Your 2015 Virginia legislative session cheat sheet, part 2: Fossil Fuels

Photo credit: Corrina Beall

Photo credit: Corrina Beall

My last post covered clean energy bills introduced into the 2015 legislative session, which began last week and ends at the end of February. Time to hustle on to the oil, gas, and coal bills.

Coal subsidies

Coal companies claim to be victims of a “war on coal,” but for nearly two decades they’ve been conducting a war on Virginia taxpayers. Virginia’s tax code offers so many preferences that a 2012 study concluded the coal industry costs Virginia more than it gives back. Among other preferences, two different subsidies in the Code have allowed coal companies to siphon off tens of millions of dollars annually from the General Fund since 1996.

The subsidies come with nominal sunset dates, currently January 1, 2017. Over nearly twenty years, no matter how fat or lean the state’s financial condition, the legislature has repeatedly passed extensions, and they are being asked to do so again this year. HB 1879 (Kilgore) and SB 741 (Carrico) would extend the giveaway out to 2022.

(According to VPAP.org, Delegate Kilgore, chairman of the Commerce and Labor Committee, gets a check for $10,000 every year from coal giant Alpha Natural Resources. Alpha also gives ten grand a year to Senator Carrico, who just happens to sit on Senate Finance, which will hear the bill. I mention these facts only in passing. It would be cynical to suggest a connection.)

Supporters of the subsidies seem to believe coal companies need the inducement to blow up our mountains and dump waste into stream valleys. And they maintain this is a good thing for the people of Southwest Virginia, who can enjoy gainful employment by participating in the destruction of their communities.

The coal companies certainly do benefit from this arrangement, but coal jobs have declined to less than 5,000 total in Virginia today, and it’s clear to everyone that Southwest Virginia needs to diversify its economy or face a future of poverty and high unemployment. The coal subsidies suck up money that could be spent on new jobs and a better-educated workforce.

The McAuliffe administration, facing a budget shortfall, has suggested cutting the subsidies way back, and has no plans to extend them. HB 2181 (Toscano) reduces the amount of the subsidies for 2015 and 2016 but does not eliminate them. It also limits the amount that can be claimed on any one tax return to $500,000 under each Code provision.

HB 1877 (Krupicka) would end the subsidies altogether a year early. His bill goes further: it would redirect the savings into a fund to provide grants to students enrolled in Virginia public colleges and universities. Half the money would be required to go to students from the Coalfields region.

Natural gas

SB 1338 (Hanger) repeals a provision of the Code known as the Wagner Act (after Senator Frank Wagner, who introduced the legislation ten years ago). That provision allows interstate natural gas companies to enter private property without the consent of the owner in order to make “examinations, tests, hand auger borings, appraisals, and surveys.”

The Wagner Act gained notoriety last year when Dominion Power sued landowners who resisted efforts to survey their land. We think of Dominion as an electric utility, but Dominion Resources also owns a gas transmission company, and it plans to build a huge new pipeline to bring fracked gas from Ohio and West Virginia and deliver it to industrial customers and export facilities on the coast. Turns out, a lot of people don’t like strangers coming on their land without permission, especially when the point is to let the strangers decide whether they might want to seize the land for a pipeline. Well, who could have expected that?

But in case the GA doesn’t have an appetite for repealing the Wagner Act, how about making it harder to use? SB 1169 (Hanger again) amends it to add a pre-condition. Before any natural gas company can enter someone’s property without permission, the governing board of the locality must have adopted a resolution in support of the pipeline or gas works. Moreover, the resolution “shall not be adopted unless the governing body has found that locating the line or works within the city or county is consistent with its comprehensive plan, master plan, or any general development plan and that there exists a demonstrated public need for the line or works.”

HB 1475 (Ware) and SB 1163 (Saslaw) allow natural gas utilities to expand their systems to reach more retail customers. This legislation is not related to the interstate gas pipelines sought by Dominion and others. It deals with pipelines within the state that would connect customers who currently don’t have access to natural gas for heating and cooking (a more efficient use of energy than burning gas for electricity to perform the same functions).

But the gas utilities have taken a page from the Dominion playbook and overreached with their legislative language, including by declaring its plans and business goals to be “in the public interest” (the magic words that limit SCC review). We hear the bill is likely to be amended to take out the offending language.

Really a bill about energy efficiency, SB 1331 (Petersen) changes how the SCC evaluates natural gas conservation programs proposed by utilities. It instructs the SCC to determine the cost-effectiveness of a program by looking at the utility’s whole portfolio of conservation programs and not each judged separately. This should make it easier to get conservation programs approved, and it’s to the credit of the retail gas companies that they want it passed. Senator Petersen’s office informed me the bill originated with the governor’s office, which supports it.

Offshore oil drilling

Virginia doesn’t control the deep waters off our coast where oil may be lurking, and drilling is still years away, if it happens at all. But that has never stopped state lawmakers from making plans to spend the money we might earn from oil drilling, if Congress were to share some of the revenue with us. Most of us will recognize this game as, “Imagine if you won the lottery.”

Back in 2010, Governor McDonnell pushed through a bill to fund transportation projects with the imaginary money. In 2014, the law was amended to put $50 million into an emergency response fund to combat what would have to be a pretty small imaginary oil spill, with all the extra imaginary money going to the General Fund.

HB 1702 (Davis) proposes to amend the law again to take half of the imaginary General Fund money and put it into public schools. Well, who could object to that? Except for the imaginary part, of course.

Your 2015 Virginia legislative session cheat sheet, part one: Clean energy bills

photo credit: Amadeus

photo credit: Amadeus

I’m starting my review of 2015 energy legislation with a look at bills dealing with renewable energy and energy efficiency. Most of these bills will be heard in the committees on Commerce and Labor, though bills that cost money (tax credits and grants) usually go to Finance.

Bills referred to Senate Commerce and Labor are heard by the full committee, which meets on Monday afternoons. It consists of 14 members: 11 Republicans and 3 Democrats. They form a tough lineup; none of these senators received better than a “C” on the Sierra Club’s Climate and Energy Scorecard.

The House bills are typically assigned to the 13-member Special Subcommittee on Energy (10 Republicans and 3 Democrats, no fixed schedule). Bills that do not meet the approval of Dominion Power can expect a quick death here on an unrecorded voice vote, never to be heard from again. But on the plus side, the meetings are often quite lively, like old-fashioned hangings.

Net metering bills

Net metering is the policy that allows owners of solar (or other renewable) energy systems to be credited for the excess power they feed back into the grid when the systems produce a surplus; the owners use the credits when their systems aren’t supplying power and they need to draw electricity from the grid. Virginia law restricts who can use net metering, and how much. Expanding net metering is a major goal of renewable energy advocates, who argue it offers a free market approach to growth—give customers the freedom to build solar projects, get the utility out of the way, and solar will thrive.

This year’s initiatives include:

  • SB 833 and SB 764 (Edwards—apparently identical bills), HB 1950 (McClellan), and HB 1912 (Lopez) raise the maximum size of a commercial project eligible for net metering, from 500 kilowatts (kW) currently to 2 megawatts (MW). This is a much-needed expansion of the net metering program if Virginia is going to make real headway with solar. We are told Edwards plans to conform his legislation to HB 1622, below.
  • HB 1622 (Sullivan) raises the maximum size of a commercial project to 1 MW, and the maximum size of a residential system from the current 20 kW to a whopping 40 kW. But note that it does nothing to limit the standby charges utilities can charge for residential projects over 10 kW. Given that these charges are so punitive as to kill the projects, raising the cap wouldn’t create new market opportunities unless it is accompanied by a limit on the amount of standby charges that utilities can tack on.
  • HB 1911 (Lopez) amends the language allowing utilities to impose standby charges on residential and agricultural customers with systems over 10 kW to add the requirement that the State Corporation Commission conduct a “value of solar” analysis prior to approving the charges. Most solar advocates would rather see the legislature repeal the standby charge provision altogether, given how the utilities have abused it. Barring that, legislators should set a dollar limit of no more than five or ten bucks a month. But in the absence of any such reforms, it does make sense to at least require the SCC to do this more substantive analysis, ideally building on the framework developed over the summer by the Solar Stakeholder Group.
  • HB 1636 (Minchew) establishes “community net metering” as well as increasing the commercial project cap to 2 MW. This bill is a high priority for the solar industry and the environmental community. It provides the solution for owners with shaded roofs, renters and others who can’t install solar themselves by letting them subscribe to a community generation facility in their own or a neighboring county. Other forms of renewable energy are also allowed, so residents in windy areas could go in on a small wind turbine that wouldn’t make sense for a single household.
  • HB 1729 (Sullivan) creates “solar gardens” consisting of community organizations with 10 or more subscribers. The generation facility can be as large as 2 MW. The bill seems intended to accomplish much the same purpose as Minchew’s bill, although it is limited to solar. However, it allows the utility to impose “a reasonable charge as determined by the [State Corporation Commission] to cover the utility’s costs of delivering to the subscriber’s premises the electricity generated by the community solar garden, integrating the solar generation with the utility’s system, and administering the community solar garden’s contracts and net metering credits.” Boy, we’ve seen that movie before. Given what we’ve seen the SCC do with standby charges, the bill should be amended to put a cap on the amount of that “reasonable charge” so legislators know they aren’t writing a blank check.
  • SB 350 (Edwards) authorizes programs for local governments to use net metering for municipal buildings, using renewable energy projects up to 5 MW. It also allows a form of community net metering targeted to condominiums, apartment buildings, homeowner associations, etc., with a renewable energy facility located on land owned by the association. These customers would be exempt from standby charges.

Third-party power purchase agreements (PPAs)

HB 1925 (Lopez) and SB 1160 (Edwards) replace the current PPA program in Dominion territory with one that applies to both Dominion and APCo territories. It increases the project cap from the current 500 kW to 1 MW, and raises the overall program size to 100 MW from (50 MW). As with the current program, projects under 50 kW aren’t eligible unless the customer is a tax-exempt organization.

Utility-scale solar

HB 2219 (Yost) declares it to be in the public interest for Dominion Virginia Power or Appalachian Power to build up to 500 MW of solar power—a truly welcome objective—and authorizes the utilities to apply to the SCC for a certificate of public convenience and necessity for individual facilities of at least 20 MW in size, regardless of whether the facility is located in the utility’s own service territory.

“In the public interest” are the magic words that push the SCC to approve something it might not otherwise. Both utility giants have shown an interest in building and owning utility-scale solar, even as they have taught the SCC to believe that solar owned by anyone else burdens the grid. The magic words let them escape the corner they backed themselves into. That would be necessary here, given that our SCC wrongly believes the public interest requires the lowest cost energy regardless of the consequences to public health, the environment, national security, and the economy.

The solar industry has two concerns about HB 2219: the effect on ratepayers, since Dominion’s previous solar efforts have cost well above market rates; and the effect on the Virginia solar industry—or rather, the lack of an effect, since Dominion has hired only out-of-state companies. Virginia ratepayers could save money and the state could build more solar if legislation simply required the utilities to buy 500 MW of solar, and let the market decide who builds it. But of course, that’s now how things work in Virginia.

I also think it is unfortunate that the bill allows utilities to build solar plants that are not in the utilities’ own service territories, and that it does not require them to use Virginia contractors. Surely there would be more support for a bill promising projects that support local economies with jobs and tax revenues, and that requires the hiring of local installers. These seem like small enough things to ask.

HB 2237 (Yancey) allows Dominion or APCo to recover the costs of building or buying a solar facility in the state of Virginia of at least 5 MW, plus an enhanced rate of return on equity, through a rate adjustment clause. It also states that construction or purchase of such a facility, and the planning and development activities for solar energy facilities, are in the public interest. (The magic words again.)

This bill doesn’t require anything or make huge changes. It simply treats solar the way the Code currently treats other forms of generation, with the exception that the “in the public interest” language was previously used only to endorse a coal plant (what became the Virginia City Hybrid Energy Plant in Wise County). And note that this bill requires that the facility be in Virginia, and opens up the possibility of our utilities buying the facility rather than constructing it themselves, which could open the door to competition. This seems like a good way to proceed.

Grants and tax credits

HB 1728 (Sullivan) establishes a tax credit for renewable energy. Great idea, but last year the Senate Finance Committee made it clear they would not pass a new tax credit, so I assume this is a non-starter.

Last year’s renewable energy tax credit bill was amended to create a grant program instead. It passed both houses, but without funding and with the requirement that it be passed again this year. It is back this year as HB 1650 (Villanueva). (It has been assigned to House Committee on Agriculture, Chesapeake and Natural Resources and is on the docket for 8:30 a.m. Wednesday, January 21. Odd: it ought to be in Finance.) The grant would equal 35% of the costs of a renewable energy facility, including not just wind and solar, but also things like biomass, waste, landfill gas, and municipal waste incinerators. Facilities paid for by utility ratepayers are not eligible, and the grant total is capped at $10 million per year. Prospects for the program aren’t great given the state’s tight budget situation, but the bill is a high priority for the solar industry.

Another tax-related bill is HB 1297 (Rasoul), which authorizes localities to charge a lower tax on renewable projects than on other kinds of “machinery and tools.” Last year, you may recall, the solar industry was successful in getting passage of a bill that exempted solar equipment entirely from local machinery and tools taxes. Proponents are trying to ensure that Delegate Rasoul’s well-intentioned bill doesn’t reverse last year’s victory on solar.

Bills specific to energy efficiency

HB 1730 (Sullivan) establishes energy efficiency goals for electric and natural gas utilities. The good news: the goals are mandatory. The bad news: the goals are modest to a fault: a total of 2% energy savings by 2030 for electricity and 1% for natural gas.

HB 1345 (Carr) extends the sales tax holiday for Energy Star and WaterSense products to include all Energy Star light bulbs; currently only compact fluorescent light bulbs are eligible.

PACE bills

PACE (Property Assessed Clean Energy) is a way to finance energy efficiency, renewable energy and water conservation upgrades to commercial and non-profit-owned buildings. Local governments sponsor the financing for improvements and collect payments via property tax bills. Since the energy savings more than pay for the increased assessments, PACE programs have been hugely successful in other states.

Last year a bill that would have let localities extend “service districts” to cover clean energy (PACE by another name) failed in the face of opposition from the banking industry. This year’s bills are also not labeled PACE bills, but they achieve the same end. Apparently the parties have worked out the problems, a hopeful sign that a multi-year effort will finally meet with success.

SB 801 (Watkins) and HB 1446 (Danny Marshall) are companion bills that would authorize local governments to work with third parties to offer loans for clean energy and water efficiency improvements, creating “voluntary special assessment liens” against the property getting the improvements. The Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy would develop underwriting guidelines for local loans to finance the work. HB 1665 (Minchew) is similar, and we are told it will be conformed to HB 1446.

