RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Waving signs declaring "No Fracking Way" and "Beyond Coal," more than 50 environmentalists gathered Monday for a Ditch Dirty Fuels Rally near the state Capitol, encouraging Virginia legislators to embrace clean energy alternatives.
The Sierra Club sponsored the event, which coincided with Conservation Lobby Day.
"We are here today because we know that climate disruption is already negatively impacting our families and communities here in Virginia," said Kendyl Crawford, conservation program manager for the Sierra Club. "It's time for our leaders to get serious about clean energy and take advantage of this exciting opportunity for both public health and our environment."
Del. Mark Keam, D-Fairfax, attended the rally and expressed his support for alternative, renewable energy sources. Keam spoke about his experiences on the House Special Subcommittee on Energy, where he said too many of his colleagues base their decisions on party politics.
"Unfortunately, we have a lot of members in the General Assembly who just say anytime it's coming from the industry, they automatically support it - anytime it's coming from the environment, they automatically oppose it," Keam said.
"I'm trying something that we haven't done in a long time, which is to get members from both sides of the aisle to come together, talk reasonably and see if there's a way we can come together on core values - values such as clean water."
Keam recently proposed a bill, HB 2112, that would require the State Corporation Commission to adopt rules for community renewable projects.
According to the U.S. Department of Energy, such projects allow customers who don't have solar panels or other renewable resources of their own to buy or lease a portion of a shared renewable energy system. The money that customers make from these clean energy sources is then credited to their electricity bill, as if they had solar panels on their own roof or wind turbines in their backyard.
"We don't want it to just go to the private sector so that they can create more business opportunities. We want it to actually go to the regular folks," Keam said.
He said his legislation "probably won't go this year because it's a new idea, but I think it's the kind of idea that we need to start talking about so that everyday folks will benefit from the new solar energy, not just businesses."
Besides supporting renewable energy proposals, the rally also served as a protest against bills sought by fossil fuel interests.
One such bill is HB 1678, which would exclude from public disclosure information about chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Essentially, the legislation would make oil and gas companies exempt from reporting the chemicals they pump into fracking wells.
Keam pledged to vote against any bills that would allow more fracking in Virginia.
"Nobody should hide behind our public interest laws and freedom of information laws to be able to prevent us from finding out what their plans are," he said.
At the rally, representatives of environmental organizations from across the state spoke in support of sustainable energy alternatives and called on Gov. Terry McAuliffe and other elected representatives to protect the environment.
"Both Gov. McAuliffe and the General Assembly has declared solar energy in the public interest - let's hold them to it," said Amory Fischer, business development coordinator for Secure Future Solar.
Renewable energy has been growing rapidly in the United States, reducing pollution and creating jobs, advocates say. Moreover, the cost to install solar panels has dropped more than 60 percent over the past decade, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.
Many states have invested heavily in solar energy - notably California, which last year generated 16,507 megawatts of solar power. In contrast, Virginia generated just 10 megawatts of solar energy in 2015.
Dr. Samantha Ahdoot, a pediatrician from Alexandria, said she supports clean energy on behalf of the next generation.
"Our children deserve to inherit the same beautiful state - its fields, its farms, its mountains with their tops - that Thomas Jefferson and George Washington loved and nurtured at the birth of our country," said Ahdoot, who also was the lead author of the American Academy of Pediatrics' policy statement on climate change and children's health.
"Our children deserve clean air, our children deserve clean water, our children deserve a safe and stable climate, and our children deserve an affordable and reliable energy."
The rally was originally scheduled to take place at the Bell Tower on the Capitol grounds, but weather conditions forced participants to relocate indoors to the St Paul's Episcopal Church.
"I was a little sad that the rain did happen today," Crawford said. "But I still think that we made sure our message is heard, our voices getting out there."