RICHMOND — Gov. Glenn Youngkin on Monday repudiated Virginia’s plan for becoming carbon-free by 2050 as his administration issued a report calling for continued reliance on natural gas and a “moon shot” effort to ramp up nuclear energy.
An update of the state’s energy plan was required under the Virginia Clean Economy Act passed in 2020 by a Democratic-controlled General Assembly and signed into law by then-Gov. Ralph Northam (D). As envisioned at the time, the update would describe how the state would continue to take steps to shed its reliance on fossil fuels.
But Youngkin used the update to argue that the legislation puts Virginia at a competitive disadvantage with other states, and said a mandated transition would drive up the cost of power for consumers. So his report instead outlines proposals to hold down energy costs and slow the switch to renewables such as wind and solar.
That involves an “all of the above approach,” Youngkin said — continuing to rely on natural gas as alternative sources mature and building “the world’s leading nuclear energy hub right here in Virginia.” As a centerpiece, he called for a “moon shot” effort to develop a commercial small modular reactor in Southwest Virginia in the next 10 years.
Technology for such reactors is still being developed around the world. Building a commercially viable unit in Virginia “is more of a Mars shot than a moon shot,” said Albert Pollard, an energy lawyer and former Democratic state delegate.
Most of Youngkin’s prescriptions would require action by the General Assembly, so his energy plan — developed after a period of public comment over the summer — is mostly a policy template that will generate legislation in next year’s session.
With Democrats in control of the state Senate, though, the prospect of substantially changing the Virginia Clean Economy Act seems dim.
Sen. Scott Surovell (D-Fairfax) pointed out in a tweet Monday that one of the factors Lego Corp. cited earlier this year in deciding to put its U.S. manufacturing facility in Chesterfield County was Virginia’s ambitious carbon-free energy goal.
“Youngkin for President is going to single-handedly destroy our VA’s business climate in its zeal to make headlines,” Surovell tweeted, referring to Youngkin’s presumed ambition for national office.
Ceres, a nonprofit environmental group that works with a network of major companies such as Capital One, Target, Ford and Amazon, supported the Virginia Clean Economy Act and said Youngkin’s plan falls short. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.
“Ceres would like to see an emphasis on proven, cost-effective clean energy investments such as solar and wind in an effort to reliably and affordably meet the state’s energy needs and the essential goals of the VCEA,” Alli Gold Roberts, senior director of state policy at Ceres, said via email.
Eight Ceres companies — including Nestlé, Mars and Siemens — had written Youngkin last month to reaffirm their support for the VCEA as well as Virginia’s adoption of California clean car standards and its membership in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative.
Youngkin said Monday that he’ll support legislation to remove Virginia from the California standards, which seek to phase out new gasoline-powered vehicles by 2035. Youngkin is also seeking to remove the state from RGGI, a multistate carbon-trading market, because he believes it raises prices for consumers.
Democrats contend that the governor has no power to withdraw from RGGI because membership was called for in state law. Youngkin’s administration argues that the law authorizes membership but does not mandate it.
At least one aspect of Youngkin’s plan has seen bipartisan support in past General Assembly sessions: restoring the State Corporation Commission’s full power to review rates charged by the state’s largest public utilities, Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power.
Actions by the General Assembly over the past several years have restricted the regulator’s traditional ability to limit price increases and order rebates to consumers. A small, bipartisan group of lawmakers has tried to undo those limits, but failed in the face of the utilities’ enormous political influence.
A previous version of this article reported that the nonprofit environmental group Ceres represents a network of major companies. They work with those companies. The article has been updated.