Dominion gets the nod to sell solar energy to us regular folks

alternative energy building clouds energy

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The State Corporation Commission (SCC) has approved Dominion Energy Virginia’s so-called Community Solar pilot program, under which the utility will offer its residential and commercial customers the output of solar farms to be built by independent solar developers here in Virginia.

Customers will have the option to meet either all or part of their electric demand with solar. The added cost of the program, at least initially, will be 2.01 cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh). For a customer who uses an average of 1,000 kWh monthly and wants to use only solar, that would add up to a premium of $20.10 per month.

Customers who want to meet just a portion of their total demand with solar will have the option of subscribing to “blocks” consisting of 100 kWh, up to a maximum of 5 blocks for residential customers or 10 blocks for non-residential customers.

The premium cost of the program may surprise customers who have heard that large-scale solar is now one of the cheapest sources of energy in Virginia. But according to Will Cleveland, a staff attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center who helped to develop the program, cost was not the only consideration in choosing which solar facilities to include in the program.

Facilities were selected to be smaller and distributed around the state, in keeping with the “community” concept, which meant they sometimes came with higher prices. Program costs also include Dominion’s costs of administration and marketing. Cleveland says he consulted experts who advised him these numbers were reasonable.

In addition to selling the electrical output of the solar facilities to customers, Dominion will retire the associated renewable energy certificates (RECs). The RECs represent the legal proof that the energy comes from solar, an important factor for commercial customers that wish to represent they use renewable energy in their business. “Retiring” the RECs guarantees that Dominion isn’t also selling them elsewhere.

The program is a result of legislation passed by the General Assembly in 2017 that authorized a three-year pilot program in Dominion’s territory for up to 40 megawatts (MW) of solar capacity. The legislation also authorized Appalachian Power to develop up to 10 MW for a similar program. To date, Appalachian Power has not submitted a proposal.

Although the program is called “community solar,” customers will not own shares in the solar facilities, and the facilities do not have to be located in the same communities as the customers. Virginia law does not permit the kind of community solar in which customers share in the ownership and output of solar facilities.

Calling Dominion’s program “community solar” is bound to confuse people, and it’s hard not to believe that was a calculated move on the utility’s part. Yet Dominion’s solar offering is a major step forward for the company, and for customers who aren’t able to put solar panels on their own rooftops.

And while it is somewhat more expensive than the company’s Green Power Program, it should prove much more attractive with people who understand the difference between the programs.

Subscribers to the Green Power Program don’t get electricity from renewable energy; Dominion sells them regular “brown” power, then tacks on an added charge to match the dirty energy with renewable energy certificates (RECs). Most of the RECs come from existing wind projects in other states, where wind is already the cheapest power source. By contrast, the solar program provides solar energy (and the RECs) from new Virginia solar farms, ones that would not get built otherwise.

Dominion is expected to begin signing up subscribers for its solar program later this fall, with the program getting underway once the solar projects come online next year. For those of us without the sunny roofs needed to put up our own solar panels, this promises to be—for now—the next best option.

A version of this article first appeared in the Virginia Mercury, a new (and if I do say so, quite excellent) independent online news source dedicated to covering Virginia issues that matter. 

If anyone will stand up to Dominion for its conflicts of interest on the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, it won’t be Virginia’s high court

 

Residents of areas being impacted by gas pipelines make their feelings clear. But is anyone in Virginia government listening?

This post originally appeared as commentary in the Virginia Mercury, Virginia’s new non-profit, online news source. 

Many Virginia leaders seem to have the notion that if our environment is being polluted and ordinary people are having their land destroyed, that must be good for business. And as a corollary, if a business wants to pollute the environment and destroy private land, that must be good for Virginia.

So maybe it shouldn’t surprise anyone that on August 9 the Virginia Supreme Court joined the Governor, the State Corporation Commission (SCC), the Department of Environmental Quality and most of the General Assembly in refusing to question the sweetheart deal under which Dominion Energy Virginia committed its captive ratepayers to purchasing billions of dollars of fracked gas shipping capacity on the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, of which Dominion itself is the largest shareholder.

The Supreme Court had the opportunity to hold Dominion accountable courtesy of Section 56-77(A) of the Virginia Code, known as the Affiliates Act. The section requires public utilities to get prior approval from the SCC for any “contract or arrangement” with an affiliated company. The SCC had refused the Sierra Club’s petition to enforce the provision, saying it could review the deal when the pipeline is operational and Dominion tries to charge its customers for the use of it—i.e., afterthe damage is done. The Sierra Club took the SCC to court, arguing that the statute requires the SCC to examine whether the deal is in the public interest beforethe contract for pipeline capacity could be considered valid.

