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Statewide environmental news roundup: 2023 General Assembly recap
A contributed perspectives piece by the Climate Action Alliance of the Valley (CAAV)
Editor’s Note: This is a special edition of a regular series of contributed news roundups about statewide environmental and energy news. This piece highlights, with links to further coverage in various media outlets, some of the energy, transportation, and utility bills introduced during the recently-ended 2023 General Assembly (GA) session. Not all-inclusive, the bills noted include actions by area legislators (Delegates Avoli, Runion, Wilt; State Senators Hanger, Obenshain). This GA session saw many bills introduced in these categories. CAAV selected those we consider most noteworthy. At this writing, some (perhaps most) of the following bills are awaiting the Governor’s action. There will be a special session soon to finalize the budget; there could be more surprises in the offing. In addition to the links below, here are some additional items about the GA session, developed by various bloggers and organizations: CCAN, Ivy Main, VPAP, Utility Dive, VPM, Washington Post, Steve Haner of Bacon’s Rebellion, and Associated Press.
Virginia Clean Economy Act (VCEA)
The VCEA (HB 1526 and SB 851) passed in 2020, establishing requirements for clean energy to reduce Virginia’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions very significantly by 2050. There were a number of bills introduced in 2023 targeting one or more of the VCEA provisions for repeal or to lessen requirements. Results were mixed; while the VCEA was perhaps somewhat weakened, overall it remained intact.
- HB 1430 would have exempted some large energy buyers and manufacturers from paying their proportionate costs of VCEA’s costs. Area delegates voted in favor; the bill passed the House of Delegates but was later pulled by its patron, because of the expectation of failure in the State Senate.
- HB 2130 would have authorized the State Corporation Commission (SCC) to weaken utilities’ Renewable Performance Standards (RPS) obligations. Area delegates voted in favor; the bill passed the House of Delegates but failed in the Senate.
Other bills would have expanded the statutory definition of renewable energy (RE) to include coal mine methane (HB 1643/SB 1121 and HB 2178), biomass (HB 2026 and SB 1231), nuclear and hydrogen (HB 2311 and HB 2197).
- HB 1643/SB 1121 were amended to encourage a policy “to encourage capture & beneficial use” of methane; they passed both House and Senate and area delegates and senators voted in favor. HB 2178 added methane to the definition of “green jobs”, thereby making tax credits available for methane extraction jobs. It pass both House and Senate and all five area legislators voted in favor.
- HB 2026/SB 1231, as amended, will allow Dominion’s “biomass-fired facilities to qualify as RE standard eligible sources” and thus continue in operation past the VCEA deadline of December 31, 2028. The bills passed both House and Senate; area legislators voted in favor.
- HB 2311/HB 2197 would have added both nuclear and hydrogen to the RE definition. HB 2311 failed in the House while HB 2197 passed, with support from area delegates. It failed in a Senate committee; Senator Obenshain voted against “killing” the bill.
Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI)
SB 1001 would have repealed the law authorizing Virginia’s participation in RGGI. It was voted down in committee; Senator Hanger abstained and Senator Obenshain opposed killing it. The Governor’s attempt to withdraw Virginia through regulatory action continues, however. Public comment on the regulation is possible through March 31 at https://townhall.virginia.gov/L/comments.cfm?stageid=9879. CAAV opposes the regulatory action and will submit comments before the deadline.
There were numerous bills to repeal Virginia’s Clean Car Standards, passed during special GA session 1 in 2021. At that time, all area delegates and senators voted against establishing the standards, which tie “the state to emissions standards set by California that will ban the sale of new gas-powered vehicles starting in 2035.” The standards require that “the State Air Pollution Control Board implement a low-emissions and zero-emissions vehicle program for motor vehicles with a model year of 2025 and later.”
- HB 1378, which Delegate Wilt sponsored in 2023, was one of many bills to repeal the standards. All repeal attempts failed, including HB 1378, which passed the House, with all area delegates supporting the repeal. It was voted down in a Senate committee; both area senators opposed killing it.
- HB 1588/SB 1466 would have authorized a grant program for electric vehicle (EV) chargers in rural areas. Both area senators supported SB 1466 when it passed the Senate. Delegates Runion and Wilt supported HB 1588/SB1466 in committee, but it died in another committee.
