A historic turning point: solar beat coal in Virginia in 2021

Photo by Activ Solar via Wikimedia Commons.

It had to happen sometime, but even staunch supporters of Virginia’s transition to clean energy might not have expected this so soon in a former coal state. The precipitous decline of coal as a fuel source, and the rise of solar energy as the new “fuel” of choice, resulted in solar facilities producing more electricity than coal did in Virginia over the course of 2021. 

Using Energy Information Agency data, the Weldon Cooper Center at the University of Virginia produced these two graphs. Bill Shobe, the center’s director of economic research, says Virginia generated 3,365 gigawatt-hours (GWh) of electricity with solar and 3,130 GWh with coal. 

Only three coal-fired plants remain in Virginia: Chesterfield (slated for retirement), Clover, and Virginia City. All have capacity factors in the ‘teens, meaning they are idle most of the time. They now run only during the coldest months of winter and the hottest months of summer (producing the spikes you see in the month-by-month graph), and all are under economic pressure to close for good. In addition, Dominion Energy owns the Mt. Storm coal plant just over the border in West Virginia that runs about 42 percent of the time. 

What new Virginia laws reveal about how the natural gas industry sees its future 

Natural gas is having a moment. The war in Ukraine spotlighted Europe’s heavy reliance on Russian gas and the challenge of replacing it with new supplies from elsewhere. Suddenly the Biden administration, after talking so much about the need to get off fossil fuels, wants to expand oil and gas production and boost exports of liquified natural gas. 

The president still intends to address the climate crisis, just not right now. The sudden shift brings to mind St. Augustine’s prayer: “Lord, make me virtuous, but not yet!”

Don’t be fooled, though. In fact, natural gas is facing an existential crisis. Back when it was cheap, it wasn’t profitable; now that prices are high, U.S. consumers have better alternatives. Europeans will want to import our expensive LNG only until they have other options. Today’s tight supplies obscure the big-picture reality that the gas industry is in the fight for its life. 

The fracking industry likes to bill its product as the cleaner and cheaper alternative to coal in generating electricity. And indeed, advances in fracking technology produced a years-long glut of gas, driving prices so low that gas overtook coal as the top fuel in U.S. power generation beginning in 2015. Gas made up 38.3 percent of electricity in 2021 compared to coal’s 21.8 percent. 

But competition from ever-cheaper wind and solar have stalled the gas industry’s growth in the power sector. Today utilities are more interested in building renewable energy and battery storage than new gas plants. Natural gas was projected to make up only 16 percent of new U.S. electricity generating capacity in 2021, compared to 39 percent for solar and 31 percent for wind. 

High prices will exacerbate this trend. Natural gas prices today are higher than at any time since 2008, having more than trebled in just the past two years. The rise began well before the war in Ukraine, and now international market demand has pushed it higher. This is good for fracking companies that spent the last 10 years losing money, but from a utility’s perspective, price-stable renewables just look better and better. 

Graph of 5 years of natural gas prices in US dollars.
Natural gas (USD/MMBtu) https://tradingeconomics.com/commodity/natural-gas

Fortunately for the gas industry, making electricity is just one use for its product. Methane remains the dominant fuel for heating buildings, with about half of U.S. homes and businesses using it for space heating, water heating, cooking and other appliances. It is also a feedstock for many industrial operations, including fertilizer and plastics manufacturing. Protecting the first use, and expanding the second, are critical to staving off obsolescence. 

That explains three pieces of legislation passed in Virginia in the past two years, all modeled on bills enacted in other states. One, which I’ll discuss in a minute, originally would have prohibited local governments from banning new gas connections within their jurisdiction, protecting the industry’s access to new retail customers. Another sets up a way for gas companies to include methane from pig waste lagoons and other non-fossil sources in their pipelines, allowing them to claim green credit — and subsidies — for marketing what they call renewable natural gas. 

Finally, 2021 legislation promotes “advanced recycling” of waste plastics — using a process called chemical conversion to turn plastic into other plastic or into fuel and then burning it — in part to forestall efforts to phase out single-use plastics like Styrofoam food containers and plastic bags. As a technology, chemical conversion is inelegant, being energy-intensive and highly polluting. As a business, the economics are questionable (and the main company benefiting from the law canceled plans for a facility in Virginia). But as PR, the reframing is brilliant. Why not expand plastics production forever if we can turn the waste into fuel or new plastic?

Indeed, the success of the law can be seen in Gov. Glen Youngkin’s new executive order ostensibly promoting recycling while overturning a previous order from Ralph Northam that required executive agencies to give up single-use plastics by 2025. General Assembly members are also falling for the propaganda, proposing via the state budget to delay the ban on polystyrene food containers that was to have taken effect beginning next year. 

Banning the bans: the gas industry fights building electrification

RNG and plastics are important for the gas industry, but protecting its market share in the building sector is central to its future. Ultimately it is doomed to failure. All-electric buildings are a requirement for a fully decarbonized economy, and their health and safety advantages make a compelling case for localities that want to help meet climate targets by preventing new homes from being connected to gas lines. Some cities in solidly blue states have banned new gas hook-ups; elsewhere, red state legislatures are passing laws to ban the bans.

Public support for these bans will grow as people learn more about the hazards of using gas in their homes. Read enough stories about methane leaking from underground pipes and in homes (and occasionally exploding and setting fire to buildings), or about the health impacts of indoor air pollution from gas heaters and stoves, and you may wonder why we ever thought it a good idea to have open flames in our homes. Yet once a house is built with a gas furnace and appliances, it is much harder for a homeowner to go all-electric. 

To be clear, though, no Virginia jurisdiction has sought to ban gas connections, and it’s not clear whether they could do so in a Dillon Rule state like Virginia. Right now, a law to keep them from doing so sounds a little on the hysterical side, like prohibiting people from walking tigers off-leash. 

Indeed, the proponents of HB1257 could cite only a much narrower threat. The City of Richmond recently committed itself to achieving net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Unlike almost any other city in Virginia, Richmond owns a gas utility that serves its residents and businesses. Sometime in the next 28 years, if the city is serious, it will have to sell the utility or shut down gas service, forcing customers to look elsewhere if they want gas. 

