How a Biden presidency will help Virginia’s energy transition

Photo credit: NREL

Immediately following the 2016 election of Donald Trump, I wrote a column titled “Why Trump won’t stop the clean energy revolution.”

If you were to read it now, you would yawn. What seemed bold back then now feels like forecasting the inevitable. Of course coal has not come back. Of course wind and solar are cheaper now than fossil fuels. Of course people agree a zero-carbon future is achievable. 

Still, few of us could have predicted how far off course Trump would try to take us. Withdrawing from the Paris climate accord was the least of it. The Washington Post tallied more than 125 rollbacks of environmental regulations and policies over the past four years. Trump’s more flamboyant acts of perfidy distracted attention away from his sustained attack, not just on climate science, but on the laws protecting America’s lands, air and water.

Really, we should be grateful Trump staffed his administration with grifters and sycophants who repeatedly bungled the details and opened their decisions to legal challenge. Incompetence is underrated. Skilled managers would have done much more damage. 

Yet the past four years have also pushed us closer to the brink of climate chaos and the collapse of ecosystems. We wasted time we did not have. 

As president, Joe Biden will be able to undo most of the environmental rollbacks with new executive orders and agency actions. Biden has also promised a long list of new initiatives, though many of them would require Democratic control of the Senate. 

Virginia and other states partially filled the four-year void with commitments to decarbonize our electricity supply and build renewable energy. But even for Virginia the path to zero-carbon would be a lot easier with federal action. Public support for climate action is strong even from Republicans, though it’s hard to imagine a really aggressive climate bill getting a floor vote in the Senate while Mitch McConnell is in charge. (In my dreams, Maine Senator Susan Collins announces she is changing her party affiliation to Independent and will caucus with Democrats to get a climate bill passed. I have really great dreams.)

Let’s assume for now, though, that Joe is on his own. What can he do through executive orders and agency actions? A lot, it turns out, so I’ll just focus on a few high-profile moves and how they might affect the energy transition here in Virginia.

Carbon emissions: a new Clean Power Plan? Recall that back in 2016, the EPA finalized regulations under the Clean Air Act designed to reduce carbon emissions from power plants with state-by-state targets. Lawsuits and backpedaling by the Trump EPA prevented the Clean Power Plan from ever taking effect, and the replacement plan was derided for its weakness

Four years later, a Biden EPA could use the same Clean Air Act authority to write new regulations. The thing is, though, the Clean Power Plan put the squeeze on coal-dependent states but would have had virtually no effect on Virginia. And that was before the Virginia Clean Economy Act set us on a path to decarbonization, putting Virginia ahead of any revamped rule that might come out of the EPA now. 

A better scenario for us would be if the threat of new climate action from EPA brought Republican senators to the table for a climate bill that would, say, impose a carbon tax (or fee-and-dividend) in return for stripping EPA of its authority to regulate carbon emissions. 

But I promised to focus on what Biden can do without Congress, so let’s get back to that. 

Coal. Among the protections Trump tried to roll back are EPA regulations like the Mercury and Air Toxics Standard and the Coal Ash Rule, both of which limit pollution caused by coal plants. While both are in litigation (see “bungling,” above), we can expect the EPA under Biden to reverse course and, if anything, tighten these protections. Virginia has already committed to closing most of its coal plants, a decision that will prove even wiser when coal plants have to meet stricter standards.  

Of course, these Trump regulatory rollbacks didn’t do the coal industry any good. Nationally, coal plants have continued to close at an even faster rate than they did during Obama’s second term. The false hopes Trump offered for a coal renaissance forestalled real efforts to help communities in Appalachia transition. 

Here in Virginia, even coalfields legislators understand the need to diversify the economy of Southwest Virginia. Biden’s election is their wake-up call to stop trying to revive a past that was never a golden era for workers anyway, however enriching it was for the coal bosses. 

Fracked gas. Biden made it clear he would not ban fracking other than on federal lands, but we can expect stronger regulations to limit the leakage of methane from wellheads, pipelines and storage infrastructure. That’s a Virginia priority, too. 

Energy efficiency. Federal efficiency requirements for products including appliances and HVAC systems have proven to be low-cost and consumer-friendly. A renewed focus on strong national standards will help reduce per-capita energy consumption and help Virginia meet its carbon reduction goals at less cost to consumers. 

Wind and solar. It would take legislation to extend federal tax credits for renewable energy, but there are other actions the Biden administration can take to support wind and solar. These include increased funding of R&D through the Department of Energy (a program that already has support in Congress), and removing tariffs on imported solar panels. 

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission can also help wind and solar. FERC has caused its share of climate damage, most memorably for Virginians by approving the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley pipelines. FERC’s decisions also control the playing field for the electricity sector, including rules that currently disadvantage wind and solar in the wholesale markets. These rules could just as easily be rewritten. Although FERC is an independent agency, Biden will have an opportunity to appoint climate-friendly FERC commissioners as vacancies occur and terms expire. 

And indeed, FERC is already starting to come around. Chairman Neil Chatterjee recently hosted a technical conference and issued a proposed policy statement on carbon pricing in regional markets, an act that may have led Trump to demote him this month. 

Offshore wind. Within the Department of Interior, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) issues offshore energy leases and oversees development of offshore projects, including wind farms. More than a year ago offshore wind activity at BOEM ground almost to a halt, setting back one project after another. Congress isn’t happy, and it may direct more funding to BOEM to help re-start the process. 

Biden will also direct BOEM to get out of the way of current projects and begin the process of designating new offshore lease areas for development. Both of these are critical to Virginia’s clean energy plans. (Of course, an investment tax credit for offshore wind would help, too — but there I go again, looking for legislation.)

Transportation. Until Trump came in, the auto industry was gradually improving fuel economy standards in new cars and light trucks. Biden will put that program back in place, and likely impose more stringent tailpipe emission standards. These moves will boost the transition to electric and hybrid vehicles and lead to lower carbon emissions from the transportation sector, another Virginia priority.

Declaring a national climate emergency. It’s a long shot, but Biden could use his executive authority to declare a climate emergency the way Trump declared a national emergency to redirect funds from national defense to his border fence. There are many ways this could help the Virginia transition if Biden were to go this route. 

But of course he won’t. Biden is no Trump. And for that, we should all be grateful. 

This article was originally published in the Virginia Mercury on November 12, 2020.

The SCC’s vanishing trick: turning shared solar into no solar

Photo courtesy of Department of Energy, via Wikimedia Commons.

With Virginia fully committed to the clean energy transition, you would think that by now, residents would be able to check a box on their utility bill to buy solar energy, or at least be able to call up a third-party solar provider to sell them electricity from solar.

Not so. Sure, if you’re fortunate enough to own your own house or commercial building, and it’s in a sunny location and the roof is sound, you can install solar panels for your own use. Renters, though, are completely out of luck, which means almost all lower and moderate-income people are shut out of the solar market.

Actually, we were all supposed to be able to buy solar by now. A 2017 law required utilities to offer a “community solar” program. Utilities would buy electricity from solar facilities and sell it to customers. At least one electric cooperative followed through, but although Dominion Energy, Virginia’s biggest utility, created a program and had it approved by the SCC in 2018, the company has never offered it.

So this year the General Assembly passed two bills that would finally bring the benefits of solar energy to a broader range of customers. One would be community solar but under a different name. It would let anyone buy electricity from a “shared solar” facility, with at least 30 percent of the output reserved for low-income customers.

The other, the leadoff section of the Solar Freedom legislation, would let residents of apartment buildings and condominiums share the output of a solar array located on the premises or next door.

