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Governor Northam hosts roundtable discussion with Amazon HQ2 officials

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On October 21, 2019, Governor Ralph Northam hosted a roundtable discussion in St. Paul with officials from Amazon’s second headquarters, located in Arlington. The Governor was joined by his Chief of Staff Clark Mercer, Chief Workforce Development Advisor Megan Healy, Secretary of Commerce and Trade Brian Ball, and Deputy Secretary of Commerce and Trade and Director of the Office of Outdoor Recreation Cassidy Rasnick. Held at the Oxbow Center of the University of Virginia’s College at Wise, the conversation included community and business leaders in Southwest Virginia who spoke about workforce development, economic development, and small business issues. Following the discussion, Governor Northam became the first sitting governor to ride on the Spearhead Trails. Photos from the Governor’s visit are available here.

“Workforce development is a key reason why companies are choosing to locate in Virginia, and we’re proud to work with diverse partners to grow our tech talent pipeline across the Commonwealth,” said Governor Northam. “One of my proudest days in office was last year when I announced Amazon’s decision to call Virginia their second home, and we believe the company’s location here can benefit every part of the state. Southwest Virginia has strong communities, a skilled workforce, and visionary leadership, and I’m pleased to have the opportunity to discuss with local leaders how we can attract more jobs and investment to this important region.”

In November 2018, Governor Northam announced that Amazon would invest at least $2.5 billion and create more than 25,000 high-paying jobs to establish their second headquarters in Arlington, Virginia. The Commonwealth’s proposal was designed to help grow the tech talent pipeline in all parts of the state, enhance transportation infrastructure, and ensure that the economic benefits of the Amazon project are shared across Virginia.

“Attracting world-class talent that will help Amazon continue to innovate on behalf of its customers was the main driver of our decision to locate our second headquarters in Northern Virginia,” Ardine Williams, Vice President of Workforce Development at Amazon. We are excited by the Commonwealth’s response and look forward to continue building the future together.”


“After our statewide workforce tour in September, the number one issue in Southwest Virginia is bringing jobs to the area to keep communities together,” said Chief Workforce Advisor Megan Healy. “It is great to show international business leaders the strong workforce and innovation happening in all parts of the states.”

“Bringing Amazon’s HQ2 to Virginia was a huge win for the whole Commonwealth,” said Secretary of Commerce and Trade Brian Ball. “The Governor has been focused on diversifying the economy, and making sure all regions participate in our economic growth. This roundtable is a chance to highlight the human and natural assets of Southwest Virginia, and hear from community leaders about ways we can continue to enhance the economic prosperity of all regions.”

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Report: Cutting prison fees could save incarcerated Virginians and their families $28.3M

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If the Virginia prison system were to heed the recommendations of reformers who want to make life behind bars less expensive for inmates, it could save prisoners and their families up to $28.3 million per year by shifting those costs elsewhere, according to a new report.

At the General Assembly’s request, a workgroup has been studying the possibility of cutting costs and fees charged to inmates for making phone calls, using tablets to listen to music or play games, accessing the internet, and purchasing food, clothes, and other supplies from commissaries.

In a 54-page report delivered on October 1, members of the workgroup who aren’t affiliated with the Virginia Department of Corrections made various recommendations to ease the financial burden on incarcerated people and their relatives, many of whom are low-income. Inmates themselves have little ability to make their own money, the report says, because prison jobs pay a maximum of $54 per month.

Throughout the report, prison officials largely advised against sticking taxpayers with a higher bill and raised security concerns to justify limits on inmates’ contact with the outside world.


The report — the work of VADOC officials, legislators, and advocacy groups that work on prison reform and reentry issues — lays out a detailed menu of options for policymakers to consider in future General Assembly sessions, with recommendations from nongovernmental members contrasted with skepticism from prison officials.

“While we could not achieve consensus on the recommendations, the department appreciates the insight and feedback from stakeholders,” the corrections department wrote in a closing statement.

A VADOC spokesman said the agency was reviewing the report internally and declined to comment further.

The study arose from a bill filed by Sen. Jennifer Boysko, D-Loudoun. The original version would have implemented many of the cuts the study considered, but legislators decided to take more time to review the topic before taking action.

“I think that we can find solutions that are both fiscally responsible and humane,” Boysko said in an interview Tuesday, adding that she’s still considering whether she’ll file another bill on the matter in 2023.

Republicans largely backed the study, and Gov. Glenn Youngkin signed the bill initiating it, but it’s unclear if something like the original bill could pass with the GOP pushing tough-on-crime, low-tax messaging ahead of next year’s General Assembly elections.

Boysko noted that the free-market conservative group Americans for Prosperity backed her original bill and said some Republicans “see this as a real burden.”

“This is what we call a captive market,” Americans for Prosperity Virginia’s Ben Knotts said during a committee hearing in January. “It is when the government has control over a product and they get to decide the terms of it.”

Democratic proponents of the bill have argued that the state’s poorest people shouldn’t have to pay steep bills to stay in touch with their incarcerated loved ones and help them maintain basic living standards. Some Republicans have seemed skeptical of spending more public money to make life easier for people convicted of crimes, warning against making goods and services in prison cheaper than they would be for those on the outside.

Food

The biggest financial shift the report envisions is upping daily spending on prison food from $2.20 to $4 per person, a change estimated to cost $16.7 million. Advocates say spending more to provide better food would improve inmates’ health and reduce their need to buy extra food from the commissary because the regular meals they’re served “vary in quality.”