On its face, the Affiliates Act is clear. It requires public utilities to submit “contracts or arrangements” with affiliated companies to the SCC for approval before they take effect. You would think this would include any arrangement under which Dominion Energy Virginia buys capacity in its parent company’s pipeline. The Affiliates Act says the SCC should have held a hearing to examine whether the contract was in the public interest. Indeed, the SCC’s own staff of lawyers have taken this very position.

But the Court allowed a dodge. You see, Dominion Energy Virginia didn’t contract directly with the ACP. It has a very general ongoing contract with another Dominion affiliate called Virginia Power Services Energy Corporation (VPSE) that buys natural gas and pipeline capacity for the utility, acting as its purchasing agent. It was VPSE, not the utility itself, that signed the contract with the ACP.

The fact that a third affiliate acts an intermediary shouldn’t matter, logically or legally—affiliated companies are members of one big happy family—but the Court seized on this arrangement to create a clever loophole. It concluded that the SCC had approved the general inter-affiliate agreement between the utility and its sister company VPSE years ago—before the pipeline was proposed, before VPSE had signed purchasing contracts with the ACP, and before the Sierra Club or any other members of the public would have had a reason to object. No matter, said the Court; having approved the contract between the utility and its purchasing agent years ago, the SCC retained continuing oversight authority over any and all deals the purchasing agent might make on behalf of the utility in the future.

Let that sink in for a minute. According to the Court, the SCC effectively approved the contract with ACP before it even existed. What that means is,

the public, including all of us who buy electricity from Dominion and will be handed the bill for the pipeline capacity, have no ability to challenge the deal before the pipeline is up and running.

Recall that the only reason Dominion Energy and its partners got permission from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to build the pipeline was the fact that the companies showed they had contracts for almost all the pipeline capacity. According to FERC, this proved that there was public need for the ACP. The fact that the contracts happened to be with the partners’ own corporate affiliates didn’t faze FERC any more than it fazed the SCC.

Earlier this month FERC denied a request that it reconsider its approval. Ironically this was a favor to the ACP’s challengers because it finally allowed them to appeal the matter to federal court. One of the issues that will likely be raised in that appeal is the wrongheadedness of approving a pipeline when the need for it relies heavily on inter-affiliate contracts that may or may not demonstrate actual demand from customers.

This is a question not just for Virginia and Dominion, but for the many gas pipelines under development in the U.S. Affiliate contracts can make it appear there is more demand for pipelines than there really is. Approving unneeded pipelines, in turn, means unnecessary environmental destruction, wasted resources, and (what our leaders rarely appreciate) higher energy prices.

In the year since the Sierra Club first petitioned the SCC to take action under the Affiliates Act, the case for regulatory scrutiny has only grown stronger. Dominion Energy says it has abandoned plans to build new combined-cycle gas plants, recognizing the growing dominance of wind and solar. That throws into question the economic case for sinking billions of dollars into new gas transmission, even as construction on the Atlantic Coast Pipeline is underway.

As I’ve discussed before, there is a strange disconnect when a gas pipeline developer like Dominion recognizes the end of the road for baseload gas plants. Yet its subsidiary utility, Dominion Energy Virginia, just filed an Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) that calls for a string of new gas combustion turbines, sometimes referred to as “peaker plants.”

This begs the question: Does the utility have a good reason to build more gas plants instead of joining the national trend towards using renewables-plus-battery storage to address peak demand? Or is it proposing the new gas plants because its parent company needs the utility to burn as much gas as possible to support an otherwise unneeded pipeline?

Even apart from its authority under the Affiliates Act, the SCC could investigate this question in the IRP proceeding this fall. At some point the commissioners will have to confront the fact that more natural gas, and more pipeline infrastructure, are a bad deal for Virginia consumers.

On the heels of its big legislative win, what kind of grid does Dominion want to build for us?

white electric tower

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Note: This post originally appeared in the Virginia Mercury on July 23. Virginia Mercury is a nonprofit, independent online news organization that launched just this summer. Subscribe to its free daily newsletter here.

Imagine that you have hired a builder to design and build a three-story house for you. He brings you the plans for the first floor and proposes to start work right away. “These look okay,” you say, “but I need to see the plans for the whole house.”

