Governor Northam’s Executive Order, Dominion Energy’s about-face on offshore wind: is Virginia off to the clean energy races?

Man at podium

Arlington County Board Chair Christian Dorsey speaking to clean energy supporters on September 21, following the Board’s adoption of its new Community Energy Plan. Arlington’s plan would produce a carbon-free grid 15 years earlier than Governor Northam’s plan, while also tackling CO2 emissions from transportation and buildings.

A single week in September brought an unprecedented cascade of clean energy announcements in Virginia. On Tuesday, September 24, Governor Northam issued an Executive Order aimed at achieving 30 percent renewable energy by 2030 and 100 percent carbon-free energy by 2050, and with near-term state procurement targets.

On Thursday, Dominion Energy announced it would fully build out Virginia’s offshore wind energy area by 2026, in line with one of the goals in the Governor’s order.

Then, Saturday morning, the Democratic Party of Virginia unanimously passed resolutions endorsing the Virginia Green New Deal and a goal of net zero carbon emissions for the energy sector by 2050.

Saturday afternoon, Arlington became the first county in Virginia to commit to 100 percent renewable electricity by 2035, and economy-wide carbon neutrality by 2050.

So is Virginia off to the clean energy races? Well, let’s take a closer look at that Executive Order.

The governor’s order sounds great, but how real are its targets?

Executive Order 43, “Expanding access to clean energy and growing the clean energy jobs of the future,” directs the Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy (DMME) and other state agencies to “develop a plan of action to produce 30 percent of Virginia’s electricity from renewable energy sources by 2030 and one hundred percent of Virginia’s electricity from carbon-free sources by 2050.”

The difference between “renewable energy” and “carbon-free” sources is intentional. The latter term is a nod to nuclear energy, which provides about a quarter of Virginia’s electricity today. Keeping Dominion’s four nuclear reactors in service past 2050 may not prove feasible, economical or wise, but the utility wants to keep that option open.

The order also doesn’t define “renewable energy.” It talks about wind and solar, but it doesn’t specifically exclude carbon-intensive and highly-polluting sources like biomass and trash incinerators, which state code treats as renewable. Dominion currently meets Virginia’s voluntary renewable energy goals with a mix of old hydro and dirty renewables, much of it from out of state. Dominion will want to keep these subsidies flowing, especially for its expensive biomass plants, which would undermine the carbon-fighting intent of the order.

Finally, there is the question whether all of the renewable energy has to be produced in Virginia. Old Dominion Electric Cooperative, which supplies electricity to most of the member-owned cooperatives in the state, buys wind energy from outside Virginia. Surely that should count. But what if a Virginia utility just buys renewable energy certificates indicating that someone, somewhere, produced renewable energy, even if it was consumed in, say, Ohio? Those had better not count, or we’ll end up subsidizing states that haven’t committed to climate action.

What will DMME’s plan look like?

In describing what should be in the action plan, Northam’s order largely recites existing goals and works in progress, but it also directs DMME and the other agencies to consider going beyond existing law and policy to achieve specific outcomes:

  • Ensure that utilities meet their existing commitments to solar and onshore wind energy development, including recommending legislation to reduce barriers to achieving these goals. These goals include 500 MW of utility-owned or controlled distributed wind and solar. Customer-owned solar is not mentioned.
  • Make recommendations to ensure the Virginia offshore wind energy area is fully developed with as much as 2,500 MW of offshore wind by 2026.
  • Make recommendations for increased utility investments in energy efficiency, beyond those provided for by the passage of SB 966 in 2018, the Grid Modernization Act.
  • Include integration of storage technologies into the grid and pairing them with renewable generation, including distributed energy resources like rooftop solar.
  • Provide for environmental justice and equity in the planning, including “measures that provide communities of color and low- and moderate-income communities access to clean energy and a reduction in their energy burdens.”

Can the administration do all that?

Nothing in this part of the order has any immediate legal effect; it just kicks off a planning process with a deadline of July 1, 2020. Achieving some of the goals will require new legislation, which would have to wait for the 2021 legislative session.

That doesn’t mean the governor will sit on his hands until then – delay is the enemy of progress — but it could have the effect of slowing momentum for major climate legislation in 2020.

Cynics, if you know any, might even suggest that undercutting more aggressive Green New Deal-type legislation is one reason for the order.

A second part of Northam’s order, however, will have immediate effect, limited but impressive. It establishes a new target for state procurement of solar and wind energy of 30 percent of electricity by 2022, up from an 8 percent goal set by former Governor Terry McAuliffe. This provision will require the Commonwealth to negotiate amendments to the contract by which it buys electricity for state-owned facilities and universities from Dominion. The order also calls for at least 10 MW annually of power purchase agreements (PPAs) for on-site solar at state facilities, and requires agencies to consider distributed solar as part of all new construction.

