You call that an energy plan?

Protesters outside the Virginia Clean Energy Summit on October 21.

Governor Glenn Youngkin issued a press release on October 3 presenting what he says is his energy plan. Accompanying the press release was 26 pages labeled “2022 Virginia Energy Plan,” but that can’t be what he’s referring to. I mean, the Virginia Code is pretty specific about what makes up an energy plan, and this isn’t it.

Under Virginia law, the energy plan must identify steps the state will take over the next 10 years consistent with the Commonwealth Clean Energy Policy’s goal of a net-zero carbon economy by 2045 “in all sectors, including the electric power, transportation, industrial, agricultural, building, and infrastructure sectors.”  Not only does Youngkin’s document not do that, it doesn’t even mention the policy it’s supposed to implement.

It’s also missing critical pieces. The plan is supposed to include a statewide inventory of greenhouse gas emissions, but it’s nowhere to be found. The inventory is the responsibility of the Department of Environmental Quality, which reports previous inventories on its website from 2005, 2010 and 2018. The one specifically required to be completed by October 1, 2022 isn’t there, nor is there any indication it’s in the works and just unfortunately delayed. Did I miss some fine print about how the requirement doesn’t apply if the governor is a Republican?

In fact, there is no discussion about climate change in Youngkin’s energy plan.  The word “climate” appears nowhere. He simply ignores the problem: a modern Nero, fiddling while the planet burns.

Instead, Youngkin’s document mostly attacks the laws Virginia has passed in recent years to implement its decarbonization goals, including the Virginia Clean Economy Act, legislation allowing the state to participate in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative and the Clean Cars law. In their place he offers a bunch of random ideas — some with merit, some without, some spinning off on tangents.

I did not really expect a conservative Republican with presidential aspirations to embrace all the recommendations for the energy plan that I laid out last month, or those from the many environmental, faith and consumer groups that support Virginia’s clean energy transition. Going further and faster down the road to decarbonization is a tall order for politicians beholden to fossil fuel interests, no matter how much it would benefit the public.

Yet Youngkin doesn’t have a lot of ammunition to use against the switch to renewable energy. With soaring coal and natural gas prices, it’s hard to keep pretending that fossil fuels are low-cost. The insistence that we need them for reliability is the only straw left to grasp at.

And indeed, underlying Younkin’s attack on the VCEA is a misunderstanding of how grid operators manage electricity. The critique boils down to “baseload good, intermittent bad.” But baseload is not the point; meeting demand is the point. Demand fluctuates hugely by day and hour. If grid operators had nothing to work with but slow-ramping coal plants or on/off nuclear reactors and no storage, they’d have as much trouble matching demand as if they had nothing but renewable energy and no storage. Pairing low-cost wind and solar with batteries makes them dispatchable — that is, better than baseload.

That’s not to say there aren’t good reasons to invest in higher-cost resources, but “baseload” is a red herring that stinks up Youngkin’s entire argument.

To his credit — and notwithstanding his “baseload” fixation — Youngkin supports Virginia’s move into offshore wind energy even with the high cost of the Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind project and other early U.S. developments. (The plan notes that Virginia’s project will be the largest “in the Free World,” a weirdly retro way to tell us China has leapt far ahead in installing offshore wind.)

The plan also supports removing barriers to customer purchases of solar energy, including shared solar and a greater ability for renewable energy suppliers to compete with utilities for retail sales. This is all phrased as a consumer choice issue rather than an endorsement of greater utility investments in solar; regardless, these would be welcome moves.

It’s also good to see the governor’s endorsement of rate reform. Republicans have been at least as much to blame as Democrats for Dominion Energy’s success in getting laws passed that let it bilk ratepayers. It will be interesting to see if Youngkin actually pursues the reforms he touts.

Less encouraging are Youngkin’s desires to jump into hydrogen (I’m guessing not the green kind, since we hardly have an excess of renewable energy) and, worse, to deploy “the nation’s first” commercial small modular nuclear reactor (SMR) in Southwest Virginia within 10 years.

You know what will happen there, right? Ratepayers will foot the bill, and it will be very expensive.

But unlike offshore wind, SMRs aren’t proven technology; they remain firmly in the research phase. The U.S. Department of Energy is hoping for a demonstration project “this decade.” If successful, the industry believes SMRs will eventually be able to produce electricity at a price that’s only two or three times that of solar and wind energy. Which begs an obvious question: Is there a reason to build SMRs?

