Has the energy transition hit a roadblock in Virginia, or just a rough patch of pavement?

Photo credit: Mark Dixon from Pittsburgh, PA, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Election Day was a tough day for climate advocates. 

After two years of historic progress that included passage of the Virginia Clean Economy Act (VCEA), the centerpiece of the Commonwealth’s plan to decarbonize the electric sector by 2050, voters handed a narrow victory to its critics. Republicans will take over as governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general and, barring any surprises in two recounts, the House of Delegates.

During the campaign, former Carlyle Group CEO Glenn Youngkin criticized the VCEA for raising rates and putting “our entire energy grid at risk.”  While largely supportive of solar and wind (especially offshore wind, which he “wholly supports”), Youngkin also argued for more natural gas to feed “the rip-roaring economy that I’m going to build.” This is, essentially, the old “all of the above” strategy we hoped had been buried for good, coupled with unfounded fear-mongering about power outages. 

On the bright side, Governor-elect Youngkin has acknowledged that climate change is real and is causing damage here in Virginia. At the same time, he supposedly told a Norfolk State University audience in October that he didn’t know what is causing climate change. It seems likely this was a clumsy lie prompted by political expedience, rather than a reflection of actual ignorance. Two years ago Youngkin touted Carlyle Group’s record as “the first major private investment firm to operate on a carbon-neutral basis.” That’s not something you do just to be on trend.

So yes, Youngkin knows that increasing greenhouse gas emissions are driving the warming of the planet, and at Carlyle he was willing to do something about it. But now that he’s a politician, Youngkin is embracing natural gas in a way that suggests he’d rather ignore the truth about methane than take a stance unpopular in his party. Heck, for all we know, he may now even subscribe to the plan recently laid out by U.S. Senate Republicans to address climate change by increasing natural gas production and exports. 

Wait, you say, isn’t this also the Russian plan? Sell more gas and, if worse comes to worst, Siberia heats up enough to become a vacation destination? Let’s just say it’s not a coincidence that the senators promoting this “solution” come from North Dakota, Alaska and Wyoming—all states that are big energy exporters, but more importantly, where people think a few degrees of warming would be kind of nice. But given that the population of all three states combined is significantly less than the population of Northern Virginia alone, we probably don’t want them making policy for us.

The fact that we have no idea where Youngkin stands on the need for climate solutions is only one part of the problem facing climate activists in Virginia’s upcoming legislative session. The bigger problem is that a lot of our Republican legislators are outright hostile to climate science and Virginia’s framework for the energy transition. These folks are loaded for bear, and they will use their narrow win to flood the House with bills aimed at rolling back the energy transition. 

In addition to VCEA, the Republican hit list includes the Clean Energy and Community Preparedness Act, which directed Virginia to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI); the Clean Car Standard, which promotes sales of electric vehicles; and the Commonwealth Clean Energy Policy, which makes the transition to a net-zero-energy economy official state policy.  

Whether these bills will pass the House is less certain, given the benefits these laws are already delivering. The VCEA spurred “incredible growth” in solar installations, making Virginia fourth in the nation for new solar generation in 2020, and the world’s biggest offshore wind blade manufacturer just announced plans for a facility in Portsmouth, Virginia. Does anyone really want to stop that momentum? Tens of millions of dollars are already flowing to climate adaptation projects in coastal areas thanks to RGGI’s carbon allowance auctions. Pulling the plug on that cash flow would hurt Republicans representing the area. 

Notwithstanding the rhetoric, the VCEA is good for business and consumers. Ratepayers will save money through the mandated closure of uneconomic coal, oil and biomass plants, and by the removal of barriers to distributed renewable energy generation. Solar’s low cost positions it to overtake fossil fuels as the go-to generation source for utilities, but the VCEA creates the market certainty that attracts investment. And offshore wind—the most expensive part of the VCEA, but the part Youngkin apparently likes—is also popular on both sides of the aisle as an engine of investment and job creation.   

That doesn’t mean anti-VCEA bills won’t pass the House; being bad policy is never enough to kill legislation, or even stop people who ought to know better from voting for it. In 2019, an anti-RGGI bill from Del. Charles Poindexter (R-Franklin) passed both the House and Senate on party-line votes. It was prevented from taking effect only thanks to a veto from Governor Northam. Today, I can count very few House Republicans who won’t toe the same party line.

With Democrats still in charge of the Senate, Youngkin isn’t likely to find a RGGI or VCEA repeal on his desk. Creating an energy transition framework was one of the Democrats’ biggest successes in the past two years, and protecting that success will be a party priority. 

But there are many ways Republicans can undercut climate action. They might attract just enough Democratic votes with bills that, for example, grant exemptions for powerful industries that have friends among Senate Democrats. They could also use the budget process to undermine the transition by starving agencies and grant programs of funding. 

If politics doesn’t completely get in the way, though, there should be room for consensus on some new areas of progress. Highly efficient schools with solar roofs save money for taxpayers; electric school buses are good for children’s health; solar on abandoned mine sites promise employment to residents of Southwest Virginia. 

Beyond the General Assembly, executive agencies have had the job of implementing all the various parts of the RGGI program and the VCEA. And the agencies, of course, answer to the governor. The Department of Environmental Quality will have signed off—or not—on the Mountain Valley Pipeline’s permits before Younkin takes office, but after that, we can expect DEQ to return to being the easy-permitting, lax-enforcing agency it was of old.

As for the Department of Energy, that agency has been going gangbusters turning Virginia into a clean energy leader and promoting new models like brownfields redevelopment and clean energy financing. Hopefully those efforts offer so much in the way of economic opportunities that a businessman like Youngkin will want them to continue. 

But that, like so much else, remains to be seen. 

This article was originally published in the Virginia Mercury on November 16, 2021.

Increasing fixed charges on electricity bills hurts customers–and society 

solar panels on a house
SVEC’s fixed charges would discourage customers from pursuing net zero homes like this one. Photo by Ivy Main

Okay, folks, the kids are back in school, so in their honor we are all going to do a word problem! 

Bob Rich lives in a sprawling subdivision of large, single-family homes. Bob has a pool and a hot tub and outdoor lights he keeps on all night. Bob’s four children have loads of electronic gadgetry, plus a habit of leaving windows open when the air conditioner is blasting. Needless to say, the Rich family uses a lot of electricity. But Bob doesn’t worry too much about his utility bill. It’s really not that much compared to all the other bills he pays; and fortunately, his wife is a hedge fund lawyer so he can afford it. 

John Poore, on the other hand, lives in a small apartment and uses as little electricity as possible to save money. He works a low-wage job, and his best efforts to attract a wealthy spouse have not yet panned out. John uses air conditioning only on the hottest summer days. He switched out his incandescent lightbulbs for LEDs, caulked the cracks around his windows where air leaked in, and when his old refrigerator broke, he replaced it with an EnergyStar model. 

Bob and John are both customers of Shenandoah Valley Electric Cooperative, in western Virginia. SVEC says its costs are going up, so it has been “adjusting” its rates. What would you expect the effects to be?

A) Bob’s bills go up more than John’s. 

B) Both Bob and John’s bills go up by the same amount. 

C) John’s bills go up more than Bob’s (and Bob’s might even go down).

You probably already figured out it’s a trick question. We’re dealing with a Virginia utility, so the answer can’t be (A) regardless of that being the obvious and rational answer. 

Indeed, answer (A) is how most utilities operate: Every customer pays a small fixed fee, typically under $10, and the rest of the bill is determined by how much electricity the customer uses. People who use a lot of electricity pay the most. They are usually better able to afford it, but if they don’t like the size of their bills, they can turn off the lights in empty rooms, change their thermostat setting, invest in energy efficiency, or put solar panels on the roof. Conserving energy and adding renewable energy happen to be public policy priorities, so the incentives are aligned with the behavior society wants to encourage. 

But SVEC notes that a lot of its costs aren’t dependent on how much electricity customers use; it has wires to maintain and so forth, plus it recently “invested” in a beautiful and spacious new headquarters that it swore wouldn’t mean rate increases (but, well, you know how that goes). SVEC says Bob and John benefit equally from all these investments, and wants their bills to reflect that. Early last year SVEC “adjusted” its rate structure to increase the fixed customer fee from $13 to $25 and decrease the rate per kilowatt-hour of electricity used. If you chose answer (C), you were correct!

This year, to raise more revenue, SVEC proposes to increase everybody’s fixed fee again, this time to $30. For customers who don’t use much electricity, that fixed fee could become the biggest charge on the bill, and one that can’t ever be reduced by any amount of energy conservation, efficiency or solar panels. They may also wonder whether $30 is just a stop on the way to even higher fixed fees that will further undercut their energy-saving investments.

SVEC didn’t need anyone’s approval when it almost doubled the fixed fee last year. But this year, the State Corporation Commission has to approve the additional changes, so customers finally have a chance to challenge them. Utilities around the state are watching what the SCC does. If SVEC gets approval to shift more of its costs away from customers who use a lot of electricity and onto those who use the least, other utilities will see that as a green light to do the same

Utilities prefer fixed charges because they provide revenue certainty; left to their own devices, they will move as much of their revenue into the fixed-cost category and increase fixed charges as high as they can. Unfortunately, doing so creates an incentive for utilities to spend as much as possible on infrastructure costs that can be recovered through fixed rates. That will raise costs for everyone and produce a further perverse incentive for the utility to encourage energy consumption (and waste) in order to make maximum use of the infrastructure.

