A Dominion Energy solar farm in Powhatan County. Courtesy of Dominion Energy.

When the General Assembly passed the Clean Economy Act in 2020, the vote was usually (and accurately) described as almost a party-line vote.

But there’s another way that vote could be described: It was also a vote that split more or less along geographical lines, with legislators from metro areas for it, and legislators from rural areas against it.

Yes, there were some exceptions – mostly the handful of Republicans from suburban districts – but the general pattern holds true. Now that may seem obvious, given how our politics have fractured along geographical lines, with Democrats dominating in metro areas and Republicans dominating in rural areas. But that thought came to mind as I read Megan Schnabel’s story this week on the solar boom across Southside (and sometimes rural areas elsewhere). That solar boom is a direct result of the Clean Economy Act, which mandates that Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power go carbon-free – the former by 2045, the latter by 2050, with all coal-fired plants closed by 2024. (This is a good time to make our usual disclosure that Dominion is one of our donors, but donors have no say in news decisions. You can read the full list of our now more than 1,000 donors and our policy. You can also help fund us and have no influence, too.)

So let’s look at this in geopolitical terms: Here’s a law passed by a mostly metropolitan majority in the General Assembly whose effects are playing out most dramatically in the rural parts of the state, whose representatives voted against the measure.

Now, whether those effects are good or bad depends on your point of view.

The collapse of coal is good for everyone who likes to breathe clean air and doesn’t want to see the planet burned to a crisp, but it’s obviously bad for the communities in Southwest Virginia whose economies had been built around digging the stuff out of the ground. Coal was in decline anyway so the Clean Economy Act didn’t cause that; it merely accelerated that trend.

By contrast, the solar boom across Southside is very much tied to the act’s renewable mandates. Now some in Southside see the sudden blooming of solar farms as a good thing. Landowners can make money off property that they weren’t making before. Localities, hard pressed to provide services and keep taxes down, now have another revenue stream. Others see it quite differently: They see farmland taken out of production and viewsheds spoiled, perhaps even property values tanked.

That’s why, as Megan reported, some localities have embraced solar, some have not, and solar farms seem to become increasingly controversial.

Now, my point here today isn’t to re-litigate the Clean Economy Act or even whether solar is good or bad. Personally, it seems a good national security move if we can produce more of our energy from the sun overhead and not have to rely on unsavory governments in Venezuela or Saudi Arabia to pump fossil fuels out of the ground. And if we can produce energy without throwing off emissions that get measured by the metric ton, that seems a good thing, too. I recently interviewed Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Salem, about a bill he’s been involved in to promote research into marijuana. He’s in favor of medical cannabis, but not recreational weed. His theory: “Burning plant material and inhaling it” probably isn’t good for your lungs. The same thing probably applies to the planet’s lungs, too, right?

But this isn’t about that. This is about something else. This is about political climate change, not the environmental kind.

What we have here are legislators from metro areas making policy that may be good environmentally for all of us but is obviously bad, economically, for Southwest Virginia and also bad (at least in the eyes of some) for Southside.

What are the political consequences of that? Probably more political polarization, right? Once Democrats became aligned with “the war on coal,” their fortunes sank in Appalachia in one of the most rapid realignments we’ve seen. Case in point: West Virginia had been a reliably Democratic state in all but the worst of Democratic years. Then along came Al Gore and it flipped from 37% Republican in 1996 to 52% Republican in 2000 and now is routinely north of 60% Republican.

If you’re a Southside resident who thinks solar energy has just produced a new cash flow off the Back 40, you’re probably not going to go out and thank Democrats, even if maybe you should. But what happens if you’re a Southside resident who now blames Northern Virginia Democrats for ruining your view? Maybe that’s not going to change any election, but my point is that it further divides us along geographical lines, and that doesn’t seem a good thing.

I’m not suggesting the Clean Economy Act’s renewable mandates are a bad idea; I am wondering if the proponents realized how much one part of the state would have to bear so many of the consequences from that law – and how deeply unpopular those consequences would be with some people. Is that kind of division good for our civic health?

I personally wouldn’t object to a solar farm next to me but, for the sake of argument, let’s say that a solar farm is a bad thing – or at least that a solar farm next to a residential area or a solar farm taking farmland out of production is a bad thing. The question then becomes why does rural America have to shoulder so much of the load?

