A Brief History of Executive Order 57
A year ago, the Virginia General Assembly passed legislation prohibiting the Department of Environmental Quality from spending money on state compliance with the Clean Power Plan while legal challenges to that federal regulation were pending. So in June 2016, Governor McAuliffe issued Executive Order 57, which convened a work group “to study and recommend methods to reduce carbon emissions from electric power generation facilities,” including state-level carbon regulation.
Then Donald Trump became president. Realizing that the new administration would take steps to reverse and, eventually, bury the Clean Power Plan, state-level climate action became more urgent than ever. The result of Governor McAuliffe’s EO57 process will be his climate legacy — the ball is squarely in his court.
The Best Ways to Reduce CO2? Efficiency and Renewables
The two best methods for reducing carbon emissions from power plants are straightforward: energy efficiency and renewable energy.
Energy efficiency measures are the low-hanging fruit of climate action. Utility-led energy efficiency programs are the cheapest energy resource — after all, it’s far cheaper to reduce demand than to build new power plants. These cost savings benefit utilities but, more importantly, they benefit customers, especially those who might struggle to afford their monthly bills.
Weatherization and other efficiency upgrades also increase comfort in the home and reduce costs for businesses, spurring job creation. In fact, the energy efficiency industry directly employs 2.2 million Americans and indirectly creates several times as many jobs.
When new power generation is necessary — preferably to replace fossil fuel-fired plants — zero-carbon resources like solar and wind should be deployed. The public health benefits are quite obvious: aside from mitigating climate impacts, zero-emission power also means we avoid breathing the sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, particulate matter and other harmful byproducts of fossil generation.
Renewable energy resources also have the potential to save customers money and create a lot of jobs. Even under conservative projections from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, wind will be the cheapest type of generation to build over the next five years, and utility-scale solar can be cheaper than a combined cycle gas plant under the right circumstances. The cost of solar installation has dropped 60 percent over the past 10 years, and the U.S. solar industry employs more than 260,000 people, with an additional 100,000 jobs expected to be added in the next four years.
Unfortunately, Virginia lags far behind in installed solar capacity and jobs. In 2016, our neighbor North Carolina employed 7,112 people in its solar industry, while Virginia only put 3,236 people to work in solar.
The Governor Can Regulate CO2 and Create a New Energy Economy
Virginia’s power sector is in dire need of an incentive to ramp up energy efficiency programs and commit to renewables for any new electricity generation. Nearly 30 states including North Carolina, Maryland and Pennsylvania have mandatory “renewable portfolio standards,” which require a minimum amount of renewables in the electricity mix; Virginia does not. Virginia’s largest electric utility, Dominion, designed several options in its 2016 resource plan that would have added considerable new solar capacity, but those plans all assumed that a federal Clean Power Plan would be implemented.
With a regulation capping carbon emissions from power plants, the McAuliffe administration can provide that incentive. The Department of Environmental Quality can use its authority under Virginia law to cap carbon pollution from new and existing power plants to achieve similar results to the federal Clean Power Plan, and the power sector can comply rather painlessly.
In his final year in office, Governor McAuliffe can cement a powerful legacy on climate and on the economy by doing what the new White House won’t. States must now lead the way on environmental protection and climate action. Let’s hope the governor continues to show the leadership he displayed when he signed Executive Order 57 last year.