“Don’t you worry about that,” says the builder. “I have it all figured out. I’ll show you the second floor when the first is done, and the third floor after that.”

You argue with the builder, pointing out that as it is your money, you have the right to assure yourself the result will be what you want. If you haven’t even seen the blueprint for the whole house, how can you approve the ground floor? Heck, you can’t even judge if all the stuff he wants to put in is actually needed. (It looks awfully expensive.)

“Please,” says the builder, now deeply offended. “I’m an expert. You should trust me.”

If this scenario sounds far-fetched, that’s because you don’t live in the world of Virginia utility regulation. In that world, Dominion Energy Virginia, the state’s largest utility, has just filed a plan with the State Corporation Commission (SCC) to spend almost $1 billion of its customers’ money for the first phase of what it says will be three phases of grid modernization, amounting to $3.5 billion. The company maintains that all the things it plans to do now are necessary to the overall strategy, but it isn’t saying what that strategy is.

“During Phase 1 of the Plan,” writes Dominion Energy Senior Vice President Edward Baine, “the Company will focus on installing the foundational infrastructure that will enable all other components of the Grid Transformation Plan.” That sounds like it ought to lead into a discussion of what the grid of the future will look like, but sadly, the other “components” turn out to be just more spending.

That might in fact be the whole plan: spend money, lots of it. Baine explains the “drivers” of the plan, like recognizing threats to the grid, and he describes how it will “enable” things like new rate structures and integrating renewable energy. But new rate structures and renewable energy integration aren’t actually part of the plan Dominion wants the SCC to approve.

This will make it very hard for the SCC to judge whether the investments are “reasonable and prudent,” as Virginia law requires. Knowing this, Baine argues the SCC shouldn’t impose a cost-benefit test on its plans. Already that position has drawn sharp criticism even from supporters of the legislation that authorized the spending.

Take smart meters, also known as “advanced metering infrastructure” (AMI). Smart meters don’t just measure electricity use, but do so on an hourly or more frequent basis, and they provide two-way communication instead of just one-way reporting to the utility.

Properly designed and deployed, smart meters are central to the grid of the future. Dominion proposes to spend over $500 million to provide all its customers with this advanced technology during Phase 1. Unfortunately, that doesn’t include making full use of their potential.

Where ordinary electric meters mostly just tell the utility how much electricity a customer has used, smart meters provide detailed information that can be used to help pinpoint power outages and spikes in demand. That’s helpful for the utility, but just using them that way, as Dominion proposes, leaves most of the benefits of smart meters untapped.

Justifying the expense of smart meters requires using them to allow customers to control how and when they use electricity, as well as to make the most efficient rate designs and determine how to get the most benefit from solar panels, batteries and electric vehicle charging. That only happens where a utility offers time-of-use rates and other incentives to change behavior and prompt investments by consumers.

Using smart meters this way would result in lower energy use, more customer-investments in solar and batteries, and savings for everyone. But time-of-use rates and similar incentives aren’t in Phase 1, and they don’t look to be part of Phases 2 or 3 either.

Dominion seems to think it can get approval to spend money on smart meters based on how they could be used, rather than on how the company actually plans to use them. Baine notes that smart meters can tell customers how much electricity they’re using in any 30-minute period. “Customers will be able to choose their preferred mode of communication,” writes Baine, “and then receive high usage alerts when their energy usage exceeds a certain level.”

Yes, and then what? Baine doesn’t say.

It’s not just a matter of wanting to take it slow. Since 2009, 400,000 of its customers have received smart meters, Dominion tells us, giving it ample time to try out all these features. It hasn’t.

Merely installing another 1.4 million smart meters isn’t going to lead to grid nirvana.

Grid “hardening” is another example. Physical upgrades in the name of security and resilience make up more than $1.5 billion of Dominion’s proposed spending. This is not grid transformation, it’s the opposite: beefing up the old grid. Most of the proposed investments are the same kind of capital investments Dominion makes routinely, with nothing modernized about it. Unfortunately, Dominion wrote the law to give itself permission to use customer money for grid hardening, so all the SCC can do is ask whether the specific spending proposals are reasonable and prudent.

Again, since Dominion isn’t telling us what kind of grid it is building for us, there is no way to know whether any given project will contribute to it, or even be necessary at all. If the grid of the future will be based on distributed energy, microgrids, and consumer control, we might not need the substation Dominion wants to make into an impregnable fortress. Modern solutions like solar-plus-storage, demand response, and energy efficiency could provide greater resiliency and security at a lower cost.

