Will Virginia run roughshod over local zoning power to help gas drilling companies?

Although Virginia’s 2017 General Assembly session is still more than three months off, fossil fuel interests will already be planning how to win more special favors from the legislature. In past years they’ve gotten subsidies or a relaxation of environmental safeguards. This year, it could be help dealing with pesky local governments that want to protect communities from fracking. Guest blogger Linda Burchfiel brings us the story.

Photo credit Virginia Sierra Club

Photo credit Virginia Sierra Club

Even in a Dillon Rule state like Virginia, where local governments have only the authority conferred on them by the state, localities have some authority over matters that affect the daily life of residents. Traditionally they have authority to enact zoning ordinances to maintain their sense of community. Recently, counties have started to use their authority to limit the ability of natural gas drilling companies to conduct fracking operations within their borders. Now the industry is pushing back—hard.

Indeed, any action that limits fracking sends the oil and gas industry into high gear. The industry is already working to undermine new state regulations governing disclosure of chemicals used in fracking operations. Based on the experience of other states, we expect to see the industry seek legislation in Virginia’s upcoming General Assembly Session to block local authority over fracking.

New forms of “unconventional drilling,” including hydraulic fracturing or “fracking,” make drilling for natural gas potentially profitable in parts of Virginia that have no history of oil and gas development. Fracking companies have been travelling to new areas, leasing acres of land and approaching local governments for permits. Before considering permits, some local governments have insisted on researching fracking and its consequences.

This happened in 2010 in Rockingham County, which sits in the Shenandoah Valley atop a sliver of the Marcellus Shale. When a Texas-based drilling company requested permits to conduct fracking operations there, county supervisors decided they had better educate themselves on the subject. A Republican board member took the lead, investigating the safety records of fracking companies in other states and sounding the alarm about his findings. Facing growing opposition and unwilling to wait, and with falling gas prices making fracking in the county less profitable, the drilling company eventually withdrew its request.

Fracking also threatens the Tidewater area, where the U.S. Geological Survey estimates the Taylorsville Basin may contain over a trillion cubic feet of shale gas in an area underlying parts of more than a dozen Virginia counties. (A map of the Taylorsville Basin can be found here.) But while the potential for industry profits may be good, the potential risks are much greater. This low-lying region is in the Chesapeake Bay watershed and contains the Potomac Aquifer, which supplies water for drinking, agriculture and industry for almost half of Virginia’s population. In recognition of these unique environmental challenges, the Virginia Oil and Gas Act includes special provisions to protect the Tidewater Region. Two such provisions are the requirement of an environmental impact assessment for a permit, and a prohibition of drilling for oil or natural gas within 500 feet of the Chesapeake Bay or any tributary.

To add further safeguards, the King George Board of Supervisors proposed an ordinance in August 2015 with specific restrictions intended to protect the community from the noise, traffic and environmental degradation of fracking. After the gas industry threatened to sue, the Board held a new public hearing this year, then passed the ordinance with only slight modifications. Restrictions include a prohibition on well drilling within 750 feet of a waterway or road or occupied building, limiting drill sites to four acres, prohibiting holes from being bored within 100 feet of a property line, and requiring each company interested in drilling to apply for a special exception permit and to submit extensive information.

Although the oil and gas industry had tried to influence the Board’s decision with the threat of long and expensive litigation, its legal theory is weak. A 2015 opinion by Attorney General Mark Herring affirms that municipalities have the authority to use zoning ordinances to restrict fracking, including authority to prohibit it entirely within a jurisdiction. His opinion overturned that of the previous Attorney General, Ken Cuccinelli, who had stated that localities could not “ban altogether” oil and gas exploration and drilling through zoning ordinances. Even Cuccinelli, however, had conceded that a county “may adopt a zoning ordinance that places restrictions on the location and siting of oil and gas wells that are reasonable in scope and consistent” with applicable state laws.

If the industry can’t win in court, though, it may attempt to use the legislature to pass legislation taking away local governments’ ability to limit fracking. Given the historic influence the fossil fuel industry has on Virginia’s General Assembly, this poses a serious threat to localities that want to control their own fate.

The industry has an ally in this effort: the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a lobbying organization heavily funded by the fossil fuel industry. ALEC counts many conservative Virginia legislators among its members, as well as utility giant Dominion Resources. ALEC members draft and share model state-level legislation that favors corporate interests. ALEC claims to support sending power back to the local level, but in fact it consistently favors unlimited fossil-fuel extraction and burning, regardless of ALEC’s ostensible principles. So if local governments want to restrict fracking, while state legislatures are less inclined to do so, ALEC will likely favor blocking local government restrictions.

A recent news account revealed that ALEC and its local government affiliate, the American City-County Exchange (ACCE) are working to block local government action in states where the state legislature is more corporate-friendly than local governments. Thus we should be prepared to see ALEC insert itself in Virginia’s legislative process to try to block local restrictions on fracking.

Indeed, ALEC has already been working in other states to stop local governments from restricting fracking. This includes Texas, which passed a preemptive ban on local government efforts to stop fracking in 2015. In Florida, a similar ALEC-supported ban was defeated after opponents pointed out that the measure threatened localities’ traditional control over other local issues, such as education.

Linda Burchfiel is the Fracking Issues Chair for the Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club.

Even Appalachian Power doesn’t like its third-party solar option

Colleges in APCo territory want to use PPAs to install solar facilities like the one recently installed at the University of Richmond, in Dominion territory.

Colleges in APCo territory want to use PPAs to install solar facilities like the one recently installed at the University of Richmond, in Dominion territory.

Facing a withering report from a Virginia hearing examiner recommending denial of its request for a renewable energy “Rider RGP,” Appalachian Power Company (APCo) has responded with a simple message to the State Corporation Commission: um, never mind.

APCo proposed Rider RGP as an alternative to third-party power purchase agreements (PPAs) for customers wanting to install rooftop solar. The proposal would have put APCo in the middle of the deal and created a buy-all, sell-all scheme. But the proposal was roundly criticized at last year’s hearing and in witness statements as convoluted and expensive.

On September 19 APCo asked to withdraw its application, citing changed circumstances. In reality, of course, nothing has changed since the Hearing Examiner’s August 31 report, other than APCo learning it was about to lose.

The company probably doesn’t mind being rejected for a program that witnesses said no one would sign up for. The much bigger issue for the company is that if the SCC adopts the hearing examiner’s view, APCo could lose its battle to block PPAs in its service territory.

For those of you just coming to the story, here’s the Cliff Notes version (this earlier post has the unabridged telling): APCo’s customers want the ability to install solar on their property through PPAs, a financing arrangement in which a solar developer installs and owns the panels, selling the electricity that’s generated to the customer. Often this means the customer can reduce its electricity bills without incurring an up-front cost. For tax-exempt institutions like colleges that can’t take advantage of the federal 30% tax credit for solar, the PPA model means the developer can take the tax credit and pass along the savings.

Virginia utilities say this arrangement violates their monopoly on the sale of electricity. Customers point to two statutory provisions that make PPAs legal. One provision allows customers to buy renewable energy from third parties if their utility doesn’t offer it. (No utility in Virginia does.) The other provision defines a net metering customer to include one who contracts with someone else to install and operate a solar facility on the customer’s property—an apt description of a PPA arrangement. Customers would seem to have the better of the argument, surely, but no bank will finance a PPA when a deep-pocketed utility is threatening to sue.

Dominion temporarily settled the issue in its territory with a pilot program that allows some PPAs, but APCo declined to participate. Under pressure from educational institutions that want solar, APCo proposed Rider RGP as an alternative for its territory. Customers and solar advocates seized the opportunity to seek a clear ruling from the SCC on the legality of PPAs. They argued, and the Hearing Examiner agreed, that Rider RGP wasn’t just badly designed, but unnecessary, given the provisions of the statute that already allow PPAs.

APCo doesn’t want the SCC commissioners to confirm this conclusion. It hopes that by withdrawing Rider RGP, the SCC will dismiss the case and not reach the merits of the argument on PPA legality. It is urging the SCC not to consider the point at all, or if it does so, not to take it up until it considers APCo’s plan, announced in April, to offer a green tariff to customers.

That green tariff is the “changed circumstances” APCo says makes Rider RGP unnecessary. If the SCC approves the green tariff, APCo will offer to sell real renewable energy to customers who want it. APCo clearly believes that having that tariff available to customers closes off the statutory provision that allows customers to go to third-party sellers if their own utility doesn’t offer renewable energy.

