By Chris Meyer
With Richmond’s focus on reducing Virginia’s energy costs, it was surprising to see Gov. Glenn Youngkin veto a bill aimed at reducing electric bills for veterans, low-tax-payers income, elderly and disabled. The law project – Senate Bill 347 (Sen. John Bell, D-Loudoun) — not only passed with overwhelming bipartisan support, but also directly advances the governor’s top priority of lowering the cost of living for Virginians. In this case, it would reduce costs through targeted and optimized energy efficiency programs for ratepayers who need cost-of-living savings the most.
Savings on electricity bills, after all, are very much needed, and efficiency offers a ready-made solution to the Governor’s oft-cited problem of high costs. Even before inflation hit, Virginians were already paying some of the highest electricity bills in the South, according to federal data. High electricity rates are particularly problematic in the hardest-hit economically southwestern Virginia counties, where Appalachian Power rates have increased over 75% since 2007and with other cost increases along the way.
The very purpose of energy efficiency is to reduce those high energy bills. SB347 does this through a very simple mechanism, one that every successful business enterprise understands: through a performance standard. In other words, by setting a minimum goal of energy savings that, in the future, utility programs for veterans, disabled, low-income people and seniors must meet. This ensures that these efficiency programs work as intended, reducing household energy bills. A performance standard is not just a widely used, results-based approach. It’s just good governance, to hold programs accountable to a minimum standard, and thus ensure a return on investment by reducing total costs at all levels.
The vetoed SB347 targets electricity bill savings even more, focusing energy efficiency projects on homes that are so run down, and therefore inefficient, that they are difficult to protect from the weather, and therefore perpetually languish on what we call the “carry-out list”. In the absence of the SB347 reform, these worst-off homes are rarely weathered. This left the biggest savings on unrealized electric bills, in all of Virginia.
Greater efficiency is exactly the kind of cost solution the Commonwealth clearly needs, given the significant rise in electricity bills over the past decade. Indeed, in addition to high bills, Virginie houses and companies guzzle the second largest amount of electricity among our six neighbours. Much of this wasted energy and associated rate increases are preventable, thanks to SB347’s successful efficiency programs.
The Local Energy Alliance Program (LEAP) delivers these energy efficiency programs every day to low-income, working-class Virginians across the state. We insulate and seal the air, replace old lighting with LEDs, and repair and replace the HVAC, to cut $500 winter heating bills in half. These dramatic, sometimes life-changing cost-of-living reductions are possible because so much housing — especially mobile homes for the working poor — was built before code required insulation; have not been maintained for lack of means (thus, are registered on the aforementioned adjournment lists); and have a decades-old decrepit HVAC.
One of LEAP’s clients, Mrs. B is an example. His modest home was built in 1967, when code required minimal insulation. Her house is never hot, even though she wears at least 3 layers and sleeps under five blankets: the heat literally escapes from her barely insulated attic. Although she never feels warm, Mrs. B spends $300 a month on winter heating alone. As part of Dominion Energy’s transformative energy efficiency program for low-income and seniors, LEAP insulates and seals his attic, to halve his $300 heating bills. It’s a cut in the cost of living far greater than the gas tax exemptions that are getting so much attention in Richmond.
And SB347 efficiency projects aren’t just good for ordinary Virginians struggling with inflation: Virginia should deploy as many modern efficiency technologies as possible, to increase our energy independence. Efficiency isn’t just a safeguard against high electricity bills and inflation. Efficiency also reduces consumption of natural gas, that expensive carbon-based global commodity that Virginia relies too heavily on to generate most of our electricity. But regardless of global oil and gas geopolitics, it’s here at home that the SB347 would deliver the most value, expanding and enhancing already proven energy efficiency programs.
I hope that when the Legislature returns on Wednesday, the General Assembly will focus on the electricity bill cost savings of SB347, as much as he focused on gas prices and taxes. If so, that would negate Youngkin’s counterproductive veto. SB347 was a strong bill when it passed last month with overwhelmingly bipartisan support. To help those who need it most pay their electricity bills in times of inflation, the SB347 is still a solid bill today.
To reduce the energy-related cost of living, this should now become law.
Chris Meyer is the executive director of the Local Energy Alliance Programwhich is a non-profit organization serving low-income Virginians with energy efficiency and renewable energy programs across the stat