Renewable energy advocates in Virginia were astonished to learn a few weeks ago that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has given Dominion Virginia Power an award for its Green Power Program.
Dominion’s program is not, to put it mildly, a good one. Half of the money its customers contribute is siphoned off for overhead and “education.” The rest goes to buy renewable energy certificates from out of state. Over the years Dominion has collected millions of dollars in these voluntary contributions without building a single wind or solar facility to supply the program. Surely the only green award this merits is one for greenwashing.
So I called the EPA to find out what criteria they use in determining who gets an award. It turns out the agency only measures the growth of a green power program, and Dominion has signed up more customers than other utility programs have.
I had to laugh. Customers of utilities in most other states have real options to buy wind and solar. If you can buy wind energy from an alternative supplier or participate in a community solar project, or if your utility is aggressively incorporating renewables into its power supply, you don’t need a green power program.
But Dominion has never built more than token amounts of renewable energy, and it continues to use its monopoly position to erect barriers to competition from others. The utility has signed up 19,000 Green Power participants only because it has effectively denied its Virginia customers any meaningful way of participating in the renewable energy market.
News of this award will surely lure more people in. Yet even if every one of Dominion’s customers signed up for the program, it wouldn’t shrink Virginia’s carbon footprint. Instead, Dominion’s latest integrated resource plan reveals plans for more fossil fuel generation and increasing greenhouse gas emissions over the next fifteen years.
And it’s worse than that. As of this year, Dominion is actually using the Green Power Program to bankroll an attack on renewable energy—one the State Corporation Commission shamefully endorsed when it approved the company’s 3-megawatt “solar purchase program.”
In this charade, Dominion buys solar power from homeowners and businesses to resell to the Green Power Program. The deal nets sellers a few cents over the retail price of electricity, but costs the Green Power Program almost three times as much. This overcharging of the Green Power Program would be bad enough. But the more insidious problem lies in Dominion’s justification for the high charge. It claims that rooftop solar energy is no more valuable than power from fossil fuels that it can buy at wholesale.
Dominion’s position flies in the face of recent studies demonstrating the benefits of solar energy to the grid, including generating power where demand is, providing power during peak hours when energy is most expensive, avoiding the need for transmission upgrades, eliminating line losses, and reducing the need for new generation.
It also runs counter to trends in states like Georgia, where Georgia Power has put a higher–than-retail value on the solar distributed generation it plans to buy, and says that paying the extra won’t put upward pressure on rates.
This makes it especially difficult to understand why Virginia’s State Corporation Commission approved Dominion’s Green Power rip-off. And predictably, Dominion has followed up its win with a deeply flawed study it plans to use as a basis for a new round of standby charges on customers who net meter. (The case is PUE-2012-00064, available on the SCC web site.)
So what is a dedicated renewable energy advocate to do?
There are options. If you are determined to buy RECs, you don’t have to go through Dominion. Buy from another source. But better yet, install solar yourself if you can. The price of solar panels has dropped so precipitously over the past few years (down 60% since the start of 2011) that you may find it worth taking out a home equity loan.
If you don’t have a sunny roof yourself or can’t afford the whole upfront cost, you can work with your school, community center or place of worship to install solar panels in your neighborhood. Interest in solar is very high among Virginia faith congregations, driving large turnouts for presentations on the topic given by Sierra Club and others in cooperation with the solar industry.
Or you can take the money you were spending on Dominion’s program and give it to a charity that will use it to install renewable energy here in Virginia; this may even get you a tax deduction. Low-income housing providers like Richmond’s Better Housing Coalition now put solar panels on many of their facilities, and will accept donations specifically for that purpose.
The Virginia Center for Wind Energy at James Madison University accepts donations to its Wind for Schools program, which helps public schools across the commonwealth install wind turbines for educational purposes.
A new non-profit, Three Birds Foundation, is working to put solar on public schools that serve low-income children in Virginia and elsewhere.
All these charities are committed to doing what Dominion, apparently, doesn’t want to do: install solar and wind energy in Virginia.