The green tariff would not, however, affect the legality of PPAs under the other statutory provision, the one that defines net metering customers to include those who have renewable energy facilities located on their property but owned and operated by someone else. Nor does the offer of a green tariff seem likely to satisfy customer demand for PPAs; buying electricity from a utility through a green tariff is a very different animal from having solar panels on your own roof.

The SCC is considering APCo’s request to withdraw its proposal for Rider RGP. It issued an order asking the parties to the case to comment by September 26. Advocates are expected to oppose APCo’s request and to ask the SCC to rule definitively on the legality of PPAs. By doing so, the Commission would finally bring legal clarity to an issue that has been holding back solar development in Virginia.

Your 2016 guide to Virginia wind and solar policy

Photo credit: Sierra Club

Photo credit: Sierra Club

I could make short work of this year’s update by saying that not much has changed in the way of Virginia renewable energy policy in the past year. The General Assembly punted on almost all of the relevant bills that were presented this winter, and a subcommittee that was formed to review those bills has taken no action to date.

But if the policies haven’t changed, the landscape has. While our legislators sat on their hands, everyone else embarked on what, for Virginia, amounts to a solar binge. Dominion Virginia Power began making good on a pledge to install 400 megawatts (MW) of solar in state by the end of the decade. The Governor has taken the first steps to fulfill a pledge to have state agencies meet 8% of their electric demand with solar. Large corporations suddenly want to take advantage of low solar prices and favorable tax policies to do deals in Virginia. Residents are flocking to bulk purchasing cooperatives for rooftop solar. A few universities and schools are using third-party power purchase agreements (PPAs) to install solar under the limited provisions of Dominion Power’s pilot program.

Very little of this is reflected in the statistics—yet. According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, Virginia increased its total renewable energy capacity from 14 MW at the end of 2014 to 22 MW at the end of 2015. A few years ago, an increase of more than 50% would have been amazing. Today we just have to point out that 22 MW is how much solar capacity North Carolina installs on average every single week.

  1. The further we go, the behinder we get
Maryland North Carolina W. Virginia Tennessee Virginia
Solar* 465 2,294 3.4 132 22
Wind** 190 0 583 29 0
Total 655 2,294 586 161 22

Installed capacity measured in megawatts (MW) at the end of 2015. One megawatt is equal to 1,000 kilowatts (kW).

*Source: Solar Energy Industries Association **Source: American Wind Energy Association 

This year we will show real progress. Based on the projects announced to date, Virginia will likely have more than 200 MW of solar online by the end of 2016, with more projects in the queue for 2017. So we are headed in the right direction, but these numbers still represent only a tiny fraction of what we could see if we removed the barriers currently holding back private investment in the solar industry and pushed our utilities to make renewables central to their planning.

Moreover, we still have no wind farms in the state, and neither of our investor-owned utilities included Virginia wind in their latest Integrated Resource Plans (with the exception of Dominion Power’s two pilot offshore wind turbines, which probably won’t get built). The one bright spot on wind energy is that Apex Clean Energy continues to move forward with its Rocky Forge wind farm, scheduled for completion next year.

We also have to view Virginia’s progress on solar in the broader context of energy development. Dominion Virginia Power will have built 4,300 MW of new natural gas generation by the end of the decade and has indicated its interest in building far more. The company will add this to a portfolio that’s already 96% fossil fuel and nuclear. This summer two more companies announced plans to build natural gas plants in Virginia, aiming to burn some of the fracked gas that Dominion plans to bring through the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. When the state’s dominant utility is all-in on natural gas, it’s hard for a different energy model to find elbow room.

But we do have good solar and wind resources, and plenty of demand. What we need are policies that welcome participants to the market.

  1. Virginia utilities won’t sell wind or solar to customers*

(*except those with billions of dollars and famous CEOs—see section 14)

Currently, the average Virginia resident can’t pick up the phone and call their utility to buy electricity generated by wind and solar farms. Worse, they can’t buy renewable energy elsewhere, either.

This wasn’t supposed to happen. Section 56-577(A)(6) of the Virginia code allows utilities to offer “green power” tariffs, and if they don’t, customers are supposed to be able to go elsewhere for it. Ideally, a utility would use money from voluntary green power programs to build or buy renewable energy for these customers. However, Virginia utilities have not done this, except in very tiny amounts. Instead, utilities pay brokers to buy renewable energy certificates (RECs) on behalf of the participants. Participation by consumers is voluntary. Participants sign up and agree to be billed extra on their power bills for the service. Meanwhile, they still run their homes and businesses on regular “brown” power, which is not what they want.

In Dominion’s case, these RECs meet a recognized national standard, and some of them originate with wind turbines, but they primarily represent power produced and consumed out of state, and thus have no effect on the power mix in Virginia. For a fuller discussion of the Dominion Green Power Program, see What’s wrong with Dominion’s Green Power Program.

Appalachian Power’s “green pricing” program is even worse, offering RECs from an 80 MW hydroelectric dam in West Virginia. No wind, and no solar.

Other REC programs are available to Virginia consumers. If you’re considering this route, read this post first.

The State Corporation Commission has ruled that REC-based programs do not qualify as selling renewable energy, so under the terms of §56-577(A)(6), customers are currently permitted to turn to other licensed suppliers of electric energy “to purchase electric energy provided 100 percent from renewable energy.”

So you should be able to go elsewhere to buy wind and solar—say, from a solar facility on someone else’s land, or even from a facility on your own rooftop that someone else owns and operates for you. (For more on that, see section 10 on third-party power purchase agreements.) But Virginia utilities claim that the statute’s words mean that not only must another licensed supplier provide 100% renewable energy, it must also supply 100% of the customer’s demand, all the time. Obviously, the owner of a wind farm or solar facility cannot do that. Ergo, say the utilities, a customer cannot go elsewhere.

On August 31, however, a hearing examiner for the SCC rejected this reading. If the SCC agrees, Virginia residents might have new options.

Anticipating the possibility of an adverse ruling from the SCC, this spring APCo filed a proposal with the SCC for a new tariff under of §56-577(A)(6). Instead of RECs, APCo now proposes to offer real green power, combining wind, solar and hydro. None of the power will come from new projects; partly as a result, the tariff will cost more. The SCC will hold a hearing on the proposal this fall. If approved, APCo customers would finally be able to order renewable energy from their utility. But it would also likely close off customers’ ability under the statute to turn to other suppliers of renewable energy.

Dominion has not yet followed APCo’s lead on this one. If the SCC rules that the statute means what it says, we would expect Dominion to offer a green power program consisting of true renewable energy. Indeed, Dominion seems to be working on a green tariff this fall that it is calling “community solar” (see next session). Its real interest may well be the same as APCo’s.

We hope the SCC will require both APCo and Dominion to follow best practices recommended by groups like Advanced Energy Economy Institute: “Utility renewable energy tariff programs must require that utilities build, purchase or contract for a portfolio of renewable energy through a competitive process, and charge customers according to the actual cost of the portfolio, whether that be a net premium or net savings for customers.”

  1. Community solar? Not hardly

Last year Dominion received SCC approval for a program it billed as an offer to sell electricity from solar panels. Notwithstanding its name, however, the “Dominion Community Solar” program is not an offer to sell electricity generated from solar energy, and reading the details, one can only conclude it would attract customers only to the extent they were deceived about it. Perhaps someone within Dominion pointed out to the brass how close this looks to consumer fraud; at any rate, a year has passed and the company still hasn’t launched it.

As for true community solar, only one Virginia utility offers it: a member-owned rural electric cooperative in southwestern Virginia called BARC. The rest of you are out of luck at the moment. Every year for the past several years, legislation has been introduced to support community solar, and every year it has died in the face of utility opposition.

A few bills this year would have enabled community solar, but they were “carried over to 2017”—i.e., killed. A small working group put together by the solar industry association and the utilities is currently trying to come up with a program that utilities will find acceptable. The group has issued a “Request for Information,” available online, and is holding public meetings this fall to get input on a proposal that looks much more like a green tariff than like community solar. (Clearly Dominion likes the name “community solar”–just not, you know, actual community solar.) Another group, the Distributed Solar Collaborative, which includes all stakeholders except utilities, is also evaluating models from other states and plans to put forward a true community solar alternative.

  1. Virginia’s Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) is a miserable sham

Many advocates focus on an RPS as a vehicle for inducing demand. In Virginia, that’s a mistake. Virginia has only a voluntary RPS, which means utilities have the option of participating but don’t have to. Any costs they incur in meeting the goals can be charged to ratepayers. Until a few years ago, utilities even got to collect bonus money as a reward for virtue, until it became clear that there was nothing very virtuous going on.

Making our RPS mandatory rather than voluntary would do nothing for wind and solar in Virginia without a complete overhaul. The statute takes a kitchen-sink approach to what counts as renewable energy, so meeting it requires no new investment and no wind or solar.

