‘Historic’ clean energy legislation expands solar, threatens coal

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RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)- What keeps the lights on in Virginia could change drastically over the next three decades. A bill being praised as ‘historic’ climate change legislation could shut down a staple industry in some parts of the state.

One version of the Clean Economy Act requires the Commonwealth to transition to one hundred percent renewable energy by 2050. It calls for major new investments in industrial solar and offshore wind, potentially creating tens of thousands of new jobs.

The bill also breaks open the market for residential solar. Tracy Willis said his family paid more than $40 thousand to have 34 panels put on his Richmond home.

Crews installed 34 solar panels on a Richmond home on Monday.

“The environmental impact was a major part of it,” Willis said. “We also wanted to save money on our electric bill.”

Currently, Willis can sell the energy he produces back to the grid to zero out his monthly bill. The Clean Economy Act would allow him and many more to actually make money from the excess power they generate. It also designates funds to provide solar to low income households and expands “power purchase agreements,” a cheaper option for those who don’t want to pay for installation.

“We’re reaching a tipping point with addressing climate change and we need to break our reliance on fossil fuels,” said Sen. Jennifer McClellan (D-9), the chief-patron of the Senate bill.

Breaking that dependence means breaking up a core industry for some Southwest Virginia communities. The bill requires power plants to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by more than 80 percent or close by 2030.

The Virginia City Hybrid Energy Center is at risk of closure under the Clean Economy Act.

“Everybody in the community is talking about this and the impact it will have on the county,” said Wise County Administrator Michael Hatfield.

Hatfield said shutting down the Virginia City Hybrid Energy Center, a coal-fired power plant owned by Dominion Energy, would result in the loss of 170 jobs and about a quarter of the county’s annual tax revenue.

“This is not just an economic impact. This is an environmental impact also,” Hatfield said.

The facility has been hit with three environmental violations, despite being championed by some as the cleanest coal-burning plant in the world. Still, Del. Terry Kilgore (R-1) says Dominion has helped clean up millions of tons of “gob piles,” toxic waste left behind by coal processing over decades.

“It means it’s not going into our rivers. It’s not going into our streams,” Kilgore said.

Kilgore is also concerned about the cost of the transition from “king coal” to clean energy. “I think consumers are going to get sticker shock,” he said.

If the bill becomes law, the State Corporation Commission estimates the average customer’s monthly bill could go up by more than $20 by 2027.

SCC Spokesperson Ken Schrad said, as the bills are currently written, there are no caps on what ratepayers would have to pick up. Schrad said the bills deem renewable energy investments “in the public interest,” meaning the SCC won’t have the authority to regulate rate hikes.

“All of the cost is going to be recovered from ratepayers,” Schrad said. “About the only thing you can do is spread it out over a longer period of time.” 

Sen. McClellan said the SCC’s estimate “assumed a lot of things that weren’t true and didn’t assume any of the cost savings that this bill would generate.” She said there are other bills moving through the General Assembly that will help control costs to consumers.

“There’s a cost of doing nothing,” McClellan added. “You’re either going to pay to shift away from greenhouse gases or you’re going to pay for the effects of climate change through sea-level rise and impacts to industry.”

The House and the Senate already passed the Clean Economy Act but lawmakers are still working out differences between the bills. Del. Kilgore said the deadline for the potential closure of power plants is still being debated.

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