Up for a Vote in This Election: Clean Energy, Data Centers and Utility Influence



by Ivy Main, cross-posted from Power for the People VA

How much do Virginia’s elections matter in an off year? Measured by the turnout in past elections, you’d think the answer is “not much.” The percentage of registered voters who show up at the polls in Virginia typically drops well below 50% when no federal or statewide candidates are on the ballot.

But measured by how much the outcome of this year’s election could affect the lives of regular people, the battle for control of the Virginia Senate and House of Delegates matters enormously. With a Republican in the governor’s mansion, a Democratic edge in either or both chambers would continue the status quo of divided government and (mostly) consensus-based lawmaking. A Republican takeover of both chambers, on the other hand, would lead to a wave of new legislation imposing the conservative social agenda on abortion, gay rights, transgender issues, education and welfare.

It would also put an end to Virginia’s leadership on climate and clean energy and lead to costly initiatives protecting fossil fuels, at the expense of consumers and the environment.

Some of the divisions between the two parties are well-known, and the consequences of one party edging out the other are clear. For some issues, however, the party positions are not as obvious, and it takes a look under the hood to understand where elections matter.

Virginia’s clean energy transition is at risk

Let’s start with the obvious: the broad framework of Virginia’s energy transition to clean energy is a signature achievement of Democrats that Republicans have in the crosshairs.

Three and a half years ago, Virginia made history as the first Southern state to commit to zero-carbon electricity by 2050 with detailed and specific guidance. The next year, the General Assembly followed up with legislation to begin the transition to electric vehicles.

Clean energy investments soared after passage of the Virginia Clean Economy Act (VCEA). Solar installations in 2020 and 2021 dwarfed previous numbers, and the state solar market is now a $5.1 billion industry employing over 4,700 workers. Private investment dollars have poured into small-scale renewable energy as well, funding solar on schools, churches and government buildings.

The VCEA’s support for offshore wind gave that industry the certainty it needed to move beyond the pilot project stage. Foundations for the first of 176 turbines of the Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind project are currently on their way to the Portsmouth Marine Terminal. By the end of 2026, the turbines are expected to provide enough electricity to power more than 600,000 homes.

Communities benefited from Virginia’s entry into the carbon-cutting Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), as $730 million in new revenue flowed to the Commonwealth for flood mitigation and low-income home weatherization.

And after passage of the Clean Cars law, sales of electric vehicles in Virginia are set to double by the end of next year, and to double again by 2026.

In 2021, however, the election of Gov. Glenn Youngkin and a narrow Republican majority in the House of Delegates put these gains at risk. Early on, Youngkin declared his intent to repeal the VCEA and the Clean Cars law and pull Virginia out of RGGI. Only a Democratic majority in the Senate stopped legislative rollbacks passed by House Republicans in 2022 and 2023. Loss of that majority would ensure repeal of Clean Cars and the evisceration of VCEA.

As for RGGI, the failure to repeal the law led Youngkin to attempt to pull Virginia out through an administrative rulemaking that will be contested in court. He could sidestep a court battle and do it legally through legislation if his party takes control of the General Assembly.

“No-brainer” bills killed in small committees

While a clear divide separates the two parties on signature Democratic initiatives like VCEA and RGGI, party membership is the determining factor on other energy and climate bills in less obvious ways. House rules allow a subcommittee consisting of as few as 5 members to vote down a bill by majority vote, keeping it from being heard by the full committee. With Republicans in control of the House, every subcommittee has a Republican majority, and Democratic bills routinely die on 3-2 votes. This can be true even if a bill has already passed the Senate, and even if the Senate vote was bipartisan – or for that matter, unanimous.

The Senate operates very differently. There, a subcommittee can only make recommendations. It takes a vote of the full committee to kill a bill in the Senate.

You might wonder: if a bill is such a no-brainer that it passes the Senate unanimously or by a wide bipartisan majority, why would it get voted down in the House at all? Wouldn’t the bipartisan endorsement suggest this is actually a good bill that even the party in charge of the House would want to support, or at least have heard in full committee?

Indeed, when a no-brainer bill is killed in a tiny House subcommittee along party lines, it is rarely because the bill’s patron just happened to find the only few people in the General Assembly who don’t like the bill. More typically, it’s because the governor or the caucus itself has taken a position against the bill, but doesn’t want to draw attention to that fact. The subcommittee members tasked with doing the killing let everyone else in the party keep their hands clean.

This explains the fate of Fairfax Democrat Sen. Chap Petersen’s bill to study the effect of data centers on Virginia’s environment, economy, energy resources and ability to meet carbon-reduction goals. The bill passed unanimously by voice vote in the Senate before dying at the hands of three Republicans in a five-person subcommittee of the House Rules committee.

The data center study was the very definition of a no-brainer bill. The unbridled growth of data centers has ignited protests in communities across Virginia, and the industry’s voracious appetite for energy is blowing up Virginia’s climate goals, according to Dominion Energy. How can it be that House Republicans don’t even want to study the issue?

The answer lies in the fact that the Youngkin administration testified against the three data center bills that were heard in the Senate. One of Youngkin’s proudest achievements in office was the deal with Amazon to bring another $35 billion worth of data centers to Virginia. He does not want a study that would bring negative realities to light, so the bill had to die. The Republican members of the subcommittee were merely the executioners.

Another no-brainer bill that never made it to a full committee vote is one that gets introduced year after year: a prohibition on using campaign funds for personal purposes. This year’s legislation passed the Senate unanimously before just five Republicans voted to scuttle the bill in a House Privileges and Elections subcommittee.

My guess is you could not find a voter anywhere in Virginia who thinks legislators should be able to take money donated to their election campaigns and spend it on themselves. Justifying it requires legislators to turn themselves into logical pretzels.

The combination of unlimited campaign giving by donors and unrestricted spending by the recipients makes it easy for powerful corporations like Dominion Energy to buy influence. Dominion has long been the largest corporate donor to legislators of both parties. The company’s influence has cost consumers billions of dollars and kept its fossil fuel plants burning.

Dominion’s influence was clearly at work this year when a House subcommittee killed a bill from Fairfax Senator Scott Surovell that would have made shared solar available to more Virginians, over Dominion’s opposition. The bill passed the Senate with bipartisan support before losing 4-2 on a party-line vote in a House Commerce and Energy subcommittee.

It is less clear whether Dominion had a hand in the death of a bill that would help localities put solar on schools. The legislation passed the Senate unanimously before being killed in House Appropriations, again on a straight party-line vote.

Certainly, there have been plenty of Democrats over the years who have voted for Dominion’s interest time and again. Conversely, not all the no-brainer bills killed by House Republicans reflect a hostility to the energy transition; sometimes the problem seems to be a hostility to environmental protections in general. Thus a bill to require customer notification when water tests show contamination from PFAS – known commonly as “forever chemicals” – passed the Senate unanimously and then was killed in a House subcommittee on, yet again, a party-line vote.

It would be hard to identify a consistent line of reasoning behind all the anti-environment votes across all the various subcommittees, but the pattern is clear enough. It reflects not just the positions of individual legislators, but a firm party line.

Whether voters care about these votes now is not clear, mainly because the news media rarely look at the role of the environment, climate and energy in elections. Regardless, these issues will be very much at stake at the polls next month.

 

This article originally appeared in the Virginia Mercury on October 4, 2023.

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