Times-Dispatch articles expose Dominion’s manipulation of government for its own enrichment—and that ain’t the half of it

Over the past few days the Richmond Times-Dispatch has run a three-part special report detailing Dominion Energy’s grip on the Virginia General Assembly and the company’s abuse of that power to enrich itself at the expense of its captive customers. Journalists Robert Zullo and Michael Martz examine how Dominion’s use of business and personal connections, campaign contributions and lobbying led to a series of laws that enriched the company and eroded the State Corporation Commission’s regulatory authority.

And Dominion still gets off too easy.

But before we get into that, first let me praise the RTD for even running this series. As recently as a few years ago, the paper assiduously avoided printing anything critical of Dominion outside the narrow confines of letters to the editor. News articles almost invariably adopted Dominion’s messaging and quoted Dominion spokespersons with no effort at independent verification. A single quote from an environmentalist or other critic, buried deep in the text, represented the only nod towards journalistic balance.

This has changed, as the paper’s remarkable exposé demonstrates. Zullo and Martz are not alone; columnist Jeff Schapiro frequently criticizes Dominion in ways that would never have seen print before. Somehow the RTD’s editors have found their spine.

The authors don’t editorialize. They quote a wide array of insiders and observers, though the absence of voices from the environmental community is striking. The coverage of personalities is sometimes even positive; Dominion CEO Tom Farrell, for example, comes off more as an upstanding citizen than as a master manipulator.

Indeed, many of the critics interviewed for the series pull their punches. Most of those quoted are full participants in the “Virginia Way,” a system in which going along to get along is embedded in the political culture. They are careful when criticizing Dominion, unwilling to tar their colleagues and, perhaps, aware they owe their own professional success to the same system that got us into this mess.

Overall, however, Dominion is right to hate the hot white light of journalistic scrutiny. Corporate greed doesn’t look good in print when the readers are its victims, and Dominion’s machinations are recorded here in excruciating detail. They culminate in the passage of 2015’s SB 1349, the law stripping the State Corporation Commission of its authority to review utility base rates and order refunds until 2022.

Dominion positioned its bill as a way to “protect” customers from the costs of complying with the federal Clean Power Plan, but it was not hard to recognize the Clean Power Plan as a politically charged fig leaf. SB 1349 was always about letting Dominion keep excess earnings. The Clean Power Plan, after all, was not scheduled to kick in until 2022, when rates would unfreeze. Meanwhile, as one SCC commissioner estimates, Dominion will keep as much as a billion dollars of money it has not earned.

Yet by concentrating on the money, the RTD misses bigger implications. Dominion’s corruption of our legislative process doesn’t just mean consumers are getting ripped off. It means Dominion has been able to undermine efforts to reduce energy use, protect our electric grid, move to greater use of renewable energy, and free us from dependence on fossil fuels.

Heck, under Dominion’s influence, elected leaders don’t even appreciate why these should be their priorities. Politicians genuinely think building fracked-gas pipelines like the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley pipelines will lower energy costs. (In case you missed it, they won’t.) This is the real damage Dominion does, that legislators don’t even know they’ve internalized the utility’s propaganda. This is the exercise of the “third dimension of power,” the hidden type of power described in former UVA professor Vivian Thomson’s recent book Climate of Capitulation.

As a result it doesn’t occur to our elected leaders to ask questions when Dominion promises to reduce carbon emissions while planning to build more fossil fuel generation. (The answer to the question is in the fine print; or if you prefer blunt speech, it’s a lie.)

These leaders acquiesce when Dominion lobbyists urge them to reject mandatory energy efficiency standards on the basis that Virginia has such low-cost electricity (wrong) that we can’t succeed at energy efficiency the way other states do (and anyway the SCC won’t let us, so we shouldn’t even try).

Dominion takes baby steps on renewable energy, and elected officials express their gratitude without noticing how dismally far behind our neighboring states we remain. (How kind of Dominion! Let’s give them some more money!) Democrats used to try to pass renewable energy mandates; they don’t any more. Dominion doesn’t like to be told what to do. So rather than fight and lose, legislators now say they don’t like mandates. That’s a true climate of capitulation.

