Virginia’s General Assembly likes solar energy. Will that be enough?

Emojione_1F31E.svgVirginia’s General Assembly broke new ground in February when it passed legislation declaring up to 500 megawatts of utility solar power “in the public interest.” The language will help projects gain regulatory approval from the State Corporation Commission, which has been hostile to renewable energy. Dominion Virginia Power wants to build up to 400 MW of solar by 2020.* If the utility follows through, Virginia will finally join the solar revolution underway across the U.S.

Emojione_umbrella.svgIt’s important to acknowledge the limitations of the legislation, though. It was written by and for Dominion, not for the solar industry or Virginia residents. The utility does not want its customers installing solar power for themselves or buying it from anyone else, hence the limitation to utility-owned projects of at least 1 MW. So people who want to see more distributed generation, especially customer-owned, rooftop solar, found little to cheer about in this legislation.

Twemoji_exclamation question.svgOthers took a glass-half-full view. For climate activists, all solar is good solar, and big projects produce more than little projects. It would take 4,000 houses, each with an average 5-kW system, to produce as much power as a single 20-MW project like the one Dominion plans for Remington, Virginia. (The Remington facility is the only solar project Dominion has identified so far in the commonwealth.)

But of course, if you can get 4,000 houses with solar in addition to a 20-MW solar farm, then you’ve got twice as much solar altogether. Glass totally full: insert your happy emoji here.

The optimists hope that success with utility-scale solar will demonstrate the value of the resource and lead to better policies for distributed solar as well. A look at the experience of other states shows that is not inevitable. States with policies that promote residential and commercial solar, like New York and New Jersey, see a lot of those projects. States that mainly incentivize utility ownership, like North Carolina and Nevada, haven’t seen much else.

Dominion unquestionably won this round in the General Assembly, getting a seal of approval for its own projects while locking out most of the competition. Only two bills passed this year lowering hurdles to customer-owned renewables, and neither of them help homeowners. One bill raises the project size limit on net-metered facilities from 500 kW to 1 MW, a change sought by Virginia’s universities and by the solar developer Secure Futures LLC, whose business model focuses on large nonprofit institutions. The other enables localities to help finance energy efficiency and renewable energy projects on commercial properties using what are known as property-assessed clean energy, or PACE, loans.

Many more bills sought by renewable energy advocates went down to defeat in the face of utility opposition, including things like a grant program and a community net-metering bill that could have had a transformational impact on the industry.

That leaves just one initiative that advocates will be watching closely to see if it produces any opportunities for customer-owned solar. Legislation establishing the Virginia Solar Development Authority, HB 2267 and others, says it will “support the development of the solar industry and solar energy projects

by developing programs that increase the availability of financing for solar energy projects, facilitate the increase of solar energy generation systems on public and private sector facilities in the Commonwealth, promote the growth of the Virginia solar industry, and provide a hub for collaboration between entities, both public and private, to partner on solar energy projects.”

The bill is a little vague as to just how all this will happen. The Authority has no regulatory power and no budget. Many of its duties involve finding money, as in the paragraph empowering it to help utilities deploy 400 MW of solar projects by “providing for the financing or assisting in the financing of the construction or purchase of such solar energy projects.”

Another provision, however, empowers the Authority to “identify and take steps to mitigate existing state and regulatory or administrative barriers to the development of the solar energy industry.” Of course, one of those barriers is the anti-competitive maneuvering of our utilities to protect their monopoly positions.

The Authority should perhaps take a lesson from the DEQ-facilitated Small Solar Working Group, which I helped form in 2013 with a goal of developing pro-solar legislative proposals. The problem we ran into was that utilities were determined to ensure we did not put forth any legislative proposals, and we had made the mistake of letting them into the group. If utility executives get appointed to the Solar Authority, it could be déjà vu all over again.

Delegate Tim Hugo, for one, thinks the Authority will lead to more distributed generation as well as utility solar. “The intent of the legislation is to create an opportunity to develop a broad range of projects including distributed customer owned generation and to help facilitate a solar industry in Virginia,” he told me.