This isn’t the result anyone should want, and especially a nonprofit electric cooperative. More affluent, high-use customers will benefit from lower rates per kilowatt-hour, while low-income customers will be less able to control their bills, an inequity that flies in the face of Virginia’s efforts to limit the energy burden on low-income residents. And customers who are considering investing in energy efficiency or solar will find they are looking at a longer payback time, discouraging the energy-saving measures that Virginia strives to promote.

The SCC is holding a hearing today to consider SVEC’s proposed rate increase. The commission should reject SVEC’s efforts to raise fixed charges for customers and send the utility back to the rate-drawing board. 

This article originally appeared in the Virginia Mercury on October 5, 2021.

Of synagogues and subsidies

A while back I was engaged in an online discussion with other solar advocates about renewable energy — specifically, how to get more of it built. Some of the participants I knew, others I did not. The conversation was lively, ranging from the need for better education to public policy and incentives.

But then one of the participants threw in an unexpected comment. His email read, “Aren’t we all tired of synagogues?”

The question stopped me cold. I had never heard anyone express weariness of synagogues, much less understood that to be a consensus sentiment. However, I’m not Jewish, so if it were something my Jewish friends grumbled about among themselves but did not share more widely, then I wouldn’t necessarily know about it.

But our discussion was about renewable energy, so surely the comment could not really be about a physical house of worship. “Synagogue” had to be shorthand for something else. If someone said “aren’t we all tired of church,” it might be understood to refer to doctrinal thinking, or more likely, to preaching. You could see how someone would be tired of renewable energy advocates preaching about the benefits of wind turbines and solar panels. Could “synagogue” be meant as a sort of metaphor for haranguing people?

It seemed like a stretch, even assuming the person who had made the comment was Jewish, which I didn’t know. I looked back at the email to see if the name might give me a clue. At that moment, another email came through from him: “Sorry about that autocorrect, it was supposed to be ‘subsidies.’”

Ah.

I was relieved that synagogue fatigue was off the table, but now I had a new question to ponder: Are we, in fact, all tired of subsidies?

Opposition to subsidies is one of the touchstones of free-market capitalism, and even within the wind and solar industries you will find believers in the proposition that if a technology can’t attract enough customers on its own merits, it deserves to remain niche, and the government ought not to put its fat thumb on the scale.

Republican attacks on the Virginia Clean Economy Act, passed last year by the Democrat-controlled General Assembly, are often framed as opposition to the government “picking winners and losers.” The law certainly does that, by directing utilities to close coal plants and incorporate an increasing percentage of electricity from wind and solar.

Some Republicans are raising the same objection in response to the Biden administration’s plans for addressing the climate crisis. Technological advances and market forces are already moving us inexorably towards a clean energy economy—but not fast enough. So Biden’s initiatives rely on the full range of government powers, subsidies among them, to drive down greenhouse gas emissions nationwide in an effort to avoid a worldwide climate catastrophe.

But here’s the thing: to the extent the U.S. has anything resembling an energy policy, subsidies have always been a tool of first resort. Indeed, this has been the case literally since the nation’s founding. Often the difference between Republicans and Democrats is not in whether they embrace subsidies, but which ones they favor.

Cash grants, tax credits, loan guarantees, low-cost access to public land, public purchasing requirements, protective tariffs and federal R&D funding all shape the way energy is produced, delivered and consumed, and they are responsible for the fossil-fuel heavy energy economy we have today. Even U.S. foreign policy and our military have been deployed for the benefit of extractive industries. A century ago, the National Guard came to the aid of the coal barons against striking miners. More recently, a think tank crunched numbers to estimate the U.S. spends $81 billion per year to  protect global oil supplies. That figure rises to over $3 trillion when you count the Iraq war.

Externalities matter, too. If an industry is allowed to inflict damage to a community’s air and water, that is a form of subsidy that can be partly measured in dollars spent on health care and clean-up. Regulations requiring expensive pollution controls can lessen the economic advantages of offloading costs onto the public, but any remaining costs shouldered by the public are a subsidy to the polluter.

Conversely, by displacing fossil fuels, a clean energy facility may confer a public benefit far exceeding the cost of any government subsidy it receives. When we’re dealing with climate change, the public benefit of carbon-free energy is immense.

None of this is an argument against the merits of free market competition, which remains the economy’s most important driver of innovation leading to better and cleaner energy technologies. Well-designed subsidies should work with the market, not against it, to speed the energy transition towards a net-zero future.

And to that we should all say, Amen.

This article originally appeared in the Virginia Mercury on September 14, 2021.

What do we owe to each other?

Americans’ commitment to a shared sense of purpose has hit a low point with our response to COVID-19. Photo credit Noah Wulf via Wikimedia Commons.


The politicization of coronavirus vaccines and mask-wearing has been a depressing reminder of the downside of American individualism. The successful functioning of a free republic depends on people taking personal responsibility for their actions. Too often now that translates into a disregard for the rights of others, coupled with an insistence that our own opinions, even if they are founded on the shifting sands of rumor, must be given as much respect as any expert’s.  