“It’s the state’s responsibility to feed people adequately and nutritionally, and that cannot be done for $0.73 cents per meal,” the report says. “Nor is it ultimately cost-effective, since overreliance on both starchy, nutrient-deficient food service meals and packaged and processed commissary items leads to diet-related diseases that taxpayers pay for eventually in medical costs.”

In its response, the Department of Corrections said it hasn’t had time to “analyze the practicability” of those suggestions while noting it’s already switching from one statewide prison dietician to three dieticians spread among different regions. The agency also defended the quality of its meals and said inmates will buy processed food from commissaries regardless of what’s served in cafeterias.

“Providing and serving food in prisons involves more than nutrition and quality,” the agency wrote. “It also involves security, logistics and complying with constitutional and legal requirements.”

The work group also recommended prohibiting “food-related punishments” like serving worse meals as a disciplinary measure. Prison officials said menu substitutions only happen “when certain foods are unavailable,” when there is a lockdown or “equipment failure,” and when uncommon items such as “seasonal farm products” become available.

Commissary markups

The report recommends the elimination of the 9% markup on commissary sales through a phased-in approach that would gradually replace that commission revenue with an extra $4 million per year in the state budget.

Prison stores are effectively a “government-mandated monopoly” that skews prices upward, the report says, leading inmates to pay $2.06 for a package of pretzels, $3.70 for a 4.5-oz can of chicken, $31.33 for a bra, 31 cents for a two-pack of aspirin, $9.87 for a three-pack of men’s boxers and $29.44 for a small fan.

“Incarcerated people and families, many of whom cannot afford to pay these commissions, are currently subsidizing the public safety budget through these regressive taxes on end-users,” the report says.

The roughly $3.68 million the prison system takes in each year from commissary markups helps cover the costs of services provided to inmates, prison officials noted, including cable TV, religious services, barbers and beauty shop equipment, appliances, workout equipment, and reentry programs.

“Relying on a taxpayer (general funds) model to replace these funds puts these services at risk when there are significant budget cuts but would still require the VADOC to provide uninterrupted services to the inmate population without adequate funding,” VADOC said in response.

The report also raises concerns about an alleged lack of transparency about the wholesale costs of commissary items provided by Keefe Commissary Network, the contractor that supplies the stores. The work group requested access to a sample list of how much commissary items cost the contractor, but the company said the information was “proprietary” and wouldn’t be shared.

“VADOC is responsible for negotiating prices for commissary items,” the report says. “And while they claim to seek the lowest possible prices, they have a conflict of interest because they receive commission revenue as a percentage of these prices.”

The report recommended a pilot program to inject free-market principles into the prison economy, potentially allowing online retailers like Amazon and Walmart or other commissary providers to compete with the state’s sole contractor.

VADOC said having one vendor reduced the amount of time prison officials have to spend vetting supplies coming into prisons for contraband. The agency said that allowing online retailers to supply prisons creates a new set of issues since those companies may be unfamiliar with the security rules of prison environments. Because anyone can start selling items on Amazon, the agency wrote, staff would have to check to ensure Amazon sellers don’t have a personal connection to their incarcerated customers.

The prison agency said it would explore the possibility of reducing markups on underwear and other basic hygiene products

Phone/video calls and emails

Under current policy, inmates are charged roughly 4 cents per minute for phone calls, with no commission going to the prison. Advocates say those costs can be “prohibitive,” preventing contact between prisoners and loved ones, leading to better outcomes upon release.

“Excessive fees charged to incarcerated people for communicating with the outside world are both predatory and counterproductive, from a corrections standpoint,” said Andy Elders, a work group member who chairs the board of the advocacy group Justice Forward Virginia.

The report recommends giving each inmate at least 120 minutes of free call time per day, maintaining a 1:10 ratio of phones to people in custody, and increasing the number of phone numbers each incarcerated person can call from 15 to 20.

Agency officials insisted they simply don’t have the equipment or staff to allow that much free call time, which they said would disincentive prisoners from spending time learning skills or participating in reentry programs.

“Inmates have and continue to use the communications system to engage in illegal activity, such as the selling, delivery, distribution, and payments involved with drug transactions,” VADOC wrote.

Under the current cost structure, officials said, many prisoners are on the phone “most of the day” and occasionally “extort/bully” other inmates trying to make calls.

Video calls are available to inmates at a similar cost. The workgroup recommended making those calls free. Prison officials raised similar concerns about whether that would work in practice, suggesting the “modest fee” for video visitation is still a cheaper option for many than traveling long distances for in-person visits.

Ingoing and outgoing emails through the prisons’ J-Pay vendor require stamps that cost at least 25 cents per message, with a 5-cent commission going to VADOC for each outgoing message. The workgroup recommended scrapping those commissions, which generate $89,592 annually, and allowing unlimited emails.

“Incarcerated people and families are being charged exorbitant rates to send electronic messages, including additional fees for attachments such as photos, which cannot be received by mail any longer,” the workgroup wrote.

Prison officials disagreed, saying the agency would have to spend more than $5 million to hire extra staff to monitor emails to ensure they aren’t used for things like sexually explicit content or contacting crime victims.

