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What does Glenn Youngkin’s win in Virginia mean for clean energy?

The incoming Republican governor expressed skepticism about Virginia’s 100% clean energy law but said he supports a massive offshore wind project.
By Julian Spector

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(Youngkin for Governor via CC BY-SA 2.0)

Virginia passed 100 percent clean energy legislation last year after Democrats took unified control of the state’s government. Then, earlier this month, Republican Glenn Youngkin won the governor’s race, and the House of Delegates flipped to a slim Republican majority. So what happens now?

Youngkin’s campaign drew support and inspiration from former President Donald Trump, who pulled the U.S. out of the Paris climate agreement and tried unsuccessfully to revive the coal industry.

If Youngkin models his energy policy on Trump’s, he could push to repeal Virginia’s clean energy law, which bans fossil-fueled electricity by 2050, boosts renewables in the current decade and institutes energy-efficiency programs to save money for customers.

But it’s not clear that Youngkin is interested in doing that. He offered occasional thoughts on energy during the campaign, but the race hinged on other topics, like education and economic growth after the Covid-19 pandemic.

And if he or Republican legislators go after the 2020 Virginia Clean Economy Act, they’ll have to contend with not only a Democrat-controlled Senate but also Republican legislators who favor the law and an electorate that broadly supports it, according to recent polling by a conservative group.

What does Youngkin think about the energy transition?

Youngkin jumped into politics after serving as co-CEO of The Carlyle Group, the elite and politically connected private-equity firm based in Washington, D.C. Carlyle’s ample business holdings include energy investments, and in that capacity Youngkin has spoken highly of renewables as a competitive and fast-growing asset class.

During his campaign, though, Youngkin did not run on an energy platform, clean or otherwise. There are a few oblique mentions of the topic in his Day One Game Plan,” in which he calls for a 12-month delay for a gas-tax hike and makes a vague reference to completing long-delayed environmental projects.”

Spokespeople for the Youngkin campaign did not respond to Canary Media’s requests for comment.

But the candidate did criticize the Virginia Clean Economy Act (VCEA) during a gubernatorial debate, characterizing it as an unworkable” plan that threatens to turn Virginia into California,” a dig at the rolling blackouts that hit that renewables-rich state during a 2020 heat wave (see 46:38 in this video).

Youngkin’s Democratic opponent, former Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe, pushed for a faster switch to clean energy than the VCEA called for, moving the deadline from 2050 up to 2035. Youngkin didn’t reject clean energy per se — he rejected what he viewed as a rushed phaseout of fossil fuels.

But it’s easier to say you don’t like a policy than to mobilize a campaign to repeal it. 

If Youngkin focuses political capital on the issues that won him the election, the status-quo energy policy would be for Virginia’s low-carbon transition to continue.

Clean-energy advocates are already making the case that the transition could help Youngkin achieve his core campaign goals.

Glenn Youngkin ran as a business leader focused on moving Virginia’s economy forward and creating economic opportunity. We’re hopeful, as such, that he will recognize the important role advanced energy has to play in that,” said Harrison Godfrey, executive director of industry group Virginia Advanced Energy Economy.

In particular, Godfrey noted, building more clean energy creates jobs, drives investment to rural communities and attracts large corporate energy users such as data centers, which have become a key economic driver for Virginia.

What do voters think?

Virginian voters generally didn’t like the direction the state was heading in earlier this year, but approved of the shift to cleaner energy, according to an election-season poll by Conservatives for Clean Energy.

Only 35 percent of participants in the survey, conducted in late July, said they thought Virginia was on the right track overall, while 47 percent said it was on the wrong track. But when the same 762 likely voters were told about the provisions of the VCEA (clean energy by 2050, lowering emissions from power plants, investing in efficiency to lower household power bills), 62 percent thought that was a good idea, while 23 percent opposed it.

We look at renewable energy from an economic standpoint — what does it mean for jobs?” said Ron Butler, Virginia state director at Conservatives for Clean Energy, which advocates for clean-energy adoption in the Southeast, with an emphasis on market competition and consumer choice.