The targets are also modest to a fault. Although nominally promising 15% renewables by 2025, the statute sets a 2007 baseline and contains a sleight-of-hand in the definitions section by which the target is applied only to the amount of energy not produced by nuclear plants. The combined result is an effective 2025 target of about 7%.

The RPS is as impotent in practice as it is in theory. In the case of Dominion Virginia Power, the RPS has been met largely with old hydro projects built prior to World War II, trash incinerators, and wood burning, plus a small amount of landfill gas and—a Virginia peculiarity—RECs representing R&D rather than electric generation.

There appears to be no appetite in the General Assembly for making the RPS mandatory, and efforts to improve the voluntary goals have repeatedly failed in the face of utility or industry opposition. The utilities have offered no arguments why the goals should not be limited to new, high-value, in-state renewable projects, other than that it would cost more to meet them than to buy junk RECs.

But with the GA hostile to a mandatory RPS and too many parties with vested interests in keeping the kitchen-sink approach going, it is hard to imagine our RPS becoming transformed into a useful tool to incentivize wind and solar.

That doesn’t mean there is no role for legislatively-mandated wind and solar. But it would be easier to pass a bill with a simple, straightforward mandate for buying or building a certain number of megawatts than it would be to repair a hopelessly broken RPS.

  1. Customer-owned generation: for most, the only game in town

Given the lack of wind or solar options from utilities, people who want renewable energy generally have to build it themselves. A federal 30% tax credit makes it cost-effective for those with cash or access to low-cost financing, and bulk purchasing through nonprofits VA-SUN and LEAP makes the process easier and reduces costs.

Last year the GA passed legislation enabling Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) loans for commercial customers. Localities now have an option to offer low-cost financing for energy efficiency and renewable energy projects at the commercial level. A bill to extend PACE authorization to residential customers did not get out of committee this year.

Virginia offers no cash incentives or tax credits for wind or solar. The Virginia legislature passed a bill in 2014 that would offer an incentive, initially as a tax credit and then as a grant program, but it did not receive funding. The same bill, reintroduced in 2015, died in a subcommittee.

The lack of a true RPS in Virginia means Virginia utilities generally will not buy solar renewable energy certificates (SRECs) from customers. SRECs generated here can sometimes be sold to utilities in other states (as of now only Pennsylvania) or to brokers who sell to voluntary purchasers.

  1. Limits to net metering hamper growth

Section 56-594 of the Virginia code allows utility customers with wind and solar projects to net energy meter. System owners get credit from their utility for surplus electricity that’s fed into the grid at times of high output. That offsets the grid power they draw on when their systems are producing less than they need. Their monthly bills reflect only the net energy they draw from the grid.

If a system produces more than the customer uses in a month, the credits roll over to the next month. However, at the end of the year, the customer will be paid for any excess credits only by entering a power purchase agreement with the utility. This will likely be for a price that represents the utility’s “avoided cost” of about 4.5 cents, rather than the retail rate, which for homeowners is closer to 12 cents. This effectively stops most people from installing larger systems than they can use themselves.

Legislation passed in 2015 makes it less likely that new solar owners will have any surplus. At Dominion’s insistence, the definition of “eligible customer-generator” was amended to limit system sizes to no larger than needed to meet the customers demand, based on the previous 12 months of billing history. The SCC wrote implementing regulations (see 20VAC5-315-10 et seq.) but failed to address what happens with new construction. The solar trade association MDV-SEIA continues to work towards a solution to that problem.

The new limitation is a problem for other reasons as well. Some solar customers want to install larger systems than they previously needed because their business is expanding or they plan to buy an electric car. But the limitation is also stupid. If customers want to install more clean, renewable energy than they need and are willing to sell the surplus electricity into the grid at the wholesale power price, why would you stop them from performing this service to society? I can understand that the paperwork isn’t worth the hassle for very small amounts of excess electricity, but if there isn’t an app for that yet, I bet some Virginia Tech students could make one.

  1. Aggregated net metering allowed for farms only

Under a bill introduced by Delegate Randy Minchew (R-Leesburg) and passed in 2013, owners of Virginia farms with more than one electric meter are permitted to attribute the electricity produced by a system that serves one meter (say, on a barn) to other meters on the property (the farmhouse and other outbuildings). This is referred to as “agricultural net metering.” Efforts to expand aggregated net metering beyond farms have not succeeded.

  1. Standby charges hobble the market for larger home systems and electric cars

Dominion Power and Appalachian Power are at the forefront of a national pushback against policies like net metering that facilitate customer-owned generation.

The current system capacity limit for net-metered solar installations is 1 MW for commercial, 20 kW for residential. However, for residential systems between 10 kW and 20 kW, a utility is allowed to apply to the State Corporation Commission to impose a “standby” charge on those customers.

Seizing the opportunity, Dominion won the right to impose a standby charge of up to about $60 per month on these larger systems, eviscerating the market for them just as electric cars were increasing interest in larger systems. (SCC case PUE- 2011-00088.) Legislative efforts to roll back the standby charges were unsuccessful, and more recently, Appalachian Power instituted even more extreme standby charges. (PUE-2014-00026.)

The standby charges supposedly represent the extra costs to the grid for transmission and distribution, though there is a great deal of disagreement on that score, and a lot of suspicion that utilities’ real concern is that they will make less money as demand for their dirty energy product falls.

In the summer of 2013, in a filing with the SCC (PUE-2012-00064, Virginia Electric and Power Company’s Net Metering Generation Impacts Report), Dominion claimed it could also justify standby charges for its generation costs, and indicated it expected to seek them after a year of operating its Solar Purchase Program (see discussion below). As far as I can tell, it hasn’t carried out this threat yet, and it would likely need legislation to do so.

  1. Good news for residential solar: homeowner association bans are largely a thing of the past

Homeowner association (HOA) bans and restrictions on solar systems have been a problem for residential solar. In the 2014 session, the legislature nullified bans as contrary to public policy. The law contains an exception for bans that are recorded in the land deeds, but this is said to be highly unusual; most bans are simply written into HOA covenants. In April of 2015 the Virginia Attorney issued an opinion letter confirming that unrecorded HOA bans on solar are no longer legal.

Even where HOAs cannot ban solar installations, they can impose “reasonable restrictions concerning the size, place and manner of placement.” This language is undefined. The Maryland-DC-Virginia Solar Energy Industries Association has published a guide for HOAs on this topic.

  1. Virginia utilities continue their fight against PPAs; now a losing battle?

One of the primary drivers of solar installations in other states has been third-party ownership of the systems, including third-party power purchase agreements (PPAs), under which the customer pays only for the power produced by the system. For customers that pay no taxes, including non-profit entities like churches and colleges, this is especially important because they can’t use the 30% federal tax credit to reduce the cost of the system if they purchase it directly. Under a PPA, the system owner can take the tax credit (as well as accelerated depreciation) and pass along the savings in the form of a lower electricity price.

The Virginia Code seems to sanction this approach to financing solar facilities in its net metering provisions, specifically §56-594, which authorizes a “customer generator” to net meter, and defines an eligible customer generator as “a customer that owns and operates, or contracts with other persons to own or operate, or both, an electrical generating facility that . . . uses as its total source of fuel renewable energy. . . “

Notwithstanding this provision, in 2011, when Washington & Lee University attempted to use a PPA to finance a solar array on its campus, Dominion Virginia Power issued cease and desist letters to the university and its Staunton-based solar provider, Secure Futures LLC. Dominion claimed the arrangement violated its monopoly on power sales within its territory. Secure Futures and the university thought that even if what was really just a financing arrangement somehow fell afoul of Dominion’s monopoly, surely they were covered by the exception in §56-577(A)(6) available to customers whose own utilities do not offer 100% renewable energy. (See Section 2, above.)

Yet the threat of prolonged and costly litigation was too much. The parties turned the PPA contract into a lease, allowing the solar installation to proceed but without the advantages of a PPA.

After a long and very public fight in the legislature and the press, in 2013 Dominion and the solar industry negotiated a compromise that specifically allows customers in Dominion territory to use third-party PPAs to install solar or wind projects under a pilot program capped at 50 MW. Projects must have a minimum size of 50 kW, unless the customer is a tax-exempt entity, in which case there is no minimum. Projects can be as large as 1 MW. The SCC is supposed to review the program every two years beginning in 2015 and has authority to make changes to it. I’m not aware the SCC has reviewed the program to date.

