Lack of local authority hampering Virginia cities’ clean energy efforts, report finds

Lack of local authority hampering Virginia cities’ clean energy efforts, report finds
Downtown Richmond at dusk. (Source: Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

A legal principle embraced by Virginia that strictly curtails local powers is hampering cities from making progress on clean energy goals, a report from the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy found.

As a Dillon rule state — instead of a “home rule” one — Virginia bars cities and counties from exercising any powers not explicitly granted them by the state. That means that localities that want to experiment with new programs like stricter building energy codes or energy efficiency requirements can’t do so without permission from the legislature, a process that can extend timelines by more than a year or cut off projects altogether.

When it comes to pursuing clean energy or improving energy efficiency, that legal framework has left Virginia cities at a greater disadvantage than any others in the nation, according to ACEEE, which analyzed 100 of the largest U.S. cities' progress for its now-annual City Clean Energy Scorecard.

Scores were based on factors such as cities' adoption of energy-efficient and renewable energy technologies, the establishment or enforcement of performance codes and standards and the existence of long-term commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, save energy and use renewable energy.

The two Virginia cities included in the analysis, Richmond and Virginia Beach, scored 43rd and 72nd, respectively, largely due to statewide restrictions.

While state policies disadvantaged cities in states like Arizona and Wisconsin as well as Virginia, due to “either a lack of enabling state legislation or an override (that) prevents them from pursuing requirements for building owners to reduce energy use,” Virginia’s laws “proved to have the most adverse effect on city scores,” the report found.

Two particular issues — a relatively weak statewide building code and energy efficiency requirements for existing buildings — drove Richmond and Virginia Beach down in the rankings, lead author David Ribeiro told the Mercury.

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