The gas industry and its industrial customers used this far-off threat as a pretext for a Virginia ban-the-ban bill. In its original form, HB1257 (Kilgore) declared it the right of every person to access natural gas, calling this “energy justice,” and explicitly forbidding any public entity from doing anything to interfere with this sacred right. (Oh, except that gas utilities don’t have to supply gas even to willing customers if they can’t make money doing so, and they are free to cut off service to anyone who can’t pay their bills. Justice stretches only so far as profit permits.) 

The Republican-led House passed the whole bill, but the Democratic-led Senate pared it back to deal just with a locality that gets out of the gas utility business, requiring that it give three years’ notice and try to sell or auction off the utility. The final version omits the “energy justice” language that was such an inspiring tribute to George Orwell, but it solves the “immediate” problem in Richmond. 

But it’s not likely that we have seen the end of legislative efforts in Virginia to ban local restrictions on natural gas connections. The gas industry needs to lock in new customers now, because its future is looking very bleak indeed. 

This column originally appeared in the Virginia Mercury on April 21, 2022.

Is offshore wind expensive? Not compared to the alternatives

offshore wind turbines

A massive wind farm 27 miles off the coast of Virginia Beach moved one giant step closer to reality last November when Dominion Energy filed its Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind development plan with the State Corporation Commission. Dominion expects to begin construction on CVOW in 2024, and have all 2,587 megawatts of power connected to the grid in 2026.

But the wind farm’s price tag of $9.8 billion, and its $87 per megawatt hour levelized cost of electricity (LCOE), is causing heartburn over at the attorney general’s office. Scott Norwood, an expert for the Division of Consumer Counsel, criticized the project on three main grounds: that the cost of building CVOW is more than building a new nuclear reactor and 2-3 times as much as building solar facilities; that Dominion has overstated the benefits of the project; and that in any event, Dominion doesn’t need the energy before at least 2035. 

Recognizing that the General Assembly already made most of these points moot by declaring the project to be in the public interest, however, Norwood also recommended the SCC adopt consumer safeguards including periodic status reports and cost oversight. 

Anyone familiar with Dominion’s tendency to pad profits will say “Amen” to the call for strict SCC oversight. With a project this huge, the SCC must be especially vigilant.  Some of Norwood’s criticisms, however, seem more calculated for effect, while others miss the point. 

Norwood certainly knows his comment that CVOW is more expensive than nuclear is not true. The price tag of the only two nuclear reactors under development in the U.S. has ballooned so high ($30 billion and counting) that it almost makes Dominion’s former dream of a third nuclear reactor at North Anna look good. Norwood’s own devastating testimony likely helped kill the North Anna 3 project, which would have delivered electricity for $190 per megawatt-hour.

Norwood says Dominion has fudged the CVOW numbers and the project will cost customers more than the company admits, but still, Dominion would have to gold-plate every turbine before it could touch the cost of nuclear. 

This wasn’t the first time the General Assembly put its thumb on the scale for a Dominion project. The habit goes back to 2008, when a Dominion coal plant, the Virginia City Hybrid Energy Center, became the first project legislatively deemed “in the public interest.” Even back then its projected levelized cost of electricity was $93/MWh. Today, VCHEC loses so much money for customers that Dominion faces pressure at the SCC to close the plant. 

For that matter, I also see that my latest electricity bill from Dominion includes a non-bypassable charge for coal ash disposal of $5.68—an amount that exceeds the charges for participation in RGGI, new solar projects and the RPS program, combined. Pollution is also a cost of using fossil fuels, but it’s never included in the LCOE. 

Mr. Norwood did not suggest Dominion pursue new nuclear or new fossil fuel plants instead of offshore wind. If Dominion needed new generation, he says, solar is the low-cost alternative. It’s cheaper to build, and it produces electricity at a lower cost than offshore wind. He’s right: if all you cared about was LCOE, no one would build anything but solar in Virginia. 

But as critics never tire of pointing out, solar can’t provide electricity 24/7. Offshore wind has a hidden superpower: while solar production peaks in the middle of the day, the wind off our coast can produce electricity both day and night, is often strongest in the evening when demand rises, and is stronger in the winter when solar is less productive. Solar and offshore wind are complementary, and we can’t get to a carbon-free grid without both. So yes, we need CVOW.

Virginia’s leaders are also taking the long view on cost. In any new industry, early projects are more expensive than later ones. Europe’s 30 years of experience developing an offshore wind industry shows costs fall steadily as project experience and new technology enable developers to produce more energy with fewer turbines. States up and down the East Coast are pursuing offshore wind projects not only because they want clean energy, but because they expect these early investments to lead to lower-cost power as the industry achieves scale. 

State leaders also see economic development and job growth as important benefits, and those aren’t reflected in LCOE either. This is another area where SCC oversight can ensure the greatest public benefit from CVOW. Testimony filed by a Sierra Club expert urges that Dominion’s economic development plan be revised with specific metrics around the VCEA’s goals for diversity, equity and inclusion in the offshore wind workforce. Like reducing pollution, creating jobs for residents from low-income and minority communities adds to CVOW’s overall value.

Having criticized the VCEA’s overly-generous cost cap myself at the time, I agree with the AG’s office that the SCC has to keep a tight watch on expenses as Dominion moves forward with CVOW. But move forward it should, because Virginia needs offshore wind. 

This commentary originally appeared in the Virginia Mercury on April 1, 2022.

Dominion’s proposed charge for solar program is absurdly high

Solar panels are well suited to the flat roofs of apartment buildings like this one in the Bronx, but they remain a rarity in Virginia despite a new law designed to open the market. Photo by Bright Power, Inc. – U.S. Department of Energy from United States, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

A Dominion Energy customer wrote me recently to ask what her condo association could do to go solar. The building’s roof can hold many more solar panels than needed to power the needs of the common area. Is it possible to sell the excess electricity to individual residents to power their units?

I get this question a lot, and in 2020, the Virginia General Assembly tried to change the answer from “no” to “yes.” As part of the Solar Freedom legislation, the State Corporation Commission was tasked with creating a shared solar program for residents of multifamily buildings like condominiums and apartment buildings, with orders to make the program available beginning in January 1, 2021. In other words, it ought to be available today.

