Greenwashing Virginia’s renewable energy law, part 3: you can’t clean ugly

If you’ve been following the woeful tale of Virginia’s renewable portfolio standard, by now you know it hasn’t produced a single electron of wind or solar power in the commonwealth, nor is it ever likely to. Fellow citizens, what is to be done?

Let’s review what happened in last year’s legislative session, when word got out that Dominion Power was meeting the state’s renewable energy goals by buying cheap renewable energy certificates from decades-old projects involving dams, trash and wood—and collecting tens of millions of dollars annually as a “bonus” for doing so. Outraged environmentalists pushed for a reform bill that would let utilities collect this bonus from their customers only if they invest in new, Virginia-made wind and solar projects—essentially, what we thought the law was about in the first place.

It was a well-crafted, solid, common-sense bill. It died without even a hearing.

But meanwhile, Governor McDonnell got two bills passed that actually made the law worse. The first one said that in addition to energy from old dams, trash and wood, utilities can meet our goals by purchasing renewable energy certificates generated by universities showing they’ve done some research into renewable energy.

Research is an admirable activity. Most of us approve of research. We approve of universities, too. But even when you put universities and research together, not a single electron of energy flows into anyone’s home. Under what possible theory does it qualify as renewable energy?

Also newly qualifying, thanks to the governor, are certificates representing an industrial process used by a Virginia corporation called MeadWestvaco. This also won’t put energy on the grid, but it creates a brand-new income stream for MeadWestvaco, paid for by utility customers—though not by large industrial users like MeadWestvaco itself, which got themselves exempted from paying for the added cost to utilities of renewable energy.

Lobbyists, my friends, are worth every dime of their inflated paychecks.

No doubt this clever bill will stimulate the creative juices of other corporations to figure out how they, too, can feed at the renewable energy trough. As a service to anyone wondering how to get their ideas into law, I note that MeadWestvaco gave $75,000 to Bob McDonnell’s campaign for governor and his inaugural committee. This is what we call the Virginia Way.

After these two bills passed, Governor McDonnell announced he had taken important steps to promote renewable energy. Advocates of renewable energy promptly asked him not to do us any more favors. Heading into the next session, we’re gravely concerned that he wasn’t listening.

Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli offered a different approach: repeal the RPS law, or at least repeal the bonus utilities get. Mr. Cuccinelli is more famous for attacking the credibility of climate scientists than for embracing renewable energy, but with the environmentalists’ reform bill dead, the Sierra Club ended up supporting the AG’s bill rather than see the consumer rip-off continue.

But that bill failed, too, though it got several votes from Cuccinelli allies in the House, some of whom are pretty sure that if renewable energy succeeds, the United States will become a failed socialist state occupied by blue-helmeted U.N. troops. (If you think I am making that up, check out some Virginia Tea Party websites.) It is safe to conclude that votes for the AG’s bill were not votes for renewable energy.

Cuccinelli’s bill shared the same fatal flaw as the reform bill: Dominion Power opposed it. In case you haven’t caught on by now, Dominion almost always gets its way in the legislature, and it sure isn’t going to allow either the AG or the Sierra Club to take away its free money.

The upcoming session could be interesting. Mr. Cuccinelli is running for governor next year, which makes him the leading Republican in the state, with all due respect to Bob “Lame Duck” McDonnell. This fall Cuccinelli issued a report critical of Virginia’s appalling RPS, and has signaled he plans to go after the bonuses again.

Which is more powerful for Republicans, political allegiance or Dominion’s campaign cash? Which matters more to Democrats, renewable energy or Dominion’s campaign cash? Which matters more to Governor McDonnell, his party or his tight relationship with Dominion’s CEO (not to mention the campaign cash)? Not surprisingly, legislators are begging Dominion and the AG’s office to work something out together so they won’t have to pick sides.

Concerned that a “compromise” may serve political ends but leave the public out in the cold, environmental groups plan to bring their own citizen’s army to Richmond in support of reform. They’d like to see a compromise that lets Dominion keep its bonus payments by earning them with Virginia-made wind and solar. It’s so little to ask–yet, based on past years’ experience, it may still be too much to hope for.

Which brings us to the third option for outraged citizens. Buy Dominion stock. Seriously, if the company is going to wind up on top every time, you may as well get in on the profits.

Maybe you can use your dividends to buy solar panels.

Greenwashing Virginia’s renewable energy law, part 2: Check, please!

Maybe not quite what we had in mind.

Maybe not quite what we had in mind.

In our last column, we looked at Virginia’s renewable energy standard, trying to grab hold of its 15% goal as it shrank three sizes in the greenwash. At the end of that discussion, you may have consoled yourself with the thought that 10% or 5% or 3% is, at least, better than nothing. Besides which, the law is only voluntary, so how much harm can it do?

Voluntary” has such a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?  You probably think it has something to do with customers deciding whether to participate. You might think it’s for those virtuous people who sign up to buy “green” power, and the rest of us will just go on burning coal.

That is not what voluntary means at all. “Voluntary” means your utility gets to choose whether to participate, and then you have to go along with it. The law says that if your utility opts in, it will spend some of your money on renewable energy, and then because it did all that work, you have to add a big tip to your utility bill.

