The measure could put Virginia’s energy economy on par with states like California and Hawaii.

A key Virginia state legislature committee has advanced a climate bill that proponents are calling the most ambitious clean energy policy in Virginia’s history.

The Virginia Clean Economy Act (CEA) would eliminate state power plant carbon pollution by 2050, codifying Gov. Ralph Northam’s pledge to transition the Commonwealth to a 100% clean energy economy.

The bill’s progress represents a monumental shift on climate and energy policy for the House of Delegates, which had been controlled by Republicans since 2000 until Democrats won back the majority in the 2019 General Assembly elections.

“Can anyone imagine just a few years ago, or for that matter just last year, agreement on the fact that going forward the State Corporation Commission needs to consider the social cost of carbon in its deliberations,” Del. Rip Sullivan (D-48), the bill’s patron, said during a Thursday hearing. “Not until this year could we have imagined a mandatory renewable portfolio standard,” he added.

Earlier in the week, during a Labor and Commerce subcommittee hearing, Sullivan said the CEA has been the subject of “herculean” negotiations in the 2020 General Assembly session from the “widest variety of stakeholders any bill like this has ever seen.”

Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration, environmental groups, the renewables industry, and the state’s two regulated electric monopolies, Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power Company, all backed the bill, which passed a Labor and Commerce subcommittee Tuesday.

“With this vote, Virginia moves one step closer to historic climate action,” said Harrison Wallace, Virginia Director of CCAN Action Fund. “This would have been unthinkable just one year ago. Voters across the Commonwealth demanded serious climate legislation and these members are delivering on that call today.”

An updated version of the 75-page bill passed the full committee by a vote of 13-9 Thursday, moving the legislation to the full House floor. The most recent version made minor tweaks to the original, including a shortened timeline, by 2045, for Dominion to achieve 100% clean energy. 

State Sen. Jennifer McClellan is spearheading the same bill through the Senate, which will be heard Sunday.

If enacted, the CEA would put Virginia on par with a select few states like California, Hawaii, Washington, and New York, which have established similarly bold visions for the future of the power sector, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. It would also bring Virginia closer to meeting international carbon-reduction goals set by the United Nations to avoid the worst effects of climate change.

The CEA’s consumer and economic benefits, however, may be its key selling points in the General Assembly. As Sullivan noted, “this is a jobs bill.”

Through various investments in clean energy technologies like solar, wind and energy efficiency, along with new laws capping spikes in electric bills, among other consumer protections, CEA advocates say the legislation would create thousands of jobs and make power cheaper.

“Rooftop and shared solar are the backbone of the Virginia Clean Economy Act, the key word being ‘economy,'” said Karla Loeb, who chairs a committee for the Maryland Delaware Virginia Solar Energy Industries Association and serves as chief policy and development officer for Sigora Solar.

The CEA calls for 2,500 MW of additional distributed solar capacity, which is about 27 times higher than current levels.

That expansion could create 29,500 direct solar jobs in Virginia, and tens of thousands of indirect jobs, according to a study compiled by the Virginia Commonwealth University Center for Urban and Regional Analysis and a coalition of solar companies and advocates. In the study, researchers project that adding 2,500 MW of distributed solar capacity translates into over $7 billion in total economic benefit. 

“This study illustrates how the Virginia Clean Economy Act will spur transformational job growth and economic development, ensuring that as Virginia transitions to clean energy, away from fossil fuels, we are doing so in the most inclusive and equitable way possible,” Loeb said.

And that’s just solar. Another report produced for Advanced Energy Economy by The Greenlink Group, a clean energy technology and research company, with input from GridLab, a technical advisory non-profit, assessed the impact of Virginia’s transition to a 100% clean energy grid across different timescales — 2030, 2040 and 2050. Compared to business as usual, the researchers said, the zero carbon scenarios would generate twice the employment activity. In annual terms, therefore, the CEA would create an average of 13,000 jobs per year through 2050.

Jobs in the solar industry account for about 60% of new job growth in that analysis, followed by energy efficiency and battery storage jobs.

Electric bills would also go down, according to the Advanced Energy Economy report. In the transition to a carbon-free electric grid, the average household would save up to $3,500 on their utility bills through 2050.

Speaking against the bill during Tuesday’s subcommittee hearing, representatives from more demanding climate groups like the Sunrise Movement and Food and Water Action said the bill does not do enough to phase out natural gas production and fossil fuel pipeline construction. A Food and Water Action volunteer said the bill makes a “mockery” of the definition of renewables by counting nuclear and waste-to-energy power production as renewable sources. Generally, opponents said bolder action, like the Virginia Green New Deal Act, is required to address the urgency of the climate crisis.