Want more solar in Virginia? Here’s how to get it.

A Solar Foundation analysis showed Virginia could create 50,000 new jobs by committing to build enough solar to meet 10% of energy demand. Photo credit: Dennis Schroeder, NREL

If there is an energy issue that Republicans and Democrats can agree on, it is support for solar energy. It’s homegrown and clean, it provides local jobs, it lowers our carbon footprint, and it brings important national security and emergency preparedness benefits. Dominion Energy Virginia even says it’s now the cheapest option for new electric generation.

Yet currently Virginia lags far behind Maryland and North Carolina in total solar capacity installed, as well as in solar jobs and the percentage of electricity provided by solar. And at the rate we’re going, we won’t catch up. Dominion’s current Integrated Resource Plan calls for it to build just 240 megawatts (MW) per year for its ratepayers. How can we come from behind and score big?

First, our leaders have to set a serious goal. Virginia could create more than 50,000 new jobs by building enough solar to meet just 10 percent of our electricity demand by 2023. That requires a total of 15,000 MW of solar. Legislators should declare 15,000 MW of solar in the public interest, including solar from distributed resources like rooftop solar.

The General Assembly should consider a utility mandate as well. Our weak, voluntary Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) will never be met with wind and solar, and making it mandatory wouldn’t change that. (To understand why, read section 4 of my 2017 guide to Virginia wind and solar policy, here.) Getting solar into the RPS would require 1) making it mandatory; 2) increasing the targets to meaningful levels (including removing the nuclear loophole); 3) including mandatory minimums for solar and wind so they don’t have to compete with cheap renewable energy certificates (RECs) from out-of-state hydroelectric dams; and 4) providing a way for utilities to count the output of customer-owned solar facilities in the total, possibly through a REC purchase program to be set up by the State Corporation Commission.

The other way to frame a utility mandate would be to ignore the RPS and just require each utility to build (or buy the output of) its share of 15,000 MW of solar. Allowing utilities to count privately-owned, customer-sited solar towards the total would make it easier to achieve, and give utilities a reason to embrace customer investments in solar.

Second, the General Assembly has to remove existing barriers to distributed solar. Customers have shown an eagerness to invest private dollars in solar; the government and utilities should get out of the way. That means tackling several existing barriers:

  • Standby charges on residential solar facilities between 10 and 20 kilowatts (kW) should be removed. Larger home systems are growing in popularity to enable charging electric vehicles with solar. That’s a good thing, not something to be punished with a tax.
  • The 1% cap on the amount of electricity that can be supplied by net-metered systems should be repealed.
  • Currently customers cannot install a facility that is larger than needed to serve their previous year’s demand; the limitation should be removed or raised to 125% of demand to accommodate businesses with expansion plans and homeowners who plan to buy electric vehicles.
  • Customers should be allowed to band together to own and operate solar arrays in their communities to meet their electricity requirements. This kind of true community solar (as distinguished from the utility-controlled programs enabled in legislation last year) gives individuals and businesses a way to invest in solar even if they don’t have sunny roofs, and to achieve economies of scale. If community solar is too radical a concept for some (it certainly provokes utility opposition), a more limited approach would allow condominiums to install a solar facility to serve members.
  • Local governments should be allowed to use what is known as municipal net metering, in which the output of a solar array on government property such as a closed landfill could serve nearby government buildings.
  • Third-party power purchase agreements (PPAs) offer a no-money-down approach to solar and have tax advantages that are especially valuable for universities, schools, local governments and non-profits. But while provisions of the Virginia Code clearly contemplate customers using PPAs, Virginia utilities perversely maintain they aren’t legal except under tightly-limited “pilot programs” hammered out in legislation enacted in recent years. The limitations are holding back private investment in solar; the General Assembly should pass legislation expressly legalizing solar third-party PPAs for all customers.

Third, the Commonwealth should provide money to help local governments install solar on municipal facilities. Installing solar on government buildings, schools, libraries and recreation centers lowers energy costs for local government and saves money for taxpayers while creating jobs for local workers and putting dollars into the local economy. That makes it a great investment for the state, while from the taxpayer’s standpoint, it’s a wash.

