Why we can’t just shut up and eat our cookies

Fracking site, Marcellus Shale. Photo courtesy of U.S. Geologic Survey.

Fracking site, Marcellus Shale. Photo courtesy of U.S. Geologic Survey.

I grew up with brothers, so I knew from an early age that the easiest way to make friends with guys was to feed them chocolate chip cookies. I took this strategy with me to college, commandeering the tiny kitchen in our coed dorm. The aroma wafting down the hallways reliably drew a crowd.

One fan was so enthusiastic that he wanted to learn to make cookies himself. So the next time, he showed up at the start of the process. He watched me combine sugar and butter, eggs and white flour.

Instead of being enthusiastic, he was appalled. It had never occurred to him that anything as terrific as a cookie could be made of stuff so unhealthy. It’s not that he thought they were created from sunshine and elf magic; he just hadn’t thought about it at all. He left before the cookies even came out of the oven.

I felt so bad about it, I ate the whole batch.

But I can empathize with that guy when I’m told that as an environmentalist, I should love natural gas. Natural gas is the chocolate chip cookie of fossil fuels. At the point of consumption, everybody loves it. It’s cheap, there’s gobs of it, and it burns cleaner than coal, with only half the carbon dioxide emissions. Disillusionment sets in only when you look at the recipe. (“First, frack one well. . .”)

I realize we have only ourselves to blame. For years, environmentalists talked about gas as a “bridge fuel” that could carry us from a fossil fuel past to a future powered by renewable energy. No one would tarry on that bridge, we figured, because gas was expensive. We’d hurry along to the promised land of wind and solar.

But that was before hydrofracking and horizontal drilling hit the scene. Fracking opened up vast swaths of once-quiet forest and farmland to the constant grinding of truck traffic heading to drilling rigs that operate all day and night, poisoning the air with diesel fumes and sometimes spilling toxic drilling fluids onto fields and into streams. It was before studies documented well failures that let toxic chemicals and methane seep back up along the well borings and into aquifers, contaminating drinking water.

And it was before scientists sounded the alarm on “fugitive” methane emissions from wellheads: gas that escapes into the air unintentionally, sometimes at levels so high as to cancel out the climate advantage of burning natural gas instead of coal.

But just as environmentalists were thinking, “Whoa, natural gas turns out to be a bridge to nowhere,” electric utilities were embracing fracked gas in a big way. Fracking has made gas so cheap that giving up coal is no sacrifice. It’s so cheap they see no reason to get off the bridge and embrace renewable energy. At one conference I attended, a gas company executive gushed, “Natural gas is no longer a bridge fuel. It’s a destination fuel!”

All I could think was, “In that case, the destination must be Cleveland.” Which was surely unfair to Cleveland.

Just to be clear: environmentalists are not opposed to gas because we are spoil-sports, or purists, or hold stock in solar companies. The problem with natural gas is that it isn’t made by Keebler elves, but extracted through a nasty process that is harming the planet in ways both local and global.

If the best anyone can say about natural gas is that it’s not as bad as coal, then lingering on the bridge makes no sense. And anything we do that keeps us here—opening up Virginia to fracking, or building a huge new pipeline to bring fracked gas from other states—is both foolish and dangerous. Foolish, because embracing cheap gas distracts us from the serious business of building wind and solar and using energy more efficiently; and dangerous, because the planet will not stop warming while we play shell games with carbon.




Dominion’s ties to ALEC, McDonnell’s conviction, all part of one corrupt package

Group Dominion quit ALEc image 2

Protesters gather outside the Crystal City headquarters of ALEC

A crowd of protesters gathered at the Arlington headquarters of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) on September 4 to demand that Dominion Resources, the parent of public utility monopoly Dominion Virginia Power, drop its membership in the right wing “bill mill.”

On the very same day, a jury convicted ex-Governor Bob McDonnell and his wife on federal corruption charges, setting off a new round of debate about Virginia’s lax ethics laws.

The two news items sound like different topics, but in fact they are both about the corruption undermining our democratic system. The McDonnell trial, with its focus on swank vacations, golf clubs, designer clothes and other neat stuff, actually missed the bigger breach of public trust that goes on every day. This takes the form of unlimited corporate campaign contributions and gifts to members of both parties, and the influence over legislation purchased by this largesse.

Dominion Power has spent decades and many millions of dollars building its influence in Richmond this way, to the point where most legislators don’t bother pursuing a bill if the utility signals its opposition. That’s why Virginia has not followed so many other states in requiring its utilities to invest in energy efficiency, wind and solar. Economic arguments, jobs, electricity rates—all these are talked about in committee, and all are irrelevant to the fate of a bill. The only relevant question for legislators is, “What does Dominion think?”