Appalachian Power and the electric cooperatives declined to participate in the PPA deal-making, so the legal uncertainty about PPAs continues in their territories. In June of 2015, Appalachian Power proposed an alternative to PPAs. An evidentiary hearing was held September 29, 2015. A veritable parade of witnesses testified that APCo”s program was expensive, unworkable and unnecessary, given the plain language of the statute allowing PPAs.

Almost a year later, on August 31, 2016, the hearing examiner finally issued her report, recommending that APCo’s application be rejected, both because it is a lousy program and because she, too, reads the Code to allow PPAs currently, making a utility alternative unnecessary. If the commissioners agree with her, this would be a victory for the solar industry and customers. How useful it will be depends on the scope of the final order, however, and on how they view APCo’s effort to close off the opening afforded by §56-577(A)(6) by offering its own renewable energy product.

The problem cries out for a legislative fix. Advocates pushed hard for legislation this year that would open the Virginia market to private investment through third-party PPAs; but as previously noted, the Commerce and Labor committees ducked their responsibilities and failed to act on the bills.

Meanwhile, Secure Futures has developed a third-party-ownership business model that it says works like a PPA for tax purposes but does not include the sale of electricity, and therefore should not trigger a challenge from Appalachian Power or other utilities. Currently Secure Futures is the only solar provider offering this option, which it calls a Customer Self-Generation Agreement.

  1. Tax exemption for third-party owned solar proves a market driver

In 2014 the General Assembly passed a law exempting solar generating equipment “owned or operated by a business” from state and local taxation for installations up to 20 MW. It did this by classifying solar equipment as “pollution abatement equipment.” Note that this applies only to the equipment, not to the buildings or land underlying the installation, so real estate taxes aren’t affected.

The law was a response to a problem that local “machinery and tools” taxes were mostly so high as to make third-party PPAs uneconomic in Virginia. In a state where solar was already on the margin, the tax could be a deal-breaker.

The 20 MW cap was included at the request of the Virginia Municipal League and the Virginia Association of Counties, and it seemed at the time like such a high cap as to be irrelevant. However, with solar increasingly attractive economically, Virginia’s tax exemption rapidly became a draw for solar developers, including Virginia utilities.

In 2016 Dominion proposed changing the exemption to benefit its own projects at the expense of those of independent developers. In the end, the statute was amended in a way that benefits utility-scale projects without unduly harming smaller projects. Many new projects will now be only 80% exempt, rather than entirely exempt. However, the details are complex, with different timelines and different size classes, and anyone looking to use this provision should study it carefully.

  1. Dominion “Solar Partnership” Program encounters limited success

In 2011, the General Assembly passed a law allowing Dominion to build up to 30 MW of solar energy on leased property, such as roof space on a college or commercial establishment. The SCC approved $80 million of spending, to be partially offset by selling the RECs (meaning the solar energy would not be used to meet Virginia’s RPS goals). The program has resulted in several commercial-scale projects on university campuses and corporate buildings. Unfortunately, it has also been plagued by delays and over-spending.

The program was supposed to proceed in two phases, with 10 MW in place by the end of 2013, and another 20 MW by December 31, 2015. However, the program got off to a very slow start. In August of 2014 the company acknowledged it was behind schedule and would likely not achieve more than 13 or 14 MW of the 30 MW authorized before it ran out of money. On May 7, 2015 Dominion filed a notice with the SCC that it needed to extend the phase 2 end date to December 31, 2016, and confirmed that it would install less than 20 MW altogether.

Although Dominion’s web page suggests that it is still taking applications, I’m doubtful.

  1. Dominion’s Solar Purchase Program: bad for sellers, bad for buyers, and not popular with anyone

The same legislation that enabled the “Solar Partnership” initiative also authorized Dominion to establish “an alternative to net metering” as part of the demonstration program. The alternative turned out to be a buy-all, sell-all deal for up to 3 MW of customer-owned solar. As approved by the SCC, the program allows owners of small solar systems on homes and businesses to sell the power and the associated RECs to Dominion at 15 cents/kWh, while buying regular grid power at retail for their own use. Dominion then sells the power to the Green Power Program at an enormous markup.

I ripped this program from the perspective of the Green Power Program buyers, but the program is also a bad deal for most sellers. Some installers who have looked at it say it’s not worth the hassle given the costs involved and the likelihood that the payments represent taxable income to the homeowner. There is also a possibility that selling the electricity may make homeowners ineligible for the 30% federal tax credit on the purchase of their system. Sellers beware.

And then there’s the problem that selling the solar power means you aren’t powering your home or business with solar—which is the whole point of installing it, right?

  1. Dominion’s Renewable Generation tariff for large users of energy finds no takers; Amazon forces a change, with a new tariff in the works that will be available to others

Currently non-utility renewable energy facilities are subject to a size limit of 1 MW for net-metered projects. These limitations constrain universities, corporations, data centers, and other large users of energy that might want to run on wind or solar. On top of this, the utilities’ interpretation of Virginia law prohibits a developer from building a wind farm or a solar array and selling the power directly to users under a power purchase agreement.

In 2013, Dominion Power rolled out a Renewable Generation Tariff (PUE-2012-00142) to allow customers to buy larger amounts of renewable power from providers, with the utility acting as a go-between and collecting a monthly administrative fee.

From the start the program appeared cumbersome and bureaucratic, and Dominion confirmed to me this summer that they have never had any takers. Then suddenly last year, Amazon Web Services made Dominion’s tariff irrelevant. Amazon contracted directly with a developer for an 80 MW solar farm, avoiding Dominion’s monopoly restrictions with a plan to sell the electricity directly into the PJM (wholesale) market. Dominion Energy (an affiliate of Dominion Virginia Power) then bought the project, and Dominion Virginia Power negotiated a special rate with Amazon for the power. This contract became the basis for an “experimental” tariff that Dominion proposes to offer to customers with a peak demand of 5 MW or more, with a program cap of 200 MW. A hearing examiner at the SCC has recommended approval of the special rate.

Dominion used a different model for its deal this year with Microsoft. After the SCC turned down Dominion’s application to charge ratepayers for a 20-MW solar farm in Remington, Virginia, Dominion reached an agreement with Microsoft and the Commonwealth of Virginia under which the state will buy the output of the project, while Microsoft buys the RECs.

Dominion has a strong incentive to make deals with large corporations that want a lot of renewable energy: if they don’t like what Dominion is offering, they can do an end run around the utility. Amazon has shown other companies how to use PJM rules that let anyone develop projects for the wholesale market regardless of utility monopolies, and then “attribute” the solar or wind energy to their operations in any state. With the tax exemption discussed in section 11, Virginia projects apparently now pencil out pretty well.

  1. Dominion moves into utility-scale solar

Well before Amazon and Microsoft showed an interest in large-scale solar projects here, Dominion had announced it wanted to develop 400 MW of solar in Virginia. In 2015, at the utility’s behest, two bills promoted the construction of utility-scale solar by declaring it in the public interest for utilities to build solar energy projects of at least 1 MW, and up to an aggregate of 500 MW. The bill was amended at the solar industry’s behest to allow utilities the alternative of entering into PPAs for solar power prior to purchasing the generation facilities at a later date, an option with significant tax advantages.

Dominion’s first solar project will be a 20 MW solar farm in Remington, Virginia; however, the SCC rejected the company’s plan to charge ratepayers for the project because the company had not considered cheaper third-party alternatives. Governor McAuliffe helped save the project by working out a deal with Microsoft, as discussed above. Meanwhile, Dominion had also solicited bids for additional projects. To date, three have been announced, totaling 56 MW.

Although Dominion will be able to charge ratepayers for these projects, the SCC insists that the RECs be sold—whether to utilities in other states that have RPS obligations, or to customers who want them for their own sustainability goals, or perhaps even to voluntary green power customers. The result is that Dominion still won’t have any solar in its fuel mix. That’s the weird world of RECs for you.

  1. Governor McAuliffe promises the state will purchase 110 MW of solar

Following a recommendation by the Governor’s Climate Change and Resiliency Commission, on December 21, 2015, Governor McAuliffe announced that the Commonwealth would commit to procuring 8% of its electricity from solar, with 75% of that built by Dominion and 25% by private developers.

The first deal that will count towards this goal is an 18 MW project at Naval Station Oceana, announced on August 2, 2016. The Commonwealth will buy the power and the RECs. (The Remington Project did not count, because as the buyer of the RECs, only Microsoft can claim the right to be buying solar power.)

  1. Will a Solar Development Authority help?

One of the MacAuliffe Administration’s initiatives last year was a bill to establish the Virginia Solar Development Authority. The Authority is explicitly tasked with helping utilities find financing for solar projects; there is no similar language about supporting customer-owned solar. So far, nothing seems to have come of it.