Nor has anyone figured out the nagging problem of what to do with the radioactive waste, including the waste piling up at today’s nuclear plants because it’s too dangerous to move and there’s no place to put it. So Youngkin’s plan also “calls for developing spent nuclear fuel recycling technologies that offer the promise of a zero-carbon emission energy system with minimal waste and a closed-loop supply chain.” Great idea! But how about focusing on that first, Governor?

That’s not where Younkin is putting his focus, though. Last week, he proposed spending $10 million on a Virginia Power Innovation Fund, with half of that earmarked for SMR research and development.  The announcement said nothing about waste.

Look, I happen to know some earnest climate advocates who believe SMRs are the silver bullet we’ve been waiting for. I follow the research with an open mind while also noting the astonishing advances in renewable energy technology announced almost daily. But the climate crisis is here and now. We can’t afford to press pause on known carbon-free technologies for 10 years in the hope that something even better will pan out.

Investing in research and development of new technologies is an important role for government, but kicking the climate can down the road isn’t an option. Rather than attacking our energy transition, Youngkin would have done more for Virginia by using his plan to build on it.

This article appeared first in the Virginia Mercury on October 18, 2022.

The other shoe drops: APCo follows Dominion in seeking rate increase due to high fossil fuel costs

Virginia residents who buy electricity from Appalachian Power will see a rate increase of almost 16% this year if the State Corporation Commission approves the utility’s request to recover more than $361 million it has spent on higher-than-expected coal and natural gas prices. APCo proposes to recover the excess over two years, meaning rates will remain elevated even if fossil fuel prices drop. According to the filing, a customer who uses 1,000 kWh per month would see an increase of $20.17.

The SCC is likely to approve the request because it has little room to do otherwise. Virginia law allows utilities to recover their spending on fuel dollar-for-dollar, though they cannot tack on a profit for themselves. Last month, the SCC approved Dominion’s request to increase rates by an average of nearly $15 per month for the next three years to cover past excess fuel costs. 

The good news, says APCo, is that Virginia customers will see lower bills in the future because the utility is investing in renewable energy. “Incorporating more renewable sources of power into the company’s energy mix is another step in reducing customer fuel costs,” declares the company’s press release, issued the same day as its SCC filing. “As Appalachian Power adds more renewables, there is less need for coal and natural gas to generate power.”

Well, yes, but wouldn’t it have been nice if APCo had come to this conclusion before now? The current situation was entirely predictable. A supply glut kept natural gas prices low for almost a decade, but drilling companies weren’t making money. Today’s higher prices make it profitable to drill for gas, but oil and gas companies don’t trust that the market will stay strong, so they are returning profits to shareholders rather than investing in new wells. So tight supplies may keep prices high. Or not! Nobody knows. (As for coal, natural gas generation and coal are ready substitutes for each other, so coal prices track natural gas prices.) 

For years clean energy advocates like me have been urging utilities and the SCC to value price stability in generation planning, only to be ignored. Other states took the lead in installing price-stable renewable energy, while Virginia added more gas plants. When I dug into the data this summer, it became clear that the great majority of states with lower rates than Virginia also had higher amounts of renewable energy in their generation mix. I’ve reprinted a summary table here. 

StatePrice cents/kWh% REsource of RE
Virginia12.837biomass, hydro, solar
Idaho9.8674mostly hydro
Washington10.1275mostly hydro
North Dakota10.4840mostly wind
Utah10.6615mostly solar
Montana11.0052mostly hydro
Wyoming11.0619mostly wind
Nebraska11.1128mostly wind
Oregon11.2268mostly hydro, some wind
Missouri11.5412mostly wind
Arkansas11.7510mostly hydro
South Dakota12.0382wind, hydro
Iowa12.0960almost all wind
North Carolina12.2616mostly solar and hydro
Oklahoma12.3845mostly wind

I compiled this table in July, using then-current Energy Information Agency data. Now EIA has updated its data, and Virginia’s position is worse than ever. As of July 2022, Virginia’s average residential electricity rate has now hit 14.42 cents/kWh. This puts us above every state in the South Atlantic except Georgia. (Poor Georgia comes in at 16.02, but that’s what building nuclear plants will do for your rates.) Meanwhile, the states whose rates increased the least are those with high levels of wind, solar and hydro. 

This isn’t rocket science, folks. Wind and solar have lower levelized costs than coal and gas, and they insulate consumers from the volatility of the world oil and gas markets. You don’t have to be a climate advocate to understand this, but apparently it helps.