The agency said it will review the report’s recommendations as it works to secure a new contract that will cover phone calls, music, games, and wireless internet. The agency also charges commissions on tablets that allow incarcerated people to listen to music, read news and play games, a system that generated nearly $417,396 in the most recent fiscal year.

Deposit fees

With technology like Venmo making it easier than ever to transfer money digitally, the report also aims at fees charged to families for depositing money into inmates’ accounts, ranging from 3% to nearly 24% per transaction.

“In VADOC facilities, the fees for a $300 online deposit are $9.95 while a $25 online deposit will cost $5.95,” the report says. “Effectively, the people who can afford to send the least get charged the most.”

The report recommends directing VADOC to partner with another state agency to develop an in-house system that will make the process cheaper or simply cap processing fees at 3%.

“Payment processing is not complicated, and clearly, many state agencies have figured it out,” the report says.

VADOC cautioned against the General Assembly getting involved in micromanaging the terms of its contracts with vendors. Rewriting the rules, the agency could risk “alienating quality service providers” who understand “the specific security needs of the industry.”

“Fees should be addressed during contract negotiations, not as part of the legislation,” the agency wrote.

Other funding sources

In addition to simply growing the General Assembly-approved prisons budget, the report outlines a few other possible sources of revenue to help make up for lower prison fees.

The non-agency work group members suggested looking at leasing out unused land owned by VADOC and tapping new federal funding meant to expand broadband internet access to “underserved populations.”

The report says that if all the proposed fee cuts were adopted, it would amount to about 2% of VADOC’s $1.4 billion yearly budget.

Shawn Weneta, a policy strategist with the ACLU of Virginia who served on the work group, said VADOC is resisting reforms due to “institutional inertia and incumbency protection for these vendors.”

“It was disappointing given that the legislature made it clear that they were wanting to see recommendations on how to improve the system,” Weneta said, adding Virginia should at least be able to make sure its prison fees are in line with other states. “We shouldn’t be paying four times what another state is.”

A similar study looks at inmates’ fees in local and regional jails. That report isn’t due until Dec. 1.

 

by Graham Moomaw, Virginia Mercury


Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sarah Vogelsong for questions: info@virginiamercury.com. Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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For offshore wind aspirations to become reality, transmission hurdles must be cleared

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Dominion Energy installed two test turbines to generate power 27 miles off the coast of Virginia Beach as a precursor what the company hopes will be the largest offshore wind project in the United States. (Dominion Energy)

 

President Joe Biden’s administration laid out ambitious additional goals last month to boost offshore wind power generation, one of the American renewable energy industry’s emerging wide open frontiers.

The federal announcements come as coastal states across the country are increasingly setting offshore wind energy targets, seeking to capture not just clean energy but the potentially big economic benefits of their ports serving as hubs for the vessels, blade manufacturing, cables, and other infrastructure needed to get turbines more than 850 feet tall installed miles out at sea.

But amid news releases touting megawatt targets and jobs, there’s been less attention on the challenge of bringing all that electricity ashore and connecting it to a grid that was designed to bring power to the coast, not the other way around.


“It is so exciting to see the goals put forward and it’s a great signal and clear signal to the industry,” said Maddy Urbish, head of government affairs and market strategy for New Jersey at Ørsted North America. The Danish company, a world leader in offshore wind, currently has 5,000 megawatts of projects under development or under construction in U.S. waters.

“So that’s incredibly encouraging and exciting for the industry. When we get down to the challenges we see from the grid it becomes immediately less sexy,” Urbish said.

A sea change

With nearly 95,500 miles of coastline and steady wind resources offshore, developers like Ørsted see vast potential in the U.S. market. The U.S. Department of Energy has estimated that domestic offshore wind generation potential is roughly equal to double the nation’s total electric demand. What’s more, about 80% of U.S. electric load is in coastal or Great Lakes states near offshore wind resources.

“We’ve significantly increased our workforce here in the U.S. and that’s in direct response to the potential here,” Urbish said. “The U.S. is a key market for Ørsted at this point.”

Predicted mean annual wind speeds at 90 meters in height along the U.S. coast. Areas with annual average wind speeds of seven meters per second and greater at that height are “generally considered to have a wind resource suitable for offshore development,” according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. (Image courtesy of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory)

 

New Jersey just announced a new 11,000-megawatt offshore wind target, the largest in the country. Virginia’s Dominion Energy is pushing to get its 2,600-megawatt commercial project finished by 2026, and the state wants a total of 5,200 megawatts by 2034. Maryland has approved more than 2,000 megawatts of offshore wind capacity. North Carolina has a goal of 8,000 megawatts by 2040.

Massachusetts is contracting for 5,600 megawatts of offshore wind by 2027. Maine says its initial goal of 5,000 megawatts by 2030 is “not realistic at this point” but still considers offshore wind “one of our state’s largest untapped clean energy resources.” Louisiana, with a large skilled offshore oil and gas workforce that is partially repositioning for offshore wind, aims for 5,000 megawatts of offshore wind by 2035 in its most recent climate plan.

And the new Inflation Reduction Act undoes a Trump administration moratorium on federal offshore wind leases in the Southeast, potentially opening up new opportunities for Georgia, the Carolinas, and Florida, though the Sunshine State’s potential is seen as limited because of a lack of strong, sustained winds near the coast.

However, getting all that power to electric consumers will require billions in upgrades to the electric grid and a whole lot better regional planning by states and grid operators, experts say.