And yet I still have to tell people they can’t do it now, and may not be able to ever, unless the SCC changes course. Would-be customers will have just one final chance this month to try to save the program. On March 25, the SCC will take public testimony at an evidentiary hearing to address the seemingly simple question threatening the viability of the Multifamily Shared Solar Program. The law allows Dominion to collect an administrative fee from customers who participate in the program. How much should that be? 

An administrative fee doesn’t sound like it could be enough to stall a program for more than a year, let alone deep-six it altogether. Dominion’s role in the Multifamily Shared Solar Program is limited to doing the accounting to make sure every unit gets credit for the share of the electricity the resident buys. That shouldn’t cost very much—perhaps a buck or two per month per customer. 

Yet Dominion proposes to impose an administrative fee of more than $87 per month—a charge so absurdly high that it would result in participants paying far more for electricity generated on the roof of their building than for the electricity Dominion delivers to them from elsewhere in the state. The SCC temporarily stopped the utility from implementing that fee, but it also stacked the deck to make a high fee almost inevitable. 

And that’s a program killer. Rooftop solar is still a lot more expensive than large, offsite solar facilities, so keeping fees low is critical to making the economics work. It’s also a matter of equity. Owners of single-family homes with rooftop solar benefit from Virginia’s net metering program, which guarantees them a one-for-one credit for any surplus electricity generated. Multifamily residents deserve something similar.

Indeed, the entire point of putting the Multifamily Shared Solar Program in Solar Freedom—a law otherwise focused on removing barriers to net metering—is to benefit Virginians who’ve been shut out of the solar market because they don’t own their own roofs. Renters in particular are more likely to have lower incomes than owners of single-family homes, so making the program available to them is important to the goal of reducing the energy burden on low- and moderate-income residents and ensuring that the transition to clean energy benefits people at all income levels.

I’m not just guessing about the intent behind Solar Freedom. I know the point is to offer residents of multifamily buildings an analog to net metering because I wrote most of the legislation as it was introduced, in collaboration with allies in local government and the legislators who introduced it. We wanted building owners and occupants to be able to work together to install onsite solar, free of SCC meddling and without the utility demanding a cut of the action. 

But as so often happens with legislative sausage-making, the bill changed as it went through negotiations and emerged from committees. The SCC was charged with developing a formal program, and Dominion was given a role in administering it. Yet the new language made clear that the original purpose remained. The SCC is to write regulations that “reasonably allow for the creation and financing of shared solar facilities” and “allow all customer classes to participate in the program, and ensure participation opportunities for all customer classes.” 

The legislation provides for participants to be credited on their utility bills with their share of the electricity generated by the solar panels. The SCC is to make an annual calculation of the bill credit rate “as the effective retail rate of the customer’s rate class, which shall be inclusive of all supply charges, delivery charges, demand charges, fixed charges and any applicable riders or other charges to the customer.” To the definition of “bill credit rate” is added the admonition that the rate “shall be set such that the shared solar program results in robust project development and shared solar program access for all customer classes.” 

This language is consistent with a goal of putting multifamily buildings on par with single-family homes in making rooftop solar affordable. But, unlike the original legislative language, and unlike the rules of net metering, the final version of Solar Freedom instructs the SCC to “allow the investor-owned utilities to recover reasonable costs of administering the program.” 

And that’s the opportunity Dominion wants to exploit. As soon as the SCC began the process of writing rules for the Multifamily Shared Solar Program, Dominion advanced the claim that the administrative fee should be based on essentially all of the costs of operating an electric utility. Instead of the multifamily program mirroring net metering, Dominion took as its model a larger program under a very different law. The Shared Solar legislation, also passed in 2020, creates a program for community solar facilities that can be onsite or offsite, can serve many more customers anywhere in Dominion’s territory, and can even be carved out of a utility-scale solar facility. The shared solar law specifically allows Dominion to charge most customers a “minimum bill” with a list of components, and also an “administrative fee.” 

Things aren’t going well for the Shared Solar program at the SCC. A hearing examiner recently recommended the commission adopt a minimum bill of more than $55, based on an SCC staff recommendation. It did not trouble the hearing examiner or the staff that the number puts the cost of shared solar above the cost of Dominion’s own electricity, a program killer according to community solar developers.

But cramming the minimum bill elements into the multifamily program’s administrative fee would be an even greater blow to a program whose economics are already constrained by the smaller size of onsite projects. It also seems obvious from a plain reading of the two laws that the General Assembly did not intend to burden multifamily residents with the fees it authorized for the Shared Solar participants.

Unfortunately for customers, the SCC approved the cramming in concept last July, ignoring this plain legislative intent. Based on that, SCC staff proposed options for the administrative fee of either $16.78 or $57.26, with the higher fee using the same reasoning that just led to the hearing examiner’s $55 recommendation in the shared solar program. 

The SCC ought to reject these numbers and instead adopt the dollar or two that running the multifamily shared solar program will actually cost Dominion. But to do so, commissioners will have to reverse their earlier, egregious decision and embrace what seems to be (for them) the novel concept that the General Assembly intended the plain meaning of its words. Only then will residents of multifamily buildings gain their solar freedom. 

Note: those wishing to testify at the SCC hearing must sign up by March 22.

This article originally appeared in the Virginia Mercury on March 10, 2022.

Looking backward, Virginia Republicans attack climate action and coddle coal

Photo credit: Mark Dixon from Pittsburgh, PA, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Even before taking office, Governor Glenn Youngkin made two rookie mistakes: he declared his intention to pull Virginia out of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) by executive order, not realizing it can only be done by legislation; and he nominated the much-reviled Trump-era EPA chief Andrew Wheeler to be his Secretary of Natural Resources, apparently unaware the appointment would need approval from the Democratic-led Senate he had just infuriated with the RGGI announcement. 

Evidently not a man to admit a blunder, on his first day in office Youngkin signed an  executive order directing the Department of Environmental Quality to notify RGGI of his intent to withdraw Virginia from the carbon-cutting program, and to develop an “emergency regulation” to send to the Air Pollution Control Board for the same purpose. The language in the order is a little less than he pledged, and yet still not legal.