State facilities will also be subject to new energy savings requirements to reduce state consumption of electricity by 10 percent by 2022, measured against a 2006 baseline, using energy performance contracting.

These provisions do for the state government what the action plan is intended to do for Virginia as a whole, but 8 years faster and without potential loopholes.

Thirty percent by 2030? Gee, where have we heard that before?

Just this spring, Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality finalized regulations aimed at lowering carbon emissions from Virginia power plants by 30 percent by 2030. These numbers look so similar to Northam’s goal of 30 percent renewable energy by 2030 that it’s reasonable to ask what the order achieves that the carbon rule doesn’t. (This assumes the carbon regulations take effect; Republicans used a budgetary maneuver to stall implementation by at least a year.)

The answer goes back to the reason Dominion opposed the carbon rule. Dominion maintains—wrongly, says DEQ and others—that requiring lower in-state carbon emissions will force it to reduce the output of its coal and gas plants in Virginia and buy more power from out of state. That, says Dominion, would be bad for ratepayers.

As the company’s August update of its Integrated Resource Plan showed, Dominion would much prefer a rule requiring it to build more stuff of its own. As it turns out, that would be even more expensive for ratepayers, but definitely better for Dominion’s profitability.

So legislation to achieve Governor Northam’s renewable energy goals would take the pain out of the carbon regulations for Dominion. Whether it might also lower carbon emissions beyond DEQ’s 30 percent target remains to be seen.

The 2050 carbon-free goal, on the other hand, goes beyond anything on the books yet. Dominion’s corporate goal is 80 percent carbon-free by 2050, and it has no roadmap to achieve even that.

Is there anything in the order about pipelines?

No. In fact, there is no mention of any fossil fuel infrastructure, though shuttering coal and gas plants is the main way you cut carbon from the electricity supply.

That doesn’t mean Northam’s order leaves the Mountain Valley and Atlantic Coast pipelines in the clear. If Dominion joins Duke Energy in its pledge to go to zero carbon by 2050, the use of fracked gas to generate electricity in Virginia and the Carolinas has to go down, not up, over the coming decades (Duke’s own weird logic notwithstanding). As word gets around that Virginia is ditching fossil fuels, pipeline investors must be thinking about pulling out and cutting their losses.

What about Dominion’s offshore wind announcement?

I saved the best for last. For offshore wind advocates like me, Dominion’s announcement was the really big news of the week: it’s the Fourth of July, Christmas and New Years all at once. Offshore wind is Virginia’s largest long-term renewable energy resource opportunity, and we can’t fully decarbonize without it.

Dominion has taken a go-slow approach to offshore wind ever since winning the right to develop the federal lease area in 2013. Until this year, it refused to commit to anything more than a pilot project. The two, 6-MW turbines are currently under construction and will be installed next summer.

Then in March, Dominion CEO Tom Farrell told investors his company planned to build one commercial offshore wind farm, of unspecified size, to be operational in 2024. In its Aug. 28 resource plan update filed with the state regulators, Dominion Energy Virginia included for the first time an 880-MW wind farm, pushed back to 2025.

A mere three weeks later, the plan has changed to three wind farms, a total of 220 turbines with a capacity of 2,600 MW, with the start date moved up again to 2024, and all of them in service by 2026, exactly Northam’s target (except his was 2,500 MW).

Certainly the case for developing the full lease area has been improving at a rapid clip. Costs are falling dramatically, and it appears Dominion expects to maximize production by using massive 12 MW turbines, which did not even exist until this year.

But if the situation has changed that dramatically from August to September, all I can say is, I can’t wait to see what October brings.

Maybe it will bring answers to questions like who will build these wind farms, who will pay for them, and how Dominion expects to meet this accelerated timeline. As Sarah Vogelsong reports, several northeastern states have wind farms slated for development in the early-to-mid-2020s, too. Industry members are already worried about bottlenecks in everything from the supply chain to installation vessels, workforce training and the regulatory approval process.

That is to say, we’re coming to the party pretty late to expect good seats. But hey, it’s going to be a great party, and I’m glad we won’t miss it.

This article originally appeared in the Virginia Mercury on September 27, 2019.

Ignoring state climate rules, Dominion decides what carbon regulations should look like

woman in dinosaur costume holding sign reading clean energy now

Four out of five dinosaurs agree. The fifth, that would be Dominion. Photo courtesy of Sierra Club Virginia Chapter.

For several years now, Dominion Energy Virginia has factored into its plans an assumption that electricity from carbon-emitting power plants will eventually include a cost reflecting CO2’s role as the primary driver of global warming. Dominion says it has even integrated this into its corporate goals, targeting an 80 percent reduction in CO2 emissions by 2050.