“Offshore wind is big,” said Simon Mahan, executive director of the Southern Renewable Energy Association, a trade group for large renewable energy and energy storage companies. “When you bring it ashore, it’s gonna have an effect on nearby generation regardless of market structure. They’re the size of nuclear reactors. … So it’s really important to do good studies.”

‘A big job’

Until fairly recently, renewable energy advocates said there had been less emphasis by policymakers and grid managers on transmission infrastructure upgrades and the comprehensive regional planning needed to make mass offshore wind a reality, though the federal government and states are starting to come to grips with the scope of the problem.

“There needs to be a lot more done than what’s being done right now and people are starting to realize that,” said Walt Musial, principal engineer and offshore wind platform lead at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. “The integration of this is going to be a big job and something we have to start working on soon. These transmission projects can take longer to build than the plants themselves.”

With relatively small, stand-alone wind projects, it’s often feasible for developers to find their own solutions to interconnection, said Mike Jacobs, a senior analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists who focuses on renewable energy and the electric grid. Indeed, wind developers with projects further along in the pipeline can take advantage of old thermal generation sites — like Ørsted plans to do with the former B.L. England coal-fired power plant in Upper Township, New Jersey, south of Atlantic City — as points of interconnection because of the existing grid infrastructure there.

But with the potential scale of American offshore wind energy and the huge targets proposed by states like New Jersey, project-by-project transmission solutions won’t work.

“Now you talk about 1,000 megawatts at a time. And New Jersey wants 10 of those. The transmission needed to be upscaled on shore is significant and needs to reach further inland,” he said. “The cable you brought to the nearest connection point from water to land is going to run into something that’s going to be inadequate and needs to be upscaled.”

‘Better than nothing’

That means billions of dollars in upgrades will be necessary to accommodate the offshore wind buildout contemplated by state and federal leaders. In Virginia, Dominion Energy, the state’s largest utility, estimates the transmission upgrades required as part of its $10 billion 2,640 megawatt wind installation will be about 16 to 17% of the total project cost, a company spokesman said.

PJM Interconnection, which runs the electric grid in all or parts of Delaware, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Michigan, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, and the District of Columbia, estimated that injecting offshore wind generation (it studied scenarios ranging from 6,416 megawatts up to 17,016 megawatts) into the existing onshore transmission system would require anywhere from $627 million in a short-term scenario to as much as $3.2 billion in long-term scenarios, per a study released last year. That study only examined upgrades that would be necessary for existing infrastructure, not any “sea-to-shore or any offshore transmission networks.”

“They do require a fair amount of upgrades to the traditional land-based transmission system,” said Ray DePillo, director of development for offshore wind for PSE&G, New Jersey’s largest utility. “That’s a lot of megawatts to put into a single point or multiple points into the transmission system.”

Offshore wind coastal interconnection points identified by PJM in a 2021 study. (Image courtesy of PJM Interconnection)

 

PSE&G has partnered with Ørsted on Coastal Wind Link, a series of offshore stations that will connect multiple wind farms to the grid at a single onshore point rather than having every offshore wind farm connect using its own cable.

That proposal is among a series of transmission bids New Jersey’s Board of Public Utilities will consider under a deal it reached with PJM Interconnection. Generally, PJM would be responsible for planning transmission upgrades and allocating costs to accommodate individual offshore wind generation projects as part of the interconnection process.

But with a giant backlog in PJM’s interconnection queue driven by a flood of new renewable projects and an overhaul underway, New Jersey and PJM negotiated the State Agreement Approach, which “enables a state, or group of states, to propose a project to assist in realizing state public policy requirements as long as the state (or states) agrees to pay all costs of any state-selected build-out.” PJM, in turn, is seeking transmission bids on the state’s behalf in coordination with the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities. It received more than 80 proposals ranging in cost from $1.2 billion to more than $7 billion, depending on various scenarios, PJM said, though those costs don’t necessarily include onshore upgrades. The board will ultimately decide what gets built.

“New Jersey came to realize that if they wanted to do this large and fast, they had to take the matter into hand,” Jacobs said.

New Jersey ratepayers will shoulder the cost of the transmission upgrades themselves, even though those grid improvements may have broader benefits for reliability beyond the state’s borders.

“This is a good news and bad news story,” Jacobs said. “The benefits from New Jersey doing this will flow beyond New Jersey. … What we’re doing is having the states fill a gap that was not expected and should not need to be done.”

Rob Gramlich, founder and president of consulting firm Grid Strategies, called the solution “highly suboptimal.”

“But I agree with New Jersey that although it’s suboptimal, it’s better than nothing,” he said.

At the heart of the friction is the traditional guiding principle of interconnection, those new generators should pay for the transmission upgrades necessary to connect them to the grid because grid managers like PJM haven’t generally looked for broader benefits to the system, critics say.

That model was tolerable when the new generators were large gas power plants that could be sited close to existing interconnection points and high voltage lines, but not so much now with hundreds of smaller, more diffuse solar and wind projects that are trying to connect to the grid, Gramlich added.

“The flaws of that system are now quite evident to everybody,” he said.

Tackling transmission

A new proposed rule by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission aims to quantify better the broader benefits of transmission upgrades, which some renewable energy proponents say could grease the wheels for the buildout required to decarbonize the grid. And the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act includes $100 million specifically earmarked for offshore wind transmission planning, modeling, and analysis.

