By Jake Conley, contributor
Virginia’s candidates for governor agree on at least one thing: transitioning to clean energy needs to happen. But that’s about the extent of the common ground between Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Republican Glenn Youngkin.
When it comes to how to make such a transition — and what should or shouldn’t be prioritized — the two have vastly different philosophies, and the energy debate comes back to party-line politics.
For McAuliffe, the former governor seeking another term, his public view on energy is in line with national Democrats’ push for sweeping changes, which he says could be largely paid for from the federal American Rescue Plan Act stimulus money and the recently passed trillion-dollar infrastructure bill. McAuliffe has said Virginia is poised to support a large-scale shift in a pro-environment direction.
Across the aisle Youngkin, a businessman who’s running as a political outsider, has talked about being fiscally conservative while the energy sector shifts. While a transition can happen, he said it should be dictated by the market.
Jonathan Miles, executive director of the JMU Center for the Advancement of Sustainable Energy and a JMU professor, told The Citizen one of the biggest hurdles in a move to clean energy is a financial and infrastructure-related issue.
The transition by utility and power production companies to clean energy, Miles said, can’t happen without funding and institutional support, especially in relation to infrastructure. Those companies have a massive amount of infrastructure in place designed for energy sources, such as oil and natural gas, Miles said.
“it’s unreasonable to expect them to just walk away from that,” he said.
Miles said he believes a successful energy transition is possible, but doing it quickly — such as within 15 or 20 years — will be difficult without governmental involvement.
Making that change to cleaner energy on a massive scale “only gets done in cooperation with government, and government has to set the appropriate policies,” Miles said, “and they do that by creating mechanisms through which a utility or a power producer can transition to cleaner source without undue risk to their business.”
The process, Miles told The Citizen, needs government support to assist businesses and industries, especially with my McAuliffethe swift transition for which is advocating.
In a recent campaign stop at the Shenandoah Valley Electric Cooperative just outside of Harrisonburg, McAuliffe spent an afternoon touring the cooperative’s clean energy facilities, which include solar panels and the “Sustainable Future Arboretum.” The tour focused on the cooperative’s sustainability and clean energy initiatives, concentrating on its work in the solar field.
Cooperatives, McAuliffe said at the event, represent the spread of energy and other resources to rural areas because they emerged after private electric utility companies wouldn’t expand into rural areas.
And McAuliffe told The Citizen that the Valley’s role is “really central.” The Valley, McAuliffe said, is one of the rural areas primed and available for his plan to build up the energy sector outside of urban Virginia because of its wealth of natural and human resources.
That’s part of his goal to move Virginia to a 100% clean renewable energy system by 2035. Included in this, according to his campaign’s energy policy document, are goals such as “establishing a clear path to meet our climate goals, improving our energy efficiency, expanding distributed solar and ensuring that every Virginian can access clean and equitable transportation.”
Part of this plan, according to campaign policy documents, is to “establish rural communities in Virginia as the energy innovation capitals of the East Coast” because of those resources and the workforce capabilities of people in those areas.
“If we’re going to rebuild the state and lead the country out of this [COVID-19] crisis,” McAuliffe said at a recent event in Harrisonburg, “We’ve got to understand it’s going to be led by the rural communities.”
McAuliffe’s goals are in lock-step with the groundwork laid by Virginia’s current governor (and McAuliffe’s former lieutenant governor), Ralph Northam. During his tenure, Northam announced plans for sea-level mitigation and a transition to electric buses for the state’s public school system.
And the General Assembly passed the Virginia Clean Economy Act last year — sweeping legislation aimed at slashing the Virginia power grid’s carbon emissions to zero by 2050 and pushing for other renewable energy goals.
The Citizen reached out to the Youngkin campaign for comment on the energy sector — the campaign hasn’t published any specific policy plans — and was referred to a statement made by Youngkin while appearing as a guest on the “Tony Macrini Show” on WNIS-AM790 radio in Hampton Roads.
“Yes, we can have more wind and solar,” Youngkin said on the radio show. “Yes, we need more natural gas. Yes, we need to innovate and find ways to actually use coal resources cleanly, and some of that is absolutely happening. All of these can actually combine to provide Virginia with both a stable, and dependable, and growing supply of power.”
