As the Virginia Assembly opened its 2024 legislative session on Jan. 10, Appalachian Voices held a webinar to lay out our priorities for the session and explain how those interested in these issues can get involved and make a difference.
Appalachian Voices’ Director of State Energy Policy Peter Anderson laid out those priorities:
• Defending key climate laws
• Making energy more affordable
• Bringing more solar energy to Southwest Virginia
• Protecting the state from large-scale metals mining
• Ensuring access to heat, water and power
• Ensuring that large pipelines are fully regulated.
New bills are still being introduced, and legislators will be proposing amendments and offering changes to bill text throughout the General Assembly session, which runs through March 9. We’ll be in Richmond and watching closely to protect our land, air, water and communities.
Defending progress in fight against climate change
The primary climate law likely to face attacks is the Virginia Clean Economy Act. Passed in 2020, VCEA mandated carbon emissions reductions and a shift to 100% clean energy from the power sector by 2050.
H.B. 397, introduced by Del. Tim Griffin, R-Forest, would repeal several VCEA provisions — including those requiring the State Air Pollution Control Board to adopt regulations to reduce carbon emissions from electrical generation and set up and manage the carbon allowance and auction system.
The bill would also rescind the General Assembly’s declaration under the VCEA that wind, solar and battery storage facilities are in the public interest, effectively sending the signal to state agencies, such as the SCC, that these should no longer be policy priorities.
Anderson also said to expect bills that would weaken VCEA’s clean energy standard by allowing dirty fuels — like hydrogen made from methane or methane gas sourced from coal mines — to be counted as renewable energy.
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Promoting affordable energy
Anderson applauded last year’s passage of the Affordable Energy Act, which restored regulatory authority to the State Corporation Commission.
“That was really necessary because our two largest electric utilities, Dominion and Appalachian Power Company, weren’t able to be fully regulated by the State Corporation Commission for about the last 16 years, but the Affordable Energy Act that legislators passed — and a lot of them heard from you and we really appreciate that — restored that full regulatory authority to the SCC so that they can keep costs down,” Anderson said.
But more needs to be done to keep rates down. Appalachian Voices will be supporting bills to improve the VCEA, including allowing more clean energy resources owned by third parties, mandating that the SCC implement clean energy policies at the lowest reasonable cost, allowing the SCC to impose appropriate requirements to protect customers from investment risks taken by utilities, and several other bills that will increase energy market competition.
Solar energy in Southwest Virginia
New Economy Field Coordinator Emma Kelly then discussed efforts to bring more solar energy to Southwest Virginia, particularly by expanding Virginia’s shared solar policy to include Appalachian Power customers.
For those folks who rent, live in condominiums or apartment buildings, or have shaded or older roofs, owning their own solar panels is not feasible. But with shared solar, homeowners and renters alike can get clean energy by subscribing to a shared solar installation. Currently, only Dominion Energy customers can subscribe to a shared solar program, meaning that people living in Appalachian Power’s territory in Southwest Virginia can’t access the benefits of solar energy.
“Shared solar is beneficial for communities because it means you don’t have to buy or own your own solar panels, so it’s more affordable, which means it’s good for buildings that might not have a roof suitable for solar, it’s good for people who are renting and might not own their own homes, and it’s also beneficial for businesses, nonprofits and local governments,” said Kelly.
We’ll be following bills to expand shared solar to Appalachian Power territory (HB 108/SB 255) as well as bills to improve Dominion’s shared solar program (HB 106/SB 253).
New Economy Program Manager Robert Kell discussed other efforts to bring more solar energy to Southwest Virginia, including bills that would remove a restriction on funding sources for the Virginia Brownfield and Coal Mine Renewable Energy Fund (HB 199/SB 25). If that is successful, Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath County, and Dels. Terry Kilgore, R-Scott County, and Will Morefield, R-Tazewell, filed budget amendments to appropriate $20 million in state dollars for that fund, which would incentivize solar developers to put solar panels on former industrial sites like abandoned mines.