In the case of COVID-19, the results have been catastrophic: the loss of hundreds of thousands of American lives, hospital stays for millions more, and lingering disability for a number we can’t yet calculate. They are as much victims of the ideology of personal freedom as of the virus itself. 

Anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers (usually but not always the same people) could choose to stay home so as not to endanger others by their choices, and perhaps some do. But many claim a right to go where they please, be served in whatever businesses they wish to frequent and send their children unmasked to schools that they insist must be open. Confronted with some version of the maxim that your right to swing your arm ends where the other guy’s nose begins, they insist the other guy ought to swing his arm, too, because bloody noses aren’t real. 

COVID-19 is not the only example of the damage that ensues when a large segment of society elevates the rights of individuals over obligations to society. Second Amendment absolutism has led to the peculiar result that the right to own a gun is valued more highly in law than the right not to be killed by one. 

I would argue that the refusal on the part of a vocal minority to even acknowledge climate change and the role of humans in causing it similarly has its roots in American individualism. To concede we are in a crisis is to accept the need for action to counter the rise in atmospheric CO2. Though the collective benefits of action are enormous (extending even to the ability of our civilization to endure), some individual sacrifice has to happen in the short term. Yet for some people, individual sacrifice in the service of the greater good is unthinkable. What’s in it for them?

That’s why climate activists (myself included) so often emphasize the benefits to individuals of the energy transition: cleaner air, the superior comfort of energy-efficient homes, lower electricity bills from cheap wind and solar. Even the appeal to parental love — Save the planet for your children! — assumes the primacy of self-interest. But that avoids the more difficult question of what my obligation is to my neighbor’s children, or for that matter, children elsewhere in the world. What do human beings owe to each other?

It may feel impossible to have a serious conversation about rights and responsibilities when our public sphere is so contaminated by falsehoods, mistrust and conspiracy theories. But we still have to try, because the ability of our society to navigate the many challenges ahead of us depends on a consensus about what we owe to one another. 

Successfully tackling the big issues – both familiar ones like the economy, racial and wealth inequality, and threats from abroad, and emerging threats like cyberterrorism, climate chaos, plastic pollution and looming ecological collapse — requires collective action. A nation of individuals all fiercely guarding their individual rights and recognizing no responsibilities towards others is on its way to collapse.

This column appeared first in the Virginia Mercury on August 28, 2021.

Everybody talks about bringing solar to low-income households. This guy is doing it (and you can, too).

Photo credit Don Crawford for GiveSolar

Regular readers of this blog know I discourage Virginians from spending their money on so-called green energy offerings from Dominion Energy, Appalachian Power, or REC sellers like Arcadia. They might make you feel better about the electricity you use, but the best products do little to put new solar projects on the grid, and the worst are actually counter-productive

There is a better way to put solar on the grid and salve your conscience, while also cutting out the middleman. Take the money you were going to pay to Dominion Energy for its Green Power Program (or are already paying, if I didn’t warn you off soon enough), and give it to someone who will put actual solar panels on actual houses in Virginia.

That someone might be Jeff Heie, whose non-profit, GiveSolar, works with low-income home-builder Habitat for Humanity in Rockingham County, Virginia to outfit Habitat homes with rooftop solar. The homeowner gets a 4-kilowatt system that cuts their electricity bill by $40; they commit to sending half that amount back to GiveSolar to help pay for the cost of solar on future Habitat homes. 

GiveSolar keeps installation costs down by holding solar “barn-raisings” using volunteers from the community and a solar company, Green Hill Solar, that is willing to install at cost. As a result, a 4-kW system can be installed for $5,000, about half price. 

Eventually GiveSolar expects its Solar Seed Fund to be self-funding as owners of Habitat homes send in their $20 per month repayments, but meanwhile the organization needs donations to get the program up and running. Heie hopes to raise $100,000 to put solar on 20 homes.

It sounds like a lot of money, until you consider that Dominion reports it has 30,000 Virginia customers enrolled in its Green Power Program. If all those customers are currently spending an average of just $5 per month on pointless RECs, and if they sent that money to GiveSolar instead, Heie would raise 150% of his goal every month

Indeed, Heie has plans to take his model to other Habitat for Humanity affiliates around Virginia; he told me he has already heard from five that are interested in installing solar. His approach has also won him the support of other nonprofits, including Solar United Neighbors of Virginia, which is helping to raise $20,000 for the first four projects in Rockingham County and has secured a $10,000 matching grant.