These are unfortunate signs that Youngkin, who ran for governor as a moderate Republican, intends to govern as a burn-the-house-down extremist when it comes to the environment. 

It’s surprising to see Youngkin pursuing Trumpist energy policies, and not just because they failed so dismally when Trump tried them. As the former CEO of a multibillion-dollar private equity investment company, Youngkin is, presumably, not an idiot. He has acknowledged climate change is real and affecting Virginia, and he has access to the same polls the rest of us do that show Americans are concerned and want government action to address the crisis. Corporate America is also calling for action; CEOs of more than 70 of the world’s largest corporations wrote a letter last June calling on governments to adopt policies capable of capping the global rise in temperature at no more than 1.5 decrees Celsius. 

The legislation that put Virginia into RGGI will lead to a 30 percent cut in the Commonwealth’s electric sector CO2 emissions by 2030. Companion legislation, the Virginia Clean Economy Act (VCEA), extends the carbon cutting out to 2050, to hit zero carbon emissions from the electric sector. Youngkin complains that RGGI costs ratepayers money, but it’s not like the money raised through carbon allowance auctions disappears into the ether: it pays for coastal flood-control projects and low-income energy efficiency programs that Virginia wasn’t funding before. Maybe Youngkin intends to replace these hundreds of millions of dollars with some of the federal funding coming to Virginia through the federal infrastructure bill—you know, the legislation that Virginia’s Republican congressmen voted against

Or maybe he doesn’t really care about the human consequences of his actions, since Virginia governors can’t run for reelection. Even last fall Youngkin was being talked about as a potential presidential candidate based on his ability to say nothing of substance for an entire campaign season. It was a good trick, but it’s a hard one to pull off twice. If Youngkin runs for president, he’ll be doing it as the guy who started his governorship by torching Virginia’s climate action plan.

Whether they are fellow flame-throwers or not, General Assembly Republicans are rallying around the new governor. Two bills filed last week seek to do legally what Youngkin wanted to do by executive fiat. SB532 (Stuart) and HB1301 (Kilgore) would repeal the Clean Energy and Community Flood Preparedness Act, direct DEQ to suspend the Commonwealth’s participation in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative and remove provisions for using revenues from the auctions. 

SB81 (Stanley) would prohibit the Air Pollution Control Board from considering health, environmental, scientific, or economic factors when making regulations—an attack on both RGGI and clean car regulation, as well as on the independence and very mission of the Air Board. SB657 (Stuart) also attacks the Air Board’s authority (and that of the Water Board for good measure).

HB118 (Freitas) goes bigger. It repeals key features of the VCEA, including achieving zero carbon emissions by 2050; allowing the SCC to approve new fossil fuel plants only if a utility has met energy-saving goals and can prove cost-effectiveness; allowing utilities to recover costs of compliance with Virginia’s new renewable portfolio standard; and making wind, solar and offshore wind projects “in the public interest,” magic words that assure utilities they will get paid for making these investments.

The Freitas bill might pass the House, now that Republicans hold a slim majority, but neither of these two bills should pass the Senate with Democrats in charge. Creating the framework for the energy transition was a signature success for Virginia Democrats, and it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which they will let it be taken from them. 

That isn’t stopping other Republicans from taking their own shots. Several bills seek to undermine the energy transition in various ways; all of them are bad policy.

  • HB74 (also Ware) would subsidize certain large industrial customers by allowing them to share in the benefits, yet exempting them from the costs, of the energy transition, shifting their share of the costs onto all other customers. 
  • HB5 (Morefield) raids the RGGI funds to get money for his own district. 
  • HB892 (Kilgore) and SB398 (McDougle) subsidize RGGI costs for certain fossil fuel generators, another raid on the funds. 
  • HB1204 (Kilgore) prevents the RPS from taking effect until 2025 and guts the carve-out for distributed generation permanently. It also removes the authority of the Air Pollution Control Board over air pollution permits for “minor” sources of pollution.
  • HB1257 (Kilgore, on a roll!) guarantees customers access to natural gas in the name of “energy justice,” banning local electrification efforts, and making it really hard for the city of Richmond to terminate its gas utility.
  • HB1261 (Bloxom) also strips the Air and Water Boards of their permit-granting authority. 
  • HB73 (Ware) and SB761 (Sutterlein) eliminates language putting wind, solar and offshore wind in the public interest, undercutting the market certainty that put Virginia into the top ranks for solar energy in the past year and attracted a major offshore wind turbine blade manufacturing facility to Portsmouth. (The bill also lets the SCC put costs of new facilities into a utility’s rate base instead of tacking on a rate adjustment clause. If this were the only thing the bill did, it would be worth supporting.)

Not all the bills we are likely to see this year have been filed yet, so there is a good chance we will see further attacks on climate action, all with the pretense of saving money. I will continue updating this post when I hear of other bills like these. 

“Virginia is no longer anti-coal,” — new Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares. 

Speaking of things that cost ratepayers money, bills to subsidize coal are back this year. As we have all learned, coal is no longer a competitive fuel in Virginia. It lost out first to fracked gas, and more recently to solar. But in a compromise with coalfields Republicans, the VCEA excluded one coal plant, the Virginia City Hybrid Energy Center (VCHEC) in Wise County, from a requirement that Dominion Energy Virginia close its Virginia coal plants this decade. In theory, VCHEC could stay open until 2045, when the VCEA requires Dominion to reach zero carbon across all its generation.

In reality, though, the reprieve isn’t enough to save the coal plant. Dominion’s own analysis, from its 2020 Integrated Resource Plan case, assigned VCHEC a net present value of negative $472 million just for the ten years from 2020-2029. Dominion didn’t try to extend that analysis out to 2045, but clearly the cost to customers from running a money-losing coal plant for 25 years would top a cool billion. Not surprisingly, the SCC is considering requiring Dominion to retire VCHEC to save money for its customers.

Given concerns about RGGI’s cost to consumers, you might think Southwest Virginia Republicans would lead the charge to retire the money-losing coal plant in their midst. You would be wrong. To understand why, it will help you to know that the counties making up Southwest Virginia are not in Dominion’s service territory, but in Appalachian Power’s. The people who benefit from keeping a coal plant open in Wise County are not the same people who have to pay for the plant’s spectacular losses. 