If the state needs to prioritize among eager localities, I recommend starting with the Coalfields region. The General Assembly rightly discontinued its handouts to coal companies in that region, which were costing taxpayers more than $20 million annually. Investing that kind of money into solar would help both the cash-strapped county governments in the area and develop solar as a clean industry to replace lost coal jobs.

Coupled with the ability to use third-party PPA financing, a state grant of, say, 30% of the cost of a solar facility (either immediately or paid out over several years) would drive significant new investment in solar.

Fourth, a tax credit for renewable energy property would drive installations statewide. One reason North Carolina got the jump on Virginia in solar was it had a robust tax credit (as well as a solar carve-out to its RPS). One bill has already been introduced for Virginia’s 2018 General Assembly session offering a 35% tax credit for renewable energy property, including solar, up to $15,000. (The bill is HB 54.)

Fifth, Virginia should enable microgrids. Unlike some other East Coast states, we’ve been lucky with recent hurricanes. The unlucky states have learned a terrible lesson about the vulnerability of the grid. They are now promoting microgrids as one way to keep the lights on for critical facilities and emergency shelters when the larger grid goes down. A microgrid combines energy sources and battery storage to enable certain buildings to “island” themselves and keep the power on. Solar is a valuable component of a microgrid because it doesn’t rely on fuel supplies that can be lost or suffer interruptions.

The General Assembly should authorize a pilot program for utilities, local governments and the private sector to collaborate on building solar microgrids with on-site batteries as a way to enhance community preparedness, provide power to buildings like schools that also serve as emergency shelters, and provide grid services to the utilities.

One way or another, solar energy is going to play an increasingly large role in our energy future. The technology is ready and the economics are right. The only question is whether Virginia leaders are ready to make the most of it in the coming year.

Just in time for the 2018 legislative session, a way to actually understand Virginia energy law

The sections of the Virginia Code devoted to energy law present a nearly impenetrable thicket to anyone who isn’t a lawyer—and indeed, to most lawyers as well. Sentences sometimes go on for pages without a break, with clauses wrapped in other clauses like a set of Russian nesting dolls. Words don’t always mean what they do in ordinary English, but you won’t know that unless you find your way to separate sections containing the surprise definitions. And references to “Phase I” and “Phase II” utilities seem deliberately calculated to confuse. (For the record, they mean Dominion and APCo.)

Lawyers are said to like complicated and obscure language because it ensures their services remain in demand, but I’ve never met a fellow lawyer who actually subscribed to this cynical view. Most believe we are all better off when laws are easy to understand, both so we can comply and, when necessary, make reforms. This is especially true when the laws are like Virginia’s: packed with favors to powerful monopolies and riddled with booby-traps for consumers. It’s hard to change a law if you can’t make head or tail of it to begin with.

So the law firm GreeneHurlocker deserves applause for its new guide to the Virginia Code’s electric utility laws. The 33-page booklet pulls together the major relevant code sections and annotates them in clear and concise English with virtual sticky notes. Principles of Electric Utility Regulation in Virginia is not a textbook or even a primer, but something more like a travel guide, complete with a map and signposts directing the traveler to sites of particular interest.

In announcing the release of the guidebook, GreeneHurlocker lawyer William Reisinger said the intent was to provide a sort of “’Cliffs Notes’ for some of the complicated utility statutes. We have no agenda with this document, other than to help demystify some of these laws and provide some useful background.”

They’ve succeeded. Those who are used to rummaging around the online version of the Code in search of the right section to answer a particular question will find the guidebook a huge timesaver. For others who don’t even know where to begin with the Code, it offers a way in.

Perhaps most importantly, for legislators and other leaders used to relying on lobbyists to tell them what is in the Code, the guidebook will make it easier for them to do their own research.

When I first saw the guidebook, I had a momentary fear (which was also a momentary hope) that it would put my own annual “Guide to wind and solar policy” out of business as a source for policy information. As it turns out, though, the two take very different approaches and are useful for different purposes.

So you may find a use for both, but in any case you will certainly want GreeneHurlocker’s guide.

