Northam’s energy plan: A blueprint for action or destined for dusty shelf?

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam standing in front of a new solar farm.

Governor Northam speaks at the opening of the Palmer Solar Center on May 23.

[Note: A version of this post originally appeared in Virginia Mercury on July 23. Virginia Mercury is a nonprofit, independent online news organization that launched this summer. Subscribe to its free daily newsletter here.]

Forget “all of the above.” Under Governor Ralph Northam, Virginia’s next Energy Plan will emphasize the features of a clean energy future: solar and wind, energy efficiency, electric vehicles, energy storage, and offshore wind. This marks a welcome departure from previous state energy plans, though whether the end result serves as a blueprint for action or just stuffing for a filing cabinet remains to be seen.

Since 2007, Virginia law has required the Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy (DMME) to write a ten-year Energy Plan in the first year of every new administration. The statute lists vague requirements for the plan, including that it be consistent with the Commonwealth Energy Policy, itself a toothless statute. That means each new governor can pretty much tell DMME what to focus on.

Previous governors’ plans have read more like campaign rhetoric than like meaningful indicators of an administration’s direction. Tim Kaine’s plan supported carbon reductions, but by the next spring Kaine was promoting construction of a coal plant in Wise County that would become one of the last coal plants ever built in America.

Bob McDonnell used his energy plan to announce Virginia as the Energy Capital of the East Coast, perhaps the strongest indication that Energy Plans need not be tethered to reality.

Terry McAuliffe pushed an “all of the above” agenda, heavy on offshore drilling, natural gas, and offshore wind. He later backpedaled on offshore drilling, went all in on gas pipelines, and forgot about offshore wind.

Northam surely feels the pressure to write a pro-clean energy plan, and not merely because economic trends have swung decisively in favor of wind and solar. In his short time in office, Governor Northam has deeply undermined his standing as an environmentalist. Even before his inauguration, his public silence about gas pipeline projects fed rumors of private support. Once in office, he caved early on negotiations with Dominion Energy over this year’s energy legislation; reappointed David Paylor, the controversial director of the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), whom he had promised to replace; and passed up a rare opportunity to appoint a progressive to the State Corporation Commission.

One bright spot remains DEQ’s work towards completion of rules to lower carbon emissions from power plants by trading carbon allowances with states to the north of us. But the plan is not yet finalized, and the devil (or Dominion’s fingerprints) may prove to be in the details.

The Energy Plan gives Northam an opportunity to change the subject, and possibly even to change course. DMME’s presentation at its initial public meeting on June 25 addressed only clean energy topics—no coal, no natural gas, no nuclear, no oil. For some topics, the agency has already proposed recommendations for policy changes and scheduled public meetings to discuss them.

In the solar and wind “stakeholder track,” DMME proposes to “increase the residential cap on net metering from 20 kW to 40 kW; increase the overall net metering program from 1% of the utility’s peak load to 3% of peak load; make third-party Power Purchase Agreements (PPAs) available throughout all utility service territories; increase the total PPA installation cap from 50 MW to 100 MW and increase the installation-specific cap from 1 MW to 2 MW.” These recommendations are guaranteed to be popular with solar advocates and industry members, but won’t get past the utility blockade without a fight.

Recommendations for other tracks run the gamut from practical to aspirational. A recommendation to track energy consumption by state agencies through an energy data registry and dashboard is specific and achievable. Less so is the recommendation for Virginia to “reach the voluntary goal of reducing energy consumption by 10 percent by 2020.” Yes, that would be nice, but getting there would require a level of utility cooperation we have never seen in Virginia, and that neither the General Assembly nor any previous governor has had the tenacity to fight for.

The fact that our utilities are so often barriers to positive change underscores a need for the Energy Plan to address one subject missing from DMME’s list: a comprehensive study of grid transformation. Within the next ten years covered by the Energy Plan, our electric grid will need to incorporate vastly more wind and solar generation (much of it consumer-sited), plus electric vehicle charging, battery storage, and new metering technology that gives consumers greater control over their energy use.

Left to their own devices, the utilities will create the energy generation and delivery system most profitable for themselves, not the one most efficient and beneficial for the public. If Governor Northam is serious about a clean energy future, his Energy Plan should kick off a comprehensive study of grid transformation, managed by an independent expert who can help DMME and stakeholders develop a specific, actionable roadmap for the future of Virginia’s energy economy.

Without such a roadmap, we are likely to make progress only in fits and starts and at greater expense than necessary. Utility bills are rising and will keep going up as a result of the legislation Northam supported. Now the Governor needs to make sure Virginians have something to show for it.

4 thoughts on “Northam’s energy plan: A blueprint for action or destined for dusty shelf?

  1. Great column, as always. I think perhaps you meant raising the residential net metering cap from 20 – 40 kW rather than 20 – 40 mW.

    Being somewhat cynical about the governor at this point for the reasons you pointed out, I wonder if the recent pledge to add $14 million worth of EV charging stations came about in order to add to Dominion’s customer base. The governor’s support (through the lack of any action demanding justification for their being in the Public Interest) of the pipelines certainly calls into question any serious commitment to clean power.

    • Great catch on the kW, Michael, thank you. On the EVs I am not as cynical; the money comes from the VW settlement, and environmental groups have been urging the Administration from the get-go to use the maximum allowable amount of that (15%) for EV charging stations.

  2. The suggestion that we should all support a grid study is excellent. A lot of our monies will be spent into grid improvement but exactly what Dominion has in mind is not clear and I haven’t heard mention of all the upgrades I read about in forward thinking states.

    NY and New England have changed their rules to allow the development of micro-grids for resilience and reliability since Hurricane Sandy. The micro-grids can disconnect from the main grid, produce and store their own energy. That means onsite generation and that means on-site storage. It also means grid adaptation. Don’t hear any of that from Dominion and to accomplish such change means grid change.

    We’re moving from very centralized generation and long transmission distribution networks to a very bi-directional grid where you have many, many sources of generation at the grid edge able to put electricity back into the system. To do that the analysts tell us we must “reconsider and reform the institutions impeding a high-renewables, low-cost, reliable grid. Siting and permitting, transmission construction and planning, utility business models, wholesale markets, finance policy, and distributed energy resource planning and compensation.”

    Here is what happened in Arizona. APS “prepared an IRP that downplayed utility-scale solar and storage and banked on massive gas plant construction to meet peak demand. Sound familiar? … That stance provoked an unexpected response from the all-Republican Arizona Corporation Commission: it rebuked the utility plan and froze new gas plant development for 2018, as it considers a grid modernization overhaul to leverage storage for peak power.

    We will forever negotiate those small changes to regs until we address the basics of how Dominion can earn money. ‘Sell more … Build more’ monopoly regs are no longer in our best interests. Reconsider and reform is in order.

  3. I agree with Jane, and have clipped the paragraph and sent it to the Gov’s office. I plan to continue to do that for weeks, hoping it will finally make it through the barriers. Virginia’s climate has already changed, and I despair about effects my grandchildren will experience.

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