Dominion ditches plans for onshore wind in Virginia, but grows bullish on solar

Not for you, Virginia.

Not for you, Virginia.

Well, now it’s semi-official: in spite of what it has been telling customers for years, Dominion Power is not going to build onshore wind in Virginia. Speaking at an Edison Electric Institute conference in Dallas on November 13, Dominion Resources Executive Vice President and CFO Mark Gettrick spelled it out:

“When the wind business first got started, a decade, a decade and a half ago, we built two wind projects early on [Mt. Storm, in West Virginia, and Fowler Ridge, in Indiana], and we elected not to build any more. We steered away from wind. We do not think wind would ever be a good resource on land, in Virginia anyway, and so we elected not to pursue incremental wind projects.”

Someone should probably let the rest of the company in on the secret. Dominion’s website still insists the company has three Virginia onshore wind projects in development, and it included 247 megawatts’ worth in its latest Integrated Resource Plan (IRP). But the plan reflects the company’s cooling enthusiasm for wind energy, with the projects now slated for 2022-2024.

This is disappointing news, but it certainly isn’t a surprise. Dominion proposed its Virginia wind farms back before fracking caused natural gas prices to nosedive, undercutting the economic case for wind. At that point, Virginia’s lack of a real RPS meant Dominion had no incentive to build higher-priced generation, and every reason to believe the State Corporation Commission would reject a wind project, as it did similar proposals from Appalachian Power.

But though it is abandoning wind, the company is enthusiastic about solar. Gettrick said Dominion sees “gas and solar” as the way to comply with the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, which will require states to lower their carbon emissions from electric generating plants. Gettrick said:

“We see a growing need in Virginia to install solar for native load compliance with carbon. So that’s what we’re doing . . . So watch where we go with solar. We like the technology, the cost continues to drop, and we see it as a cornerstone for future development in Virginia.”

Advocates may wonder, why solar and not wind? Wind would seem to be cheaper, after all, and a single utility-scale turbine provides more power than hundreds of home solar systems.

The IRP offers part of the answer. For a utility, not all power is equal. Dominion has plenty of power for times when demand is low; the challenge is filling in the peaks and valleys of demand above that minimum level. Dominion needs the most power on summer days when solar produces well but wind does not.

The other part of the answer is price. This will surprise people who have seen the rock-bottom prices of wind power in places like Iowa and Texas, where wind outcompetes even natural gas. But it’s cheap to build wind among cornfields or on open rangeland, where access is easy. It’s more expensive to do it in the eastern mountains, where narrow, winding roads pose logistical challenges. The result is that wind power in the Southeast will cost about double what it costs in the Plains, according to the most recent Lazard analysis.

By contrast, Lazard calculates that utility scale solar power costs only about 20% more in the Southeast than it does in the dry, sunny Southwest, where utility-scale solar has reached grid parity. So while the best wind prices are well below the best solar prices nationwide, solar may be cheaper than wind in Virginia.

Lazard’s analyses are based on actual projects, but it also makes some predictions about where prices are headed. It projects unsubsidized utility-scale solar prices of six cents per kilowatt-hour by 2017, confirming predictions of widespread grid parity made by other analysts like Citibank and Deutsche Bank.

If you’re concerned about meeting EPA carbon emissions rules, or just concerned about the environment, period–or you want a reliable and stable-priced resource to hedge gas–solar makes very good sense.

Given these price trends, Dominion’s enthusiasm is entirely understandable. But surely it has some explaining to do, after years of trashing solar to legislators and the SCC. It has gone so far as to slap standby charges on customers who generate their own solar power. And as we’ve seen, its own forays into rooftop solar can’t be counted a success.

But perhaps we could all let bygones be bygones. If Dominion would focus its efforts on utility-scale solar while allowing the removal of barriers constraining the private market for commercial and residential solar, all of us would be winners.

Dominion Virginia Power says its 30 MW Solar Partnership Program likely to top out at “13 or 14” MW

Photo credit Christoffer Reimer

Photo credit Christoffer Reimer

At a stakeholder meeting in Chesterfield, Virginia, on Monday, Dominion Virginia Power revealed that it expects to have installed a total of 6 megawatts (MW) of distributed solar generation by year’s end, out of the 30 MW approved by the General Assembly. But the program, which Dominion calls its Solar Partnership Program, may achieve only a total of “thirteen or fourteen megawatts” before it exhausts the $80 million that the State Corporation Commission authorized the company to spend on it.