Virginia Solar Energy Development Authority

HB 1725 (Bulova) and SB 1099 (Stuart) establish the Virginia Solar Energy Development Authority to “facilitate, coordinate, and support the development of the solar energy industry and solar-powered electric energy facilities in the Commonwealth.” This implements a proposal in the 2014 Virginia Energy Plan and is not expected to be controversial.

Virginia SREC registry

HB 2075 (Toscano) requires the SCC to establish a registry for solar renewable energy certificates (SRECs). It would not suddenly make Virginia SRECs valuable, but it would put the administrative framework in place to support a voluntary SREC market, or even a real one if Virginia were to adopt legislation requiring utilities to buy solar power.

Cross-cutting approaches to clean energy

A few bills would have a more sweeping effect on energy efficiency and renewable energy. HB 2155 (Sickles) is billed as an “Energy Diversity Plan.” It was supposed to be a “grand bargain” between utilities and the clean energy industries, with the McAuliffe administration participating as well, but we understand there are outstanding issues that make the bill’s future uncertain.

The big idea is to put all non-emitting energy sources into one category: primarily wind, solar, hydro and nuclear, but also adding in combined heat and power, demand response and energy efficiency. The bill creates a timeline that requires utilities to ramp up use of new, non-emitting sources gradually, beginning with 0.25% of retail sales in 2016 and ramping up to 35% in 2030.

The bill has the support of clean energy industries, but the idea of treating nuclear as a benign source of power on an even footing with efficiency and renewables concerns the environmental community.

I’ll write more about this bill if it looks like it has legs.

HB 1913 (Lopez) is the only bill of the bunch that directly targets Virginia’s Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS). Maybe that shouldn’t be a surprise. Our RPS is a poor, sickly thing that most people have left for dead. To his credit, Lopez keeps trying. His bill keeps the RPS voluntary but beefs up the provisions to make the program meaningful, if a utility chooses to participate. Instead of mostly buying renewable energy certificates from things like old, out of state hydro dams, the bill would ensure that actual, real-world renewable projects get built. You know, what an RPS is supposed to do.

In addition, the bill folds into the RPS the state’s existing goal of 10% energy efficiency gains by 2022. Utilities have done very little toward meeting this goal. Putting it into the voluntary RPS might be the prod needed to get more efficiency programs underway.

Or it might cause a utility to drop out. Either way, the result would be better than what we have now, where Virginia pretends to have an RPS, and utilities pretend to care.

Update: Another net metering bill has been filed. SB 1395 (Dance) raises the commercial net metering cap from 500 kW to 2 MW.

Pass the Coastal Protection Act to cut carbon, raise millions

With today’s start of the Virginia legislative session, a lot of energy and climate bills are pouring in–some good, some not so good, some downright terrible. I’ll have an overview of them coming soon, but meanwhile guest blogger Dawone Robinson gives us a look at one of the best of the bills, the Coastal Protection Act, HB 2205 (Villanueva). A shorter version of his post appeared as an oped in the January 12 edition of the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Many thanks to Dawone for letting me run this. 

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A house in the process of being elevated, a very expensive solution to the problem of recurrent flooding due to sea level rise in Virginia. Photo credit: CCAN

A house in the process of being elevated, a very expensive solution to the problem of recurrent flooding due to sea level rise in Virginia. Photo credit: CCAN

Have you ever put together a list of items you would purchase if you won the lottery—before you remembered that you haven’t even purchased a ticket? Upon reflection, how premature was that list you so perfectly pieced together?

In Virginia, we face a similar dilemma when it comes to addressing the mounting crisis of flooding along our coast.

We’ve got plenty of laudable lists in the works. Last year, Virginia lawmakers unanimously passed a resolution establishing a joint subcommittee to study recurrent flooding issues and adopt recommendations. Legislators from both parties sent a unified message: flooding is a problem in Hampton Roads and we need to do something about it.

In 2008, former Governor Tim Kaine’s Climate Change Commission laid out more than 100 recommendations to mitigate and adapt to climate change and sea level rise. So far the state has failed to adopt a plan to execute them. To his credit, Governor Terry McAuliffe recently launched a similar commission. This panel, the state’s Secure Commonwealth Panel, and the General Assembly’s aforementioned recurrent flooding subcommittee all have the same mandate: convene, discuss, deliberate, and draft a set of recommendations.

So what’s the catch? While what needs to be done is relatively easy to identify, the cost is significant—if not staggering. Virginia needs to win the equivalent of a multi-hundred-million-dollar lottery every year to fund the adaptation measures required to protect coastal residents and infrastructure.

Hampton Roads is home to the world’s largest naval base, more than $80 billion in economic activity, and 1.7 million residents who routinely feel the effects of sea level rise. Streets need to be raised, levees need to be built, and homes and businesses need to be protected. The U.S. branch of the Dutch engineering firm Fugro estimated that it would cost the city of Norfolk at least $1 billion to fully adapt to rising seas and frequent flooding—which equals Norfolk’s entire annual government operating budget.