What Dominion thinks, though, is not about what’s good for its customers, but what’s good for its own bottom line. And this is where ALEC comes in. Dominion Virginia Power’s president, Bob Blue, sits on an ALEC committee with representatives from the climate-denial group Heartland Institute, the Koch-funded anti-environment group Americans for Prosperity, and that most oxymoronic of lobby shops, the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity. Their purpose is to craft model state bills that protect fossil fuel profits and attack all efforts to regulate carbon emissions.

Dominion provides a straight shot from ALEC’s back-room bill-brokering to Virginia’s statute books, trampling environmental protections along the way and giving the lie to Dominion’s façade of environmental responsibility. No wonder so many of last week’s protesters were Dominion customers who objected to the utility using the money it charges them for electricity to pay its ALEC dues.

We see the result every year in the General Assembly, as bills drafted by ALEC pop up all over the place without attribution. In addition to attacking clean energy, ALEC bills oppose worker protections and minimum wage initiatives, promote stand-your-ground bills like the one at issue in the Trayvon Martin case, and of course, undermine the kinds of clean-government efforts that would reduce the influence of corporations—like campaign finance reform.

And because the voters are the only people who could prove more powerful than corporations—and the only ones who might ultimately cut off the corporate cash flow—ALEC works to undermine voting rights as well.

In the wake of the McDonnells’ convictions, Virginia legislators are once again mumbling about tightening up the rules on gifts. The discussion is half-hearted; the pay for their work is paltry and the hours are long, so they aren’t anxious to give up the perks.

But it’s too late for half-measures. Elected officials are going to have to subject themselves to a ban on gifts, and the prohibition should extend to ballgame tickets, golf getaways and sit-down dinners. The loophole that currently allows campaign funds to be used for personal use must also be closed to avoid an end-run around the gift ban.

But until we turn off the corporate cash spigot, our democracy will still have special interests, not voters, calling too many shots.

Where are the Renewables? 2014 update on Virginia wind and solar policy

Virginia lags well behind neighboring states on renewable energy. We have no utility scale wind or solar projects and very little in the way of customer-owned and other distributed generation—no more than18 megawatts (MW) of distributed solar, at last estimate. This puts the Commonwealth dead last among neighboring states. The reason is not a lack of resources, but a lack of will to create strong policies to promote development of wind and solar.

wind and solar state comparisonsLast fall I posted a summary of Virginia’s policies that detailed both the gloomy picture and the reasons behind it. The policies haven’t changed much since then, but there are new grounds for hope. Governor McAuliffe is talking up renewables, Republicans see business opportunities in solar energy, and the newly-proposed EPA Clean Power Plan puts carbon pollution squarely at the center of the energy calculus.

So you won’t find this year’s policy overview markedly different, but it’s interesting to consider how these developments might affect the 2015 legislative session, which legislators and lobbyists are already preparing for.

Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS)

Virginia has only a voluntary RPS, which means utilities have the option of participating but don’t have to. If a utility opts to participate in Virginia’s RPS, any costs it incurs in meeting the goals can be charged to ratepayers.

Until last year, utilities could also qualify for a huge bonus for meeting the goals: more than $38 million annually in the case of Dominion Virginia Power. Widely regarded as a consumer rip-off and the subject of protests by environmentalists and a damning report from the Attorney General’s office, the bonuses were stripped out in 2013 as part of a larger package of changes. As a result, the only incentive utilities now have to participate in the RPS is their desire to look “green.”

Unchanged are the extremely weak provisions of the RPS. Although nominally promising 15% renewables by 2025, the statute sets a 2007 baseline and contains a sleight-of-hand in the definitions section by which the target is applied only to energy not produced by nuclear plants. The result is that our RPS goal is effectively well under 10%. Add to that a kitchen-sink approach to what counts as renewable energy, and it’s hard to view our RPS as anything but a hopeless mess.

And indeed, the RPS is as impotent in practice as it is in theory. In the case of Dominion Virginia Power, the RPS has so far been met largely with out-of-state renewable energy certificates (RECs) from old hydro projects built prior to World War II. The State Corporation Commission is as much to blame for this as Dominion; in its view, if near-worthless junk RECs will meet the statutory minimum, why pay more?

Yet it was utility opposition that derailed efforts to improve the goals in the 2014 legislative session. Multiple meetings and intense negotiations between utility lobbyists, advocates and legislators achieved only a five-year limit on utilities’ ability to “bank” RECs for use in later years. (Most states have shorter limits.)

Prior to taking office, Governor McAuliffe spoke in support of a mandatory RPS that would achieve real progress on wind and solar. A strong RPS remains high on the wish list of clean energy advocates, but no gambler would put money on ours.

