations requiring expensive pollution controls can lessen the economic advantages of offloading costs onto the public, but any remaining costs shouldered by the public are a subsidy to the polluter.
Conversely, by displacing fossil fuels, a clean energy facility may confer a public benefit far exceeding the cost of any government subsidy it receives. When we’re dealing with climate change, the public benefit of carbon-free energy is immense.
None of this is an argument against the merits of free market competition, which remains the economy’s most important driver of innovation leading to better and cleaner energy technologies. Well-designed subsidies should work with the market, not against it, to speed the energy transition towards a net-zero future.