Of course, we have every reason to suspect Dominion is not interested in building a grid that empowers consumers, lowers energy use and spurs private investment in solar and storage. Its business model depends on keeping control over the grid and getting people to use more energy rather than less. If it can’t do that, it figures, the next best thing is to find ways to spend our money.

The amount of customer money at stake makes the SCC’s oversight role very important. It can insist Dominion lay out its full vision for the grid, demonstrate how each spending item fits that vision, and prove it meets a consumer cost-benefit test. With a little dose of courage, it could even go further, and insist on seeing a plan that makes full use of smart meters, including time-of-use rates and other incentives for efficiency, solar and storage.

The General Assembly, too, has a role to play, by filling a vacancy on the SCC this summer. If legislators are unhappy with Dominion’s cavalier approach to spending, they have one last chance to appoint a commissioner who will side with consumers, and send Dominion back to the drawing board.

Northam’s energy plan: A blueprint for action or destined for dusty shelf?

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam standing in front of a new solar farm.

Governor Northam speaks at the opening of the Palmer Solar Center on May 23.

[Note: A version of this post originally appeared in Virginia Mercury on July 23. Virginia Mercury is a nonprofit, independent online news organization that launched this summer. Subscribe to its free daily newsletter here.]

Forget “all of the above.” Under Governor Ralph Northam, Virginia’s next Energy Plan will emphasize the features of a clean energy future: solar and wind, energy efficiency, electric vehicles, energy storage, and offshore wind. This marks a welcome departure from previous state energy plans, though whether the end result serves as a blueprint for action or just stuffing for a filing cabinet remains to be seen.

Since 2007, Virginia law has required the Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy (DMME) to write a ten-year Energy Plan in the first year of every new administration. The statute lists vague requirements for the plan, including that it be consistent with the Commonwealth Energy Policy, itself a toothless statute. That means each new governor can pretty much tell DMME what to focus on.

Previous governors’ plans have read more like campaign rhetoric than like meaningful indicators of an administration’s direction. Tim Kaine’s plan supported carbon reductions, but by the next spring Kaine was promoting construction of a coal plant in Wise County that would become one of the last coal plants ever built in America.

Bob McDonnell used his energy plan to announce Virginia as the Energy Capital of the East Coast, perhaps the strongest indication that Energy Plans need not be tethered to reality.

Terry McAuliffe pushed an “all of the above” agenda, heavy on offshore drilling, natural gas, and offshore wind. He later backpedaled on offshore drilling, went all in on gas pipelines, and forgot about offshore wind.

Northam surely feels the pressure to write a pro-clean energy plan, and not merely because economic trends have swung decisively in favor of wind and solar. In his short time in office, Governor Northam has deeply undermined his standing as an environmentalist. Even before his inauguration, his public silence about gas pipeline projects fed rumors of private support. Once in office, he caved early on negotiations with Dominion Energy over this year’s energy legislation; reappointed David Paylor, the controversial director of the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), whom he had promised to replace; and passed up a rare opportunity to appoint a progressive to the State Corporation Commission.

One bright spot remains DEQ’s work towards completion of rules to lower carbon emissions from power plants by trading carbon allowances with states to the north of us. But the plan is not yet finalized, and the devil (or Dominion’s fingerprints) may prove to be in the details.

The Energy Plan gives Northam an opportunity to change the subject, and possibly even to change course. DMME’s presentation at its initial public meeting on June 25 addressed only clean energy topics—no coal, no natural gas, no nuclear, no oil. For some topics, the agency has already proposed recommendations for policy changes and scheduled public meetings to discuss them.

In the solar and wind “stakeholder track,” DMME proposes to “increase the residential cap on net metering from 20 kW to 40 kW; increase the overall net metering program from 1% of the utility’s peak load to 3% of peak load; make third-party Power Purchase Agreements (PPAs) available throughout all utility service territories; increase the total PPA installation cap from 50 MW to 100 MW and increase the installation-specific cap from 1 MW to 2 MW.” These recommendations are guaranteed to be popular with solar advocates and industry members, but won’t get past the utility blockade without a fight.

Recommendations for other tracks run the gamut from practical to aspirational. A recommendation to track energy consumption by state agencies through an energy data registry and dashboard is specific and achievable. Less so is the recommendation for Virginia to “reach the voluntary goal of reducing energy consumption by 10 percent by 2020.” Yes, that would be nice, but getting there would require a level of utility cooperation we have never seen in Virginia, and that neither the General Assembly nor any previous governor has had the tenacity to fight for.

