Virginia Clean Economy Act of 2020 Will Help Protect the Public Health

by Duane Nichols on February 14, 2020

This bill has now passed the House and Senate

Climate Change Affects the Health of All Virginians

Letter to Editor, Richmond Times-Dispatch, February 12, 2020

As physicians, we prioritize the needs of our patients. While we do our best with modern medicine, climate change is a rising threat to our patients’ health. The juxtaposition of fossil fuels and personal health is readily apparent in our clinics and in hospitals across Virginia.

Jacob, a high school student seen in clinic, has asthma and is a starter on his soccer team. He is finding it harder to keep up with his peers, even when he steps up his inhaler regimen, due to crippling heat in spring and summer.

In Virginia, the warmest decade on record is causing more heat illness, insect-borne infections and stronger allergy seasons. In July 2019, more than 1,000 Virginians were admitted to emergency departments or urgent-care clinics for heat-related illness, almost double the number compared to 2018.

Tick populations are soaring in our state, with a 300% increase in Lyme disease over the past 10 years. Peak pollen counts are rising, with counts in Richmond reported to be 35% higher than in the 1980s.

That is why doctors like us have joined the fight for clean energy solutions to the climate crisis. The Virginia Clean Economy Act of 2020 would transition Virginia’s electric grid to 100% clean electricity by 2050, cleaning the air and protecting the health of all Virginians. A recent report found that in moving toward a 100% clean energy goal, Virginians would save $3.5 billion dollars in health care costs alone.

The Virginia Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, Bon Secours Mercy Health, Kaiser Permanente and Virginia Clinicians for Climate Action all support this vital legislation as the necessary step to protecting health and safety in the commonwealth. This bill ensures a healthy tomorrow for all Virginians. We urge our lawmakers to make this future a reality by passing this legislation.

>>> Dr. Christine James, Institute for Asthma and Allergy

>>> Dr. Neelima Tummala, George Washington University,
School of Medicine and Health Sciences


See also: Virginia Clean Economy Act passes, as debate reveals deep partisan and regional divides – Virginia Mercury, February 11, 2020

The product of weeks of negotiations, the 75-page VCEA encompasses at least a dozen goals clean energy advocates have been pushing for several years, including a mandatory renewable portfolio standard, binding energy efficiency targets, beefed-up distributed generation and raised power purchase agreement caps. Its supporters have painted it as a measured path toward zero-carbon emissions by 2050, one backed by not only environment and industry groups but also utilities.

But since the final legislation was unveiled last week, it has been hampered by State Corporation Commission and Office of the Attorney General warnings that it will raise customer bills by at least $23 per month by 2027-30. (This amount is under debate, however.)

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Sarah Vogelsong February 29, 2020 at 12:06 pm

Senate removes Southwest Va. coal plant from list of Clean Economy Act closures

By Sarah Vogelsong, Virginia Mercury, February 28, 2020
An amendment to remove a 2030 closure deadline for the coal- and biomass-fired Virginia City Hybrid Energy Center from the Democrats’ Clean Economy Act omnibus bill unexpectedly cleared the Senate Thursday.

The vote in favor of the amendment, which was taken by voice, adds yet another item to the list of issues that must be resolved before the legislation can reach Gov. Ralph Northam’s desk.

“There are still a lot of moving parts happening to this bill,” said House sponsor Del. Rip Sullivan, D-Fairfax, shortly after the vote. “Time is running out.”

While the Clean Economy Act has passed both chambers, important differences between the more aggressive House and more conservative Senate versions of the bill are set to push the legislation into a conference committee, a smaller group of lawmakers who will be tasked with hashing out the disputes.

Among those disagreements are timelines for Virginia to achieve zero-carbon emissions — the House wants 2045 while the Senate wants 2050 — and binding energy efficiency targets, which in the House are double their Senate counterparts.

Negotiations are ongoing between the many parties involved in crafting the VCEA, a group that includes Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power, environmental organizations and the renewables industry.

But with the end of the session rapidly approaching, people privy to conversations within the coalition have said pressure is building to complete negotiations by Monday.

Asked about whether there was a hard deadline for outstanding issues to be resolved, Sullivan said only that “Monday seems like a good day” and “if we can’t get there we will have to make some decisions.”

The Virginia City dispute

The amendment to remove the Virginia City plant in Wise County from the closure list was offered by Sen. Ben Chafin, R-Russell, who launched an impassioned defense of the plant.

Dominion’s VCHEC began operation in 2012 and is seen by many in economically struggling Southwest Virginia as a rare bastion of stability. Despite its young age — Chafin described it as “barely out of diapers” — it would have to close under the current version of the Clean Economy Act by 2030, six years later than the 2024 closure deadline for most of Virginia’s other coal facilities.

Another coal-fired plant, the Clover Power Station in Halifax that is jointly owned by Dominion Energy and Old Dominion Electric Cooperative, is also exempted from the 2024 deadline and could presumably operate until 2045 or 2050.

While the Southwestern Virginia delegation has previously framed its argument against the plant’s closure in solely economic terms, the defense mounted Thursday focused mostly on its environmental effects, with Chafin pointing to the facility’s ability to burn gob coal.

“Gob” is a term used to refer to waste left behind from coal mining. When it accumulates in piles, some containing hundreds of thousands to millions of tons of discarded coal and tailings, it becomes a significant threat to water quality.

“It leaches into our streams. It leaches into our headwaters,” Chafin told the Senate. VCHEC, he concluded, is “cleaning up Southwest Virginia for the betterment of Southwest Virginia and the betterment of the commonwealth of Virginia.”

Opponents of the amendment, however, contended that even if the plant were removed from the closure list, allowing it to operate until the 2045 or 2050 final deadline for all carbon-emitting plants to be shuttered, Dominion Energy will likely close it within the next decade as coal continues its downward spiral.

Between February 2019 and January 2020, Dominion calculated the facility’s capacity factor — a measurement that compares how much energy a unit actually produces to how much it’s capable of producing — to be just 22 percent, according to a utility filing with the State Corporation Commission.

“Can you explain to the body why, if it has been so effective and efficient, if it has been the godsend that you have said it was and where I was leaning, why it’s only operating at 25 percent capacity?” Sen. Joe Morrissey, D-Richmond, asked Chafin Thursday.

“I don’t know whether it’s 25 percent, 40 percent, 70 percent or 80 percent, but I will say they’re fully staffed,” Chafin replied. “I know of no slowdown whatsoever in the process that’s going on over there.”

After the vote, Harry Godfrey, executive director of Virginia Advanced Energy Economy and one of the Clean Economy Act’s key architects, said “the sad reality for Southwest is the economic trend lines on this plant are clear. Natural gas is going to shutter the Wise plant long before a legislative deadline could,” he said.

Dominion’s acquiescence ‘completely irrelevant’

Exactly who was backing Chafin’s amendment caused confusion in the chamber Thursday.

Arguing against the VCHEC change, Majority Leader Dick Saslaw of Fairfax told the Senate that the 2030 deadline “was the result of negotiations with all the concerned people, including Dominion.”

Chafin, however, questioned whether the utility actually did support the closure. “I would ask the gentleman,” he said, holding aloft a fistful of papers, “how it is that Dominion would have provided to this senator these talking pieces, this information, and indeed participated and spent numerous hours helping prepare this amendment?”

“You’d have to ask them,” Saslaw responded. “But this is what was agreed upon by all the parties involved.”

Mike Town, executive director of the Virginia League of Conservation Voters, an active member of the coalition supporting the Clean Economy Act, told the Mercury that Dominion had put forward the 2030 deadline for closing VCHEC during negotiations.

“Dominion offered to the environmental community putting coal retirements in the legislation, including the Wise County plant in 2030 with the carbon capture, and we said yes to that,” he said. (Another provision in the current legislation would allow VCHEC to remain open after 2030 if it could demonstrate carbon reductions of 83 percent through carbon capture, a technology still in its infancy.)

A Dominion spokesperson would not comment, citing its ongoing policy of not speaking with the Virginia Mercury.

Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax City, on Thursday said it was “completely irrelevant” whether Dominion supported a particular closure date.

“This has to do with what are the costs of the commonwealth of Virginia environmentally, socially, economically,” he said. “That’s the issue, not whether or not, quote, ‘Dominion agrees to it.’”

Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, the sponsor of the Senate version of the bill, insisted that all differences could be worked out in conference committee.

“There is still a discussion going on. We’ve heard you,” she said. “But those discussions are going on right now, and you will have a conference report that will strike the right balance between which coal plants, what order should they be closed.”


Matthew Burke, MD March 2, 2020 at 10:48 am

Clean Economy Act would make Virginia a leader on climate change

By Matthew Burke, M.D., Op-Ed Letter to Virginia Mercury, March 2, 2020

As a doctor, I believe it is the duty of all physicians to stand up to the health challenges of our day.

The opening line of the Hippocratic Oath, to which we are all sworn as medical students, is “Primum non nocere,” which means “First do not harm.” This ancient saying implies before beginning to treat patients, care must first be taken to assess the situation, understand what is happening and not to make suffering worse as we begin the treatment. As the specter of climate change threatens great harm, nothing is more immediate to our combined human well-being than mounting a cogent response to the problem of a warming planet. In the same way we would press forward in developing vaccines to prevent disease and finding cures for the sick, we must both mitigate the effects of climate change and find ways to adapt to its threats.

The public health threats emanating from climate change are numerous. Warmer air and water increase the devastating power of hurricanes, promote droughts and increase the risk of flash floods from sudden severe storms. Warmer summers will increase the rates of heatstroke and dehydration. Warmer winters will kill fewer ticks and insects, increasing the rates of infectious disease, potentially even Yellow Fever, which has not been seen in the U.S. for 100 years. Furthermore, the burning of climate-warming fossil fuels produces pollution that exacerbates asthma, respiratory disease and heart conditions.

Currently, our elected officials in Richmond are debating what action the commonwealth should take with regard to combating climate change. Among numerous measures being considered is the Virginia Clean Economy Act (VCEA), which is perhaps one of the farthest thinking of any climate related bill to be considered this legislative session.

The VCEA would put the state’s utilities on a path to 100 percent carbon-free energy by 2050, defining specific targets along the way. Furthermore, it would commit us to joining the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a cap and trade program used by states from Maryland to New England. RGGI has already demonstrated several billions in savings and resulted in up to 800 lives saved in the past decade from reducing the reliance on fossil fuel generated power.

As a physician, I am existentially concerned with the future of the planet’s health because planetary health translates into public health. As a physician, I feel the VCEA represents a scientifically and morally bold step forward. As a physician, I support the VCEA. We have seen over and over again from national and international models, that reducing our fossil fuel usage not only saves lives, but saves money. It is our moral duty and our economic opportunity to pursue a cleaner future, one that is based on renewable, clean power.

The VCEA would establish Virginia as a leader in combating climate change and a leader in promoting the health of Virginians, Americans, and people across the world. The time is past due for bold action in this area. I would deeply and humbly encourage all Virginians who are concerned with their future and that of their children to stand up and let your voice be heard. Contact your lawmakers and tell them to take up the banner of climate and health, and likewise thank legislators already spearheading this effort. It is good for the planet, it is good for patients. And we are all, at one time or another, patients.

>>> Matthew Burke is a family physician in Northern Virginia, Sierra Club member and chair of the climate and environmental health interest group for the American Academy of Family Physicians


Jennifer McClellan March 7, 2020 at 10:44 am

Virginia Clean Economy Act clears General Assembly, aided by beefed-up ratepayer protections – Virginia Mercury, March 7, 2020

The Virginia Clean Economy Act cleared its last hurdle in the General Assembly this week when both the House of Delegates and the Senate agreed to a final version that reflected the more aggressive House timeline of making Virginia’s electric grid carbon-free by 2045 while also incorporating stronger protections for electric utility ratepayers.

The bill, SB 851, heads to the desk of Gov. Ralph Northam, whose administration has been heavily involved in pushing it forward.

Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, the Senate patron of the bill, called the passage “a major historic moment” that will “break our reliance on fossil fuels.”

“I kept thinking the entire time we were voting about the moon landing and wanted to shout, ‘The eagle has landed!’ on that final vote,” she said at a news conference Friday. “That’s how big this is. This is a giant leap forward for Virginia.”



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