Dominion to offer community solar, minus the community and the solar

The Emperor's New Clothes. By Vilhelm Pedersen (1820 - 1859) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Emperor’s New Clothes. By Vilhelm Pedersen (1820 – 1859) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In the children’s story The Emperor’s New Clothes, a couple of shysters convince an insecure monarch to fork over gold in exchange for what they assure him are the most beautiful clothes ever made—clothes with the remarkable quality of being invisible to stupid people. Too embarrassed to admit he can’t see the clothes, the emperor allows the fraud to proceed. Public humiliation ensues.

Perhaps the fairy tale inspired Dominion Virginia Power’s new scheme to extract money from customers who want to buy solar power, without actually selling them solar power. The solar hopefuls are to be bilked of extra payments on their utility bills by the promise of having their drab fossil electricity turned into golden sunlight-powered electrons.

As in the children’s story, the customers will be fooled into thinking they have bought something special. Instead, they will have bought invisible clothes.

The program is called “Dominion Community Solar” (or Rider DCS), though it has nothing to do with true community solar.

Publicly, Dominion has described it this way: Dominion will build a 2-megawatt (MW) solar facility and put the electricity it produces onto the grid. Customers can buy it by paying an extra 4 cents per kWh (in $4 blocks) on top of the regular retail rate of about 11 cents.

If this were an accurate description, the program would be a valid offering. In fact, I might have gone for it myself. As someone with a shaded roof, it would be the only way for me to buy solar, given Virginia’s backward policies. And buying solar matters to me because I want to be part of the solution to the climate disruption caused by our burning of fossil fuels.

But it seems to be an article of faith among utility executives that people’s intelligence is inversely related to their desire to do good in the world. If we’re dumb enough to pay extra for solar electricity, they figure, maybe we’re dumb enough to pay extra for what we’re persuaded to think is solar electricity, even if the premium really buys us nothing at all.

This program presents the chance to test their theory. As the filings in the SCC case reveal, Dominion will not actually sell solar energy to participants. (See SCC Case PUE-2015-00005.) It will use their “contributions” to “offset” the costs of its Solar Partnership Program, which will enable it to build an extra 2 MW of solar capacity and put that electricity onto the grid. Then it will sell the renewable energy certificates (RECs) associated with that electricity to someone else—not to the people who are funding the facility.

The result is that although Dominion will bill the do-gooders extra to build a solar facility, it won’t deliver solar energy to them. The altruists will pay 15 cents/kWh for the same drab fossil fuel electricity everyone else buys for 11 cents/kWh.

Imagine Exxon soliciting motorists to pay an extra dollar per gallon for gas so the company can build a biofuel facility to sell renewable fuel to other customers. If you would contribute to such a scheme, please email me, as I have some other great offers for you.

The most remarkable thing about Dominion’s plan is not its cynicism, but the fact that the State Corporation Commission approved it. The SCC should understand that the program will work only to the extent customers are deceived into thinking they are buying solar energy. Indeed, lawyers for the Attorney General’s Office of Consumer Counsel actually pointed this out.[1]

The SCC’s order, dated August 7, 2015, notes that the Consumer Counsel “remains concerned that the DCS Pilot, if approved, may not be marketed clearly by the Company,” and that it “wishes to ensure that the DCS Pilot will not be marketed as a solar energy tariff or as an option for consumers to purchase electric energy output from a renewable energy facility.”

The SCC’s response to this concern was to tell Dominion it has to be really clear that participants are merely “supporting” Dominion’s development of solar energy, and to require it to submit to the SCC staff its marketing and promotional materials prior to publication.

But of course, accurate marketing information wouldn’t sell this program. Imagine the shysters telling the emperor, “See, Your Majesty, we’ll pretend to make clothes for you, and you’ll pretend you’re wearing clothes. Then while you march around naked, we’ll use your gold to fund our business selling real clothes to smart people.” Even a stupid emperor would know enough to keep a tight hold on his purse.

[1] From the Consumer Counsel’s Comments on Hearing Officer’s Report: “Dominion has not described the DCS Pilot program accurately . . .” In reality, “DCS Pilot customers would continue to purchase 100% of their energy requirements under their standard service tariff and would not be allocated any power from a renewable energy facility. DCS participants would be making a voluntary contribution to Dominion, which the company claims would be used to support the future development of solar. But Rider DCS participants would not be purchasing any solar energy output. The Commission should direct the Company to not market the program in a manner that leads potential customers to believe that by participating in the DCS program they would be purchasing renewable energy.”

18 thoughts on “Dominion to offer community solar, minus the community and the solar

  1. Well Kids
    It’s deju va all over again, this exactly the same scam as the “Green Power” program of yesteryears
    Ivy I love this phrase “golden sunlight-powered electrons” this may be the best phrase ever written in solar discussions. I am definitely going to steal it.

  2. Love this! Why don’t people get it???? Elena Baum

    Sent with voice-to-text or one-finger typing from my iPhone. Please forgive typos or stupid Autocorrects.


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  6. Ivy, thanks for pointing out what clearly appears to be a deceptive business practice.

    Don’t be too hard on Dominion, though. Virginia’s carbon emissions are close to those of California, with 11.97 tons per capita vs. California’s 9.18 (for comparison, West Virginians generate 51.75 tons per capita).

    The reason? 1/3 of your state’s electricity comes from carbon-free nuclear – and it costs 42% less than California’s.

    Renewable energy is expensive. Why would you want the same emissions performance to cost almost twice as much?

    • Huh, Bob, you must have missed my post from a few weeks ago about Dominion projecting an all-in cost of energy from its proposed new nuclear plant at 19 cents/kWh. That’s at least four times the cost of solar.

  7. Ivy, I think most Virginians would consider the ability to turn on lights or watch TV after the sun goes down well worth it. Or was the idea to keep Virginia’s coal industry alive and well? And where are you getting your cost for solar (EIA says it’s 30% higher than advanced nuclear through 2018)?

  8. Bob, look up what happened when the two nuclear reactors at North Anna went down for three months after the 2011 earthquake. Nothing. All generation backs up all other generation within PJM; that’s the point of an RTO.

    And if you have to cite EIA on cost, you’ve already lost the debate! They’ve always been behind the curve on renewable energy costs. Lazard is much more current. Solar and wind beat nukes hands down.

  9. Ivy, because EIA has been the bearer of bad news for renewables advocates they’ve been cherry-picked to death. But on average, since 1994, their impartial cost projections have been accurate to within 15% – more accurate for U.S. energy than any other source.

    Lazard is a Wall St. advisory firm which, within months of their LCOE “analysis”, directed a merger of GE and Alstom worth $17 billion – one of the largest energy mergers in the last decade. They have skin in the game, and what they publish is not science, it’s not analysis – it’s hype. Forbes:

    “The LCOE is like a bad line of code in a program used to develop other software programs. It has dangerously skewed investors’ understanding of the economics of generating electricity from renewable energy resources. It has also had perverse and difficult to undo impacts on local, state and federal energy policies.”

  10. I really don’t know how to even start to respond to this without seeming shrill. I spoke out a few months ago and told you I thought the SCC was either bought off or brain dead. When are we going to kick the pins out from under this rotten bunch? I’m speaking in no uncertain terms of both Dominion and the SCC now. The road to hell is paved with good intentions. And regardless of the SCC’s intentions, they do not represent the interests of Virginians. And I recommend we replace them with people who do represent sentient beings in Virginia, and who do not pander to Dominion and AEPCo. Enough is enough! And we’ve had more than our share.

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