That promise may be more propaganda than corporate lodestar, but in any case the utility’s Integrated Resource Plans regularly point to the probability of future carbon regulations as a reason to build new renewable energy facilities and close old coal plants.

Planning for constraints on CO2 emissions proved wise this spring when Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality finalized a state carbon cap-and-trade program. The DEQ regulations call for Virginia power plant owners to trade carbon allowances with those in the member states of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI). A Republican budget maneuver has delayed implementation of the new rules, but once they take effect they are expected to hasten the retirement of expensive old coal plants and support investments in new renewable energy projects.

But it’s not the DEQ regulations that Dominion is planning around. The utility’s 2019 update to its 2018 IRP, filed with the State Corporation Commission on Aug. 29, treats the DEQ regulations as hypothetical. Instead, it posits some unspecified future federal carbon regulations that, apparently, it would like much better.

The update describes three alternative scenarios, down from five in the 2018 IRP. The first is a “base case” that assumes no carbon emission constraints. The second assumes the state carbon limits take effect as well as some future federal regulations, and the third assumes federal (but not state) limits. However, the cover letter makes it clear that only the third scenario actually describes what Dominion intends to do. As it happens, that is the most expensive— and most profitable —plan.

The primary feature of the base case is that it keeps some old coal units running that will be closed in the other scenarios. According to Dominion, this makes it the least-cost approach to meeting electricity demand. Whether that’s true is a matter of dispute; these units hardly run at all any more, and experts for environmental organizations in the IRP hearing testified that retiring them will save money for customers.

It suits Dominion’s political strategy, however, to pretend that coal remains a low-cost option. This fiction makes coalfield legislators happy, and it allows Dominion to blame rising electricity rates on environmental regulations instead of on its own profligate spending and excess profits.

But Dominion Energy made a big bet on fracked gas, not coal. It won’t fight to keep outdated coal plants online and spewing out CO2 if it’s cheaper to close them. Gas plants are another matter. Dominion Energy’s massive investments in gas transmission and storage make the company keen to keep Virginia gas plants running full-tilt, and to build as much new gas generation as possible.

For that reason, Dominion hates the DEQ regulations. It warns the regional cap and trade plan will result in power from outside the state replacing electricity from Dominion’s combined-cycle gas plants, which provide baseload power. Dominion argues this will lead to higher, rather than lower, carbon emissions as well as higher consumer costs.

DEQ and others disagree on both counts, though the SCC takes Dominion’s view. So although Dominion labels its second scenario RGGI-compliant, it treats the DEQ regulations as hypothetical, as if Gov. Ralph Northam might change his mind any day now and order them scrapped.

Instead, Dominion offers its third scenario, positing only unspecified and (with Trump as president) truly hypothetical future federal carbon regulations. In Dominion’s fantasy, a federal plan will be strong enough to support Dominion building profitable new renewable energy and storage projects, but not so strong that it can’t also build a bunch of new gas plants.

Ergo, that’s what Dominion is shooting for. The cover letter accompanying the IRP update makes it clear that Dominion is already pursuing projects that appear only in the third plan. These include a 300 MW pumped hydro storage project that will take a decade to develop and cost upwards of $1.5 billion (if indeed it pans out), and an 852 MW offshore wind project slated for 2025, a year later than what Dominion told investors in March.

The third scenario also includes more than 3,000 MW of solar between now and the end of 2034, but that’s actually a whole lot less solar than under the RGGI scenario. Even the base case has more solar. Go figure.

Still missing is the rest of the 2,000 MW of offshore wind that the Virginia lease area can support. Also still missing are thousands more megawatts of wind and solar that Virginia would need if, instead of a gas-friendly plan, the federal government were to enact regulations actually sufficient to the climate crisis.

Dominion has not even modeled that possibility. The update’s third scenario still includes 10 new fracked-gas combustion turbines, a total of 2,425 MW, with two units coming online every year from 2022 through 2026.

Maybe the Dominion executive team thinks it knows more than the rest of us do about the federal climate plan we’ll see once Donald Trump is sent packing in 2020. More likely, Dominion is simply using its IRP carbon assumptions to bolster its case for more spending and higher profits.

In which case, the more things get updated, the more they stay the same.

 

This article originally appeared in the Virginia Mercury on September 13, 2019.

Immigrants aren’t wrecking our environment, and blaming them won’t save it

people protesting with a sign

Protesting President Trump’s immigration policies in Lafayette Square, Washington DC. Photo by Ivy Main

Chances are, the people you know who call themselves environmentalists also celebrate racial diversity and think the U.S. should welcome immigrants and refugees. What, then, are we to make of white nationalists who invoke environmental concerns to justify acts of violence against immigrants?

Recent news articles tell us the suspect in the El Paso massacre cited overpopulation as a reason for killing 21 shoppers at a Walmart in the Texas border city. Latinos make up more than 82% of El Paso’s population, many of them Mexican-born. The suspect, Patrick Crusius, is said to have written a “manifesto” decrying Americans’ over-exploitation and degradation of natural resources.