I suppose, in theory, a utility like Dominion Power might decide it didn’t want to spend your money, and it could just skip the fat tip. In reality, refusing a tip isn’t part of a corporation’s DNA any more than it is of a waiter’s. Tom Farrell’s momma didn’t bring him up to be a fool who leaves money on the table. So our voluntary RPS is kind of like one of those annoying restaurants where they automatically add the tip to the bill for parties of six or more.

In this case, the tip adds up to more than $38 million per year. Mind you, this is on top of the profit they had already added to your bill. This is a very lucrative line of business.

Well, you might think, at least I got fed. You like renewable energy, after all. It replaces smog-causing fossil fuels. It lowers our carbon footprint. It creates jobs and enhances our national security. A utility shouldn’t have to be bribed into buying it for you, but at least now it’s part of the meal.

But look more closely. If that renewable energy were food, you’d send it back. You assumed you were getting fresh, Virginia-grown electrons, made with the sun and the wind—and what is this stuff they are serving? Energy from dams, trash and wood, most of it fifty years old or more, of such poor quality that no other state will let it be served to their customers. They only call it “green” because it’s practically moldy. (And such small portions!)

You call your utility over and demand an explanation. “Where’s the wind energy? Where’s the solar? Why isn’t this fresh and local?” And your utility looks down its nose at you and answers, “Those things cost more. We have an obligation to be careful of your money. So for you, we go dumpster diving.”

At that point, you might be glad the renewable energy portion of your meal barely amounts to a garnish. The trouble is, you can’t take your business elsewhere. Your utility has a monopoly, and it guards your patronage jealously. So you’re stuck with the meal they serve you. The closest you’re going to get to real renewable energy is the picture of a wind turbine on the cover of the menu.

It’s only now that you notice an asterisk by the wind turbine and fine print that reads: “Coming soon!” And below that, in print so tiny you have to reach for your glasses: “Or not.”

Greenwashing Virginia’s renewable energy law, part 1: Honey, I shrank the goals!

Criticism of Dominion Virginia Power has been steadily mounting over the $76 million dollars the company has been awarded as a “bonus” for complying with Virginia’s voluntary renewable energy law. Last week Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli weighed in with a report echoing the charges environmentalists have been making for the past year: Dominion has succeeded in meeting the letter of the law, and collecting bonus money from its customers, without investing in any new renewable energy projects.

The AG’s office exonerates Dominion, claiming the real failure is the legislature’s for passing a law that allowed this to happen. Silly Mr. Cuccinelli: this is Virginia. Dominion wrote the law.

But it’s worse than you know. The money-for-nothing issue is partly a result of the statute’s failure to require new investments in high-value projects like wind and solar energy as a condition of earning the bonus, but it is also a function of the extremely modest targets set by the statute itself. Virginia’s renewable energy goal is usually stated as 15% renewable energy by 2025, but when 2025 rolls around, the goal will be met with less than half this percentage, possibly much less.

The greenwash works like this: the statute sets a 2025 target for renewable energy to make up 15% of “total electric energy sold.” You probably think you know what “total electric energy sold” means. You don’t. Only if you are whiling away an idle afternoon reading the definitions section of the statute do you learn that “total electric energy sold” is defined as the total amount of electricity sold, minus the amount provided by nuclear power. In the case of Dominion Power, nuclear is about a third of the total. So for Dominion, 15% of “total electric energy sold” actually means only 10% of its electricity sales.

You will rarely see Dominion acknowledge this, though until recently its executives worded their statements carefully so they could not be accused of actually lying to anyone. Lately, however, the company has grown careless with the truth. A press release dated October 4, 2012 includes this fun quiz question and answer: “Is Dominion investing in renewable power sources? (A) Yes, in Virginia Dominion has committed to getting 15 percent of its power from renewable sources by 2025.”

Yet even if this statement said Dominion would get 15% of its “non-nuclear power” from renewable energy by 2025, it would still be wrong. When 2025 arrives, meeting the goal won’t require Dominion to achieve anywhere near 15% of its non-nuclear sales (10% of total) from renewable energy. That’s because the target percentage is measured against 2007 sales, not 2025 sales, and Virginia is growing. Assuming sales increase a little under 2% per year as Dominion projects, by the time 2025 rolls around, meeting the goal will require only about 7% renewables. If Dominion builds the new nuclear plant it wants, that number will shrink further.

Conceivably the number could go even lower. Since 2007, Virginia politicians have twice demonstrated how much they love renewable energy by watering the goal down even further, but doing it in a way that makes it sound awesome. They passed bills that say utilities will get double credit for any wind and solar they use to meet the goal. In fact—what the heck—if they build offshore wind farms, we’ll give them triple credit!

Wow, triple credit! That’s great! Isn’t it?

Come to think of it, no. Combine that with the other sleights-of-hand, and now Dominion could satisfy Virginia’s entire 15% renewable portfolio goal with about 3.5% of our electricity coming from solar energy or wind farms on land. For offshore wind, less than two and a half percent would do it. And that’s thirteen years from now.

Chances are, this doubling and tripling will never matter. Dominion “earned” its $76 million bonus for meeting the letter of the law with electricity from old dams and biomass (i.e., wood-burning), and by buying cheap credits from out of state. Dominion can get enough of this cheap renewable energy that it will be able to meet the goals through 2025 without investing in wind and solar.

Given Dominion’s approach to meeting the goals, it might be just as well that the target is so low. But then you have to wonder: $76 million for that?