Gov. Ralph Northam speaks during a news conference at the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond on April 8. (Steve Helber/AP)
RICHMOND — The coronavirus is scrambling Virginia's budget and economy, but it didn't prevent Gov. Ralph Northam (D) from signing legislation that makes it the first Southern state with a goal of going carbon-free by 2045.
Over the weekend, Northam authorized the omnibus Virginia Clean Economy Act, which mandates that the state’s biggest utility, Dominion Energy, switch to renewable energy by 2045. Appalachian Power, which serves far southwest Virginia, must go carbon-free by 2050.
Almost all the state’s coal plants will have to shut down by the end of 2024 under the new law. Virginia is the first state in the old Confederacy to embrace such clean-energy targets.
Under a separate measure, Virginia also becomes the most Southern state to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative — a carbon cap-and-trade market among states in the Northeast.
The actions “will create thousands of clean energy jobs, make major progress on fighting climate change, and break Virginia’s reliance on fossil fuels,” state Sen. Jennifer L. McClellan (D-Richmond), a sponsor of the omnibus bill, said in an emailed statement.
Democrats promised to do more to protect the environment during elections last fall in which they won control of the state legislature for the first time in a generation.
They used their new power to pass a mountain of ambitious legislation in this year’s General Assembly session, and Northam had until midnight this past Saturday to sign bills into law, suggest amendments or veto them. He proposed delaying some actions — such as raising the state’s minimum wage — and freezing all new spending in anticipation of the impact of the pandemic, which is likely to cost the state about $3 billion over the next two years.
But Northam cast the energy legislation as an antidote, saying in a statement that it would prove “that a clean environment and a strong economy go hand-in-hand.”
In addition to the clean-energy goals, the legislation sets energy efficiency standards for the state’s electricity providers, mandates the development of offshore wind energy and opens the door to more rooftop solar.
Some consumer advocates have criticized the legislation for continuing to allow Dominion Energy to pass costs along to customers and insulating the giant utility from regulatory oversight of its rates. Dominion is the most influential corporation in Richmond, and many of the Democrats who won last year had promised to disrupt the utility’s special status.
Although Dominion participated in crafting the legislation, it was not the driving force. Instead, a coalition of alternative-energy companies and advocacy groups worked with lawmakers on the idea.
Many environmental groups praised Northam for signing it.
“This is undoubtedly the boldest climate action legislation ever to come out of the South,” Southern Environmental Law Center lawyer Will Cleveland said via email. “We look forward to continuing to work together to ensure the best possible implementation of this groundbreaking legislation and to ensure that this transformation of our energy landscape benefits all Virginians equally.”
Gary Moody, director of state and local climate strategy at the National Audubon Society, said that the legislation “shows the success of a pragmatic, market-based approach in achieving state economywide solutions.”
Plus, he said, it’s good for the birds. “Even in this time of uncertainty, both threatened communities and vulnerable birds like cerulean warblers and saltmarsh sparrows will have a fighting chance against climate change.”