Fairfax County plans a historic solar buy—if Dominion Energy doesn’t stand in the way

Worker installing solar panels on a roof.

A worker installs solar panels at Washington & Lee University. Photo courtesy of Secure Futures LLC.

In June, Fairfax County announced it was seeking proposals from solar companies to install solar at up to 130 county-owned facilities and schools, with another 100 sites to be considered for a later round. The request for proposals (RFP) covers solar on building roofs, ground-mounted solar and solar canopies over parking lots.

This massive solar buy could add as much as 30-40 megawatts of solar, according to one industry member’s calculation. This would easily triple the amount of solar installed to date in the entire NoVa region. What’s more, Fairfax County’s contract will be “rideable” so that other Virginia localities can install solar using the same prices and terms.

“It’s hard to overstate how significant a move this is,” says Debra Jacobson, an energy lawyer who serves on the county’s Environmental Quality Advisory Council. “It’s not just the largest solar buy by a local government in Virginia. It also opens the door for other Virginia counties and cities to buy solar because it makes the process simple and straightforward.”

Jacobson says approximately 15 solar companies attended a bidder’s conference hosted by Fairfax County, indicating strong interest. The county intends to select a contractor by early fall.

One problem stands in the way: Virginia law currently places an overall limit of 50 MW on projects installed in Dominion territory using third-party power purchase agreements (PPAs), the primary financing mechanism for tax-exempt entities.

Even without Fairfax County’s projects, the solar industry warns the cap will likely be met by the end of this year, as schools, universities, churches and other customers across Virginia sign PPAs at an accelerating rate.

The solar industry is asking the State Corporation Commission for action to keep the market alive. Secure Futures LLC, a Staunton-based solar developer, submitted a letter to the SCC on June 24 asking the commission to raise the program cap from 50 MW to 500 MW in Dominion territory and 7 to 30 MW in Appalachian Power territory and to increase the size limit for individual projects from 1 MW to 3 MW.

PPAs allow customers to have on-site solar installed with no upfront cost; the customer pays only for the electricity the solar array produces, at a price that is typically below the price of electricity purchased from the utility. It’s an especially critical tool for cash-strapped local governments and school systems, letting them save taxpayer money while lowering their carbon footprint. Every kilowatt-hour they get from solar replaces electricity they would have to buy from the grid, which in Virginia still comes almost entirely from fossil fuels and nuclear.

For-profit monopoly utilities like Dominion Energy Virginia and Appalachian Power don’t like losing sales when customers generate their own electricity. Virginia’s customer-owned electric cooperatives negotiated legislation this year to remove PPA barriers for non-profits in their territories, but Dominion and APCo didn’t sign on. Both utilities fought Solar Freedom legislation and other bills that would have lifted the PPA cap, claiming there was still plenty of room for projects under the 50 MW cap.

But there may be a simple solution — if the utilities don’t fight it. The legislation that created the PPA program in 2013 directs the SCC to review it every two years beginning in 2015, and to “determine whether the limitations [on the program size and project sizes] should be expanded, reduced, or continued.”

The SCC has never opened a case docket or consulted stakeholders in any previous review of the program — but no one seems to have asked until now. Secure Futures’ letter requests that the SCC open a public docket for this year’s review and consult with stakeholders, including the solar industry and customers.

In his letter, Secure Futures’ CEO Tony Smith notes that Virginia remains well behind North Carolina and Maryland on solar installations, solely for reasons of state policy. Installations using PPAs also lagged until the past year, but are now expanding “at an exponential rate,” according to Secure Futures, with notifications filed for almost 20 MW of projects as of June 12. This number does not include the Fairfax County projects or many others that are still in the early stages of development.

Other solar developers have also asked the SCC to lift the PPA cap. Ruth Amundsen, manager of the Norfolk Solar Qualified Opportunity Zone Fund, told the SCC in a July 20 letter that her fund has identified $117 million of potential solar sites in the Norfolk and Virginia Beach area. The fund brings in investors and installs solar on businesses and non-profits in Virginia Qualified Opportunity Zones, which are low income census tracts that offer tax benefits for investors, at no upfront cost to the customer.  It also hires residents of the Opportunity Zones as solar installers, training them and providing employment.

But, Amundsen’s letter notes, “Without PPAs, none of this is possible. If the PPA cap remains at 50MW, we cannot in good conscience advise these investors to invest in solar in the Virginia QOZs, as there would be no feasible financing method once the cap is reached.”

Amundsen also wants the ability to use PPAs for installation on private homes, which is currently not allowed under the terms of the PPA program in Dominion territory. “The original intent of the Norfolk Solar QOZ Fund was to mitigate the energy burden of low-income home owners.  But because of the current limitation on Power Purchase Agreements (PPAs) in Virginia, we cannot install on private homes via a PPA.  Removal of that limitation, and clarification that PPAs are legal with all customers, would allow us to better serve the most affected residents as far as crushing utility bills.”

 

This article originally appeared in the Virginia Mercury on August 1, 2019. 

Dominion Energy’s new choices are really about limiting choices

Trees clearcut.

Dominion’s renewable energy products contain copious amounts of biomass, also known as burning trees. Photo by Calibas, Creative Commons.

An annual survey conducted by Yale and George Mason universities shows concern about climate change is surging. Seventy-three percent of Americans think climate change is happening, and 69% are at least somewhat worried about it, the highest percentages since the surveys began in 2011.

Another Yale survey found that “a large majority of registered voters (85%) – including 95% of Democrats and 71% of Republicans – support requiring utilities in their state to produce 100% of their electricity from clean, renewable sources by 2050. Nearly two in three conservative Republicans (64%) support this policy.”

Yet here in Virginia, Dominion Energy expects to reduce carbon emissions less in the future than in the past, and it has no plan to produce 100% of its electricity from clean, renewable sources by 2050. For all the talk here of solar, Virginia still had one-seventh the amount of solar installed as North Carolina at the end of 2018 and no wind energy.

Dominion has developed a few solar projects and new tariffs to serve tech companies and other large customers, but ordinary residents still lack meaningful choices. So this spring, Dominion decided to do something about that.

The wrong thing, of course.

Dominion has asked the State Corporation Commission for permission to market two quasi-environmentally-responsible products. One is for people who are willing to pay a premium for renewable energy, and don’t read labels, and the other is for people who want a bargain on renewable energy, and don’t read labels.

There may be plenty of both kinds of customers out there, but that doesn’t mean the SCC should approve either product. Indeed, while the purpose of the bargain product is to offer a choice nobody wants, the purpose of the premium product is to close off better choices.

Let’s look first at the product for bargain-hunters, a super-cheap version of the utility’s Green Power Program. Dominion is calling it “Rider REC.” A better name for it would be the “You Call This Green? Power Program.”

Rider REC consists of the dregs of the renewable energy category, the stuff that isn’t good enough for the Green Power Program. That’s a low bar already, because the Green Power Program doesn’t sell green power. It sells renewable energy certificates (RECs), the “renewable attributes” of electrons from facilities labeled renewable.

Customers who pay extra for RECs still use whatever mix of energy their utility provides. For Dominion customers, that’s fracked gas, nuclear and coal, plus a tiny percentage of oil, biomass, hydro and solar.

Buying RECs lets good-hearted people feel better about using dirty power by donating money to owners of renewable energy facilities somewhere else. The facilities might be in Virginia, or they might be clear across the country.

For example, say a utility out west builds a wind farm because wind is the cheapest way to generate power. If the state doesn’t have a renewable portfolio standard that requires the utility to use the RECs for compliance (most windy states don’t), the RECs can be sold to buyers in liberal East Coast states, lowering energy prices for the utility’s own customers.

RECs don’t even have to represent clean sources like wind. Some RECs subsidize industries that burn trees (aka biomass), black liquor (a particularly dirty waste product of paper mills) and trash.

Dominion’s Green Power Program uses RECs that meet the standards of a national certification program called Green-e. Green-e requires that facilities be no more than 15 years old and meet minimum environmental standards, such as requirements that woody biomass be sustainably grown and that generators don’t violate state and federal pollution limits.

But Virginia’s definition of renewable energy is, shall we say, more forgiving than Green-e’s. Our law does not discriminate against decades-old facilities like hydroelectric dams, or energy from trees that have been clear-cut. (Nor does it recognize that burning trees produces even more lung-damaging, asthma-inducing pollution than coal, and more climate-warming CO2 as well.) Virginia’s definition of renewable energy even includes a vague category of “thermal” energy that may be another way paper mills profit from the REC racket.

This loose definition of “renewable” creates a business opportunity for anyone unscrupulous enough to seize it. Dominion proposes to package up these otherwise unmarketable RECs from sketchy sources across the continental United States and pawn them off on unsuspecting consumers here in Virginia.

There is always money to be made by suckering well-meaning folks, but that’s not a good enough reason for the SCC to let Dominion do it. The case is PUR-2019-00081. Public comments are due by Aug. 15.