Hugo, one of the sponsors of the Authority bill, is one of the Commerce and Labor committee members who helped defeat other bills sought by the solar industry. But if distributed solar is to thrive in Virginia, it will require legislators like Hugo to become its champions.

Hugo, a Republican, considers himself a staunch solar advocate, going back many years. “In 2007,” he reminded me, “I sponsored HB2708 dealing with net metering, which would require utilities to purchase excess electricity produced by a customer-generator.” Last year he sponsored bi-partisan legislation exempting from real and personal property taxes solar equipment that generates 20 megawatts or less, a change critical to the economics of commercial solar projects.

But relatively few legislators from either party are willing to oppose Dominion, and therein lies the rub. The company considers monopoly control its right, and it doesn’t yield an inch without getting something for it. On the other hand, this was a bad year in the press for Dominion. Editorial boards across the state lambasted the company over legislation that will let it shield excess profits for the next several years. The public, too, is irritated with the slow pace of solar, and it knows whom to blame. That provides an opening for pro-solar legislators. We’ll see if they take it.


*Dominion was the moving force behind this legislation, but it applies as well to Appalachian Power Company. When I asked an APCo lobbyist whether its passage means more solar in APCo’s future, he merely referred me to the company’s 2014 Integrated Resource Plan, written a year ago. It lays out plans for small additions of utility solar beginning in 2019, scaling up gradually to a cumulative total of 500 MW in 2028—or about half as much as North Carolina already has today.

Virginia’s legislative session ends. How did we do?

Photo credit: Corrina Beall

The General Assembly made a mad dash to the end of the 2015 legislative session last week. House Republicans were in a hurry to finish up a day early, even if bills suffered as a result, in the peculiar belief that prioritizing speed over quality would demonstrate their competence.

Apparently they thought that would play to the anti-government crowd. And I guess it does; if you weren’t anti-government before they pulled a stunt like that, you probably are now.

Being in a rush had to be their excuse for that ethics bill they pushed through in the final hours. I can finally understand why Senator Dick Saslaw says, “You can’t legislate ethics.” What he means is that the Virginia General Assembly can’t legislate ethics. Most of the rest of us would have no problem doing it. Our legislators, however, are just too fond of living well on the tab of corporate lobbyists.

So the new bill drops the gift limit from $250 to $100—but then removes the aggregate cap, allowing for an unlimited number of $99 gifts. Gifts that go over the limit but that are donated to charity now don’t count, providing a nice way for a legislator to buy popularity at no expense to himself.

A report from the group ProgressVA analyzes the bill’s effect and concludes that some 70% of lobbyists’ 2014 giving would still be legal under the new law, while opening up some brand-new loopholes. Among the most egregious is that lobbyists and their clients will now be able to pay for legislators to fly around the state for official meetings without the travel having to be disclosed, much less reimbursed. This means legislators from southwest Virginia can expect even more face time with coal lobbyists, but now on corporate jets—and their constituents will never know about it.

Addressing (or not) the issue of extravagant vacations paid for by companies with business before the legislature, the bill imposes a requirement that there be “a reasonable relationship between the purpose of the travel and the official duties of the requester.” That means junkets to France paid for by Virginia Uranium are still okay. So is letting corporate America pay for you to attend meetings of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), where lobbyists can teach you how to hobble environmental regulators and suppress voting.

If you can’t figure out a way to meet the reasonable relationship test (and I’m embarrassed for you if you have so little imagination), you can still accept a fun travel adventure as long as Virginia’s toothless ethics council approves it—or simply doesn’t act within five days of your request.

And of course, this so-called ethics reform makes no attempt to address the biggest obstacles to honest government in Virginia: the flood of corporate money into campaign chests and the ability of legislators to use campaign money for personal expenses. Even if Governor McAuliffe fixes the serious flaws in the ethics bill, nothing in it will stop companies like Dominion Resources from continuing to use cash to corrupt the democratic process.

Which brings us to energy legislation. The Associated Press summed up the situation very nicely: “Virginia’s 2015 legislative session was a good one for energy giant Dominion Resources Inc., the state’s most politically influential company. Legislation it wanted passed, passed. Bills it didn’t like did not.”

