In summer and autumn 2017, there was a palpable sense of grassroots, progressive energy across the state of Virginia. After all, it was the first major state election cycle since the advent of the Trump administration. I had spent a lot of volunteer time in 2017 working on Fairfax County renewable energy issues at the county supervisor and school board level for much of the year and also speaking as a Climate Reality Leader.
Whenever I had the chance, I reminded people how critical it was to vote in the state election as most climate progress could only be achieved at the state level with Trump in the White House. In fact, fellow environmental activists managed to rally more than 100 people confront then gubernatorial candidate Ralph Northam during one community event on his wishy-washy stance on the Atlantic Coast and WB Xpress pipelines. Citizens stressed that the projects would increase our carbon footprint and create more price increases for taxpayers. We let several Democrats know this cycle that business as usual and doing the bidding of Dominion Energy was no longer acceptable.
So when the tallies came in on November 7 with historic gains in the State Assembly and a slew of freshman Democratic candidates, environmentalists were overjoyed… at first. Democrats won 15 Republican-held seats in the November 2017 elections, the biggest electoral shift toward the Democrats since 1899. Constituents elected real progressive candidates like Danica Roem, the first openly transgender candidate elected to a state legislature, Elizabeth Guzman and Hala Ayala became the first Latina members of the Assembly and Chris Hurst, a veteran and Democratic Socialist. The day after the election, the results broke down to 51-49 in Republicans favor with a few races in play. In the end, after the runoffs, the balance of power remained the same, but many of us, naively, thought that a spirit of bipartisanship could prevail.
We knew we had a unique opportunity to act… and we had to act fast. The local environmental groups I’d been working with throughout the year, Sierra Club Virginia, 350 Fairfax, Faith Alliance for Climate Solutions and the newly formed Climate Reality Project Northern Virginia quickly created an impromptu NoVA Environmental Coalition task force to reach out to delegates who had historically introduced renewable energy bills. But to be honest, most of the bills introduced in the past lacked ambition and basically went to theSpecial Subcommittee on Energy to die. We were concerned that more traditional conservation lobby groups would dominate the environmental agenda. Protecting watersheds and our natural resources is critically important. But I for one wanted to see bills that started to chart a path to a completely different energy future – to change the demand for fossil fuels as a root cause.
Our first outreach was to the Virginia Environmental and Renewable Energy Caucus or VERE, spearheaded by Arlington delegate Alfonso Lopez. Unlike the Climate Caucus in the U.S. Congress, the VERE is composed of strictly Democrats. The legislative session is also extremely abbreviated in Virginia; placeholder bills had to be pre-filed by December 17.
We managed to get a Zoom conference call with Lopes staff and invited as many environmental champions as we could. We got Del. Rip Petersen, the legislative assistants of Dels. Mark Keam, Alfonso Lopes and David Bulova as well as representatives from Tesla Energy and Connect DER in the solar energy. We stressed that Virginia needed bills with teeth this legislative session and we had to introduce bills that articulated a path toward the future, even if they suffered the same fate as bills in the past. We had two broad principles:
- Virginia needs an ambitious roadmap and supporting legislation in this session and subsequent sessions to chart a path to 100% renewable energy by 2050 with a benchmark of 30% renewable energy by 2030 statewide
- To create an level-playing field environment of competition for solar choice where community solar, residential solar and commercial solar can flourish in Virginia and create green energy jobs
- Implement a mandatory renewable portfolio standard enforced by the SCC that carves out specific targets for wind and solar and 30% renewable energy by 2030 for all utilities (Amend Va. Code 56-585.2)
- Fewer restrictions on net metering to allow for residential solar growth, including abolishment of solar system cap size and standby charges (Amend Va. Code 56-594)
- Mandate that consumer-focused Green Power programs operated by utilities purchase renewable solar, wind or hydro energy from projects produced in the state, not just purchasing RECs out of state which doesn’t build state capacity.
- Offer state tax credits for residential and business installation of wind or solar.