Utility “green power” programs

Section 56-577(A)(6) of the Virginia code allows utilities to offer “green power” programs. Unlike the RPS, participation by consumers is truly voluntary. Participants sign up and agree to be billed extra on their power bills for the service.

Ideally, a utility would use the money to build or buy renewable energy for these customers; however, Virginia utilities have not done this except in very tiny amounts. Instead, utilities pay brokers to buy renewable energy certificates (RECs) on behalf of the participants. In Dominion’s case, these RECs meet a recognized national standard and are much superior to those bought for the RPS, but they primarily represent power produced and consumed out of state, and thus have no effect on the power mix in Virginia. For a fuller discussion of the Dominion Green Power Program, see my previous post, What’s wrong with Dominion’s Green Power Program

In the case of Appalachian Power, the RECs come from a conventional hydro facility in West Virginia that was built in 1960, so the RECs don’t even meet most environmental groups’ standard for renewable energy.

Customer-owned generation

Given the lack of wind or solar options from utilities, people who want renewable energy generally have to build it themselves. A federal 30% tax credit, available until the end of 2016, makes it increasingly affordable. The Virginia legislature passed a bill in 2014 that would offer an additional incentive through a grant program, but it did not receive funding.

Owners of wind and solar systems in RPS states can sell RECs to their utilities, helping to recoup installation costs and aiding in financing. The lack of a true RPS in Virginia means RECs generally cannot be sold to Virginia utilities. (As noted above, Virginia utilities do not need wind and solar to meet their RPS goals.) RECs generated here can sometimes be sold to utilities in other states (as of now only Pennsylvania) or to brokers who sell to voluntary purchasers. Currently the State Corporation Commission is reviewing the possibility of setting up a REC registry in Virginia that could serve the voluntary REC market.

Net metering

Section 56-594 of the Virginia code allows utility customers with wind and solar projects to net energy meter. System owners get credit from their utility for surplus electricity that’s fed into the grid at times of high output. That offsets the grid power they draw on when their systems are producing less than they need. Their monthly bills reflect only the net energy they draw from the grid.

If a system produces more than the customer uses in a month, the credits roll over to the next month. However, at the end of the year, the customer will be paid for any excess credits only by entering a power purchase agreement with the utility. This will likely be for a price that represents the utility’s “avoided cost” of about 4.5 cents, rather than the retail rate, which for homeowners is about 10.5 cents. Given the current cost of installing solar, this effectively stops people from installing larger systems than they can use themselves.

Virginia law also does not allow system owners to share the electricity with other consumers through community net metering or solar gardens. Several bills that would have permitted this were introduced in the 2014 session but defeated due to utility opposition. Community net metering remains one of the solar industry’s highest priorities.

Under a bill introduced by Delegate Randy Minchew (R-Leesburg) and passed in 2013, owners of Virginia farms with more than one electric meter are permitted to attribute the electricity produced by a system that serves one meter (say, on a barn) to other meters on the property (the farmhouse and other outbuildings). This is referred to as “agricultural net metering.” The law takes effect July 1, 2014 for investor-owned utilities (Dominion and Appalachian Power) and July 1, 2015 for the cooperatives.

Standby charges and other limits

Dominion Power is at the forefront of a national pushback against policies like net metering that facilitate customer-owned generation.

When net metering was instituted in Virginia, residential systems were limited to 10 kilowatts (kW), and commercial systems to 500 kW. The solar industry succeeded in getting the residential limit raised to 20 kW in 2011, but the change came with a catch: the utility was allowed to apply to the State Corporation Commission to impose a “standby” charge on those customers.

Seizing the opportunity, Dominion won the right to impose a standby charge of up to about $60 per month on these larger systems, eviscerating the market for them just as electric cars were increasing interest in larger systems. (SCC case PUE- 2011-00088.) Legislative efforts to roll back the standby charges were unsuccessful.

In the spring of 2014 Appalachian Power filed for rate changes to include even more extreme standby charges for residential systems between 10 and 20 kW. Its rate case, PUE-2014-00026, will be heard by the SCC on September 16, 2014.

The standby charges supposedly represent the extra costs to the grid for transmission and distribution. In the summer of 2013, in a filing with the SCC (PUE-2012-00064, Virginia Electric and Power Company’s Net Metering Generation Impacts Report), Dominion claimed it could also justify standby charges for its generation costs, and indicated it expects to seek them after a year of operating its Solar Purchase Program (see discussion below).

Aside from residential systems between 10 and 20 kW and a provision attached to the Agricultural Net Metering bill, there is no express authority in the Virginia code for Dominion to seek new standby charges. This suggests we may see utility-sponsored legislation in the 2015 session if Dominion follows through.