Sierra Club takes State Corporation Commission to court over failure to review Atlantic Coast Pipeline deal

Photo credit Chesapeake Climate Action Network

Sierra Club is asking the Supreme Court of Virginia to require the State Corporation Commission (SCC) to review a key deal for shipping capacity on the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. The SCC has thus far declined to exercise its oversight authority over this arrangement, despite a Sierra Club petition filed last May urging that Virginia’s Affiliates Act requires the Commission’s review in this case. In Sierra Club’s appeal filed yesterday by attorneys with Appalachian Mountain Advocates, the law firm representing it in court, the Club argues that the SCC was wrong to reject its petition and seeks an order reversing the SCC’s decision.

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP) is being developed by a partnership called Atlantic Coast Pipeline LLC, whose largest shareholder – Dominion Energy – is parent company of the public utility Virginia Electric and Power Company, now operating as Dominion Energy Virginia (having changed its name earlier this year from Dominion Virginia Power). Under the arrangement noted above, Dominion Energy Virginia must, through one of its subsidiaries, purchase pipeline capacity on the ACP for a period of 20 years, with Atlantic Coast Pipeline LLC— the utility’s own corporate affiliate—bringing in tens or even hundreds millions of dollars per year in revenue. What’s more, Dominion is nearly certain to request that Virginia’s ratepayers ultimately foot the bill for this arrangement.

The utility’s deal with Atlantic Coast Pipeline LLC underpins Dominion Energy’s claim that the ACP has enough customers to justify its construction. Without that arrangement, Dominion and its partners would likely have had trouble getting approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to build the pipeline.

Under the Virginia Affiliates Act, public utilities like Dominion Energy Virginia are required to submit their “contracts or arrangements” with affiliated companies to the SCC for approval before they can take effect, something the utility failed to do. But on September 19, the SCC rejected Sierra Club’s petition for an order holding that Dominion must comply with the Act and requiring a formal proceeding to determine whether the ACP deal is in the public interest.

Sierra Club and other critics contend that this arrangement is a loser for ratepayers because Dominion Energy Virginia already has all the pipeline capacity it needs: several years ago, it purchased 20 years’ worth of capacity from Transcontinental to service the same power plants that it now claims must receive gas—at a much higher shipping rate—from the ACP. As a result, the utility’s arrangement with Atlantic Coast Pipeline LLC will very likely increase, not decrease, electricity prices in Virginia. It is hard to imagine that if the SCC were to examine the facts of the deal, as the Affiliates Act requires it do, it would find that this expensive and redundant arrangement is actually in the public interest.

“We have grave concerns that Dominion’s deal for shipping capacity on the ACP will only serve to benefit the company’s bottom line, not the needs of the public,” says Andres Restrepo, a Sierra Club lawyer involved in the matter. “Luckily, the Affiliates Act is crystal clear: arrangements like Dominion’s must be reviewed and approved by the SCC before they can take effect. That’s why we’re confident that the Supreme Court will rule in our favor and require Dominion and its subsidiaries to comply with this critical review requirement.”

According to Restrepo, the Supreme Court will likely solicit briefing on the appeal and hold oral arguments during the first half of 2018. If Sierra Club is successful, Dominion would then have to file its agreement under the Affiliates Act, and the SCC would have to open a case docket and hold a hearing to consider whether the deal is in the public interest.

A ruling by the SCC rejecting Dominion’s plan could have significant ramifications. Namely, it would undermine the basis on which FERC approved construction of the ACP this fall. FERC approval for new pipeline rests on a showing that the pipeline is “needed,” and the Commission has recently found that such need exists where the project proponent has customer contracts for most or all of the pipeline’s capacity. Without valid contracts, this basis for a need determination vanishes.

Sierra Club and other pipeline opponents have asked FERC to reconsider its approval of the ACP, based in part on the question of whether Dominion and its partners have properly shown need. A decision by the SCC rejecting Dominion Energy Virginia’s deal with Atlantic Coast Pipeline LLC could prompt FERC to reconsider its prior approval.

An SCC ruling could also impact the ACP’s construction timetable and even its economic rationale. How will investors feel about spending $5 billion to build a pipeline through Virginia when most of its Virginia customer base has disappeared?

