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Walton Shepherd column: General Assembly can move past partisan paralysis on climate change and deliver a clean economy
Environmental Issues

Walton Shepherd column: General Assembly can move past partisan paralysis on climate change and deliver a clean economy

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Polarizing tribal politics too often overshadow Virginia’s common challenges of climate change and rising seas, obscuring ready solutions and economic opportunities in the process. With a new legislature in the statehouse soon, amid many pressing issues vying for attention, lawmakers can confidently act on climate change and a clean economy with three straightforward Es: efficiency, emissions and equity.

These solutions are already proven economy boosters elsewhere. They’re something fiscal hawks, climate hawks and Dominion Energy should all agree upon, and maybe, just maybe, leave the politicization of climate change behind as all Virginians enter this critical new decade.

The three Es are simple climate solutions right at hand:

First, prioritizing energy efficiency over far-costlier fossil fuel power plants will grow the economy by directly lowering Virginians’ household electric bills, which are seventh highest in the nation.

Second, the legislature can lower our increasing carbon emissions and unlock a clean economy by codifying Gov. Ralph Northam’s goal of zero carbon emissions by 2050, which was even endorsed by Virginia’s largest carbon-emitter.

Third, the legislature can address equity by tackling the outsized energy burden on minority and low-income Virginians and directing revenue from the carbon reduction program to low-income energy efficiency programs.

Here’s how each solution works:

Efficiency: Virginia lags very far behind the nation in energy-smart performance. If we’re serious about economic growth and want to reduce carbon at no net cost, we must get off the energy efficiency sidelines and join states like Texas and Arkansas in empowering our utilities to deliver efficiency to their customers.

So, what is “energy efficiency”? It’s focused investment in upgrading homes, office buildings, schools, big-box stores and manufacturers with energy-sipping technologies — lighting, heating, cooling, insulation, appliances and more. Efficiency programs ensure all our buildings draw less electricity to keep lights shining, homes toasty and gadgetry humming. Virginia’s leaky, creaky homes and businesses are long overdue for these technology updates. We can accomplish those by expanding beyond modest programs like Dominion’s light bulb and home insulation rebate programs to serve businesses as well.

Add up those simple technology updates all across Virginia, and you get a stronger, cheaper, cleaner economy, with no need to build or fuel expensive power plants.

This will reduce our high, economy-dragging electric-bills, especially for low-income Virginians, who pay more of their income for energy than the rest of Virginia, according to the Virginia Poverty Law Center.

Dominion could certainly be more customer-centric in its investment priorities. The expensive building spree of dozens of gas units, coal- and wood-burning plants, pipelines and even carbon-intensive dam projects all impose too high a cost on Virginia’s economy. And there are more increases coming: To continue building, Dominion needs each Virginia customer to pay out nearly $30 more per month by 2023, on top of Virginia’s already high bills.

That’s not right. We and Dominion can do better.

Virginia’s far better strategy is to instead maximize energy savings — rather than continued waste — by joining 27 other states (the first was Texas) that annually increase customer efficiency programs to reduce bills and pollution.

Emissions-zero by 2050: Virginia’s reduction of climate-changing carbon pollution is anchored in the multi-state Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI). Under that already-proven program, the commonwealth would reduce power plant carbon emissions 30% by 2030. The other ten RGGI states have already halved their emissions, all while expanding their economies faster than the nation, reducing their electric bills below Virginia’s levels and putting thousands to work.

Virginia rightly adopted RGGI carbon reductions in 2019, but the 2020 legislature can build on that progress. With energy efficiency as a carbon-reducing foundation, and battery, solar and wind costs plummeting, the legislature should adopt Northam’s eminently achievable zero-emissions-by-2050 target and transition to a truly clean economy over the next three decades.

Equity: Under Virginia’s RGGI program, electric utilities pocket millions annually in carbon allowance revenue. The legislature must correct this inequity, by ensuring RGGI revenues instead fund energy efficiency programs for low-income customers and other areas in need of energy efficiency upgrades, like public schools and local governments, reducing public costs for all.

By taking action on these 3 Es — supercharging the economy with energy efficiency; codifying Northam’s emissions-zero-by-2050 goal; and directing RGGI revenue to equity and efficiency — the General Assembly would move Virginia beyond the rancor and misinformation around the common threat climate change poses to the state’s future.

The 2020 General Assembly would also clean up Virginia’s air, curb the future costs of climate catastrophe, improve public health, lower bills and create jobs in a clean economy.

Why wait?

Walton Shepherd is Virginia policy director and senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council. Contact him at:

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