E&E News: March 17, 2020

Va.'s 100% clean energy shift: Part of a 'bigger wave'?

By David Iaconangelo, E&E News

A landmark legislative session for energy came to an end in Virginia last week, after the Democratic-controlled General Assembly mounted a late push to pass numerous new regulations on fossil fuels and promote zero-carbon sources of electricity.

One of the measures, which Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam is expected to sign, would make Virginia a participant in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), the East Coast’s cap-and-trade system for carbon dioxide emissions.

The governor is also expected to sign the “Virginia Clean Economy Act,” which would make Virginia the first state in the South to move toward 100% carbon-free electricity. It would require the state to decarbonize its power by 2050 and establish new mandates for a renewable build-out.

Cale Jaffe, an associate professor of environmental law at the University of Virginia and a former attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, said he “never would have imagined something like the Virginia Clean Economy Act to be remotely possible” when he began lobbying the Legislature for renewable policies over a decade ago.

“This is an absolute sea change,” he said in an email.

Other bills that passed in February and March would ban hydraulic fracturing in much of the state along with offshore drilling for oil and gas, while a third — already signed by Northam — creates a 27-member environmental justice council to advise the governor.

The flood of legislation came after Democrats took control of both chambers in last November’s elections. The political shift was apparent in the state’s entry into RGGI: In 2017, Republicans successfully inserted provisions into the state budget that blocked regulators from implementing the cap-and-trade program.

Some clean energy and green groups that have positioned themselves as rivals of Dominion Energy, the state’s main investor-owned utility, say this year’s legislation is just the beginning of a larger shake-up. An appetite is growing on both sides of the aisle for a deregulated power sector that allows other electricity generators to compete with Dominion, they say.

In the recently ended session, “you did see some shifting of power from Dominion” to utility regulators and Virginia ratepayers, said Cassady Craighill, communications director for Clean Virginia.

Craighill pointed to the passage of H.B. 528, which would give regulators control over how Dominion charges ratepayers for the early retirement of fossil fuel plants. It cleared both chambers over the objections of the utility giant — a rare event for a Legislature where the company has cast a long shadow.

“I think next year, you’ll see a bigger wave of that change,” she said.

Other clean energy advocates were more skeptical.

Several measures that would have expanded consumers’ ability to enter contracts with other companies for renewable power — including one co-sponsored by a Republican state senator — never cleared the Legislature, said Bryn Baker, director of policy innovations at the Renewable Energy Buyers Alliance.

Dominion spokesman Rayhan Daudani did not directly respond to queries about the company’s influence on lawmakers, saying that the company’s focus “has been and will continue to be on providing safe, reliable and sustainable energy to our customers.”

‘Undue and harmful influence’

If the next session does see additional attempts to decrease Dominion’s control over power generation and distribution in Virginia, however, it likely will have the backing of a new activist donor with deep coffers.

Clean Virginia, a 501(c)(4) nonprofit, was created in 2018 by hedge fund manager Michael Bills in order to “offset the undue and harmful influence of Dominion Energy and other utility monopolies … over Virginian politics,” according to a founding statement. In 2019, it received $300,000 from Bills.

A former vice president of Goldman Sachs and current chief investment officer at Bluestem Asset Management, Bills sits on the nonprofit’s board and has emerged as one of the state’s largest donors to political campaigns, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.

In 2019, he gave $1.24 million to dozens of Democratic candidates for state office, all of whom swore off donations from Dominion, and $200,000 to the state’s Democratic Party. Eight of those candidates won seats formerly held by Republicans.

In emailed comments to E&E News, Bills said he believes Clean Virginia has been “a valuable resource” in electoral battles but that voters have given “a clear mandate … to tackle both corruption and climate in Virginia politics.”

“The General Assembly started an important conversation this year about reforming Virginia’s energy market into a competitive one,” he added.

“[F]or the sake of Virginia customers, they should thoughtfully return to that conversation next year,” he said.