So what about the more expensive quasi-environmentally responsible product? “Rider TRG” consists of real, straight-from-the-facility electricity on the power grid serving Virginia, not RECs from out west. And while it is not dirt-cheap like Rider REC, Rider TRG would cost residential customers a premium of only about $50 per year.

Unfortunately, Virginia’s kitchen-sink definition of renewable energy means the sources still don’t have to be new or carbon-free or sustainable. It appears most of them won’t be.

Dominion’s filing indicates the program will use the energy from the Gaston hydroelectric dam built in 1963; the Roanoke Rapids hydro station built in 1955; the Altavista, Southampton and Hopewell power stations that were converted from coal to wood-burning in 2013; and several solar farms the company has already built or contracted for.

In addition, Dominion proposes to allocate to the program the portion of electricity from its Virginia City coal plant representing the percentage of wood that is burned along with the coal.

That’s right, Dominion intends for renewable energy buyers to subsidize its coal plant. The idea is cynical enough to have come from the Trump administration.

Dominion knows full well that customers who want renewable energy want new wind and solar, so why is its first product for residential customers so loaded with dirty biomass and old hydro?

The answer is that Dominion doesn’t care if no one signs up for Rider TRG. The point isn’t to give customers what they want, it’s to prevent them from shopping elsewhere for better options. Like Appalachian Power before it, Dominion wants to close off the narrow opening provided by Virginia law that allows customers to shop for 100% renewable energy from other providers only if their own utility doesn’t offer it. The SCC approved APCo’s renewable energy tariff some months ago. Dominion is following APCo’s successful strategy.

Yet APCo’s product consists of hydro, wind and solar, so it is nefarious, but not actually bad. Dominion’s is nefarious and bad.

An SCC decision in 2017 confirmed customers’ right to shop for renewable energy as long as the incumbent utility doesn’t offer it. Currently at least two other providers, Direct Energy and Calpine Energy Solutions, offer renewable energy to commercial customers in Dominion territory. Yet according to documents provided by Direct Energy, Dominion is refusing to let its customers transfer to Direct Energy and Calpine, triggering competing petitions to the SCC.

Dominion no doubt hopes to resolve the dispute permanently by terminating its customers’ right to switch providers at all.

The case is PUR-2019-00094. Comments may be submitted until Nov. 14, and a public hearing will be held on Nov. 21.

 

This article first appeared in the Virginia Mercury on July 22, 2019.

Dominion’s plans to tackle global warming are mostly hot air

Graph compares CO2 reductions by Dominion Energy and Xcel

Dominion (blue line) starts out with lower total CO2 emissions than the larger Xcel (red line), but after switching out old coal for new fracked gas, Dominion’s carbon-cutting slows to a crawl, while Xcel’s keeps going.

My readers will be shocked, shocked to learn that contrary to Dominion Energy’s propaganda, the company plans to cut carbon emissions by only about 1% per year between now and 2030, a slower pace than it has achieved in the past.

According to an analysis of Dominion’s own data by the Energy and Policy Institute, “the company reduced its carbon emissions at an average rate of 4% per year from 2005 to 2017, mostly by retiring coal plants in the later years of that period. That reduction rate plummets to 1% per year between now and 2030 under Dominion’s new goal.”

“The company’s reduction pace would increase again between 2030 and 2050 in order to meet its later goal [of 80% carbon reduction from 2005 to 2050], though only to about 2.8%, still lower than its pace from 2005 to 2017.”

Fracked gas investments are both the reason Dominion has brought carbon emissions down as much as it has, and the reason it can’t keep up the pace. Closing expensive, old coal plants is an easy way to cut carbon and save money at the same time. Replace the output of a coal plant with the same output from a gas plant, and you’ve slashed carbon emissions almost in half overnight.

But it’s not such a great trick if it requires you to build a new gas plant with a useful life of 30 years. That makes it much harder to decarbonize further by replacing gas with carbon-free renewables.

This is exactly Dominion Energy Virginia’s problem. A comparison of the utility’s 2013 and 2018 integrated resource plans shows coal fell from 22% of the total energy mix to 18%, while natural gas jumped from 17% to 32%, displacing purchased energy as well as coal.

The company achieved this feat with three new, huge combined-cycle gas plants it brought online just in the past five years: Warren (1,370 MW) in 2014, Brunswick (1,358 MW) in 2016, and Greensville (1,588 MW) in 2018. Together these plants increased Dominion’s natural gas generating capacity by more than 50%.