“The American lifestyle . . . is destroying the environment of our country,” he wrote, before concluding, bizarrely, that therefore he should kill non-Americans.

Crusius is said to have drawn inspiration from an earlier mass shooting in Christchurch, New Zealand, where a white nationalist killed 51p eople at two mosques in the name of “eco-fascism.” He defined the term as “ethnic autonomy for all peoples with a focus on preservation of nature and the natural order.”

As a member of the Sierra Club for almost 40 years, I find this sounds familiar. Starting in the late 1980s, anti-immigrant forces tried to take over the environmental group, in an effort that wasn’t fully exposed and defeated until 2004. I remember the critical board election; the anti-immigration candidates made a plausible case for overpopulation as a root cause of much of what ails the environment, then and now. If you have fewer people around, after all, there’s only so much harm they can do.

Only, of course, the problem wasn’t—and isn’t—immigrants, it was U.S. laws that allowed native-born Americans to pollute our land, air and water. Keeping out immigrants isn’t a solution, it’s a non-sequitur. Realizing this, Sierra Club members firmly rejected the anti-immigrant slate of board candidates

White nationalists aren’t just wrong in blaming immigrants for environmental ills. They also refuse to acknowledge that today’s most serious environmental challenges are global. Climate change, ocean acidification, the rapid loss of species—to name just a few—can’t be stopped by building walls and evicting non-white people.

This may be one reason many right-wing voters still reject the scientific consensus that climate change is a human-caused problem. The qualities most treasured by much of the radical right—self-sufficiency, male supremacy, physical strength, proficiency with weapons—aren’t useful in solving climate change. It’s human nature to disregard a problem you don’t think you have the tools to tackle.

Managing global problems requires international cooperation, respect for others, patience in the face of provocation, and empathy for those who are suffering. People of faith, humanists, and adults in general recognize these as higher-order virtues, but they are the first to be dispensed with in a zero-sum situation. People who believe the survival of their way of life requires other people to suffer do not ask themselves, “What would Jesus do?”

There is indeed a case for despair about the health of the planet. Bad news dogs us daily, from the deforestation of the tropics and the collapse of insect and amphibian populations, to the intensification of hurricanes and the plague of plastic waste. And then, of course, there’s the possibility that we have now passed a critical greenhouse gas tipping point and entered an age of runaway global warming.

But it isn’t fear of nature’s wrath that keeps me and other climate activists up at night. It’s the steady erosion of our conviction that we humans have it in us to rise to the enormous challenges before us.

Across the world, people are responding to resource scarcity and an increase in refugees not with compassion and generosity but with anger and distrust. Nationalism is confused with patriotism. Identity politics replaces communitarian values. Democracy is in retreat.

This is particularly maddening because, in fact, we know how to address the environmental challenges we face. We have the technology to quit fossil fuels. We can adapt to sea-level rise. We can make room for climate refugees. We can stop deforestation, and even reclaim deserts for trees. We don’t need to poison the earth to grow crops. We could end plastic waste tomorrow. We can’t bring back the species we’ve lost (at least not many of them), but we can do a much better job of protecting the ones we have left. Even reversing the rise in atmospheric carbon is conceivable, if we undertake to do it.

The question isn’t whether humans can do these things, it’s whether we will. Americans should be the ones leading the way, negotiating treaties with other nations, funding research, implementing solutions that benefit everyone, and keeping our doors open to the dispossessed.

That’s the sort of thing Americans used to do—not always, admittedly, but in hindsight we recognize those as our finest moments. We desperately need this sense of purpose again now, when the threats we face are existential.

But to do that, we have to reject a foreign policy grounded in selfishness and domestic policies that feed racism, xenophobia, and climate-science denialism here at home. There are no “other” people we can exclude, neglect or destroy to save ourselves.

There is only all of us, all across the world, and we are all in this together.

This article first appeared in the August 22, 2019 edition of the Virginia Mercury.

Fairfax County plans a historic solar buy—if Dominion Energy doesn’t stand in the way

Worker installing solar panels on a roof.

A worker installs solar panels at Washington & Lee University. Photo courtesy of Secure Futures LLC.

In June, Fairfax County announced it was seeking proposals from solar companies to install solar at up to 130 county-owned facilities and schools, with another 100 sites to be considered for a later round. The request for proposals (RFP) covers solar on building roofs, ground-mounted solar and solar canopies over parking lots.

This massive solar buy could add as much as 30-40 megawatts of solar, according to one industry member’s calculation. This would easily triple the amount of solar installed to date in the entire NoVa region. What’s more, Fairfax County’s contract will be “rideable” so that other Virginia localities can install solar using the same prices and terms.

