Yes, RGGI works

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.