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Clean Energy Overhaul Clears Chambers Despite Disagreements

Wind turbine and sky
A wind turbine in Japan. The Clean Economy Act calls for a large build out in offshore wind energy. (Contri/Creative Commons)

Virginia’s electricity grid will get a carbon-free makeover under a plan that cleared the House and Senate on Tuesday. 

The legislation advanced in spite of criticism from Republicans and some environmentalists. 

Under the so-called Clean Economy Act, 100% of Virginia’s electricity will come from carbon-free sources like wind or nuclear power by either 2045 or 2050, with competing versions of the bill in each chamber.  

The bill faced obstacles earlier this week as some House Democrats balked at what they saw as a lack of oversight on electricity rates, a continuance of natural gas pipeline projects, and tepid energy efficiency standards.

Substitutes introduced by Del. Rip Sullivan (D-Fairfax) appeared to address those concerns with enough Democrats, with the bill passing 52-47. In the Senate, the bill advanced in a party-line 21-19 vote.

“This bill is the result of hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of hours of discussions, negotiations between what I think is the broadest group of stakeholders ever,” Sullivan said in a floor speech. “As we prepare for what we know is coming, seems to me that the time to act is now.”

Republicans like Delegate Israel O’Quinn (R-Washington) remain skeptical the effects would help Southwest Virginia, where coal is still king.

“Virginia only works correctly and justly if every region is lifted up,” O’Quinn said.

An unusual consortium of Republicans, consumer protection advocates, and environmentalists also say the bill doesn’t do enough to protect consumers from big rate increases.

Del. Sam Rasoul (D-Roanoke), the sponsor of the more ambitious Green New Deal, suggested more changes were in order.  

“What we're asking is as it continues to evolve, just know that the protections are not there -- for vulnerable communities, low income communities...for ratepayers,” Rasoul said.

In the Senate, Republicans lined up to speak out against the bill. Minority Leader Tommy Norment (R-James City) questioned Sen. Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond), the bill's sponsor, over an element of the bill that would cap fees for low-income and minority rate-payers. 

“This much bill is much more pervasive than just about conservation of energy,” Norment argued. 

His Democratic counterpart, Dick Saslaw (D-Fairfax), was unswayed, arguing the costs for consumers worked out to around 2% a year through 2030 -- and that roads and other public goods also came with a price tag.

“You can't do anything for free,” Saslaw said. “They all cost money. Get over it.”

Sen. Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond), the bill's sponsor in the Senate, said that the state needed to start accounting for the economics of inaction in an era of rising sea levels and catastrophic weather events. 

As lawmakers debated the bill, Dominion Energy, which has been involved in negotiations in the legislation, announced on Tuesday its goal of phasing out carbon from its grid by 2050 -- a target favored by the Senate but not the House. 

Ben Paviour covers courts and criminal justice for VPM News with a focus on accountability.
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