Va. governor orders 100% CO2-free electricity by midcentury

Source: By Carlos Anchondo, E&E News reporter • Posted: Thursday, September 19, 2019

Solar panels. Photo credit: Dominion Energy

Solar panels operated by Dominion Energy in Virginia. Dominion Energy

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam signed an executive order this week that establishes a goal for the state to produce 100% of its electricity from carbon-free sources by 2050, sparking a debate about whether such a goal is achievable and in line with fossil fuel plans from the state’s chief utility.

The order — announced Tuesday at the Virginia Clean Energy Summit in Richmond — also sets an intermediate goal that 30% of Virginia’s electric system will be powered by renewable energy by 2030. It said that by 2022, at least 30% of electricity consumed by state agencies and the executive branch will be procured from renewable resources.

“We must also ensure that the modernization of our electric grid is done in a way that prioritizes carbon-free sources of electricity to reduce our environmental impact and mitigate the impacts of climate change,” the order read.

Addressing climate change requires “swift decarbonization” and a transition to clean energy, the order said.

Northam is the latest Democratic governor to issue such an action. In January, for example, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf (D) released an order that aims to reduce carbon pollution in the state.

The Northam order instructs the director of the Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy, in partnership with the state’s secretary of commerce and trade, secretary of natural resources and director of the Department of Environmental Quality, to develop a plan that will achieve the energy targets.

In 2017, renewables made up more than 6% of Virginia’s net electricity generation, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Production estimates put “other renewable energy” at 14.1% for that year, the agency said.

Joel Hicks, a Ph.D. candidate in energy policy at George Mason University, said it is important to distinguish between production and consumption because Virginia — as a part of a wholesale market — could possibly procure clean energy from outside the state to meet its goals.

It’s also noteworthy to differentiate between Northam’s 2030 and 2050 targets, Hicks said, as the earlier target focuses on renewables and the latter on carbon-free sources. As of May 2019, more than 47% of Virginia’s net electricity generation was carbon-free, EIA data showed, which Hicks said makes that target “quite achievable.”

Northam’s 2030 target also seems doable, he said.

“I think that states have put us in a position to still perhaps meet that goal,” said Hicks of the 2050 targets in the Paris Agreement. “But, at some point, we are going to need some federal intervention.”

‘The fracked-gas elephant’

Will Cleveland, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, said Virginia’s action is noteworthy because of an absence of federal policy on climate change. He said Northam’s executive order makes Virginia more attractive to new business investment — as a state’s policies on climate change and clean energy drive where businesses are housed.

And while Cleveland said legislative action will likely be needed to achieve some of the order’s goals, he said it was encouraging that Dominion Energy Inc. —the state’s monopoly utility — expressed support for Northam’s proposal.

“Challenged accepted,” said Samantha Moore, a spokeswoman for Dominion, over email.

“The Grid Transformation and Security Act allows us to accomplish many of the clean energy goals laid out today. We look forward to working with the Governor and stakeholders on next steps needed to accomplish all of them,” she said, referring to a bill enacted last year meant to spur investment in renewable generation, energy efficiency and grid modernization.

But Moore also said the executive order would not change plans by the utility for the Atlantic Coast pipeline — which will run through Virginia and is being co-developed by Dominion.

“ACP is needed more than ever to ensure electric reliability, home heating, and manufacturing,” she said, adding, “Meeting the 2050 challenge will take both public policy and technology advances as well as innovation.”

Cleveland and Harrison Wallace, the Virginia director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, expressed a mixture of doubt and frustration about Dominion’s need for additional capacity offered by the ACP.

Wallace said the order “ignores the fracked-gas elephant in the room,” despite calling Northam’s 2030 and 2050 goals some of the most ambitious in the South.

“If we are going to solve the climate crisis, we cannot continue supporting and investing in proposed fracked-gas pipelines like the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley pipelines,” said Wallace in his statement.

Nevertheless, Nicole Duimstra, management coordinator at the Virginia Renewable Energy Alliance, called the order a “win-win” for residents. A transition to clean energy provides not only a health environment, she said, but also a chance for business and workforce development.

“The goals in the Executive Order are ambitious, but reachable,” Duimstra said via email.