How Can We Transition Virginia to 100% Clean and Renewable Energy by 2030?
Across the country, numerous campaigns are underway aimed at abating climate change by freeing people, cities, businesses, and states from fossil fuels. For instance, the Sierra Club’s “Ready for 100” initiative is recruiting mayors who are committed to making their cities completely clean and renewable. More ambitiously, the Food and Water Watch recently launched its #OffFossilFuels campaign, which aims at supporting candidates and activists who are calling for 100% clean and renewable energy by 2035.
Making Virginia completely clean and renewable by 2030 is a central part of my platform. To many this seems like an impossible feat. Naturally, then, one of the most common questions I receive is: How can we change so much in so little time? What would the transition to 100% clean and renewable energy in Virginia look like?
I cannot answer this question fully here: both because doing so would require much more space than this article would permit, and because I want to avoid suggesting a rigid path. Revolutionizing our energy grid would likely inspire many changes along the way, especially as technology evolves.
What I would like to do instead is (1) describe what completely clean and renewable energy system in Virginia would like like, and (2) offer some ways we can achieve that vision by 2030.
(1) What the clean energy revolution would look like in Virginia
On the first point, I follow the Solutions Project — a resource that I’d heartily recommend checking out, if you’re not already familiar with it. According to the Solutions Project, Virginia has considerable offshore wind potential. In fact, we could likely meet up to 50% of our energy demand from offshore wind farms alone. A little more than 25% of our energy production could come from solar plants — that is, centralized solar energy generation facilities. And the remaining 25% could come from on-shore wind farms (especially around the mountains), rooftop solar, and tidal turbines.
A few things to note about a mix of this sort: Because wind and solar electricity generation are far more efficient than burning coal, gas, and oil, we’d only need to produce about 58% of our current output to meet the same level of demand. This is great, because it means we’d need fewer facilities and thus would incur less costs than might be expected in the transition. Moreover, if we pair the transition improvements in energy efficiency (e.g., through insulating buildings, installing double-paned windows, ventilating large office buildings, and so on), we could further reduce demand, and thus decrease even more the amount of new wind/solar/etc. facilities we would have to produce.
Now a system that is 100% clean and renewable would have two important effects. First, it would produce what policymakers refer to as health “co-benefits.” Because the air pollution generated by burning fossil fuels causes or contributes to serious health problems (like allergies, asthma, cancer, and even diabetes), transitioning to a completely clean and renewable system would lead to massive health savings. According again to the Solutions Project, in Virginia we’d be looking at about $13.7bn in savings per year a year, which is equivalent to about 26% of our annual state budget. These health savings are large enough that the whole transition would effectively pay for itself in just four years.
Second, transitioning to 100% clean and renewable energy would lead to the creation of over 147,000 new, well-paying, and permanent jobs — which is to say, jobs that would last 40 years or longer. Even better: these jobs would be (1) impossible to outsource, because they’d be related to on-site maintenance and construction; and (2) widely dispersed across the state, because of the decentralized nature of a clean and renewable power grid. It is hard to overstate the economic effects of this kind of job creation. The solar industry already employs more people than the entire fossil fuel industry (coal, gas, and oil combined) in the USA, and solar jobs are growing at a rate 12x greater than job growth in general. Can you imagine the economic benefits that would come from seriously harnessing this growth here in VA?
Perhaps most importantly, transitioning to a clean and renewable system along the lines I’ve described would *not* result in cost increases. Assuming the price of solar and wind stay relatively constant — which is a very conservative assumption, given that the price of solar fell more than 70% between 2009 and 2015— we’d be looking at energy prices equal to 11.2cents/kilowatt-hour, compared to our current rate of about 10.5cents/kwh. In other words, for less than 1cent per kwh, we could have a 100% clean and renewable system. Now, if we factor in the negative externalities associated with burning fossil fuels — e.g., the health costs, and the costs related to climate change (increased flooding, crop failure, so on) — our current rate would actually be closer to 16.2cents/kwh. So transitioning would actually lead to *considerable* cost savings: specifically, our energy would cost about 31% less, all things considered. (And that, again, is a conservative estimate.)
To put this in easier to understand terms, the average Virginian would be saving about $6,898 *per year* on energy, health, and climate change costs, compared to what she would pay under our current system. That’s a lot of money!
(2) How do we make the clean energy revolution happen?
Now an important question is: How do we get from (a) to (b)? Fortunately, we have a lot of “tools” in our policy toolkit that can help, many of which have been proven to work in other states and countries.
One of the easiest things we can do is establish new, and expand existing, clean energy subsidies. By making the switch to solar or wind cheaper, people, businesses, and municipalities will be more likely to act on this more quickly. Relatedly, Virginia legislators could establish or expand tax rebate and exemption programs for clean and renewable equipment, to ensure that business and home owners who invest in that equipment don’t see increases in their yearly taxes.
As we work to make clean and renewable energy less expensive, we must also ensure that fossil fuels are taxed in a way that reflects the social costs their emissions impose on society. There is still extensive debate among economists over what those costs are and so what the appropriate tax rate for fossil-fuel emissions should be. Yet, even among the most conservative economists, most now agree that taxing those emissions is essential for motivating the transition to clean and renewable energy. One popular proposal involves starting with a baseline tax rate of about $10 per ton of CO2 and slowly ramping up from there. This is the strategy many countries and regions around the world have used, including the province of British Columbia in Canada. According to economists and climate scientists familiar with the issue, these taxes have not depressed economic growth (in fact, quite the opposite!), but they have helped to curb emissions.
For emissions taxes to work effectively, however, we must first end fossil-fuel subsidies. Right now, the coal, oil, and gas industries receive about $700bn per year from American taxpayers, or about $2,180 per citizen per year! This is outrageous, and completely unnecessary. At the state level, Virginians provide considerable subsidies and kickbacks to fossil fuel companies and public utilities like Dominion Power and Appalachian Power Company. Legislators must stop this.
The state should also work to establish much more ambitious renewable portfolio standards — a policy strategy that many state legislatures have used to force public utilities into generating a certain percentage of their total energy output from clean and renewable sources. Currently, Virginia’s portfolio standards are shamefully weak and completely voluntary, and so widely ignored. By changing the General Assembly, we can change these standards, and effectively mandate a transition to clean and renewable energy.
These are just some of the policy options available to Virginia legislators for transitioning the state to 100% clean and renewable energy. Some will almost certainly be more effective than others. That’s why I support an “all-of-the-above” transition strategy: by implementing a wide range of policies, we can determine which work best, and invest more of our resources and legislative energy accordingly. Over just two or three sessions, we would likely be able to make serious progress in the fight for a sustainable future.
(3) Will this ever happen?
All of this may sound very ambitious. But it is important to remember that we are living in the same country that invented the atomic bomb, was the first (and still the only) to land on the moon, and was the first to connect virtually every resident to an electric grid. Each one of these things seemed impossible (and prohibitively costly) at the outset. Yet, we achieved all three within about 15 years of setting our minds to it.
Exigency is often the mother of action. As someone who studies climate change for a living, I am convinced that few issues are more exigent than climate change. Mounting evidence suggests that catastrophe can only be avoided if we take serious and bold action right now. We have the knowledge to remake our electrical system. All we need now is the political will. By taking a stand on this issue here in Virginia, we would show the rest of the country — and the rest of the world — that a better way is possible, and worth the effort.
But to do any of this, we must first elect people who are willing to stand up to fossil fuel interests and fight to put Virginia on a path to a 100% clean and renewable future. Settling for anything less would be an injustice to future generations.