The fact that our utilities are so often barriers to positive change underscores a need for the Energy Plan to address one subject missing from DMME’s list: a comprehensive study of grid transformation. Within the next ten years covered by the Energy Plan, our electric grid will need to incorporate vastly more wind and solar generation (much of it consumer-sited), plus electric vehicle charging, battery storage, and new metering technology that gives consumers greater control over their energy use.

Left to their own devices, the utilities will create the energy generation and delivery system most profitable for themselves, not the one most efficient and beneficial for the public. If Governor Northam is serious about a clean energy future, his Energy Plan should kick off a comprehensive study of grid transformation, managed by an independent expert who can help DMME and stakeholders develop a specific, actionable roadmap for the future of Virginia’s energy economy.

Without such a roadmap, we are likely to make progress only in fits and starts and at greater expense than necessary. Utility bills are rising and will keep going up as a result of the legislation Northam supported. Now the Governor needs to make sure Virginians have something to show for it.

SCC filing challenges Rappahannock Electric Cooperative’s effort to block member-proposed reforms

A filing with the State Corporation Commission last month shines some light on the workings of Virginia rural electric cooperatives, or at least one of them. It also raises an important question about this often-overlooked sector of the commonwealth’s electric distribution system. Electric co-ops are supposed to operate democratically, but do they really? And what happens when they don’t?

Three longtime member-owners of Rappahannock Electric Cooperative (REC), one of whom is me, filed the recent petition. The other two petitioners are Brigadier General John C. Levasseur (U.S. Army Reserves, Retired), and Dr. Michael F. Murphy. REC is one of the largest electric co-ops in the nation. General Levasseur served on REC’s board of directors for more than three years. I didn’t know these two fellow co-op members until last year. We’ve each traveled separate paths that led us to the same conclusion—democracy and transparency are too often practiced more in name than in substance at REC.

We found board practices and maneuvering designed to keep REC members from seeing how the board itself effectively controls board election outcomes. We found board practices that keep co-op members from learning enough about board members and prospective board candidates to make an informed decision when voting in board elections. And we’ve seen a board culture that favors a go-along-to-get-along attitude over asking tough questions of management and looking out for consumers. More details on how REC and its board thwart transparency and democracy are available on the Repower REC website.

Our SCC petition asks the commission to determine that REC’s board of directors is improperly blocking our effort to propose bylaw amendments for consideration by our fellow co-op members. Virginia law and REC’s bylaws explicitly authorize individual co-op members to submit proposed bylaw amendments for a vote by the full co-op membership.

The three of us are co-founders of Repower REC, a campaign to promote genuine transparency and democracy at our co-op. Our three proposed bylaw amendments would require REC to

  •     annually disclose each of its nine board members’ total compensation;
  •     allow REC members to observe the co-op’s board meetings, in person or online; and
  •     make a clarifying change to the proxy ballot form REC uses for board elections.

REC’s lawyer Charles W. Payne Jr., writing on behalf of the co-op’s board, advised us that the board will not allow us to submit the proposed amendments for a membership vote. He said the proposed bylaw amendments were not made in good faith, and would violate REC’s bylaws. One wonders how a bylaw amendment, which after all is supposed to change the bylaws, could do anything but “violate” the existing bylaws. Payne didn’t explain the basis for his lack-of-good-faith allegation. Presumably these matters will be clarified as the SCC case proceeds.

In recent years a number of electric co-ops around the nation have faced challenges from co-op members seeking to address democracy and transparency issues. In some instances bylaws have been changed and entrenched co-op boards have been replaced as co-op members re-asserted their rights, re-established transparency and true democratic control, and in many cases uncovered the mismanagement of cooperative resources. Often the old board members had served for many decades without real accountability to co-op members. Three people have been on REC’s board for 20 years or more, and two of those three have been on for well over 30 years. Last year two other REC board members died in office, having been on the board for 35 and 40 years.

The essence of the cooperative form of business is democratic control, with fair elections and meaningful member-owner participation in governance. REC acknowledges this principle on its website. The executive editor of REC’s member magazine Cooperative Living, Richard G. Johnstone, Jr., even advised REC members a few years ago that their “vote on changes or additions to bylaws that govern the utility they own” is perhaps one of the most important aspects of democratic control at an electric co-op. Johnstone should know. He is president and CEO of the Virginia, Maryland, and Delaware Association of Electric Cooperatives.