In short, the people’s representatives pass bills Dominion wants, or reject ones Dominion opposes, and persuade themselves the legislature is in charge.

The RTD cites one especially telling example of this. “Since 1996, Dominion has been [Delegate Ken Plum’s] top political donor, contributing $105,750, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.” Yet, “’I’ve never felt squeezed by them,’ Plum said of the utility’s lobbying corps. ‘I have felt informed by them.’”

That’s what you call good lobbying. The lobbied official never feels squeezed, just informed.

It’s obvious enough that Dominion distributes money to legislators from both parties because it expects to buy influence. Legislators know this, and many acknowledge that it works on their colleagues. As for themselves, however, they are certain they can take money without being influenced. Even Ken Cuccinelli, who advocates for the SCC to regain its authority over Dominion, dismisses the idea of banning campaign contributions from public utilities. (Mind you, he offers no other solutions.)

Voters are rightly more skeptical, as demonstrated by the groundswell of support for Senator Chap Petersen’s proposals to repeal the rate freeze and to bar campaign contributions from regulated public utilities. Dozens of candidates seeking office this year have pledged not to take Dominion money, and according to the group Activate Virginia, 8 incumbents and 46 House candidates have promised to roll back the rate freeze.

In both cases, the question is why so few incumbents have signed on. Perhaps, after reading the RTD’s report, they will understand why they should. What’s at stake goes way beyond money.

A 5-year plan for economic growth: 10% solar and 50,000 new jobs

Source: The Solar Foundation

A new analysis from the non-profit Solar Foundation shows Virginia could create 50,400 jobs if it commits to building enough solar energy in the next five years to provide just 10% of our electricity supply.

The analysis takes the form of an “infographic” showing the implications of 10% solar. It would require building 15,000 megawatts of solar, divided among utility-scale solar farms, commercial installations, and the rooftops of houses. At the end of 2016, Virginia had a total of only 241 MW of solar installed, representing one-tenth of 1 percent of total electricity consumption. Getting to 10% by the end of 2023 would mean an annual growth rate of 61 percent. That would be impressive growth, but well below the 87 percent growth rate averaged by California and North Carolina over the past 6 years.

So 10% in five years should be doable. And indeed, viewed against the need to dramatically lower our carbon footprint, it seems like a very small step indeed. The McAuliffe administration wants to significantly cut statewide carbon emissions, and it is hard to see how we can do that without replacing the dirtiest fossil fuels with solar (and wind, and energy efficiency).

The good news is that the market is in our favor. Dominion Energy’s 2017 Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) identified utility-scale solar as the least-cost energy resource available in Virginia today. And participants in local cooperative buying programs for homeowners and businesses, known as “Solarize” programs, report payback times of under 10 years for rooftop solar, after which they will have nearly free electricity for 20 or 30 years.

Recent solar deals involving Amazon, Microsoft, and now Facebook show just how strong the demand is from customers. The very companies that our political leaders want so desperately to attract to Virginia are insisting on renewable electricity.

These deals demonstrate the direction of the market, and they will give an initial boost to solar employment, especially in the rural communities that are the best locations for solar farms. But restricting solar to a handful of new companies just coming into Virginia won’t get us to 15,000 MW and 10% solar. It’s also fundamentally unfair to the rest of us who are stuck with a dirty grid. Why should existing customers get left with polluting sources, while big tech companies get solar?

For us, Dominion’s IRP caps its solar plans at 240 MW per year, an amount it admits is arbitrary. In other words, Amazon got 260 MW, Facebook is getting 130 MW, but all the rest of Dominion’s customers put together will get just 240 MW per year.

As for customers who are determined to take matters into their own hands with rooftop solar, a host of unnecessary restrictions continue to limit growth. Virginia needs to put policies in place to push utilities to do more, to support local governments and schools that want solar, and to remove the barriers that limit private investment.

