Direct Energy may have just won a Pyrrhic victory in its bid to sell renewable energy to Virginia residents. The State Corporation Commission ruled last week that the company can market 100% renewable electricity to Virginia customers of Dominion Virginia Power and Appalachian Power, but only as long as the utilities aren’t offering it themselves. Once they do, Direct Energy can continue to serve existing customers but won’t be able to sign up new ones.
The ruling makes it harder for Direct Energy to enter the residential market in Virginia. On the other hand, Direct Energy appears to have won a round on a second issue involving sales to large (over 5 megawatts in demand) commercial and industrial customers. The SCC ruled that these customers don’t have to give five years’ notice before they can switch back to their utility from a renewable energy provider like Direct Energy, as they would have to do if they were not buying renewable energy.
This is a significant win for Direct Energy’s ability to offer renewable energy to large customers, since Dominion’s position on the five-year notice requirement could scare off customers worried about being left without a supplier if Direct Energy were to leave the market. However, that part of the SCC’s order is under review in response to a motion for reconsideration filed by Dominion on Tuesday, so I won’t address that further here.
Direct Energy is a Delaware-based company currently licensed to sell natural gas in Virginia as a competitive service provider. Last August the company filed a petition for declaratory judgment (PUE-2016-00094) asking the SCC to clarify its rights under Virginia law to sell renewable energy to customers of Dominion Virginia Power. The SCC brought in Dominion and Appalachian Power, and Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) intervened on behalf of environmental groups Appalachian Voices and Chesapeake Climate Action Network.
Section 56-577 (A)(5) of the Virginia Code explicitly allows sellers of 100% renewable energy into the territories of the state’s monopoly utilities if those utilities themselves aren’t offering renewable energy to their customers. Currently, neither Dominion nor Appalachian Power offer a tariff for renewable energy. That means the door is wide open for anyone else to do so.
But that open door is merely a tease, as the Commission’s order just confirmed. All Dominion or APCo has to do is jump in with its own product, and the door shuts in the face of the interloper. Once the SCC approves a utility’s program, Direct Energy can continue selling to any customers it has already signed up, but it won’t be able to sign up any new customers.
It can take months or years of marketing for a third-party supplier to build up enough of a customer base to make the whole effort worthwhile, so the SCC’s ruling makes the Virginia residential market much less attractive.
Direct Energy and the environmental groups had argued that once a competitive service provider got approval to sell 100% renewable electricity in Virginia, it ought to be able to continue signing up new customers, even once the SCC had approved a competing product from the incumbent utility. As the company explained in its Petition:
It would be illogical for the Virginia General Assembly to prohibit Direct Energy or any competitive service provider from continuing to market and serve additional customers once Dominion Virginia Power begins to offer a 100% renewable energy tariff. No retail business can survive if it cannot do business with new customers. This is certainly true in the retail energy market, in which customers move on and off a system with regularity, reacting to price signals and relocating in and out of utility service territories. Consequently, it is most reasonable to interpret Virginia Code § 56-577 (A) (5) (b) to allow Direct Energy to continue to serve additional customers to the class of customers to which it is marketing at the time that the Commission approves a Dominion Virginia Power 100% renewable energy tariff.
Unfortunately for Direct Energy, the Code was written to protect Virginia utilities from competition to the greatest extent possible consistent with also making them look good. What is logical and reasonable to anyone running a business doesn’t enter into it; nor, for that matter, does the best interest of the buying public.
The SCC’s order is a win for Dominion and APCo, but a loss for customers who have waited ten years for their utilities to offer them renewable energy. Both Dominion and APCo offer what they call “green power” but are simply sales of renewable energy certificates as an add-on to regular “brown” power.* Even if the utilities now gin up a their own renewable energy product, consumers would be better off having choices.
After all, the Virginia Code doesn’t say a utility program has to be better or cheaper than the one offered by a competitive service provider like Direct Energy. Indeed, some consumers have already expressed concern Dominion might close the door on Direct Energy with a product that meets the Virginia Code’s broad definition of renewable energy but is distinctly inferior.
“My worry is that Dominion will offer a “100% renewable” program that is biomass, hydro and other things that aren’t really zero carbon, but still slide by,” says Ruth Amundsen, a solar advocate in Norfolk. “And then Direct Energy would be out.”
*Legislation passed this year will allow customers to buy electricity generated from solar facilities from their utilities. The program is styled “community solar,” but it looks like it would satisfy the statutory definition of a sale of electricity generated from 100% renewable energy. However, a provision of the bill, added at the behest of SELC, states that it will not be considered such a product.
Why, you might ask, would Dominion agree to a provision that says their solar option isn’t a tariff for 100% renewable energy, especially with the Direct Energy petition outstanding? I have an answer, but first a word of caution: you are now getting deep in the weeds. Carry tick repellant.
Recall that the fight over third party power-purchase agreements (PPAs) involves two provisions of the Virginia code, including § 56-577 (A) (5)—the one we’re talking about here. Companies that want to help customers install on-site solar facilities by using PPAs have argued that this section clearly permits customers to buy solar electricity from third party suppliers when their utility doesn’t offer a renewable energy tariff. No green tariff, no bar to a PPA.
But the utilities argue that this kind of electricity sale doesn’t meet the statutory requirement, because although a solar facility is 100% renewable, it does not serve 100% of the customer’s load. A strange reading, yes; and wrong, too, according to an SCC hearing examiner who looked at the question back when APCo put together its own renewable energy product. APCo decided to withdraw its product rather than risk the SCC confirming the hearing examiner’s reading. That action meant the utilities could keep their reading of the statute as a live threat against any company that wants to offer a PPA under terms that don’t meet the terms of the pilot program Dominion negotiated a few years ago.
Apparently, preserving that argument mattered more to Dominion than chasing off would-be competitors like Direct Energy. The gamble will have paid off if Direct Energy drops its Virginia effort in light of the SCC’s ruling last week.
Update, April 7. Ron Cerniglia, Director of Corporate & Regulatory Affairs for Direct Energy, provided the company’s view of the SCC’s ruling for us. His note reads: