A Candidate’s Guide to Clean Energy and the Pipelines

Anti-pipeline activists gather at an event called Hands Across the Appalachian Trail on August 19. Photo courtesy of Chris Tandy.

Recently I attended a forum where a candidate for statewide office discussed his energy policies and voiced his support for wind and solar. He embraced a goal of Virginia reaching at least 30% renewable energy by 2030, which was roundly applauded. But then he added that we couldn’t get started on it without advances in battery storage, because, he said, without storage there is no way to put surplus wind and solar on the grid.

People around the room look dumbfounded. They weren’t energy experts, but they knew that was flat-out wrong. Later he made other statements that showed he misunderstood facts about energy, climate change and the grid, hadn’t questioned what he’d been told by utility lobbyists, or just hadn’t been paying much attention.

Maybe you are a candidate yourself (or you work for one), and you don’t want to embarrass yourself by saying so, but you frankly don’t understand what was wrong with that statement about wind and solar. Or perhaps you are an activist and you’d like to help your local candidate for office bone up on some of the most important issues he or she will have to vote on while in office.

Allow me to help. Here is what you need to know about the hot-button energy issues in Virginia today. I’ll also offer my opinion about where you should stand on those issues, but that part is up to you.

Solar is coming on strong—and it is the cheapest energy in Virginia today. This astounds people who don’t keep up with energy trends, but it’s what Dominion Energy Virginia’s latest integrated resource plan (IRP) reveals. Utility-scale solar farms, 20 megawatts (MW) and up, can produce electricity at a cost that beats coal, gas and nuclear. That’s why Dominion’s IRP proposes a build-out of 240 MW of solar per year. It’s why Amazon Web Services has been building 260 MW of solar in five Virginia counties to supply its data centers. It’s why, over the past year, developers have proposed more than 1,600 MW of additional solar capacity in counties across the state. It’s also why today, solar already employs more Virginians than coal.

None of the solar under development includes battery storage. It doesn’t have to, because electricity from solar all goes into one big grid.

The grid is HUGE. If you’re from around here, you probably remember the earthquake of August 2011. It was centered in Mineral, Virginia, but did damage all the way to Washington, D.C. It also caused an immediate shutdown of Dominion’s two nuclear reactors at North Anna that lasted for more than three months. That meant 1,790 megawatts (MW) of generating capacity, enough to power 750,000 homes, suddenly went offline. Do you remember what happened to your power supply at home? You probably don’t. Why not? Because your power didn’t go out.

That’s because the North Anna nuclear plants are only two out of more than 1,300 generating units (power plants) feeding a 13-state portion of the transmission grid managed by independent operator PJM Interconnection. When one unit fails, PJM calls on others. PJM’s job is to balance all this generation to meet demand reliably at the lowest cost.

The grid has no problem with solar. While solar makes up less than 1% of its electricity supply currently, a PJM study concluded the grid could handle up to 20% solar right now, without any new battery storage. Wind and solar together could make up as much as 30% of our electricity with no significant issues. The result would be less coal, less gas, and less carbon pollution—and $15.6 billion in energy savings.

Virginia already has energy storage. You could even say we are swimming in it. Bath County, Virginia is home to the world’s largest “battery” in the form of “pumped storage.” A pair of reservoirs provide over 3,000 megawatts of hydropower generating capacity that PJM uses to balance out supply and demand.

Actual batteries are also an option today, not sometime in the future. The price has dropped by half since 2014, to the point where solar-plus-storage combinations compete with new gas peaker plants. Batteries are also being paired with solar today to form microgrids that can power emergency shelters and other critical functions during widespread outages.

If Virginia goes totally gangbusters with solar, a day will come when there is so much electricity being generated from the sun in some areas that we’d need batteries. But, sadly, we aren’t anywhere near there yet.

So, you should definitely get on board with battery storage; just don’t make the mistake of thinking we can’t ramp up renewable energy today without it.

Make renewable energy your BFF. It probably polls better than you do. Renewable energy has favorability ratings most politicians only dream about. A Gallup poll last year showed 73% of Americans prefer alternative energy to oil and gas, a number that rises to 89% among Democrats. Republicans love it, too; North Carolina-based Conservatives for Clean Energy found that 79% of registered Republicans in their state are more likely to support lawmakers who back renewable energy options.

Distributed renewable energy—think rooftop solar—is especially popular with the greenies on the left and the libertarians on the right, and pretty much everyone in between. It offers benefits that utility solar does not. The policy that makes it affordable is called net metering. It gives solar owners credit for the excess solar electricity they put on the grid in the daytime, to be applied against the power they draw from the grid at night. If you want to support your constituents’ ability to power their own homes with solar, you should protect and expand their right to net meter their electricity.

People who understand Dominion’s pipeline hate Dominion’s pipeline. The proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline would carry fracked gas 600 miles from inside West Virginia through the heart of Virginia and into North Carolina. Instead of following highways, it cuts across mountains, rivers, forests and farms, and requires land clearing 150 feet wide the whole way. Landowners along the route are furious, as are lovers of the national forests and the Appalachian Trail, people who care about water quality, people who care about climate change, and fans of caves, bats and other wildlife.

The gas it will carry is extracted from shale formations deep underground using hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a loud, dirty and dangerous practice that doesn’t poll well in Virginia. More quietly (but in many ways worse), leaking wells, pipes, and storage reservoirs are estimated to emit enough greenhouse gases to cancel out the climate advantages of burning gas over coal, and increase smog. An analysis using industry data found that building the ACP and a second controversial pipeline project, the Mountain Valley Pipeline, would more than double the carbon footprint of Virginia’s power sector.

Sea level rise is already taking a toll in Virginia with “sunny day” flooding regularly crippling low-lying areas of Hampton Roads. If you’ve pledged to address climate change, you need to understand how building gas pipelines will undermine the very efforts to reduce such threats.

Now, if you don’t want to oppose Dominion, you might be inclined to minimize all these issues, or to tell voters the destruction of all we hold dear is just the price we pay for cheap energy. I’m sure you can phrase it better than that.

Before you do, though, you should also spend a few minutes to understand why critics say the ACP will raise energy prices, not lower them. That’s because Dominion’s gas-burning electric generating plants already have long-term contracts to use another company’s pipeline, for less money. Using the ACP instead of cheaper alternatives means raising costs to consumers.

Dominion also plans to build more gas-fired power plants so it can fill the pipeline. Gas plants are built to last 30 years or more, pipelines 50 years. Locking us into gas infrastructure for decades when solar is already cheaper than gas now is a seriously bad bet.

And if you think Dominion is going to shoulder the loss of a bad bet, better think again. That’s what its captive ratepayers are for.

Another name for those people is “voters.”

Virginia utilities and advocates square off over net metered solar

Solar now employs more Virginians than coal, but utility efforts to roll back net metering threaten Virginia businesses that install rooftop solar. Here, staff of Mountain View Solar (in high-visibility clothing) and Secure Futures conduct commissioning tests for Albermarle High School’s solar installation. Photo courtesy of Secure Futures LLC.

Advocates of distributed solar energy in Virginia are watching nervously this summer as electric utilities and the solar industry negotiate the future of net metering, the policy that makes rooftop solar economically viable in a state with no other incentives.

Virginia utilities finally see the value of solar to themselves, which is good news for the solar businesses that build large projects. But the utilities’ enthusiasm does not extend to solar owned by their customers. Dominion Energy Virginia and its fellows see rooftop solar as a threat to their monopoly power that needs to be curtailed, not a contribution to our energy security that they should encourage. But by attacking net metering, they endanger the many small businesses whose bread-and-butter comes from the residential and commercial sector.

The utilities’ own solar plans are fairly modest compared to national trends, but they are practically revolutionary for a state with deep ties to fossil fuels. Dominion Energy Virginia proposes to add 240 MW of solar annually, presumably in addition to projects supplying corporate customers like Amazon. Appalachian Power is looking to add 25 MW of solar in Virginia or West Virginia by the end of 2019. Old Dominion Electric Cooperative (ODEC), which serves most of Virginia’s rural electric cooperatives, announced contracts for two projects totaling 30 MW. (Dominion Energy immediately bought the projects.)

All this activity has helped to fuel a rapid rise in the number of solar jobs in Virginia. (In case you missed it, solar employs more Virginians than coal.) But utility projects represent only part of the potential market in Virginia, especially if residents and businesses are encouraged to invest in solar themselves.

The utilities’ hostility to customers generating their own electricity has led to barriers that hold back the market for distributed solar. These barriers include limits on system sizes, standby charges, program caps and challenges to third-party power purchase agreements (PPAs). (For a full discussion of these barriers, see my 2017 guide to Virginia wind and solar policy.)

Utilities would particularly like to do away with net metering, a program that allows solar owners to feed excess solar power to the grid during the day and then draw power from the grid when the sun isn’t shining, paying only for the net of the power drawn from the grid. Utilities say net metering results in solar owners not paying their fair share of grid upkeep. Solar advocates say everyone benefits when customers invest in solar.