But he said Democrats are trying to do that in a way that’s unsustainable, untenable and damaging to Virginia citizens and the economy at large. Exhibit A, he said, is the Virginia Clean Economy Act.
“I will just tell you my view on power strategy and energy strategy in Virginia is that the Virginia Clean Economy Act has taken us in the wrong direction,” Youngkin said on the radio show. “Virginia’s plan right now laid out by [Gov. Northam] and everybody else unfortunately takes us in a direction that doesn’t allow Virginia to actually meet the power demands [of] the rip-roaring economy that I’m going to build … and the jobs that we’re going to create cannot be fully supported by this plan.”
The differences between McAuliffe and Youngkin on the Virginia Clean Economy Act mirrors the division in the state Legislature. The bill passed in the House of Delegates nearly down party lines: 51-45. The following day, the Senate voted for it 22-17.
Local Republicans told The Citizen that when it comes to energy, they agree with Youngkin’s position: Democrats are creating plans that are ultimately unsustainable and that will negatively impact the market.John Massoud, chairman of the Republican Committee for the Virginia 6th Congressional District — which includes Harrisonburg and Rockingham County — said the Democratic party needs to “take [its] boot off the neck of the economy.”
“Quite honestly, it is not sustainable,” Massoud said, referring to calls like McAuliffe’s goal of shifting Virginia to 100% clean energy production by 2035 or a large-scale move to electric cars, as President Joe Biden supports. “It’s just a pipe dream, which will not occur.”
That sentiment is echoed across the Republican side of the aisle, with wide calls from conservatives for a focus on the American market as opposed to large-scale, fast-acting transitional plans.
William Call, treasurer of the Harrisonburg Republican Committee, said as energy policy is drafted, political leaders should adopt a “market-oriented approach.” One of the biggest considerations in a transition, Call said, is the effect on taxpayers in making a large-scale change possible, and top-down central planning strategies have historically been weak.
Roles of government and the market
Instead, Call said, policy makers should incentivize market players — especially on the industry side — to make the transition toward clean energy.
“A lot of people just want to mandate stuff, like [President Biden’s push for 50% of new car purchases to be electric vehicles by 2030], and I think that’s more of a talking point,” Call said. “The actual reality is you’ve got a national economy that is multi-trillions of dollars and built on basically carbon-based fuels … You’re not going to get a big transition in a short period of time without doing a lot of damage to the economy.”
However, the McAuliffe campaign told The Citizen that a clean energy transition needs to be an immediate and fast-acting priority that can’t be put off. To do it, the Democratic candidate is looking forward to federal dollars flowing out of the American Rescue Plan Act and the $1 trillion infrastructure bill recently passed by the U.S. Congress — the kind of top-down funding scheme that Call warns against.
McAuliffe’s energy policy document doesn’t offer specifics about how to pay for it. But during his campaign stop, he mentioned federal funding Virginia already is expecting to receive.
“There is plenty of money coming from the American Rescue Plan — I’m talking billions,” he said during the event at the Shenandoah Valley Electric Cooperative.
The other side of the issue is job creation and loss. Call said he believes a quick shift to all clean-energy sources would end up “throwing people out of work” — one more reason for a “market-oriented” approach.
McAuliffe’s answer is a focus on energy in rural areas could “create educational opportunities for K-12 students, bolster workforce development programs to produce graduates to step into these new jobs, and create opportunities in the region.”
Miles, from the JMU Center for the Advancement of Sustainable Energy, said Virginia is poised to handle a transition to clean energy because of factors such as the abundance of wind on the Western mountain ridges and off the Eastern Shore, as well as open spaces for solar energy production.
The Shenandoah Valley’s role in all of this, he said, is simply to be a team player in its usage of resources and any necessary shifts.
“Every community that has resources, I think, has some responsibility to find ways to leverage their resources,” he said. In order to reach any goal, “it’s not going to be all done by one community.”
Correction: In an earlier version of the story, John Massoud’s name was misspelled in one reference.
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