As an excuse to keep the plant open, coalfields Republicans claim it’s to help the environment. Yes, really. Some of VCHEC’s fuel is waste coal excavated from the piles of mining waste that litter the coalfields, a toxic legacy of the era when coal was king and environmental regulations went unenforced. Burning the waste coal is one way to get rid of it, though not the only way or, for that matter, the right way. 

As a new report from the Appalachian State School of Law discusses, the federal infrastructure bill (again, the same one Virginia Republicans voted against) will provide millions of dollars to Virginia to remediate abandoned minelands, including these piles of toxic waste. (The report, titled Addressing Virginia’s Legacy GOB Piles, has been sent to General Assembly members but is not yet available online.)

In a letter to Senator John Edwards, report lead author Mark “Buzz” Belleville expressed his strong disagreement with bills aimed at encouraging the burning of waste coal. As he wrote, “Waste coal is of lower quality, requiring additives for combustion and resulting in even greater CO2 emissions and traditional air pollution than newly-mined coal. As the report notes, existing GOB piles can be disposed of or remediated in other manners that do not undermine Virginia’s commitment to a transition to clean energy.”

Rather than use the coming federal funds to remediate GOB piles, Republicans would prefer that Dominion customers be forced to pay hundreds of millions of dollars in higher energy costs and put more pollution into the air. 

So at the same time they rail against the costs of RGGI and VCEA, Republicans are using waste coal as a reason to raise costs even more. 

  • HB656 (Wampler) dangles a tax credit for using waste coal. 
  • SB120 (Hackworth) and HB657 (Wampler) declare waste coal a “renewable energy” source and exempts VCHEC from the requirement that it close by 2045. 
  • HB894 (Kilgore) outright prohibits the SCC from requiring Dominion to retire VCHEC “before the end of its useful life.” (Would that be before or after Virginia becomes so hot we all move to Canada?)
  • HB1326 (Kilgore, trying everything he can think of) makes it “in the public interest” for utilities to use waste coal, and gives utilities a way to charge ratepayers extra for doing so.

Electricity customers had better get used to being used as a political football by legislators who attack the costs of the energy transition but have no qualms about making ratepayers subsidize coal. 

This post originally appeared in the Virginia Mercury on January 20, 2022. It has been updated to include bills filed since then.

A divided General Assembly can find common ground on clean energy

Almost two years ago, Virginia’s General Assembly made history with a series of laws shepherding Virginia towards a future of clean, low-cost wind and solar energy. During this year’s election campaign, Republican talking points included attacks on the Virginia Clean Economy Act (VCEA), the law at the center of the transition. But talk, as they say, is cheap. With the VCEA protected by the Democratic majority in the Senate, Republicans didn’t have to put forward a serious alternative, and they didn’t.

Now that the Republicans have won the governorship and a majority in the House of Delegates, passing any new legislation (or repealing anything already in place) will require bipartisan action. Democrats want to protect Virginia’s progress in tackling carbon emissions and putting equity into energy planning. Republicans want to reduce burdens on industry. Both sides want affordable electricity and a robust economy that creates jobs. Rhetoric aside, there is much to agree on.

Solar is wildly popular with conservatives as well as liberals, in part because it saves money. With no fuel costs, and ever-falling prices of solar panels, solar arrays are now the go-to choice for utilities that need more power. It is cheaper for a utility to build a new solar facility today than to operate an existing coal plant in Virginia. 

As for existing gas plants, they compete with solar only when the price of fracked gas is low. Gas prices have doubled in the past year, so Virginia’s current reliance on natural gas for 60% of our electricity generation hurts everyone’s wallets. 

And while fracked gas is imported from other states, we can build solar and wind facilities here in the Commonwealth and off our coast, so our own workers and businesses benefit. The faster we bring on the energy transition, the better for our economy. 

The energy transition also means cleaner air and water for our children, improving the efficiency of homes to make them more comfortable and less costly to live in, reducing the energy burden on low-income residents, helping coastal communities adapt to rising sea levels, and giving people greater freedom to invest their own money in solar panels on their own property. All of these are part of the VCEA and the other bills that guide our energy transition, and repealing them now would be shooting ourselves in both feet.

Nonetheless, there is room for improvement. Last year legislators established a fund to put renewable energy on abandoned mine sites and other brownfields, but didn’t allocate money. Under the bipartisan infrastructure bill just passed in Congress, Virginia will receive an estimated $23,579,905 annually in federal abandoned mine land funding. Once former mine sites are cleaned up, they will be ideal locations for solar facilities, and the General Assembly should make sure that happens. 

Other federal funding will support smart grid and transmission investments. Some of these projects are already underway in Virginia, and the General Assembly should make sure that savings go to ratepayers, not to utilities.

Solar on schools has been one of the greatest success stories of the past few years in Virginia, with more than 45 jurisdictions signing contracts that will put solar panels on school roofs at no up-front cost, and with energy savings every year. But some schools are still built with roofs that aren’t designed to support solar. That has to change. 

Indeed, in 2019 the General Assembly passed a Republican-sponsored bill that went further, declaring it “the intent of the General Assembly that new public school buildings and facilities and improvements and renovations to existing public school buildings and facilities be designed, constructed, maintained, and operated to generate more electricity than consumed.” In 2022, legislators could turn this into a requirement, saving money for taxpayers across the Commonwealth. 

Community solar offers another money-saving opportunity. Legislation passed in 2020 will allow residents and businesses to buy electricity from shared solar projects developed by private companies. The initial program is small and confined to customers of Dominion Energy, which is trying to persuade regulators to mandate crushingly high minimum bills. Legislators can fix these problems by expanding the program statewide and capping the minimum bill. 

The General Assembly has repeatedly failed to rein in the power of utilities like Dominion, which uses its influence to protect its profits at the expense of consumers. The ability to make unlimited political contributions backfired on Dominion when its $200,000 contribution to an anti-Youngkin campaign was exposed. But public utilities should not be allowed to buy influence, period. Let’s make this the year that stops.

This op-ed appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch on November 27,2021. 

Has the energy transition hit a roadblock in Virginia, or just a rough patch of pavement?

