Harrison Crecraft, Scott Emery and Karel Svoboda are founding members of Zero Carbon Virginia.

The 2020 legislative session was a historic one for Virginia. For anyone concerned about climate change and reducing pollution, the omnibus Virginia Clean Economy Act (VCEA) is a big step forward. But news reports have mostly misrepresented the law. It is better than represented.

According to the summary posted on Virginia’s Legislative Information System, Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power “are required to produce their electricity from 100 percent renewable sources by 2045 and 2050.” The goal of 100 percent renewable energy has been widely reported in the governor’s news release and articles in the mainstream press.

Virginia’s renewable energy resources are limited. Its dispatchable, on-demand renewable energy resources are hydropower and biomass. Hydropower provides only 1.8 percent of Virginia’s power and has little potential for expansion; biomass provides approximately 4 percent of Virginia’s power, mostly from wood products. The bulk of Virginia’s renewable energy power will be met by wind and solar.

In addition, 100 percent renewable energy would require decommissioning Virginia’s nuclear power plants, which generate 31 percent of our baseload electric power, carbon-free. At the same time, electrification of the transportation sector, space heating and Virginia’s expanding data centers will increase our demand for reliable electricity, which cannot be met by wind and solar power alone.

Wind and solar power vary widely over periods ranging from hours to seasons. Smoothing these variations to provide stable power, 24/7 year-round, is technologically and economically unrealistic, even with the most optimistic projections for the growth of energy storage. Renewable energy is very appealing, but 100 percent renewables is an unforgiving target. Achieving 100 percent renewable energy, without maintaining or even increasing Virginia’s nuclear capacity, would likely require a massive build-out of overcapacity of intermittent renewable energy sources as well as energy storage. It is difficult to imagine achieving 100 percent renewable energy without incurring a huge expense and a concomitant increase in the cost of electricity.

The VCEA is among the most ambitious energy plans in the country, but is it achievable? Digging into the VCEA’s language reveals that the widely reported goal of 100 percent renewable energy is a misrepresentation of the law. Fortunately, the VCEA is squarely focused on the core issue of eliminating carbon emissions from the power sector while ensuring the reliability of the electric power supply at reasonable cost. It does this by defining “total electric energy” to mean the electric energy sold by Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power in the previous calendar year, excluding nuclear power generated by plants in service in 2020, and excluding carbon-free (but not renewable) electrical power sources established after July 1, 2030. The schedule for achieving 100 percent renewable energy applies only to “total electric energy,” as defined above. This logical jiujitsu allows continuation of existing carbon-free nuclear generation, and it provides flexibility to accommodate new carbon-free energy sources as they become technologically and economically feasible. Overall, the VCEA provides a cost-effective path to decarbonization that maintains reliable electric power.

The Virginia Clean Economy Act is the most forward-looking state energy plan in the South. Its focus on zero-carbon generation puts us on a solid path toward decarbonizing Virginia’s electric power sector, but the electric power sector accounts for only 32 percent of the commonwealth’s greenhouse gas emissions. The VCEA does not mandate decarbonization of Virginia’s entire economy, and its passage is not mission accomplished.

Achieving a carbon-free economy by 2050 requires the General Assembly to turn its attention to decarbonizing Virginia’s transportation, industrial and land-use sectors.

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