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Opinion With energy policy, there’s no free lunch

Dominion's Hybrid Energy Center is reflected in the window of a presbyterian church in Virginia City, Va., in 2016.
Dominion's Hybrid Energy Center is reflected in the window of a presbyterian church in Virginia City, Va., in 2016. (Julia Rendleman/The Washington Post)
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Mike Tidwell is director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Fund. Ruth McElroy Amundsen is a Norfolk resident and climate activist with Mothers Out Front.

There’s no free lunch in the universe. Everyone knows that — especially when it comes to energy policy.

So this month, as Virginia lawmakers take their first real shot at climate change legislation in defiance of Dominion Energy’s historic rule by monopoly, there will be no freebies. The push for fresh energy policy is made possible by new Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, with Ralph Northam (D) as governor.

And the energy bill now before lawmakers — a top priority of the environmental community — is called the Virginia Clean Economy Act (H.B. 1526). It has powerful patrons in the House and Senate. It is supported by the broadest coalition of environmental and business groups ever assembled in the state, ranging from the Sierra Club to Charlottesville-based Apex Clean Energy.

And it’s not a free lunch. At all.

Instead, it’s a lunch we’re paid to eat. By mandating a transition toward lower-cost efficiency investments and ever-cheaper wind and solar power, the bill saves ratepayers and businesses money all across Virginia’s electrical grid.

How much money? As much as $3,500 per ratepayer (cumulatively) by 2050. (In that year, all fossil-fuel generated electricity is completely phased out under this bill.) The savings rate is in contrast to Dominion’s business-as-usual approach of gouging ratepayers with pricey, dirty fossil-fuel investments and doing next to nothing on efficiency. The “Dominion way” has already given Virginia among the highest average electricity bills in the nation.

And this doesn’t even cover the incalculable costs of climate change. As wildfires burn in Australia (at least 25,000 koalas may have perished already) and as climate-related drought devastates southern Africa (8 million people lack food in Zimbabwe), the Trump administration continues its morally bankrupt attack on clean energy laws everywhere. Which is why states such as Virginia must step up now. The Clean Economy Act helps Virginia honor its commitment to the Paris climate agreement.

But Dominion is already angling to rewrite the bill. The company claims the legislation is too complicated, even though it was carefully crafted with input from dozens of solar, wind and electricity storage companies that will actually have to meet the new standard in real life. Dominion is also telling lawmakers that the bill could be costly. Ha! To Dominion, east is west and up is down as long as the company can keep overcharging ratepayers and harming the climate with its preferred network of coal and gas plants.

Members of the General Assembly should make no mistake. The Clean Economy Act is what years of backlash and struggle against Dominion have been leading to. A full one-third of House and Senate members have pledged not to take election campaign money from Dominion precisely so leaders can listen to their voters in moments like this — not Dominion.

So now it’s time to support the Clean Economy Act. According to a recent report by the think tank Greenlink Group, the approach of dramatic efficiency investments, combined with wind and solar power and battery storage incentives, will create as many as 1,000 new clean-energy jobs annually in the commonwealth by 2050. By the year 2030, nearly 30 percent of the state’s nonnuclear electricity consumption would come from renewables. (We’re at about 5 percent now.) And under this bill, we’ll be at 88 percent carbon-free power by 2040 and 100 percent by 2050 (renewables plus nuclear).

Significantly, the bill also prioritizes protections for low- and moderate-income Virginians. The state will formally join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative under this bill, a successful carbon-cap system for dirty power plants now in place from Maine to Maryland. By 2030, this “polluter pays” program alone will generate at least a half-billion dollars for efficiency upgrades in low-income households and probably another half billion for coastal protection investments in ever-more-flooded Hampton Roads.

Finally, a note of caution to legislators: The Clean Economy Act as introduced already represents a finely balanced compromise involving dozens of nonprofits and business interests. Any further weakening imposed by Dominion or others will dramatically hinder the legislation’s pathway to passage.

In short, this bill as introduced is a test for legislators who are serious about casting off the Dominion Way in favor of a “New Virginia Way” on energy, climate and justice. A brand new lunch is being offered on the menu, one we will be paid to eat. Or Dominion can keep stealing food from our kitchen tables while harming the one planet we have to live on.

Read more:

Read a letter responding to this op-ed: Dominion is pressing forward on clean energy

Vivian E. Thomson : A Dominion compressor station would disadvantage a historically black community in Virginia

Sarah Conley: Dominion’s approach to offshore wind is cautious

Ken Cuccinelli II: Virginia has a pipeline problem