Not only did Dominion stick utility ratepayers with these big new gas plants, its parent company promised investors the utility will burn enough gas to justify spending $7 billion-plus on the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. Decarbonizing violates the business plan.

Dominion is in good company — by which I mean bad company — in making bold claims about carbon cuts that prove inadequate on closer inspection. According to the Energy and Policy Institute, the other southeastern monopoly utilities, Duke, Southern, and NextEra, are all using the same playbook.

Other utilities have avoided the gas trap. National leaders like Minneapolis-based Xcel, Consumers Energy in Michigan, and NIPSCO in Indiana are replacing coal with renewables and leapfrogging over new gas. That puts them in a position to deliver on their promises of rapid emissions cuts.

The Energy and Policy Institute analysis pointedly contrasts Xcel with Dominion:

Xcel Energy is one of the country’s largest electric utilities, with operations in eight states, primarily Colorado and Minnesota. Xcel pledged in December 2018 to reduce its carbon emissions 80 percent by 2030 from 2005 levels, and to fully decarbonize by 2050. Xcel’s new goal is an upgrade of a previous one to cut carbon emissions 60 percent by 2030. It says it plans to lean heavily on renewable energy and batteries will save its customers money. In a detailed report released in March, Xcel says its goals fall within the range compatible with Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change scenarios that achieve either a 2°C or 1.5°C target.

Graphing Xcel’s trajectory vs. Dominion’s is telling: the companies’ decarbonization pathways tracked one another closely from 2005 until 2017. At that point, Xcel’s trajectory starts turning sharply downward, while Dominion’s flattens out.

Another contrast you’ll notice between Xcel and Dominion: Dominion has no plans to get to zero emissions, ever. It’s hard not to conclude that the company’s leaders are simply putting the best climate face on a gas strategy that hasn’t changed.

Eventually, though, the falling costs of wind and solar and the public’s demand for climate action will force Dominion to follow Xcel and others into deep decarbonization.

It may not be the business plan, but it is the future.

This post was originally published in the Virginia Mercury on July 15, 2019. 

 

Customer-owned utilities should be leaders on clean energy. Why do most of them fail to deliver?

map shows territory of Rappahannock Electric Cooperative

The territory of the Rappahannock Electric Cooperative in Virginia, from the coop’s website.

More than one in six Virginia residents gets electricity from a rural electric cooperative rather than a big investor-owned utility like Dominion Energy or Appalachian Power. Co-ops don’t get much attention from clean energy advocates and the press, but that might be a mistake. Co-op members aren’t just customers; they’re owners.

In theory, that should put co-ops at the head of the energy transition.

The current reality is mostly quite different, both in Virginia and nationwide. While a few co-ops have adopted innovative customer-friendly programs, most actively resist change. Here in Virginia, a battle over reform of the Rappahannock Electric Cooperative (REC) shows how difficult it is for co-op members to make their voices heard.

According to the reform group Repower REC, the co-op’s management not only refuses to make changes that would save members money, it actively cuts members out of the decision-making process. Repower REC is endorsing a slate of reform board candidates and proposing amendments to the co-op’s bylaws that would give members the right to fair elections and to obtain basic information about REC’s management and finances.

The lack of transparency and democracy at REC turns out to be a common failing of co-ops. A 2016 report from the Institute for Self-Reliance described three reasons why co-ops are laggards rather than leaders in the energy transition: overreliance on coal, long-term contracts with suppliers and a failure of democracy in governance.

Coal accounts for 75% of energy generated by electric cooperatives nationwide, compared to less than 28% today for all utilities nationally. Worse, failing to see the promise of distributed generation, most co-ops have locked themselves into long-term supply contracts that give them little room for self-generation with solar and wind. Having tied their members to fossil fuels, it’s not surprising that co-op managers don’t want their governance scrutinized too closely.

In fact, stuck with the dirty black stuff, rural electric cooperatives are much more likely than investor-owned utilities to support coal and oppose climate regulations. This may even help explain why rural voters are so much more likely than urban voters to support coal even in non-coal states, and to doubt climate science. Certainly their co-ops, which are supposed to educate consumers about the electric power industry, are not helping to educate them about the realities of climate science.

But according to the Institute’s report, it’s the third reason that holds co-ops back the most. Co-op member-owners have the right to vote but mostly don’t, often because they’re presented with no real choices, and lack basic information needed to cast an informed vote.

A host of other barriers, such as a lack of transparency, and the practice of collecting blank “proxy ballots” that incumbent board members complete as they see fit, ensures the reelection of entrenched board members and their hand-picked successors. Board members pay themselves handsomely for very part-time work, with many staying on boards for decades if not life.

All of these problems are present at REC, according to Repower REC. Seth Heald, a Repower REC founder who’s been an REC member for over a decade, says “the total lack of transparency surrounding the co-op’s board meetings seems designed to keep REC members from knowing whether their board members are well-informed, engaged and advocating for consumers. It also prevents us from learning the extent to which management may exercise control over compliant board members.”

To be fair, other Virginia co-ops show the promise of the member-owned model. The only community solar programs offered in Virginia today are run by coops: BARC in southwest Virginia and Central Virginia Electric Cooperative in the Charlottesville area. BARC also installed solar on all three Bath County schools, putting it way ahead of larger and richer jurisdictions like Fairfax and Loudoun that get power from Dominion.

Virginia co-ops also reached a deal with the solar industry this year designed to ease some of the barriers to rooftop solar, a deal neither Dominion nor APCo would agree to.

But Virginia co-ops haven’t adopted the kinds of aggressive energy efficiency programs that have lowered energy demand and saved money for members of the nation’s most innovative co-ops, such as Roanoke Electric Cooperative in North Carolina and Ouachita Electric Cooperative in Arkansas. In both places, utility financing of efficiency improvements and federal grants from the Department of Agriculture have allowed even very low-income members to pay for insulation and appliance upgrades while simultaneously lowering electric bills.

(Ouachita also installed Arkansas’ largest solar farm in 2017.)

It’s hard to believe more co-ops wouldn’t offer programs like these if they truly had their members’ interests at heart.

REC members will be voting this month on board candidates and Repower REC’s proposed bylaw amendments, using proxy/ballot forms attached to the cover of the July Cooperative Living magazine. Forms must be mailed back in time to arrive by Aug. 19. Members may also vote through REC’s SmartHub online tool by Aug. 19, or in person at the August 22 annual meeting.

At long last, Dominion decides it’s game on for offshore wind

Offshore wind turbines

The Block Island wind farm in Rhode Island. Photo by Ionna22 via Wikimedia Commons.

When utility regulators gave Dominion Energy Virginia the go-ahead to build two offshore wind turbines last November, it was still unclear whether the pilot project might be the end as well as the beginning of offshore wind in Virginia.

Now, however, Dominion seems to have decided it’s game on. Although the company hasn’t issued any public statements about its intentions, its presentation to investors in March included $880 million in spending on offshore wind through 2023, over and above the cost of the pilot project.

This came as a surprise to everyone, including Virginia regulators at the State Corporation Commission. Commissioners were not pleased that Wall Street heard the utility’s plans before they did. Dominion’s 2018 Integrated Resource Plan did not propose building a full-sized offshore wind farm any time in the next 15 years.

Nor had the 2016 and 2017 IRPs, even though the company has been sitting on a lease for an area of ocean that could provide at least 2,000 megawatts of offshore wind power, enough for 500,000 homes.

At a hearing on the IRP this month, the company promised regulators it would submit detailed information in its future filings, and confirmed that it currently has its sights set on 2024 for the first commercial wind farm.

For now, however, Dominion remains focused on getting the two test turbines up and running in a state-held lease area 24 miles out to sea from Virginia Beach. If all goes according to plan, the Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind project will be up and running by late summer 2020.

The two, 6-MW turbines will contribute only enough electricity to the grid for about 3,000 homes, but they will be the first turbines in federal waters anywhere in the U.S.  (The nation’s first wind farm, off Block Island in Rhode Island, is closer to shore in state waters.)

With that finish line in sight, state officials, developers, business people and offshore wind researchers were at Old Dominion University in Norfolk Tuesday night to share their vision of how Virginia will leverage its baby steps into a multi-billion-dollar industry that could “reinvent” Hampton Roads.

The town hall forum, organized by the Sierra Club, emphasized the workforce, supply chain and port opportunities if Virginia succeeds in becoming a commercial hub for offshore wind farms all along the East Coast. Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration hopes to find success with this plan even if Virginia lags other states in building wind farms.

Thomas Brostrøm, president of Ørsted North America, the Danish developer that is partnering with Dominion to build its pilot, described the size of the opportunity. The “pipeline” for projects in the U.S. has now reached 20,000 MW, mostly in New England, New York, New Jersey and Maryland. A buildout of 1,000 to 1,500 MW per year is enough to support a U.S.-based supply chain, he said. This is important not just for American businesses but also for customers, since local manufacturing means lower costs.

Brostrøm also agreed with elected leaders and port officials at the forum that Virginia’s deep-water port and unobstructed access to open ocean makes it a particularly attractive base of operations for an industry that has to transport turbine blades the length of football fields.

According to Jennifer Palestrant, director of the SMART Center for Maritime and Transportation at Tidewater Community College, the area’s ability to provide a workforce and job training needed for the new industry is also a given.

“Virginia has been building ships for 300 years,” she told the audience. “We’ve got this.” Workforce training “is in the bag.”

No doubt Virginia’s port and workforce advantages merit this home-state boosterism, but leaders in other states make similar claims. Those states also aren’t leaving anything to chance; while dangling subsidies for offshore wind energy, they are requiring developers to work with local communities and businesses.

Dominion’s decision on whether and when to move forward with a commercial wind farm will thus have a huge impact on how much of the industry Hampton Roads can attract. Mark Mitchell, the company’s director of generation projects, told the town hall audience that one of the most important pieces of information the company wants to gain from CVOW is the capacity factor of the turbines — that is, how much electricity they produce as a percentage of their full “nameplate” capacity.

Currently Dominion expects the test turbines to perform at a capacity factor of 42%. If the turbines do better than that, it means they can produce electricity at lower cost. If they perform less well, costs will be higher. Virginia is at a disadvantage compared to states further north, where stronger winds drive higher capacity factors. And with lower energy prices overall than northeastern states and no subsidies to offer, getting offshore wind to pencil out here is harder.

But Mitchell sounded confident about the future of the industry in Virginia.  As Dominion sees it, he said, offshore wind is important for achieving carbon reductions, and it complements solar “without solar’s land-use issues.” By 2024, he projects costs will fall enough to make an offshore wind farm attractive. “We see the economics coming in to support that,” he said.

This is wonderful news, and also a sudden and remarkable about face for a company that has worked at a snail’s pace since winning the development rights to the Virginia lease six years ago. Other states started later and are on track to finish earlier.

From this we draw two conclusions, one surprising and the other, not so much. First, IRPs are meaningless. Far from revealing the utility’s plans for 15 years, they don’t even tell the SCC what Dominion is thinking at that very moment.  Eat your hearts out, commissioners; to this company, you are irrelevant.

And, more obviously, Dominion follows the money. None of the reasons Virginians want offshore wind — clean energy, jobs, business development, climate mitigation — mattered until a pathway to profit opened up.

No doubt Dominion needs a new profit center. For years the company expected wealth to flow from a planned $19 billion nuclear reactor at North Anna, until the economics grew from challenging to impossible. Currently it’s gambling on the $7 billion-plus Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which is facing a similar cost spiral amid a morass of lawsuits and unresolved questions of whether it has any real customers.

Offshore wind offers an entirely new business opportunity with almost unlimited potential, and one with the added benefit of working with, not against, public opinion and advances in clean energy technology.

Building a commercial wind farm in Virginia may be just the beginning for Dominion. An industry source told me the utility’s parent company, Dominion Energy, is negotiating to buy a $400 million, offshore wind turbine installation vessel.

If true, investing in one of these specialized ships could be a canny business move, since the offshore wind industry is facing a severe shortage of them worldwide, and the U.S. currently has none at all. The purchase would indicate Dominion sees an opportunity to make money on the booming offshore wind market in the Northeast, regardless of what happens in Virginia.

Before the town hall, I asked Dominion for confirmation of its plans and received this response:

“Onshore construction activities associated with CVOW are slated to begin soon.  Additionally, the company is in the early phases of developing a construction operations plan for the larger commercial lease area and expects to have a high-level timeline soon.

“As the first approved offshore wind project in federal waters, CVOW has already provided many valuable lessons learned which will ultimately benefit our customers and the environment as we move through the dozens of required surveys, reports and assessments as part of the construction operation plan for larger scale development. Mark [Mitchell] will provide remarks next week [i.e., at the Sierra Club town hall] and we will share additional information as it becomes available.”

If this seems like disappointingly little information, take heart: you now know at least as much about Dominion’s offshore wind plans as the SCC does.

This article first appeared in the Virginia Mercuron May 30, 2019. 

 

Lies, damn lies, and advertising: Dominion goes for the green

Twet from Dominion Energy claiming its power is 85% green. Picture shows solar panels.

From Dominion Energy’s Twitter feed.

Recently I criticized a Dominion Energy advertisement that boasted, misleadingly and inaccurately, about the company’s investments in solar energy.

