So far as job-creating economic sectors go, there’s nothing hotter than the renewable energy industry, either in the United States as a whole or in Virginia specifically. That’s why the renewable energy positions of the two leading candidates for governor — Democrat Ralph Northam and Republican Ed Gillespie — should be important in this November’s election.

To that end, Advanced Energy Economy, a national association of businesses focused on the renewable industry sector, is calling on both Gillespie and Northam to release detailed policy papers on what their administrations would do to advance this industry in the Old Dominion.

To get an idea of just how important the renewable energy sector is to the state’s economy, just consider these three facts:

» In 2015, there were 2,993 coal mining jobs in Virginia, a drop of 16.4 percent from just the year before when there were 3,627, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. And over the last five years, the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy says there’s been a 40 percent drop in the number of people working in the coal industry.

» Today, according to state and industry officials, there are now more solar industry jobs in Virginia than coal jobs. The Solar Foundation reports the sector grew by almost 65 percent in the last year, with most jobs coming in installation, construction and manufacturing. That puts Virginia as one of the fastest-growing state markets in the nation, according to the foundation.

» In only three years, the clean energy industry has grown from contributing $500 million in revenue annually to the state economy to more than $2 billion in 2016. Those four words bear repeating, with emphasis: in only three years.

Right now, solar power is the largest sub-sector of the renewable energy industry. Appomattox County is home to two, newly created solar farms. In the Richmond region, there are farms, either planned or already operational, in Powhatan, Louisa and Southampton counties.

What’s driving the growth of the renewable energy industry? The free market. More companies locating to Virginia say they want their power to be clean energy, with Amazon going so far as to construct its own solar farm. In addition to the favorable PR the companies get, there’s also a bottom line benefit, too: The cost of clean energy is rapidly dropping as economies of scale kick in.

Indeed, last November, a group of 18 major companies — including Microsoft, Best Buy, Walmart and Mars Inc. — sent a letter to members of the General Assembly and the State Corporation Commission calling for “an explicit legal framework” to increase access to clean energy from utilities and third-party sellers.

So, yes, we want to know how Gillespie and Northam would approach Virginia’s renewable energy industry. What would they do to push the state’s two main utilities to increase customer access to clean power? Would they use regulatory pressure to make Dominion Resources and Appalachian Power Co. look to renewables for a greater share of their overall power mix? Would they use regulatory power to force Dominion and APCo to incentivize energy efficiency?

Bottom line, what would they do to make Virginia a national leader in the renewable energy industry? It’s a goal that’s more than achievable that could jumpstart the state’s economy.

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