The call went well with notable support from Del. Sullivan. The NoVa Coalition monitored Richmond Sunlight religiously to see when the bills would be introduced. Things were looking bleak until a week before the pre-filing deadline. To our amazement, many of the specific asks from that call made there way to slew of Assembly bills. I won’t go into all 23 bills introduced in the House but the high-priority bills included:
- HB436 – Mandatory renewable portfolio standard for state utilities, 20% by 2019 – Del. Rip Sullivan (D-Arlington)
- HB930 – Net energy metering for multifamily customers – Del. Alfonso Lopez (D-Arlington)
- HB1253 – Net energy metering for municipal buildings – Del. Kathy Tran (D-Springfield)
- HB586 – Allowing subscriber-based community energy programs – Del. Wendy Gooditis (D-Clarke)
- HB54 – Renewable energy property; tax credit for property placed in service. Del. Rip Sullivan (D-Arlington)
There were 14 introduced in the Senate. We knew we were in trouble when the Republicans announced that the would not be allowing proportional representation at the House Subcommittee level. The Commerce and Labor Committee had a 12-10 advantage to the Republicans. But the Special Subcommittee on Energy was 7-4 Republicans… extremely long odds.
For weeks, the bills did not come up for hearing but our NoVa Coalition aligned action alerts with the VA-PLAN initiative to make sure that the top priority bills got on the radar of constituents across the state. Then on January 28, most of the bills we championed came up for a Subcommittee hearing. We triggered our state wide e-mail alerts for people to call committee chair Del. Israel O’Quinn and their local delegate if they sat on the Subcommittee to support these bills. I must have called the subcommittee chair’s office and other delegates a half dozen times that week, even though my local delegate did not sit on the Energy Subcommittee. By the end of the week, all of the key bills were dead… just as in years past.
The environmental issue that got the most attention and press was a sinister bill (HB 1558/SB 966) which would allow a “rate freeze” implemented in 2015 to essentially become permanent, locking Dominion customers into a higher rate even though energy prices were dropping. The rate freeze was implemented because of Obama’s Clean Power Act which was overturned by an executive order by President Trump. But Dominion wanted to keep its obscene profits anyway. Some rewrites of the bill allowed some of the over-earnings to be invested in renewables but customers had little say. And predictably, Gov. Northam signed the bill which passed both chambers.
This experience taught me a few core political lessons to take to the future. First, people should not get too excited about a so-called Blue Wave. Sure, what happened in Virginia was a harbinger of progressive energy to come perhaps, but close means no cigar. In an age where partisan rancor is at an all-time high, compromise it not in the cards and razor-thin 51-49 majorities translate to inaction. Our climate crisis will not allow for inaction at the state or national level. To make progress on climate action in line with what science tells us about how much time we have left, we need a Blue Tsunami not a wave. (We shouldn’t discount the centrist Republicans at the national level who accept climate science and are willing to act).
Second, money has corrupted our politics. Dominion Energy is the largest political donor in Virginia and has contributed thousands of dollars to dozens of candidates on both sides of the aisles. While more and more candidates are refusing to take Dominion cash, both parties are still dominated by candidates who are more than happy to take Dominion’s money and let them write their own legislation. Perhaps one election day soon, enough progressive candidates who refuse Dominion money will win a supermajority in the statehouse. But 2017 was not that year.
Finally, we shouldn’t confuse the reworking of a crappy bill to a slightly less crappy bill with environmental progress. Cities, states and nations have to keep introducing bills, session after session, that promise a new clean energy economy because solar and wind promises cheaper energy than natural gas and far more permanent positions. There are tens of thousands of jobs to be had as solar and wind technicians if Virginia had the legislative framework to stimulate it. Future bills need language and principles that can attract both parties. They need to have the word “jobs” “entrepreneurship” and “tax breaks” in them. We are at a point in history where clean energy legislation can help cool our planet and grow the global economy at rapid pace. But we will need a new generation of idealistic, courageous legislators in the next few election cycles to have a chance.