Photo credit: Mark Dixon from Pittsburgh, PA, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Election Day was a tough day for climate advocates. 

After two years of historic progress that included passage of the Virginia Clean Economy Act (VCEA), the centerpiece of the Commonwealth’s plan to decarbonize the electric sector by 2050, voters handed a narrow victory to its critics. Republicans will take over as governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general and, barring any surprises in two recounts, the House of Delegates.

During the campaign, former Carlyle Group CEO Glenn Youngkin criticized the VCEA for raising rates and putting “our entire energy grid at risk.”  While largely supportive of solar and wind (especially offshore wind, which he “wholly supports”), Youngkin also argued for more natural gas to feed “the rip-roaring economy that I’m going to build.” This is, essentially, the old “all of the above” strategy we hoped had been buried for good, coupled with unfounded fear-mongering about power outages. 

On the bright side, Governor-elect Youngkin has acknowledged that climate change is real and is causing damage here in Virginia. At the same time, he supposedly told a Norfolk State University audience in October that he didn’t know what is causing climate change. It seems likely this was a clumsy lie prompted by political expedience, rather than a reflection of actual ignorance. Two years ago Youngkin touted Carlyle Group’s record as “the first major private investment firm to operate on a carbon-neutral basis.” That’s not something you do just to be on trend.

So yes, Youngkin knows that increasing greenhouse gas emissions are driving the warming of the planet, and at Carlyle he was willing to do something about it. But now that he’s a politician, Youngkin is embracing natural gas in a way that suggests he’d rather ignore the truth about methane than take a stance unpopular in his party. Heck, for all we know, he may now even subscribe to the plan recently laid out by U.S. Senate Republicans to address climate change by increasing natural gas production and exports. 

Wait, you say, isn’t this also the Russian plan? Sell more gas and, if worse comes to worst, Siberia heats up enough to become a vacation destination? Let’s just say it’s not a coincidence that the senators promoting this “solution” come from North Dakota, Alaska and Wyoming—all states that are big energy exporters, but more importantly, where people think a few degrees of warming would be kind of nice. But given that the population of all three states combined is significantly less than the population of Northern Virginia alone, we probably don’t want them making policy for us.

The fact that we have no idea where Youngkin stands on the need for climate solutions is only one part of the problem facing climate activists in Virginia’s upcoming legislative session. The bigger problem is that a lot of our Republican legislators are outright hostile to climate science and Virginia’s framework for the energy transition. These folks are loaded for bear, and they will use their narrow win to flood the House with bills aimed at rolling back the energy transition. 

In addition to VCEA, the Republican hit list includes the Clean Energy and Community Preparedness Act, which directed Virginia to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI); the Clean Car Standard, which promotes sales of electric vehicles; and the Commonwealth Clean Energy Policy, which makes the transition to a net-zero-energy economy official state policy.  

Whether these bills will pass the House is less certain, given the benefits these laws are already delivering. The VCEA spurred “incredible growth” in solar installations, making Virginia fourth in the nation for new solar generation in 2020, and the world’s biggest offshore wind blade manufacturer just announced plans for a facility in Portsmouth, Virginia. Does anyone really want to stop that momentum? Tens of millions of dollars are already flowing to climate adaptation projects in coastal areas thanks to RGGI’s carbon allowance auctions. Pulling the plug on that cash flow would hurt Republicans representing the area. 

Notwithstanding the rhetoric, the VCEA is good for business and consumers. Ratepayers will save money through the mandated closure of uneconomic coal, oil and biomass plants, and by the removal of barriers to distributed renewable energy generation. Solar’s low cost positions it to overtake fossil fuels as the go-to generation source for utilities, but the VCEA creates the market certainty that attracts investment. And offshore wind—the most expensive part of the VCEA, but the part Youngkin apparently likes—is also popular on both sides of the aisle as an engine of investment and job creation.   

That doesn’t mean anti-VCEA bills won’t pass the House; being bad policy is never enough to kill legislation, or even stop people who ought to know better from voting for it. In 2019, an anti-RGGI bill from Del. Charles Poindexter (R-Franklin) passed both the House and Senate on party-line votes. It was prevented from taking effect only thanks to a veto from Governor Northam. Today, I can count very few House Republicans who won’t toe the same party line.

With Democrats still in charge of the Senate, Youngkin isn’t likely to find a RGGI or VCEA repeal on his desk. Creating an energy transition framework was one of the Democrats’ biggest successes in the past two years, and protecting that success will be a party priority. 

But there are many ways Republicans can undercut climate action. They might attract just enough Democratic votes with bills that, for example, grant exemptions for powerful industries that have friends among Senate Democrats. They could also use the budget process to undermine the transition by starving agencies and grant programs of funding. 

If politics doesn’t completely get in the way, though, there should be room for consensus on some new areas of progress. Highly efficient schools with solar roofs save money for taxpayers; electric school buses are good for children’s health; solar on abandoned mine sites promise employment to residents of Southwest Virginia. 

Beyond the General Assembly, executive agencies have had the job of implementing all the various parts of the RGGI program and the VCEA. And the agencies, of course, answer to the governor. The Department of Environmental Quality will have signed off—or not—on the Mountain Valley Pipeline’s permits before Younkin takes office, but after that, we can expect DEQ to return to being the easy-permitting, lax-enforcing agency it was of old.

As for the Department of Energy, that agency has been going gangbusters turning Virginia into a clean energy leader and promoting new models like brownfields redevelopment and clean energy financing. Hopefully those efforts offer so much in the way of economic opportunities that a businessman like Youngkin will want them to continue. 

But that, like so much else, remains to be seen. 

This article was originally published in the Virginia Mercury on November 16, 2021.

Increasing fixed charges on electricity bills hurts customers–and society 

solar panels on a house
SVEC’s fixed charges would discourage customers from pursuing net zero homes like this one. Photo by Ivy Main

Okay, folks, the kids are back in school, so in their honor we are all going to do a word problem! 

Bob Rich lives in a sprawling subdivision of large, single-family homes. Bob has a pool and a hot tub and outdoor lights he keeps on all night. Bob’s four children have loads of electronic gadgetry, plus a habit of leaving windows open when the air conditioner is blasting. Needless to say, the Rich family uses a lot of electricity. But Bob doesn’t worry too much about his utility bill. It’s really not that much compared to all the other bills he pays; and fortunately, his wife is a hedge fund lawyer so he can afford it. 