Protecting water quality from large-scale metals mining
Virginia Field Coordinator Jessica Sims focused on threats to Virginia’s drinking water from large-scale metals mining as she discussed the potential resurgence of gold and other metals mining. She highlighted the gold pyrite belt that runs down the middle of the state.
Sims discussed two bills introduced by Del. Shelly Simonds, D-Newport News, that would enhance public notification of exploratory drilling for potential gold and other metal mines (HB 84) and prohibit the use of cyanide and cyanide compounds in the processing of metals (HB 85).
“The National Academies of Sciences specifically highlighted a couple of threats from that industry to Virginia’s water,” Sims said. “Contamination from cyanide could be catastrophic, based on how many people in Virginia depend on the James River, the proximity of this belt to the James River and its watershed, and the potential impacts for contamination of drinking water for millions of Virginians.”
Both bills have bipartisan support.
Strengthening review of pipelines
Next, Sims discussed bills to expand the state’s permitting standards and water quality review requirements for pipelines smaller than 36 inches in diameter. A bill (HB 524) introduced by Del. Amy Laufer, D-Charlottesville, would extend those requirements to pipelines 24 inches and larger, a common size for interstate gas pipelines. The bill would require developers of interstate pipelines with a diameter of 24 inches or more to submit additional information — an erosion and sediment control plan and a stormwater management plan — with applications to the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality.
Protecting utility customers from disconnections
Virginia is one of the few states that allows utilities to shut off access to water, gas and electricity even during extreme weather or public health emergencies like the Covid-19 pandemic. We’ll be following bills introduced by Del. Irene Shin, D-Herndon, and Sen. Lashrecse Aird, D-Petersburg, to ensure that essential services aren’t shut off for nonpayment under such extreme circumstances.
“We’re trying to play catch-up with other states by creating a policy that would prohibit utility companies from turning people’s services off even if they’re behind on their bills when it is freezing cold, when it is a heat wave, and when there’s a public health emergency,” Anderson said.
How you can help
Virginia Campaign Coordinator Matt Allenbaugh discussed different ways for people to help support good legislation and oppose bad bills by connecting to lawmakers, testifying during hearings and submitting comments.
One of the first steps is to figure out who your representatives are. The Virginia General Assembly provides a handy tool that lets you put in your home address and find out who your delegates and senators are. It also includes information about how to contact them, committee assignments and office locations, as well as legislation they are a patron or co-patron of and proposed budget amendments they’ve introduced.
“Before you reach out to any of your legislators, it’s really important to do a few minutes of homework,” said Allenbaugh. “Know what bill or bills you want to talk about. … Do you oppose or support the bill? And what’s really important about this is your story. Tell your ‘why’ and how this is going to impact you and your family and your business and your community and your district.”
Calling legislators prior to a hearing on a bill can help inform them and change their position. You can also sign up to testify in-person or virtually if you are particularly impacted by specific legislation. If you’d rather not testify, but have something important to say, you can submit a comment to committees working on legislation.
Comments should include the bill number and patron, whether you support or oppose the bill, where you live (especially if your legislator is on the committee) and your story about how the legislation would impact you.
There are also a number of lobbying days where you can visit Richmond and meet with legislators in person.
Virginia Conservation Network is hosting Water and Conservation Lobby Days on Jan. 30 and 31, and the Affordable Energy Coalition is having a lobby day on Feb. 6. If you are interested in traveling from Southwest Virginia to Richmond to lobby, email Emma Kelly at emma [at] appvoices.org.
If you’ve read this far, become an Ardent Activist!
We cannot emphasize how important your voice is as we work together to advocate for healthy, safe communities, clean energy, water quality and other vital issues. If you want to make sure you don’t miss an opportunity to make a difference, you can sign up for our Ardent Activist list. During the session, we’ll send key actions you can take and news from the General Assembly.
You can also keep track of what’s happening on our webpage dedicated to the 2024 General Assembly, or on our social media.