When Virginia’s utilities made a surprise announcement on September 5th that they would no longer participate in the state’s Solar Stakeholder Group (SSG), they may have hoped that doing so would stop the group’s Value of Solar study in its tracks. Not so: on Friday, at its first meeting since the utilities withdrew, the group agreed it would issue the report on schedule, although with no further input from members—thus guaranteeing that the report reflects only input submitted while the utilities participated.
This decision was essentially a moot point, because the group had actually wrapped up its work by that September 5th date in order to give the study authors time to incorporate comments, including those from the utilities. The resulting third draft of the report was provided to the remaining group members on September 29. It reflects the work of the full 49-member committee up to September 4.
Lead authors Damian Pitt and Gilbert Michaud of Virginia Commonwealth University will do some clean-up editing and draft a cover letter. Then, in accordance with the work plan established last summer, it will be submitted to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) for review. The study is due in to the Senate Rules Committee by November 1. But as noted previously by Jim Pierobon, it’s not clear how much weight the study will have in the General Assembly now that the utilities have disavowed it.
The utilities have not said why they decided to withdraw from participation. They wrote no memos, offered no analysis, and sent no polite email to other members expressing regret or anything else.
The SSG grew out of an informal “Small Solar Working Group” that formed in 2013 as a way to bring together those with an interest in non-utility-scale solar.* Like the SSG, the Working Group included representatives from the solar industry, environmental groups, local government, academia, trade associations and the electric utilities. But while the Working Group set its own broad agenda, the SSG was formed in response to a specific letter request from the Clerk of the Virginia Senate to DEQ and DMME. The letter asked for a study of “the costs and benefits of distributed solar generation and net metering.”
From that description, and knowing that the utilities hastily decamped, you might think that the SSG actually calculated costs and benefits and came up with a value of solar, and that the result was good for solar advocates but bad for utilities. But in fact, the study reaches no conclusions at all. It could more accurately be described as a study about how you would conduct a study, were you so inclined. Which no one was, because then the utilities might have left. As they did, but only after ensuring the study incorporates their views.
Thus the study wraps up with statements like, “The SSG recognizes that the short- and long-term value of solar will be dependent on a wide range of conditions and perspectives.” And this: “With greater time, resource, and data access, future studies could produce actual values for the net VOS under each methodology.”
There is nothing wrong with such a limited approach, so far as it goes. Professors Pitt and Michaud did an excellent and comprehensive job in surveying the literature, comparing previous studies, and discussing the factors relevant to the issue of solar’s value to the grid, utilities, customers, and society at large. But given that this Value of Solar study came nowhere near assigning a value of solar, it’s hard to understand what the utilities might have objected to.
Nor had there been any hints the utilities were unhappy with the process or with the first two drafts of the report. At Friday’s SSG meeting, many of the other members expressed their surprise and frustration with the utilities’ pull-out. They noted that the utilities participated fully every step of the way and provided copious comments, which were reflected in the drafts. Indeed, three utility representatives served on the twelve-member steering committee that created the work plan and oversaw the study, making it as much their work as anyone else’s. (The other steering committee members were Professor Pitt, three representatives of local government, two conservation group reps., two solar industry members, and one citizen representative.)
So why did the utilities pull out? In retrospect, it may have been their plan all along. By pulling out, they could signal to their allies their disapproval of the study and try to prevent a follow-on study that would actually calculate a value for solar. And by waiting until the last moment to pull out, they maximized their influence over the study’s content, lest it have credence outside their sphere of influence.
But what the utilities lost by this clever maneuver is the trust of the rest of the group. The SSG, like the Small Solar Working Group before it, provided a forum for discussion among the many different parties with an interest in distributed solar. It is incredibly important in a forum like the SSG that people trust each other to act in good faith. Otherwise, 49 people are wasting their time.
The utilities’ decision to sacrifice this trust strikes me as both stupid and unnecessary. Many of us expected that the utilities’ lobbyists would quietly tell their friends in the legislature to ignore the Value of Solar study, that they participated just to be nice guys. Openly thumbing their noses at the study did nothing except prove they aren’t nice guys and cannot be trusted.
The rural electric cooperatives will have to answer to their members, who admittedly don’t seem to pay much attention. But Dominion Virginia Power and Appalachian Power are public utilities. They hold their monopolies by the grace of the people of Virginia, and are expected to act in the interest of the people they serve. In this case, they have manifestly failed to do so.
* I was one of the founding members of the Small Solar Working Group and was responsible for asking the Department of Environmental Quality’s Carol Wampler to facilitate the meetings. Ms. Wampler had led other successful stakeholder groups and had a gift for guiding people with disparate interests towards consensus. (Unfortunately for the people of Virginia, she retired from DEQ this summer.) She brought in the equally-dedicated Ken Jurman from the Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy as a co-facilitator. The divide between the utility monopolies and everyone else proved too great to produce any consensus bills that could spur the flourishing of solar in Virginia, but it did develop a level of trust, unfortunately now compromised.