Jaffe: In Virginia, signing on to Earth Day

On Earth Day, Gov. Terry McAuliffe signed a package of six clean-energy jobs bills carried by a bipartisan group of legislators (six Republicans and six Democrats).

These new laws – focused on solar energy and energy efficiency – have the potential to create thousands of jobs in Virginia. They leverage advances in renewable energy and efficiency to increase consumers’ carbon-free choices.

That should also help bring us closer to meeting Virginia’s goals under the Clean Power Plan – the federal draft rule for reducing carbon pollution linked to climate change and rising sea levels.

Based on decisions that utilities have already made, we are nearly 80 percent of the way to meeting the state’s goal under the federal plan.

These decisions include retiring some of the oldest and dirtiest coal-fired power plants in the commonwealth, like Dominion’s Chesapeake Energy Center.

Under the Clean Power Plan, Virginia will get 100 percent credit for the pollution reductions associated with the Chesapeake retirement, even though it was planned long before a draft of the rule was even published.

Virginia is now starting out on a path to replace aging coal plants with better options. With expanded commitments to clean energy coming out of this year’s legislative session, we are positioned to meet the remaining 20 percent of Virginia’s Clean Power Plan target through investments in renewable energy and energy efficiency.

Virginia’s clean-energy package includes legislation championed by Newport News Republican Del. David Yancey, which declares up to 500 megawatts of solar energy projects to be in the public interest. Dominion has highlighted this legislation to support its proposal to build a new solar farm in Fauquier County-a project that the company says will create 350 construction jobs.

The new laws also include expansion of Virginia’s solar net metering program and the creation of a Virginia Solar Development Authority, both aimed at reducing barriers to solar in the commonwealth.

The opportunities here are clear when comparing the paltry 15 megawatts of solar currently installed statewide-enough to power just 2,500 homes-to the 950 megawatts in North Carolina, sufficient to power 156,000 homes.

On the efficiency front, legislation sponsored by Fairfax Democratic Sen. Chap Petersen paves the way for greater investments in programs from the state’s natural gas utilities to cut waste and reduce bills.

That means funding for programs to retrofit buildings with better insulation or to install high-efficiency water heaters. These improvements not only reduce global warming pollution, they also save money. After all, the cheapest kilowatt-hour of electricity or cubic foot of natural gas is the one you never have to purchase in the first place.

Two additional bills will help Virginia meet targets while also supporting a clean-energy economy. The first extends a green job creation tax credit through the end of 2017, while the second allows localities to create loan programs to finance energy efficiency, water efficiency, and renewable energy projects for commercial buildings.

Altogether, this suite of clean-energy jobs legislation represents a remarkable turn in the right direction for a General Assembly that, back in 2007, declared a heavily-polluting, 585-megawatt coal-fired power plant to be in the public interest. This turn-around is best explained by a growing recognition of the immense job-creation potential with energy efficiency and renewable energy.

A recent report from the Advanced Energy Economy Institute and the Virginia Advanced Energy Industries Coalition finds that leveraging green industries to meet our goals under the Clean Power Plan “can lead to substantial direct job creation in Virginia.”

The report cites the creation of “more than 54,000 cumulative added job-years” over the life of the Clean Power Plan, even accounting for labor lost from the retirement of our oldest coal plants.

That job-creation message has struck a chord with the legislative leaders on both sides of the aisle who patroned these bills. It is also resonating with McAuliffe, who recently said he “fully supports” the Clean Power Plan.

Cale Jaffe is director of the Virginia office of the Southern Environmental Law Center.

By Cale Jaffe, Virginia Pilot