- SB 1312 would have allowed localities to require EV chargers in certain circumstances, through their zoning authority. SB 1312 passed the Senate over the opposition of both area Senators, but failed in the House; area delegates voted against the bill.
SB 1323 requires the SCC “to establish for Dominion Energy Virginia annual energy efficiency savings targets for customers who are low-income, elderly, disabled, or veterans of military service. The bill requires the Commission, in establishing such targets, to seek to optimize energy efficiency and the health and safety benefits of utility energy efficiency programs.” There is already a requirement that 15% of program investment be directed to low-income customers. The bill passed both chambers with broad, bipartisan support, including from area legislators.
Solar bills, in contrast, didn’t fare as well and generally didn’t receive bipartisan support.
- SB 848 was looking to help make school buildings cheaper by deploying more solar panels to power them. It would have led to standards for local school systems to follow. It passed unanimously in the Senate but failed in a House committee, reportedly because of concerns over the respective roles of local versus state government.
- HJ545, a resolution, sought to request a VA Department of Energy study of ways local governments could overcome barriers to purchasing solar for themselves and their constituents. It failed in a House committee; Delegate Wilt voted to “kill” it.
- SB 1333 proposed to create a “Commonwealth Solar and Economic Development Program for low-income and moderate-income Virginians [, expanding] the Low to Moderate Income Solar Loan and Rebate Fund to extend grants in addition to loans or paying rebates to electric customers who complete solar installations or energy efficiency improvements subject to certain requirements….” It passed the Senate, with Senator Hanger supporting and Senator Obenshain opposing. It passed in one House committee, with Delegate Wilt supporting and Delegate Runion opposing; it later failed in another House committee.
- Resolution HJ487 sought a study and report on solar panel installation and use in divided highways’ medians. Assigned to the House Rules committee of which Delegate Wilt was a member, it wasn’t acted upon.
- SB 2355 wanted to establish “a stakeholder work group to develop recommendations [in its report] for consumer protection regulations regarding the sale or lease of solar energy generation facilities … under 25 kilowatts in capacity.” It failed in a House subcommittee.
- SB984 would have clarified “the legality of solar leases; although it passed the Senate unanimously, and in one House subcommittee, with Delegate Wilt supporting, it was not acted upon by the house committee.
- SB949 proposed to extend C-PACE (Commercial-Property Assessed Clean Energy) loans to residences including condominiums. C-PACE is “a voluntary special assessment lien that secures a loan for the initial acquisition and installation of clean energy, resiliency, or stormwater management improvement.” A Senate committee decided to “kill” the bill, with Senator Hanger’s agreement.
- SB 1083 was a bipartisan effort to improve the results of earlier legislation that allowed Dominion to establish a shared solar program resulted in the SCC authorized $55 as the “minimum” amount Dominion could charge shared solar customers. The shared solar utility program “allows customers … to purchase electric power through a subscription in a shared solar facility.” The authorized minimum would disincentivize customer participation. SB 1266 wanted to expand shared solar in Appalachian Power territory (Southwest Virginia).
The two bills would have required “that a customer’s net bill for participation in the shared solar program …[would] not exceed the [SCC-approved] minimum bill … [and would have included SCC] considerations … such as minimizing the costs shifted to non-participating customers, and … the calculation of a customer’s minimum bill …. They [also included convening] a stakeholder workgroup to evaluate incentives for certain shared solar projects and … a report of its recommendations.” Both bills passed the Senate with Senator Hanger’s support; Senator Obenshain opposed. They both died in House sub-committees.
- SB 1419 would have permitted “individual retail customers of an electric utility to purchase electric energy provided 100 percent from RE from any licensed supplier.” In other words, it would have given Virginia utility customers a choice about their RE sources. It died in a Senate committee; Senator Obenshain voted to “kill” it.
- HB 1797 would have held Dominion customers “harmless” if Dominion’s project underperformed based on Dominion’s projected net capacity of 42 percent. Dominion lobbied against the bill, which nonetheless passed the House, with area delegates’ support. It died in a Senate subcommittee; Senator Obenshain voted in the bill’s favor.