But in Virginia it’s not clear that any regulator or law-enforcement agency or the General Assembly regularly monitors electric co-ops to ensure that they’re living up to the requirement embodied in Virginia law and federal tax law that co-ops must operate democratically with fair elections. This despite the fact that electric co-ops have monopoly status and receive favorable regulatory, financial, and tax treatment based on the assumption that they are democratic.

A 2008 U.S. Senate hearing focused on undemocratic practices and serious mismanagement and corruption at rural electric co-ops, focusing in particular on Texas-based Pedernales Electric Cooperative, the nation’s largest. A Texas state legislator testified that “without transparency [at an electric co-op] there is no meaningful local control.” A second witness, a leader of the effort to reform the co-op, said “[t]ransparency and openness, combined with fair elections leading to reduced director tenure, could have prevented many of the abuses we suffered at Pedernales.”

There’s also an important role for the press in monitoring electric co-ops’ democracy, or lack thereof. At the U.S. Senate hearing a congressman cited the “outstanding reporting of Margaret Newkirk of the Atlanta Journal Constitution and of Claudia Grisales of the Austin American Statesman chronicling the abuses of Georgia and Texas co-ops.”

Yet here in Virginia only one of the many newspapers distributed in REC’s service territory has thus far reported on the REC board’s effort to block a member vote on the proposed bylaw amendments. That account is in the respected but tiny Rappahannock News, widely read in Rappahannock County, but not elsewhere in REC’s 22-county service area. To its credit, the new nonprofit online publication Virginia Mercury published Robert Zullo’s account of the SCC filing. But many media outlets that seemingly cover Dominion Energy’s every move often ignore the electric co-ops.

As the SCC matter proceeds, it will be interesting to see what arguments REC advances in support of its claim that proposed bylaw amendments somehow improperly “violate” existing bylaws, and the co-op board’s claim that amendments to improve transparency about board compensation, board meetings, and election ballots are made in bad faith.

Even more interesting to observe will be the SCC’s analysis of the matter, and whether state legislators and the press begin to pay attention to whether genuine democracy is practiced in Virginia’s electric co-ops. Those co-ops all love to extoll their supposed democratic governance when seeking favorable treatment in Richmond or Washington D.C. But not all rural electric co-ops live up to their high-minded principles.

Seth Heald has been an REC member-owner for ten years. He is a retired lawyer and has a master of science degree in energy policy and climate.

August 18, 2018 Update: This amazing story, published in Columbia South Carolina’s daily newspaper, The State, shows why electric co-op boards prefer to keep co-op members from knowing the details of board members’ generous compensation.

 

Solar map locates Northern Virginia on the dark side of the metro region

people standing by solar panels on a high school.

The 90 kW of solar panels on the roof of Wakefield High School represent almost 5% of Arlington’s solar total. Arlington schools have been a bright spot in Northern Virginia’s otherwise lackluster solar performance. Photo credit Phil Duncan.

Those of us who’ve lately become bullish on Virginia solar got a rude wake-up call this week when the Northern Virginia Regional Commission (NVRC) updated its map showing the amount of solar installed in every locality in Northern Virginia and the greater Washington region. Stunningly, every single suburban Maryland jurisdiction did better than every single Virginia jurisdiction. So did Washington, DC.

The map reveals that as of the end of 2017, Fairfax County had the most solar of any Virginia locality measured, reflecting its status as Virginia’s most populous county. Fairfax boasted a cumulative capacity of 2,104 kilowatts (kW) of solar, edging out Virginia’s richest county, Loudoun, which came in with 1,878 kW, as well as much smaller but more liberal Arlington with 1,785 kW.

All the Northern Virginia jurisdictions together (which also included Prince William, Manassas, Alexandria, and Falls Church) boasted a total of 8,443 kW, spread across 1,112 systems. That’s an average of about 7.5 kW per system, meaning these are overwhelmingly rooftop solar installations on homes and businesses. (An average home solar system is about 5 or 6 kW. Using solar for all of a home’s electricity needs might require 8-10 kW or more, especially if the home is heated with electricity or includes an electric vehicle.)

NoVa’s 8,443 kW is about as much as Prince George’s County, Maryland alone had five years ago. Today, PG County leads the region with 136,507 kW. Added together, the Maryland suburban localities finished the year with 272,688 kW of solar, over 32 times the suburban Virginia total. Washington, with 40,954 kW, beat all of suburban Virginia almost five times over.

So what do Maryland and DC have that Virginia doesn’t have? One answer is incentives. Maryland and DC have mandatory renewable portfolio standards (RPS) that require utilities to buy a certain percentage of their electricity from solar generated in state, including from their own customers. As the percentage requirement increases year after year, the forces of supply and demand set prices for solar renewable energy certificates (SRECs) that make solar a profitable investment for consumers. In DC, the value of SRECs is currently so high that a home solar installation can pay for itself in less than four years. In Virginia, with the federal 30% tax credit but no RPS or SREC market, payback may take ten years.

Ten years is still not a bad payoff for solar panels that can produce free electricity for 40 years or more. That points to the other advantage Maryland and DC have over Virginia: pro-solar policies. Virginia law does provide for net metering, the policy that lets a solar customer put surplus power onto the grid during the day and receive a credit for it that is used against the same amount of power drawn from the grid at night. Without net metering, we would have very little rooftop solar at all.

But a whole host of restrictions apply to net metering in Virginia. Homeowners are limited to a 20 kW system, and utilities can (and do) apply punitive fees known as “standby charges” to residential systems over 10 kW. Commercial customers are limited to 1,000 kW, no matter how much space they have or how much electricity they use. Sharing solar arrays among customers is prohibited. A building owner cannot install solar and sell the electricity to tenants. A local government cannot install solar on a vacant lot and use it to power a building across the street. Only certain customers can use third-party ownership financing.

And if the market flourishes anyway, Virginia law puts a ceiling on the total capacity of net-metered systems. Once the total reaches 1% of a utility’s sales, the program will come to a screeching halt. Think of it as an anti-RPS.

This year the Virginia General Assembly passed legislation that encourages Virginia utilities to develop solar, but the bill failed to address the barriers holding back private investments in solar. Other bills that would have opened up the market failed in the Republican-controlled (and utility-friendly) Commerce and Labor committees.

Barrier-busting bills will certainly be back again next year, and local governments that want more solar in their communities should make sure these reforms are part of their legislative wish list. Meanwhile, there is room under current law for local governments and schools to install a lot more solar than they have to date. Leading by example is a powerful tool to capture the attention of the public, educate residents on the benefits of solar, and instill pride in the community.

Localities can also help residents and businesses go solar by promoting solar coops like Solarize NoVa, offering low-cost financing via commercial PACE loans(as Arlington is doing), and setting expectations for developers.

Maryland and DC may still beat Virginia on solar over the next few years, but it shouldn’t happen without a fight.

What will it take for Virginia’s largest jurisdiction to raise the bar on energy policy?

cars on a flooded roadway

Cars caught in a flash flood during Northern Virginia’s intense rainstorm on July 17. Photo courtesy of Hayfield Varsity Gymnastics, https://twitter.com/hayfieldgvgym?lang=en.

Last week, 40 drivers traveling on the George Washington Parkway had to be rescued near National Airport when a flash flood brought water up to their car doors. This week, Northern Virginia experienced a tornado, more flash flooding and road closures, more rescues and more power outages.

Extreme weather events like these are among the effects climate scientists were warning about in 2007, when Fairfax County adopted the Cool Counties Climate Stabilization Declaration. The County committed to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 20% below its 2005 baseline by 2020 and by 80% by 2050.

So how is the County doing with that? Not so good.

Last week, more than 10 years after its Cool Counties Declaration, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors finally adopted what it called an Operational Energy Strategy for its own facilities, vehicles, and other operations with specific—but astonishingly weak—targets and deadlines for action. Supervisors who voted for the plan called it  “a step forward” or “a baseline.” (Watch the video here; discussion begins at 1:29:22.)

Local activists were less kind. “It may not be fiddling while Rome burns, but it comes close,” wrote the co-founder of Faith Alliance for Climate Solutions (FACS) Scott Peterson in a Washington Post op-ed.

To their credit, Supervisors John Foust (Dranesville District) and Dan Storck (Mt. Vernon District) urged their colleagues to adopt stronger measures. “We are out of the mainstream on renewable energy,” Foust told his colleagues.

“Do we really believe this effort is proportional to the challenges or the opportunities?” asked Storck. “The waters are rising, and they are rising in the Mt. Vernon District.”

The Board’s action is yet another disappointment for Fairfax residents interested in aggressive action to combat climate change and to reduce the county’s long-term energy costs. The Sierra Club, FACS and others have tried for years to get Fairfax County to live up to the commitment it made in 2007. (In those days I was part of a citizen’s group that offered advice to the County on ways to implement energy savings. Our suggestions were ignored, and in 2009 the County disbanded our group.)