The bills were narrowed in committee to apply only in Dominion Energy territory (and for the multifamily program, to a part of Southwest Virginia served by Kentucky Utilities). Dominion also lobbied successfully for changes to the shared solar bill that raised red flags with solar industry members and advocates. Dominion has a long history of putting barriers in the way of customers who want solar, and the final language of the shared solar legislation pretty much invited that sort of mischief.

Still, it was left to the State Corporation Commission to write rules implementing the programs, so customers had reason to hope Dominion would not be allowed to make the programs unwieldy and expensive.

Ha. What has emerged from the SCC in the form of proposed rules manages to be both incoherent and everything Dominion wants. The reason for that is clear: most of the rules are copied and pasted from proposals Dominion submitted in August.

Adopting the recommendations of a company that failed to follow through on its own program seems like a bad idea. Hasn’t Dominion abdicated its right to tell other companies how to execute community solar?

And of course, with Dominion writing the rules, the programs won’t work. The shared solar option doesn’t kick in until at least 2023, and customers won’t be told what it will cost them. The SCC proposes to hold an “annual proceeding” to decide each year how much subscribers will have to pay in the form of a minimum bill, an amount that can then change from year to year.

This minimum bill is not the eight or nine dollar fixed charge that all customers pay today; it’s a whole new charge representing various of Dominion’s real or imagined costs of doing business, which Dominion says it needs to recover from the subscribers to compensate it for the fact that some other company is now selling them electricity.

How much might this be? No one knows. And because no one knows, it’s also impossible for solar companies or other third-party providers to offer the program. They can’t sell a product whose price is unknown, and banks aren’t going to loan them money to build a solar facility with no assurance that there will be customers.

There are really only two ways to save this program. The SCC could hold an evidentiary hearing upfront to examine the costs Dominion claims it needs to recover and then decide what the minimum bill ought to be. If that number is so high that the program can’t work, the SCC gets the privilege of telling the General Assembly there won’t be a shared solar program after all.

Alternatively, the SCC can follow the lead of states that already have successful programs and set the minimum bill (upfront) at a level that still saves customers money, so projects have a fighting chance of getting off the ground. If Dominion thinks it is losing money on the deal, that’s a claim it can pursue in its next rate case — which is where the dispute belongs.

Either way, the industry needs clarity, and it needs it now.

Multifamily solar: from straightforward to hopeless

The drafters of Solar Freedom thought they’d avoided the mess that threatens to tank the shared solar program. The multifamily provision of Solar Freedom is simply a way to let residents of apartment buildings and other multifamily units enjoy the same benefits available to homeowners who install solar under the net metering program. Instead of putting solar on a roof they own, they can buy the output of solar panels on the roof of the building where they live. It’s not net metering, but that’s the model.

Since the solar is onsite, none of these projects will be big. Keeping it simple and inexpensive is important. The law provides that utilities will credit participating customers for their share of solar at a rate “set such that the shared solar program results in robust project development and shared solar program access for all customer classes.” More specifically, the commission “shall annually calculate the applicable 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.”

The law couldn’t be clearer: there is to be no minimum bill, and the utility cannot load up a customer’s bill with lots of miscellaneous extra charges. All those charges that the SCC loads into the shared solar program’s minimum bill are, for the multifamily program, already included in the retail rate.

End of discussion? Not hardly. The SCC’s implementing rules — which are Dominion’s rules — get around this problem by dumping all the minimum bill elements from the shared solar rules onto the program provider instead (that is, the company that owns the solar panels).

Solar Freedom doesn’t actually allow that, either, so the SCC has decided these costs should be part of the one fee the utility is allowed to collect, for “reasonable costs of administering the program.” Never mind that items like “standby generation and balancing costs” have nothing to do with administering the program.

Oh, and the SCC won’t decide what the administrative charge will be until it holds an annual proceeding. And the amount can change every year. So once again, the SCC has designed a program that no solar company will be able to offer.

The SCC rules are so blatantly contrary to the program mandate set out in Solar Freedom that one can’t help but wonder whose side the SCC is on.

It is certainly not the customers’. We want solar.

The SCC is accepting comments on the proposed rules for both the shared solar and multifamily programs through Monday.

This article originally appeared in the Virginia Mercury on October 30, 2020.

Is a new pumped hydro project needed for the energy transition, or one more Dominion boondoggle?

Back in 2017, two Republican legislators from Southwest Virginia helped Dominion Energy Virginia secure legislation allowing the utility to charge ratepayers for a new pumped hydro storage facility to be built in the coalfields region. 

Dominion Energy headquarters, Richmond, VA
Dominion Energy’s new headquarters building in Richmond, Virginia

The law even deemed the project “in the public interest.” Three years later, Dominion included a new pumped hydro project in its 2020 Integrated Resource Plan. The 300-megawatt facility would be built in Tazewell County and come online in 2030.

But — surprise, surprise — details in the IRP reveal the project to be unneeded and its price exorbitant. That leaves just one question: Will the State Corporation Commission approve the IRP anyway?

Pumped hydro stores surplus energy using two reservoirs, one at the top of a hill and one at the bottom. When you need energy, you release water from the upper reservoir and let it flow down through a hydroelectric turbine to the lower reservoir. When you have a surplus of energy, you use it to pump water uphill to fill the upper reservoir. Repeat as needed. It’s not high-tech, but it gets the job done.

Today pumped storage is used mostly to store surplus energy at night from baseload fossil fuel and nuclear plants that run 24/7, then use the energy to meet the surge in demand during daylight and early evening hours. As wind and solar become bigger players, pumped storage can also help integrate these variable resources in much the same way that batteries can. 

But pumped storage is land-intensive, and each project has to be designed for its own particular site, making it expensive to develop. Or in this case, very expensive. In its 2017 Annual Report, Dominion said its project would cost up to $2 billion and provide up to 1,000 MW of storage capacity ($2 million per megawatt, not terrible for this kind of storage). Three years later the size has shrunk by 70 percent but the cost has actually gone up and now stands at $2.3 billion ($7.7 million per megawatt, genuinely terrible). 

That didn’t stop Dominion from including the 300 MW of new pumped storage hydro in every scenario of its IRP, not allowing its modeling software the option of rejecting it as unneeded or as more expensive than other options.

What was once an interesting project idea now looks a heck of a lot like another Dominion boondoggle.

As Virginia embarks on a transition to 100 percent carbon-free electricity, the ability to store energy has become a hot topic of discussion. How much do we need, and can batteries do it all? The one advantage that pumped storage has over batteries is that a pumped storage facility can supply energy over a longer duration: 10 hours as opposed to the four hours typical of most batteries. For the rare occasions when you really need those extra hours, pumped hydro can be a solution.

As it happens, though, Dominion is already the majority owner of the world’s largest pumped hydro project. The 3,000 MW facility in Bath County, Virginia, has been in operation since 1985. Dominion earns money by selling its energy storage service to the operator of the regional transmission grid, PJM Interconnection. 

Three thousand megawatts is a lot of storage; the Bath County facility is even nicknamed “the world’s largest battery.” So building more pumped storage would only be reasonable if the Bath County facility were already being used to its maximum capacity (or was projected to max out in the future), and if a new facility could meet a need that can’t be met by alternatives like batteries. Unfortunately for Dominion, neither of those is true. Tazewell is a solution in search of a problem. 

Consumers smell a rat. Dominion customer Glen Besa intervened in the IRP case this summer to challenge the inclusion of the Tazewell project. Besa retired a few years ago as director of the Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club; he is acting on his own behalf in this case, represented by attorney William Reisinger of the firm ReisingerGooch. 