Homeowner Association Bans

Homeowner association (HOA) bans and restrictions on solar systems have been a problem for residential solar. In the 2014 session, the legislature nullified bans as contrary to public policy. The law contains an exception for bans that are recorded in the land deeds, but this is said to be highly unusual; most bans are simply written into the HOA covenant.

Even where HOAs cannot ban solar installations, they can impose “reasonable restrictions concerning the size, place and manner of placement.” This language is undefined. It would seem that an HOA cannot use it to prohibit systems that are visible from the front of the home, if that is the only place that gets sun, but beyond that, residents may need to negotiate with their neighbors to achieve agreement. The Town of Blacksburg has been wrestling with this issue in the context of its Solarize program and is working with the Maryland-DC-Virginia Solar Energy Industries Association to develop guidelines that might be helpful to other communities. If litigation ensues, legislation may be needed to define “reasonable restrictions.”

Barriers to third-party ownership

One of the primary drivers of solar installations in other states has been third-party ownership of the systems, including third-party power purchase agreements (PPAs), under which the customer pays only for the power produced by the system. For customers that pay no taxes, including non-profit entities like churches and colleges, this is especially important because they can’t use the 30% federal tax credit to reduce the cost of the system if they purchase it directly. Under a PPA, the system owner can take the tax credit and pass along the savings in the form of a lower power price.

In 2011, when Washington & Lee University attempted to use a PPA to finance a solar array on its campus, Dominion Power issued cease and desist letters to the university and its Staunton-based solar provider, Secure Futures LLC. Dominion claimed the arrangement violated its monopoly on power sales within its territory, notwithstanding what appeared to be an exception in §56-577(A)(5)(a) of the Virginia code authorizing third party sales of renewable energy.

The threat of prolonged litigation scuttled the PPA contract, although the solar installation was able to proceed using a different financial arrangement.

After a long and very public fight in the legislature and the press, Dominion and the solar industry negotiated a compromise that specifically allows customers in Dominion territory to use third-party PPAs to install solar or wind projects over the next two years under a pilot program capped at 50 MW. Projects must have a minimum size of 50 kW, unless the customer is a tax-exempt entity, in which case there is no minimum. Net-metered projects are subject to the net metering limit of 500 kW. Projects that are not net metered can be as large as 1 MW.

Appalachian Power and the electric cooperatives declined to participate in the PPA deal-making, so the legal uncertainty about PPAs continues in their territories.

Meanwhile, however, Secure Futures has developed a third-party-ownership business model that it says works like a PPA for tax purposes but does not include the sale of electricity, and therefore should not trigger a challenge from Appalachian Power or other utilities. Currently Secure Futures is the only solar provider offering this option, which it calls Customer Self-Generation.

Dominion “Solar Partnership” Program

In 2011, the General Assembly passed a law allowing Dominion to build 30 MW of solar energy on leased property, such as roof space on a college or commercial establishment.

In theory, the point is to study the effect on the grid of integrating solar energy. This strikes many people as ludicrous, given that New Jersey now has over 1200 MW of solar and could probably tell us how it’s going. Still, it was 30 MW more than the utility had planned to build previously.

The SCC wasn’t as thrilled as solar advocates were, so one of the conditions of its approval was that the RECs that are generated must be sold to help reduce the cost. Thus the power will not be used to meet RPS goals.

As of August 2014, Dominion has completed only three projects, one on a university and the other two on commercial buildings, for a total of 1,432 kW. The company has hired only out-of-state installers, disappointing Virginia industry members who hoped it would lead to work for local companies.

Dominion Solar Purchase Program

The same legislation that enabled the Community Solar initiative also allowed Dominion to establish “an alternative to net metering” as part of the demonstration program. As developed by the utility, the program turned out to be a buy-all, sell-all deal for up to 3 MW of customer-owned solar. Approved by the SCC this year, the program allows owners of small solar systems on homes and businesses to sell the power and the associated RECs to Dominion at 15 cents/kWh, while buying regular grid power at retail for their own use. Dominion then sells the power to the Green Power Program at an enormous markup, a blatant rip-off that, shockingly, received the SCC’s stamp of approval.

I’ve ripped this program so often and so thoroughly from the perspective of the Green Power Program that I won’t bother to repeat my criticisms here. From the point of view of potential sellers, however, the program isn’t so hot either. Some installers who have looked at it say it’s not worth the hassle given the costs involved and the likelihood that the payments represent taxable income to the homeowner. There is also a possibility that selling the electricity may make homeowners ineligible for the 30% federal tax credit on the purchase of their system. Sellers beware.

And then there’s the problem that selling the solar power means you aren’t powering your home or business with solar—which for most people is the whole point of installing it.

A Renewable Generation tariff for large users of energy

Currently renewable energy projects are subject to a size limit of 500 kW for net-metered projects, or 1 MW for PPA projects that are not net-metered. These limitations constrain universities, corporations, data centers, and other large users of energy that might want to run on wind or solar. And of course, the utilities’ interpretation of Virginia law would prohibit a developer from building a wind farm or a solar array and selling the power directly to users under a power purchase agreement.

In response, Dominion Power created a so-called Renewable Generation Tariff (PUE-2012-00142) to allow customers to buy larger amounts of renewable power from providers, with the utility acting as a go-between and collecting a monthly administrative fee.

Putting the utility in the middle of the sale seems cumbersome and bureaucratic, but in a regulated market is probably to be expected. If customers insist on actual power (bundled with RECs) and specify wind and/or solar, this may be useful to the Virginia market. We have not heard whether any customers have stepped forward to use the tariff. Wind developers tell us it is not an inducement for them to build in Virginia.

What happened to utility-scale wind and solar?

A few years ago, Dominion Power got a bill passed to support a 4 MW solar facility in Halifax. The project was dropped when problems plagued the battery storage system that was integral to the project.

Utility-scale wind almost had its moment, too. A few wind farm proposals made it to the permitting stage, including ones in Highland County and on Poor Mountain in Roanoke. For the past few years, Dominion Power’s website has listed 248 MW of land-based wind in Virginia as under development, without any noticeable progress. “Under development” turns out to mean “maybe someday.”

Plummeting prices for shale gas seem to have been the primary culprit for the demise of these proposals. Wind in the Midwest and Great Plains can outcompete any other fuel source, but it’s more expensive in the East. The SCC has also proved unfriendly to renewable energy, dismissing suggestions that it should take into account price stability, environmental benefits and other external costs when evaluating generating sources.

However, Dominion has now announced plans for 220 MW of utility-scale solar in Virginia, to be installed beginning in 2017. We shall see.

As for Virginia’s great offshore wind resource, the perception that offshore wind energy will be costly is also making that a hard sell. A year ago Dominion won the federal auction for the right to develop about 2000 MW of offshore wind power, and the lease terms call for the company to file construction plans within five years. The federal government’s timeline leads to wind turbines being built off Virginia Beach around 2020. As I’ve discussed elsewhere, Dominion is something less than committed to seeing the process through. This puts advocates in the legislature and the business and environmental communities in the odd position of being keener on a development than the developer is.

Meanwhile, however, Dominion is part of a Department of Energy-funded team proceeding with two 6-MW offshore wind test turbines scheduled to be installed in 2017.

What’s past is prologue

In past years several bills have sought to address the fundamental misalignment of Virginia’s energy priorities that supports fossil fuels over renewable energy and energy efficiency. Virginia taxpayers currently subsidize fossil fuel use, including through tens of millions of dollars annually in direct payments to coal mining companies, as well as indirectly, such as by imposing on the public the added costs of health care for treating asthma caused by air pollution.

Bills requiring the SCC and utilities to consider factors such as climate change and the environment (Delegate Kaye Kory, D-Falls Church), health care externalities (Senator Don McEachin, D-Richmond) and price stability (Delegate Alfonso Lopez, D-Arlington), unfortunately never made it out of committee

But all that was before EPA proposed a Clean Power Plan under Section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act on June 2, thrusting carbon into the center of energy policy decision-making. If the plan takes effect as proposed, Virginia will have to develop a state implementation plan (SIP) that reduces total carbon pollution from power plants. One way to do it will be to throttle back on the fossil fuels and bring on emissions-free wind and solar.

The SIP wouldn’t be due until at least 2016, and if some members of Congress (not to mention members of the Virginia legislature) have their way, the 111(d) rules will never take effect. But whatever happens, building wind and solar seems like one of those decisions no one is likely to regret. The more we have, the better prepared we will be—for 111(d) rules or a carbon tax, price spikes in natural gas, interruptions of fuel supplies, or a disaster that takes down the grid

The question remains whether enough of our elected leaders think this way to begin making changes before changes are forced upon us. We’ll all have to stay tuned to find out.


Children need the EPA’s carbon pollution standard

This post, from guest blogger Samantha Ahdoot, originally appeared in the August 21 edition of the Fairfax County Times. I’ve written about the threat that increasing summer temperatures poses for people who have to work outdoors in ; here, Dr. Ahdoot tells us what carbon pollution means for children.

The end of summer fun? Higher temperatures resulting from carbon pollution could limit children's outdoor time.

The end of summer fun? Higher temperatures resulting from carbon pollution could limit children’s outdoor time.

Every day, parents protect their children from a myriad of risks. By strapping them in car seats, placing them on their backs to sleep and cutting their grapes into quarters, parents do everything in their power to insure their children against harm. President Obama’s Clean Power Plan will be called many things in the upcoming months, but it is ultimately an insurance plan. It is insurance for our children against the dangers of carbon pollution and resulting climate change.

Carbon pollution presents a major risk to the health, safety and security of current and future children. Rising atmospheric carbon is making our planet hotter. While skeptics may say this remains uncertain, our major scientific organizations (NASA, NOAA, IPCC) tell us it is at least very, very likely. With this increased heat, many other climactic changes are already occurring, including melting glaciers, rising sea levels and worsening storms. These fundamental changes ultimately impact human health, and children are amongst the most vulnerable to these changes. Some impacts are already affecting children today and are being seen by pediatricians like myself.

Allergic rhinitis, for example, affects about 10 percent of American children. With later first frost and earlier spring thaw due to rising global temperature, the allergy season has become longer. In the Northern Virginia region, where I practice, it has lengthened by about two weeks. More northern regions of the country have experienced greater lengthening. Higher carbon dioxide in the atmosphere also causes ragweed plants today to produce more pollen than in preindustrial times. Allergy season is therefore both longer and more severe.

Some infectious disease patterns have already been impacted by climactic changes. As global temperatures rise, many plants and animals are migrating poleward. They are bringing diseases, like Lyme disease, with them. There is now Lyme disease in Canada, and large increases in reported cases of Lyme have occurred in the northern U.S. Maine had 175 cases in 2003 and 1300 cases in 2013, while New Hampshire had 262 cases in 2002 and greater than 1300 cases in 2013. Children under five years old, who spend the most time outside playing in high-risk areas, have the highest incidence of Lyme disease.

Increasingly long and severe heat waves also place children at risk of heat-related illness. While the elderly are at highest risk from extreme heat, some groups of children also appear to be vulnerable. Infants less than one year, for example, have immature thermoregulation, and infant mortality has been found to increase due to extreme heat. A study from MIT found that by the end of the 21st century, under a “business as usual” scenario, infant mortality rates would increase by 5.5 percent in females and 7.8 percent in males due to heat-related deaths. U.S. student athletes are a high-risk group for heat injury. Teenage boys, most commonly football players, made up 35 percent of the roughly 5,900 people treated yearly in emergency rooms for exertional heat illness between 2001 and 2009. According to the CDC, heat illness is a leading cause of disability in high school athletes, with a national estimate of 9,237 illnesses annually.

Health impacts on individuals and communities will grow significantly if we allow carbon emissions, and global temperatures, to rise unchecked. Power plants contribute approximately one-third of U.S. greenhouse gas pollution. Reducing emissions from existing fossil fuel-fired power plants represents a major step towards altering our emissions, and climate, trajectory. Obama’s Clean Power Plan is, ultimately, like a car seat- an insurance plan for our children against a significant risk of harm. The road of climate change will be long and hazardous. Our children deserve to be strapped in.

Dr. Samantha Ahdoot is pediatrician in Alexandria. She is a Fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), and a member of the Executive Committee of the AAP’s Council on Environmental Health.

Finally, utility-scale solar for Virginia?

111022-N-OH262-322After a solar buying spree in other states, Dominion Power is at last taking a look at the possibility of building utility-scale solar in Virginia.

As reported in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Dominion Resources, the parent company of Dominion Virginia Power, is considering building 220 megawatts of solar projects in Virginia, starting in 2017. The plan would involve five 40-megawatt “greenfield” projects, plus 20 megawatts located at existing power stations. (A greenfield is an area that is not already developed. So the large projects would be on former farmland, say, not closed landfills or old industrial sites.)

The company’s recent solar buys in California, Connecticut, Indiana, Georgia and Tennessee have all involved the unregulated, merchant side of Dominion Resources. But in this case, the plan is for Dominion Virginia Power to own the Virginia projects and sell the electricity to its customers here in the Commonwealth. This would require approval of the State Corporation Commission—which, as we know, is no friend to renewable energy.

A little more digging confirmed that Dominion plans to sell the solar energy to the whole rate base, rather than, say, to participants in the voluntary Green Power Program. How would they get that past the SCC? That remains unclear, but they know keeping the cost down will be key. Right now they’re looking at all the options to make it work. The company is still at the conceptual stage, is still looking for good sites of 100 acres and up, and hasn’t even made a decision to proceed.

So we should probably hold our excitement in check for now. After all, Dominion has had wind farms in Virginia “under development” for the past several years, with nary a turbine in sight.

Solar does have a few advantages over wind, though, from a utility perspective. For one, it produces power during the day, when demand is higher, while onshore wind tends to blow more at night. (Offshore wind, on the other hand, picks up in the late afternoon and evening, right at peak demand time.) And unlike wind farms in the Midwest and Great Plains, where turbines coexist peacefully with cows and cornfields, turbines in the mountains of the east have generated opposition from people concerned about impacts on forests and viewsheds. You find some curmudgeons who think solar panels are ugly, but they aren’t trying to block them wholesale at the county level.

With the sharp drop in solar costs over the last few years, large-scale solar has been looking increasingly attractive to utilities that want to beef up their renewable energy portfolios. As we learned recently, Dominion’s got a long way to go before it competes with even an average utility elsewhere. That puts it in a poor position to respond to the rapid changes heading our way. These include not just growing public demand for wind and solar and new regulatory constraints on carbon emissions, but also the much-discussed upending of the traditional utility model that depends on a captive customer base and large centralized generating plants running baseload power. Distributed generation and batteries increasingly offer customers a way to untether themselves from the grid, while wind and solar together are pushing grid operators towards a more nimble approach to meeting demand—one in which baseload is no longer a virtue.

Dominion and its fossil fuel and nuclear allies are fighting hard against the tide, but in the end, Dominion will do whatever it takes to keep making money. And right now, the smart money is on solar.

None of this means we should expect Dominion to become more friendly to pro-solar legislation that will “let our customers compete with us,” as one Dominion Vice President put it. But it does suggest an opening for legislation that would promote utility-owned solar, perhaps through the RPS or stand-alone bills.

Legislators shouldn’t view utility-owned solar as an alternative to customer-owned solar; we need both. And if being grid-tied means being denied the right to affordable solar energy, we will see customers begin to abandon the grid. But those aren’t arguments against utility-scale solar, either. Big projects like the ones Dominion proposes are critical to helping us catch up to other states and reduce our carbon emissions.

So full speed ahead, Dominion! We’re all waiting.


Report confirms Dominion’s worst-place standing on clean energy; public wonders how utility can be quite so bad

photo courtesy of the Sierra Club

photo courtesy of the Sierra Club

A new report from the non-profit group Ceres shows Dominion Resources, the parent of Dominion Virginia Power, winning last place among investor-owned utilities on a nationwide ranking of renewable energy sales and energy efficiency savings.

That’s left Virginians wondering how a company that talks so big succeeds in doing so little. And more importantly, what would it take for Dominion to rank even among the average?

Dominion came in 30th out of 32 in renewable energy sales, at 0.52%. On energy efficiency, it achieved 31st out of 32 on savings measured cumulatively (0.41%), and 32nd out of 32 measured on an incremental annual level (at 0.03%). Together these put our team in last place overall—a notable achievement for a utility that trumpets its solar investments and carbon-cutting progress.

To show just how awful Dominion’s performance is, the top five finishers achieved between 16.67% and 21.08% on renewable energy sales, 10.62-17.18% on cumulative annual energy efficiency, and 1.46-1.77% on incremental annual energy efficiency. National averages were 5.29% for renewable energy sales, 4.96% for cumulative efficiency savings, and 0.73% for incremental annual efficiency savings. Rankings were based on 2012 numbers, the latest year for which data were available.

In case you’re wondering, American Electric Power, the parent company of Appalachian Power Co., earned 24th place for renewable energy, with 2.65% of sales from renewables—a number only half the national average and one we might have called pathetic if it weren’t five times higher than Dominion’s. AEP’s efficiency rankings also placed it firmly in the bottom half of utilities, running 23d and 20th for cumulative and incremental efficiency savings, respectively. However, AEP earned its own laurels recently as the nation’s largest emitter of carbon pollution from power plants due to its coal-centric portfolio.

A study of the rankings reveals that Dominion’s major competition for the title of absolute worst came from other utilities based in the South. The critic’s favorite, Southern Company, nabbed 31st place on the renewable energy sales measure, but failed to make the bottom five on one of the efficiency rankings. Another southeastern utility, SCANA, achieved rock bottom on renewable energy; but like Southern, its marginally better performance on efficiency disqualified it from an overall last-place ranking.

Why do utilities in the South do so poorly? Probably because they can. Most of the poor performers have monopoly control over their territories and are powerful players in their state legislatures. Lacking in competition, they do what’s best for themselves. Possessing political power, they are able to keep it that way.

Of course, they still have to contend with public opinion and the occasional legislator who gets out of line. For that it helps to have a well-worn narrative handy, like the one about how expensive clean energy is. Dominion has found that Virginia’s leaders fall for that one readily, even though it’s false.

And so, when asked about the Ceres report, Dominion responded that Virginia wouldn’t want to be like the states that have high-performing utilities. Dominion spokesman Dan Genest told the Daily Press, “The three states — California, Connecticut and Massachusetts — the report mentions as being leaders in those categories also have among the highest electric rates in the nation. Typical residential customer monthly bills are $228.85, $206.07 and $191.04, respectively. Dominion Virginia Power customers pay $112.45.”

This would be an excellent point, if it were true. Alas, Genest’s numbers appear to be a product of a fevered imagination. According to recent data reported in the Washington Post, California’s average monthly electric bill is only $87.91, Connecticut’s comes in at $126.75, and Massachusetts’ at $93.53, while Virginia’s is $123.72. (Virginia’s numbers presumably reflect an average of bills paid by customers statewide, probably accounting for the higher figure than Genest cites for Dominion’s “typical” customer.)

That’s right: in spite of higher rates, Californians pay way less for electricity than Virginians do, in part because they have achieved high levels of energy efficiency. If you do that, you can afford to invest in more renewable energy without people’s bills going up.

This is such a great idea that it seems like it would be worth trying it here. Remarkably, this is precisely the strategy that environmental groups have been urging for years in their conversations with legislators and their filings at the State Corporation Commission. With the pressure on from global warming and the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, this would seem to be a great opportunity to save money, cut carbon, and move us into the 21st century.

So go for it, Dominion. Aspire to lead! Or failing that, at least shoot for average.



Energy Plan must prepare Virginia for hotter summers

A version of this blogpost was previously published in theHampton Roads Virginian-Pilot on July 20, 2014

Virginians rally in front of U.S. EPA Headquarters in Washington, DC

Virginians rally in front of U.S. EPA Headquarters in Washington, DC

“Over the past 30 years, the average resident of [the Southeast] has experienced about 8 days per year at 95° or above. Looking forward, if we continue our current emissions path, the average Southeast resident will likely experience an additional 17 to 52 extremely hot days per year by mid-century and an additional 48 to 130 days per year by then end of the century.”

            –Risky Business: The Business Risks of Climate Change in the United States

This quote comes from a report issued in June by an all-star group of business and government leaders, laying out the costs involved in higher temperatures and sea level rise. The section on the Southeast is especially likely to make you want to move north and west.

Virginia has started to focus attention on rising sea levels because they are already taking a toll on Tidewater areas, regularly flooding neighborhoods in Norfolk and eating away at the Eastern Shore. In 2013, at the behest of the General Assembly, the Virginia Institute of Marine Science produced an in-depth report on sea level rise and our options for dealing with it. The report says southeast Virginia should expect another one to two feet of sea level rise by 2040, and up to 7.5 feet by the end of the century. We have our work cut out for us, but at least we’re facing up to it.

By contrast, we have not yet begun planning for higher summer temperatures. As the Risky Business report warns, these higher temperatures will make much of the humid Southeast literally uninhabitable without air conditioning. And that has profound implications for our energy planning, starting now.

More intense summer heatwaves will place additional stress on the electric grid and cause costly spikes in power demand. Power outages, today mostly an inconvenience, will become public health emergencies unless there are back-up sources of power readily available, such as solar PV systems with battery storage distributed throughout every community.

Better building construction will be critical to keeping homes and businesses cool reliably and affordably. Since buildings last for many decades, we shouldn’t wait for summers to become deadly before we start mandating better insulation. It is vastly cheaper and more effective to build energy efficiency into a building than to retrofit it later.

This makes it especially unfortunate that the McDonnell administration caved to the home builders’ association last year and did not adopt the updated residential building codes, which would have required these kinds of improvements in new additions to our housing stock. Governor McAuliffe’s failure to reverse the decision this year remains incomprehensible.

However, the McAuliffe administration is now engaged in three planning exercises that ultimately converge around Virginia’s future in a warming world. The Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy is currently writing an update to the Virginia Energy Plan as required by statue every four years, and which must be submitted to the General Assembly this October. On a slower track, a revived Climate Commission will begin conducting its work over the course of the next year. And most recently, the Department of Environmental Quality has announced listening sessions this summer focused on the U.S. EPA’s proposed climate rules.

This timeline puts the (energy) cart before the (climate) horse. The writers of the Energy Plan will not have the benefit of the climate commission’s deliberations, and won’t know what the final EPA rules will require. With pressure from utilities, fossil fuel interests and home builders, business-as-usual thinking might prevail. That would be a mistake.

We don’t know whether the worst extremes cited in the Risky Business report will become reality, or whether the U.S. and the rest of the world will manage to reduce greenhouse gas emissions enough to slow the rise of the oceans and check the worst of the heatwaves. But while we hope for the best, it makes sense to plan for the worst.

And in this case, planning for the worst will also reduce the likelihood of it happening. If we improve building efficiency starting now, we will cut down on the emissions driving a Risky Business future. If our disaster preparedness includes solar panels on businesses and government buildings, we cut emissions and make the grid more resilient.

Global warming has to be part of Virginia’s energy planning from now on. It’s just too risky to ignore it.