Gov. Glenn Youngkin is seeking public input on an energy plan.
Let’s help him out, shall we?
Youngkin ran for office on an “all of the above” energy platform and has already endorsed the Mountain Valley Pipeline in a letter to federal regulators, so don’t expect him to renounce fossil fuels. Indeed, the prologue to the public input form explicitly says that the final plan will include an “all of the above” energy policy. It also lays out three other goals: lowering the cost of living (so presumably lowering the cost of energy), creating jobs and “bringing people to Virginia,” which fits into Youngkin’s focus on reversing the state’s net out-migration trends. (See my earlier column that dealt with this.) In the name of practicality, let’s work within the constraints of what a Republican governor might accept in an energy policy.
I do not claim to be an energy expert so I’m not prepared to debate the cost per megawatt of one form of energy over another. I will, though, suggest some questions that Youngkin’s energy policy ought to address.
- Can we expand solar energy without taking more land out of agriculture and timber production? The Virginia Solar Survey, compiled earlier this year by the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University of Virginia and the Virginia Department of Energy, documents how solar power in the state more than doubled from 2020 to 2021 – and is likely to continue to grow at exponential rates as new projects come online. Virginia’s overall solar generation has grown from 30 gigawatt hours in 2015 to 3,675 in 2021. Most of that solar growth is happening in Southside. I’ve documented earlier how, in some localities, solar now takes up more acres than tobacco, the region’s historic crop. This has not always gone down well. For some in Southside, solar has been a godsend – it’s allowed property owners to generate revenue off what once was unproductive land, and allowed localities to reap tax revenue. On the other hand, others see this solar boom as nothing less than the “industrialization” of the countryside. Solar doesn’t cut neatly along traditional left-right lines. Some environmentalists, otherwise eager to promote renewables, acknowledge that there are concerns about runoff and other issues. Some conservatives, traditionally most resistant to renewables, acknowledge the property rights issues involved. That makes the solar boom fun for a journalist to cover – the old left vs. right arguments are pretty tiresome – but there are some legitimate concerns here about how much farmland and timberland we want converted to non-agricultural issues. True, that same question applies to any rezoning for a Walmart, too, but Virginia is now seeing a lot more solar farms than Walmarts.
Meanwhile, an increasing number of prospective employers looking at Virginia are demanding renewables, and these tend to be big employers. The average job count of those companies wanting renewables: 921. (See my previous column “Seven factors driving economic development in Virginia” that goes into more detail.) That means even a Republican governor has to embrace solar energy to some degree if he also wants to promote job growth. On the other hand, Southside – which is feeling both the positive and negative effects of this solar boom – is one of the most Republican parts of the state. Like I said, the complexity is what makes this fun. So how can Youngkin thread this needle? How can he promote more solar energy (which some big employers want and some conservative property owners like) without eating up more farmland? Or can that be done?
One way is to promote more “distributed” solar – better known outside the industry as rooftop solar. Rooftop solar may never generate as much power as utility-scale operations but it is a way to produce more solar energy without taking up land. A creative governor could find creative ways to do this. How many buildings does the state own that could be used for rooftop solar? I don’t expect to see solar panels on the executive mansion but the state owns lots of Virginia Department of Transportation buildings and prisons, you name it. How many of those could be used?
- Can we translate the solar boom in Southside into jobs? All those solar farms may generate power and tax revenue, but other than construction jobs during installation, they don’t create a lot of jobs after that. Dominion Energy says that its solar farms typically employ five to 10 people. “That includes operations, maintenance, vegetation management, safety and environmental inspections, etc.,” says spokesman Aaron Ruby. (The usual disclosure: Dominion is one of our donors but donors have no say in news decisions; see our policy. You, too, can be one of our 1,600-plus donors and have no say in news decisions. Here’s how.) Is Southside destined to be a producer of solar energy for companies located somewhere else? Or is there a way to persuade some of those companies to locate near the source of the power?