By contrast, the company’s investments in greenwashing are transparent and heartfelt. Dominion has suffered through several bad months here in Virginia and would very much like to change the conversation.

Indeed, the company’s problems keep mounting. In the course of just two days this month, SCC commissioners lit into the company for telling Wall Street one thing and regulators another; the corporate customers behind Virginia’s data center boom filed a letter saying they want no part of Dominion’s fracked-gas build-out; and a coalition of libertarian, environmental and social justice groups called for a breakup of Dominion’s monopoly.

Fortunately, Dominion’s PR offensive was only just ramping up. A full-page newspaper ad, predictably light on detail, promises the company will cut its climate-heating methane emissions in half. That would be a nice trick from the company whose Atlantic Coast Pipeline will be responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than all Virginia’s power plants put together.

In case you doubt the company’s sincerity, Dominion just joined a corporate coalition calling for a price on carbon. This must have been in the works about the same time Dominion was criticizing Virginia’s proposed entry into the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, which actually puts a price on carbon.

Hey, The Washington Post fell for it. Greenwashing works.

And that brings us to the (literally) incredible claim that recently appeared in Dominion Energy’s Twitter feed: “The future of our planet depends on clean energy, which is why more than 85% of our generation comes from clean energy sources such as solar.”

Let us pause for a moment to reflect that this tweet comes from a company whose solar generation amounts to a rounding error.

Pie chart showing sources of electricity.

From Dominion Energy Virginia’s 2018 Integrated Resource Plan.

Dominion Energy Virginia’s most recent Integrated Resource Plan includes a handy pie chart revealing what is actually in its energy mix:

  • Nuclear: 33%
  • Natural gas: 32%
  • Coal: 18%
  • Purchased (wholesale) power: 10% (that’s coal and gas)
  • Non-Utility Generation (purchased under contract): 5% (more coal)
  • Renewable: 2% (almost all hydro and biomass, plus a smidgen of solar)
  • Oil: 0%

Now, it is true that Dominion Energy the holding company owns more generation than Dominion Energy Virginia the electric utility. For one thing, it just bought another utility in South Carolina. According to the information Dominion provided to investors in March, its South Carolina generation looks like this:

  • Natural gas: 39%
  • Coal: 36%
  • Nuclear: 21%
  • Hydro: 3%

Nobody looking at these figures could find a basis in reality for a claim of 85% clean energy. It is so preposterous that I just have to ask: Why only 85%?

I mean, seriously, if you have traveled this far into the realm of fantasy, why not claim 100%? Or heck, with a nod to Spinal Tap, why not 110%? Clearly the people making this stuff up are rank amateurs.

All of which is to say: come on, Dominion, you can do better.

Dominion keeps trying to pull the wool over our eyes

 

Sheep like these are used to keep grass mowed around solar panels.

Dominion’s ad would have done a better job of distracting us if it had included baby animals. Their failure is my opportunity! These lambs keep the grass short around the solar panels at a farm near New Hope, Virginia. Owners Ann and Riley Murray shared this picture.

When your kid greets you at the door with the cheery news that he’s swept the floor for you without being asked, you are probably right to wonder which breakable item is no longer in its usual place.

I have the same feeling about the series of full-page ads Dominion Energy has taken out in newspapers over the past few weeks bragging about the company’s investments in solar energy. The ads are misleading—I’ll get to that in a minute—but the more interesting question is what the company is up to that it hopes we’re too busy looking at solar panels to notice.

Here are some possible answers:

• It was recently reported that Dominion Energy paid no federal income tax for 2018, in spite of earning over $3 billion in U.S. income. In fact, the company received a $45 million rebate, making its effective tax rate -1%. That’s pretty sharp manipulation of the tax laws. No wonder CEO Thomas Farrell II is the highest paid executive in the utility sector, with a reported $20.6 million in income.

• Most of that untaxed income comes from customers here in Virginia, but not all of it is earned. Let’s recap just a few of the high points: In 2014, the General Assembly passed a law letting Dominion charge customers for hundreds of millions of dollars incurred in planning for a new nuclear plant the company isn’t building. Then in 2015 Dominion persuaded legislators to “freeze” regulators’ ability to examine the books and order refunds of what turned out to be hundreds of millions more in customer overpayments. Regulators said the number might eventually rise as high as a billion dollars. When grumbling about that reached a fever pitch, Dominion persuaded the still-compliant (!) legislature to pass another billlast year letting it spend the money instead of refunding it.

