Dominion Power promises huge solar investments and a lower carbon footprint—or does it?

Dominion Virginia Power says energy from solar farms is now a low-cost option. Photo credit Kanadaurlauber.

Dominion Virginia Power released its updated Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) this week with a press release that promised thousands of megawatts (MW) of new solar power and a dramatically lower carbon footprint. In a remarkable turnabout, the Executive Summary declares, “The Company must now prepare for a future in which solar PV generation can become a major contributor to the Company’s overall energy mix.”

Alas, a closer look reveals Dominion will actually increase its carbon emissions over the period studied. Meanwhile, the solar would be built at a rate of only 240 MW per year over the 15-year period covered by the IRP, about the same amount being installed in Virginia this year. (Over 25 years, Dominion says its solar could reach 5,200 MW, which means the pace of installation would actually drop in the out years.) That should elicit yawns, not excitement.

The solar numbers pale in comparison to the more than 4,600 MW of new natural gas combined-cycle plants Dominion has been building just in this decade. (Remember that solar farms generate electricity at about 20-25% of “nameplate” capacity on average, while combined-cycle gas plants nationally average 50-60%, and can achieve 70% or higher.*) And even come 2032, the new solar will make up only a tiny fraction of a generation portfolio that consists almost entirely of coal, gas and nuclear.

I’ll be interested to see the numbers analyzed, but my guess is that all the renewable energy Dominion proposes to build over the next 15 years represents no more than 5-10% of its total electric generation. That’s too little, too late, in a state that can do so much better.

So the more things change, the more Dominion stays the same. Behind the hype being offered to the press stands a utility that is still committed to fossil fuels and nuclear power.

Virginia utilities file IRPs with the State Corporation Commission (SCC) every year. The plans are supposed to reflect the utilities’ best sense of how they will meet consumers’ needs for electricity while complying with state and federal laws and policies. This involves some guesswork about the direction of future regulations, including regulations of CO2 emissions.

In spite of President Trump’s determination to roll back climate protections while he is in office, Dominion’s IRP assumes an eventual price on carbon. Most utilities nationwide are doing the same thing. But given the uncertainties, Dominion has chosen (as it did last year) to model different scenarios instead of committing to a single plan.

Even the low-cost plan that wouldn’t comply with the EPA Clean Power Plan contains just as much solar as the other plans, reflecting the company’s assessment (on page 3) that solar is now “cost-competitive with other more traditional forms of generation, such as combined-cycle natural gas.”

Yet the carbon reductions Dominion promises in its press release appear to be something of a sleight-of-hand. For one thing, Dominion has chosen to compare its CO2 output in 2032 to its output in 2007, not 2017. CO2 emissions were markedly higher in 2007 than now, with the shale gas boom and the rise of renewables leading to massive coal retirements in the interim.

Moreover, a careful reading of the press release reveals the reductions Dominion promises are per-capita, not overall. A chart on page 115 of Dominion’s IRP shows every one of the scenarios Dominion studied will actually increase the company’s total CO2 emissions between now and 2042.

That reality exasperates climate activists. Glen Besa, former Director of the Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club, comments, “The only impression you could have reading Dominion’s release was that it was making dramatic reductions in carbon pollution, which obviously is not the case.”

CO2 emissions would not increase if Dominion were simply shutting down coal and building more solar. But all of the alternative scenarios Dominion models for its IRP contain more gas plants: at least another 1,374 MW of gas combustion turbines in all plans, and 1,591 MW of combined cycle gas in some scenarios. Combustion turbines are more flexible than combined-cycle plants and so are better for meeting spikes in demand and integrating renewable energy like solar, but while they run less often, they are typically higher-polluting. Many utilities are using demand response or installing battery storage instead; Dominion appears to prefer gas.

All this gas means higher CO2 output. Not incidentally, burning more gas also means more business for Dominion’s parent corporation, Dominion Resources (soon to be known as Dominion Energy), which is heavily invested in gas transmission. And crucially, Dominion Energy needs more gas power plants to justify building the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. So building more gas plants serves the interests of Dominion’s affiliates, not its customers.