The County Board is dominated by Democrats who say they care about climate change, but even meeting the County’s obligations as a member of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (MWCOG) seems to lie beyond their ambitions. A chart prepared by the Sierra Club comparing Fairfax County’s climate and energy goals for its local operations to those of MWCOG and other local jurisdictions makes the County’s shortcomings clear. The most striking example: MWCOG says its members should meet 20% of their electricity needs with renewable energy by 2020. Fairfax County’s plan for renewable energy begins and ends with a single solar facility on one warehouse in Springfield.

Moreover, in sharp contrast to D.C., Arlington, and Montgomery County, Fairfax County has not implemented a community energy and climate action plan to address the 97% of GHG emissions contributed by the private sector.  In fact, the county has not even begun to develop such an action plan. The recommendations of a 2012 Private Sector Energy Task Force, initiated by the Board Chair, have languished.

Fairfax County’s inaction is as puzzling as it is disappointing. With a population of over 1.1 million, Fairfax is Virginia’s largest county as well as the second-richest county in the nation, after neighboring Loudoun. One in seven Virginians lives in Fairfax. We’ve got 414,000 homes and 116,000 businesses, including a strong tech sector that increasingly demands renewable energy—not least of all because it can save them money.

Nor is Fairfax held back by politics. The county has steadily grown more Democratic in elections. In 2017, Democrat Ralph Northam beat his Republican challenger by a whopping 36 points.

So what would it take to move Fairfax County from left-behind to leader? Advocates agree the County needs to make three big changes: commit to serious targets for renewable energy and energy efficiency in county operations; actively assist residents and businesses to save energy and go solar; and become an advocate for stronger state policies, including removing barriers to customer-sited solar.

A ten-point action plan might look like this:

1).  Ensure that County staff provides a thorough one-year review of the approach, cost savings, and GHG reductions under the County Operations Energy Strategy, including the consideration of options necessary to meet the goals of the MWCOG Climate and Energy Action Plan for 2017 to 2020.

2). Expedite the proposed Request for Proposals for Solar Purchase Power Agreements (PPA) announced on July 11th(but curiously not included in the Energy Strategy).  By late 2018, the County should finalize a PPA contract to facilitate the installation of on-site solar on county buildings.  By drafting the RFP and contract to allow the Fairfax County Public Schools and other localities to ride the contract, Fairfax County government could jumpstart solar development and jobs in Northern Virginia.

3).  Participate in a September 7 workshop at the County Government Center on budget-neutral clean energy funding alternatives (e.g., Energy Savings Performance Contracts, Solar Power Purchase Agreements, public-private partnerships).  This workshop will provide an improved understanding of the opportunities provided by these funding alternatives to support more aggressive energy and climate goals while limiting impacts on county real estate taxes. FCPS has achieved several million dollars in energy savings using ESPCs to obtain GHG reductions and can serve as a model of success.

4).  Complete its ongoing Commercial Property Assessed Clean Energy (C-PACE) initiative by enacting an ordinance necessary to support a C-PACE Program and by implementing the program by late 2019.  This action will provide critical financing to supercharge the inclusion of energy efficiency and renewable energy measures in eligible buildings, thereby supporting the County’s goals to repurpose and revitalize underutilized buildings.

5).  Develop and implement a County-wide Energy and Climate Action Plan to address GHG emissions from residents and businesses.

6).  Develop and implement an action plan to increase county resiliency in order to prepare for the impacts of climate change and help reduce the impact and costs of extreme weather events.

7).  Meet all obligations under Cool Counties and the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments Climate Plan.

8). Support county staff by increasing staffing levels for energy and climate functions and by establishing a dedicated Energy Office reporting directly to the County Executive. Without an effective organizational structure and adequate resources, implementation of key recommendations is highly uncertain and the county is unlikely to maximize energy cost savings or meet its own climate goals.

9).  Engage in strong advocacy with the General Assembly and the Governor to promote the enactment of legislation removing barriers to customer-sited solar.  This legislation has already been endorsed by the county’s Environmental Quality Advisory Committee.  Removing these barriers would allow the County to pursue the installation of a major solar array on the Lorton Landfill.

10).  Work with the Virginia Association of Counties to enlist its support for legislation to remove barriers to on-site solar.

Given its size and resources, Fairfax County can’t continue to sit back and wait for others to do the hard work. Climate change has reached us. To paraphrase Supervisor Storck, the waters are rising, and they are rising here.