When Gov. Glenn Youngkin released his energy plan last week in Lynchburg, Democrats and left-leaning environmental groups reacted exactly the way you’d expect them to: They criticized it.
That’s because Youngkin is not convinced that solar and wind can supply all of Virginia’s energy needs; he also likes natural gas and nuclear (he especially likes nuclear).
While Youngkin’s embrace of nuclear – especially his proposal for a small nuclear reactor in Southwest Virginia – was a surprise, it shouldn’t be surprising that a Republican governor isn’t nearly as all-in on renewables as Democrats are. So we wind up with two perfectly predictable things: a Republican governor who wants to back away from the strict provisions of the Clean Economy Act that mandates a carbon-free economy, and Democrats who think he’s retreating from a decarbonized future.
I do not profess to be an energy expert, so I will not weigh in on whether it’s practical to have a an electrical grid powered 100% by renewables. Those who do have opinions on both sides often come across as so passionate that it’s hard to tell how much is solid engineering and how much is simply belief.
I do, though, profess to be a modest expert on politics so that’s where I will confine my observations today – to the changing politics of energy.
I was struck by several things in Youngkin’s plan (and his speech that accompanied it).
The big one was what he didn’t say. He didn’t say anything about coal.
I’ve long been accustomed to Republican candidates coming to Roanoke and making a big deal about coal, which always seemed to reflect their geographical naivete as much as it did their energy policies. Yes, Roanoke grew up as a railroad town where lots of coal passed through. And yes, there are some companies in Roanoke that are tied to the coal industry in Southwest Virginia. By and large, though, Roanoke isn’t particularly interested in coal. For that, a politician needs to go a lot farther west.
We’re also only five years removed from Donald Trump vowing that he would “bring back King Coal.” I wrote then for The Roanoke Times that he would not, he could not, and I was right: Coal production in the United States declined under a coal-friendly president. That’s because the free market (granted, prodded by various regulations) was voting against coal. More coal plants shut down under Trump than during Barack Obama’s second term, according to E&E News, which covers the energy industry.
Despite that economic evidence, we still saw West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice plead for utilities to build more coal plants – and seemed shocked when the president of Appalachian Power, that state’s biggest utility, told him his company had no intention of building any.
Youngkin did not do any of these things. He didn’t extol coal. He didn’t call for building new coal plants. He didn’t call for keeping open the existing ones that are slated to close. I thought there might be some call to keep open Dominion Energy’s controversial Virginia City Hybrid Energy Center in Wise County, which environmentalists despise because it burns coal and is expensive, and which local legislators love because it’s a big employer in the region. He did not. (Disclosure: Dominion is one of our donors but donors have no say in news decisions; see our policy.) In fact,Youngkin didn’t say anything about coal – except for a brief mention that if Virginia doesn’t produce enough energy, then it will have to import electricity from other states that will burn coal, and that electricity will be more expensive. So, indirectly, Youngkin conceded that coal-fired electricity is more expensive than other sources, something that Trump or Justice or other Republicans haven’t dared to do.
Furthermore, the 29-page plan talks up how Virginia has achieved “significant carbon emissions reductions.” True, that comes in the context of saying those reductions came before the state joined the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative – something Youngkin wants the state to withdraw from – but the point is here we have the Republican governor of a coal-producing state who a) doesn’t seem intent on trying to hold onto coal as an electricity source and b) is talking up emissions reductions as a good thing.
I fully understand why the critics are criticizing Youngkin’s plan over his enthusiasm for natural gas, but it’s still fascinating to see the political shift we’re witnessing here. Youngkin’s plan may seem retrograde to Democrats in 2022 but it’s not that different from what a Democrat might have presented in, say, 2014. I single out that year because that’s when Obama used his State of the Union address to praise natural gas. Yes, just eight years ago a Democratic president crowed that natural gas production was “booming.” That was also the year that the Mountain Valley Pipeline was proposed — and earned an endorsement from the state’s Democratic governor at the time, Terry McAuliffe (who had earlier endorsed Dominion’s proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which was later abandoned). This shows how much the politics of energy have changed. Nowadays, many Democrats have moved away from natural gas; they no longer tout it as a “bridge fuel,” as Obama did. Likewise, it wasn’t that long ago – the Trump administration, to be specific – that we had a Republican president who dismissed renewables as too expensive and impractical. The free market begged to differ, but rhetorically Trump routinely mocked solar and wind (and still does).
