RICHMOND, Va. -- Virginia lawmakers gave final passage Friday to a sweeping energy bill that would overhaul how the state's utilities generate electricity, a measure environmental groups and other renewable energy advocates considered a historic step toward addressing climate change.
The state Senate advanced the Virginia Clean Economy Act on a vote of 22-17, sending the bill to Gov. Ralph Northam a day after the House passed it. The measure was a top priority of leaders of the new Democratic majority that took control of the General Assembly in last fall's elections.
“Today, the Virginia Senate finalized what would have been impossible just a year ago: comprehensive legislation that gets us to 100 percent clean electricity and zero carbon emissions,” Michael Town, executive director of the Virginia League of Conservation Voters, said in a statement. “Voters demanded climate action in November and the legislature just delivered in a big way. This is a true turning point in the climate fight here in Virginia, as we take our place among the top states in the nation working to cut emissions and move away from dirty fossil fuels.”
The bill passed over the objections of many Republicans, who raised concerns about impacts on ratepayers.
Others, including the office of Attorney General Mark Herring, questioned whether state regulators had adequate oversight of the bill's massive price tag. The State Corporation Commission has said Dominion Energy, which owns the state's largest electric utility, will collect tens of billions of dollars from Virginia ratepayers to meet the bill's requirements.
One of the measure's sponsors, Del. Rip Sullivan, said a number of provisions had also been added to strengthen the SCC's oversight of enacting the measure.
“I think that the final bill has lots and lots of provisions in it that will make sure that ratepayers' interests are protected and that we do this in a responsible way,” he said at a press conference Friday.
Charlotte Gomer, a spokeswoman for Herring, said the attorney general's office “helped point out some important concerns that were addressed and ultimately made the bill much better for ratepayers.”
The bill does not contain an explicit moratorium on new fossil fuel-fired generating facilities but lays out a path toward zero carbon emissions by 2045. It paves the way for an enormous expansion of offshore wind generation, solar or onshore wind generation, and the use of battery storage technology, which advocates say will create thousands of jobs.
Lawmakers have said that offshore wind in particular could be a huge boost for the economy in the Hampton Roads region.
The legislation also requires utilities to meet certain energy efficiency standards, establishes annual goals for the sale of renewable energy, and contains provisions advocates say remove barriers to rooftop and shared solar energy.
Northam's spokeswoman, Alena Yarmosky, said the governor was “thrilled to see the bill pass.”
“Governor Northam strongly supports moving the Commonwealth towards a sustainable, clean energy future, and our administration has been actively involved in shepherding this through. He looks forward to reviewing this legislation when it reaches his desk,” she said.
The SCC has estimated implementing the legislation would result in significant increases to the typical residential customer's bill. Proponents of the measure have criticized the commission's calculations and said their own show that the changes would result in a relatively small reduction in energy bills.
An earlier version of the bill included a provision that would likely have forced a southwest Virginia coal plant to close by 2030, a change that sparked an enormous outcry from Republican lawmakers and local officials whose communities benefit from the plant's tax revenue.
But that was stripped from the final version. Instead, both Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power must close all electric generating units that emit carbon by 2045. The Virginia City Hybrid Energy Center, owned by Dominion and located in Wise County, could still close sooner.
Rayhan Daudani, a spokesman for Dominion, which was involved in the bill's negotiations, said in a statement that the measure's passage “sets a clear path forward for Virginia’s energy future.”
A spokesman for Appalachian Power didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.