Now, here’s the reality: There is no energy policy without rural America – or, perhaps more accurately, no energy. No matter what form of energy we rely on, rural areas are going to be where most of that energy gets produced.

Want to burn coal? That means we’re going to be hollowing out mountains in Appalachia (or giant pits out in Wyoming).

Think natural gas is the way to go? That’s going to be tapped in rural areas and those pipelines are going to run mostly through rural areas – where many residents may not want such things, as we’re seeing with the Mountain Valley Pipeline.

Want wind energy? With the exception of offshore wind, those turbines are going to be in rural areas.

Want solar? You can have rooftop solar anywhere, but if you want utility-scale solar farms, those are going to be in rural areas.

Want nuclear? Don’t think anybody’s going to be building a nuclear plant next to a big city.

How about hydropower? It’s only going to be rural areas that get dammed up and flooded.

To some extent, rural areas need to reconcile themselves to all of this. That doesn’t mean they need to like every single project, but we’ve got to have energy and that energy is going to be produced somewhere, so at some point we need to like something. We all like the lights to come on.

I do worry, though, about how polarized our society has become, and the disparities between urban America and rural America are part of that. From my vantage point here west of the Blue Ridge, that’s the lens through which I tend to see much of the world. Ultimately, this column isn’t about solar farms or even energy policy in general, but about rural communities getting left behind economically. Energy policy is just the easiest example. I’ve written many times before about how it’s wrong and unfair for green energy advocates to rush to shut down coal without doing something to make things up to the coal-based communities that are seeing their economies decimated. There’s some vague language in the Clean Economy Act about how the state shall “shall determine whether implementation of this act imposes a disproportionate burden on historically economically disadvantaged communities.” Well, of course it does! We don’t need a state study to know that. But where are the reparations for the state actions that are hastening the end of coal? That would be a real Green New Deal.

It’s fashionable in some lefty quarters to talk about a “just transition” from fossil fuels to renewables. Colorado, which has some coal that’s going away, has set up a formal Office of Just Transition to fund economic development in those soon-to-be former coal communities. Whether it’s doing any good may be too soon to tell. But we know this much: Colorado Republicans originally derided the Office of Just Transition as “laughable” and “offensive,” “insulating and egregious.” Two years later, according to Colorado Newsline, they were demanding that funding for it be increased. The Democrats who pushed the Clean Economy Act set up no such mechanism to fund economic development in Virginia’s coal country. Maybe instead of being too liberal they weren’t liberal enough?

Whatever the politics, it just seems wrong to me to leave coal country in the lurch. Solar farms in Southside are a different thing – instead of an economic force being undermined, we’re talking about a new industry being created, and there is some mechanism for localities to make money off solar (that’s why some like it). So, if you want to think about it this way, we’ve set up a system of reparations for taking on solar (although that’s not what they’re called), but we haven’t for communities that are losing coal. Why not?

The General Assembly, perhaps in response to the growing pains of solar, passed a bill from Del. Terry Kilgore, R-Scott County, that directs the state to create a map of prime farmland as a way to help figure out the best places for solar farms – and perhaps the not-so-best. Some might see that as anti-solar; others might see it as a wise use of a limited resource – land. Either way, at least that bill, now signed into law, recognizes the role that rural Virginia will, and must, play in our energy transition.

Too bad the General Assembly didn’t do that at the beginning – or create some mechanism to pay Southwest Virginia for hastening the demise of coal. It still could, though. 

How? The governor and many legislators are gung-ho to help build a stadium for the Washington Commanders football team. I’m not so sure that’s a good idea, but they seem intent on doing it anyway on the grounds that the stadium will spur development of a gleaming new “football city” that will supposedly produce obscene amounts of tax revenue. Fine – then carve off some of the tax revenue and dedicate it to coal country, or economically distressed communities in general. At least that way the success of one part of the state will be tied to the potential success of another in a clear and demonstrable way for all to see, a small attempt to knit our society back together. Otherwise Virginia, within the space of two years, will have effectively voted to undermine the economy in one corner of the state while building up the economy in another corner.

It’s also said that team owner Daniel Snyder would like the stadium to have a retractable dome. For those who want rooftop solar instead of solar farms, there’s one big rooftop we could use.

Dwayne Yancey

Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His opinions are his own. You can reach him at dwayne@cardinalnews.org.