  1. Any wind energy yet? Nope, still waiting

No Virginia utility is actively moving forward with a wind farm on land. Dominion Power’s website used to list 248 MW of land-based wind in Virginia as “under development,” without any noticeable progress. Now it just says 247 MW are “being evaluated.” That’s closer to reality, but they probably should put it in the past tense. There has been a lot of press about the standoff in Tazewell County, where supervisors blocked Dominion’s proposed wind farm. Today, Dominion’s advocacy for its project feels perfunctory. The company has signaled it prefers solar, and its 2016 IRP dismisses wind as too costly.

On the other hand, Appalachian Power’s IRP suggests an interest in wind as a low-cost renewable resource. The bad news is that it isn’t proposing to build any new wind in Virginia.

With no utility buyers, Virginia has not been a friendly place for independent wind developers. In previous years a few wind farm proposals made it to the permitting stage before being abandoned, including in Highland County and on Poor Mountain near Roanoke.

Nonetheless, Apex Clean Energy is in the development stages for the 75-MW Rocky Forge wind farm in Botetourt County. No customer has been announced, but the company believes the project can produce electricity at a competitive price, given its good location and improved turbine technology. Construction is planned for 2017.

As for Virginia’s great offshore wind resource, little progress has been made towards harnessing it, even as the nation’s first offshore wind project will begin generating electricity this fall in the waters off Rhode Island. In 2013 Dominion won the federal auction for the right to develop about 2,000 MW of wind power off Virginia Beach, and the company completed a Site Assessment Plan (SAP) this spring.

We had originally been told the federal government’s timeline would lead to wind turbines being built off Virginia Beach around 2020. Now, however, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management says Dominion has five years from approval of the SAP to submit its construction and operations plan, after which we’ll have to wait for review and approval. Presumably the project will also require an environmental impact statement. So the whole process would be quite slow even if Dominion were committed to moving forward expeditiously. But in fact, it seems increasingly clear that Dominion is just going through the motions and has no interest in seeing the project through. Its 2016 Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) does not even include offshore wind in any of its scenarios for the next 15 years, except for the 12 MW that would be produced by the two test turbines of its VOWTAP project.

Yes, so what about VOWTAP? Dominion had been part of a Department of Energy-funded team to try out new technology, with the pilot turbines due to be installed in 2017. After a second round of bids to build the project still came in higher than expected, Dominion told DOE this spring it could not commit to construction even by 2020, upon which DOE pulled funding. Dominion executives swear the project isn’t necessarily dead, but that puts me in mind of the “ex-parrot” in the Monty Python skit, still on its perch only because it’s been nailed there.

  1. The Clean Power Plan tries to make it better to switch than fight

On August 3, 2015, EPA issued the final rule known as the Clean Power Plan. Under the rule, states with existing fossil-fuel generating plants must develop plans to reduce total carbon pollution from power plants, which could include using renewable energy as an offset to fossil fuel. In Virginia, the task of developing a state implementation plan (SIP) falls to the Department of Environmental Quality. Earlier this year the Supreme Court stayed implementation of the EPA rule while a Circuit Court considers a challenge, following which Virginia Republicans pushed through a budget provision prohibiting DEQ from developing a SIP while the federal rule is stayed.

Assuming the Clean Power Plan survives challenge, it could help incentivize construction of wind and solar facilities. While Virginia’s goals under the plan are modest, the rule means the state, utilities and the SCC must for the first time take carbon emissions into account in their planning. The EPA has signaled a strong interest in seeing wind and solar deployed as solutions.

Virginia hearing examiner says renewable energy PPAs are legal, but will the ruling stick?

A third-party PPA made it possible to build this solar facility at the University of Richmond. Appalachian Power Company contends that a project like this would be illegal in its territory.

A third-party PPA made it possible to build this solar facility at the University of Richmond. Appalachian Power Company contends that a project like this would be illegal in its territory.

A hearing examiner for the Virginia State Corporation Commission recommended on August 31 that the SCC reject Appalachian Power Company’s proposed alternative to third-party power purchase agreements (PPAs) for renewable energy, concluding the program is not in the public interest. The parties will have three weeks to comment before the recommendation goes to the Commissioners for a final decision. The case is PUE-2015-00040.

The ruling against APCo’s proposed Rider RGP is less important to customers than the reasoning behind it. In addition to finding a myriad of faults with the proposal, the Hearing Examiner concluded it isn’t needed because PPAs are already legal under the Virginia Code. This is an outcome long sought by the solar industry and environmental groups, and one supported by the Attorney General’s Office of Consumer Counsel.

However, the Hearing Examiner’s report is merely a recommendation. Nothing is final until the Commissioners rule, and they could make a decision about Rider RGP without addressing the current legality of PPAs. Moreover, earlier this year, APCo proposed another program that it clearly hopes will nip in the bud any surge of PPA activity that might result from a decision in the present case. (I’ll get to that in a moment.)

The rejection of Rider RGP won’t disappoint any would-be customers. A long line of witnesses testified at the hearing on September 29, 2015 that APCo’s expensive and convoluted program would find no takers. As the Solar Research Institute summarized it, the proposed Rider RGP “would require a customer interested in a solar PPA to first pay for 100% of their service under the standard tariff, pay for 100% of the solar energy generated, pay a $30 program fee, and receive excess payments back through a Renewable Output Credit.” Oh, and they still wouldn’t be using renewable energy. (Note that although solar energy was the focus of the discussion for participants, the decision applies to other forms of renewable energy as well.)

The SCC staff made some suggestions to improve the program, but the hearing examiner, Deborah Ellenberg, concluded it was really beyond saving. Not only that, but the plain language of the Virginia Code makes third-party PPAs legal in the state already. Thus, there is no need for a utility-sponsored alternative.

Ellenberg pointed to two statutory provisions that support the legality of third-party PPAs. First, Virginia Code §56-577 A 5 provides that customers may purchase renewable energy from third-party sellers if their own utility does not offer a tariff for renewable energy. Specifically, customers may:

[P]urchase electric energy provided 100 percent from renewable energy from any supplier of electric energy licensed to sell retail electric energy within the Commonwealth . . . if the incumbent electric utility serving the exclusive service territory does not offer an approved tariff for electric energy provided 100 percent from renewable energy. . . .

Until now, APCo has offered only a green power program that sells RECs, which the SCC says doesn’t count.

The language of §56-577 sounds clear enough, but APCo and Dominion Power have maintained that this section only allows customers to go elsewhere if the other supplier can provide 100% of their electricity from renewable energy, something that can’t be done with a solar facility or a wind turbine.

This flimsy reading of the statute was the basis on which Dominion challenged a PPA at Washington and Lee University back in 2011. The issue was temporarily resolved two years later when Dominion and the solar industry agreed to a pilot program that now allows a limited number of PPAs in Dominion territory, under tight parameters that exclude residential customers. The program never applied in APCo territory, however—a sore point to customers there. APCo has clung to its reading of §56-577, regardless of the growing clamor for renewable energy in southwestern Virginia.

Ellenberg’s report flatly rejects the utility interpretation. If the SCC adopts her reading, any customer in APCo territory would be free to buy renewable energy from third-party suppliers, until APCo offers a qualifying program.

Ellenberg also cited Virginia’s net metering statute. Virginia Code §56-594 authorizes “customer generators” to enter into behind-the-meter PPAs with third parties that own and operate a renewable facility for the customer. Code §56-594 B defines an eligible customer generator for net metering purposes as “a customer that owns and operates, or contracts with other persons to own or operate, or both, an electrical generating facility that . . . uses as its total source of fuel renewable energy . . .” (emphasis added).

Interpreting this provision takes no special legal talent, surely. It would seem to cover residential and commercial facilities installed and owned by third-party developers, including the familiar no-money-down contract offered to residential customers by Solar City. But again, APCo and Dominion Virginia Power claim the Code doesn’t mean what it says. For more than five years they’ve backed up their position with threats of lawsuits, creating the kind of uncertainty that is toxic to development deals.

If the SCC’s final order endorses the hearing examiner’s finding that PPAs are currently legal, the result could be to open up the Virginia solar (and wind) market to large amounts of private investment statewide.

However, Ellenberg’s finding that PPAs are currently legal appears in her discussion but not in her recommendations to the commissioners; her recommendations are limited to the actions she proposes (rejecting or modifying the tariff). The SCC does not have to rule on the question of PPA legality in order to decide this case. Surely, though, it would be strange if it were to duck the opportunity now that the issue has been fully briefed. With solar a hot commodity across the state, the current legal limbo has become a significant economic drag that the SCC ought not to ignore.

As I mentioned, though, APCo still has one card up its sleeve. This spring it proposed a new tariff to offer its customers 100% renewable energy derived from existing wind, solar and hydro projects. The product appears to meet the condition of §56-577. If approved, it would slam shut the door that the Hearing Examiner just opened (or rather, that she said was open all along, if you had dared to go through it into the toxic miasma where gray-suited lawyers lay in wait). APCo’s request for approval of the tariff (PUE-2016-00051) is scheduled to be heard by the SCC on November 15, with comments due by November 8.

Solar advocates take a dim view of APCo’s move. The new tariff won’t build any new facilities; it simply shifts the burden of paying for existing renewable energy projects onto volunteers, at a significant premium. In today’s market, third-party developers can offer electricity generated by new solar projects at competitive prices. So APCo’s tariff looks less like an accommodation to its eco-conscious customers, and more like a maneuver to prevent anyone from building solar on its turf.

It’s high time the SCC put a stop to this anti-competitive behavior and let Virginians build solar projects with their own money. The Commissioners can follow the Hearing Examiner’s advice, or they can take a pragmatic approach and recognize that PPAs are really just a way to finance projects. They don’t turn solar developers into utilities, and APCo should stop wasting everyone’s time and money blocking private investment in a part of the Commonwealth that desperately needs it.

The “fuel” that’s helping America fight climate change isn’t natural gas

You’ve heard the good news on climate: after a century or more of continuous rise, U.S. CO2 emissions have finally begun to decline, due largely to changes in the energy sector. According to the Energy Information Agency (EIA), energy-related CO2 emissions in 2015 were 12% below their 2005 levels. The EIA says this is “because of the decreased use of coal and the increased use of natural gas for electricity generation.”

Is the EIA right in making natural gas the hero of the CO2 story? Hardly. Sure, coal-to-gas switching is real. But take a look at this graph showing the contributors to declining carbon emissions. Natural gas displacement of coal accounts for only about a third of the decrease in CO2 emissions.

Courtesy of the Sierra Club Beyond Coal Campaign, using data from the Energy Information Agency.

Courtesy of the Sierra Club Beyond Coal Campaign, using data from the Energy Information Agency.

By far the biggest driver of the declining emissions is energy efficiency. Americans are using less energy overall, even as our population grows and our economy expands

Energy efficiency is sometimes called the “first fuel” because cutting waste is a cheaper and faster way to meet energy demand than building new power plants. Improvements in energy performance cut across all sectors of the economy, from industrial machines to home electronics to innovations like LED bulbs replacing famously wasteful incandescent light bulbs.

Energy efficiency’s stunning success in lowering carbon emissions should get more attention, and not just because it is cheaper than building new natural gas-fired power plants. Efficiency has no downsides. Natural gas has plenty. Indeed, when methane leakage from drilling and infrastructure is factored in, natural gas doesn’t look much like a climate hero at all.

And that’s not the full story. A growing share of the credit for carbon reductions also goes to non-carbon-emitting sources, primarily wind, and solar. Both sources exhibit double-digit growth rates. Wind power in the U.S. has grown from a little over 9,000 megawatts (MW) in 2005 to more than 74,000 MW by the end of 2015. In 2005, the solar market scarcely existed. By early this year, we had 29,000 MW installed.

The solar trend is particularly exciting because we are just starting to see the big numbers that result from solar’s exponential growth. In the first quarter of 2016, more solar came online in the U.S. than all other power sources combined. Analysts like Bloomberg New Energy Finance see solar becoming the world’s dominant energy source over the next 25 years, driving out not just coal but also a lot of gas generation as solar becomes the cheapest way to make energy.

For an inspiring look at how this will happen, check out this presentation by author Tony Seba. As Seba argues, solar isn’t a commodity like fossil fuels; it is a technology like computers and cell phones. When technologies like these take off, they take over. Seba refers to solar technology, battery storage, electric vehicles and self-driving vehicles as “disruptive” technologies that are advancing together to upend our energy and transportation sectors.

Another graph shows us how critical these advancements will be. The U.S. is on track to achieve President Obama’s goal announced last year of lowering carbon emissions 17% below 2005 levels by 2020, but we will need more aggressive measures to meet our Paris Agreement target of 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2025. After 2025, of course, we will have to cut greenhouse emissions even further and faster.

Slide4Given the urgency of the climate crisis, we don’t have the option of waiting around for the solar revolution to bankrupt the oil and gas industry and fossil-bound electric utilities. These companies will not go quietly; already they are maneuvering to lock customers into fossil fuels. Power producers are engaged in a mad rush to build natural gas plants, and wherever possible, to stick utility customers with the costs.

For Virginians who have felt especially under attack from fracked gas projects recently, this final graph shows it’s not your imagination: Virginia is second only to Texas in new gas plant development underway. And this graph captures only a fraction of the new gas that Virginia’s major utility, Dominion Virginia Power, wants to build. In presentations to state officials, it revealed plans for more than 9,000 megawatts of additional gas generating capacity.

Based on Energy Information Agency data. Chart excludes natural gas generating units already under construction as well as those scheduled to come online after 2020.

Based on Energy Information Agency data. Chart excludes natural gas generating units already under construction as well as those scheduled to come online after 2020.

Dominion and other gas-happy utilities are betting that once plants are built and consumers are on the hook, regulators won’t want to see them idled ten years from now just because renewable energy has made them obsolete.

Indeed, Dominion and other utilities, including Duke Energy, Southern Company, and NextEra in the Southeast and DTE Energy in the Midwest, even plan to use electricity customers to make money for the gas pipelines they are building, locking Americans further into gas.

This is madness. The only sound energy plan today is one that looks forward to an era of minimal fossil fuel use. It puts efficiency and renewables front and center, shifting natural gas and other fuels to supporting roles that will shrink over time.

The shift is inevitable. Delaying it means allowing the climate crisis to worsen, while sticking customers with higher bills for decades to come. That may suit some utilities just fine, but the cost is too high for the rest of us.

 

Dominion executive speaks up on climate change. That turns out to be a bad thing.

Photo courtesy of Chesapeake Climate Action Network

Photo courtesy of Chesapeake Climate Action Network

In guest blogger Seth Heald’s last post here, he discussed the strange fact that top executives at Dominion Power don’t talk about climate disruption, even though it is a major driver of the tectonic shifts underway in the nation’s power sector. Many of us assumed the climate silence at Dominion means its executives want to avoid a subject that can be politically divisive.  Turns out some of them are talking–but not in a good way. Heald brings us the story.

As I’ve written elsewhere, senior Dominion executives and other electric utility officials tend to avoid mentioning climate change in their public discussions. Dominion Virginia Power president Bob Blue avoided that unpleasant topic in his keynote luncheon speech at a recent Virginia resiliency conference, a forum where one has to work to avoid mentioning climate change. That sort of climate silence at the corporate top leaves the public wondering what Dominion executives really think, or whether they think much at all, about climate change.

It may also leave other Dominion executives in doubt about where their company stands. Last month a curious letter to the editor appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch headlined “Actually scientists disagree about climate.” At first glance the letter seemed ordinary—reciting misguided climate-science denial arguments for not acting to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. It complained about “alarmists” who (the letter claimed) refuse to acknowledge benefits of climate change. And it suggested that Americans devote “our limited dollars” to adapting to climate change rather than slowing it by reducing greenhouse-gas emissions.

Letters of this ilk appear with depressing regularity in the Times-Dispatch and many newspapers. They misrepresent the state of climate science, reciting talking points that can be found on any of a number of denialist websites, or heard at conferences sponsored by fossil-fuel funded groups such as the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). That’s sad, but not unusual.

But this climate-science denial letter was different in one key respect—it was written by David Shuford, a vice president and deputy general counsel at Dominion Resources Inc., Virginia’s largest energy company and the commonwealth’s biggest emitter of climate-disrupting carbon dioxide. (Shuford’s letter did not note his Dominion connection).

Now that is noteworthy.

What’s more, the Times-Dispatch published a similar Shuford letter earlier this year in which he complained about climate change “warmists” who are “watermelons” (“green on the outside, red on the inside”).

As Dave Barry would say, I am not making this up—a senior Dominion executive really is making these arguments in the press.

A few years ago Shuford served as “Vice President – Policy and Business Evaluation, Alternative Energy Solutions” at Dominion. According to Dominion’s Citizenship & Sustainability Report, the company’s Alternative Energy group “drives innovation by researching and evaluating renewable and emerging energy technologies to assess their commercial viability and potential for building a more sustainable economy.” Virginia lags neighboring states in deploying clean energy such as solar and wind, in no small part because Dominion has opposed measures of the sort that have helped other states ramp up clean energy.

That makes Shuford’s letters all the more noteworthy.