The problem with building new gas plants is that it lowers carbon only so far compared to coal, and then you’re stuck at that level for the life of the gas plants, unless you’re willing to abandon them early. That’s why any utility that’s serious about protecting ratepayers from stranded costs has to invest in wind, solar, energy efficiency and storage, not natural gas.

Speaking of wind, the IRP includes the 12 MW pilot project known as VOWTAP in all of the plans, even though Dominion lost millions of dollars in federal funding when it would not commit to building the two test turbines by 2020, three years past the original deadline. But none of the scenarios studied include any land-based wind, and none include a build-out of the federal offshore wind energy area Dominion bought the rights to, which could support at least 2,000 MW of offshore wind power. This is a strange omission given that Dominion continues to include a scenario in which it would build the world’s most expensive nuclear reactor, known as North Anna 3.

Polls consistently show overwhelming public support for renewable energy. Yet right now, ordinary Virginia ratepayers have no access to renewable energy unless they put solar on their own rooftop. Corporations like Amazon Web Services and Microsoft account for the bulk of the solar energy being installed in Virginia, with most of the remaining going to the military, state government, universities, and schools.

So 3,200 MW over 15 years won’t even begin to satisfy consumer demand. North Carolina installed almost 1,000 MW last year; I’d like to see Dominion set that as an annual target, bringing it up to the 15,000 MW over 15 years it modeled for last year’s IRP (before hiding the encouraging results from pubic view). Round out the solar with other cost-effective clean energy options, and we will see the kind of carbon reductions that don’t have to be fudged in a press release.

*On page 88 of the IRP, Dominion provides it own capacity factor forecasts: solar 25%, combined cycle gas 70%, gas combustion turbines 10%, nuclear 96%, onshore wind 42%, offshore wind 42%. The chart does not include a number for coal.

12 thoughts on “Dominion Power promises huge solar investments and a lower carbon footprint—or does it?

  1. I suppose the CO2 per capita is a legitimate measure for a utility company, since it cannot control population growth and energy efficiency. So, if overall CO2 is up, that tosses the ball back into the legislature’s court to reduce total consumption (which, of course, could include even lower CO2 per capita).

  2. Unless Virginia changes the rules our regulated utilities will continue to make outdated choices, including building more fossil infrastructure. Choosing to reduce demand through efficient buildings and on-site generation isn’t in the utilities’ interest without new rules. While Dominion’s 2017 IRP has opened the door to increased generation from solar, compared to the wind and solar resources available to Virginia, their IRP is a very small step, one that can barely move Virginia out of the clean energy basement.

    The Department of Energy has evaluated the technical potential for renewable resources in every state. NREL’s 2012 report says Virginia has the capability of generating 15 times our current electricity use from rural utility scale solar and 3 and ½ times current use from offshore wind. Pretty spectacular, yet the new IRP proposes to build only 5 GW of our 1000+ GWs of technically available utility scale solar.

    Virginia’s clean energy opportunities are also analyzed in the Stanford Solutions Project. The project looks for ways that every state can reach 100% renewable electricity. In Virginia their answer is 50 % offshore wind, 25+% utility scale solar with another 8% rooftop solar and 10% onshore wind.

    Lots of wind and solar ready to use. We need to rewrite the rules and change Dominion’s incentives.

  3. I’m still confused as why, even from a profit-focus perspective, they continue to drag their feet. Once a solar farm is operational, wouldn’t it’s ongoing operating costs be lower than a nuclear or gas-powered plant? Surely there’s more human labor required for those, as well as greater mechanical maintenance costs. It seems like a solar farm would yield much greater profit margins. So, if that’s a correct assumption, what’s the real motive?

  4. You are quite right that the up-front costs of solar are greater than gas, while solar costs little to operate. But saving money is not necessarily the point when the costs are borne by ratepayers. Dominion is primarily a gas company. While Dominion Virginia Power is focused on electricity sales, other subsidiaries are engaged in natural gas storage and transmission, including building the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. That strongly biases the company towards gas.

  5. In our monopoly regulated system profits grow as demand grows … build more, sell more makes more profits. They oppose, understandably, the efficient buildings and on-site/community generation that cuts grid demand.

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