• After getting authority to spend all that customer money, one of Dominion’s first moves was to interpret “spending” as “keeping.” Instead of the massive spending on energy efficiency that the legislature put into the law, Dominion tried to discount the number by 40 or 50% so it could keep the rest as “lost revenue.”

• Dominion’s Atlantic Coast Pipeline could shape up to be a huge profit center for the company, but also a huge financial burden for utility customers. Dominion fought hard against a bill this year that would have protected customers if and when the pipeline ever gets built. The company eventually defeated the bill in a Dominion-friendly Senate committee, but not before voting revealed deep fault lines in the House.

• Slides from a presentation to an investor meeting in March show Dominion bragging about Virginia having a favorable regulatory environment (read: utilities get their way).

• That presentation caught the interest of several House Democrats for another reason: it boasted customer-funded spending numbers at least $3 billion higher than it gave its regulators at the State Corporation Commission just two weeks before. In a news release May 2, the seven delegates demanded Dominion produce a full accounting of its future spending plans. Del. Elizabeth Guzman, D-Prince William, whose office issued the release, said “Dominion’s days of facing no consequences when telling Virginians one thing and Wall Street another are coming to an end. The SCC is right to uncover Dominion’s inconsistencies and hold the monopoly accountable since it is Virginia ratepayers who will ultimately pay the price.”

• The delegates also noticed Dominion has decided it wants to make even more profit from its Virginia customers. This spring the company asked the State Corporation Commission to raise its rate of return on common equity from 9.2% to 10.75%, an astounding increase at a time of low interest rates and easy access to capital. Dominion may believe that by overreaching, it will win some middle ground. In the March presentation, Dominion told shareholders the company expects to earn an average 10.2% return on equity from its Virginia investments, still a full percentage point higher than the utility is currently authorized to earn.

• The Virginia Attorney General’s Office is fighting Dominion’s attempts to collect $247 million from ratepayers for environmental upgrades at its Chesterfield power plant, calling the spending “imprudent” given that it will provide “little or no value to customers.”

All of this should feel pretty brazen to Virginia leaders and the public, but when you want something you don’t deserve, it helps to be shameless.

Yet at least some Dominion leaders seem to be aware that other people think the company should be ashamed of its greed, and that some of these people are voters who may eject its friendly legislators from office this fall. Their answer is to run an ad about solar panels to distract us and change the conversation.

But the ad just starts its own conversation — and not in the intended way.

The ad brags, “At Dominion Energy, we’ve increased the number of solar panels in Virginia from 5,250 to over 2 million since 2015. And we’re now the 4th largest solar producer in the nation.”

First off, a minor point, but a symptomatic one: that “fourth largest” claim doesn’t hold up. As of last September, a ranking of the largest solar owners put Dominion in 10th place. Even using the updated number (2,600 MW) from Dominion’s March 2019 investor presentation wouldn’t get the company to fourth place unless other companies have been hastily selling off projects. It does appear Dominion can rightly claim to be the fourth largest solar owner among energy holding companies that own electric utilities. But so what?

The Virginia number catches our attention, though. Two million solar panels sounds like a lot. It’s just that — well, somebody check my math here, but if those are average 300-watt panels, that comes out to 600 MW, which is a pitifully small amount compared to Dominion’s fossil fuel investments. We’re glad to have any solar at all, but it isn’t something to write friends in California about (they’ve got 24,000 MW of solar and counting).

Speaking of California, that and North Carolina are where the rest of Dominion’s solar projects are, in case you’re wondering. The laws are better there. Dominion didn’t write their laws.

Also, while we are at it, almost none of the solar Dominion is developing is for ordinary residents, in spite of what the ad implies. Almost all of it is for data centers and other large customers. Dominion is counting the 350 MW of solar it is developing for Facebook towards the commitment it made to the General Assembly last year to develop 3,000 MW of renewable energy by 2022.

Legislators who thought Dominion would build a lot of solar for regular folks when they agreed to last year’s boondoggle bill should find that disappointing. If they didn’t get solar for their constituents, what exactly did they get?

Unfortunately for Dominion, that brings us back to the long list of things the company was hoping we would ignore while we look at bright shiny objects. Ads about solar panels aren’t enough to distract people from the billions of dollars Dominion is taking from our pockets.

Perhaps the executives at Dominion will conclude the ad just wasn’t good enough. Next time they could try putting sheep in the picture with the solar panels. Especially baby sheep.

Maybe they thought about it and were afraid it would remind Virginians they were getting fleeced.

But they had better try something. Because right now, frankly, no one is distracted.

This article first appeared in the Virginia Mercury on May 6, 2019.