The non-profit group Wetlands Watch reports that the cost to either elevate or purchase the homes of residents in just five Hampton Roads localities that have sustained multiple flood losses of $1,000 or more in the last ten years would exceed $430 million. Relying on federal assistance alone, it could take up to 244 years to assist all homeowners seeking help in these five localities.

Meanwhile, the Virginia Institute of Marine Science warns that sea levels could rise by as much as seven feet along Virginia’s coast within this century. We can’t afford to keep creating unfunded wish lists, and we can’t wish the problems away.

Virginia needs a dedicated stream of state funding to help coastal families and localities fight climate change. Obviously, there’s no lottery for this. But thankfully there is a common-sense legislative approach being introduced in the Virginia General Assembly by Republican Virginia Beach Delegate Ron Villanueva. His bill, called the Virginia Coastal Protection Act, would help solve our massive coastal flooding problem with a first-ever state funding mechanism that is good for the economy and good for our communities.

By joining the state into the highly successful and fully established Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, or RGGI, the bill would generate more than $200 million per year in new state funds to invest in coastal adaptation and other climate change solutions. This relief could come when localities in Hampton Roads need it most. It would come without adding any new demands to the state’s tight budget. It would also come through a system proven to rein in energy costs while reducing emissions and raising revenue.

RGGI is a cooperative effort of nine East Coast states that caps and reduces greenhouse gas pollution. Since the program’s inception in 2008, RGGI states have reduced their carbon footprint 2.7 times faster than non-RGGI states. In the same time period, electricity prices have dropped by 8 percent in participating states, compared to a 6 percent rise throughout the rest of the nation.

Under RGGI, power plants purchase allowances for every ton of carbon they emit. The sale of carbon allowances gets reinvested back to the states. Under Del. Villanueva’s bill, half of Virginia’s projected $200 million in annual auction revenues would fund coastal adaptation efforts, 35 percent would fund energy efficiency and renewable energy projects, and 10 percent would fund workforce development, education, and economic assistance in Southwest Virginia.

The Virginia Coastal Protection Act is a win-win-win solution. We can establish a consistent and significant source of revenue to tackle flooding in Hampton Roads and generate funds to invest in other statewide priorities, while putting policies in place to help Virginia meet carbon reduction goals in an efficient and practical manner.

Virginia’s lawmakers are on the record in their overwhelming bipartisan support for finding solutions to the state’s growing flooding woes. Delegate Villanueva has put forward the best plan to take us beyond wish lists, and to start funding urgently needed solutions.

Dawone Robinson is Virginia Policy Director with the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, a regional climate-change policy and advocacy organization with more than 30,000 supporters in Virginia. You can reach him at dawone@chesapeakeclimate.org

UPDATE: State Senator Don McEachin (D-Richmond) has agreed to introduce the Coastal Protection Act into the Senate as a companion bill to Delegate Villanueva’s (SB 1428), making this now a bipartisan effort.

Huge Virginia solar farm scuttled because Virginia utilities aren’t interested

This could have been us.  Photo credit U.S. Department of Agriculture

This could have been us.
Photo credit U.S. Department of Agriculture

A solar array that would have more than doubled Virginia’s solar power will not be built after all, with the developer blaming Dominion Virginia Power and other utilities for their lack of interest in buying the output.

The Winchester Star reports that the 20-megawatt array—100,000 solar panels, capable of powering 20,000 homes—had been planned for 145 acres of agricultural land in Clarke County. A spokesman for the developer, OCI Solar Power, said the company allowed its land option to lapse “due to the lack of long-term solar procurement efforts by Dominion and other VA utilities.”

This shouldn’t surprise anyone. Virginia has done little to encourage our utilities to buy solar power, and so for the most part they haven’t. The state’s voluntary renewable energy goal is a sorry dishrag of a law. It can be—and is—met with old, out-of-state hydro plants, trash burning, and wood. And because our utilities have a state-sanctioned monopoly on power sales, customers who want solar power can’t go buy it from someone else.

But if it isn’t surprising for Virginia to lose a big solar opportunity due to utility intransigence, it is stupid. Virginia consumers would love to buy solar energy, local governments would love to have solar farms generating tax revenue, and local businesses would love to create solar jobs. A win-win-win opportunity is being wasted, at a time when lawmakers complain about how hard it is to reduce our carbon emissions.

Even Dominion says it wants utility-scale solar (eventually), but it wants to build its own so it can earn the fat return on equity guaranteed to it by Virginia law. (If the utility buys power from someone else, it can pass along the cost to customers, but it doesn’t earn a profit.)

Last year the General Assembly overwhelmingly passed a bill to support solar development, and then failed to fund it. Governor McAuliffe’s energy plan talks a good game on solar, but it’s toothless. We will continue to miss out on opportunities like this one until we have a law that requires Virginia utilities to buy solar, or lets consumers contract for it directly from any willing seller.