But first, the SCC must actually review the deal. In its September order rejecting Sierra Club’s petition, the SCC essentially said that it didn’t need to make a determination now; it could wait until Dominion comes to it asking to charge ratepayers for the ACP deal in future proceedings. But the Affiliates Act requires review and approval of inter-affiliate agreements before they take effect. Furthermore, any later proceedings to determine rate impacts would happen only after the pipeline had been built and become operational.

Yes, that’s nuts. Dominion seems to be willing to construct the pipeline now and gamble on SCC’s approval of cost reimbursement further down the road, but the rest of us—Virginia’s ratepayers—shouldn’t be forced into such a gamble. Virginians, who have to suffer the environmental destruction the ACP will cause in addition to likely impacts to their electric rates, deserve to have their needs considered now, just as the law requires, and not later, as Dominion would prefer.

The fact is simple: contrary to its ruling in September, the SCC must review Dominion Energy Virginia’s deal for ACP shipping capacity now to determine whether it is in the public interest. The Affiliates Act requires no less. Here’s hoping Virginia’s Supreme Court holds the SCC to its obligations and mandates a formal review process. After all, better late than never.

Northern Virginia governments look at major renewable energy energy purchase

If the Northern Virginia Regional Commission has its way, local jurisdictions will buy power from a solar or wind farm in the near future. Photo credit Christoffer Reimer.

The Northern Virginia Regional Commission has selected a consultant to assist area localities in a joint procurement of renewable energy. Participating cities and counties will be able to aggregate their demand to get the kind of economies of scale that have allowed corporations like Amazon and Facebook to lower their energy cost by investing in large solar and wind farms.

On November 17, NVRC announced that Customer First Renewables, a national expert in matching large energy users with renewable energy projects, will serve as its technical advisor. Customer First Renewables and NVRC plan to issue a Request for Proposals (RFP) to identify one or more “shovel-ready,” large scale projects to present to NVRC’s thirteen member governments. Those local governments will individually decide whether to participate in the group purchase.

According to a Request for Qualifications that NVRC issued in its search for a consultant, the project(s) to be selected must be greater than 10 megawatts in size and result in new renewable energy capacity added to the grid. Preference will go to projects located in Virginia or in the regional grid that serves Virginia, known as PJM.

NVRC will act as a central contact and facilitator, but it will be up to the participating localities to negotiate a contract. NVRC Director Robert Lazaro said discussions with representatives of area localities indicate the interest is there for a major renewable energy buy like this. Arlington, Alexandria, Manassas Park, and Falls Church are among the jurisdictions most interested, with others possibly joining as they learn more.

“We see this as a way to green the grid, save money, and assist the solar industry in Virginia,” said Lazaro.

Niels Crone, Senior Vice President for Business Development at Customer First Renewables, said his company was excited to be involved in the procurement effort. “We are delighted to work with NVRC to help Northern Virginia jurisdictions get affordable, large-scale renewable energy,” he said.

NVRC is following an ambitious timeline. A project workshop for local government staff is scheduled for December 11, and a Request for Proposals (RFP) is due January 2, 2018.

How does a group purchase work?

Amazon and other large corporations have become major drivers of new wind and solar projects in PJM, including several large solar farms in Virginia. The steadily-tumbling costs of wind and solar make it possible for the companies to green their energy supply while lowering their overall energy costs using innovative financing approaches. Not all of these would work in Virginia, but one that does is the wholesale, or “virtual” power purchase agreement.

A virtual PPA allows a customer to buy and sell energy in the wholesale market, avoiding potential obstacles such as a utility’s monopoly on the retail sale of electricity.

Local governments in Virginia buy electricity from Dominion Energy Virginia at retail under a contract negotiated by the Virginia Energy Purchasing Governmental Association (VEPGA). That contract makes Dominion their only electricity supplier, and Dominion currently does not offer wind or solar as an option. A virtual PPA would not change this relationship; Dominion will continue to supply localities with electricity from its (decidedly un-green) power plants.

A virtual PPA would, however, let participating localities contract for the output of a renewable energy project, with the electricity sold into the wholesale market rather than delivered to the localities. Given the right project, the price for the electricity in the wholesale market could exceed the price paid to the project owner under the PPA, allowing the localities to pocket the difference—indirectly lowering their energy costs. The localities would also receive an additional benefit in the form of renewable energy certificates generated by the projects, demonstrating they have legally “greened” their energy supply.

