April 20, 2021 News & Features » Cover Story

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GUEST COMMENTARY: Thinking Green 

We need to shed the old utility-centered mindset and put people and the planet at the center of energy policy.

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Last year our General Assembly passed a series of energy bills that put Virginia on the path to a zero-carbon future. The Virginia Clean Economy Act requires our utilities to reduce carbon emissions from power plants to zero by 2050. Other legislation last year and this year will begin reducing emissions from the transportation and building sectors.

This is good news for the planet, our health and our economy, since replacing dirty fossil fuels with clean wind and solar will lessen pollution, create new jobs and save money for customers, as well as help us meet our climate goals.

Yet if we merely replace our centralized fossil energy generation model with a centralized renewable energy model, as the act envisions, we will miss an opportunity to add in layers of community benefits that increase the total value of each megawatt we add to the grid. If instead we commit to centering our energy planning on people, rather than utilities, we could maximize the value of every project undertaken in the energy transition.

For example, the price of solar panels has dropped so far that a utility-scale solar project will provide electricity to the grid at a cost below that of any new fossil fuel facility like a coal or gas plant. But the same amount of solar would create more jobs and make more efficient use of land resources if it were spread across rooftops, parking lots, closed landfills, abandoned mines and former industrial sites. Combined with battery storage, some of this solar – say, on schools and municipal buildings – could also keep power flowing for critical services when there’s a widespread power outage.

Job creation, land-use efficiency and emergency preparedness are significant benefits for society as a whole, made possible by the fact that solar can be scaled up or down and located almost anywhere. More distributed solar can’t entirely replace large projects – we need both – but small-scale solar presents opportunities that we are mostly missing out on today because we haven’t learned to think about energy beyond electrons on the grid.

Of course, smaller solar arrays lack the efficiencies of scale that come with huge solar farms, so on a cents-per-kilowatt-hour basis they cost more. They also provide far more value in benefits to society, but those benefits add nothing to a utility’s balance sheet. Absent state directives or subsidies, utilities have no reason to invest in small projects. Their business is procuring power at the lowest possible cost to themselves. State leaders must step up their involvement if we want better results for the public.

Putting people at the center of our energy planning means considerations of equity and environmental justice become embedded in every decision. The question is no longer how can we get the most energy for the least cost, it’s how do we get the most benefit from every megawatt built? Instead of ignoring the impact of energy spending on people at the bottom of the income ladder, that’s where we look to find the most benefits from carbon reductions.

Looking for where we can add benefits with the energy transition also means focusing on schools, especially those in the worst condition now. Energy retrofits and solar on schools will result in not just energy savings but also healthier students with better academic outcomes.

Virginia is already targeting some energy programs at low-income communities, including funding for energy efficiency and home weatherization programs. The General Assembly recognized that these programs produce the most carbon reductions for the buck, and so benefit everyone. Yet they are part of our energy strategy now not because utilities wanted them, but largely despite utility opposition. Virginia trailed other states on energy efficiency for years because utilities, not people, have been at the center of our energy planning.

Even the large projects that utilities prefer could do more for society. A solar project built on farmland provides construction jobs and local tax revenue, but it can also be designed to benefit the community around it and society at large. The developer can plant native grasses and wildflowers that improve the soil and sustain birds and insects, including pollinators that are endangered today by pesticide use and habitat loss. Supporting pollinators, in turn, benefits farmers and beekeepers. The solar facility owner can also arrange for local shepherds to graze their flocks onsite, replacing the use of gasoline-powered machinery for vegetation management, and in doing so supporting other local businesses.

The need for people-centered energy planning goes well beyond power production, and the potential benefits likewise touch everyone. Electrifying transportation doesn’t just lower carbon emissions, it delivers health benefits by reducing smog. Those benefits reach the most people most quickly when we replace diesel buses with electric, especially in urban areas that suffer from poor air quality now. Even greater benefits would flow from reshaping our communities to be walkable and bikeable, improving everyone’s health and quality of life while cutting emissions.

Even our houses would be built differently if we put people and planet before developer profits. Healthier, more energy-efficient homes mean lower utility bills and the ability to remain comfortable during temperature extremes and power outages, but to get them we must value those benefits above developers’ desire to cut costs.

For all the dismal news about the climate crisis, we are fortunate to live at a time when new technologies make it possible not just to decarbonize our energy supply, but to deliver healthier air, greater social justice, better homes and stronger communities. The transition from fossil fuels to clean renewables makes these gains possible, but not inevitable. We can achieve them only by shedding the old utility-centered mindset and putting people and planet at the center of our energy policy.

Ivy Main is the renewable energy chair for the Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club and writes about energy on her blog powerforthepeopleva.com

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