I phoned Shuford at his Dominion office to be sure he had really written the recent letter. He confirmed he had, but was quick to emphasize that he wrote it on his own, that he did not purport to speak for Dominion, and that no one at Dominion had reviewed the letter before he sent it. The letter, he said, reflects his personal views.

In an odd sense, Shuford’s going public with his views is refreshing—we know where this Dominion executive stands on climate change. His views are ill-informed and dangerous for his industry, our commonwealth, our country, and our world, but at least we know what he thinks. Which Dominion executives disagree with Shuford? Are any of them willing to publicly refute his arguments and accurately inform the public about climate change?

Is Shuford an outlier at Dominion, or do his views perhaps align with what other company executives think? Dominion acknowledges on its website that climate change is a concern, but in the same paragraph notes its plans to use greenhouse-gas emitting coal and natural gas far into the future. The company’s website says it wants a national climate change policy to “be developed legislatively,” yet Dominion also financially supports ALEC, which has worked for years to misinform legislators about climate change and block efforts to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. Many large corporations have left ALEC for that reason, including Virginia’s other big electric utility, AEP. But Dominion has stuck with ALEC.

What’s most offensive and cruel about Shuford’s recent letter is his suggestion that we focus solely on climate adaptation rather than reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. He seems unaware of the analyses showing that reducing emissions now is highly cost effective compared to the astronomical costs of adaptation without emission reductions. And I doubt that the adapting he’s thinking of includes helping poor people in the third world adapt to sea-level rise, floods, drought, disappearing glaciers, or extreme weather caused in large part by the developed world’s greenhouse-gas emissions. Nor does he seem aware that relying on adaptation alone essentially writes off the entire Hampton Roads region, where many Dominion customers live.

Dominion claims that ethics is one of its four core values. Top executives at an ethical company would feel compelled to respond promptly, forcefully, and publicly to a published letter from a company vice president suggesting that we ought not to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions because people can simply adapt to climate change.

Dominion’s board should require the company to conduct training for executives and board members on climate-change ethics, and for that matter on climate science too.

Seth Heald is chair of the Sierra Club Virginia Chapter. He is a student in the Master of Science in Energy Policy and Climate program at Johns Hopkins University.


For curious readers, reprinted below is Mr. Shuford’s letter, as published in the Times-Dispatch. That is followed by an annotated version that provides Seth Heald’s responses to Mr. Shuford’s points (in italics), with citations to sources with accurate information.

Actually, scientists disagree about climate

Editor, Times-Dispatch:

Can we please stop the nonsense about science-supported climate change believers and science-denying climate change skeptics?

We are constantly told that “the science” is settled, that 97 percent of scientists agree on “the science,” and that the benighted few who disagree must be shunned or even prosecuted. In truth, the debate is far more real — even in the scientific community — than these armchair experts apparently realize.

There has never been 97 percent scientific agreement on the questions that matter with climate change. Simply repeating it doesn’t make it true. No one disagrees with the fact that the climate is changing. And most everyone agrees with the so-called greenhouse theory — that carbon dioxide causes the atmosphere to warm and that man has contributed to its concentration in the atmosphere.

The real debate in and outside the scientific community is over questions that flow from that theory, including the following:

(1) How much of global warming is due to mankind and how much is natural?

(2) Are there forces that counteract the greenhouse effect that aren’t being considered in the climate alarmists’ computer models (which might explain how their computer models have proven so inaccurate)?

(3) Does the absence of warming over the past 15 years disprove the alarmists’ theories about catastrophic global warming and, if not, why not?

(4) Will warming in the next century really be catastrophic, or could it actually be beneficial in ways the alarmists won’t concede?

(5) Given that the celebrated Paris Climate Agreement will have negligible effect on global temperatures even if every country complied, would our limited dollars be better spent on adapting to a warmer climate than on trying to prevent it?

So enough with the trope about the 97 percent versus “deniers.” There simply is no scientific consensus on the questions that will drive public policy on this issue.

David Shuford.

Richmond.

Mr. Shuford’s letter, with annotated response 

Editor, Times-Dispatch: Can we please stop the nonsense about science-supported climate change believers and science-denying climate change skeptics?

We are constantly told that “the science” is settled, that 97 percent of scientists agree on “the science,” and that the benighted few who disagree must be shunned or even prosecuted. In truth, the debate is far more real — even in the scientific community — than these armchair experts apparently realize.

There has never been 97 percent scientific agreement on the questions that matter with climate change. Simply repeating it doesn’t make it true.

See this 2016 paper confirming that there is a high degree of consensus about human-caused climate change among climate-science experts. See also this 2004 paper by (now) Harvard Professor Naomi Oreskes, published in Science, the journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Also well worth reading is Merchants of Doubt, by Oreskes and Erik Conway, which details efforts by corporations to mislead and create confusion about the science concerning cigarette smoking and climate change.

No one disagrees with the fact that the climate is changing.

In fact a large number of people have attempted to argue that climate change is a hoax, and many still do, including a number of the candidates in the recent Republican presidential primary contest, such as Ted Cruz and Donald Trump, to name just a couple. But it is true that some of the fossil-fuel funded groups that formerly argued that there is no global warming have reacted to criticism by changing their argument to “the climate is always changing,” as if that somehow disproves the scientific consensus that human greenhouse-gas emissions are causing dangerous warming. A good example of the changing arguments of fossil-fuel-supported climate misinformers is ALEC—the American Legislative Exchange Council, which Dominion Resources belongs to and supports financially.

And most everyone agrees with the so-called greenhouse theory — that carbon dioxide causes the atmosphere to warm and that man has contributed to its concentration in the atmosphere.

Not true. Those, like Donald Trump, who say global warming is a hoax certainly don’t agree with this. Nor does Ted Cruz, who last year agreed that his climate position is “full out denial.” Some climate change deniers make statements like “carbon dioxide is harmless, you’re breathing it now,” as if that somehow disproved the disturbing warming effects that scientists have found. And of course Senator James Inhofe famously brought a snowball into the senate in winter in an effort to show that global warming is a hoax.

The real debate in and outside the scientific community is over questions that flow from that theory, including the following:

  • How much of global warming is due to mankind and how much is natural?

False. There is no real debate in the peer-reviewed scientific literature over the fact that the unusual, accelerating global warming seen since the 19th Century is attributable to the increase of greenhouse gases, primarily carbon dioxide, in the atmosphere due to burning fossil fuels. An excellent book to read on this is The History of Global Warming, by Spencer Weart (2d ed. Harvard Univ. Press 2008). It’s a scholarly book that is clear and approachable for lay readers. See also the links below to reports by several prestigious scientific bodies.

  • Are there forces that counteract the greenhouse effect that aren’t being considered in the climate alarmists’ computer models (which might explain how their computer models have proven so inaccurate)?

What are these unnamed “forces”? Shuford doesn’t say. What is Shuford’s evidence that climate models have “proven so inaccurate”? In fact climate models have proven to be generally accurate in predicting the warming that has occurred. The fact that they are not perfect is hardly surprising. Moreover, our knowledge of global warming is informed not only by models, but studies of the Earth’s warming and cooling over millions of years, which have shown a direct link between high atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide and higher global temperatures.

  • Does the absence of warming over the past 15 years disprove the alarmists’ theories about catastrophic global warming and, if not, why not?

There hasn’t been an absence of global warming in the past 15 years. In fact 2014 and 2015 set new records for average global temperatures. Shuford’s claim, which is promoted by a number of fossil-fuel supported interests is demonstrably false. Scientific American published a good summary of the issue earlier this year.

  • Will warming in the next century really be catastrophic, or could it actually be beneficial in ways the alarmists won’t concede?

This claim is not only absurd, but unethical and cruel in its disregard for the world’s poorest people who are threatened in this century and next by sea-level rise, storm surges, disappearing glaciers, flooding, drought, and mass species extinctions. There may well be a small number of people who will benefit during their lifetimes from warmer temperatures and a changed climate, but that is dwarfed by the number of people who will suffer by losing their property, their livelihoods, their health, and their lives due to climate change. Our species evolved to live in the stable climate we’ve had for thousands of years, and people settled in places suitable for the climate we have. The Hampton Roads area, which is served by Dominion Virginia Power, is particularly susceptible to future inundation, which will affect rich and poor Virginians, with the poor harmed disproportionately and least able to recover quickly from their losses.