Youngkin does no such thing. He may not believe in solar and wind as much as Democrats do but he does seem to believe in them. In fact, in speaking with journalists in Lynchburg, Youngkin declared “we can be the leader in wind,” something we’ve sure never heard Trump say, even though it’s Republican states in the Midwest who are the leaders in the wind. (Kansas generates 43% of its power from wind, Oklahoma 35% and North Dakota 31%, according to Visual Capitalist.)The environmental community need not like Youngkin, or his plan, but they ought to at least declare a victory of sorts here: The conversation has changed. Instead of talking about whether we’ll have renewables, the question now is whether the grid will be 100% renewable or some lower percentage.
Youngkin has good reasons to like at least some renewable energy. This is a governor who comes out of the business community and likes to declare that Virginia is “open for business.” He took the stage in Lynchburg to the tune of Bachman-Turner Overdrive’s “Taking Care of Business.” This is a governor who revels in economic development announcements. And what do we see? Some of the biggest ones he’s announced involved renewable energy. The Lego Group intends to build a $1 billion factory in Chesterfield County that will employ 1,760 people. Lego also announced that the plant would come with an onsite solar park because the company intends the plant to be 100% carbon neutral. In short, no renewables, no Lego. Earlier this month, Youngkin was in Halifax County to announce that a North Carolina company will build the nation’s first titanium recycling plant – 108 jobs in a rural county is a big deal, reshoring a critical minerals supply chain is also a big deal (particularly for a governor who’s being touted as a presidential candidate). How does IperionX intend to power that plant? Renewables.
A politician who is disparaging of renewables these days is simply out of touch with the economic realities. That seems quite an achievement.
Youngkin should not be mistaken for a Green New Dealer by any means — he’s big on natural gas and nuclear, after all — but he has more in common with Green New Dealers than either side will want to admit: Both tout the economic benefits of innovation in the energy industry.
The philosophical essence of the Green New Deal is that the transition from fossil fuels to renewables will create jobs. (Yes, it will eliminate some others, so the challenge is whether the jobs gained will be in the same places as the ones that will be lost – that’s often the Green New Dealers’ Achilles Heel.)
Youngkin, though, is saying much the same thing from a conservative point of view. The one point he hammered home in Lynchburg last week was the need for innovation in energy technologies. He and Green New Dealers likely have different views about what kind of innovation they’d like to see. Youngkin’s plan, for instance, talks up carbon capture; many environmentalists see that as a distraction that’s both impractical and philosophically objectionable because it might prolong coal. Big picture, though, both sides are talking up how the free market (augmented by lots of R&D) will save us. I heard Youngkin being skeptical of an all-renewable future, and liking the certainty of electrical generation by natural gas and nuclear. But I sure didn’t hear him say we should stick with what we know. In fact, his plan specifically says “Virginia will need more clean energy technologies that can also support baseload generation.”
The day after Youngkin’s energy plan announcement, he announced plans for an energy research park in Wise County. The idea for that park predates Youngkin, but he got to be the one to announce it. We don’t know exactly what all this park will be doing (maybe nobody really knows, technology being what it is), but the immediate plan calls for the site to be used to test wind and solar technologies – and the battery storage that makes them practical for use when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing. For a long time, coal country seemed resistant to anything that wasn’t coal. There’s been a sea change, though; we now have community leaders in coal country actively planning for a post-coal future, even if that means embracing the once-hated renewables. And we have a Republican governor championing this as a potential jobs creator.
This is how much the politics of energy have changed. We can still argue about the wisdom of Youngkin’s embrace of natural gas and nuclear but we ought to acknowledge that the context for that argument comes in a very different political environment than it once did. Do I dare say it? If this isn’t the liberal Green New Deal, it seems at least the conservative Partly Green New Deal.
Read the governor’s energy plan: