As sea level rise accelerates, buying shorefront property becomes a game of musical chairs

Sea level rise graphThank God for climate change deniers. They may eventually be the only buyers for shorefront real estate.

Sea level rise may not cause widespread flooding until later in this century or into the next one, but real estate deals involve long timelines: the useful life of a new house or a commercial building can be at least fifty years, while an infrastructure project might last a hundred years or more.

And of course, it’s one thing to lose your house, and another to lose the ground beneath it. Sea level rise means low-lying real estate now comes with an expiration date.

So smart buyers—and landowners—have to consider not just today’s flood maps, but also ones that haven’t been drawn yet. If a rising sea will threaten property some decades from now, it will depreciate over time, like a car. At some point only chumps and climate deniers will buy.

Head-in-the-sand posturing still dominates the headlines, like Florida Governor Rick Scott’s alleged ban on the use of the term “climate change,” or the North Carolina legislature’s silly (and costly) attempt to legislate sea level rise out of existence. Now the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) hopes to force states to get serious about climate change by requiring states to do a better job planning for natural disasters caused in part by global warming. FEMA’s goal is to save money through better planning, but conservatives have attacked the requirement as politically motivated.

Meanwhile, however, many states and localities have already begun using sea level rise forecasting in their planning. The projections will help land use planners determine not just where to allow growth, but also where to defend existing development against the incursion of the sea, and where the wiser course is to retreat. And of course, the studies should inform the decisions of anyone thinking of buying property on the coast.

Two recent studies provide a picture of sea level rise in Virginia. The Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) issued its report in January 2013, titled Recurrent Flooding Study for Tidewater Virginia. Building on that study and others, on March 10 of this year the Sierra Club released Sea Level Rise: What Should Virginia Plan For?

Both studies agree on some pretty sobering numbers. By the end of this century, the sea level in Norfolk, Virginia, is projected to be 3.6-5 feet above the level in 1992. By that point, the sea will be rising more than half a foot per decade. The numbers are higher for Virginia than for many states, in part because the land around Hampton Roads is also sinking at a rate of about one foot per century.

Although Hampton Roads gets most of the media attention, sea level rise threatens the entire Virginia coastline and the tidal portions of rivers, including the Potomac River all the way up to Alexandria and Washington, D.C. A whole lot of people should be consulting topographic maps before they make their next real estate decision.

The Sierra Club report focuses in on specific timeframes that matter in real estate decisions: twenty-five years for short-term projects, fifty years for new homes, and a hundred years for infrastructure projects. With a one-foot margin of safety added in, the report recommends that anyone considering a new project or building today with a 50-year expected life should plan for as much as 3.7 feet of sea level rise over the 1992 baseline. That number becomes 5.5-7.2 feet when the planning horizon is extended out a hundred years, to 2115.

(The “good” news is that the sea rose half a foot between 1992 and today, so you get to subtract six inches from these projections if you are starting now.)

Results are stated as a range rather than a precise number because the actual level will depend on many factors. Researchers agree that a certain amount of sea level rise is “baked in” as a result of greenhouse gas emissions to date, but future emissions will play a big role in determining how much the seas rise in the long run. Providing a range allows users to decide how much risk they are willing to take. Even at the high end, there are caveats; new information about melting ice in Eastern Antarctica could make today’s projections too conservative.

Right now many shore communities are hosting a game of musical chairs. Developers continue to build and sell new housing, figuring they can earn a good return on their investment and get out before the market collapses. Buyers aren’t told about the risks. Sea level rise is bad for business, so business would rather not talk about it. And some local governments soft-peddle the news, afraid of setting off a panic that will make the collapse of the real estate market a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The Virginia General Assembly took action this year to require localities in the Hampton Roads Planning District Commission to include measures addressing sea level rise in their comprehensive plans. The District includes 16 local governments in southeast Virginia, but that’s only a fraction of the counties and cities vulnerable to sea level rise.

Another bill requires that the disclaimer form provided to home buyers across the state include language warning that the seller makes no representations about whether the property is located in a “special flood hazard area” or may require flood insurance, putting the onus on buyers to inquire. While prudent buyers will follow through (and mortgage lenders will make sure they do), today’s flood maps don’t reflect tomorrow’s reality.

So these bills are a good start, but Virginia needs to do more. Local governments outside of Hampton Roads need specific guidance for planning, and the public needs better education about the floods to come. By the time the sea claims low-lying neighborhoods from Virginia Beach up to Alexandria, there may not be enough climate deniers left to buy everyone out.

Virginia’s General Assembly likes solar energy. Will that be enough?

Emojione_1F31E.svgVirginia’s General Assembly broke new ground in February when it passed legislation declaring up to 500 megawatts of utility solar power “in the public interest.” The language will help projects gain regulatory approval from the State Corporation Commission, which has been hostile to renewable energy. Dominion Virginia Power wants to build up to 400 MW of solar by 2020.* If the utility follows through, Virginia will finally join the solar revolution underway across the U.S.

Emojione_umbrella.svgIt’s important to acknowledge the limitations of the legislation, though. It was written by and for Dominion, not for the solar industry or Virginia residents. The utility does not want its customers installing solar power for themselves or buying it from anyone else, hence the limitation to utility-owned projects of at least 1 MW. So people who want to see more distributed generation, especially customer-owned, rooftop solar, found little to cheer about in this legislation.

Twemoji_exclamation question.svgOthers took a glass-half-full view. For climate activists, all solar is good solar, and big projects produce more than little projects. It would take 4,000 houses, each with an average 5-kW system, to produce as much power as a single 20-MW project like the one Dominion plans for Remington, Virginia. (The Remington facility is the only solar project Dominion has identified so far in the commonwealth.)

But of course, if you can get 4,000 houses with solar in addition to a 20-MW solar farm, then you’ve got twice as much solar altogether. Glass totally full: insert your happy emoji here.

The optimists hope that success with utility-scale solar will demonstrate the value of the resource and lead to better policies for distributed solar as well. A look at the experience of other states shows that is not inevitable. States with policies that promote residential and commercial solar, like New York and New Jersey, see a lot of those projects. States that mainly incentivize utility ownership, like North Carolina and Nevada, haven’t seen much else.

Dominion unquestionably won this round in the General Assembly, getting a seal of approval for its own projects while locking out most of the competition. Only two bills passed this year lowering hurdles to customer-owned renewables, and neither of them help homeowners. One bill raises the project size limit on net-metered facilities from 500 kW to 1 MW, a change sought by Virginia’s universities and by the solar developer Secure Futures LLC, whose business model focuses on large nonprofit institutions. The other enables localities to help finance energy efficiency and renewable energy projects on commercial properties using what are known as property-assessed clean energy, or PACE, loans.

Many more bills sought by renewable energy advocates went down to defeat in the face of utility opposition, including things like a grant program and a community net-metering bill that could have had a transformational impact on the industry.

That leaves just one initiative that advocates will be watching closely to see if it produces any opportunities for customer-owned solar. Legislation establishing the Virginia Solar Development Authority, HB 2267 and others, says it will “support the development of the solar industry and solar energy projects

by developing programs that increase the availability of financing for solar energy projects, facilitate the increase of solar energy generation systems on public and private sector facilities in the Commonwealth, promote the growth of the Virginia solar industry, and provide a hub for collaboration between entities, both public and private, to partner on solar energy projects.”

The bill is a little vague as to just how all this will happen. The Authority has no regulatory power and no budget. Many of its duties involve finding money, as in the paragraph empowering it to help utilities deploy 400 MW of solar projects by “providing for the financing or assisting in the financing of the construction or purchase of such solar energy projects.”

Another provision, however, empowers the Authority to “identify and take steps to mitigate existing state and regulatory or administrative barriers to the development of the solar energy industry.” Of course, one of those barriers is the anti-competitive maneuvering of our utilities to protect their monopoly positions.

The Authority should perhaps take a lesson from the DEQ-facilitated Small Solar Working Group, which I helped form in 2013 with a goal of developing pro-solar legislative proposals. The problem we ran into was that utilities were determined to ensure we did not put forth any legislative proposals, and we had made the mistake of letting them into the group. If utility executives get appointed to the Solar Authority, it could be déjà vu all over again.

Delegate Tim Hugo, for one, thinks the Authority will lead to more distributed generation as well as utility solar. “The intent of the legislation is to create an opportunity to develop a broad range of projects including distributed customer owned generation and to help facilitate a solar industry in Virginia,” he told me.

Hugo, one of the sponsors of the Authority bill, is one of the Commerce and Labor committee members who helped defeat other bills sought by the solar industry. But if distributed solar is to thrive in Virginia, it will require legislators like Hugo to become its champions.

Hugo, a Republican, considers himself a staunch solar advocate, going back many years. “In 2007,” he reminded me, “I sponsored HB2708 dealing with net metering, which would require utilities to purchase excess electricity produced by a customer-generator.” Last year he sponsored bi-partisan legislation exempting from real and personal property taxes solar equipment that generates 20 megawatts or less, a change critical to the economics of commercial solar projects.

But relatively few legislators from either party are willing to oppose Dominion, and therein lies the rub. The company considers monopoly control its right, and it doesn’t yield an inch without getting something for it. On the other hand, this was a bad year in the press for Dominion. Editorial boards across the state lambasted the company over legislation that will let it shield excess profits for the next several years. The public, too, is irritated with the slow pace of solar, and it knows whom to blame. That provides an opening for pro-solar legislators. We’ll see if they take it.


 

*Dominion was the moving force behind this legislation, but it applies as well to Appalachian Power Company. When I asked an APCo lobbyist whether its passage means more solar in APCo’s future, he merely referred me to the company’s 2014 Integrated Resource Plan, written a year ago. It lays out plans for small additions of utility solar beginning in 2019, scaling up gradually to a cumulative total of 500 MW in 2028—or about half as much as North Carolina already has today.

Virginia’s legislative session ends. How did we do?

Photo credit: Corrina Beall

The General Assembly made a mad dash to the end of the 2015 legislative session last week. House Republicans were in a hurry to finish up a day early, even if bills suffered as a result, in the peculiar belief that prioritizing speed over quality would demonstrate their competence.

Apparently they thought that would play to the anti-government crowd. And I guess it does; if you weren’t anti-government before they pulled a stunt like that, you probably are now.

Being in a rush had to be their excuse for that ethics bill they pushed through in the final hours. I can finally understand why Senator Dick Saslaw says, “You can’t legislate ethics.” What he means is that the Virginia General Assembly can’t legislate ethics. Most of the rest of us would have no problem doing it. Our legislators, however, are just too fond of living well on the tab of corporate lobbyists.

So the new bill drops the gift limit from $250 to $100—but then removes the aggregate cap, allowing for an unlimited number of $99 gifts. Gifts that go over the limit but that are donated to charity now don’t count, providing a nice way for a legislator to buy popularity at no expense to himself.

A report from the group ProgressVA analyzes the bill’s effect and concludes that some 70% of lobbyists’ 2014 giving would still be legal under the new law, while opening up some brand-new loopholes. Among the most egregious is that lobbyists and their clients will now be able to pay for legislators to fly around the state for official meetings without the travel having to be disclosed, much less reimbursed. This means legislators from southwest Virginia can expect even more face time with coal lobbyists, but now on corporate jets—and their constituents will never know about it.

Addressing (or not) the issue of extravagant vacations paid for by companies with business before the legislature, the bill imposes a requirement that there be “a reasonable relationship between the purpose of the travel and the official duties of the requester.” That means junkets to France paid for by Virginia Uranium are still okay. So is letting corporate America pay for you to attend meetings of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), where lobbyists can teach you how to hobble environmental regulators and suppress voting.

If you can’t figure out a way to meet the reasonable relationship test (and I’m embarrassed for you if you have so little imagination), you can still accept a fun travel adventure as long as Virginia’s toothless ethics council approves it—or simply doesn’t act within five days of your request.

And of course, this so-called ethics reform makes no attempt to address the biggest obstacles to honest government in Virginia: the flood of corporate money into campaign chests and the ability of legislators to use campaign money for personal expenses. Even if Governor McAuliffe fixes the serious flaws in the ethics bill, nothing in it will stop companies like Dominion Resources from continuing to use cash to corrupt the democratic process.

Which brings us to energy legislation. The Associated Press summed up the situation very nicely: “Virginia’s 2015 legislative session was a good one for energy giant Dominion Resources Inc., the state’s most politically influential company. Legislation it wanted passed, passed. Bills it didn’t like did not.”

Chief among the legislation Dominion wanted was Senator Wagner’s SB 1349, which spares Dominion from having to refund excess profits for the next five years. Pretty much every newspaper in the state editorialized against it, so I’ll spare you a rehash of its failings.

Sadly, Governor McAuliffe signed the bill without amendments. He told reporters, “It was clear to Dominion that at the end of the day a veto would have been devastating for them.” If so, that’s a lot of leverage the Administration squandered.

And really, Governor, “devastating”? But since you fell for that, can I interest you in a bridge in Brooklyn?

SB 1349 does contain some welcome language calling solar energy projects of at least 1 MW in size, and up to an aggregate of 500 MW, “in the public interest,” a phrase that will help utilities when they seek approval for these projects at the State Corporation Commission. But nothing actually requires the utilities to build these projects, and the 1 MW size minimum has been carefully crafted to be above the limit for net-metered solar projects. Dominion wrote the bill for itself, not for ordinary people who want to go solar on their own.

The solar language was not originally part of SB 1349; it was imported from another Dominion bill, Delegate Yancey’s HB 2237, as a way to get buy-in from the solar industry and Democrats.

As for customer-owned solar, this was another bad year. The only concession won from Dominion was an increase in the size cap for net-metered projects from 500 kW to 1 MW, a compromise from the initial proposal of 2 MW.

Wherever else solar advocates faced utility opposition, they lost. That includes bills on community net metering, solar gardens, RPS improvements, expanded 3d party PPA availability, and a higher hurdle for standby charges. Also going down to early defeat was the renewable energy grant program that had been celebrated last year as a near-triumph (it only lacked passage again this year, plus—oh yeah—funding).

The GA did pass one of the Governor’s solar priorities, establishing the Virginia Solar Energy Development Authority (HB 2267 and others). The Authority is explicitly tasked with helping utilities find financing for solar projects; there is no similar language about supporting customer-owned solar. The Authority is supposed to identify barriers to solar, but isn’t given any tools to remove them. So we shall see.

Bills that did not require Dominion’s approval did better. Chief among these was legislation enabling Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) loans for commercial customers. This should help bring low-cost financing to energy efficiency and renewable energy projects at the commercial level.

And while Dominion’s sole concession to energy efficiency this year was agreeing to a “pilot program” of unspecified size as part of the SB1349 deal, natural gas utilities sought and won legislation (SB 1331) that makes it easier to win regulatory approval for energy efficiency programs that could benefit lots of customers. The difference is that natural gas companies have “decoupled” profits from sales, so it’s in their interest to help customers use energy more wisely. Dominion and Appalachian Power, by contrast, have a profit model that requires ever-increasing sales, making efficiency bad for business.

While legislators repeatedly shot down any solar bills that might be characterized as subsidies, they dropped their free market principles when it came to subsidies for coal mining. Unless the governor vetoes HB 1879, Virginia taxpayers will continue to pay tens of millions of dollars annually to prop up an uncompetitive industry with a long legacy of poisoning our air, land and water. Anyone who is ever tempted to believe a Virginia Republican’s claim to legislate based on his conservative principles and not merely on politics should check how they voted on this bill. (Here are the House votes, and here are the Senate votes.)

The limited progress made this year towards greening our energy supply does not bode well for compliance with the EPA’s Clean Power Plan. The only legislation that would have moved Virginia decisively towards compliance, by having us join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, died in committee. On the other hand, a number of bills that would have hindered compliance also died. True, SB 1349 makes the process harder by adding a hurdle to the closure of coal plants. Republicans also pushed through a bill that requires the Department of Environmental Quality to waste time and money studying whether the federal carbon reduction rules have health benefits beyond those gained by regulating conventional pollutants.

But overall, the session ended in a draw on climate issues. On the one hand, that’s bad, given that 2014 was the hottest year on record globally.* On the other hand, this is Virginia. Merely not regressing counts as progress here.

———————–

*I know, 2014 was not hot in eastern North America, and 2015 has started out with one of those winters that make people say they could use a little global warming. Nature has a keen sense of irony. But while you were shivering, the rising sea ate a little more of our shoreline.

 

 

 

Dominion gets what it wants, but Virginia doesn’t get what we need

DominionLogoNo, you can’t always get what you want.   You can’t always get what you want.   You can’t always get what you want.     But if you try sometime you find,           You get what Dominion Power wants.