“The fact of the matter is we need more studies, we don’t know what we don’t know,” said Mahan of the Southern Renewable Energy Association. “The IRA funding is there to help solve some of this problem.”

There are ongoing studies as well.

Melinda Marquis, offshore wind grid integration lead at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, is leading a Department of Energy study expected to be finished next year that will identify optimal interconnection points along the Atlantic coast. It’s one of several seeking answers to how best to incorporate offshore wind into the grid, Marquis said, and states like New York, which is pushing for 9,000 megawatts of offshore wind by 2035, have done their own studies. 

“The way offshore has been deployed in the North Sea, in England, for instance, is the same way the very early offshore wind plants in the U.S. are developing. That is where each offshore wind plant builds one radial connection to shore. … So each developer is picking the cheapest, best place to inject the power,” Marquis said. “There’s a limited number of points of interconnection along the Atlantic.”

(Image courtesy of National Renewable Energy Laboratory via the U.S. Department of Energy)

 

Right now, there aren’t many incentives for developers to share interconnection and transmission infrastructure, Marquis said. Her group’s study will quantify costs under various build-out scenarios, compare different transmission technologies, explore implications for grid reliability and examine effects on marine life and fisheries.

“The ocean is really a pretty crowded place,” she said, adding that the study is incorporating data on marine sanctuaries, national wildlife refuges, reefs, seafloor sediment, shipping lanes, fishing grounds, and military areas, among others.

“We hope that the results of our study will be very helpful for the people who make decisions about the way transmission is expanded, and how it is built, and we hope this will lead to a very resilient, reliable grid with a very low cost to the ratepayer that minimizes impact on marine species and the marine environment,” Marquis said.

She noted that representatives from major U.S. utilities and grid operators are participating in the study.

“The Department of Energy really understands this, and they’re funding us to tackle this,” she said.

‘All of the above’

Meanwhile, similar to New Jersey, other states are realizing the importance of taking the lead on transmission planning. New York wants offshore wind projects connecting to shore to be “meshed ready,” which means being able to share sea-to-shore connection infrastructure among different offshore wind plants rather than each one having a separate connection to shore. PJM says it’s talking with other states about how to upgrade transmission to meet its energy goals.

“We have had exploratory discussions with our states to pursue similar goals like NJ, but nothing formalized yet,” Ken Seiler, vice president of planning, said last month, adding that the grid operator is at work on the second phase of a regional wind study “meant to identify regional transmission solutions to offshore wind and all other renewable portfolio development planned for by the states.” PJM’s counterpart in the middle of the country, MISO, which covers an area stretching from Minnesota to Louisiana, says its transmission planning has been all land-based and there are no offshore wind projects in its interconnection queue.

“However, MISO is equipped to study and evaluate any offshore projects that may be submitted in the future,” said Brandon Morris, a spokesman for the organization.

And last month, five New England states, including Maine and New Hampshire, issued a joint “request for information” seeking comments from offshore wind developers, the electric transmission industry, and others “regarding changes and upgrades to the regional electric transmission system needed to integrate renewable energy resources, including but not limited to offshore wind resources, as well as significant other new renewable resources” into the grid.

“I think this happens with all of the above, to use an energy cliche,” said Jacobs. “We will have some of the developers go ahead because they’re impatient and find the opportunities to build their own connections. We will have an institutional approach where we get the federal government and the regional operators to do what they are mandated already to do, which is to plan for a reliable, consumer-friendly open access system. All this will happen because the states will present a credible threat to these institutions that are supposed to be doing it in the first place.”

 

by Robert Zullo, Virginia Mercury


Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sarah Vogelsong for questions: info@virginiamercury.com. Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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Youngkin’s energy plan calls for reevaluation of Clean Economy Act

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Gov. Glenn Youngkin. (Ned Oliver / Virginia Mercury)

In his state energy plan, Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin is pushing for revisions to the Virginia Clean Economy Act, a 2020 Democratic-driven law that ordered the state’s electric utilities to decarbonize by midcentury, but he faces opposition from clean energy advocates who say the step would move Virginia backward.

The four-year plan, unveiled in front of state and federal representatives Monday at Lynchburg-based transformer manufacturer Delta Star Inc., sets the executive office’s roadmap for Virginia energy policy.

“A clean energy future does not have to come at the cost” of customers, Youngkin told the crowd before unveiling what he called an “all-of-the-above approach” to Virginia’s energy needs.


The 35-page plan pushes for periodic reviews of the VCEA; greater protections for ratepayers and the restoration of power to the State Corporation Commission, which regulates the state’s electric utilities; and increased use of nuclear energy.

Among its critics are Senate Democrats, including state Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, a patron of the VCEA.

“Gov. Youngkin cannot pick and choose which laws he implements,” McClellan said in a statement. “He should abandon this flawed attack on affordable clean energy and get to work implementing the laws that Virginia passed.”

Another look at Clean Economy Act

Youngkin’s plan calls for a reevaluation of the VCEA next year and every five years, stating the current grid can’t reliably serve customers if it relies solely on “intermittent” renewable sources like solar and wind.

The administration says the state will need to import energy from outside the commonwealth because of the VCEA mandates.

According to PJM Interconnection, the regional electric grid Virginia is a member of, the state was a net importer of electricity Tuesday afternoon.

Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, on the Senate floor. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

McClellan said the VCEA’s requirements offer the right “balance” for Virginia’s transition to renewables.

