As reported in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Dominion Resources, the parent company of Dominion Virginia Power, is considering building 220 megawatts of solar projects in Virginia, starting in 2017. The plan would involve five 40-megawatt “greenfield” projects, plus 20 megawatts located at existing power stations. (A greenfield is an area that is not already developed. So the large projects would be on former farmland, say, not closed landfills or old industrial sites.)
The company’s recent solar buys in California, Connecticut, Indiana, Georgia and Tennessee have all involved the unregulated, merchant side of Dominion Resources. But in this case, the plan is for Dominion Virginia Power to own the Virginia projects and sell the electricity to its customers here in the Commonwealth. This would require approval of the State Corporation Commission—which, as we know, is no friend to renewable energy.
A little more digging confirmed that Dominion plans to sell the solar energy to the whole rate base, rather than, say, to participants in the voluntary Green Power Program. How would they get that past the SCC? That remains unclear, but they know keeping the cost down will be key. Right now they’re looking at all the options to make it work. The company is still at the conceptual stage, is still looking for good sites of 100 acres and up, and hasn’t even made a decision to proceed.
So we should probably hold our excitement in check for now. After all, Dominion has had wind farms in Virginia “under development” for the past several years, with nary a turbine in sight.
Solar does have a few advantages over wind, though, from a utility perspective. For one, it produces power during the day, when demand is higher, while onshore wind tends to blow more at night. (Offshore wind, on the other hand, picks up in the late afternoon and evening, right at peak demand time.) And unlike wind farms in the Midwest and Great Plains, where turbines coexist peacefully with cows and cornfields, turbines in the mountains of the east have generated opposition from people concerned about impacts on forests and viewsheds. You find some curmudgeons who think solar panels are ugly, but they aren’t trying to block them wholesale at the county level.
With the sharp drop in solar costs over the last few years, large-scale solar has been looking increasingly attractive to utilities that want to beef up their renewable energy portfolios. As we learned recently, Dominion’s got a long way to go before it competes with even an average utility elsewhere. That puts it in a poor position to respond to the rapid changes heading our way. These include not just growing public demand for wind and solar and new regulatory constraints on carbon emissions, but also the much-discussed upending of the traditional utility model that depends on a captive customer base and large centralized generating plants running baseload power. Distributed generation and batteries increasingly offer customers a way to untether themselves from the grid, while wind and solar together are pushing grid operators towards a more nimble approach to meeting demand—one in which baseload is no longer a virtue.
Dominion and its fossil fuel and nuclear allies are fighting hard against the tide, but in the end, Dominion will do whatever it takes to keep making money. And right now, the smart money is on solar.
None of this means we should expect Dominion to become more friendly to pro-solar legislation that will “let our customers compete with us,” as one Dominion Vice President put it. But it does suggest an opening for legislation that would promote utility-owned solar, perhaps through the RPS or stand-alone bills.
Legislators shouldn’t view utility-owned solar as an alternative to customer-owned solar; we need both. And if being grid-tied means being denied the right to affordable solar energy, we will see customers begin to abandon the grid. But those aren’t arguments against utility-scale solar, either. Big projects like the ones Dominion proposes are critical to helping us catch up to other states and reduce our carbon emissions.
So full speed ahead, Dominion! We’re all waiting.