As the General Assembly session takes shape in Richmond this month, our leaders are drawing lines in the sand and plotting legislative strategy. The commonwealth’s energy policies are the point of frequent contention, but not all Virginians are toeing the historical party lines on clean energy policy. Clean energy is not the political wedge issue that it once was, and for good reason: this old dichotomy misses what Virginians actually care about. In addition to getting policy right in the eyes of Virginians, our leaders would be well served to first consider the proper role of government, if any, in energy decisions at the local level.
Virginians want reliable electricity at affordable prices delivered to them on demand 24/7/365. Folks also want clean energies to be powering our grid so long as affordability and reliability are not sacrificed along the way. The road to achieve these goals is not paved with government action.
We have rural Virginia to thank for the vast majority of solar energy generation – the source of much of the renewable energy currently powering the grid. In these rural areas, the conversations are much different. Some of the most vociferous supporters of solar energy development are ruby-red, rural conservatives who see solar energy as an economic driver, job creator, and valuable investment for rural Virginia. This deserves recognition.
Conversely, some of the biggest opponents to clean energy development are not who you would expect. Many on the left once fully supported a rapid transition to clean energy, but recently supported new state regulations of solar proposals on certain lands – undoubtedly slowing down this transition. Groups like the Virginia League of Conservation Voters, which has donated 99.91% of its expenditures to Democrats over the past 5 years, found cause to support the 2022 House Bill 206. This law takes local government authority to site solar projects on the lands that best suit a locality, and gives the state this authority to intervene when 10 acres of farmland or 50 acres of forested land should be sited. Other land uses are not held to these standards, and solar projects often preserve buffers, wetlands, and setback areas that might otherwise be converted out of crop or timber.
The only voices advocating for Richmond to be more involved in energy decisions are voices in Richmond. Rather than more regulation, perhaps more support and guidance for localities siting solar energy projects will help solar projects be better sited by localities. Rural residents often cite the basic tenants of property rights: one’s right to use their land how he or she sees fit, so long as one does not adversely affect a neighbor. Whether a landowner wants to develop solar energy, farm, raise trees, or subdivide a parcel into a housing development, the landowner, neighbors, and local leaders should decide.
To create a cleaner, more affordable grid that best serves Virginians, stakeholders deserve a clear plan that will not be reversed every time the Governor or control of the General Assembly changes. As a small government conservative, I think all leaders should contemplate the proper role of government before giving the government power it did not already have. The Virginia Clean Economy Act (VCEA) did this and so did House Bill 206. Traditionally red states like Texas, Florida, North Carolina, and Georgia are all beating Virginia in clean energy generation and they are accomplishing a cleaner grid without state law mandating this transition take place with deadlines and penalties.
There is an element of truth in the positions of both sides of the aisle. Yes, Virginia relies upon an energy mix that includes existing fossil fuel and nuclear generation. Yes, renewable projects are the cheapest way to put new electrons on the grid. Governor Youngkin’s plan is not mutually exclusive of these viewpoints, and instead moves clean energy forward.
Youngkin’s all-of-the-above energy strategy indeed includes continued development of wind and solar generation capacity. Just as importantly, the plan also makes clear that the Governor’s administration supports a “both/and” attitude for energy development, not the “either/or” mentality that both parties seem to drag us back to.
In this “both/and” spirit, let’s set goals to be an energy independent and energy exporting state. Let’s ask our national leaders to return us to energy independence on the global level. We see energy insecurity around the world – including in Europe – when energy is scarce and when that scarcity drives up prices. Energy abundance that is stable, secure, and homegrown will only help the average ratepayer. Clean energies like solar, wind, and storage deserve a seat at this all-of-the-above table.