Or better yet, both.

Solar industry group tells Virginia HOAs to let the sunshine in

Solar panels on the sunny front roof of a house should be cheered, not banned. Photo credit: NREL

Solar panels on the sunny front roof of a house should be cheered, not banned. Photo credit: NREL

Solarize Blacksburg had barely gotten underway last spring when the first complaints came in: homeowners who wanted to participate in the community bulk purchase of solar panels reported resistance from homeowner associations (HOAs) worried about aesthetics. Some HOAs were willing to work with residents, but others were not. Some HOAs refused to allow solar installations at all, even though most blanket prohibitions now violate state law.

The problem repeated itself around the state as more solarize programs took off. Many HOAs hadn’t heard about the new law, passed during the 2014 session, that nullifies HOA rules banning solar panels, including bans that have been in place for decades. Under the law, the only prohibition still legal would be one written into the HOA’s “recorded declaration”—something pretty much unheard of in Virginia, according to Senator (and lawyer) Chap Petersen, who wrote the bill.

But the law still allows “reasonable restrictions” on the “size, place and manner of placement” of solar panels, and what that means is open to interpretation. The Blacksburg organizers consulted lawyers and industry members to come up with a set of guidelines they hoped their local HOAs would use. But meanwhile, the same problem kept popping up across the state.

Now the Maryland, DC and Virginia Solar Energy Industries Association—or MDV-SEIA, as the trade association is known—has weighed in with its own guide. Not surprisingly, it recommends that HOAs be as accommodating as possible to residents who want to install solar panels. It is, nonetheless, a good starting point for HOA officers coming to the question for the first time. In the absence of any other guidance, it also puts HOAs on notice that restrictions going beyond MDV-SEIA’s recommendations may be challenged.

The industry guide contains a list of restrictions it considers reasonable, and those it does not. In general, restrictions that make a solar energy system either more expensive, or less effective, won’t pass muster. The classic example here is a requirement that solar panels not be visible from the street. If the street side of the house happens to be the only sunny side, then restricting solar panels to the rear is per se unreasonable.

Restrictions the industry group thinks are reasonable include requiring homeowners to get approval from the HOA before installing the system, placing the panels more or less flat on the roof, and concealing the wiring and components as much as possible.

Virginians dealing with this issue will take cold comfort in knowing that the fight over solar panels is playing out among HOAs and homeowners nationwide. Start typing “can HOAs” into Google, and the first phrase that pops up is “ban solar panels.” Moreover, while many states now prohibit solar bans, allowing “reasonable restrictions” is also common, and there is no consensus on what that means.

The nonprofit Solar Foundation, working with the Department of Energy’s Sunshot Solar Outreach Partnership, prepared a guide for community associations that contains a comprehensive discussion of this issue. “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” was published before Virginia’s law was revised last year, but it remains an excellent resource for homeowners who want to educate their neighbors about the value of solar—and with any luck, head off disputes about what kind of restrictions the law allows.

Virginia’s amazing year in energy: gas rises, coal falls, and solar shines (but it’s still not okay to say “climate change”)

Virginians rally in front of U.S. EPA Headquarters in Washington, DC in support of the Clean Power Plan

Virginians rally in front of U.S. EPA Headquarters in Washington, DC in support of the Clean Power Plan

Nobody laughed a few years ago when former governor Bob McDonnell dubbed Virginia the “Energy Capital of the East Coast”; we were all too astounded by the hyperbole. And today, even “Energy Suburb” still seems like a stretch. Yet, if you measure achievement by the sheer level of activity, Virginia is making a play for importance. The year’s top energy stories show us fully engaged in the worldwide battle between fossil fuels and renewable energy. Of course, while the smart money says renewables will dominate by mid-century, Virginia seems determined to drown rather than give up its fossil fuel addiction.

Coal falls hard; observers disagree on whether it bounces or goes splat. Nationwide, 2014 was a bad year for the coal industry. Coal stocks fell precipitously; mining jobs continued to decline; and the one thing electric utilities and the public found to agree on is that no one likes coal. Even in Virginia, with its long history of mining, coal had to play defense for what may have been the first time ever. So when Governor McAuliffe released the state’s latest energy plan in October, what was otherwise a paean to “All of the Above” omitted the stanza on coal. And this month, the governor proposed a rollback of the subsidies coal companies pocket by mining Virginia coal.

Of course, coal is not going quietly; Senator Charles Carrico (himself heavily subsidized by Alpha Natural Resources) has already responded with a bill to extend the subsidies to 2022.

EPA opens a door to a cleaner future, and Republicans try to brick it up. Speaking of hard times for coal, in June the EPA unveiled its proposal to lower carbon emissions from existing power plants 30% nationwide by 2030. Instead of targeting plants one-by-one, EPA proposed a systemic approach, offering a suite of options for states to reach their individualized targets.

