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?