Volunteers help install solar panels on a Harrisonburg, Virginia, thrift store in 2016. Credit: Austin Bachand/Daily News-Record via AP

In a sign of Virginia’s rapidly changing energy landscape, a national clean energy business organization is setting up shop in the state.

Harrison Godfrey

The Virginia Advanced Energy Economy was launched in February and Harrison Godfrey was chosen as its first executive director. The Virginia chapter is one of 27 such industry organizations that is part of a national association of businesses dedicated to secure, clean and affordable energy. AEE, with offices in Washington, D.C., Boston and San Francisco, works with a coalition of state and regional partners.

Godfrey, 34, is a Virginia native who has worked for OPower (now Oracle Utilities) and Invenergy. He earned a bachelor’s degree in economics from the College of William and Mary and a master’s in public administration from Princeton University.

In an interview with the Energy News Network, Godfrey offered perspective on Virginia’s new pivot beyond fossil fuels. He explains how AEE can capitalize on efforts by the Virginia legislature and Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam to fold renewables into what’s shaping up as a more progressive energy portfolio.

Energy News Network: You’re about five months into your job. What’s been the biggest surprise for you in that short window?

Godfrey: It’s the speed at which things are changing in Virginia. The legislation known as SB 966, with its focus on targets for wind and solar, energy efficiency, energy storage pilot projects and grid modernization is an encouraging and concrete sign of how the landscape has shifted.

Moving forward on clean energy has been a bipartisan issue. This is where the global economy is headed and where the U.S. economy is headed. It’s cost-effective and is creating good, family-sustaining jobs.

Overall, the Advanced Energy Economy’s mission is to make energy cleaner, affordable and more secure. What is the Virginia chapter’s top priority to achieve those goals?

Our five priorities are interdependent and include using energy efficiency and demand response more effectively; expanding market access to renewable energy sources; improving and streamlining the permitting regimes to accelerate the deployment of renewables; and integrating electric vehicles into a broad transportation infrastructure that reaches from passenger cars to municipal bus systems to port service vehicles.

Our fifth goal, which undergirds everything else, is grid modernization for the 21st century to give customers more flexibility and control. That goes beyond smart meters and other new technology. Just as important are regulations that ensure customers have more choices and control about energy use.

Diverse priorities allow us to build coalitions with legislators and engage with regulators. We see all of this technology working together to create something that is greater than the sum of its parts because it’s more affordable, cleaner, reliable and resilient.

Virginia has long identified as a coal state and, more recently, a natural gas state. The legislature sent a powerful message to utilities with recent legislation that says the installation of 5,000 megawatts of wind and solar by 2028 is in the public interest. How will AEE nudge Dominion Energy into action?  

In three big ways. First, businesses are letting elected officials know about the progress being made while also using their leverage to let them know more clean energy is needed for large buyers that want to expand or move into the commonwealth. Second, companies are scrutinizing Dominion’s latest resources plan, which relies heavily on traditional fuels. Third, we will continue shining a spotlight on how Dominion lays out what it is going to do. Why expose ratepayers to price volatility when renewables, energy storage and other low-emission resources are more cost-effective?

The State Corporation Commission, which regulates Virginia utilities, has long maintained that solar, wind and other renewable energy technologies are too expensive for ratepayers. Do you anticipate that changing?

I’m not going to pretend to know the minds of the commissioners, but I am hopeful. SB 966 unlocks a competitive process for procuring renewables. That bidding process should bring added credibility by showing the commissioners realistic prices for clean energy that go beyond theory. Before, the SCC has presumed that what happens in other states would be different in Virginia, a regulated state. This is all part of the education process.

Are there any clean energy projects in the state you and your members find especially encouraging? Why?

One highlight is Virginia’s first onshore wind project. Apex Clean Energy, based in Charlottesville, has approval to build 75-megawatt Rocky Forge Wind in rural Botetourt County. It’s exciting to show that onshore wind can be done here and we’re hoping to draw more of it.

A new solar project in Spotsylvania County involving sPower (Sustainable Power Group LLC) and Microsoft Corporation is exciting not only for its size (500 MW; largest in Virginia) but how it’s being done through the wholesale market. It’s a new pathway for unlocking demand and connecting buyers. Even though Microsoft signed up for most of the capacity (315 MW), this arrangement allows smaller buyers to get solar energy at greater economies of scale.

Previously, you worked at a company that’s now Oracle Utilities and Invenergy. How did that prepare you for this work?

Both of those transformational companies showed how independents and entrepreneurs can create change in a space classically dominated by utilities often locked in to the status quo. They made me think about how we can create better systems, build smart strategies and question assumptions.

I’m now using that experience to help us focus on using electrons more efficiently by having the power supply and demand complement each other. What I’m still learning is that new innovations come down the pike every single day.

Working at private companies showed me that policy is important and so is the advocacy work that leads to change. In business, it’s all about quarterly results because if you don’t meet that bottom line, you don’t stay afloat.

Thus far on the job, what aspect have you found to be the most discouraging?

In a nutshell, the more things change and change quickly, the more they stay the same. Part of the Virginia landscape still seems stuck in the past. For instance, Dominion’s integrated resource plan unveiled this year reflects a 20th century model. And I see that same sort of thinking on the regulatory front because we are having the same old debates about the impact of change on ratepayers.

I’m still an optimist about change, it’s just that not everybody is on the same train.

Energy efficiency often gets lost in the shuffle because it isn’t as bold and eye-catching as wind or solar. Is there a Virginia success story you want to highlight?

This isn’t a new example, but I like to point to the award-winning retrofit that one of our members, Trane, executed at the headquarters of the state Department of Motor Vehicles in Richmond. Upgrades to the (310,650 square foot, nine-story) building saved taxpayers’ dollars by dropping energy consumption by more than one-third and cutting power bills by $284,000 a year.

Briefly, anything else you want to add?

Virginia is changing fast. The state has enormous potential for advanced energy growth and is welcoming innovative companies.

Elizabeth is a longtime energy and environment reporter who has worked for InsideClimate News, Energy Intelligence and Crain Communications. Her groundbreaking dispatches for InsideClimate News from Kalamazoo, Michigan, “The Dilbit Disaster: Inside the Biggest Oil Spill You Never Heard Of” won a Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting in 2013. Her book, "Outpedaling 'The Big C': My Healing Cycle Across America" is available from Bancroft Press. Based in Washington, D.C., Elizabeth covers the state of Virginia.