The firm hired energy storage expert Kerinia Cusick. Her testimony points out that the IRP shows the Bath County facility is expected to be used lessover the coming years, not more. The IRP projects capacity factors for the facility will decline steadily from 10.7 percent in 2021 to 7.5 percent in 2035. If an existing facility has spare capacity, there is no good case for building another facility like it.

Cusick also compared the $2.3 billion cost of the Tazewell project to an equivalent amount of battery storage. Not surprisingly, the battery storage won hands down. Indeed, Cusick noted, the cost of battery storage has fallen over the years and is projected to continue doing so. By contrast, she found Dominion had understated the costs of the pumped storage project by excluding items like land costs and taxes. (The real number she calculated, unfortunately, is not available to us. It has been redacted from the public version of Cusick’s testimony.)

In sum, there is no need for the Tazewell project, and no economic case to support it. Adding billions of dollars in unneeded infrastructure to Dominion’s rate base will add profit for Dominion shareholders but drive up electricity bills for consumers.

There’s no way the SCC would let Dominion get away with this if legislators hadn’t used the magic words “in the public interest.” Now the question is whether those magic words are all it takes to ram a project through.

The SCC takes its job of protecting ratepayers seriously; it does not welcome legislative interference. Only grudgingly did the SCC allow itself to be coerced into approving Dominion’s offshore wind pilot when the legislature proclaimed the pilot project in the public interest. In that case, after pointing out the high cost and risks borne by ratepayers, the SCC order concluded by grumbling, “Recent amendments to Virginia laws that mandate that such a project be found to be ‘in the public interest’ make it clear that certain factual findings must be subordinated to the clear legislative intent expressed in the laws governing the petition.”

But the offshore wind pilot was just that, a pilot, and its $300 million price tag represented an investment in a new industry that is expected to become a mainstay of Virginia’s future energy supply. Legislators knew the costs, and judged them acceptable. 

Pumped hydro, on the other hand, is a mature technology. The proposed Tazewell project won’t lead to bigger and better things, driving costs down along the way. Legislators deemed it “in the public interest” for Dominion to locate a pumped storage project in the coalfields because they are desperate for jobs there. But they were misled about the actual cost. That ought to matter.

If it doesn’t matter — if the SCC decides “in the public interest” always means a blank check to Dominion, written by the General Assembly but charged to the account of customers — then legislators need to change the law. We can’t afford another boondoggle.

This article originally appeared in the Virginia Mercury on October 7, 2020.

The facts about coal plants Dominion didn’t want you to know

smokestack

Photo credit Stiller Beobachter

Last winter, during the fight to pass the Virginia Clean Economy Act, Dominion Energy lobbyists went out of their way to save the company’s youngest coal plant in Wise County. It worked. Legislators exempted the Virginia City Hybrid Energy Center from closure until 2045, when Dominion has to shutter all its fossil fuel generation.

VCHEC was approved in 2008 and built in 2013 as a boondoggle for Dominion, earning the company an enhanced rate of return. It was also intended as an expensive gift from then-Gov. Tim Kaine to coalfield Democrats, who went on to lose their seats anyway. Even then, it was a terrible deal for Dominion’s customers and the climate, with all the carbon pollution you expect from coal and a cost that was twice that of cleaner alternatives.

No wonder it proved to be one of the last coal plants ever built in the U.S.

Knowing this, and knowing the determination of this year’s General Assembly to turn the commonwealth in the direction of clean energy, you might not have expected VCHEC to have a lot of friends left in Richmond. But Dominion never told legislators what it would cost consumers to keep its coal plants running. Among all the criticism of the price tag associated with Virginia’s energy transition — much of that criticism coming from Dominion itself — one crucial fact gets lost: It’s coal that is hitting consumers the hardest.

An analysis Dominion reluctantly made public last month as part of its Integrated Resource Planning case shows that VCHEC is far and away the worst performing economically of all the utility’s fossil fuel-burning plants. This one coal plant carries a 10-year net present value of negative $472 million. (The analysts didn’t extend their calculations out to 2045, where it would certainly cross a billion dollars; maybe they were running low on red ink.)

VCHEC isn’t the only coal plant in Dominion’s fleet with a negative valuation, just the worst. In fact, all the Virginia coal plants have negative values.

These are Dominion’s numbers, not those of the Sierra Club or the other environmental and consumer groups challenging Dominion’s plans. The Sierra Club hired a consulting company to run its own analysis, using a standard utility model. That analysis concluded it would be cheaper for customers to build more solar now and speed up the closure not just of VCHEC but of all Dominion’s coal plants. This includes even the company’s Mount Storm coal plant in West Virginia, the only one assigned a positive economic value in Dominion’s analysis. From a customer standpoint, all of them should go.

Maybe that’s not too surprising. We already knew coal was dead. But how many of us knew we were paying to prop up the corpse?

Dominion’s lawyers tried to keep the terrible cost numbers out of the public’s hands, contending it was “confidential commercial and financial information that other entities could use to their competitive advantage in future negotiations.” I can imagine these future meetings: the other entities would be so busy mocking Dominion that, indeed, negotiations might stall permanently.

Fortunately for all of us, the Attorney General’s Office of Consumer Counsel persuaded the SCC the information should be public. Some information truly is confidential; this is merely embarrassing. Dominion’s customers—and the General Assembly—should know what it’s costing us to prop up coal.

This article originally appeared in the Virginia Mercury on September 24, 2020.

The analysis Dominion ultimately produced, showing 10-year Net Present Values for certain of its generating units, under various scenarios. Notice biomass doesn’t do too well either. The analysis omits some additional units, apparently because they are already scheduled for retirement.

Hurricanes mean power outages. Resilience hubs can help.

Satellite imagery shows Hurricane Isabel in 2003

Hurricane Isabel was one of Virginia’s worst natural disasters–and it was only a category 2 storm when it made landfall in North Carolina. Photo credit NOAA National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service (NESDIS)

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says this year’s hurricane season could set a record for the number of storms big enough to be given names. NOAA now predicts a total of 19 to 25 named storms (winds of 39 mph or greater) in the Atlantic, of which 7 to 11 are likely to become hurricanes. Isaias, a Category 1 hurricane, was already the ninth named storm of this season.

With global warming heating the ocean and making hurricanes worse, states and localities have to prepare not just for the storms but also for their aftermath, when residents are left without power, sometimes for days.

I still have keen and unpleasant memories of 2003’s Hurricane Isabel, one of Virginia’s deadliest and costliest storms. My family was among the 2 million households who lost power.

For eight days we used a camp lantern for light and cooked outside over fires kindled in a Weber grill. We ate our way through the thawing contents of the freezer, then got creative with canned foods. We have a well with an electric pump, so our water supply consisted of what was in the jugs and pots we filled before the storm hit. And without power for our septic pump, we could not put anything down the drain or flush toilets. (My daughters were just hitting their teen years at the time. You can imagine how well they took this.)

Still, we were lucky. We didn’t need power to run a medical device like an oxygen machine or wheelchair, or to keep medicine refrigerated. Firewood and a grill gave us a cooking option we wouldn’t have had if we lived in an apartment, and we owned plenty of jugs and pots to hold water. Most importantly, if it had gotten bad enough we could have left in our car — something many city dwellers don’t have, especially if they are low-income or elderly.

After Isabel, a lot of my neighbors went out and got generators, buying peace of mind for themselves but underscoring how the wealth gap affects even the ability to weather a storm. Yet in these intervening years, electricity has truly become central to everything Americans do. We get our information over the internet; business happens online; cell phones have replaced landlines. In an emergency, having access to electricity can mean the difference between getting help and having none.

