Climate activists from central Virginia protest Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s breakfast speech outside the Richmond Convention Center at the Virginia Clean Energy Summit on Oct. 21.
Climate activists from central Virginia protest Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s breakfast speech outside the Richmond Convention Center at the Virginia Clean Energy Summit on Oct. 21. Credit: Ivy Main / Courtesy

RICHMOND — Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin caused a stir early this month when he released an Energy Plan that doesn’t mention climate change in its 35 pages, an about-face from the carbon emissions-cutting pillars initiated by his Democratic predecessor.

That roiling continued at the recent Virginia Clean Energy Summit, where Youngkin provided a sweeping overview of an “all-of-the-above” plan that focuses on his guiding principles of reliability, affordability, innovation, competition and environmental stewardship.

While listeners politely applauded his talk, many had already expressed their disappointment with Youngkin’s proposals to subvert former Gov. Ralph Northam’s signature efforts to advance a once-lagging Southern state as a climate leader.

One of those critics is Kim Jemaine, who in her role as policy director at the Virginia chapter of Advanced Energy Economy, represents a broad swath of businesses statewide.

Kim Jemaine
Kim Jemaine Credit: Courtesy

She characterizes Youngkin’s plan as a “U-turn away from a cleaner and cheaper energy future.”

The plan’s proposals would weaken the landmark Virginia Clean Economy Act (VCEA), a 2020 law to decarbonize the state’s grid by 2050; repeal recently passed electric car standards, and pull the state out of a regional climate compact.

“It misses the mark,” Jemaine said, adding that it puts too much emphasis on hydrogen, small modular reactors and other nascent technologies instead of readily deployable renewables. 

“This energy plan falls short on finding ways to meet the five goals he laid out,” she said. “It sounds like something developed in a vacuum without consideration of the policies already on the books in Virginia.

“It’s a means to undermine them. And that’s a missed opportunity.”

Jemaine, 32, began working in Virginia’s energy and environment realm a decade ago. She earned her master’s degree at Regent University in Virginia Beach.

After the Richmond summit, the Energy News Network talked with Jemaine about AEE’s stand on specifics in Youngkin’s plan. This interview was lightly edited for clarity and length.

Q: Youngkin proposes reevaluating and reauthorizing the VCEA in 2023, then every five years thereafter. That first review is approaching quickly, yes?

A: This is a really problematic component … the legislation passed in 2020, so why isn’t the first review in 2025? 

These types of proposals do nothing but inject uncertainty into the marketplace, especially for energy developers with lengthy review processes. Without a clear framework, it’s hard for developers and large energy users to have any certainty or plan for the future.

Q: Another recommendation Youngkin floats is allowing state regulators to defer renewable energy requirements spelled out in the VCEA to ensure reliability. Does that make sense?

A: One of the beautiful things about the VCEA is that it doesn’t prescribe certain technologies because it already allows for emerging technologies. The goalposts are set for technology that’s already available today, such as wind and solar. 

The big thing for me is to emphasize that the VCEA is both flexible and inclusive, despite claims countering that in the governor’s Energy Plan. If a new technology emerges that is carbon-free and ready there’s room for it in the renewable portfolio standard mix. 

Q: Youngkin’s plan states that the Clean Cars law should be repealed to protect grid reliability. Can you address this?

A: This law was passed to ensure that all Virginians have access to electric cars. It’s in alignment with the trajectory of auto manufacturers and where the marketplace is already going.

Repealing a law that doesn’t take effect for a couple of years means it would be more difficult for Virginia to access electric vehicles because manufacturers are prioritizing states with Clean Car standards. This is a way for Virginia to be at the front of the line.

The administration keeps repeating the idea that Clean Cars is going to put a strain on the grid. The governor knows that Virginia participates in the PJM, a regional transmission organization that serves a massive territory, and is more than capable of meeting and exceeding the state’s electricity needs.

Not all electric vehicles need to be charged at the same time. Programs such as time-of-use rates will help with that. Electrifying transportation is a transition that will be happening over two decades or so.

I also need to note that nobody is going to have to give up an internal combustion engine vehicle overnight as Clean Cars doesn’t stop the use of non-electric vehicles or the sale of used non-electric vehicles. It just means that eventually most new vehicles on dealer lots will be electric. 