With communities throughout Virginia being hit by flooding due to sea level rise and rainfall shifts linked to climate change, ” she said, “this is not the time to reverse a clean energy transition,” she said.

“Gov. Youngkin’s plan would create roadblocks and mandatory five-year-reviews that would undermine the predictability of Virginia’s energy system and make our commonwealth lose out on new jobs,” McClellan stated.

Kim Jemaine, director of Virginia Advanced Energy Economy, a business group that advocates for clean energy, said businesses want to know the direction Virginia is headed in terms of clean energy use. Developers of renewable energy projects prefer to have certainty about state policy as they prepare to undergo lengthy application and siting processes.

Other companies like Amazon and Lego, which recently announced it would open a site in Chesterfield, are also increasingly looking to source their energy from renewables.

Protecting ratepayers

Youngkin’s plan also pushes for the transfer of more authority to the State Corporation Commission as it oversees the utilities’ compliance with the 2018 Grid Transformation and Security Act and the Virginia Clean Economy Act.

In his plan, Youngkin suggests the General Assembly should pass legislation to allow the SCC to defer the utilities’ renewable portfolio standard (RPS) requirements. These requirements, which are outlined in the VCEA, set timelines for how much of a utility’s energy must be sourced from renewables.

He also recommends removing the use of “public interest” mandates, a legal instrument that favors SCC approval of projects. Instead, he said the SCC should have the flexibility to analyze the costs of both substitute technologies and renewable energy sources, and use “least-cost” resource planning.

Both the Grid Transformation and Security Act and the Virginia Clean Economy Act “have resulted in projects bypassing the SCC’s methodology,” the energy plan states. “At the same time, the SCC is mandated to approve them and associated cost recovery because of statutory requirements.”

Youngkin particularly criticizes Virginia energy law that allows electric utilities to impose rate adjustment clauses, or riders, on customer bills for particular projects.

According to Youngkin’s plan, legislation in 2007 authorized the use of RACs, which have led to residential bill increases of over $30 per month. The State Corporation Commission in a recent report also calculated that RACs have added roughly $36 to Appalachian Power customers’ monthly bills and $30 to Dominion customers’ monthly bills since 2007. That’s on top of average electricity prices for Virginians increasing by 47%, compared to 39% nationally, between 2005 and 2020, Youngkin’s report details.

The energy plan calls for the creation of a work group to determine how to improve the RAC structure for ratepayers and increase bill transparency.

While reforming customer rates is laudable, said Walton Shepherd, Virginia policy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, it requires a massive overhaul of the system that legislators may not be willing to engage in.

Electric utility rate reform efforts quashed by Senate committee

Will Cleveland, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center who has extensively advocated for ratepayer reforms at the General Assembly, said his organization “would happily work with the governor to rectify the fundamental rate making problems” but argued the report unfairly demonizes clean energy as the cause of bill increases.

“We cannot retreat from our clean energy transition,” Cleveland said. “Proven, falling-cost resources like solar, wind, and battery storage simply do not threaten reliability or affordability, as this energy plan claims.”

Although efforts to reform Virginia’s rate structure failed in 2021 in the Democrat-controlled Senate, McClellan stated that she would be open to cooperating on ratepayer protection legislation in the upcoming 2023 session. She also noted a 2022 study from Virginia Advanced Energy Economy that concluded customers will save on their bills as a result of the VCEA by 2030.

“The facts are clear: The Virginia Clean Economy Act will increase the use of more affordable clean energy and lead to a decrease in the cost of energy bills for the average Virginia family by $30,” McClellan stated.

New nuclear push

As part of a push for alternative energy sources, Youngkin’s energy plan seeks to increase the use of nuclear energy in Virginia.

Youngkin’s plan was made in consultation with the Virginia Nuclear Energy Consortium, a body created by a 2013 law to make Virginia “a national and global leader in nuclear energy.”

Virginia currently has four operating nuclear reactors at two power plants: the North Anna plant in Louisa County and the Surry plant in Surry County, both operated by Dominion Energy.

At the moment, nuclear constitutes about a third of the state’s energy generation. Youngkin’s plan calls for increased use of the source, along with hydrogen and other alternative energies, because of the concerns linked to the “intermittent” nature of solar and wind.

“We have to be all in on nuclear energy,” said Youngkin Monday before pledging to launch a commercial small nuclear reactor in Southwest Virginia in the next decade.

Nuclear will be major for Virginia’s electric grid as utilities decarbonize, regulator says

But Jemaine said small nuclear reactor technology is not established enough to be relied on as an energy source.

“We can’t wait for some future silver bullet,” Jemaine said.

Infrastructure for solar and wind already exists and is expected to receive a boost from the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act, Jemaine noted. She added that the Siemens Gamesa turbine blade construction facility coming to Hampton Roads could be eligible for the federal legislation’s tax incentives.

When asked about how realistic the administration’s plans for nuclear expansion are, both Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power Company sent back statements saying they were still reviewing the plan but were looking forward to working with the governor on it.

California concerns

At the end of his plan, Youngkin reiterated several talking points from the past few months challenging legislation passed by Virginia in the 2021 session to adopt vehicle emissions regulations set forth by California, adding that the state is facing grid reliability concerns.

Jemaine, Shepherd, and McClellan noted that car manufacturers are headed toward producing electric vehicles, in line with California’s recent move to ban the sale of new gas-powered vehicles by 2035.

“We need to get ahead of it,” McClellan stated, adding Virginia’s choice was either to follow regulations set by the federal government, with no say, or California, with some say. She also said she would oppose any legislation to reverse the 2021 law, which has been introduced by state Sen. Stephen Newman, R-Lynchburg.

by Charlie Paullin, Virginia Mercury


Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sarah Vogelsong for questions: info@virginiamercury.com. Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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Governor Youngkin awards grant to study meat processing facility for Fauquier County

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On October 4, 2022, Governor Glenn Youngkin awarded Fauquier County $20,000 from the Governor’s Agriculture and Forestry Industries Development (AFID) Fund Planning Grant program to study the economic viability of locating a small-scale meat processing facility at the Fauquier Livestock Exchange in Marshall, VA. The Fauquier County Agricultural Advisory Committee will oversee the project as part of its ongoing efforts to increase the economic viability of opportunities for agricultural producers and by providing advice and recommendations to the Board of Supervisors on matters affecting the agricultural economy. An additional $20,000 in matching funds has been pledged by Fauquier County, Fauquier County Farm Bureau, and the PATH Foundation to study the feasibility of the project.

“As I travel across the Commonwealth, I listen to our farmers about what they need to be successful, and additional meat processing capacity is always at the top of the list,” said Governor Youngkin. “I am pleased to partner with Fauquier County and its cattlemen with this AFID grant to explore ways to increase the resiliency of Virginia’s agricultural economy and provide farmers new opportunities to be successful.”

“Agriculture is the Commonwealth’s largest private industry, and in many counties, especially those of the northern Piedmont, livestock production is what drives the agricultural economy,” said Secretary of Agriculture and Forestry Matthew Lohr. “Value-added agricultural enterprises are critical to the long-term health of the agriculture industry and to the preservation of working lands. It’s important for cattle producers to have access to as many market channels as possible, and consumers benefit from access to locally grown and processed agricultural products.”

The Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services administers the AFID Planning Grant program, which is designed to support planning efforts and local initiatives that benefit agriculture and forestry. Since 2013, AFID Planning Grant totaling $1,063,232 have been awarded to 52 projects in 63 localities across the Commonwealth.


AFID Planning Grant applications are accepted on a rolling basis. Successful applications will demonstrate a clear need, a proposed solution, strong support from local government and the agriculture and forestry community, and the ability to provide matching funds.

For additional information on the AFID Planning Grant program, click here.

Please direct questions about the program and application process to Jennifer.Perkins@vdacs.virginia.gov.

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COVID’s effect on the nursing crisis and more Va. headlines

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The state Capitol. (Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury)

 

• Releasing a new energy plan for the state, Gov. Glenn Youngkin repudiated Democrats’ clean-energy targets and said he wants an “all of the above approach” that heavily emphasizes nuclear power.—Washington Post, News & Advance

• Pressed on Fox News for a response to former President Donald Trump’s recent post calling Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell’s Asian American wife “coco chow,” Youngkin said: “I’m not a name-caller.”—Mediaite

• Virginia candidates Yesli Vega and Hung Cao were among 11 GOP congressional challengers who raised more than $1 million in the third quarter. Vega is running against Rep. Abigail Spanberger, and Cao is challenging Rep. Jennifer Wexton.—Axios


• Metro’s new Potomac Yard station in Alexandria won’t open until 2023 due to construction delays.—Washington Post

• COVID-19 exacerbated nursing shortages and drove up hospitals’ labor costs by more than a third. “The nursing crisis is not going to go away. It’s there.”—Cardinal News

• The Richmond School Board took a formal vote Monday to reject Youngkin’s proposed policies for transgender students.—WRIC

• An Indian restaurant in Henrico County was vandalized with racist graffiti.—Richmond Times-Dispatch

• The USS Gerald R. Ford, “the Navy’s most technologically advanced warship,” will deploy from Norfolk today after a weather-related delay.—Virginian-Pilot

• The town of Abingdon wants to cut down on loitering near the Virginia Creeper Trail.—Bristol Herald Courier

• Short Pump Town Center, the big outdoor mall near Richmond, is seeking an open container ABC license to let shoppers walk around with alcohol. The state has issued nine similar licenses so far.—Richmond BizSense

 

by Staff Report, Virginia Mercury


Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sarah Vogelsong for questions: info@virginiamercury.com. Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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Youngkin, attorney general expect schools to follow transgender policies

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High school students across Virginia, including those at McLean High School, protested the governor’s revised transgender student policies on Sept. 27, 2022. Pictured is a student holding a poster that states, “The model policy is a modern travesty.” (Nathaniel Cline/Virginia Mercury)

 

As opposition to Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s new policies on the treatment of transgender students grows, Virginia still lacks an enforcement plan to have school divisions adopt them.

Under new guidance published last month, schools are required to inform a student’s parent or guardian whether a student wants to change their name, nickname, and/or pronouns from how they are listed in their records, among other policy changes.

The Republican Youngkin said he expects schools to follow the law when it comes to the new guidance.


“It’s the law, and so I don’t really have a lot of patience for folks that see a law and don’t comply with it,” said Youngkin on Sept. 20.

“Protecting parents’ fundamental rights to make decisions for their children is in the Virginia code, and I fully expect that each one of the school divisions should comply,” he said.

Asked about how the Office of the Attorney General plans to enforce the new guidance, a spokesperson said only that the attorney general expects schools to comply with the law.

