Arlington County Board Chair Christian Dorsey speaking to clean energy supporters on September 21, following the Board’s adoption of its new Community Energy Plan. Arlington’s plan would produce a carbon-free grid 15 years earlier than Governor Northam’s plan, while also tackling CO2 emissions from transportation and buildings.
A single week in September brought an unprecedented cascade of clean energy announcements in Virginia. On Tuesday, September 24, Governor Northam issued an Executive Order aimed at achieving 30 percent renewable energy by 2030 and 100 percent carbon-free energy by 2050, and with near-term state procurement targets.
On Thursday, Dominion Energy announced it would fully build out Virginia’s offshore wind energy area by 2026, in line with one of the goals in the Governor’s order.
Then, Saturday morning, the Democratic Party of Virginia unanimously passed resolutions endorsing the Virginia Green New Deal and a goal of net zero carbon emissions for the energy sector by 2050.
Saturday afternoon, Arlington became the first county in Virginia to commit to 100 percent renewable electricity by 2035, and economy-wide carbon neutrality by 2050.
So is Virginia off to the clean energy races? Well, let’s take a closer look at that Executive Order.
The governor’s order sounds great, but how real are its targets?
Executive Order 43, “Expanding access to clean energy and growing the clean energy jobs of the future,” directs the Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy (DMME) and other state agencies to “develop a plan of action to produce 30 percent of Virginia’s electricity from renewable energy sources by 2030 and one hundred percent of Virginia’s electricity from carbon-free sources by 2050.”
The difference between “renewable energy” and “carbon-free” sources is intentional. The latter term is a nod to nuclear energy, which provides about a quarter of Virginia’s electricity today. Keeping Dominion’s four nuclear reactors in service past 2050 may not prove feasible, economical or wise, but the utility wants to keep that option open.
The order also doesn’t define “renewable energy.” It talks about wind and solar, but it doesn’t specifically exclude carbon-intensive and highly-polluting sources like biomass and trash incinerators, which state code treats as renewable. Dominion currently meets Virginia’s voluntary renewable energy goals with a mix of old hydro and dirty renewables, much of it from out of state. Dominion will want to keep these subsidies flowing, especially for its expensive biomass plants, which would undermine the carbon-fighting intent of the order.
Finally, there is the question whether all of the renewable energy has to be produced in Virginia. Old Dominion Electric Cooperative, which supplies electricity to most of the member-owned cooperatives in the state, buys wind energy from outside Virginia. Surely that should count. But what if a Virginia utility just buys renewable energy certificates indicating that someone, somewhere, produced renewable energy, even if it was consumed in, say, Ohio? Those had better not count, or we’ll end up subsidizing states that haven’t committed to climate action.
What will DMME’s plan look like?
In describing what should be in the action plan, Northam’s order largely recites existing goals and works in progress, but it also directs DMME and the other agencies to consider going beyond existing law and policy to achieve specific outcomes:
- Ensure that utilities meet their existing commitments to solar and onshore wind energy development, including recommending legislation to reduce barriers to achieving these goals. These goals include 500 MW of utility-owned or controlled distributed wind and solar. Customer-owned solar is not mentioned.
- Make recommendations to ensure the Virginia offshore wind energy area is fully developed with as much as 2,500 MW of offshore wind by 2026.
- Make recommendations for increased utility investments in energy efficiency, beyond those provided for by the passage of SB 966 in 2018, the Grid Modernization Act.
- Include integration of storage technologies into the grid and pairing them with renewable generation, including distributed energy resources like rooftop solar.
- Provide for environmental justice and equity in the planning, including “measures that provide communities of color and low- and moderate-income communities access to clean energy and a reduction in their energy burdens.”
Can the administration do all that?
Nothing in this part of the order has any immediate legal effect; it just kicks off a planning process with a deadline of July 1, 2020. Achieving some of the goals will require new legislation, which would have to wait for the 2021 legislative session.
That doesn’t mean the governor will sit on his hands until then – delay is the enemy of progress — but it could have the effect of slowing momentum for major climate legislation in 2020.
Cynics, if you know any, might even suggest that undercutting more aggressive Green New Deal-type legislation is one reason for the order.