There is some financial risk involved, since the PPA price is fixed, while wholesale prices fluctuate. Part of Customer First Renewables’ job will be to find the best project economics with the least risk. Corporate buyers, universities and large institutions around the country have used this approach successfully to lower their energy costs and meet their sustainability goals.

As members of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (MWCOG), Northern Virginia localities are committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 80 percent below 2005 levels by 2050, with an interim goal of 20 percent by 2020. MWCOG’s 2017-2020 Regional Climate and Energy Action Plan (available here) also sets a target of meeting 20 percent of the region’s electric consumption from renewable sources by 2020.

As the report notes, however, “There needs to be an immense undertaking to meet the 2020 and 2050 goals.” Here’s hoping Northern Virginia is ready to do its share.

Show up and be counted

Just in case you own neither a television nor a mailbox, don’t read a newspaper, only use your computer to watch videos of a Japanese cat with a thing for boxes, and never answer a telephone call from an unfamiliar number because it might be Rachel from Cardholder Services . . .

Tomorrow is Election Day in Virginia. Judging from the ads, politicians think you are most interested in which candidate has a hidden agenda of coddling violent gang members, or which one will dramatically lower our taxes simply by cutting the waste that every one of his predecessors somehow missed.

But I’d like to put in a plug for choosing candidates who support people over corporations, the public good over special interests, the environment over polluters, and the free market over monopoly. And if the candidates you’re choosing between don’t do any of those things as well as they should, vote anyway, because only by voting do you have the right to hold elected officials accountable.

The Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club has endorsed candidates at the state and local level whose background and responses to questionnaires and interviews show they are most likely to support the environment in office. The endorsements are made by the chapter’s Political Committee and the volunteer Executive Committee, in consultation with members most knowledgeable about the issues and the candidates. As a non-partisan organization, the Sierra Club can and does endorse Republicans as well as Democrats, but the Republican vow of ignorance on climate change tends to make it hard to find ones the Club can endorse. (The standout exception is Republican Delegate Randy Minchew of Leesburg.)

A group called Activate Virginia has also compiled a handy list of candidates who have pledged not to take contributions from the likes of Dominion Energy, which has used its remarkable influence to enrich itself at the expense of consumers and lull even otherwise savvy leaders into supporting the expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure.

Personally, I find it pretty easy to know who to vote for. No serious candidate still denies that the planet is warming or that humans are causing it. (Regrettably, we have a lot of un-serious candidates.) Governor McAuliffe finally put in motion a proposed rulemaking that would lower carbon emissions from power plants. Ralph Northam has pledged to see it through if he is elected Governor. Ed Gillespie has pledged to kill it. Northam gets my vote.

New fracked gas pipelines will raise energy prices and commit Virginia to decades more of rising greenhouse gas emissions, while crowding out cleaner and cheaper renewable energies like wind and solar. Candidate for Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax opposes the pipelines, while Jill Vogel repeats the mindless “all of the above” pablum so popular with politicians who aren’t troubled by the difference between a mountaintop dotted with wind turbines and one blown up for its coal. Fairfax gets my vote.

Attorney General Mark Herring has been a champion for the environment and consumers in court and before the State Corporation Commission. His challenger John Adams has a cool name. Herring gets my vote.

Electric Co-op Seeks to Double Fixed Access Charge in Move Against Solar

IMG_0042

A residential solar installation in REC’s rural territory.

In a little-noticed move earlier this year Rappahannock Electric Cooperative applied for a rate increase and restructuring that will make homeowner solar less attractive, and disproportionately affect many low-income customers in the process. REC, Virginia’s fourth largest electric utility, asked the State Corporation Commission to approve doubling the monthly access charge all residential customers must pay. The SCC hearing in the case is set for for October 31. REC’s move has received virtually no attention in the media despite its potential large impact on consumers and the commonwealth’s utility and solar industries.