  • Given that the celebrated Paris Climate Agreement will have negligible effect on global temperatures even if every country complied,

Shuford’s boss at Dominion, Thomas Farrell, II, has refused to talk publicly about the Paris Climate Agreement, which will dramatically affect his and Shuford’s company. Perhaps this sort of silence at the corporate top leads to Shuford feeling comfortable to mock (and attempt to minimize the effect of) the Paris Agreement in Dominion’s hometown daily newspaper. Virtually every nation in the world worked to negotiate the Paris Agreement. What does Shuford mean by “have neglible effect”? In fact the Paris accord will help a great deal. Yes, the world still needs to do more, but that means we should be calling for faster and sharper greenhouse-gas reductions.

would our limited dollars be better spent on adapting to a warmer climate than on trying to prevent it?

This again is cruel, particularly to the world’s poor, who have done so little to cause global warming, and who are and will be suffering disproportionately from it. It is unlikely that Shuford is calling for our “limited dollars” to go to helping people in Bangladesh adapt to sea level rise, or people in Nepal, Pakistan or Bolivia adapt to a word where glaciers that they depend on for subsistence agriculture have disappeared. The type of adaptation Shuford is perhaps unwittingly calling for would involve mass migrations by tens of millions of poor people around the globe. Shuford also appears to be unaware of or ignores the strong economic arguments for reducing carbon emissions now, rather than later. These are set forth in detail in two recent books The Climate Casino (2013 Yale Univ. Press), by Yale economist William Nordberg, and Why Are We Waiting? (2015 MIT Press) by Nicholas Stern, a professor of economics and government at the London School of Economics. Both are scholarly books rather than page-turners, but they’re sufficiently clear and approachable to be readable by non-specialists. Do any executives or board members at Dominion read books like these, which provide key insights on the future of Dominion’s business? Perhaps if they did they’d be more likely to talk about climate change at work and in their public speeches.

So enough with the trope about the 97 percent versus “deniers.” There simply is no scientific consensus on the questions that will drive public policy on this issue.

Wrong again. Good explanations can be found in this publication from the American Academy for the Advancement of Science, and this one published jointly by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the British Royal Society. Also, Inside Climate News recently described a new study published in Science about how fossil-fuel funded climate-science deniers disingenuously shift their arguments and use normal scientific uncertainties to deflect attention from the overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change and argue for no action to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. That’s what we see in Shuford’s letter. That’s not to say necessarily that Shuford personally is disingenuous. Perhaps he really doesn’t know better (although a man in his position certainly ought to know better), and has just repeated what he saw on a fossil-fuel funded denial group’s website, or heard at an ALEC conference.

 

Yay, Dominion is building solar! Just not for you.

solar installation public domainThis week’s news of an 18 megawatt solar facility to be installed at Naval Station Oceana in Newport News marks the latest in a string of announcements of new solar projects to be built in Virginia. The Commonwealth had only about 22 megawatts of solar installed as of the end of 2015, but by the end of this year, we should be comfortably into the triple digits. That’s still trivial compared to neighboring North Carolina, which added over 1,000 megawatts last year alone, but it’s grounds for celebration here in the “dark state.”

How is this happening? Customer demand, coupled with falling costs, finally wrought a change of attitude at Dominion Virginia Power. The state’s largest utility dragged its feet on solar for years until announcing, in early 2015, plans to spend $700 million on 400 megawatts of solar power in Virginia by 2020.

The welcome change comes with a caveat: while these new projects will supply solar to important and influential customers like Microsoft, Amazon, and even the state government itself, Dominion offers no programs to supply solar to ordinary Virginians. And indeed, even where ratepayers are footing the bill for projects, our regulators insist that the renewable energy certificates—the right to say it’s solar power—should be sold to someone else.

Dominion’s early adventures in solar were not altogether encouraging. In 2012 the General Assembly authorized the utility to “study” solar by building up to 30 megawatts of distributed (mostly rooftop) projects. The SCC approved $80 million for the “Solar Partnership Program” the following year, with the stipulation that Dominion should sell the renewable energy certificates to reduce the cost to ratepayers. A steep learning curve made for slow and expensive going, and while a number of schools, universities and commercial businesses signed up to host projects, they weren’t permitted to purchase the solar energy being produced right on their property.

In 2013, Dominion created a special tariff “Schedule RG” especially to allow commercial customers to buy renewable energy. Cumbersome, limited and expensive, it never attracted any takers. Dominion spokesman David Botkins suggested to reporters last May the problem was Dominion’s low rates. As in, who wants renewable energy when dirty power is so cheap?

That was one month before Amazon Web Services announced it had contracted for the output of an 80 megawatt solar farm to be built in Accomack County. The project sidestepped Dominion’s limitations by feeding power directly into the Delmarva Power grid in Maryland. Dominion promptly bought the project.

Schedule RG was clearly a failure, but just as clearly, there was money to be made on solar. Dominion just needed to figure out how.

The utility was already trying. In January of 2015 Dominion proposed to build a 20 megawatt solar farm near Remington, Virginia. The State Corporation Commission (SCC) originally rejected Dominion’s proposal, saying the company had not considered third-party alternatives that might be cheaper for ratepayers. (They were proved right when it turned out the Amazon project was slated to deliver power at a cost that was 25% less.)

Dominion didn’t give up on Remington, nor was it willing to turn the project over to a private developer. Instead, it got to work rejiggering the deal into what, this spring, became a public-private partnership. Governor McAuliffe arranged to have the state government, rather than ratepayers, buy the power output from Dominion, while Microsoft agreed to buy the renewable energy certificates (RECs) to meet its corporate commitment to buying renewable energy. (In every solar deal, watch what happens to the RECs.*)

Although I wondered at the time if the state might be taking a financial hit to make the deal work, more recent information suggests the opposite. According to Dominion’s website, “the construction and deployment of this solar asset will lower the cost of the energy purchased by the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth is projected to save $500,000 to $1M in energy costs over the lifetime of the project.”

This tells us two things: one, obviously, we should sell more solar to Microsoft. And two, either the website omits key details about the financing, or the cost of energy produced by solar panels is now pretty darn competitive.

The projects have started coming in more quickly in recent months. In February of this year, Dominion announced it would buy the output of a 20 megawatt solar farm in Chesapeake through a power purchase agreement (PPA) with a North Carolina developer. Other PPAs are said to be under consideration.

Then, on June 30, the SCC gave Dominion approval to move forward on building three new projects totaling 56 megawatts in Powhatan, Louisa, and Isle of Wight counties. The 800 local jobs associated with the projects sparked news stories across the state.

That brings us to this week’s announcement of the deal with the Commonwealth and the Department of the Navy at Oceana. According to Dominion’s press release, Dominion Virginia Power will own and operate the facility, and the Commonwealth will buy the electricity, with Dominion retiring the RECs on the Commonwealth’s behalf.

Deputy Secretary of Commerce Hayes Framme confirmed to me this deal is the first step toward satisfying Governor McAuliffe’s commitment to having the state government get 8% of its power from solar by the time he leaves office, an amount equal to roughly 110 megawatts. That should mean there will be more announcements to come.

The Navy’s role here is especially interesting. Although some news outlets reported the Navy would buy the electricity, this appears to be a misreading of the Navy’s press release. Naval Station Oceana will instead receive “in-kind consideration in the form of electrical infrastructure upgrades” for hosting the project on its land. But the press release dwells mainly on the benefit to the regional grid that serves the naval station:

“Renewable energy projects, like the one at NAS Oceana and others throughout the Mid-Atlantic Region, are win-win-win collaborations. They’re good for the utility companies, good for our installations and good for the communities surrounding our installations,” said Rear Adm. Jack Scorby, Jr., commander, Navy Region Mid-Atlantic. “These projects increase the energy security, energy diversity and energy resiliency of our bases. Energy security, or having assured access to reliable supplies of energy and the ability to protect and deliver sufficient energy to meet mission-essential requirements, is critical to our installations’ roles to support the Fleet.”

The reference to “energy security, energy diversity and energy resiliency” is key here. The Navy will benefit from having a large renewable generation source onsite, one that can be protected from attack and that is not susceptible to fuel supply disruptions.

Come to think of it, “energy security, energy diversity and energy resiliency” are three of the prime reasons we need more solar projects all across the state, and why the benefits shouldn’t be limited to large, influential customers. So yay, Dominion, for getting rolling on all these solar projects! Now please stop blocking the way for the rest of us.


*RECs were invented as a way to identify units of electricity generated by wind, solar and other sources, since the electrons themselves can’t be dyed green. But RECs don’t have to just follow electrons around; they can also be bought and sold separately from the underlying electricity. When the RECs associated with a solar project are sold separately (in the case of the Remington solar project, to Microsoft), the electricity loses its green quality, and the buyer (in this case, the Commonwealth) can’t claim to be buying solar energy. For a fuller explanation of RECs, see this earlier post on the subject.