Q: The potential for Virginia to become a manufacturing hub for both the solar and offshore wind industries is mentioned in four brief paragraphs about renewable energy in the plan’s “innovation” section. Did your member businesses feel shortchanged?

A: AEE focused heavily on economic development and job creation in our comments about the plan. The governor missed an opportunity to focus on technologies that already have momentum and are gaining traction.

For instance, the potential for offshore wind extends beyond (Dominion Energy’s 2.6-gigawatt) Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind project. We could see 30 gigawatts along the Atlantic Coast in the next decade or so.

Companies are on the hunt for areas on the East Coast that have the necessary components. Even though Virginia has the ports, the skilled workforces, access to the ocean, and is business-friendly, other states are competing for this business opportunity.

We need to secure Virginia’s position as a leader in clean energy and give investors confidence. The goals of the Virginia Clean Economy Act help us because they ensure a market in the state.

Q: Virginia governors are restricted to one four-year term at a time. Is an energy plan a one-shot deal?

A: Virginia code requires an energy plan. Its release date aligns with the first October of the new governor’s term. Stakeholders submit comments beforehand.

We haven’t seen annual updates on plans, but there are periodic updates.

Q: Youngkin said the Energy Plan adopted by his predecessor, Gov. Ralph Northam, went “too far in establishing rigid and inflexible rules” for energy generation transition. Is that a fair assessment?

A: I don’t think so. Northam’s plan was an expansive, detailed 91-page document that included a robust outreach effort and met all the statutory requirements in Virginia code. The same could not be said of Youngkin’s plan as it was missing a number of components, such as how to address the transportation sector.

The governor is tasked with developing a strategy to achieve a goal of net-zero carbon emissions from the major emitting sectors.

Northam’s plan emphasized wind, solar, energy storage and energy efficiency, the least-cost resources that are affordable and readily available in Virginia. 

Of course, each governor has the ability to take a different approach. 

Q: You mentioned the difference legislation can make when linking to federal money the Biden administration’s Inflation Reduction Act and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. Can you elaborate?

A: We’re going to see massive amounts of investments in energy storage, efficiency, grid infrastructure and transmission. 

When we have federal money coming in, we know where to invest it because the VCEA sets specific goals and targets for wind, solar, storage, efficiency and other technologies.

States that don’t have goals and targets in place have to create them and then devise a plan on the fly to decide where to allocate those dollars. If we in Virginia are moving backward, we’re taking ourselves out of alignment with the transition happening everywhere else.

Q: To boost jobs and economic development, Youngkin targets Southwest Virginia as the site for launching a commercial small modular nuclear reactor in the next decade. What is AEE’s response?

A: We fall in the middle. AEE supports investing in emerging technology that can contribute to a clean grid. But the Youngkin administration should invest in proven technologies that are ready to deploy in Virginia immediately.

Small modular reactors are in the research and development phase. Only two are operational in the entire world. At some point in the future, when they are proven to be cost-effective and safe, we’re optimistic about their potential.

So, we’re not opposed to inclusion of small modular reactors. But we are opposed to stalling progress on wind, solar and energy storage for what is essentially a focus on nuclear, hydrogen and other emerging technologies.

Q: Youngkin’s plan refers to the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative as “simply a tax on ratepayers” and “a bad deal for Virginia.” How can that be when organizations have directed millions of RGGI dollars to fund flood prevention initiatives and energy efficiency projects for low-income Virginians?

A: The governor began outlining a RGGI removal plan as soon as he was elected. Through all of this, what we haven’t seen from this administration is a robust explanation for the government’s aversion to RGGI or an alternative for funding these types of programs.

Youngkin is focused on lower energy bills. One of the tangible benefits of RGGI is allowing folks to save on their energy bills because energy efficiency improvements are allowing them to consume less energy in their homes. 

We are going to see the impacts of flooding as temperatures rise. Rather than respond to emergencies, RGGI provides an opportunity to invest in resilience pre-emptively prior to it becoming a dire need.

Q: What’s missing from this conversation that Energy News Network readers should know?

A: The Virginia Clean Economy Act, Clean Cars and Virginia’s decision to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative were all passed by elected officials and have not been repealed yet.

Ideally, Youngkin’s plan would have found ways to leverage these laws and policies.

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.