A utility rate increase by itself might not be big news. What’s unusual is that the new revenues REC says it needs would come mostly from hefty access-charge increases for all residential and small-commercial customers. The access charge is the fixed monthly amount all consumers pay just for having a meter hookup, regardless of how little or how much electricity they consume. In what will surely be a shock to many low-income and low-consumption REC customers, the co-op’s residential access charge would double from $10 to $20 per month.

REC cites rising costs in delivering power as the reason for seeking more revenue. In a speech at the co-op’s annual meeting last August, REC president and CEO Kent Farmer claimed that the main reason for redesigning its rates so as to double access charges is that “[w]e’ve got a lot of customers who are installing solar panels.” But REC employee Matthew Faulconer acknowledged in the co-op’s SCC filing just last week that in fact only 0.3 percent of REC’s customers have thus far installed any form of distributed generation.

So REC’s move to restructure how it collects revenues appears to be an effort to stall the growth of future solar (and efficiency), rather than an attempt to solve any rate-design problem that the co-op currently has. REC’s low-usage customers, most of whom don’t have solar, will still see large increases in their monthly bills. They’ll be collateral damage in the co-op’s effort to slow solar growth. In his August speech REC’s Farmer emphasized that customers with average (not to mention higher) monthly electricity usage may not pay all that much more, since “by increasing that customer [access] charge we were able to reduce the kilowatt hour charge. So hopefully the net effect of what you will pay assuming the Commission approves our rate increase is just slightly more than what you are currently paying.” Yes, “hopefully,” that is assuming your monthly usage is average or above.

But of course, unlike children in Lake Wobegon, not all REC customers are above average. A good number of the co-op’s members obviously use less electricity than the average co-op member’s 1,283 kWh monthly consumption. And it’s a safe bet that a good number of those low-usage customers have lower incomes than those who consume more than average. Low-usage consumers will see a much bigger percentage jump in their bills.

In the co-op’s SCC filing last week REC’s Faulconer, with a (metaphorical) wave of the hand, dismissed the basic fairness issue this poses for the co-op’s low-income customers. He argues that in fact REC’s low-income customers tend to consume electricity in higher-than-average amounts. What makes REC think this is the case? Faulconer says “a good indicator of income level is whether a consumer qualifies for state administered fuel assistance, which includes income as an eligibility factor.” And, Faulconer explains, “the typical REC member receiving fuel assistance used an average of 1,323 kWh per month, 40 kWh higher than the current residential class monthly average.”

Implicit in Faulconer’s and REC’s reasoning is that customers receiving state fuel assistance are a good proxy for all low-income customers. But that proposition is absurd on its face. Surely it would come as a surprise to those low-income customers who keep their electricity consumption low to live within their means without government assistance, or who heat with wood to save money, or who cannot afford or don’t want air conditioning.

Certainly consumer groups aren’t buying the notion that access-charge hikes don’t harm low-income customers. The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) has opposed rate-restructuring efforts like REC’s that increase fixed monthly charges. Joining AARP in fighting such increases are the NAACP, Consumers Union, and the National Consumer Law Center. All these groups point out that increasing fixed fees makes it harder for customers to control their monthly bills.

The fact is, REC’s proposed rate restructuring, if approved, would be a significant wealth transfer from low-consumption customers to higher-consuming members. To accomplish such a fundamental shift in an effort to stall solar growth is very much in line with the philosophy of Koch brothers-funded groups such as the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), Americans For Prosperity, and similar organizations. (REC through its membership in the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA) supports ALEC.) Even if REC isn’t coordinating directly with these groups, the co-op seems to have internalized their way of thinking about the need to fight homeowner solar so utilities can keep burning fossil fuel.

In a Sierra Club filing in REC’s rate case Melissa Whited of Synapse Energy Economics notes that the co-op could raise the additional revenues it needs without raising access charges and thereby disproportionately favoring one group of customers over another. Whited points out that REC’s proposal, by favoring those who consume more over those who consume less, gives inefficient price signals that promote waste in electricity consumption.

