Del. Richard "Rip" Sullivan, D-Arlington, gestures during the House session at the Capitol Thursday, March. 5, 2020, in Richmond, Va. Sullivan is leading the floor debate on the renewable energy bills. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Sweeping renewable energy bill poised for final passage

March 05, 2020 - 7:32 pm

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — A sweeping energy bill that supporters said would make Virginia a national leader in addressing climate change passed the state House Thursday amid warnings by critics that it will carry a steep price tag.

The legislation, called the Virginia Clean Economy Act, moved to the Senate for its expected final passage.

One of the new Democratic majority's priorities this session, the bill would overhaul how Virginia utilities generate electricity, laying out a path toward zero carbon emissions by 2045. It paves the way for an enormous expansion of offshore wind generation, solar or onshore wind generation, and the use of battery storage technology.

Sponsor Del. Rip Sullivan called the measure “the most important opportunity this body has ever had to take control of our clean energy future."

The legislation requires utilities to meet certain energy efficiency standards utilities, creates a mandatory renewable portfolio standard, and contains provisions advocates say will remove barriers to rooftop and shared solar energy.

The legislation would increase the number of customers who can participate in net metering — a process by which customers with solar panels can effectively sell back electricity they generate but don't use. It also would raise the allowed amount of third-party financed solar, which is often used by schools or local governments.

The House passed the bill 51-45 on Thursday. The Senate could take it up later Thursday or Friday and send it to Gov. Ralph Northam, whose administration has been involved in the negotiations.

The bill's sponsors have said hundreds of hours of negotiations have gone into crafting the final product. Participants in those talks included Dominion Energy, environmental groups and Advanced Energy Economy, a national association of businesses.

Republican lawmakers have opposed the measure, repeatedly raising concerns about costs to ratepayers. A handful of Democrats opposed it, also raising concerns about ratepayers costs, and some suggested the bill's goals weren't adequate to address the urgency of climate change.

The State Corporation Commission has previously estimated Dominion Energy, whose electric utility is Virginia’s largest and covers about two-thirds of the state, would collect about $50.8 billion from Virginia customers due to the solar, wind and battery storage requirements.

Dominion would earn about $12.5 billion in profit over the life of the facilities after taxes, according to the SCC.

The SCC has estimated that implementing the bill would result in an annual minimum increase for the typical residential customer's bill of $27.80 for the years 2027-2030, a figure that the legislation's backers have disputed.

Angela Navarro, deputy secretary of commerce and trade, said a consultant the administration hired found that in 2030, the average monthly residential customer's bills would be $.71 lower than it is now.

An analysis done for Advanced Energy Economy also found it would reduce bills, by about $3.41 per month.

The bill allows utility customers to be charged a fee to fund a program intended to keep the electric bills of low-income individuals down, a provision that's drawn criticism from Republicans.

“Nobody’s capping my rates," Republican Senate Minority Leader Tommy Norment said during a committee hearing on the bill.

The bill's future briefly seemed in doubt Thursday, after the House voted to adopt amendments from Democratic Del. Sam Rasoul, an opponent of the bill, that its sponsors considered unfriendly. That set off frenzied lobbying among Democrats. The amendments were later withdrawn, and the measure passed. Lobbyists supporting the measure who were watching just outside the House chamber let out an audible sigh of relief.

The measure that advanced Thursday was described as a compromise between the different versions that previously cleared each chamber.

The latest edition included a provision that says regulators must consider the social cost of carbon - a greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change - when deciding whether to construct a new generating facility.

The new bill also does away with a provision that would likely have forced a southwest Virginia coal plant to close by 2030, a provision that sparked an enormous outcry from Republican lawmakers and local officials whose communities benefit from the plant's tax revenue.

Instead, both Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power must close all electric generating units that emit carbon by 2045. The Virginia City Hybrid Energy Center, owned by Dominion and located in Wise County, could still close sooner.

Sullivan said a number of provisions had also been added to strengthen the SCC's oversight of enacting the measure after critics, including the attorney general's office raised concerns.

The bill doesn't contain an explicit moratorium on new fossil fuel-fired generating facilities, a point that some critics said showed it didn't go far enough. Instead, the bill says that if two Virginia cabinet secretaries decide that the bill's emission-reduction targets aren't being met, they will advise the General Assembly about whether such a moratorium should be issued by 2030.

Also Thursday, the Senate passed a bill over the objection of Dominion that would restore state regulators' oversight of how electric utilities can write off certain costs. Environmental groups considered it a big win in the business-friendly and more conservative upper chamber.

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