The traditional government response to a hurricane warning is to issue evacuation orders and designate emergency shelters, but experience has shown that a lot of people stay put. Some can’t afford to leave or lack transportation. Others have pets they can’t take with them and won’t leave behind, or they fear looters might take advantage of their absence. Distrust of government probably plays a role, too, making some folks prefer to take their chances with a storm than let people in uniform tell them what to do.

And this year, of course, the pandemic will make people even more hesitant to leave home.

The hurricane hunker-downers, and everyone else left without power after a storm, need access to electricity that doesn’t depend on the grid. There weren’t many options 17 years ago, when Isabel hit. Since then, though, the technological innovations that are transforming our energy supply have also created ways to keep the power flowing that don’t require balky, fuel-dependent generators.

Solar panels on a community center, school or other centrally-located and publicly-accessible building can provide continuous power when the sun is shining; adding batteries allows the panels to keep providing power at night and when the grid is down. Even just a few solar panels can power lights and provide cellphone charging. A larger array will run a refrigerator, microwave, television and coffeemaker. If it is large enough, it can even provide heating and cooling.

A site like this might serve as an emergency shelter for evacuees, or be part of a microgrid that includes nearby critical services such as a police or fire station. But it could be just a neighborhood location where people drop by to charge phones and computers, heat food, get news and see familiar faces. This concept is known as a “resilience hub,” and it’s the sort of modest investment that punches above its weight in community benefits. Good emergency planning should include locating a resilience hub wherever people are most likely to suffer in the aftermath of a storm due to lack of mobility, old age, disability or poverty.

The challenge, of course, is that a resilience hub or microgrid requires an upfront investment. Solar panels pay for themselves over time by reducing electricity bills, but someone still has to front the cost. Legislation passed this year makes that much easier, and local governments are already saving money with solar on public buildings across the state.

The battery is more of a problem. If it simply sits around waiting for a power outage, it won’t earn its keep over the 10-15 years of its useful life. A battery that isn’t providing useful services on a regular basis is also bad for the planet, since batteries have an environmental footprint of their own.

But a battery doesn’t need to sit idle. When it is not being used to provide stored energy in a power outage, the battery could provide a range of benefits to the grid, helping to meet peak demand, integrate renewable energy, and provide frequency regulation and other ancillary services. This is such a valuable service to the grid that in Vermont, utility Green Mountain Power pays for much of the cost of batteries in the homes of customers in exchange for the right to use them.

Virginia has no resilience hubs yet, and the fiscal crisis caused by the pandemic means local governments may not have funding for them. However, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is offering $500 million in grants under a program that looks tailor-made for resilience hubs and microgrids that power critical services and other community needs on an emergency basis.

Our utilities could also play an active role. The recently enacted Virginia Clean Economy Act (VCEA) provides all the authority Dominion Energy Virginia and Appalachian Power need to support solar-plus-storage at neighborhood locations. The law permits the utilities to even own the solar, if they want to, if an array meets a 50-kilowatt minimum size.

More importantly, Dominion and Appalachian can own the batteries, or contract with third parties to be able to use them. The VCEA sets out ambitious energy storage targets that include a “goal of installing at least 10 percent of such energy storage projects behind the meter”—a category that includes most customer-sited storage. The VCEA also allows utilities to select storage projects on a basis other than cost if a project “materially advances non-price criteria, including favoring geographic distribution of generating facilities.”

The State Corporation Commission took comments this summer on how to implement the VCEA’s requirements for energy storage. This is a good opportunity for the SCC to look beyond utility-scale projects that deliver storage services to the grid cheaply, but do nothing to provide backup power when the grid goes down. The SCC should insist utilities include storage at resilience hubs in neighborhoods that are most at risk from storms, and where residents are least likely to have other options when the grid goes down.

That probably won’t be near my house, but I’m okay with help going to the communities where it is most needed. This year’s pandemic has exposed the interconnectedness of our lives in ways that usually lie beneath the surface. Whether it’s a virus, a natural disaster, climate change or acts of injustice, we are really all part of the same community.

This article originally appeared in the Virginia Mercury on August 24, 2020.

Climate action begins at home. (Literally. With houses.)

cartoon pig laying bricksYou remember the story of the Three Little Pigs. First the little pigs built themselves a house out of straw, but the big, bad wolf huffed and puffed and blew it down. Barely escaping with their lives, the little pigs built a new house out of sticks, but again the big, bad wolf blew it down. Wiser at last, the little pigs built their third house out of brick, and they lived happily ever after because the wolf could not blow it down.

When you were a child, you probably did not realize what must be obvious to you now: the story is really about the importance of building codes. Shoddy construction brings nothing but grief, as the little pigs learned, and in the end it costs you more than if you had used high-quality materials right from the start.

The story is silent on whether our young porcine heroes also concerned themselves with the energy performance of their house, but it stands to reason they would have taken an interest in the U factors of windows and the R values of wall and ceiling insulation. Their experience with tropical storm-force wolf breath would have given them an appreciation for the snuggest possible construction. Possibly they even went on to put solar panels on their roof and an electric vehicle in the garage, but on this we can only speculate.

I bring up this story now because Virginia is in the final stages of adopting an update to its residential building code, a process the Board of Housing and Community Development undertakes every three years. In addition to ensuring the safety of wiring and plumbing and so forth, the Uniform Statewide Building Code sets standards that determine whether a new home is drafty and expensive to heat and cool, or will be comfortable, healthy and frugal with energy.

Remarkably, the board is currently proposing to continue outdated efficiency standards dating back years instead of adopting the more energy-saving provisions of the latest International Energy Conservation Code (IECC), or even going beyond the IECC to Earth Craft or Passive House standards.

In spite of the global pretensions of its name, the IECC is a national model code. Virginia law specifically instructs the board to refer to the IECC in adopting provisions that permit buildings to be constructed at least cost “consistent with recognized standards of health, safety, energy conservation and water conservation.” The code suggests that the board may go beyond the IECC for purposes of health and safety, but should not fall short of its standards.

So why is the board proposing lower standards? As far as we know, there is no wolf lobby advocating for flimsy homes, but there is a homebuilder lobby doing its own share of huffing and puffing — and Virginia’s code adoption process gives the homebuilders an outsized role in the decision-making process.

Better-insulated houses cost builders slightly more to build. They pass along the added costs if they can, but if buyers won’t pay more, the higher costs cut into profits. This being bad for business, builders prefer to lobby for lower standards that are cheaper to meet, insisting they have only the poor buyers’ pocketbooks at heart.

Their argument is, if you will pardon the expression, hogwash. Research demonstrates that houses built to the highest efficiency standards save far more money on energy over time than they add to the upfront cost of the house. This becomes especially important for occupants who don’t make much money and who struggle to afford utility bills.

The board should ignore homebuilder objections and put the needs of building occupants first. Gov. Ralph Northam made it clear with his Executive Order 43 last fall that the commonwealth is now committed to a path of clean energy and energy efficiency. Bringing energy costs down for residents is not a side effect of the energy transition, but a feature. As he noted in the order, “Low-income households pay proportionately more than the average household for energy costs and often experience negative long-term effects on their health and welfare.”

The climate crisis also makes it urgent that we use building codes to reduce our fossil fuel use. The Virginia Clean Economy Act will transition the electric sector to clean energy, but it does not require buildings to become more efficient. This is a problem because buildings represent 40 percent of all energy use and houses typically last between 40 and 100 years.