There is a huge need for projects like these. Many low-income Virginia residents spend more than 6 percent of their income on electricity and home heating. Legislators have responded with programs providing funding for low-income energy efficiency programs; capping energy costs for customers who qualify under a percentage-of-income calculation; authorizing Dominion to install solar on some low-income homes (with the utility’s usual profit-margin, and without the barn-raising); and establishing a shared solar program that, if successful, will give some low-income residents the ability to buy electricity from community solar facilities. 

But the potential for rooftop solar to lower energy costs and displace fossil fuels is so huge, and these government programs so limited, that there’s still plenty of room for GiveSolar’s inexpensive, hands-on, and self-sustaining approach. The Habitat homeowners who benefit pay the money back over time, creating a virtuous cycle. Donors don’t have to guess whether their money is building solar projects; they can see it happen, and even take part. Neighbors help neighbors, and by doing so, help the planet.

Legislators built a solar program for apartment dwellers. The SCC gutted it.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The State Corporation Commission recently finalized regulations for the Multifamily Shared Solar Program, created by the General Assembly to give residents of apartment buildings and condominiums the ability to use solar energy from panels installed on their buildings. But in implementing the program, the SCC also made sure it can never be used.  

Dominion Energy is largely to blame here, as it so often is whenever customer-sited solar encounters barriers. The utility proposed to lard up the program with fees, none of them allowed by the law. But it’s the SCC’s agreement with Dominion that’s the problem—and not just for people in apartment buildings who want solar, but for the future of any solar in Virginia that isn’t utility-owned. 

2020’s Solar Freedom law set out to make it easier for residents and businesses to install solar onsite. At the heart of the law is net metering, the program that credits solar owners for excess electricity fed back into the grid. Net metering makes solar affordable for customers, so giving more people access to net metering means more private investment dollars, more jobs and a more resilient power grid. 

The multifamily shared solar provision is meant to extend net metering-like benefits to residents of apartment buildings and condominiums, who don’t own their building and its roof themselves. The law allows the building owner—a landlord or condo association—to have solar panels installed on the property, and let residents buy the electricity produced.  Residents who sign up for solar are to be credited for the solar electricity at the utility’s retail rate, giving the residents a benefit equivalent to net metering. The only added cost the utility is allowed to impose is an administrative fee.

“Administrative fee.” You probably think you know what that term means: a fee to cover the cost of administering the program because, duh, what else could it mean? It would pay for someone to do paperwork, or to tweak the billing software. It couldn’t amount to more than a buck or two for a customer in the program.

You think that way because you are not a Dominion lawyer. With no definition of “administrative fee” in the law, and no dollar limit, Dominion’s lawyers went to work shoveling every conceivable expense they could come up with into the humble little fee until it resembles one of those memes of a kitten the size of Godzilla. Now the administrative fee includes the utility’s transmission and distribution costs; standby generation; balancing costs; “nonbypassable charges”; even “banking, balancing and storing fees related to the utility’s processing and handling of the excess bill credits.” 

Then the SCC, faced with this long list of fees that have nothing to do with program administration and aren’t authorized in the law, closed its eyes and signed on. 

However, the regulations don’t tell us what all the kitten-stuffing charges add up to. To determine the dollar amounts, the SCC references “parallel rate proceedings,” by which it means regulations being written to implement a different law, also passed in 2020, creating a much larger program under the name of Shared Solar. And right now, in those parallel rate proceedings, Dominion is insisting that those various fees should add up to nearly $75 per customer per month. Mind you, that amount does not include the cost of the electricity from the solar panels. Adding $75 to the price of electricity makes the cost of buying solar energy through the program far more than the cost of buying electricity from Dominion. 

Carrying those charges over to the multifamily program instantly kills it. No landlord would install solar expecting residents to pay an extra $75 per month for their electricity. The result makes a mockery of Solar Freedom’s intent for “robust project development and shared solar program access for all customer classes.” Indeed, the law expressly requires the utility to credit customers at the retail rate, which is to be “inclusive of all supply charges, delivery charges, demand charges, fixed charges, and any applicable riders or other charges to the customer.” The whole point is to block the utility from piling on costs, excepting only that little kitten of an administrative fee

At this point the only way to salvage the multifamily program is for the General Assembly to amend the law. With the SCC refusing to understand the meaning of “administrative,” the only thing legislators can do is put a dollar limit on the kitten. Indeed, a dollar seems like the right amount. 

That would resurrect the multifamily solar program. As for the shared solar program, where Dominion first came up with the idea of penalizing customers $75 a month for buying solar energy from someone else, the SCC is still working on regulations. 

The two programs are based on very different laws. Where Solar Freedom’s multifamily solar provision mimics net metering, and therefore allows the utility to charge only an administrative fee, the shared solar law explicitly contemplates customers paying a “minimum bill” that will include transmission and distribution, standby charges, and so on, in addition to a (presumably for-real) administrative fee. All those bloated charges that Dominion shoehorned into the administrative fee for apartments and condos in clear violation of the legislative mandate, are expressly allowed by the shared solar law.