Dominion had originally requested $110 million for the program, under which it develops large solar facilities on rooftops it leases from commercial, industrial or institutional customers in selected areas. But many solar industry members and advocates, including yours truly, argued that it should be possible to install 30 MW of solar for much less. It turns out that we were right that the private sector could do it for less, but wrong in thinking Dominion could.

The $80 million price tag works out to a cost of between $5.70 and $6.15 per watt, a number that is at least two and a half times what a commercial customer would expect to pay if it purchased a system directly. It’s vastly higher even than what residential customers are paying under the popular “solarize” programs that have sprung up around the state this year, which are producing contracts for home systems at $2.90-3.55 per watt.

Dominion analyst Nate Frost told me at the meeting that the SCC required the company to include all the related costs of the program, including financing and O&M as well as the cost of leasing rooftops from participants. But this still puts the price far above what similar projects would cost if built and owned by a private sector firm, according to an industry insider I consulted.

I followed up with Mr. Frost by email to ask for a cost breakdown, and to find out whether unique factors might have driven up the cost. Mr. Frost referred me to the company’s August 29 filing with the SCC (which, due to the SCC’s impossibly user-unfriendly website, I cannot link you to, although you can look it up yourself on the website by searching under case PUE-2011-0017).

That filing does not, unfortunately, answer any of the questions I put to Mr. Frost. But reading it does give a strong impression that the company had expected to be able to install the full 30 MW under the cost cap, and was as surprised and dismayed as the rest of us to find they were proceeding with projects way too slowly while blowing through their budget way too fast.

Of course, the point of the Solar Partnership Program is not to show whether Dominion is capable of competing with private companies, but to give the utility a chance to examine how solar integrates with the existing grid. This is important because solar is such a new and untried technology that the utility could not possibly know what might happen if it just scattered twenty or thirty megawatts’ worth of it into a system with tens of thousands of megawatts of fossil fuel generation. Sure, critics might suggest Dominion could get that information from New Jersey, which has over 1,300 MW of solar in a state half the size of Virginia. But what the critics fail to understand is that unlike Virginia, New Jersey actually encourages solar, making its electrons highly suspect. This is why we need our own study.

Monday’s stakeholder meeting revealed more bad news about Dominion’s progress on solar. Also behind schedule is the Solar Purchase Program, under which solar owners who would otherwise be eligible to net meter (using their solar power themselves) are offered 15 cents per kilowatt-hour to sell their green electricity to Dominion for resale to the Green Power Program, while purchasing “brown” power for their own use at the standard rate. Although the program has been open for more than a year and has a capacity of 3 MW, to date it has signed up only 703 kilowatts.

Solar industry members and analysts had criticized the design of the program from the outset. But again, the company’s SCC filing (included with the Solar Partnership Program filing) reveals Dominion’s surprise and chagrin that the great majority of customers who initially signed up for the program changed their minds.

Nor are customers jumping to take advantage of Dominion’s “Schedule RG,” which makes the utility a middleman for sales of renewable energy from producers to large customers, like the consumer-conscious corporations that have driven big solar installations in many other states. Thus far there have been no takers. That’s not a huge surprise to observers; Schedule RG was criticized at the time of its proposal for its cumbersome design. (Yes, we are seeing a pattern here.)

By contrast, reported Mr. Frost, the net metering option that allows customers to install solar on their own property and for their own use has attracted 1,080 customers, who have installed a total of 8 MW to date, with 86% of these customers residential.

These aren’t huge numbers either, but they probably don’t include more than a few of the home systems currently under development through the solarize programs, which will add significantly to our residential total this year. Two projects using third-party power purchase agreements (PPAs) will also add as much as a megawatt.

The lesson seems to be that customers are doing a better job installing solar than Dominion is. If Virginia is serious about increasing renewable energy in the state, it should free the private market to build distributed generation like rooftop solar: serving every kind of customer of every size, everywhere in the state. If the utilities want to compete on a level playing field, let them. Otherwise, they should be encouraged to focus on developing multi-megawatt, utility-scale projects for the grid. There is plenty of room for both, and we need it all.