By Harrison Godfrey and Matthew Cox
Change versus more of the same. It is the fundamental question underlying every election. This November, as Virginians go to the polls, it is more true than ever. The delegates and senators who gather in Richmond in January will have the opportunity to turn the page on a variety of policies. We urge them to start with Virginia’s energy policies, where the benefits of change and the costs of staying the same are clear.
Last month, Gov. Ralph Northam signed an executive order establishing a goal of a 100% clean electricity for Virginia by 2050. Spurred by this order, Virginia Advanced Energy Economy, Greenlink and GridLab produced “Virginia’s Energy Transition.” This report sought to answer two questions: Could our commonwealth make the transition to a 100% carbon-free electricity? If so, what are the benefits and tradeoffs of doing so?
To answer these questions, we employed software like what the utilities use to model Virginia’s electricity grid. We supplied this model with conservative forecasts and datasets, such as those from the U.S. Department of Energy, to chart how demand for electricity and the cost of supplying that power are likely to change in Virginia over the next 30 years.
We used the utilities’ own integrated resource plans, which spell out how Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power intend to build new power plants and update the grid, to develop a “Business as Usual” (BAU) baseline. This BAU analysis let us forecast average residential bills, variations in employment and anticipated emissions from our grid over the next 30 years if Virginia’s energy policy remains the same.
From there, we asked the model to evaluate whether and how Virginia could fully decarbonize its grid. That would mean no longer drawing electricity from coal, oil or natural gas-fired facilities inside or outside our borders.
Is full decarbonization achievable? Yes. Using a combination of energy efficiency, renewable generation, demand response, battery storage and existing nuclear power, we can fully decarbonize Virginia’s grid while keeping the lights on, and that can be done as soon as 2030 or, more gradually, by 2040 or 2050. Advancements in automation, batteries and renewables have made that transition not only feasible, but affordable.
What’s more, our study shows that, across a range of metrics, Virginians would be better off making this transition than sticking with “Business as Usual.”
Consider residential electricity bills. We found that, even decarbonizing the grid by 2030, the average Virginia family would save a total of $1,500 over the next 30 years. Moreover, if we make the transition over 20 to 30 years rather than 10 (i.e. achieving full decarbonization in 2040 or 2050), not only will Virginians save more — up to $3,500 — but their bills will be lower every single year. Simply put, Virginians would save money by decarbonizing the grid.
The transition to advanced energy would also bolster Virginia’s economy. Building new renewable generation, deploying battery storage and improving the efficiency of homes and businesses will drive significant investment and job growth. All of the zero-carbon scenarios we modeled produced job gains two to three times greater than those forecast under BAU. That’s thousands of additional job opportunities each year and $15 billion to $23 billion more in labor income for Virginia workers.
On top of savings for Virginia households and gains for workers, our analysis indicates that decarbonization will help to avoid billions of dollars in damages to the health of Virginia’s families and environment. By reducing localized pollutants, which cause illness and premature deaths in our communities, decarbonization would save Virginians $3.5 billion or more over the next 30 years. Avoided CO2 emissions would deliver environmental benefits worth $25 billion or more between now and 2050.
Fundamentally, when it comes to energy policy, Virginians are better off making a change.
What should that change entail? It should start by prioritizing demand-side resources. The cleanest and least-cost kilowatt-hour of electricity is the one we never use. To help realize this we need policies that set binding benchmarks for energy savings, and incentivize our utilities to meet them. Lawmakers should set similar benchmarks for clean energy, ensuring that, with each passing year, the percentage of zero-carbon electricity in Virginia’s grid grows. Such a policy should also protect ratepayers from unforeseen costs and ensure Virginia makes an equitable transition to an advanced energy economy.
The choice is clear. For the sake of our wallets, our economy, and the well-being of our commonwealth, this November, let’s elect leaders who are committed to changing energy policy in Virginia.