With apologies to the Rolling Stones

I guess there’s a reason I never made it as a songwriter. That last line is a disaster. But that, in a nutshell, is what happened to SB 1349, known as the rate-freeze bill, the ratepayer rip-off, or the Dominion bill, depending on whether you were pro, con, or still trying to figure it out.

The bill began and ended as a way for Dominion Virginia Power to shield excess profits from the possibility of regulators ordering refunds to customers. Along the way, Appalachian Power jumped on board, even though its president had already admitted the company had been earning more than it should.

When we last looked, SB 1349 was undergoing radical rewriting on the floor of the Senate, in real time. Conflicting amendments were being passed around. Outside the chamber, lawmakers from both parties were huddled in hallways with Dominion lobbyists. The coal caucus had already tacked on language making it harder to close coal-fired power plants. Now the Governor, progressive leaders and clean energy supporters were pushing amendments guaranteeing more solar and energy efficiency programs.

To get a sense of how impossible it was for the rank and file to follow, check out the bill history with its amendments offered and rejected, and the readings of the amendments waived.

With cameras rolling and the clock ticking, senators made speeches about provisions other people told them were now in the bill, but without anyone having the time to read the language they were expected to vote on. That being normal, they voted on the strength of promises made and assurances given.

With Dominion Power insisting on passage, the result was never in real doubt. Few legislators want to cross the most powerful force in Virginia politics, and the source of so much campaign cash, perks, and donations to local charities. But they needed to hear those promises made and assurances given; otherwise, what would they tell their constituents, when newspapers across the state had been blasting this bill?

The promises made and assurances given also quieted the environmentalists who had led the opposition. Consumers, we were told, would now see investments in solar and energy efficiency that would bring long-term savings, energy diversity and greater price stability, as well as lower pollution and new jobs. The bill would contain firm commitments and produce meaningful investments in energy efficiency and solar power.

The Senate passed the bill, and then finally everyone read what had been voted on. Yes, Dominion had got what it wanted, but then it got . . . even more of what it wanted!

The bill contains a solar provision that smooths the way for utilities to develop or buy up to 500 megawatts of solar power, using Virginia suppliers. But it doesn’t require any minimum solar investment or contain a deadline for getting that solar power on the grid.

As for efficiency, SB 1349 does now contain a provision requiring utilities to create ”pilot programs” for energy assistance and weatherization for low-income, elderly and disabled customers, but it doesn’t say how big a program has to be or how much money must be spent. A “pilot program,” by definition, is small and experimental. It is a baby step, when we were expecting adult strides.

While clean energy advocates were still trying to figure out what happened to the promise of firm commitments and deadlines on solar power, SB 1349 blew through the House.

In short, the final bill language now on the Governor’s desk gives Dominion the authority, but not the obligation, to make clean energy investments.

Virginia law gives our governor an option that most states don’t offer: rather than sign it or veto a bill outright, he can amend it and send it back to the legislature for a final vote. That makes Governor McAuliffe the one person who can still salvage something from this miserable bill. He can put in the solar numbers and dates that went missing—or raise them further—and put hard targets into the efficiency programs. Doing so would finally put McAuliffe on the path to creating all those clean energy jobs he campaigned on.

Dominion will still get what it wants, but if McAuliffe will try, we might get what we need.

Surprise endings to a week of bad news on energy and climate bills

The fourth annual Clean Energy Lobby Day on February 3d brought representatives from businesses across the state to Richmond. Photo courtesy of MDV-SEIA.

The fourth annual Clean Energy Lobby Day on February 3d brought representatives from businesses across the state to Richmond. Photo courtesy of MDV-SEIA.

More than a hundred representatives of energy efficiency and renewable energy businesses descended on Richmond Tuesday for Clean Energy Lobby Day. After meetings with legislators, many of them stayed to attend a critical subcommittee meeting where most of this year’s clean energy bills came up for votes. And they came away with one overpowering impression: the only bills that can make it out of committee are the ones supported by the state’s utilities, especially Dominion Power.

But that wasn’t quite the end of the story. Because by the end of the week, they also found that the groundwork they had laid with their lobbing, and their tenaciousness before the subcommittee, created an opening they would not otherwise have had.

First, the bad news, and plenty of it

Things started bleakly. The House Commerce and Labor Subcommittee on Energy turned back multiple proposals that would have benefited Virginia’s small renewable energy and energy efficiency businesses, as well as their customers. Going down to defeat were bills to improve the renewable portfolio standard (HB 1913), create an energy efficiency resource standard (HB 1730), require a more rigorous study before utilities can impose standby charges (HB 1911), make third-party PPAs legal across the state (HB 1925), and enable an innovative vehicle-to-grid (V2G) project (HB 2073).

Left in limbo for the day was Delegate Minchew’s community solar bill, HB 1636. Minchew wasn’t ready to give up on it, but he had not found a way to get the utilities to back off their opposition. It went without saying that, without Dominion’s buy-in, the subcommittee members wanted nothing to do with it. Out of respect for a fellow Republican, however, they were willing to give him a couple of days’ grace. (On Thursday they killed the bill off.)

One small success was the raising of the cap for individual commercial renewable energy projects from the current 500 kilowatts to 1 megawatt (MW) (HB 1950). Bills to increase it to 2 MW were discarded. The bill was also passed out of the full committee on Thursday.

Also reported out was HB 2267, creating the Virginia Solar Development Authority. It passed in the full committee on Thursday but was then referred to the Committee on Appropriations.

With a few exceptions, the good bills lost on party-line voice votes following testimony from utilities in opposition to the measures. Republican committee members repeatedly expressed their concern about the potential impact on other ratepayers of bills that would make it easier for utility customers to generate their own power, or that would require utilities to buy a smidgeon more renewable energy.

Indeed, anyone who thinks Republicans don’t care about poor people should have been in that room. The outpouring of concern for struggling families was tremendously affecting. These brave souls made it abundantly clear that nothing that could be construed as a subsidy would sneak by on their watch.

Those of us who had seen some of the same delegates vote just last week to continue giving tens of millions of dollars annually in subsidies to coal companies, could not help noting the inconsistency.

Then a funny thing happened on the way to rubber-stamping Dominion’s solar bill

The anti-subsidy rhetoric was further undercut when, a few minutes later, the subcommittee unanimously approved Delegate Yancey’s bill (HB 2237) declaring it in the public interest for the state’s largest utility to install up to 500 MW of solar and offshore wind projects. Chairman Terry Kilgore did ask Dominion Power’s lobbyist if it would raise rates, but he was easily satisfied with the assurance that it would not—even though solar was “marginally more expensive.”

This was all the committee wanted to hear, and a motion had already been made to report the bill when the members were suddenly treated to an earful from the solar industry—not in support of the bill, but in opposition. Francis Hodsoll of Virginia Advances Energy Industries and Jon Hillis of MDV-SIEA, the solar industry trade association, praised the goal but urged that the bill be amended to open up competition for building the solar projects. Utilities might prefer to build the projects themselves to earn their guaranteed return on investment, said Hodsoll, but ratepayers would benefit from lower costs and in-state jobs if independent companies were eligible to bid.

Tony Smith of Secure Futures, LLC, further explained that federal tax incentives strongly favor independent companies developing projects instead of the utilities doing it themselves. He said an independent firm that develops a 20 MW project can sell solar for 5 cents per kilowatt-hour, a far better price than a utility can achieve building the same project itself.

Andy Bidea of Sigora Solar put the case most simply. “This is America. Let’s give capitalism a chance, right?”

Catchy idea. The committee proceeded to report the bill without changes, but Kilgore encouraged the patron to work with the solar industry on possible amendments prior to the full committee meeting on Thursday.

The industry’s stand had an effect. When the bill was taken up on Thursday, it included an amendment allowing utilities to buy power from a third-party developer before purchasing the project itself. This should be significant because the SCC would presumably insist on the lowest-cost approach. In an email, Francis Hodsoll told me the industry now supports the bill, which passed the full committee.

With Dominion’s recent announcements of its plans to move forward with as much as 400 MW of large-scale solar projects in Virginia, this is a hopeful sign for utility solar in the state. Only one project has actually been announced, a 20 MW project in Remington, Virginia. It should also make it easier for Dominion to move forward on offshore wind, a major plus.

Admittedly, the struggle for distributed solar continues. The happy ending on the Yancey bill means little to members of the industry struggling to make a living doing residential and small commercial projects. They had pinned a lot of hope on the grant program that passed with such fanfare a year ago, only to sink like a stone in a House subcommittee this session.

On the other hand, those who take the long view believe that once Virginians get familiar with the benefits of solar, it will become an unstoppable force. The indicators point to success in coming years whether utilities like it or not.

Climate? What climate?

In addition to the clean energy bills, the subcommittee also took action on two climate bills Tuesday. It rejected Delegate Villanueva’s HB 2205, which would have had Virginia join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative as a vehicle to reduce carbon emissions. (The Senate companion bill died on a party-line vote last week.) It was the only legislation this year that would have taken positive action to address climate change and raise some of the enormous sums of money that will be needed to address the consequences of sea level rise.

Instead, it passed HB 2291 (O’Quinn), a bill that would require the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) to get approval from the General Assembly before submitting to the U.S. EPA a plan to implement the Clean Power Plan. Since the Republican majority has made its hostility to the Clean Power Plan clear, this is widely seen as a way to keep the state from acting at all. The bill also passed the full committee Thursday on a straight party-line vote, a clear indication that it is about party politics and anti-Obama Administration sentiment, not climate change.

Over in the Senate, however, saner heads prevailed. Senator Watkins amended his companion bill, SB 1365, simply to give DEQ direction on what to consider in developing the plan, and to require it to consult with the SCC and to meet with General Assembly members. The substitute bill passed Senate Agriculture unanimously.

Dominion’s Ratepayer Rip-off Act hits a bump in the road

Meanwhile, Senator Wagner’s bill to protect utility profits and shield Dominion (and now APCo too) from SCC scrutiny through the end of the decade sailed through Senate Commerce and Labor in spite of sparking the kind of outrage and condemnation in the press usually reserved for bills on guns and abortion. Editorial boards excoriated the legislation; Wagner was forced to sell his Dominion stock. Environmental groups, which had first sounded the alarm, staged a protest outside the General Assembly on Thursday morning and spurred thousands of constituents to write letters opposing the ratepayer rip-off.

As a consequence, SB 1349 ran into trouble on the Senate floor Thursday afternoon, and a substitute was introduced consisting of two pages of such dense regulatory detail that I cannot possibly tell you what it means. Anyone with the gumption to try to understand it may be wasting their time anyway, because I hear it remains in flux, with negotiations underway right now. Senator Donald McEachin reportedly is working to make it less objectionable. One thing seems certain: the senators who will be asked to vote on this will have no chance to review the language and reach their own conclusions.

It’s a lousy way to make sausage, but it’s ours.

 

 

 

 

 

 

And the coal gravy train rolls on

Your taxpayer dollars at work!

Your taxpayer dollars at work!

This should have been the year to end more than two decades of corporate welfare for companies whose business model involves the destruction of Virginia’s mountains. All the facts line up against the coal subsidies: the unremitting decline of coal employment since the 1990s, the waste of half a billion dollars that could have gone towards diversifying the southwest Virginia economy, the unfair advantage it gives coal over 21st century clean energy technologies that promise real job growth, and even all that anti-subsidy rhetoric from Republicans that ought to make them uncomfortable with crony capitalism and a blatant giveaway to a mature industry.

Delegate Toscano led a spirited charge against them that included a hard-hitting op-ed in the Richmond Times-Dispatch. But the coal companies whined in committee hearings, and Dominion’s Bill Murray explained that the utility supports making coal cheaper, saying ratepayers would benefit. (Since the money comes out of taxpayers’ pockets, and taxpayers are also presumably ratepayers, it’s a little hard to follow this logic. If you want to get your money’s worth, use more energy?)

No one but a few lonely environmentalists spoke up against the subsidies. Where are the clean energy businesses? Where is the Tea Party? Where are the people who actually care about the dire need for new industries and new jobs in southwest Virginia?

They certainly weren’t being heard in the General Assembly. By mid-week it was clear the giveaway will continue, though perhaps with one welcome change. Under HB 1879, reported from House Finance on Wednesday, the credit for the companies that mine the coal would have a limit on how much any given coal company can claim. However, the credit for those who burn coal is not limited and will actually be extended out to 2019, keeping coal’s unfair advantage over other fuels. (Like, say, renewable energy.)

SB 741, which passed the Senate 32-6 on Thursday, merely contains the extension of the subsidy for coal use out to 2019. So few Senators seem to have their heads on straight on this issue that it’s worth thanking them by name here: Adam Ebbin, Barbara Favola, Janet Howell, Mamie Locke, Donald McEachin, and Jennifer Wexton.

SB 1161 (Colgan), which also passed the Senate, contains the same limitation found in HB 1879. In this case, passing the bill was better than the status quo.


Update: On February 19, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported, “The House of Delegates and state Senate have agreed to leave untouched a tax credit for electric utilities that burn Virginia coal, even though the policy reversal will create a $5.2 million hole in each chamber’s proposed budget. The House amended and passed Senate Bill 1161, introduced by Sen. Charles J. Colgan, D-Prince William, to include a substitute drafted by Dominion Virginia Power, the state’s largest power company.”

 

 

 

 

Tomorrow’s Clean Energy Lobby Day will highlight top legislative initiatives, but many are likely to fail in Dominion-friendly subcommittee

solar installation public domainOver a hundred representatives of renewable energy and energy efficiency businesses will descend on the General Assembly tomorrow, February 3d, for Clean Energy Lobby Day. The annual event gives legislators the chance to hear from small businesses across the state that are set to grow if Virginia gets the policies right.

The tradition of a lobby day for clean energy businesses began four years ago as a way to create a counterweight to the outsized influence of utility and fossil fuel interests in the legislature. The Sierra Club organized the popular, bipartisan event its first three years. For 2015, the businesses themselves have taken over, led by a coalition group called Virginia Advanced Energy Industries, and MDV-SEIA, the solar industry trade association.

Participants will primarily discuss with legislators the bills with the greatest potential to affect their own business interests. I’ve described most of these bills in previous posts, so I’ll just list a few here, with their current status.

  • Legislation to promote Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) financing for energy efficiency and renewable energy on commercial properties. SB 801 (Watkins) has already passed the Senate unanimously. Its companion bill, HB 1446 (Danny Marshall), and the somewhat similar HB 1665 (Minchew) have been assigned to a subcommittee of the Counties, Cities and Towns and are on the docket for Wednesday, February 3.
  • Delegate Randy Minchew’s HB 1636, creating a program for community net metering. This is a top priority of the solar industry. Sadly, it has been assigned to the Commerce and Labor Committee’s subcommittee on Energy, typically considered a wholly-owned subsidiary of Dominion Power. Prospects aren’t good unless Delegate Minchew negotiates a deal with Dominion.
  • House bills to increase the size limit for commercial renewable energy projects eligible for net metering will also be heard in the energy subcommittee. These include HB 1950 (McClellan), HB 1912 (Lopez), and HB 1622 (Sullivan). On the Senate side, SB 764 (Edwards) and SB 1395 (Dance) were scheduled to be heard in Commerce and Labor today. I’ll update this when I hear the outcome. [Update: the Senate bills were rolled together and heard as SB 1395, which passed the committee unanimously; however, as amended it increases the project cap to 1 MW, rather than the 2MW that was originaly proposed. In addition, it contains new language limiting the project capacity to the amount of energy used, and requiring the owner to pay for the costs of interconnection equipment and other costs.]
  • The renewable energy grant program, HB 1650 (Villanueva), which passed the GA unanimously last year, has already died in a House subcommittee.
  • HB 1725 (Bulova) and SB 1099 (Stuart) would establish the Virginia Solar Energy Development Authority. Bulova’s bill is before the House Subcommittee on Energy. Stuart’s bill has already passed the Senate, with an (unfortunate) amendment to give the legislature more power over appointments.

Many of the clean energy bills on the House side will be heard in the Commerce and Labor Committee’s subcommittee on energy Tuesday afternoon. The timing is not exact; the meeting will follow the conclusion of the meeting of the full committee, in House Room D of the General Assembly building. The subcommittee’s docket has been posted here.

In addition to legislation mentioned above, the subcommittee docket includes other bills of interest, like Yost’s HB 2219 and Yancey’s HB 2237, which promote utility-owned solar, Lopez’s RPS bill, HB 1913, and Villanueva’s Coastal Protection Act, HB 2205.

Some lobby day participants will also be urging opposition to legislation that would prevent Virginia from moving forward quickly to comply with the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, which favors renewable energy and energy efficiency. One such bill, HB 2291 (O’Quinn), is on the House energy subcommittee docket. The equivalent Senate bills are in Agriculture and Natural Resources, where they have not been heard yet.