The proposal drew widespread support from the public, but Virginia’s 38% reduction target set off howls of protest from defenders of the status quo. The staff of the State Corporation Commission claimed the rule was illegal and would cost ratepayers $6 billion. Republicans convened a special meeting of the House and Senate Energy and Commerce Committees, where they tried out a number of arguments, not all of which proved ready for prime time. The rule, they said, threatens Virginia with a loss of business to more favored states like—and I am not making this up—West Virginia. Also, Virginia should have received more credit for lowering its carbon emissions by building nuclear plants back in the 1970s when no one was thinking about carbon emissions.

Meanwhile, the Southern Environmental Law Center analyzed the rule and concluded that actually, compliance will not be hard. Virginia is already 80% of the way there, and achieving the rest will produce a burst of clean-energy jobs coupled with savings for consumers through energy efficiency.

Undaunted, Republicans have already introduced a thumb-your-nose-at-EPA bill developed by the fossil fuel champions at the American Legislative Exchange Council.

The “solarize” movement takes Virginia by storm. For the last few years, solar energy has been exploding in popularity across the U.S., but Virginia always seemed to be missing the party. So it surprised even advocates this year when pent-up consumer demand manifested itself in the blossoming of local solar buying cooperatives and other bulk-purchase arrangements. “Solarize Blacksburg” made its debut in March, going on to sign up hundreds of homeowners for solar installations. It was followed in quick succession by the launch of similar programs in Richmond, Charlottesville, Harrisonburg, Northern Virginia, Halifax, Floyd, and Hampton Roads.

The main reason for the solarize programs’ success was the steep decline in the cost of solar energy. 2014 saw the cost of residential installations in Virginia fall to record low prices, making the investment worthwhile to a broad swath of homeowners for the first time.

Utilities say maybe to solar, but only for themselves. Virginia still boasts no utility-scale solar, but utilities elsewhere signed long-term power purchase contracts for solar energy at prices that were sometimes below that of natural gas: under 6.5 cents/kilowatt-hour in Georgia, and under 5 cents in Texas. Compare that to the estimated 9.3 cents/kWh cost of power from Dominion Virginia Power’s newest and most up-to-date coal plant, the Virginia City Hybrid Energy Plant, and you’ll understand why Dominion has suddenly taken an interest in solar projects. Sadly, it’s own foray into rooftop solar so far stands as an example of what not to do, and a testament to why the private market should be allowed to compete.

Yet Virginia utilities continued their hostility to customer-owned solar. Dominion put the kibosh on a bill that would have expanded access to solar energy through community net-metering, while Appalachian Power matched Dominion’s earlier success in imposing punitive standby charges on owners of larger residential systems.

Fracking, pipelines, and gas plants, oh my! Renewable energy may be the future, but the present belongs to cheap natural gas. Yes, the fracking process is dirty, noisy and polluting, and yes, methane leakage around gas wells is exacerbating climate change. But did we mention gas is cheap?

2014 saw proposals to drill gas wells east of I-95, while the Virginia government began updating its regulations to govern fracking. Dominion Power started construction on a second new gas power plant, and talked up its plans for a third. The utility giant, a major player in the gas transmission business, also got approval to turn its liquefied natural gas import terminal in Cove Point, Maryland, into an export terminal. With visions of customers dancing in its head, it also announced plans for a major new pipeline to bring fracked gas from West Virginia through Virginia and into North Carolina—one of three proposed pipelines that would cut through the Virginia countryside and across natural treasures like the Appalachian Trail. The pipeline created an instant protest movement but gained the wholehearted approval of Governor McAuliffe.

Flooding in Hampton Roads becomes the new normal; it’s still not okay to ask what’s causing it. A cooler-than-normal year for the eastern United States gulled many landlubbers into believing that global warming was taking a breather, but meanwhile the ocean continued its inexorable rise along Virginia’s vulnerable coastline. It’s one thing to shrug off the occasional storm, said residents; it’s harder to ignore seawater that cuts off your parking lot at every high tide. 2014 will go down as the year everyone finally agreed we have a problem—even in the General Assembly, which passed legislation to develop a response to the “recurrent flooding.” But while the bill recognized that the problem will just get worse, it avoided noting why.

The public gets it, though. The Richmond Times-Dispatch reports that climate change was the number one topic of interest to writers of letters to the editor in 2014. And loud cheers greeted Governor McAuliffe’s announcement that he would reestablish the state’s commission on climate change, which Bob McDonnell had disbanded. As one environmental leader quipped, “People in Tidewater are tired of driving through tidal water.”

Public corruption: in Virginia, it’s not just for politicians. Everyone can agree that it was a really bad year for the Virginia Way, that gentlemanly notion that persons of good character don’t need no stinkin’ ethics laws. But we also saw plenty to prove the adage that the real scandal is what’s legal. As we learned, Virginia law allows unlimited corporate contributions to campaigns, and puts no limits on what campaigns can spend money on. So if some legislators act more like corporate employees than servants of the public, well, that’s how the system was set up to work.