I keep coming back to this example: Northern Virginia is home to the nation’s biggest cluster of data centers, but the growth of that “Data Center Alley” isn’t coming without controversy. There’s a big fight right now in Prince William County over whether to allow data centers in the more rural part of the county. The county overall sees tax revenue to be had; many rural residents want their part of the county to stay less developed. Meanwhile, we have many rural counties in Southwest and Southside that are quite eager for data centers but haven’t been particularly successful in attracting them. Data center operators also like renewable energy. There are lots of complicating details here – power lines and broadband capacity being foremost among them – but in general, it would seem to be a win-win scenario if more of those data centers gave up on the political controversy they’ve caused in Prince William County and set up shop in, say, Prince Edward County instead. Can the governor use his energy policy to make that happen?
3. Can we lower school construction costs by making them solar schools? The budget that the General Assembly passed includes $1.2 billion (which supporters say can be leveraged into $3 billion worth of construction). Here’s a way to make those construction dollars go even further: Make them solar schools. In 2019, two legislators sponsored legislation to allow localities to contract with solar companies to build solar-powered schools and then sell the excess power to the power grid. What liberal tree-huggers sponsored that? Umm, two rural Republicans who were concerned about saving money: state Sen. Bill Stanley of Franklin County and then-Del. Nick Rush of Montgomery County. As a Republican, Youngkin is probably not keen on mandates from Richmond but he could sure use his bully pulpit to push this. Here is both energy policy and fiscal conservatism in the same package. But wait, there’s more: This can also be a job creation measure. Cardinal’s Megan Schnabel wrote about how both Lee County and Wise County are converting some of their schools to solar – and training students for jobs in the solar industry at the same time. This kind of trifecta – lower energy costs, lower school construction costs, more jobs – seems hard to beat.
4. Can we translate offshore wind into wind manufacturing jobs in Southwest Virginia? Dominion Energy (see the previous disclosure above) is developing an offshore wind farm off the Virginia coast. There are controversies involved over the cost and who ultimately pays, and Dominion has said it might have to abandon the project if state regulators insist on a rider that the State Corporation Commission wants to protect ratepayers. You can read about those details in Utility Dive or the Associated Press. Southwest Virginia should hope that Dominion doesn’t abandon the project, no matter who winds up paying. That’s because the InvestSWVA economic development group has been pushing Southwest as a place to manufacture some of the parts in the wind energy supply chain. The logic there seems sound: Wind energy manufacturing jobs will go somewhere. They’re probably more likely to go to a region that’s gotten out front in asking for them. Yes, yes, I know economic development is a lot more complicated than simply asking, but the point is InvestSWVA has already documented how many companies in the region are well-suited for different aspects of the supply chain. If Virginia’s going to have offshore wind – or onshore wind, for that matter – can we use that to generate manufacturing jobs in the state? (Onshore wind seems a lot harder to develop, which is why we don’t have any yet. In 2015, Virginia had no utility-scale solar or utility-scale wind. That year, Apex Clean Energy in Charlottesville proposed the Rocky Forge wind farm in Botetourt County. Seven years later, it’s still not developed while Virginia has at least 51 utility-scale solar farms, according to the Virginia Solar Survey, with more on the way.)
5. How can we take advantage of the incentives the federal government has just created for locating clean energy in coal country? As a Republican, Youngkin probably isn’t fond of the so-called Inflation Reduction Act – aka the climate bill – that Congress recently passed and President Joe Biden signed into law. However, as governor, he ought to be fascinated by one provision of the bill – specifically the provision that creates $4 billion worth of tax credits for clean energy companies that locate in coal country. This provision addresses one of the biggest problems of the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy: the relocation of jobs from the coalfields to, well, anywhere else. If I were advising the governor (and I suppose, by this column, I am, indirectly), I’d tell him he ought to be working the phones right now to renewable energy companies, making the pitch for them to locate in Southwest Virginia. This provision seems a gift: Here’s an incentive to create jobs in a part of the state where it’s been notoriously hard to create jobs. In an earlier column, I made the case for Southwest Virginia to get out in front on this provision by hosting a national summit on clean energy jobs. As governor, Youngkin has considerable convening power to make that happen. Will he take advantage of this opportunity that’s been handed to him? Stay tuned.