The Race to 100% Renewable Is On in Virginia: Floyd and Blacksburg Lead in Committing to Energy Transition (Sort Of)
On October 24, 2017, deep in the heart of Virginia, the mostly Republican supervisors of Floyd County (population 15, 755) issued a resolution proclaiming the county’s commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by “replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy along with conservation and energy efficiency.” And also “support[ing] the achievement of near zero greenhouse gas emissions through policies that shift the energy supply strategy of our County from fossil fuels to 100% clean renewable energy.” The vote in support was unanimous.
The vote made Floyd the first Virginia locality to join more than 70 cities, towns and counties across the U.S. that have committed to achieving 100% renewable electricity. At least five cities are already powered by renewable energy today, according to the Sierra Club. (And surprise! None of the five are in California.)
Floyd’s resolution does not set a date for accomplishing its goal, so some might call it more aspirational than committed. And even the residents of Floyd subsequently showed themselves more than a little conflicted. (I’ll get to that in a moment.)
But within three months, the Town of Blacksburg followed suit with its own resolution in favor of 100% renewable energy, and it upped the ante by setting a target date of 2050. The Blacksburg commitment is bolstered by the town’s previous work on a climate action plan and its own claim to fame as the location of Virginia’s first Solarize campaign.
As best I can tell, Floyd and Blacksburg are the only Virginia localities to take the pledge so far, but the idea is under consideration across the state. The Sierra Club launched its “Ready for 100” campaign in Virginia almost two years ago in an effort to persuade Arlington and Alexandria to set a target date of 2035 for both government and residents to be powered by 100% renewable electricity. Fairfax City and Charlottesville have also begun the conversation.
The 2035 target proposed for Arlington and Alexandria is both more and less ambitious than Blacksburg’s goal, since it covers only the electric sector. Moving to 100% renewable energy, as Blacksburg aims to do, also requires things like eliminating petroleum use in transportation and an end to heating by natural gas and fuel oil. These are harder in the near term but generally considered achievable by 2050, given the projections for electric vehicles, cost declines that make electricity from wind and solar competitive with fossil fuels, and a growing belief that combating climate change will soon push us towards a policy to “electrify everything.”
Not everyone agrees that abandoning fossil fuels is the right goal, including some of the same people who said it was. Immediately after passing the 100% resolution, supervisors in Floyd County contracted a case of buyers’ remorse when the local Tea Party found out and raised a ruckus. (The local newspaper had been covering the topic for months, but evidently it didn’t make Fox News.)
Barely six weeks later, on December 12, the board issued a hastily-prepared second resolution. It began by repeating several findings of the first resolution, including recognizing the threat of climate change and the role of humans in causing it. So far, so good. Then it took a sharp detour to praise fossil fuels and to pledge to “protect the freedom and economic interests” of residents by working for “viable, cost-effective, clean and reliable energy resources of all available types,” which the drafters seemed to think included fossil fuels. Only one supervisor voted no. They did not, however, repeal the first resolution. That leaves Floyd with its first-in-the-commonwealth status on embracing 100% renewable energy, but sadly paralyzed on putting it into action.
It is worth reading this second Floyd resolution to understand the underlying concerns of the noisy minority who pushed it through. It reveals that a belief in coal as a cheap fuel remains common, though it has been years since coal lost its competitiveness. And the reference to fossil fuels as “clean” is surely an echo of the “clean coal” propaganda that never had any truth behind it, but seemed to offer a free lunch. The very silliness of the phrase works in its favor: since no one would make up something so absurd, people figure, it has to be true.
The second resolution also reflects a genuine concern about the potential of an over-active government to infringe on individual liberties. Billy Weitzenfeld, President of Sustain Floyd, told me some local people who were opposed to the pro-renewable energy resolution expressed a fear that it would lead to the government taking away peoples’ wood stoves and forcing everyone to put solar panels on their houses. Thus the freedom from utility control that rooftop solar offers to consumers was turned on its head and made to look like a threat to individual liberty.
Weitzenfeld feels the Tea Party concerns are misplaced, but he also thinks the conflict could have been avoided by better dialog in the process. It was unfortunate, he said, that fear took over, and—at least temporarily—brought a halt to what had been an exciting momentum on clean energy initiatives.
Weitzenfeld has not thrown in the towel, though. He and other advocates in Floyd are getting back to doing “the proactive stuff that can really make a difference”: putting solar on rooftops through a second Solarize program, encouraging energy audits, engaging the public, and building what he calls “the constituency of practitioners,” people whose own experience with renewable energy will make them the ones to push back against fear and misinformation the next time around.
Looking on the bright side, even the rebelling Tea Partiers recognized the climate threat, which is also a theme common to the other Virginia resolutions. In other conservative states, more prosaic considerations have driven the decision. And by that, of course, I mean money. The Republican mayor of Georgetown, Texas, said economics pushed them to become one of the first cities in America to run entirely on wind and solar energy, when they found they could save money doing it. Bentonville, Texas, may become the second city in that state to achieve the 100% goal, on economic grounds as well as due to concerns over air quality associated with coal and gas burning.
In 2008, tiny Rock Port, Missouri, became the first locality in the U.S to be powered entirely by wind energy, taking advantage of a cheap and abundant resource in a windy farm community. Greensburg, Kansas, also went all-wind in 2013, and uses this and other green initiatives as a major branding tool.
All of these are small communities that control their own electricity supply, which gives them options most Virginia localities lack. Blacksburg residents get their electricity from Appalachian Power; most others have to deal with Dominion Energy Virginia or one of the rural electric cooperatives. So even if they achieve consensus within their communities on a goal of 100% renewables, meeting the goal will require navigating a range of barriers.
We are not alone there. A fair number of the cities on the Ready for 100 list are also located in the Southeast, and suffer from the same outdated monopoly utility structure that we do. Virginia localities can look for guidance to Atlanta, Georgia (100% renewable energy by 2035), and Columbia, South Carolina (100% renewable electricity by 2036).
Next week Sierra Club will launch its “100% Virginia Campaign” to encourage residents across the state to advocate for clean energy in their communities, with the hope that more localities will take up resolutions for 100% renewable electricity by 2035.
More generally, Sierra Club organizer Alice Redhead says the goal is to “build a movement for clean energy across the state and set the conditions for Virginia to transition to 100% renewable energy statewide by 2050. We are pushing for localities around Virginia to commit to 100% clean energy, but we are also making sure that the campaign is flexible rather than one size fits all and allows for locally-tailored initiatives that are strategic for the conditions in different areas of the state. Local campaign teams that are a part of the 100% Virginia network will develop unique plans to advocate for clean energy progress specific to their area.”
In an upcoming blogpost I’ll take a harder look at the obstacles facing Virginia localities, as well as the opportunities that make getting to 100 a viable option.