Utilities across the country, working with Koch-affiliated groups, have been fighting distributed solar by attempting to roll back renewable energy mandates and net metering laws. They’ve also been trying to raise fixed monthly access charges, although often being denied or scaled back by their regulators. In these efforts utilities rarely mention the significant benefits of distributed solar, and REC certainly didn’t, either in Farmer’s speech to co-op members, or in the utility’s SCC filing. REC this summer sent out a number of “beat the peak” messages, asking customers to cut back their usage on hot sunny afternoons to save the co-op from having to buy expensive power during those peak hours. But the co-op never acknowledges that its customers with solar are helping the co-op in a big way during those peak hours. It’s certainly easier to make a case for solar-discouraging rate restructuring if you ignore the benefits that solar brings to the co-op and its members.

REC may also be seeking a rate restructuring before the SCC now as a stalking horse for Dominion Energy Virginia, which is also an ALEC member and also rarely passes up an opportunity to slow distributed solar. In 2009 the General Assembly, in a subtle anti-solar maneuver that seems to have attracted little notice, passed legislation allowing Virginia electric cooperatives to increase access charges without SCC approval, provided the overall rate change is revenue neutral (such as when higher access charges are offset by reduced kWh rates). REC temporarily waived its right to skip SCC scrutiny for access-charge increases as part of its acquisition of customers from Allegheny Power in 2010, but that temporary waiver ends in two years. So REC could have delayed its access-charge restructuring until then and skipped SCC review for it. But going before the SCC now can give REC’s board and management some cover against angry customers, and also can help Dominion and other utilities by setting a precedent, if the SCC approves.

If the SCC staff analyzed how REC’s access-charge doubling will disproportionately affect low-income customers, it hasn’t disclosed its reasoning. In his prefiled testimony in the rate case, SCC principal utilities analyst Marc A. Tufaro simply said: “Staff is generally not opposed to the proposed increases in the Access Charges by REC.”

Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring is also a party in the case, through the Office of Consumer Counsel. That office has yet to publicly reveal its position concerning the access charge.

Seth Heald is a member of REC. He received an MS degree in energy policy and climate this year and serves as chair of the Sierra Club Virginia Chapter.

UPDATE: November 1, 2017: 

The Sierra Club announced today that it and the other parties to the REC rate case reached a settlement, pending final SCC approval.  The settlement reduces the overall revenue increase from $22.2 million to $18 million and scales back the residential access-charge increase from 100% to 40%. “This settlement is a significant win for REC’s member-owners because doubling their fixed access charges would have disproportionately harmed members who have invested in clean energy and energy efficiency,” said Kate Addleson, Director of Sierra Club’s Virginia Chapter. “REC’s proposal also would have harmed many low-income customers who try to reduce their energy consumption to keep their bills affordable, and would have discouraged co-op members  from investing in energy efficiency and rooftop solar in the future.”

As part of the settlement, REC also agreed to work with the Sierra Club to implement specific methods and procedures to provide co-op members advance notice and an opportunity to provide in-person and written comments to REC’s board before access charges can be increased in the future.

 

 

Times-Dispatch articles expose Dominion’s manipulation of government for its own enrichment—and that ain’t the half of it

Over the past few days the Richmond Times-Dispatch has run a three-part special report detailing Dominion Energy’s grip on the Virginia General Assembly and the company’s abuse of that power to enrich itself at the expense of its captive customers. Journalists Robert Zullo and Michael Martz examine how Dominion’s use of business and personal connections, campaign contributions and lobbying led to a series of laws that enriched the company and eroded the State Corporation Commission’s regulatory authority.

And Dominion still gets off too easy.

But before we get into that, first let me praise the RTD for even running this series. As recently as a few years ago, the paper assiduously avoided printing anything critical of Dominion outside the narrow confines of letters to the editor. News articles almost invariably adopted Dominion’s messaging and quoted Dominion spokespersons with no effort at independent verification. A single quote from an environmentalist or other critic, buried deep in the text, represented the only nod towards journalistic balance.

This has changed, as the paper’s remarkable exposé demonstrates. Zullo and Martz are not alone; columnist Jeff Schapiro frequently criticizes Dominion in ways that would never have seen print before. Somehow the RTD’s editors have found their spine.

The authors don’t editorialize. They quote a wide array of insiders and observers, though the absence of voices from the environmental community is striking. The coverage of personalities is sometimes even positive; Dominion CEO Tom Farrell, for example, comes off more as an upstanding citizen than as a master manipulator.