“It’s hard to overstate how significant a move this is,” says Debra Jacobson, an energy lawyer who serves on the county’s Environmental Quality Advisory Council. “It’s not just the largest solar buy by a local government in Virginia. It also opens the door for other Virginia counties and cities to buy solar because it makes the process simple and straightforward.”

Jacobson says approximately 15 solar companies attended a bidder’s conference hosted by Fairfax County, indicating strong interest. The county intends to select a contractor by early fall.

One problem stands in the way: Virginia law currently places an overall limit of 50 MW on projects installed in Dominion territory using third-party power purchase agreements (PPAs), the primary financing mechanism for tax-exempt entities.

Even without Fairfax County’s projects, the solar industry warns the cap will likely be met by the end of this year, as schools, universities, churches and other customers across Virginia sign PPAs at an accelerating rate.

The solar industry is asking the State Corporation Commission for action to keep the market alive. Secure Futures LLC, a Staunton-based solar developer, submitted a letter to the SCC on June 24 asking the commission to raise the program cap from 50 MW to 500 MW in Dominion territory and 7 to 30 MW in Appalachian Power territory and to increase the size limit for individual projects from 1 MW to 3 MW.

PPAs allow customers to have on-site solar installed with no upfront cost; the customer pays only for the electricity the solar array produces, at a price that is typically below the price of electricity purchased from the utility. It’s an especially critical tool for cash-strapped local governments and school systems, letting them save taxpayer money while lowering their carbon footprint. Every kilowatt-hour they get from solar replaces electricity they would have to buy from the grid, which in Virginia still comes almost entirely from fossil fuels and nuclear.

For-profit monopoly utilities like Dominion Energy Virginia and Appalachian Power don’t like losing sales when customers generate their own electricity. Virginia’s customer-owned electric cooperatives negotiated legislation this year to remove PPA barriers for non-profits in their territories, but Dominion and APCo didn’t sign on. Both utilities fought Solar Freedom legislation and other bills that would have lifted the PPA cap, claiming there was still plenty of room for projects under the 50 MW cap.

But there may be a simple solution — if the utilities don’t fight it. The legislation that created the PPA program in 2013 directs the SCC to review it every two years beginning in 2015, and to “determine whether the limitations [on the program size and project sizes] should be expanded, reduced, or continued.”

The SCC has never opened a case docket or consulted stakeholders in any previous review of the program — but no one seems to have asked until now. Secure Futures’ letter requests that the SCC open a public docket for this year’s review and consult with stakeholders, including the solar industry and customers.

In his letter, Secure Futures’ CEO Tony Smith notes that Virginia remains well behind North Carolina and Maryland on solar installations, solely for reasons of state policy. Installations using PPAs also lagged until the past year, but are now expanding “at an exponential rate,” according to Secure Futures, with notifications filed for almost 20 MW of projects as of June 12. This number does not include the Fairfax County projects or many others that are still in the early stages of development.

Other solar developers have also asked the SCC to lift the PPA cap. Ruth Amundsen, manager of the Norfolk Solar Qualified Opportunity Zone Fund, told the SCC in a July 20 letter that her fund has identified $117 million of potential solar sites in the Norfolk and Virginia Beach area. The fund brings in investors and installs solar on businesses and non-profits in Virginia Qualified Opportunity Zones, which are low income census tracts that offer tax benefits for investors, at no upfront cost to the customer.  It also hires residents of the Opportunity Zones as solar installers, training them and providing employment.

But, Amundsen’s letter notes, “Without PPAs, none of this is possible. If the PPA cap remains at 50MW, we cannot in good conscience advise these investors to invest in solar in the Virginia QOZs, as there would be no feasible financing method once the cap is reached.”

Amundsen also wants the ability to use PPAs for installation on private homes, which is currently not allowed under the terms of the PPA program in Dominion territory. “The original intent of the Norfolk Solar QOZ Fund was to mitigate the energy burden of low-income home owners.  But because of the current limitation on Power Purchase Agreements (PPAs) in Virginia, we cannot install on private homes via a PPA.  Removal of that limitation, and clarification that PPAs are legal with all customers, would allow us to better serve the most affected residents as far as crushing utility bills.”

 

This article originally appeared in the Virginia Mercury on August 1, 2019. 

Dominion Energy’s new choices are really about limiting choices

Trees clearcut.

Dominion’s renewable energy products contain copious amounts of biomass, also known as burning trees. Photo by Calibas, Creative Commons.

An annual survey conducted by Yale and George Mason universities shows concern about climate change is surging. Seventy-three percent of Americans think climate change is happening, and 69% are at least somewhat worried about it, the highest percentages since the surveys began in 2011.

Another Yale survey found that “a large majority of registered voters (85%) – including 95% of Democrats and 71% of Republicans – support requiring utilities in their state to produce 100% of their electricity from clean, renewable sources by 2050. Nearly two in three conservative Republicans (64%) support this policy.”