“Value of solar” studies from other states largely support the advocates’ contention that solar owners provide more value to the grid and to their fellow customers than they get in return. Three years ago the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality facilitated the beginnings of a value of solar analysis for Virginia, but the utilities walked away when they didn’t like where it was headed. Without this kind of valuation, utilities and advocates are left talking past each other.

The future of net metering is now a subject for discussion by the Rubin Group, an informal, by-invitation-only committee formed by the utilities and solar industry members in 2016. The project is named for its moderator, Mark Rubin. Although barely a year old and lacking full stakeholder representation, the Rubin Group has achieved almost a quasi-legislative status with the blessing of the chairmen of the House and Senate Commerce and Labor Committees. Last year these committees passed only solar bills that had been negotiated through the Rubin Group (or in one case, that the House chairman himself had introduced), and committee members were discouraged from offering amendments.

But the Group’s lack of transparency and limited input was a mistake, Rubin has since acknowledged. This year the Group expanded to include the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) and the Virginia Manufacturer’s Association. In addition, outsiders have been invited to participate in occasional conference calls and meetings.

At the first such meeting in June, Rubin said the Group would work on four other topics besides net metering: implementation of last year’s “community solar” legislation; addressing barriers to large utility-scale projects; meeting the needs of corporate purchasers; and land use issues.

But net metering was the hot-button concern, with most of the attendees urging action to expand opportunities for rooftop solar and remove current limits on net metering. By contrast, utility interests expressed a desire for “alternatives.”

A second stakeholder meeting in July further increased advocates’ concern. Participants report Rubin began the discussion of net metering by saying the Group believed “net metering as it is now operating in Virginia is unsustainable.” Such an assertion prejudges the issue, says Aaron Sutch of VA-SUN, and implies the existence of supporting data that the utilities simply don’t have. “Nearly every every study shows that net metered solar benefits all users of the electric grid by providing power when and where it’s needed most.”

In fact, he pointed out to Rubin in a later email, a 2016 Navigant study commissioned by Dominion “concludes that up to 2,000 MW of distributed solar can be integrated into the [Virginia] grid without major upgrades or system-wide issues,” and with cost savings to ratepayers of $75 per MWh.

Sierra Club volunteer Susan Stillman, who runs the Solarize program for the Town of Vienna, also wrote to the Rubin Group to express her concern that the entire discussion seems to be focused on limiting net metering as a way to discourage distributed solar. “No one ever said what aspect of net metering is not sustainable.  How do you solve a problem that you’ve not defined? Net metered solar in Virginia is minuscule so I’m hard pressed to understand that this is a technical issue and that the grid is being harmed.”

Virginia law caps net metered solar at 1% of a utility’s overall electric utility sales. There is no website to tell the public how much net metered solar currently exists—which in itself is a problem—but industry members say we are nowhere near the 1% limit today.

Stillman says net metering is critical to keeping the program simple enough for the average homeowner to understand. “The calculation that every prospective solar customer makes is ‘when will my system be paid off?’  Solar companies know how to approximate this payoff now to a reasonable level of accuracy, and net metering helps with this calculation.  When you change net metering so that customers don’t get full retail, a whole new level of FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt) is introduced making prospective solar customers more uncomfortable and less likely to move forward with the purchase.​”

Sutch and Stillman are members of the Virginia Distributed Solar Alliance, a group of solar industry members and advocates who are seeking to expand opportunities for residents and businesses to install solar. Alliance members have made protecting and expanding net metering their top priority this year. Unfortunately, they were not offered a seat at the Rubin Group table.

The Rubin Group is supposed to act only by consensus, and at least two of the members say they are committed to protecting the interests of the distributed solar community. SELC attorney Will Cleveland and Scott Thomasson of the advocacy group Vote Solar, who is also a board member of the solar industry trade group MDV-SEIA, have both said they disagreed with Rubin’s characterization of net metering as unsustainable. Indeed, says Cleveland, the problem with the net metering law is that it is too restrictive.

Utilities like Dominion Energy are used to getting what they want, and no doubt they see the Rubin Group as one more way to achieve their aims. But they’ve been doing very well with it. Last year the Rubin Group helped them expand their ability to build more utility scale solar at lower cost to themselves, for which they gave up nothing in return. This year, the Rubin Group is trying to help them some more through the work of the other subgroups. It seems reasonable that in exchange for all this help, they should return the favor and give small solar companies a chance to expand their businesses, too.