Indeed, many of the critics interviewed for the series pull their punches. Most of those quoted are full participants in the “Virginia Way,” a system in which going along to get along is embedded in the political culture. They are careful when criticizing Dominion, unwilling to tar their colleagues and, perhaps, aware they owe their own professional success to the same system that got us into this mess.

Overall, however, Dominion is right to hate the hot white light of journalistic scrutiny. Corporate greed doesn’t look good in print when the readers are its victims, and Dominion’s machinations are recorded here in excruciating detail. They culminate in the passage of 2015’s SB 1349, the law stripping the State Corporation Commission of its authority to review utility base rates and order refunds until 2022.

Dominion positioned its bill as a way to “protect” customers from the costs of complying with the federal Clean Power Plan, but it was not hard to recognize the Clean Power Plan as a politically charged fig leaf. SB 1349 was always about letting Dominion keep excess earnings. The Clean Power Plan, after all, was not scheduled to kick in until 2022, when rates would unfreeze. Meanwhile, as one SCC commissioner estimates, Dominion will keep as much as a billion dollars of money it has not earned.

Yet by concentrating on the money, the RTD misses bigger implications. Dominion’s corruption of our legislative process doesn’t just mean consumers are getting ripped off. It means Dominion has been able to undermine efforts to reduce energy use, protect our electric grid, move to greater use of renewable energy, and free us from dependence on fossil fuels.

Heck, under Dominion’s influence, elected leaders don’t even appreciate why these should be their priorities. Politicians genuinely think building fracked-gas pipelines like the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley pipelines will lower energy costs. (In case you missed it, they won’t.) This is the real damage Dominion does, that legislators don’t even know they’ve internalized the utility’s propaganda. This is the exercise of the “third dimension of power,” the hidden type of power described in former UVA professor Vivian Thomson’s recent book Climate of Capitulation.

As a result it doesn’t occur to our elected leaders to ask questions when Dominion promises to reduce carbon emissions while planning to build more fossil fuel generation. (The answer to the question is in the fine print; or if you prefer blunt speech, it’s a lie.)

These leaders acquiesce when Dominion lobbyists urge them to reject mandatory energy efficiency standards on the basis that Virginia has such low-cost electricity (wrong) that we can’t succeed at energy efficiency the way other states do (and anyway the SCC won’t let us, so we shouldn’t even try).

Dominion takes baby steps on renewable energy, and elected officials express their gratitude without noticing how dismally far behind our neighboring states we remain. (How kind of Dominion! Let’s give them some more money!) Democrats used to try to pass renewable energy mandates; they don’t any more. Dominion doesn’t like to be told what to do. So rather than fight and lose, legislators now say they don’t like mandates. That’s a true climate of capitulation.

In short, the people’s representatives pass bills Dominion wants, or reject ones Dominion opposes, and persuade themselves the legislature is in charge.

The RTD cites one especially telling example of this. “Since 1996, Dominion has been [Delegate Ken Plum’s] top political donor, contributing $105,750, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.” Yet, “’I’ve never felt squeezed by them,’ Plum said of the utility’s lobbying corps. ‘I have felt informed by them.’”

That’s what you call good lobbying. The lobbied official never feels squeezed, just informed.

It’s obvious enough that Dominion distributes money to legislators from both parties because it expects to buy influence. Legislators know this, and many acknowledge that it works on their colleagues. As for themselves, however, they are certain they can take money without being influenced. Even Ken Cuccinelli, who advocates for the SCC to regain its authority over Dominion, dismisses the idea of banning campaign contributions from public utilities. (Mind you, he offers no other solutions.)

Voters are rightly more skeptical, as demonstrated by the groundswell of support for Senator Chap Petersen’s proposals to repeal the rate freeze and to bar campaign contributions from regulated public utilities. Dozens of candidates seeking office this year have pledged not to take Dominion money, and according to the group Activate Virginia, 8 incumbents and 46 House candidates have promised to roll back the rate freeze.

In both cases, the question is why so few incumbents have signed on. Perhaps, after reading the RTD’s report, they will understand why they should. What’s at stake goes way beyond money.