Chief among the legislation Dominion wanted was Senator Wagner’s SB 1349, which spares Dominion from having to refund excess profits for the next five years. Pretty much every newspaper in the state editorialized against it, so I’ll spare you a rehash of its failings.

Sadly, Governor McAuliffe signed the bill without amendments. He told reporters, “It was clear to Dominion that at the end of the day a veto would have been devastating for them.” If so, that’s a lot of leverage the Administration squandered.

And really, Governor, “devastating”? But since you fell for that, can I interest you in a bridge in Brooklyn?

SB 1349 does contain some welcome language calling solar energy projects of at least 1 MW in size, and up to an aggregate of 500 MW, “in the public interest,” a phrase that will help utilities when they seek approval for these projects at the State Corporation Commission. But nothing actually requires the utilities to build these projects, and the 1 MW size minimum has been carefully crafted to be above the limit for net-metered solar projects. Dominion wrote the bill for itself, not for ordinary people who want to go solar on their own.

The solar language was not originally part of SB 1349; it was imported from another Dominion bill, Delegate Yancey’s HB 2237, as a way to get buy-in from the solar industry and Democrats.

As for customer-owned solar, this was another bad year. The only concession won from Dominion was an increase in the size cap for net-metered projects from 500 kW to 1 MW, a compromise from the initial proposal of 2 MW.

Wherever else solar advocates faced utility opposition, they lost. That includes bills on community net metering, solar gardens, RPS improvements, expanded 3d party PPA availability, and a higher hurdle for standby charges. Also going down to early defeat was the renewable energy grant program that had been celebrated last year as a near-triumph (it only lacked passage again this year, plus—oh yeah—funding).

The GA did pass one of the Governor’s solar priorities, establishing the Virginia Solar Energy Development Authority (HB 2267 and others). The Authority is explicitly tasked with helping utilities find financing for solar projects; there is no similar language about supporting customer-owned solar. The Authority is supposed to identify barriers to solar, but isn’t given any tools to remove them. So we shall see.

Bills that did not require Dominion’s approval did better. Chief among these was legislation enabling Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) loans for commercial customers. This should help bring low-cost financing to energy efficiency and renewable energy projects at the commercial level.

And while Dominion’s sole concession to energy efficiency this year was agreeing to a “pilot program” of unspecified size as part of the SB1349 deal, natural gas utilities sought and won legislation (SB 1331) that makes it easier to win regulatory approval for energy efficiency programs that could benefit lots of customers. The difference is that natural gas companies have “decoupled” profits from sales, so it’s in their interest to help customers use energy more wisely. Dominion and Appalachian Power, by contrast, have a profit model that requires ever-increasing sales, making efficiency bad for business.

While legislators repeatedly shot down any solar bills that might be characterized as subsidies, they dropped their free market principles when it came to subsidies for coal mining. Unless the governor vetoes HB 1879, Virginia taxpayers will continue to pay tens of millions of dollars annually to prop up an uncompetitive industry with a long legacy of poisoning our air, land and water. Anyone who is ever tempted to believe a Virginia Republican’s claim to legislate based on his conservative principles and not merely on politics should check how they voted on this bill. (Here are the House votes, and here are the Senate votes.)

The limited progress made this year towards greening our energy supply does not bode well for compliance with the EPA’s Clean Power Plan. The only legislation that would have moved Virginia decisively towards compliance, by having us join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, died in committee. On the other hand, a number of bills that would have hindered compliance also died. True, SB 1349 makes the process harder by adding a hurdle to the closure of coal plants. Republicans also pushed through a bill that requires the Department of Environmental Quality to waste time and money studying whether the federal carbon reduction rules have health benefits beyond those gained by regulating conventional pollutants.

But overall, the session ended in a draw on climate issues. On the one hand, that’s bad, given that 2014 was the hottest year on record globally.* On the other hand, this is Virginia. Merely not regressing counts as progress here.


*I know, 2014 was not hot in eastern North America, and 2015 has started out with one of those winters that make people say they could use a little global warming. Nature has a keen sense of irony. But while you were shivering, the rising sea ate a little more of our shoreline.