Some retrofits can be made later, at higher cost, but the cheapest and simplest approach is to build houses snugly to begin with. They should also be sited with solar in mind and have wiring in place to make solar easy. Ultimately (and “ultimately” has got to be pretty darn soon), we have to start building homes that produce as much energy as they use.

The board is accepting comments on its proposal through June 26. The Sierra Club has set up a webpage to forward comments urging the board to adopt high efficiency standards.

Update July 1: The Board of Housing and Community Development is no longer accepting written comments from the public on its proposed updates to the building code. Advocates may write to Governor Northam asking him to insist that the Board at least adopt the provisions of the 2018  International Energy Conservation Code, and additional measures recommended by the Sierra Club’s comments to the Board to save more energy and combat climate change.  

An earlier version of this article appeared originally in the Virginia Mercury on June 23, 2020.

The dog that didn’t bark: the case of the missing electric co-op members.

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Photo by Seth Heald

 

Readers of Rappahannock Electric Cooperative’s monthly magazine, Cooperative Living, found a surprise when the magazine’s May 2020 issue arrived. The surprise wasn’t what was in the magazine, but what was missing, calling to mind Sherlock Holmes’s key insight in Arthur Conan Doyle’s story The Adventure of Silver Blaze, featuring a dog that didn’t bark. As Holmes explained to a Scotland Yard detective, sometimes what didn’t happen is as significant as what did.

In an annual tradition going back at least a decade and likely much longer, REC each May publishes in its member magazine a list of co-op members or former members whom REC owes money to but has lost track of. The list usually takes up around two full pages, with perhaps 500 to 800 names listed in small print. Readers are encouraged to look for their own names as well as names of others, and to notify REC if they have information about how to find these missing people. The funds in question are “retired capital credits,” a/k/a “patronage capital,” meaning money belonging to the co-op member-owners that has been invested in the co-op for a time and can now be returned. (As a cooperative, REC is owned by its customers, who are called “member-owners” or just “members.”)

But this year, instead of listing the names in its magazine, REC advised readers they could view the list online. The magazine gave no explanation why REC had changed its longstanding annual practice of publishing the list in the magazine, which is mailed to all of REC’s roughly 140,000 member-owners, some of whom don’t have internet service.

So, wondering why REC had changed its publication practice, I took a look at the list online and discovered that it was 74 pages long, with about 21,000 names.

One mystery solved. Others arise.

One mystery was solved. No wonder REC didn’t print the list in Cooperative Living—doing so would have taken up nearly two entire monthly issues of the 40-page magazine. But additional mysteries arose:

  • Why is the list so long this year (37 times longer than in most years)?
  • How does an electric co-op with around 140,000 members lose track of 21,000 members or former members?
  • Why didn’t REC explain in its magazine why this year’s list is so huge?
  • And is REC’s board at all concerned about a system that retains people’s money for such a long time that 21,000 of them can’t be located when it’s time to return the funds?

I checked with REC and learned that this year’s list of lost REC members is long because in 2017 REC’s power supplier, Old Dominion Electric Cooperative (ODEC), returned patronage capital (a/k/a capital credits) to its member owners, including REC. ODEC had originally obtained that patronage capital from margins (excess annual revenues) that ODEC received decades ago—in the 1980s and apparently even earlier.

REC’s practice for patronage capital it receives back from ODEC is to pass the funds through to REC’s members who bought electricity from REC during the years in which ODEC originally collected the patronage capital. REC said it waits three years after receiving the funds from ODEC before concluding that a former member cannot be located, and then publishes the list of those missing.

I looked at ODEC’s 2017 annual report and learned that in December 2016 its board of directors “declared a patronage capital retirement of $5.8 million, to be paid on April 3, 2017.” REC is the largest member-owner of ODEC, so REC received a good portion of that $5.8 million capital-credit retirement in 2017.

Of course, many of REC’s member-owners from over 30 years ago are no longer around. And that explains why REC can’t find some 21,000 of its former member owners—many of them are long since dead, and others moved away.

Perhaps some REC members will check the 21,000-name list and recognize a name or two, but it seems likely that most of those 21,000 people or their heirs won’t be found. One REC member who checked the list saw her deceased father’s name on it. He moved away from Virginia decades ago and then died in 2013. When the daughter contacted REC, the co-op sent her a letter explaining the cumbersome steps she will have to follow to collect the several hundred dollars owed to her father’s estate.

ODEC financial statements show that ODEC paid additional capital credits to its member-owners in years after 2017: $14.1 million in 2018 and $4.3 million in 2020. That 2018 payment is nearly three times the 2017 amount, meaning that when REC publishes next year’s list of lost members, which may be as long as this year’s, the amounts involved will be substantially greater. This is important, because some people recognizing names of deceased relatives on this year’s list might conclude that the amount they can get from REC now is not worth the considerable trouble it could take to gather the documentation needed to make a claim to REC.  But their calculus on that might change if they know that next year there might be nearly triple as much available. And if they gather and submit the paperwork this year, they won’t have to repeat that process next year.

The theory of cooperative ownership of an electric utility is that member-owners, who are the business’s customers, invest some of their funds in the business as capital, in order to keep the costs of goods sold (electricity) low. That’s why electric co-ops retain excess annual revenues (called “margins”) for a time and then later pay them back to members as retired capital credits, if conditions allow. (More on that here.)  But is that business model really working when a cooperative holds on to the funds for so many decades that a significant number of the member-owners whose funds were retained can no longer be found? One would hope that’s an issue REC’s board members find concerning, but we don’t know what REC’s board thinks because it operates in complete secrecy when setting REC’s capital-credit policies.

For the past two years, the Repower REC reform campaign has urged REC’s board to be fully transparent about the co-op’s capital credit policies, but the board has resisted. REC doesn’t even tell its members what their accrued total capital credit balance is unless the members know enough to ask for that information. Repower REC urged REC to disclose that basic information at least once a year on each member’s bill, but the co-op hasn’t done it.

Lack of transparency discourages democratic participation.

By not fully informing REC member-owners about the details of their co-op’s (and its power supplier’s) capital credit practices, REC’s board indirectly discourages member-owner participation in the democratic governance of the co-op. For if more member-owners understood the details of how capital credits are supposed to work, and how they actually work in practice at REC, then more co-op members would be motivated to demand that board members address a situation where tens of thousands of co-op members (or their heirs) may be losing the funds they invested in the co-op decades ago.

According to the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, “the return of [co-op members’] investment through the allocation and retirement of capital credits is one of the concepts that defines a cooperative and distinguishes it from another form of business.” To remain relevant as a legitimate form of business ownership for a monopoly utility, REC, ODEC, and other electric co-ops need to step up their game when it comes to transparency about capital credit practices and ensuring that patronage capital is actually returned to co-op members in a fair and timely manner.

When a 140,000-member Virginia electric cooperative can’t find 21,000 of its members or former members to return their investments, something is wrong.

Seth Heald is a member-owner of Rappahannock Electric Cooperative and co-founder of the Repower REC campaign.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What part of ‘zero’ doesn’t Dominion understand?

Photo courtesy os the Sierra Club.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Dominion Energy Virginia filed its 2020 Integrated Resource Plan on May 1. Instead of charting the electric utility’s pathway to zero carbon emissions, it announced its intent to hang on to all its gas plants, and even add to the number. In doing so, it revealed a company so thoroughly wedded to fracked gas that it would rather flout Virginia law and risk its own future than do the hard work of transforming itself.

The Virginia Clean Economy Act may be new, but Dominion can hardly claim to be surprised by the commonwealth’s move away from fossil fuels. Gov. Ralph Northam’s executive order last September set a statewide target of zero carbon emissions from the electric sector by 2050. “Challenge accepted,” said a Dominion spokesman at the time, and in February of this year the company claimed it was embracing a 2050 net-zero-carbon goal company-wide. A month later, passage of the Clean Economy Act moved the deadline up to 2045 for Dominion, keeping it at 2050 for utilities that lack Dominion’s head start of 30 percent nuclear power.

Dominion’s IRP, however, does not accept the challenge to get off fossil fuels. It rejects the challenge, directing a giant middle finger at the governor and the General Assembly. Dominion’s “preferred” plan keeps the utility’s existing fracked gas generating plants — currently 40 percent of its electric generation — operating through 2045. The IRP acknowledges this violates the law, so it argues against the law.

The IRP posits that if Dominion stops burning gas in Virginia, it will instead simply buy electricity from out of state, some of which will be generated by gas, and this will cost more money without reducing carbon emissions at the regional level. Better, then, to keep burning gas in Virginia.

It gets worse. The IRP actually proposes increasing the number of gas combustion turbines in Dominion’s fleet. The VCEA imposes a two-year moratorium on new fossil fuel plants, so Dominion’s timetable has these gas peaker plants coming online in 2023 and 2024. The justification is vague; the IRP cites “probable” reliability problems related to adding a lot of solar, but it offers no analysis to back this up, much less any discussion of non-gas alternatives.

Dominion’s flat-out refusal to abandon gas by 2045 poisons the rest of the document. The IRP is supposed to show a utility’s plans over a 15-year period, in this case up to 2035. And for those years, the IRP includes the elements of the VCEA that make money for Dominion: the build-out of solar, offshore wind and energy storage projects. It also includes money-saving retirements of outmoded coal, oil and biomass plants, as the VCEA requires. Heck, it even includes plans to close a coal plant the VCEA would allow to stay open in spite of its poor economic outlook (the Clover plant, half-owned by Old Dominion Electric Cooperative.)

But the IRP proposes no energy efficiency measures beyond those mandated by the VCEA between now and 2025. Dominion hates energy efficiency; it reduces demand, which is bad for business. So the company has made no effort to think deeply about how energy efficiency and other demand-side measures can support a zero-carbon grid — or, for that matter, how customer-owned solar can be made a part of the solution, rather than part of the problem.

This isn’t surprising: a plan that contemplates keeping gas plants around indefinitely looks very different, even in the first 15 years, from a plan that closes them all within 10 years after that.

A company that really accepted the challenge of creating a zero-carbon energy supply would not just get creative in its own planning; it would look beyond generating and supplying electricity, at the larger universe of solutions. It would advocate for buildings constructed to need much less energy, including for heating and cooling, to lessen the seasonal peaks in energy demand.

It would want the state to embrace strong efficiency standards. It would press its corporate and institutional customers to upgrade their facilities and operations to save energy, especially at times of peak demand. It would partner with communities to create microgrids. It would invest in innovation.

In short, it would ask “How can we achieve our fossil-free goal?” instead of asking “How can we keep burning gas?”

It’s not hard to understand why Dominion clings to gas; its parent company is fighting desperately to keep the Atlantic Coast Pipeline project alive in the face of spiraling costs (now up to $8 billion), an increasingly uphill battle at the State Corporation Commission to stick utility ratepayers with the costs of a redundant gas supply contract and a dearth of other customers anywhere along the route.

What is really hard to understand, though, is why Dominion chose to be quite so transparent in its disdain for the VCEA. Senator Jennifer McClellan and Delegate Rip Sullivan, both Democrats, who introduced the law and negotiated its terms with Dominion lobbyists and other stakeholders through many long days and nights, reacted to the IRP with entirely predictable outrage. In a statement they responded:

“The VCEA requires Virginia utilities to step up to the plate and be active leaders in carbon reduction. Dominion Energy’s IRP is tantamount to quitting the game before the first pitch is thrown. The law sets clear benchmarks for Virginia to reach 100 percent clean energy by 2045, not for utilities to plan to import carbon-polluting energy from West Virginia or Kentucky.”

Senator McClellan, it might be pointed out, could be on her way to becoming Virginia’s next governor. Most companies would hesitate to offend a leader of her stature, as well as such a prominent Democratic leader as Delegate Sullivan.

A growing number of legislators also seem interested in ending Dominion’s monopoly and bringing retail choice to Virginia. Though the bill that would have done that didn’t make it out of committee this year, the high-handed tone of the IRP will push more legislators into the anti-monopoly camp.

Arrogance and complacency seem like dangerous traits in times like these, but that’s Dominion for you. It will rise to any challenge, as long as the challenge doesn’t require anything the company didn’t already want to do.

A version of this article appeared in the Virginia Mercury on May 14, 2020.

Want a better understanding of how this year’s legislation works? I’m presenting the ins and outs of over a dozen bills in these three webinars:

  • What to expect when you’re expecting an energy transition, May 14, 2020 (recording available here)
  • New solar opportunities for homeowners, businesses and nonprofits, May 21, 2020, 5:30 p.m., register here
  • New tools for local governments to cut carbon, May 28, 2020, 5:30 p.m., register here

COVID-19 throws a lemon at Virginia’s plan for an energy transition. It’s time for lemonade.

solar panels on a school roof

The solar panels on Wilson Middle School are saving money for Augusta County taxpayers. Photo courtesy of Secure Futures.

In mid-March, the Virginia General Assembly passed legislation to transition our economy from fossil fuels to clean energy over the coming years. Two weeks later, Virginia shut down in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Among the businesses whose very existence is now in peril are the energy efficiency companies and solar installers we will be counting on to get us off fossil fuels.

Home weatherization and energy efficiency programs have come to an almost complete halt in Virginia, including programs run by Dominion Energy Virginia. Nationwide, the energy efficiency sector has lost almost 70,000 jobs. Meanwhile, companies that install solar, especially rooftop systems, report plummeting sales. The Solar Energy Industries Association reports that nationally, 55 percent of solar workers are already laid off or suffering cutbacks.

The timing seems terrible — although to be fair, there’s no good time for an economy-crushing, worldwide pandemic. Eventually, however, the virus will run its course or be defeated through vaccine or cure. At that point, we will face a choice: we can stagger blinking out into the sunlight aimlessly wondering now what?, or we can execute the well-developed plan we have spent these weeks and months formulating.

Let’s go with the second option.

First, it’s worth remembering that nothing happening now will change the trajectory of clean energy. Solar and wind had banner years in 2019, continuing their steady march to dominance. Wind has become the largest single source of electricity in two states, Iowa and Kansas. The island of Kauai in Hawaii is now 56 percent powered by renewable energy, mostly solar. Across the U.S. wind, solar and hydro produce more electricity than coal. Wind is the cheapest form of new electric generation nationally; solar takes pride of place in Virginia.

Meanwhile, fossil fuel is even more firmly on its way out. Six of the top seven U.S. coal companies have gone into bankruptcy since 2015. That was before the lockdown sent energy demand down, further hurting high-priced coal.

Fracked gas helped kill coal but is itself vulnerable to price competition from renewables. Odd as it sounds, the collapse in oil prices will make natural gas more expensive. That’s because oil producers in Texas and North Dakota are closing wells that produced natural gas along with oil. The tightening supply of gas may finally make fracking companies in Appalachia profitable, but it means higher prices for utilities. Wind and solar will just keep looking better.

The Trump administration is still trying futilely to hold back the tide, but the U.S. will get a lot farther riding the wave than struggling against it. Congressional leaders should declare the country “all in” on clean energy. Instead of bailing out the highly polluting fossil fuel industries, they should put that money to work creating more jobs and economic development — and actually doing something about climate change — with energy efficiency and renewables.