Large-scale wind and solar are gaining support in economically challenged parts of the state, Butler added, where they promise both jobs for installing projects and long-term tax revenue for local communities.

But enthusiasm goes beyond those regions. Across the state, 68 percent of political moderates expressed support for the VCEA, as did 70 percent of suburban voters. Those two groups play a coveted swing role in Virginia politics.

That’s not to say most Virginians are aware of the legislation. Before the pollsters explained what the VCEA was, they asked if people had ever heard of it. Only 27 percent answered yes.

That level of name recognition isn’t much to build a repeal campaign on, especially if the more people learn about the law, the more they like it.

Pathways for change

Starting in January, Republicans will control the state’s House of Delegates by a slim margin, but they will remain a minority in the Senate. Repealing the VCEA wholesale would only work if several of the same senators who just passed the law flipped around to kill it off.

Even within the House, the Republican caucus is not unified against renewables. Republican Delegate Terry Kilgore, who now stands to become majority leader, voted in favor of the VCEA in 2020.

With Republicans in control of the House and Democrats in control of the Senate, any changes to the VCEA will require bipartisan consensus,” Butler noted.

Youngkin could use the levers of the executive branch to slow the rollout of the law’s provisions. But much of the implementation falls to clean energy companies, utilities and their regulators at the Virginia State Corporation Commission.

Members of this independent, quasi-judicial body get appointed to a six-year term via a majority vote in both chambers of the legislature. The governor can only hand-pick them if legislators can’t agree on a nominee; even then, the governor can only appoint someone on an interim basis for a term that lasts until the next legislative session.

It’s possible that narrowly tailored tweaks to the VCEA could attract more bipartisan support than a repeal. Attempts to undo parts of the law would still be cause for concern for the workers and businesses building clean energy in Virginia, Godfrey said.

Virginia has laid out a clear pathway for our energy transition that creates economic certainty, sustains the jobs we have and is driving investment, jobs and tax dollars into the commonwealth,” Godfrey said. Maintaining that pro-business environment — staying the course — is essential if we want to reap those benefits as a commonwealth.”

This utility bet big — and lost

The power player in Virginia’s power sector is Dominion Energy, the state’s largest monopoly utility. Historically, the company has wielded significant influence over state policy, but it now finds itself in an awkward position.

Dominion donated heavily to Democratic gubernatorial candidate McAuliffe. It even sent $200,000 to a Democrat-linked political action committee that targeted rural voters with ads calling Youngkin insufficiently conservative, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

When reporters caught on to that money trail, Dominion CEO Bob Blue asked for a refund from the PAC and wrote in a statement to employees that the company failed to vet sufficiently” what the PAC was working on, the Associated Press reported.

In many places, monopoly utilities have been slow to embrace the shift to clean energy. But Dominion is seeking approval from regulators to build the biggest offshore wind farm in the U.S.

Dominion recently disclosed that the proposed 2.6-gigawatt project will cost around $10 billion. That’s $2 billion more than previously expected, but it still falls below a cost cap included in the VCEA. If the project is approved, Dominion will recoup the project costs — and reap a profit from its customers.

Clean energy projects with big price tags play into critiques from some conservatives that allege the energy transition will be too expensive. But Dominion’s offshore wind effort includes investments in specially engineered ships and port facilities that would jump-start the offshore wind industry, not just in Virginia but in the U.S. as a whole.

Those investments received a resounding endorsement in an October Richmond Times-Dispatch op-ed by two Republican state legislators: Jen Kiggans, the senator for Virginia Beach, and Kilgore, who represents the southwestern corner of the state. Offshore wind is a win-win for all Virginians,” the pair declare in the piece.

In the same debate during which Youngkin panned the VCEA, he said he supports this massive offshore wind project. Even if Dominion’s lobbyists feel less welcome around the new administration, the jobs that would be spurred by this particular clean energy project have won it admirers on both sides of the aisle.

Julian Spector is a senior reporter at Canary Media. He reports on batteries, long-duration energy storage, low-carbon hydrogen and clean energy breakthroughs around the world.