John Poore, on the other hand, lives in a small apartment and uses as little electricity as possible to save money. He works a low-wage job, and his best efforts to attract a wealthy spouse have not yet panned out. John uses air conditioning only on the hottest summer days. He switched out his incandescent lightbulbs for LEDs, caulked the cracks around his windows where air leaked in, and when his old refrigerator broke, he replaced it with an EnergyStar model. 

Bob and John are both customers of Shenandoah Valley Electric Cooperative, in western Virginia. SVEC says its costs are going up, so it has been “adjusting” its rates. What would you expect the effects to be?

A) Bob’s bills go up more than John’s. 

B) Both Bob and John’s bills go up by the same amount. 

C) John’s bills go up more than Bob’s (and Bob’s might even go down).

You probably already figured out it’s a trick question. We’re dealing with a Virginia utility, so the answer can’t be (A) regardless of that being the obvious and rational answer. 

Indeed, answer (A) is how most utilities operate: Every customer pays a small fixed fee, typically under $10, and the rest of the bill is determined by how much electricity the customer uses. People who use a lot of electricity pay the most. They are usually better able to afford it, but if they don’t like the size of their bills, they can turn off the lights in empty rooms, change their thermostat setting, invest in energy efficiency, or put solar panels on the roof. Conserving energy and adding renewable energy happen to be public policy priorities, so the incentives are aligned with the behavior society wants to encourage. 

But SVEC notes that a lot of its costs aren’t dependent on how much electricity customers use; it has wires to maintain and so forth, plus it recently “invested” in a beautiful and spacious new headquarters that it swore wouldn’t mean rate increases (but, well, you know how that goes). SVEC says Bob and John benefit equally from all these investments, and wants their bills to reflect that. Early last year SVEC “adjusted” its rate structure to increase the fixed customer fee from $13 to $25 and decrease the rate per kilowatt-hour of electricity used. If you chose answer (C), you were correct!

This year, to raise more revenue, SVEC proposes to increase everybody’s fixed fee again, this time to $30. For customers who don’t use much electricity, that fixed fee could become the biggest charge on the bill, and one that can’t ever be reduced by any amount of energy conservation, efficiency or solar panels. They may also wonder whether $30 is just a stop on the way to even higher fixed fees that will further undercut their energy-saving investments.

SVEC didn’t need anyone’s approval when it almost doubled the fixed fee last year. But this year, the State Corporation Commission has to approve the additional changes, so customers finally have a chance to challenge them. Utilities around the state are watching what the SCC does. If SVEC gets approval to shift more of its costs away from customers who use a lot of electricity and onto those who use the least, other utilities will see that as a green light to do the same

Utilities prefer fixed charges because they provide revenue certainty; left to their own devices, they will move as much of their revenue into the fixed-cost category and increase fixed charges as high as they can. Unfortunately, doing so creates an incentive for utilities to spend as much as possible on infrastructure costs that can be recovered through fixed rates. That will raise costs for everyone and produce a further perverse incentive for the utility to encourage energy consumption (and waste) in order to make maximum use of the infrastructure.

This isn’t the result anyone should want, and especially a nonprofit electric cooperative. More affluent, high-use customers will benefit from lower rates per kilowatt-hour, while low-income customers will be less able to control their bills, an inequity that flies in the face of Virginia’s efforts to limit the energy burden on low-income residents. And customers who are considering investing in energy efficiency or solar will find they are looking at a longer payback time, discouraging the energy-saving measures that Virginia strives to promote.

The SCC is holding a hearing today to consider SVEC’s proposed rate increase. The commission should reject SVEC’s efforts to raise fixed charges for customers and send the utility back to the rate-drawing board. 

This article originally appeared in the Virginia Mercury on October 5, 2021.

Of synagogues and subsidies

A while back I was engaged in an online discussion with other solar advocates about renewable energy — specifically, how to get more of it built. Some of the participants I knew, others I did not. The conversation was lively, ranging from the need for better education to public policy and incentives.

But then one of the participants threw in an unexpected comment. His email read, “Aren’t we all tired of synagogues?”

The question stopped me cold. I had never heard anyone express weariness of synagogues, much less understood that to be a consensus sentiment. However, I’m not Jewish, so if it were something my Jewish friends grumbled about among themselves but did not share more widely, then I wouldn’t necessarily know about it.

But our discussion was about renewable energy, so surely the comment could not really be about a physical house of worship. “Synagogue” had to be shorthand for something else. If someone said “aren’t we all tired of church,” it might be understood to refer to doctrinal thinking, or more likely, to preaching. You could see how someone would be tired of renewable energy advocates preaching about the benefits of wind turbines and solar panels. Could “synagogue” be meant as a sort of metaphor for haranguing people?

It seemed like a stretch, even assuming the person who had made the comment was Jewish, which I didn’t know. I looked back at the email to see if the name might give me a clue. At that moment, another email came through from him: “Sorry about that autocorrect, it was supposed to be ‘subsidies.’”

Ah.

I was relieved that synagogue fatigue was off the table, but now I had a new question to ponder: Are we, in fact, all tired of subsidies?

Opposition to subsidies is one of the touchstones of free-market capitalism, and even within the wind and solar industries you will find believers in the proposition that if a technology can’t attract enough customers on its own merits, it deserves to remain niche, and the government ought not to put its fat thumb on the scale.

Republican attacks on the Virginia Clean Economy Act, passed last year by the Democrat-controlled General Assembly, are often framed as opposition to the government “picking winners and losers.” The law certainly does that, by directing utilities to close coal plants and incorporate an increasing percentage of electricity from wind and solar.

Some Republicans are raising the same objection in response to the Biden administration’s plans for addressing the climate crisis. Technological advances and market forces are already moving us inexorably towards a clean energy economy—but not fast enough. So Biden’s initiatives rely on the full range of government powers, subsidies among them, to drive down greenhouse gas emissions nationwide in an effort to avoid a worldwide climate catastrophe.