Except, of course, no one said anything about $75.  If customers have to pay Dominion $75 in addition to whatever they have to pay to the solar provider, no one will sign up, and there will not be a program. 

The implications are not confined to shared solar laws. Dominion is laying a foundation to set a high floor for customer billings that will be independent of how much electricity residents use, where it comes from, whether their use of renewable energy provides a public benefit, or even whether customer-generated solar reduces other utility costs.  

The solar industry and other parties have strenuously objected to Dominion’s calculations. They have also asked the SCC to hold an evidentiary hearing on the amount of the minimum bill to be charged to shared solar customers (and by extension, to multifamily solar customers via kitten-stuffing). The request gives the SCC a chance to weigh benefits as well as costs, and produce an outcome that will ensure a future for shared solar in Virginia. 

This column originally appeared in the Virginia Mercury on July 15, 2021.

Legislative Scorecard Shows Continued Action on Climate, Environment, and Justice From Lawmakers

The Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club released its 2021 Climate, Energy and Justice Scorecard today, grading state legislators on their votes on key issues during the last General Assembly session. Votes scored include energy policies, climate solutions, voting rights and environmental justice. Sixty-three out of one hundred forty legislators scored an “A.”

The organization’s press release highlights the adoption of the Clean Car Standards as the standout win for the environment. The scorecard also notes progress on other transportation bills, residential building codes, pipelines, plastic waste and energy equity. 

A lot of utility reform bills that Sierra Club supported went down to defeat, and votes against those bills pulled down the grades of several Senate Democrats who sit on the Commerce and Labor Committee. Senators Barker, Saslaw, Lewis and Lucas were especially notable for their alignment with utility interests. 

With a federal windfall incoming, Virginia should require school districts to build to green standards

The solar panels powering Arlington, Virginia’s Discovery Elementary School, seen through the windows of a science classroom. Photo by Ivy Main

More than $4.3 billion in federal stimulus dollars will be flowing to Virginia this year as part of the American Rescue Plan, with cities and counties in line for another $2.7 billion. In a joint statement in May, Governor Northam and Democratic leaders laid out spending priorities that included rehabilitating and upgrading the infrastructure in public schools. The General Assembly plans to meet for a special legislative session in August to allocate the funds. In addition to the federal money, Virginia also finds itself in the happy position of having surplus funds of its own to spend.

As it stands now, the federal funds cannot be used for new school construction, a restriction that upsets school officials in areas with aging schools and no budget to replace them. But whether some money is spent on new schools or not, the General Assembly should not just throw dollars out the door and hope for the best. Virginia has an enormous opportunity to improve student health and learning, correct historic injustices, and meet the demands of the climate crisis, but only if the right standards are in place from the outset.

First, funding should be prioritized to Title 1 schools, which are those with at least 40 percent of children from low-income families. Given Virginia’s history of segregation and racism, a high number of Title 1 schools are in Black communities, while others are in parts of rural Virginia that have been left behind economically.  Title 1 schools on average are older and in worse condition than schools in more affluent areas, and the students are more likely to suffer from asthma and other health problems that are exacerbated by mold and poor indoor air quality. Improving indoor air quality and student well-being should be the primary goals for all new or renovated facilities, and it makes sense to start with the students most in need.

Second, while many localities are attracted to the idea of shiny new schools, in most cases it takes less time and costs less to retrofit an old school that is structurally sound than to tear it down and build new. It’s also better for the environment, even if the new school would be built to a “green” standard. Children don’t need new buildings; they need healthy, high-performing buildings. A beautiful remodel of the historic school their parents and grandparents attended could be just what the doctor ordered.

Third, new or renovated schools should be required to meet the highest standards for energy efficiency, including windows, insulation and HVAC. New construction should also be all-electric, as should most renovated buildings. This maximizes taxpayer savings on energy costs over the lifetime of the building, supports the goal of healthy indoor air, and is consistent with Virginia’s commitment to phase out fossil fuels.

Fourth, if the roof will be new or upgraded, it should be made solar-ready, allowing the school to take advantage of third-party power purchase agreements (PPAs) or solar services agreements to install solar panels. Leveraging private capital to pay for the school’s primary energy source stretches construction dollars. These agreements provide financing for solar facilities at no upfront cost and typically save money for schools from the outset. Once the solar panels are paid off, energy bills plummet and savings pile up.

New schools and deep retrofits can even achieve net-zero status affordably, and ought to be required to do so in most cases. Net-zero schools become a source of community pride and offer educational benefits as students learn about energy and how solar panels work. According to a study conducted for Fairfax County Public Schools, the additional upfront cost of building a net-zero-ready school (one that will produce as much energy as it uses once solar panels are added) is only about 5 percent more than standard construction, and the additional cost is recovered through energy savings in under 10 years. Renovating older schools to net-zero costs 11 percent more, but still pays off in 15 years.

