Perriello and laskey column building a pipeline to energy independence their opinion richmond.com electricity research centre

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The administrations of governors Warner, Tim Kaine, and McAuliffe boosted our economy by embracing innovation. Gov.-elect Ralph Northam has a chance to build upon that legacy by encouraging local energy production, fostering market competition, and emboldening the flexible and efficient use of our energy resources.

What would a new, innovative energy sector in Virginia look like? It requires turning the page on an ossified 20th century regulatory regime that incentivizes importing fuel and constructing inflexible pipelines, and instead harnessing the power of local energy production and energy efficiency here in Virginia.

It’s no coincidence that the states decentralizing their energy sectors the most are the ones producing the most jobs. Just look at Kansas and Missouri, where job growth in energy efficiency and clean energy is projected to outgrow the rest of the economy several times over.

Localized energy offers the chance to both create jobs and help build back communities that have seen too many sons and daughters leave for better economic opportunity. Yet, Virginia still imports 40 percent of our power from out-of-state. According to a recent report, substantially cutting net-energy imports by 2030 would add more than 12,000 advanced energy jobs in the next decade.

The issue is not one of technological capability, but of political will. Much of this debate runs through Dominion Energy, the largest energy company in the commonwealth. To its credit, Dominion does many things well — its service is reliable and it has prioritized hiring Virginia’s veterans. But Dominion’s business thinking is a generation out of step, grown stale in the way one would expect from a monopoly, particularly one that has used its unprecedented influence over both parties in Richmond to pursue policies that keep profits high and control over localities tight.

Those days may be coming to an end. A new generation of Democratic delegates was just elected running on a pledge to reject all Dominion contributions. Even Republican opposition to Dominion’s penchant for centralizing power and overriding local control appears to be at an all-time high, creating the potential for a bipartisan reform coalition in the legislature.

The choice facing our governor-elect and this General Assembly on the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley natural gas pipelines is instructive. Ratepayers will be on the hook for $6.8 billion in costs, while the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) guarantees a 14 percent return on the cost of investment regardless of how much energy is used here or how few jobs the pipelines create. These kinds of sweetheart deals choke out opportunities to grow jobs and local business, especially in rural areas hit hard in recent years by shifts in energy production. And people on both sides of the aisle get it: Opposition to the pipelines is bipartisan, and that doesn’t even include environmentalist concerns that spills and leaks are inevitable, as we saw recently with Keystone XL.

This is a tremendous opportunity for the Northam administration to move Virginia forward. The governor-elect has spoken powerfully about how some rural communities and small towns were left behind as the state’s overall economy improved. A shift away from the current outdated, monopolized model to one that incentivizes local investment in energy production and energy efficiency could set the foundation for his entire rural economic development agenda.