But the system only works when corporations get their money’s worth from the politicians, and that quid pro quo usually comes at the public’s expense. For example, take Dominion Power’s North Anna 3 shenanigans (please). In an exceptionally bold exploitation of the Virginia Way, Dominion Power secured passage of legislation allowing it to bill customers for hundreds of millions of dollars it had spent towards a new nuclear plant that it is unlikely to build. (And the irony is that ratepayers will still be better off throwing the money down that rathole than they will be if Dominion does manage to build it.)

So as we look ahead to 2015’s energy battles, anyone wondering who the winners and losers will be needs only one piece of guidance: in Virginia, just follow the money.

Fiscal and environmental sanity get a boost as McAuliffe proposes to roll back coal subsidies

Your taxpayer dollars at work!

Your taxpayer dollars at work!

Thanks to the state’s budget deficit, Virginia may finally scale way back a notorious fossil fuel subsidy that currently transfers tens of millions of dollars annually from taxpayers to the pockets of corporations that mine Virginia coal. The Richmond Times Dispatch reports that if Governor McAuliffe has his way, the Virginia Coal Employment and Production Incentive Tax Credit and the Coalfield Employment Enhancement Tax Credit will be limited to $500,000 per year, saving the government $20 million per year.

The refundable tax credits were intended to make Virginia coal cheaper for utilities to buy, and thus more competitive with coal mined in other states. In theory, that was supposed to mean more coal mining jobs in southwest Virginia. In practice, the subsidies meant some coal companies paid no state taxes, and actually received significant cash handouts, even as coal jobs declined. And because the subsidies are based on tons of coal mined and not on the number of people employed, mining companies suffered no penalty from capital investments that maximized production while cutting jobs.

Critics of the subsidies thought they had won their point three years ago when the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee (JLARC) issued a critique of the various Virginia tax credits that was especially critical of the handouts to coal companies. As it describes beginning on page 67, the subsidies did not stop coal employment from falling 54% since 1990, or slow the steady decline in production:

“The precursor to one of the current coal credits was in place before the decline began, while the other was enacted shortly thereafter. It is important to note that with or without the credits, the decline in Virginia coal production was predicted by numerous analysts because over two-thirds of recoverable coal reserves in Virginia have already been mined.”

Indeed, the report continued, coal employment and production was actually worse with the credits in place:

“In the process of developing and refining the credit, analysts projected that coal employment and production would decline by 28 percent between 1996 and 2005 without the credit. However, actual mining employment was substantially lower than expected during this period, declining 36 percent.”

In spite of this damning analysis, in 2012 the General Assembly actually extended the expiration date of the coal subsidies until 2017. Insiders say Senate Democrats were persuaded to vote for the extension as a favor to coalfields senator Phil Puckett, who needed the backing of coal companies to hold his seat in 2013 and keep Democrats in control of the Senate. (Some might say he failed to return the favor.)

The coal subsidies have long infuriated environmentalists and community activists in the Coalfields region. In their view, Virginia taxpayers should not be forced to reward mining companies for blowing off the tops of our mountains, filling ancient stream valleys with rubble, poisoning wells and rivers, and destroying homes to get at the last, thin seams of Virginia coal.

So Coalfields activists welcomed the Governor’s proposal as a “good first step” in planning a future where coal is no longer the economic engine it once was. “We need to take our heads out of the sand and invest heavily in diversifying our economy in Southwest Virginia,” said Wise County resident Jane Branham, Vice President of Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards. “Supporting outdoor recreation, tourism, sustainable agriculture, reforestation and a new generation of entrepreneurs is the path forward in the mountains, not subsidizing bad actor coal companies that continue to poison the natural resources our future depends on.”

Renewable energy advocates have also complained that by making coal cheaper, the subsidies make it harder for other forms of energy to compete. One would expect this argument to resonate with free market advocates, a category that supposedly includes all Virginia Republicans and a lot of the Democrats. Yet in spite of criticism from some Democrats, the subsidies have not faced serious opposition before now.

Acquiescence in such an expensive and counter-productive corporate welfare program mostly reflects the influence of the Virginia coal industry. (See last week’s post for a sampling of how coal companies work to buy votes with campaign cash.) But the drafters sweetened the deal with a provision that siphons off a portion of the excess cash to fund the Virginia Coalfield Economic Development Authority (VACEDA), which is supposed to help the region diversify beyond coal. (It might work better if coal executives didn’t sit on the board.)

Under McAuliffe’s proposal, VACEDA would get a direct appropriation of $1.2 million to replace the money it would lose by the scaling back of the tax credits. That should satisfy those legislators whose primary concern is helping residents of southwest Virginia.

Those whose primary concern is helping coal companies, however, aren’t likely to be happy. Congressman Morgan Griffith has already been quoted as suggesting Governor McAuliffe’s proposal to scale back the coal subsidies amounts to a “war on coal.”

He expressed no concern about coal’s war on the people of southwest Virginia. For those who care about that, Governor McAuliffe’s move feels like a breath of clean air.

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Addendum: Senator Bill Carrico (R-Alpha Natural Resources) has now filed a bill, S741, to extend the coal subsidies until 2022.