Front Porch Blog

Yes, Virginia, there was a silver lining to the General Assembly

1506880_545692232232755_7519825862257630233_nLegislator attitudes toward the level of carbon in our atmosphere and the rate at which corporate polluters are allowed to contribute to it range widely across the Appalachian region and the country. We’ve seen members of Congress deploy all manner of stunts to display their grasp of the issue (and lack thereof), most recently Sen. James Inhofe’s show-and-tell with a snowball.

In fact politicians across the country have sought to help polluting industries keep profiting off of dumping unlimited carbon into the atmosphere by fighting the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan. Many Attorneys General—with the exception of Virginia’s Mark Herring—are planning to sue, state assemblies are considering bills to assert authority over state compliance plans or to set less stringent carbon pollution limits.

But there’s reason for hope here in Virginia.

More and more of our state legislators are beginning to accept that diversifying our energy system by investing more in clean sources is beneficial—even if the underlying motivation is to reduce carbon pollution and the standard is set at the federal level. In the General Assembly that ended earlier this month, we largely saw members opting not to support legislation that would have thwarted the EPA’s plan to cut carbon pollution. The bill, which was really just a politically divisive grandstanding bill by ultra-conservatives, failed.

That says a lot about the power of citizen engagement. An element of that legislative success was due to grassroots contact with legislators and their offices, in person, by email, and over the phone, and with a boots-on-the-ground approach by packing committee hearings and being visible and active on Capitol Grounds, repeating the facts and science for lawmakers to hear. And for that effort, we achieved a few more important victories.

Modest gains came our way as we went about tackling solar energy policies. Businesses and nonprofits with solar panels who want to sell some power back to their utility can have up to 1 megawatt versus half that before. The General Assembly established a new Virginia Solar Energy Development Authority to help the industry. The legislature also authorized the state’s largest utility, Dominion Power, to build the state’s first solar farm, up to 400 MW, and to recover costs for the facility from its customers. (However, the bill doesn’t provide for other companies to bid competitively to build a solar farm for Dominion, meaning Dominion’s cost to the customer will likely be higher than it should be.)

In addition, Virginia utilities are also now required to develop more programs to assist customers with saving energy. Ramping up clean energy sources like solar and efficiency is key for Virginia to reduce carbon pollution while growing the economy.

Virginia legislators heard testimony on EPA’s Clean Power Plan in the course of several committee hearings, starting back in November and continuing up to the midpoint of the session. The most comprehensive bill to address greenhouse gas pollution the Coastal Protection Act, was introduced this session, but didn’t make it across the finish line. Still, legislators were responsive to citizens, rejecting legislation that would have wrested power from Gov. McAuliffe’s administration to develop a state plan to comply with the EPA.

Yet, Virginia delegates and senators passed on some measures because they perceived the bills were controversial or did not understand them well enough. Making community solar possible, making third-party power sales for clean energy legal throughout the state, providing better financing for home energy-efficiency improvements, and joining a regional greenhouse gas initiative – these are all measures the General Assembly should approve in 2016

But they need to hear from you. Citizens can start educating legislators about the economic benefits of clean energy policies now.

Hannah is a life-long Virginian and serves as the campaign coordinator for Appalachian Voices' Virginia program.


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