Not all school divisions on board with governor’s guidance

Contrary to the administration’s expectations that school divisions will adopt the new policies, which differ from those instituted during Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam’s term, some school districts are already showing reluctance to adopt them.

Richmond City School Board voted 8-1 to pass a resolution on Monday rejecting the governor’s model policies and “affirm(ing) its commitment to providing protections for all students regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression.”

Board member, Jonathan Young was the lone member to oppose the resolution.

“I am sorry that some persons don’t want parents to have any say pertaining to who can share a locker room, a shower room or a bedroom with their children,” he said.

In Northern Virginia, Alexandria City school officials said in a Sept. 19 letter to community members that they will continue to “implement and develop affirming policies” for students as they wait for a public comment period on the new policies to end later this month.

The city’s mayor and council members subsequently submitted a letter to the Department of Education on Sept. 28 that said they would support the city schools’ decision to “continue the previously adopted policy and practice respecting individual rights and protecting students from discrimination due to gender expression, gender identity, sexual harassment, and transgender status.

The council said in its letter that the proposed policies remove protections for transgender and nonbinary students in Virginia’s public schools and stigmatize and undermine their dignity.

School divisions’ unwillingness to buck state guidance on transgender students isn’t new.

A state law passed in 2020 directed school boards to adopt policies consistent with guidance issued by the Northam-era Department of Education that was intended to provide protections for transgender students.

But most school boards opposed the 2021 model policies and instead opted to follow guidance from the Virginia School Boards Association that contended existing policies met the law’s requirements.

According to Virginia Equality, only 10% of schools adopted the previous policies.

Virginia school boards are required by law to “see that the school laws are properly explained, enforced, and observed.”

Additionally, state law notes that parents who are aggrieved by an action of a school board may petition the circuit court to review the action.

In 2014, after transgender student Gavin Grimm was barred from using the boys’ bathroom by the Gloucester County School Board, he sued the school division. He later received $1.3 million after four years of litigation.

Del. Danica Roem, D-Prince William, said the governor’s action should be contested in court under the Virginia Human Rights Act.

High school students across Virginia including those at McLean High School walked out in protest of the governor’s revised transgender student policies on Sept. 27, 2022. Pictured is a student holding a poster that states “I should be in Calculus not defending human rights.” (Nathaniel Cline/Virginia Mercury)

 

Nw policies require parental involvement

Youngkin’s new policies note that “schools should attempt to accommodate students with distinctive needs, including any student with a persistent and sincere belief that his or her gender differs from his or her sex.”

But they also require parental approval for any changes to students’ “names, nicknames, and/or pronouns.” Further, the new policies direct schools to keep parents “informed about their children’s well-being,” specify that student participation in activities and athletics shall be based on sex and state that “students shall use bathrooms that correspond to his or her sex, except to the extent that federal law otherwise requires.”

The policy document argues that the First Amendment forbids “government actors to require individuals to adhere to or adopt any particular ideological beliefs” and that “practices such as compelling others to use preferred pronouns is premised on the ideological belief that gender is a matter of personal choice or subjective experience, not sex.”

On Sept. 26, a five-member school board in Rockingham County failed to adopt a similar policy that would have required that a parent or guardian be notified and provide consent if a student wished to be called by any other name not reflected in their school record. The vote on the measure, which had been put forward before the Youngkin administration announced its new policies, failed 1-3, with one member absent.

Student walkouts

Last week, thousands of students walked out of their respective schools in protest of the policies revised by the Youngkin administration.

Students called on the Department of Education to revoke the draft guidelines and for school boards to “protect all students by rejecting the VDOE’s guidelines,” according to Pride Liberation Project, an advocacy group for LGBTQIA+ rights.

Macaulay Porter, a spokeswoman for the governor, said in a statement that the guidelines make it clear that when parents are part of the process, schools will accommodate the requests of children and their families.

“Parents should be a part of their children’s lives, and it’s apparent through the public protests and on-camera interviews that those objecting to the guidance already have their parents as part of that conversation,” Porter said.

She also pointed out that the policy document states that students should be treated with compassion and schools should be free from bullying and harassment.

However, Sen. Jennifer Boysko, D-Fairfax, who along with Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax, carried the 2020 legislation directing school divisions to comply with VDOE guidance on transgender students, said the changes proposed by the governor will put Virginia’s vulnerable transgender and nonbinary students at further risk for bullying and harassment.

She told the Mercury that the Northam-era policies were developed to support Virginia’s “most vulnerable students,” those who do not have supportive families and face decreased mental health and financial and housing insecurity. Now she’s concerned about the changes.

“Despite Governor Youngkin’s political gamesmanship in his quest to compete with the cruel policies of [Florida Gov.] Ron DeSantis and to divert attention from the issues at hand around abortion, we will continue to work collaboratively with our families and schools to assure that all students are safe and feel welcomed in their schools,” Boysko said.

Public comment period ends October 26

A 30-day public comment period on the policies is scheduled to end on October 26. The new policies will go into effect.

In less than a day after the public comment period opened, the number of responses had eclipsed the 9,086 total number of comments submitted on the Northam-era guidance.

Virginia had collected over 54,000 as of Sunday.

This story has been updated to add details about the Richmond School Board’s Monday-night vote.

 

by Nathaniel Cline, Virginia Mercury


Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sarah Vogelsong for questions: info@virginiamercury.com. Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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