Yet here in Virginia, Dominion Energy expects to reduce carbon emissions less in the future than in the past, and it has no plan to produce 100% of its electricity from clean, renewable sources by 2050. For all the talk here of solar, Virginia still had one-seventh the amount of solar installed as North Carolina at the end of 2018 and no wind energy.

Dominion has developed a few solar projects and new tariffs to serve tech companies and other large customers, but ordinary residents still lack meaningful choices. So this spring, Dominion decided to do something about that.

The wrong thing, of course.

Dominion has asked the State Corporation Commission for permission to market two quasi-environmentally-responsible products. One is for people who are willing to pay a premium for renewable energy, and don’t read labels, and the other is for people who want a bargain on renewable energy, and don’t read labels.

There may be plenty of both kinds of customers out there, but that doesn’t mean the SCC should approve either product. Indeed, while the purpose of the bargain product is to offer a choice nobody wants, the purpose of the premium product is to close off better choices.

Let’s look first at the product for bargain-hunters, a super-cheap version of the utility’s Green Power Program. Dominion is calling it “Rider REC.” A better name for it would be the “You Call This Green? Power Program.”

Rider REC consists of the dregs of the renewable energy category, the stuff that isn’t good enough for the Green Power Program. That’s a low bar already, because the Green Power Program doesn’t sell green power. It sells renewable energy certificates (RECs), the “renewable attributes” of electrons from facilities labeled renewable.

Customers who pay extra for RECs still use whatever mix of energy their utility provides. For Dominion customers, that’s fracked gas, nuclear and coal, plus a tiny percentage of oil, biomass, hydro and solar.

Buying RECs lets good-hearted people feel better about using dirty power by donating money to owners of renewable energy facilities somewhere else. The facilities might be in Virginia, or they might be clear across the country.

For example, say a utility out west builds a wind farm because wind is the cheapest way to generate power. If the state doesn’t have a renewable portfolio standard that requires the utility to use the RECs for compliance (most windy states don’t), the RECs can be sold to buyers in liberal East Coast states, lowering energy prices for the utility’s own customers.

RECs don’t even have to represent clean sources like wind. Some RECs subsidize industries that burn trees (aka biomass), black liquor (a particularly dirty waste product of paper mills) and trash.

Dominion’s Green Power Program uses RECs that meet the standards of a national certification program called Green-e. Green-e requires that facilities be no more than 15 years old and meet minimum environmental standards, such as requirements that woody biomass be sustainably grown and that generators don’t violate state and federal pollution limits.

But Virginia’s definition of renewable energy is, shall we say, more forgiving than Green-e’s. Our law does not discriminate against decades-old facilities like hydroelectric dams, or energy from trees that have been clear-cut. (Nor does it recognize that burning trees produces even more lung-damaging, asthma-inducing pollution than coal, and more climate-warming CO2 as well.) Virginia’s definition of renewable energy even includes a vague category of “thermal” energy that may be another way paper mills profit from the REC racket.

This loose definition of “renewable” creates a business opportunity for anyone unscrupulous enough to seize it. Dominion proposes to package up these otherwise unmarketable RECs from sketchy sources across the continental United States and pawn them off on unsuspecting consumers here in Virginia.

There is always money to be made by suckering well-meaning folks, but that’s not a good enough reason for the SCC to let Dominion do it. The case is PUR-2019-00081. Public comments are due by Aug. 15.

So what about the more expensive quasi-environmentally responsible product? “Rider TRG” consists of real, straight-from-the-facility electricity on the power grid serving Virginia, not RECs from out west. And while it is not dirt-cheap like Rider REC, Rider TRG would cost residential customers a premium of only about $50 per year.

Unfortunately, Virginia’s kitchen-sink definition of renewable energy means the sources still don’t have to be new or carbon-free or sustainable. It appears most of them won’t be.

Dominion’s filing indicates the program will use the energy from the Gaston hydroelectric dam built in 1963; the Roanoke Rapids hydro station built in 1955; the Altavista, Southampton and Hopewell power stations that were converted from coal to wood-burning in 2013; and several solar farms the company has already built or contracted for.

In addition, Dominion proposes to allocate to the program the portion of electricity from its Virginia City coal plant representing the percentage of wood that is burned along with the coal.

That’s right, Dominion intends for renewable energy buyers to subsidize its coal plant. The idea is cynical enough to have come from the Trump administration.

Dominion knows full well that customers who want renewable energy want new wind and solar, so why is its first product for residential customers so loaded with dirty biomass and old hydro?