Even if we weren’t worried about climate, these standards would make sense for student health and taxpayer savings. Yet today, school districts are not required to build high performance schools, and most don’t. The result is higher operating costs, and in some cases school boards being told that their brand-new schools won’t support solar. Solar companies say it’s probable that solar would be just fine, but this shouldn’t even be an issue. Yet it will continue to be cited as an obstacle if solar-readiness is not made standard.

Our children deserve better. Virginia should seize this year’s historic opportunity to invest in healthy, high-performing schools that are free of fossil fuels and will deliver long-term benefits for taxpayers and the climate.

Dominion-funded group adds more fuel to its campaign against utility reform, and a legislator responds

Four things happened after I wrote last week about Power for Tomorrow’s strange advertising campaign attacking Clean Virginia: the Fredericksburg Freelance-Star ran an op-ed from Power for Tomorrow’s executive director, Gary C. Meltz, opposing deregulation in the electric sector; the Virginia Mercury ran a response to my article from Mr. Meltz; another mailer arrived from Power for Tomorrow, even more unhinged about Clean Virginia and what it calls “their Texas-style policies”; and the Roanoke Times ran an op-ed from Republican Senator David Sutterlein in favor of electricity choice. 

Mr. Meltz’ Freelance-Star op-ed argues that regulated monopolies produce lower cost power for consumers than competitive markets. Instead of developing the argument, however, most of the op-ed is devoted to horror stories about Texas and Maryland.

In both states, poor regulation unquestionably led to high bills, in Texas because customers were allowed to choose “low-cost” billing options that charged them astronomical real-time power costs during the winter freeze, and in Maryland because unscrupulous power providers lured low-income customers into overpriced contracts with up-front goodies like gift cards. Power for Tomorrow would like you to think these abuses are the inevitable result of deregulated markets, but it doesn’t follow.

Coming from the opposite direction, Senator Sutterlein’s op-ed argues that Dominion has abused its political power for private gain. He cites legislation like the notorious 2015 “rate freeze” bill that allowed the company to hang on to over-earnings it would otherwise have had to refund to customers. His cure for these abuses is deregulation, allowing customers to choose other electricity providers. But again, it’s not obvious that curbing Dominion’s excessive profits requires deregulation, rather than better regulation by the General Assembly and the SCC.

Personally, I’m agnostic on this issue. I would welcome a data-driven discussion of whether carefully-designed free markets deliver more for the public than a well-regulated monopoly system coupled with a ban on campaign contributions from public utilities. 

But if Power for Tomorrow is really interested in consumer protection, it’s just plain weird that its ads are so squarely focused on trying to take down Clean Virginia, an organization whose entire purpose is to secure lower costs for consumers. It’s hard not to suspect that the real point of the attack ads is to protect the high profits of Power for Tomorrow’s utility funders. 

According to Mr. Meltz, those over- the-top mailers are indeed getting results for Power for Tomorrow. In his Virginia Mercury letter, Meltz says his organization’s “education campaign” has produced 4,324 letters to elected officials and 1,607 petition signatures. Meltz also says Power for Tomorrow’s funding (and spending) will become a public record when they submit paperwork to the IRS. He doesn’t say when that will be; and he isn’t telling us the answers now.

What’s with the scary ads about threats to your power service?

A mailer sent out to Virginia residents from “Power for Tomorrow”

It’s campaign season in Virginia, with primary elections coming up on June 8. But in addition to all the candidate flyers arriving in mailboxes, Virginia residents have been receiving another kind of mailer with a message unrelated to the election.

Oversized, campaign-style postcards from an entity calling itself Power for Tomorrow warn, “Clean Virginia wants to end customer protections on electricity — leaving Virginians stuck with #BigBills like Texas!” Quotes from headlines about last winter’s disastrous power outage in Texas sprinkle the page to drive home the message that “It happened in Texas. Don’t let it happen in Virginia.” 

The flip side of the postcard reads, “We can’t allow so-called ‘Clean Virginia’ to spend millions to influence Richmond politicians and make hardworking Virginians pay more for electricity.” The cards then urge people to join a texting campaign targeting legislators. 

What’s going on here? According to the nonprofit Energy and Policy Institute, Power for Tomorrow is a utility front group that is “Virginia-based and Dominion Energy-connected.” Power for Tomorrow “opposes efforts to introduce greater competition to monopoly utilities and provides a platform for former regulators to advocate for utility interests.” Its directors and experts are mostly lawyers and lobbyists who represent utility interests. Its website claims the Texas power outage “catalyzed the launch” of the group, but Energy and Policy Institute notes that the website first launched in 2019, and only re-launched this year following the Texas debacle. 

In addition to the postcard mailer, Power for Tomorrow has also run television and Facebook ads. According to Virginia Public Media, as of May 14 the organization had spent at least $220,000 on TV ads and at least another $90,000 on Facebook ads. Dominion Energy spokesperson Rayhan Daudani told Virginia Public Media that Dominion is “proud to support Power for Tomorrow and its efforts to educate people about the dangers of electric deregulation.” He also asserted Dominion’s political contributions, including those to Power for Tomorrow, were “bipartisan and transparent.” 

The bipartisan part is true; Virginia Public Access Project records show Dominion gives money to both Democrats and Republicans. Doing so ensures the company has influence no matter which party holds power. Dominion’s political donations to Virginia elected leaders add up to over $3 million in just the last year and a half (making its criticism of Clean Virginia’s spending more than a little hypocritical). “Transparent” is another matter, however; neither VPAP nor any other source I could find reveals how much money Dominion has provided to Power for Tomorrow.  

As for the claims about customer protections, the mailer’s message stands Clean Virginia’s purpose on its head. Clean Virginia advocates for decreasing the influence of utilities on the General Assembly and increasing regulatory oversight by the State Corporation Commission. The legislation it supported in 2021 uniformly would have returned more money to customers.  The reason Clean Virginia “spends millions to influence Richmond politicians” is to counter Dominion Energy’s spending and political influence in Richmond. There would be no need for Clean Virginia if the General Assembly weren’t already under the utility’s thumb. 

According to Clean Virginia’s website, the five energy reform bills the group supported in 2021 were:

  • HB2200, restoring SCC discretion over Dominion rate-setting and accounting practices
  • HB1984, allowing the SCC to set future rates to reflect the true cost of service
  • HB1914, giving the SCC the ability to set the time period for utilities to recover large one-time expenses, eliminating an accounting gimmick that benefited utilities at the expense of customers
  • HB2160, requiring utilities to return 100% of overcharges to customers, instead of being allowed to keep 30 percent
  • HB2049, also aimed at supporting rate reductions or refunds

All of these bills passed the House with bipartisan support but failed in the Senate, where the Commerce and Labor committee remains Dominion-friendly. 

The Power for Tomorrow ads don’t try to defend Dominion’s opposition to customer-friendly legislation. Instead, they reference a broader effort by Clean Virginia and an unusual alliance of several progressive and conservative free-market groups to restructure Virginia’s utilities. Calling themselves the Virginia Energy Reform Coalition, the allies supported legislation in 2020 that would have separated the generation and transmission functions of Dominion and Appalachian Power and introduced competition in the sale of electricity. 

Whether the long-term effects of this kind of energy deregulation would be good or bad for Virginia residents is a matter of furious debate, but clearly the legislation would have hurt Dominion’s profits. In any event, the bill never even got a vote last year, and was not brought back in 2021. 

The Power for Tomorrow campaign deliberately muddies the water. While mentioning only the stillborn deregulation effort, its attacks on Clean Virginia are meant to undercut support for other legislation that increases utility regulation. 

So what about the threat of Texas-style power outages? Where is the connection? Power for Tomorrow would like you to believe that competition leads to disaster. But the mailer is vague about how what happened in Texas might happen here, and for good reason: It won’t. 

What happened in Texas was due to generating facilities (mostly natural gas) freezing up and failing to deliver electricity to the state’s isolated power grid. With too much demand and not enough supply, short-term power costs soared, and people who’d opted for electricity plans that tracked real-time prices received astronomical bills. Simple regulatory fixes could have avoided both the blackouts and the sky-high bills, but Texas politicians and grid operators shied away from imposing those requirements. Failure to regulate, not deregulation, was to blame. 

When the lights go out in Virginia, by contrast, downed power lines and blown transformers are typically to blame. In other words, the problem is in the delivery, not the generation. Our electricity supply is more secure than Texas’ because Virginia is part of the larger PJM transmission grid that covers all or parts of 13 states from the East to the Midwest. Not only does PJM have a huge excess of generating capacity, but generators have to guarantee they will deliver electricity when called on, and would be penalized by failure to winterize their facilities. Those guarantees are absent in Texas.

Introducing competition to the Virginia utility market would not change any of this. Some states within PJM have deregulated utilities, others have vertically-integrated utilities like Virginia’s. The Texas blackouts were scary; they are also a red herring.  Apparently the cynics at Power for Tomorrow think there is nothing wrong with a non sequitur if it gets people’s attention. 

But is it getting their attention? I checked with a couple of legislators, neither of whom had received any texts or emails from constituents generated by the advertising. Either the campaign isn’t working, or Power for Tomorrow is just building out a mailing list to deploy later, perhaps in the next legislative session when regulatory reform bills come up again.  

At that point we may find out whether Dominion has built an anti-reform constituency with these misleading ads, or just added fuel to the fire. 

This article originally ran in the Virginia Mercury on June 2, 2021. It has been updated to correct the day of the June primary. It is June 8, not June 6.