Under Governor Terry McAuliffe, Virginia has seen a rapid growth of its renewable energy market, particularly with solar energy development. With the upcoming gubernatorial election, it has been unclear how much support renewable growth will continue to receive from Richmond; While Democratic candidate Ralph Northam is committed to the status quo set up by McAuliffe, Republican Ed Gillespie has been silent on renewables – his campaign site only touts a desire to work with the White House in promoting the use of fossil fuel resources.
Earlier this week, Virginia expanded into a new frontier of renewables with the announcement of an offshore wind farm. While this technology has proven successful in Europe, it is largely untested in North America. Not surprisingly, Gov. McAuliffe was quick to voice his support. Raising eyebrows, so did Ed Gillespie. In a statement, the Republican candidate said the following:
“These new turbines are further proof that renewable energy is becoming increasingly reliable and affordable, and as governor I’ll work to expand the production of all safe, reliable and affordable sources of energy in Virginia.”
This statement seems to fly the face of Gillespie’s platform, which includes “stopping the regulatory assault on our coal sector”. It also appears to disagree with Gillespie’s work through the Trump-aligned Institute for Energy Research and its affiliate, the American Energy Alliance. However, it is becoming increasingly clear that Virginia Republicans do not take all of their marching orders from Washington. There are several reasons for politicians right-of-center to support an more open-mindedness when it comes to the future of energy in Virginia:
- GOP VOTERS: Recent polling shows that 80% of Virginia voters, as well as 66% of GOP voters, support an energy strategy that increases use of renewables relative to fossil fuels.
- GOP LEGISLATORS: The Republican-controlled General Assembly has promoted solar energy. Republican legislators support a collaborative dialogue between the solar industry and the Virginia Electric Utilities, colloquially known as the Rubin Workgroup, with the objective to seize solar’s market potential. In the last General Assembly session, Republican leadership sponsored the Rubin Workgroup Bills – the General Assembly approved three Bills which the Governor subsequently signed.
- GOP DONORS: Dominion Power, perhaps one of the largest energy-focused political donors, gave 67% of their federal campaign contributions to Republicans in 2016. In this gubernatorial election, Dominion has contributed 72% to Northam. Further, Dominion plans to invest $70 billion in solar over the next 25 years.
- JOB CREATORS: Amazon Web Services specifically asked for and contracted about half of the utility-scale solar projected to be operational by the end of 2017. They are not alone in their demand for clean energy: 71 Fortune 100 companies have set sustainability goals, and they are increasingly using the availability of renewable energy as a factor in where they site new facilities. For a state whose markets can easily be served by factories and data centers in North Carolina and Maryland, this should be cause for alarm. It is worth noting that AWS employs 1,672 people in the Washington, DC area, while coal mining employs 1,670 people in Virginia.
Gillespie likely had these stats in mind when he made his recent statement. While it does not express a blind support for renewables, it shows a willingness to support any and all energy sources, so long as they make economic sense. This Reaganesque, capitalistic approach to energy reduces excess regulations and creates a competitive energy marketplace.
Everyone loses when the government picks a winner, whether that winner is coal or solar. From a renewable developer’s perspective, we see the same thing as Gillespie and Virginia Republicans and Democrats alike; On a level playing field, renewable energy is increasingly competitive with traditional resources. To the benefit of all, Virginia appears to be poised to embrace the natural growth of renewables in a free market, regardless of the outcome of the election.