Congress should return the Investment Tax Credit for solar (and offshore wind) to the 30 percent level in effect last year and keep it there, instead of continuing the phase-out now in effect. Congress should also give solar owners the option of taking the credit as a cash grant, as it did during the last recession, and for the same reason: tax-based incentives are less useful in a recession, when companies can’t use the credits.

Virginia’s Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner have a critical role to play in convincing their colleagues to support solar. So far neither is rising to the task.

On the state level, Northam did the right thing in signing this year’s energy legislation, allowing utilities and industry members to start planning for the future. But the Clean Economy Act gets wind and solar off to a very slow start; Dominion doesn’t have to build Virginia solar for five years yet. And though the new laws remove many policy constraints on customer-sited solar, they offer next to nothing in the way of financial incentives.

Governor Northam should make it clear he intends to make rooftop solar a priority for next year, along with projects on closed landfills, former coal mine areas, and other brownfields, with a special focus on areas hardest-hit economically. He can also encourage corporations that do business in Virginia to meet their sustainability goals with Virginia wind and solar, starting right now.

The governor should also prioritize building efficiency. Virginia will be adopting a new residential building code this year, and if past years are any indication, its energy efficiency provisions will fall short of the most recent model code standard. It’s up to the governor to make sure Virginia adopts the full code.

Local governments are already taking advantage of suddenly-empty buildings to accelerate maintenance and repairs. But it’s a good time to think bigger, with new financing tools available that make energy efficiency retrofits and solar facilities cash-positive right from the start.

Energy performance contracting allows the energy savings to pay for retrofits. The Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy keeps a list of pre-qualified energy service companies and offers expertise to help local government employees navigate the process.

This year’s legislation also greatly expanded local governments’ ability to finance on-site solar through third-party power purchase agreements, effective July 1. The PPAs are structured so that a school district, municipality or any commercial or non-profit customer can have a solar array installed at no cost, paying just for the energy produced.

In December, Fairfax County awarded contracts for PPAs to install solar on more than a hundred sites, including schools and other government buildings. The county’s contract is “rideable,” which allows other counties and cities to piggyback, getting the same terms without the need for new contract negotiations.

Unfortunately, local governments in southwest Virginia are prevented from pursuing PPAs — not by state legislation, which allows it starting July 1, but by a contract with Appalachian Power that governs their electricity purchases from the utility. The contract is up for renewal this year; disgracefully, APCo is refusing to agree to new terms allowing the localities to use solar PPAs. APCo should back off, and let local governments in economically depressed southwest Virginia start saving money and supporting solar jobs this year.

Arlington County has gone beyond on-site solar, contracting for a share of a large solar farm in southern Virginia that will provide more than 80 percent of the electricity for county government operations. It’s a model any locality can adopt.

Virginia residents and businesses also have good reasons to focus on clean energy. The enforced down-time many people are experiencing means more time to research options, and companies are motivated to offer low prices on energy efficiency upgrades and rooftop solar.

The federal government offers more generous tax credits this year than next. Credits for residential energy efficiency equipment and a deduction for energy efficient commercial buildings expire at the end of this year.

The investment tax credit for solar (as well as for geothermal heat pumps, fuel cells and small wind turbines) stands at 26% for projects placed in operation this year, but it will drop to 22% in 2021. It falls to 10% for commercial customers and disappears altogether for residential customers in 2022. If Congress acts to raise the credit to 30%, buyers will get an even bigger boost. If it doesn’t, there will be a rush this year to get projects done by the end of the year, so customers should secure their place in line now.

Virginia nonprofits have helped hundreds of residents and businesses save money on solar and EV chargers through bulk purchasing programs. Virginia Solar United Neighbors just announced a series of virtual information sessions to promote the Arlington Solar EV Co-op. And LEAP, which closed operations temporarily due to the virus, reports it has restarted two programs, Solarize NOVA and Solarize Piedmont.

In an ideal world, the U.S. would already be well along in executing a comprehensive plan for a clean energy transition, one that includes job retraining for workers, and that resists counterproductive efforts to save the fossil fuel industry. But we can do the next best thing, and use the tools of government, the market and consumer choice to speed us in the right direction.

COVID-19 has handed all of us a big, fat lemon. Let’s make some lemonade.

 

A version of this article appeared originally in the Virginia Mercury on April 30, 2020.

 

With a framework for Virginia’s energy transition in place, here’s what happens next

workers installing solar panels on a roof

One expected effect of the Clean Economy Act will be a boom in solar jobs across Virginia. Photo courtesy of NREL.

With Democrats in charge, Virginia passed a suite of bills that establish a sturdy framework for a transition to renewable energy in the electric sector.

At the center of this transformation are the Clean Economy Act, HB1526/SB851, and the Clean Energy and Community Flood Preparedness Act, HB981/SB1027. Other new laws direct further planning, make it easier for customers to install solar, improve the process for siting wind and solar farms, and expand financing options for energy efficiency and renewable energy.

Gov. Ralph Northam has signed some bills already, and has until April 11 to sign the others or send them back to the General Assembly with proposed amendments. Once signed, legislation takes effect on July 1.

I assume the Governor has other things on his mind right now than asking the General Assembly to tinker further with a bill like the Clean Economy Act, though bill opponents may be using the virus pandemic to argue for delay. That would be a self-defeating move; as the economy restarts, Virginia is going to need the infusion of jobs and investment that come with the build-out of clean energy. And one of the strongest arguments in support of our energy transition, after all, is that it will save money for consumers.

So what happens after July 1? How does this all work? Let’s look at the way these major pieces of legislation will change the energy landscape in Virginia.

Virginia joins RGGI, and CO2 emissions start to fall. 

Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality has already written the regulations that call for Virginia power plants to reduce emissions by 30 percent by 2030. The mechanism for achieving this involves Virginia trading with the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a regional carbon cap and trade market.

The regulations have been on hold as the result of a budget amendment passed last year, when Republicans still ruled the General Assembly. After July 1, DEQ will be able to implement the regulations, with the commonwealth participating in carbon allowance auctions as early as the last quarter of this year or the first quarter of 2021.

In addition to joining RGGI, the Clean Energy and Community Flood Preparedness Act also allows the commonwealth to earn money from the allowance auctions. The Department of Housing and Community Development will spend 50 percent of auction proceeds on “low-income efficiency programs, including programs for eligible housing developments.”

The Department of Conservation and Recreation will get 45 percent of the auction proceeds to fund flood preparedness and climate change planning and mitigation through the Virginia Community Flood Preparedness Fund. The last 5 percent of proceeds will cover administrative costs, including those for administering the auctions.

Energy efficiency savings become mandatory, not just something to throw money at.

Two years ago, the Grid Transformation and Security Act required Dominion and Appalachian Power to propose more than a billion dollars in energy efficiency spending over 10 years, but the law didn’t say the programs had to actually be effective in lowering electricity demand.

This year that changed. For the first time, Virginia will have an energy efficiency resource standard (EERS) requiring Dominion to achieve a total of 5 percent electricity savings by 2025 (using 2019 as the baseline); APCo must achieve a total of 2 percent savings. The SCC is charged with setting new targets after 2025. At least 15 percent of the costs must go to programs benefiting low-income, elderly or disabled individuals, or veterans.

The EERS comes on top of the low-income energy efficiency spending funded by RGGI auctions.

Dominion and Appalachian Power ramp up renewables and energy storage. 