But here’s the thing: to the extent the U.S. has anything resembling an energy policy, subsidies have always been a tool of first resort. Indeed, this has been the case literally since the nation’s founding. Often the difference between Republicans and Democrats is not in whether they embrace subsidies, but which ones they favor.

Cash grants, tax credits, loan guarantees, low-cost access to public land, public purchasing requirements, protective tariffs and federal R&D funding all shape the way energy is produced, delivered and consumed, and they are responsible for the fossil-fuel heavy energy economy we have today. Even U.S. foreign policy and our military have been deployed for the benefit of extractive industries. A century ago, the National Guard came to the aid of the coal barons against striking miners. More recently, a think tank crunched numbers to estimate the U.S. spends $81 billion per year to  protect global oil supplies. That figure rises to over $3 trillion when you count the Iraq war.

Externalities matter, too. If an industry is allowed to inflict damage to a community’s air and water, that is a form of subsidy that can be partly measured in dollars spent on health care and clean-up. Regulations requiring expensive pollution controls can lessen the economic advantages of offloading costs onto the public, but any remaining costs shouldered by the public are a subsidy to the polluter.

Conversely, by displacing fossil fuels, a clean energy facility may confer a public benefit far exceeding the cost of any government subsidy it receives. When we’re dealing with climate change, the public benefit of carbon-free energy is immense.

None of this is an argument against the merits of free market competition, which remains the economy’s most important driver of innovation leading to better and cleaner energy technologies. Well-designed subsidies should work with the market, not against it, to speed the energy transition towards a net-zero future.

And to that we should all say, Amen.

This article originally appeared in the Virginia Mercury on September 14, 2021.

You call that democracy? How Virginia’s electric co-ops fail their member-owners.

Virginia’s thirteen electric cooperatives were exempted from most provisions of the 2020 Virginia Clean Economy Act, which caps carbon pollution from power plants and requires investor-owned utilities to meet renewable-energy and energy-efficiency targets. In lobbying for the VCEA exemption, cooperatives no doubt touted their claimed status as member-owned and democratically governed. In theory that means co-op members can direct their co-ops to adopt programs friendly to consumers and the environment. But events last month showed again that some of the commonwealth’s electric co-ops are not as democratic as they claim. 

Summer is annual-meeting time for electric co-ops. Like all consumer cooperatives, electric co-ops are owned by their customers (called “member-owners”). Democratic control of the cooperative is one of seven “cooperative principles” that all electric cooperatives claim to adhere to. The key to genuine democratic control is board-of-director elections, which happen at each co-op’s annual meeting, where member-owners vote for board candidates. 

Two examples from Virginia electric co-op annual meetings last month demonstrate ways large and small in which incumbent co-op boards game the election process to help their favored board candidates. The most egregious case occurred at Rappahannock Electric Cooperative (REC), which serves rural and suburban Virginians in 22 counties. In a five-way race in REC’s August board election there was a clear winner among co-op member-owners who selected a candidate. Hanover County businessman Roddy Mitchell got more than twice as many member-owner votes as any of the four other candidates. You might call that a landslide win.

But through REC’s needlessly arcane and confusing proxy-voting process, REC’s board was able to allocate some 6,000 additional votes to the board-favored candidate, thereby swinging the election win to him. That board-favored candidate came in fourth out of five when looking at votes that member-owners cast for candidates.

When a board controls 40 to 60 percent or more of all votes, as REC’s board generally does, the board effectively controls the election outcome and “democracy” is an empty label.  

REC’s board controls huge numbers of votes each year because proxy ballots left blank are deemed by REC’s board as a delegation of the member-owner’s vote to the incumbent board to decide whom to cast them for. Moreover, REC offers those who send in a proxy, even a blank one, a chance to win cash prizes. That encourages member-owners to submit blank proxies, even if they have no interest in the election or makeup of the board. REC election tally forms going back over a decade show that every year REC’s incumbent board controls enough proxies to control election outcomes. For at least the past twelve years no candidate has won a race without getting the board-controlled votes. 

So the way to win an REC board election is to please incumbent board members, not to get the most votes from member-owners. That isn’t fair and it isn’t democratic. It leads to board groupthink, insulates boards from the concerns of member-owners, and discourages well-informed, knowledgeable co-op members from running for board.

A National Rural Electric Cooperative Association governance task force report recommended against using board-controlled proxies to swing election results. But REC’s board continues to ignore that recommendation years after it was made.  

Meanwhile, neighboring Shenandoah Valley Electric Cooperative’s (SVEC) board changed the co-op’s bylaws at a closed board meeting in June to help out an incumbent board member facing a strong challenge from another candidate in the August election. The board added a bylaw provision saying that in the case of a tie between an incumbent and non-incumbent candidate the incumbent would be deemed the winner of a one-year board term! 

As if that isn’t bad enough, REC board chair Chris Shipe said publicly a few weeks ago that SVEC’s board is considering changing its (fair) direct election process next year to a proxy system like REC’s. If SVEC follows through on that, then its board, like REC’s, will be able to determine election outcomes. That would make SVEC’s new tie-vote bylaw unnecessary. There are no ties when incumbent board members control election outcomes. 

SVEC’s board would then be fully insulated from member-owner concerns. That would greatly help incumbent board members, who recently approved major fixed-monthly-charge increases that disproportionately affect the co-op’s low-income member-owners and those who’ve invested in rooftop solar or energy efficiency.

There is currently no government oversight of Virginia electric co-op elections, and no law to ensure fair board-election procedures, prohibit abusive proxy practices, or prohibit using board-imposed bylaw changes to favor incumbents. This is important because electric cooperatives are essential service providers that operate as monopolies. Monopoly utilities seldom act in the best interest of their customers unless subjected to meaningful scrutiny, accountability, and independent oversight. Such oversight is lacking when entrenched co-op boards have ironclad control of board-election outcomes. It’s time for the General Assembly to step in and ensure basic, fair election practices to give Virginia electric cooperative member-owners a true say in the governance of the utilities they own.

Seth Heald is a retired U.S. Justice Department lawyer and has a master of science degree in energy policy and climate. He is a member-owner of Rappahannock Electric Cooperative and co-founder of Repower REC, a campaign to bring genuine democracy to Virginia’s electric co-ops. More information at RepowerREC.com