- SB 1477 allows “Dominion Energy Virginia, in connection with certain offshore wind projects, to establish an offshore wind affiliate … [to obtain an] equity financing partner for the project [that could] operate as a public utility in association with the utility.” As amended in both Senate and House, and with support from area delegates, the bill passed.
- SB 1441/HB 2444 requires the SCC to “duly” consider, during its cost recovery proceedings, “economic development benefits” [to the state from Dominion’s offshore wind project], including capital investments and job creation…. The bills [would have moved forward the timeline] from 2034 to 2032 for public utilities to construct or purchase one or more offshore wind generation facilities.” They passed House and Senate on a bipartisan basis, with support from area legislators.
- On the other hand, HB 1854, which would have required the SCC “to submit … [annual status reports about approved] offshore wind energy projects …. The bill [would have required] electric utilities proposing offshore wind development to consider and incorporate information [and recommendations] from the Commission’s annual reports….” Such recommendations could have saved ratepayers money. The bill failed in a House subcommittee.
HB 1783 would have stopped localities from limiting customer access to “natural gas service and supply from both utility and non-utility gas companies, … from denying building permits solely based on a proposed utility provider…,[or from restricting] an applicant’s ability to use the services of an authorized utility provider.” It passed the House with the support of area delegates but failed in a Senate Committee, with Senator Obenshain voting in favor of the bill.
- HB 1779 proposed establishing a “Nuclear Education Grant Fund and Program, to be administered by the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, … [to provide competitive] grants … to any public [or private]institution of higher education … that seeks to establish or expand a nuclear education program….” It passed the House and the Senate on a bipartisan basis, including support from area legislators.
- HB 2333 would have authorized the SCC “to establish a small modular nuclear reactors [SMR] pilot program [within 10 years].” It passed the House, with support by area delegates; the Senate added an SCC requirements to look at costs as compared to alternatives and to protect ratepayer risks if the SMR never went live. The Senate voted unanimously for the bill as amended, but it failed in the House, with area delegates voting against the Senate version.
Bills around this policy subject were a major focus of attention and efforts by legislators, lobbyists, environmental and other organizations, and Dominion. Results were mixed, with ratepayers gaining some relief and Dominion getting some of what it wanted, though not all.
- Considered pro-consumer, HB 1604/SB 1321 were a bipartisan effort that succeeded, passing unanimously as amended in both Houses. Called The Affordable Energy Act, the legislation is arguably a major energy reform bill because it restored the SCC’s authority to lower a utility’s base rate if/when it determines that the utility has overcharged customers. That authority had been removed several years ago by the GA.
- Another bipartisan effort at the behest of Dominion, SB 1265/HB 1770 wanted to increase Dominion’s guaranteed rate of return, thereby ultimately raising customer rates, though offering some initial “savings” that would have been more than offset in the longer term. The bills’ effect would also have been to greatly lessen Virginia’s ability to meet its VCEA goals. With active interest from the Governor, as well as many stakeholders, the bills’ final language reduced negative effects on ratepayers, strengthened SCC authority, and removed the threat to the VCEA. They passed the Senate unanimously and with only one negative vote in the House; area legislators voted in support.
- SB 1166/HB 2275 was yet another bipartisan effort—this one to reactivate and reform the long-dormant Virginia Commission on Electric Utility Regulation, with its purpose being to conduct legislative “energy planning & electric utility oversight.” With amendments, both House and Senate approved the final version unanimously. Going forward, the Commission is tasked with overseeing Virginia’s utility policy and do so in a proactive way that avoids presentation of type of sweeping bills like SB 1265/HB 1770 at the outset of a GA session, whose duration doesn’t allow for adequate exploration and debate of ideas, consideration of expert opinion, and, perhaps most significant, formulation of utility policy with appropriate analysis. In theory, the Commission—made up of GA members—should provide much needed, and timely, support to the entire GA.
The Climate Action Alliance of the Valley (CAAV) is a non-profit, grassroots group in the Central Shenandoah Valley that educates legislators and the public about the implications of the Earth’s worsening climate crisis.