The Clean Economy Act requires Dominion to build 16,100 megawatts of onshore wind and solar energy, and APCo to build 600 megawatts. The law also contains one of the strongest energy storage mandates in the country: 2,700 MW for Dominion, 400 MW for Appalachian Power.

Beginning in 2020, Dominion and Appalachian must submit annual plans to the SCC for new wind, solar and storage resources. We’ll have a first look at Dominion’s plans just a month from now: the SCC has told the company to take account of the Clean Economy Act and other new laws when it files its 2020 Integrated Resource Plan on May 1.

The legislation provides a strangely long lead time before the utilities must request approval of specific projects: by the end of 2023 for APCo (the first 200 MW) or 2024 for Dominion (the first 3,000 MW). But the build-out then becomes rapid, and the utilities must issue requests for proposals on at least an annual basis.

In addition to the solar and land-based wind, Dominion now has the green light for up to 3,000 MW of offshore wind from the project it is developing off Virginia Beach, and which it plans to bring online beginning in 2024. All told, the Clean Economy Act proclaims up to 5,200 MW of offshore wind by 2034 to be in the public interest.

Dominion’s plans for new gas plants come to a screeching halt.

Before the 2020 legislative session, Dominion’s Integrated Resource Plan included plans for as many as 14 new gas combustion turbines to be built in pairs beginning in 2022. In December, the company announced plans to build four gas peaking units totaling nearly 1,000 MW, to come online in 2023 and 2024.

But that was then, and this is now. The Clean Economy Act prohibits the SCC from issuing a certificate of convenience and necessity for any carbon-emitting generating plant until at least January 1, 2022, when the secretaries of natural resources and commerce and trade submit a report to the General Assembly “on how to achieve 100 percent carbon-free electric energy generation by 2045 at least cost to ratepayers.”

Even with no further moratorium, Dominion will find it hard to sell the SCC on the need for new gas plants on top of all the renewable energy and energy storage mandated in the Clean Economy Act. Solar and battery storage together do the same job that a gas peaker would have done — but they are required, and the gas peaker is not. Meanwhile, the energy efficiency provisions of the act mean demand should start going down, not up.

Dominion has already signaled that it recognizes the days of new gas plants are largely over. On March 24, Dominion filed a request with the SCC to be excused from considering new fossil fuel and nuclear resources in its upcoming Integrated Resource Plan filing, arguing that “significant build-out of natural gas generation facilities is not currently viable” in light of the new legislation.

Fossil fuel and biomass plants start closing.

By 2024, the Clean Economy Act requires the closure of all Dominion or APCo-owned oil-fueled generating plants in Virginia over 500 MW and all coal units other than Dominion’s Virginia City Hybrid plant in Wise County and the Clover Station that Dominion co-owns with Old Dominion Electric Cooperative.

This mandate is less draconian than it sounds; it forces the closure of just two coal units, both at Dominion’s Chesterfield plant. Other Dominion coal plants in Virginia have already been retired or switched to using gas or biomass, and one additional coal plant in West Virginia lies beyond the reach of the legislation. Oil-fired peaking units at Yorktown and Possum Point were already slated for retirement in 2021 and 2022. APCo owns no coal or biomass plants in Virginia.

Although the exceptions might appear to swallow the rule, the truth is that coal plants are too expensive to survive much longer anyway. One indication of this is a March 24 report Dominion filed with the SCC showing its fuel generation sources for 2019: coal has now fallen to below 8 percent of generation.

By 2028, Dominion’s biomass plants must shut down, another victory for consumers. All other carbon-emitting generating units in Virginia owned by Dominion and APCo must close by 2045, including the Virginia City plant and all the gas plants.

As of 2050, no carbon allowances can be awarded to any generating units that emit carbon dioxide, including those owned by the coops and merchant generators, with an exception for units under 25 MW as well as units bigger than 25 MW (if they are owned by politically well-connected multinational paper companies with highly-paid lobbyists).

Solar on schools and other buildings becomes the new normal.

In December, Fairfax County awarded contracts for the installation of solar on up to 130 county-owned schools and other sites, one of the largest such awards in the nation. Using a financing approach called a third-party power purchase agreement (PPA), the county would get the benefits of solar without having to spend money upfront. The contracts were written to be rideable, meaning other Virginia jurisdictions could piggyback on them to achieve cost savings and lower greenhouse gas emissions.

Fairfax County’s projects, along with others across the state, hit a wall when, on Jan. 7, the SCC announced that the 50 MW program cap for PPAs in Dominion territory had been reached. But with the passage of the Clean Economy Act and Solar Freedom legislation, customers will be able to install up to 1,000 MW worth of solar PPAs in Dominion territory and 40 MW in APCo territory.

Fairfax County schools will soon join their counterparts in at least 10 other jurisdictions across the state that have already installed solar. With the PPA cap no longer a barrier, and several other barriers also removed, local governments will increasingly turn to solar to save money and shrink their carbon footprints.

Virginia agencies start working on decarbonizing the rest of the economy. 

In spite of its name, the Clean Economy Act really only tackles the electric sector, with a little spillover into home weatherization. That still leaves three-quarters of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions to be addressed in transportation, buildings, agriculture and industry. Ridding these sectors of greenhouse gas emissions requires different tools and policies.

Other legislation passed this session starts that planning process. SB94(Favola) and HB714 (Reid) establish a policy for the commonwealth to achieve net-zero emissions economy-wide by 2045 (2040 for the electric sector) and require the next Virginia Energy Plan, due in 2022, to identify actions towards achieving the goal. Depending on who the next governor is, we may see little or nothing in the way of new proposals, or we may see proposals for transportation and home electrification, deep building retrofits, net-zero homes and office buildings, carbon sequestration on farm and forest land and innovative solutions for replacing fossil fuels in industrial use.

Collateral effects will drive greenhouse gas emissions even lower.

Proposed new merchant gas plants are likely to go away. With Virginia joining RGGI and all fossil fuel generating plants required to pay for the right to spew carbon pollution, the developers of two huge new merchant gas plants proposed for Charles City County will likely take their projects to some other state, if they pursue them at all.

Neither the 1,600 MW Chickahominy Power Station and the 1,050 C4GT plant a mile away planned to sell power to Virginia utilities; their target is the regional wholesale market, which currently rewards over-building of gas plant capacity even in the absence of demand. The Chickahominy and C4GT developers sought an exemption from RGGI through legislation; the bill passed the Senate but got shot down in the House.

If the C4GT plant goes away, so too should Virginia Natural Gas’ plans for a gas pipeline and compressor stations to supply the plant, the so-called Header Improvement Project.

Other coal plants will close. Although the CEA only requires Dominion to retire two coal units at its Chesterfield Power Station, other coal plants in the state will close by the end of this decade, too. That’s because the economics are so heavily against coal these days that it was just a matter of time before their owners moved to close them.

Adding the cost of carbon allowances under RGGI will speed the process along. That includes the Clover Station, which Dominion owns in partnership with Old Dominion Electric Cooperative (ODEC), and the Virginia City Hybrid Electric plant in Wise County, Dominion’s most expensive coal plant, which should never have been built. 

The Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley Pipelines find themselves in more trouble than ever. If I had a dollar for every time a Dominion or Mountain Valley spokesperson said, “Our customers desperately need this pipeline,” I would not be worried about the stock market right now.

The fact is that no one was ever sure who those customers might be, other than affiliates of the pipeline owners themselves—and that doesn’t exactly answer the question. With Virginia now on a path away from all fossil fuels, neither pipeline has a path to profitability inside Virginia any longer, if they ever had one.

 

A version of this article originally appeared in the Virginia Mercury on March 31.