The answer is that Dominion doesn’t care if no one signs up for Rider TRG. The point isn’t to give customers what they want, it’s to prevent them from shopping elsewhere for better options. Like Appalachian Power before it, Dominion wants to close off the narrow opening provided by Virginia law that allows customers to shop for 100% renewable energy from other providers only if their own utility doesn’t offer it. The SCC approved APCo’s renewable energy tariff some months ago. Dominion is following APCo’s successful strategy.

Yet APCo’s product consists of hydro, wind and solar, so it is nefarious, but not actually bad. Dominion’s is nefarious and bad.

An SCC decision in 2017 confirmed customers’ right to shop for renewable energy as long as the incumbent utility doesn’t offer it. Currently at least two other providers, Direct Energy and Calpine Energy Solutions, offer renewable energy to commercial customers in Dominion territory. Yet according to documents provided by Direct Energy, Dominion is refusing to let its customers transfer to Direct Energy and Calpine, triggering competing petitions to the SCC.

Dominion no doubt hopes to resolve the dispute permanently by terminating its customers’ right to switch providers at all.

The case is PUR-2019-00094. Comments may be submitted until Nov. 14, and a public hearing will be held on Nov. 21.

 

This article first appeared in the Virginia Mercury on July 22, 2019.

Dominion’s plans to tackle global warming are mostly hot air

Graph compares CO2 reductions by Dominion Energy and Xcel

Dominion (blue line) starts out with lower total CO2 emissions than the larger Xcel (red line), but after switching out old coal for new fracked gas, Dominion’s carbon-cutting slows to a crawl, while Xcel’s keeps going.

My readers will be shocked, shocked to learn that contrary to Dominion Energy’s propaganda, the company plans to cut carbon emissions by only about 1% per year between now and 2030, a slower pace than it has achieved in the past.

According to an analysis of Dominion’s own data by the Energy and Policy Institute, “the company reduced its carbon emissions at an average rate of 4% per year from 2005 to 2017, mostly by retiring coal plants in the later years of that period. That reduction rate plummets to 1% per year between now and 2030 under Dominion’s new goal.”

“The company’s reduction pace would increase again between 2030 and 2050 in order to meet its later goal [of 80% carbon reduction from 2005 to 2050], though only to about 2.8%, still lower than its pace from 2005 to 2017.”

Fracked gas investments are both the reason Dominion has brought carbon emissions down as much as it has, and the reason it can’t keep up the pace. Closing expensive, old coal plants is an easy way to cut carbon and save money at the same time. Replace the output of a coal plant with the same output from a gas plant, and you’ve slashed carbon emissions almost in half overnight.

But it’s not such a great trick if it requires you to build a new gas plant with a useful life of 30 years. That makes it much harder to decarbonize further by replacing gas with carbon-free renewables.

This is exactly Dominion Energy Virginia’s problem. A comparison of the utility’s 2013 and 2018 integrated resource plans shows coal fell from 22% of the total energy mix to 18%, while natural gas jumped from 17% to 32%, displacing purchased energy as well as coal.

The company achieved this feat with three new, huge combined-cycle gas plants it brought online just in the past five years: Warren (1,370 MW) in 2014, Brunswick (1,358 MW) in 2016, and Greensville (1,588 MW) in 2018. Together these plants increased Dominion’s natural gas generating capacity by more than 50%.

Not only did Dominion stick utility ratepayers with these big new gas plants, its parent company promised investors the utility will burn enough gas to justify spending $7 billion-plus on the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. Decarbonizing violates the business plan.

Dominion is in good company — by which I mean bad company — in making bold claims about carbon cuts that prove inadequate on closer inspection. According to the Energy and Policy Institute, the other southeastern monopoly utilities, Duke, Southern, and NextEra, are all using the same playbook.

Other utilities have avoided the gas trap. National leaders like Minneapolis-based Xcel, Consumers Energy in Michigan, and NIPSCO in Indiana are replacing coal with renewables and leapfrogging over new gas. That puts them in a position to deliver on their promises of rapid emissions cuts.

The Energy and Policy Institute analysis pointedly contrasts Xcel with Dominion:

Xcel Energy is one of the country’s largest electric utilities, with operations in eight states, primarily Colorado and Minnesota. Xcel pledged in December 2018 to reduce its carbon emissions 80 percent by 2030 from 2005 levels, and to fully decarbonize by 2050. Xcel’s new goal is an upgrade of a previous one to cut carbon emissions 60 percent by 2030. It says it plans to lean heavily on renewable energy and batteries will save its customers money. In a detailed report released in March, Xcel says its goals fall within the range compatible with Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change scenarios that achieve either a 2°C or 1.5°C target.

Graphing Xcel’s trajectory vs. Dominion’s is telling: the companies’ decarbonization pathways tracked one another closely from 2005 until 2017. At that point, Xcel’s trajectory starts turning sharply downward, while Dominion’s flattens out.