A second part of Northam’s order, however, will have immediate effect, limited but impressive. It establishes a new target for state procurement of solar and wind energy of 30 percent of electricity by 2022, up from an 8 percent goal set by former Governor Terry McAuliffe. This provision will require the Commonwealth to negotiate amendments to the contract by which it buys electricity for state-owned facilities and universities from Dominion. The order also calls for at least 10 MW annually of power purchase agreements (PPAs) for on-site solar at state facilities, and requires agencies to consider distributed solar as part of all new construction.
State facilities will also be subject to new energy savings requirements to reduce state consumption of electricity by 10 percent by 2022, measured against a 2006 baseline, using energy performance contracting.
These provisions do for the state government what the action plan is intended to do for Virginia as a whole, but 8 years faster and without potential loopholes.
Thirty percent by 2030? Gee, where have we heard that before?
Just this spring, Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality finalized regulations aimed at lowering carbon emissions from Virginia power plants by 30 percent by 2030. These numbers look so similar to Northam’s goal of 30 percent renewable energy by 2030 that it’s reasonable to ask what the order achieves that the carbon rule doesn’t. (This assumes the carbon regulations take effect; Republicans used a budgetary maneuver to stall implementation by at least a year.)
The answer goes back to the reason Dominion opposed the carbon rule. Dominion maintains—wrongly, says DEQ and others—that requiring lower in-state carbon emissions will force it to reduce the output of its coal and gas plants in Virginia and buy more power from out of state. That, says Dominion, would be bad for ratepayers.
As the company’s August update of its Integrated Resource Plan showed, Dominion would much prefer a rule requiring it to build more stuff of its own. As it turns out, that would be even more expensive for ratepayers, but definitely better for Dominion’s profitability.
So legislation to achieve Governor Northam’s renewable energy goals would take the pain out of the carbon regulations for Dominion. Whether it might also lower carbon emissions beyond DEQ’s 30 percent target remains to be seen.
The 2050 carbon-free goal, on the other hand, goes beyond anything on the books yet. Dominion’s corporate goal is 80 percent carbon-free by 2050, and it has no roadmap to achieve even that.
Is there anything in the order about pipelines?
No. In fact, there is no mention of any fossil fuel infrastructure, though shuttering coal and gas plants is the main way you cut carbon from the electricity supply.
That doesn’t mean Northam’s order leaves the Mountain Valley and Atlantic Coast pipelines in the clear. If Dominion joins Duke Energy in its pledge to go to zero carbon by 2050, the use of fracked gas to generate electricity in Virginia and the Carolinas has to go down, not up, over the coming decades (Duke’s own weird logic notwithstanding). As word gets around that Virginia is ditching fossil fuels, pipeline investors must be thinking about pulling out and cutting their losses.
What about Dominion’s offshore wind announcement?
I saved the best for last. For offshore wind advocates like me, Dominion’s announcement was the really big news of the week: it’s the Fourth of July, Christmas and New Years all at once. Offshore wind is Virginia’s largest long-term renewable energy resource opportunity, and we can’t fully decarbonize without it.
Dominion has taken a go-slow approach to offshore wind ever since winning the right to develop the federal lease area in 2013. Until this year, it refused to commit to anything more than a pilot project. The two, 6-MW turbines are currently under construction and will be installed next summer.
Then in March, Dominion CEO Tom Farrell told investors his company planned to build one commercial offshore wind farm, of unspecified size, to be operational in 2024. In its Aug. 28 resource plan update filed with the state regulators, Dominion Energy Virginia included for the first time an 880-MW wind farm, pushed back to 2025.
A mere three weeks later, the plan has changed to three wind farms, a total of 220 turbines with a capacity of 2,600 MW, with the start date moved up again to 2024, and all of them in service by 2026, exactly Northam’s target (except his was 2,500 MW).
Certainly the case for developing the full lease area has been improving at a rapid clip. Costs are falling dramatically, and it appears Dominion expects to maximize production by using massive 12 MW turbines, which did not even exist until this year.
But if the situation has changed that dramatically from August to September, all I can say is, I can’t wait to see what October brings.
Maybe it will bring answers to questions like who will build these wind farms, who will pay for them, and how Dominion expects to meet this accelerated timeline. As Sarah Vogelsong reports, several northeastern states have wind farms slated for development in the early-to-mid-2020s, too. Industry members are already worried about bottlenecks in everything from the supply chain to installation vessels, workforce training and the regulatory approval process.
That is to say, we’re coming to the party pretty late to expect good seats. But hey, it’s going to be a great party, and I’m glad we won’t miss it.
This article originally appeared in the Virginia Mercury on September 27, 2019.