Jennifer McClellan and Rip Sullivan Column: Repositioning the economy by investing in clean energy jobs

By Sen. Jennifer McClellan and Del. Rip Sullivan

Earlier this month, Gov. Ralph Northam signed a historic law: the Virginia Clean Economy Act (VCEA). The biggest step forward in environmental and energy policy in Virginia history, the VCEA passed with bipartisan majorities.

This law makes Virginia one of the top five states in combating climate change, and one of just a handful committed to achieving 100% clean energy by 2045. It will also help Virginians save money on their energy bills and create thousands of jobs.

As chief patrons of the VCEA, we are proud of what this law achieves — for our environment, our economy and the future of all Virginians. In the month since the VCEA passed the General Assembly, the world has changed. But the need for the act has not. Indeed, it has grown all the more apparent.

COVID-19 brought our economy to a standstill. In the past few weeks, hundreds of thousands of Virginians have filed for unemployment as the pandemic has shuttered schools, factories and businesses. The outlook for Virginia families, particularly those who already are living paycheck to paycheck, feels grim.

Until this health crisis is resolved, our economy will remain frozen. Even when economic activity resumes, we will not return to business as usual — diminished revenues, lost jobs and bankrupt stores will hamper our recovery. But the VCEA provides a path through this challenge by bolstering Virginia’s economy in an unprecedented way.

The VCEA lets us reposition our economic future, becoming a national leader in one of the fastest-growing fields: clean energy. This law is expected to create up to 13,000 new jobs each year in the advanced energy industry — contractors implementing efficiency upgrades, technicians installing renewable projects and new manufacturing jobs. The VCEA requires that projects like offshore wind prioritize local labor, so Virginia energy projects will be built by Virginians.

The VCEA outlines annual goals, providing certainty to jobseekers, businesses and investors. For example, it requires that at least 73% of Virginia’s electricity come from clean, in-state sources like wind, solar and hydro over the next 15 years, and 100% just 10 years after that.

The VCEA’s economic benefits also will be realized in the money ratepayers save. Today, Virginians pay higher electricity bills than residents in 4 out of five 5 U.S. states. For 75% of Virginians, this energy burden already is unaffordable. This law establishes binding efficiency standards, compelling utilities to reduce energy waste and to do more to help Virginians save money. The law directs new dollars to efficiency programs, ensures more of those programs are focused on Virginians in need and lays the foundation for a Percentage of Income Payment Program, which will protect low-income residents. These measures will deliver savings to people who need them most, at a time when that need is particularly acute.

Families in Southwest Virginia face some of the highest energy burdens in the commonwealth, while the decline of coal has cost the region one of its economic pillars. There is an enormous opportunity for job creation in Southwest Virginia through the VCEA, which is written to ensure that historically disadvantaged communities, such as those in the coal fields region, are at the front of the line for new projects and job training.

For example, the commonwealth recently inked an agreement for energy production from Rocky Forge Wind, the first onshore wind project in Virginia. Located in Botetourt County, this project will employ 250 people during construction, generate approximately $20 million in state and local taxes, and produce enough electricity to power 20,000 homes. The VCEA will spur more successes like Rocky Forge Wind.

COVID-19 has taught us painful lessons about the importance of preparation and collective action to confront a global threat — lessons we would be wise to heed in approaching the threat of climate change. If we wait to act until the worst is upon us, it will be too late.

As elected officials, we both have seen Virginia communities that already are paying the price for inaction — especially low-income communities and communities of color that face disproportionate health and economic impacts from pollution. A recent Harvard study found that residents of communities impacted by pollution are more likely to die from COVID-19. This is a matter of health and environmental justice. The VCEA takes action now, cutting pollution while increasing resilience and energy independence.

Virginia cannot solve the climate crisis alone but, as we have seen during this pandemic, individual choices have global impacts. Through the VCEA, the commonwealth can do its part to “flatten the curve” of carbon dioxide emissions while rebuilding its economy. That is a victory for all Virginians.