Another contrast you’ll notice between Xcel and Dominion: Dominion has no plans to get to zero emissions, ever. It’s hard not to conclude that the company’s leaders are simply putting the best climate face on a gas strategy that hasn’t changed.

Eventually, though, the falling costs of wind and solar and the public’s demand for climate action will force Dominion to follow Xcel and others into deep decarbonization.

It may not be the business plan, but it is the future.

This post was originally published in the Virginia Mercury on July 15, 2019. 

 

Customer-owned utilities should be leaders on clean energy. Why do most of them fail to deliver?

map shows territory of Rappahannock Electric Cooperative

The territory of the Rappahannock Electric Cooperative in Virginia, from the coop’s website.

More than one in six Virginia residents gets electricity from a rural electric cooperative rather than a big investor-owned utility like Dominion Energy or Appalachian Power. Co-ops don’t get much attention from clean energy advocates and the press, but that might be a mistake. Co-op members aren’t just customers; they’re owners.

In theory, that should put co-ops at the head of the energy transition.

The current reality is mostly quite different, both in Virginia and nationwide. While a few co-ops have adopted innovative customer-friendly programs, most actively resist change. Here in Virginia, a battle over reform of the Rappahannock Electric Cooperative (REC) shows how difficult it is for co-op members to make their voices heard.

According to the reform group Repower REC, the co-op’s management not only refuses to make changes that would save members money, it actively cuts members out of the decision-making process. Repower REC is endorsing a slate of reform board candidates and proposing amendments to the co-op’s bylaws that would give members the right to fair elections and to obtain basic information about REC’s management and finances.

The lack of transparency and democracy at REC turns out to be a common failing of co-ops. A 2016 report from the Institute for Self-Reliance described three reasons why co-ops are laggards rather than leaders in the energy transition: overreliance on coal, long-term contracts with suppliers and a failure of democracy in governance.

Coal accounts for 75% of energy generated by electric cooperatives nationwide, compared to less than 28% today for all utilities nationally. Worse, failing to see the promise of distributed generation, most co-ops have locked themselves into long-term supply contracts that give them little room for self-generation with solar and wind. Having tied their members to fossil fuels, it’s not surprising that co-op managers don’t want their governance scrutinized too closely.

In fact, stuck with the dirty black stuff, rural electric cooperatives are much more likely than investor-owned utilities to support coal and oppose climate regulations. This may even help explain why rural voters are so much more likely than urban voters to support coal even in non-coal states, and to doubt climate science. Certainly their co-ops, which are supposed to educate consumers about the electric power industry, are not helping to educate them about the realities of climate science.

But according to the Institute’s report, it’s the third reason that holds co-ops back the most. Co-op member-owners have the right to vote but mostly don’t, often because they’re presented with no real choices, and lack basic information needed to cast an informed vote.

A host of other barriers, such as a lack of transparency, and the practice of collecting blank “proxy ballots” that incumbent board members complete as they see fit, ensures the reelection of entrenched board members and their hand-picked successors. Board members pay themselves handsomely for very part-time work, with many staying on boards for decades if not life.

All of these problems are present at REC, according to Repower REC. Seth Heald, a Repower REC founder who’s been an REC member for over a decade, says “the total lack of transparency surrounding the co-op’s board meetings seems designed to keep REC members from knowing whether their board members are well-informed, engaged and advocating for consumers. It also prevents us from learning the extent to which management may exercise control over compliant board members.”

To be fair, other Virginia co-ops show the promise of the member-owned model. The only community solar programs offered in Virginia today are run by coops: BARC in southwest Virginia and Central Virginia Electric Cooperative in the Charlottesville area. BARC also installed solar on all three Bath County schools, putting it way ahead of larger and richer jurisdictions like Fairfax and Loudoun that get power from Dominion.

Virginia co-ops also reached a deal with the solar industry this year designed to ease some of the barriers to rooftop solar, a deal neither Dominion nor APCo would agree to.

But Virginia co-ops haven’t adopted the kinds of aggressive energy efficiency programs that have lowered energy demand and saved money for members of the nation’s most innovative co-ops, such as Roanoke Electric Cooperative in North Carolina and Ouachita Electric Cooperative in Arkansas. In both places, utility financing of efficiency improvements and federal grants from the Department of Agriculture have allowed even very low-income members to pay for insulation and appliance upgrades while simultaneously lowering electric bills.

(Ouachita also installed Arkansas’ largest solar farm in 2017.)

It’s hard to believe more co-ops wouldn’t offer programs like these if they truly had their members’ interests at heart.

REC members will be voting this month on board candidates and Repower REC’s proposed bylaw amendments, using proxy/ballot forms attached to the cover of the July Cooperative Living magazine. Forms must be mailed back in time to arrive by Aug. 19. Members may also vote through REC’s SmartHub online tool by Aug. 19, or in person at the August 22 annual meeting.