Solar companies around the state say if we can do that, they will do their part by hiring more Virginians. Here’s what some of them had to say about the 10% solar goal, and how to achieve it:

“We believe, as Virginians, that we can solve our energy challenges. Ours is a Virginia company founded and based in Charlottesville, and we are committed to building Virginia-based energy production facilities that benefit all Virginians. But the fact is that over the past few years our growth has come from business in other states. We have 26 employees in Virginia now, and we could increase that dramatically if Virginia promotes solar through policy changes that incentivize business owners to invest, allows competition, and supports the environmental message.” –Paul Risberg, President of Altenergy, Charlottesville

“The economics have never been better for solar in Virginia than they are right now. Prospect Solar has grown from two employees in 2010 to 16 full time employees today. Roles such as electricians, skilled labor, engineers, project managers, and sales people are integral to the success of each project. We hope Virginia will commit to a rapid, sustained buildout of all sectors of the solar industry, allowing us to continue adding local jobs.” –Andrew Skinner, Project Manager at Prospect Solar, Sterling

“Nationwide, the solar market was a 23 billion dollar industry in 2016. One out of every 50 new jobs in America was created by the solar industry last year. Sigora has been part of that. We have doubled in size in the past year and now employ 80 people in the Commonwealth.” –Karla Loeb, Vice President of Policy and Development for Sigora Solar, Charlottesville

“Local energy, local jobs, local investment. Our workforce is made up of local people—three of us went to Virginia Tech, one went to New River Community College, which has an Alternative Energy Program. An increase in demand of this scale would mean we’d hire more local people.” –Patrick Feucht, Manager of Baseline Solar, Blacksburg

“Residential and commercial rooftop solar has created most of the solar jobs in Virginia to date, and it has to be a part of the push to 10 percent. As we know, rooftop solar creates more jobs than utility solar, and these are good-paying, local jobs for local people. That’s one reason Virginia should lift the outdated 1 percent cap on net-metered solar, and leave the market open to anyone who wants to invest in their own home-grown energy supply.” –Sue Kanz, President of Solar Services, Virginia Beach

“Ten percent solar is a modest goal to shoot for given the strong economics of solar and the demand we are seeing from customers. Virginia has been held back by restrictive policies that have made it a ‘dark state.’ Reforming our policies would lead to a lot more economic development around solar.” –Tony Smith, President of Secure Futures LLC, Staunton

 

New pipelines report shows the ACP is part of a widespread, systemic market failure

Photo courtesy of Chris Tandy.

Anyone who examines the corporate deals that underlie the Atlantic Coast Pipeline comes away with a strong sense of looking at a broken regulatory system. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) is supposed to approve only those pipelines that can demonstrate they are actually needed. Pipeline companies demonstrate need by showing that customers have contracted for most or all of the pipeline’s capacity. In the case of the ACP, Dominion Energy and its partners manufactured the need by making their own affiliates the customers of the pipeline.

What’s weird is that FERC seems to be okay with this. It recently approved another pipeline with a similar setup—the Nexus pipeline that will carry fracked gas from Ohio through Michigan to Canada. FERC ignored blatant self-dealing between the pipeline company and its regulated utility affiliate, including clear evidence the regulated utility affiliate increased its share of the pipeline’s capacity only to create a “need” for its parent company’s project.

A new report from Oil Change International concludes the U.S. is currently building unneeded fracked-gas pipelines as a result of FERC’s regulatory failures, including its failure to police self-dealing. The result will be excess pipeline capacity, paid for by regulated utility customers.

The primary cause of the overbuilding, and the reason companies like Dominion engage in self-dealing to create the impression of “need,” is that FERC sets an absurdly high rate of return on pipelines—14%, compared to a typical utility rate of return of 10%. FERC set the high rate back in 1997 when interest rates were double what they are now, so it was more expensive to build large infrastructure. FERC hasn’t changed the rate since then even though it is causing obvious market distortions—and creating an incentive for utilities to jump into the pipeline business.

What is even weirder is that Virginia’s State Corporation Commission seems to be okay with self-dealing, too. The ACP is also using affiliate contracts that commit the customers of state-regulated electric utilities (including Dominion Energy Virginia) to pay for the use of the pipelines.

The SCC’s job is to protect electric utility customers from precisely this kind of exploitation. These customers don’t have the option to walk away from the likes of Dominion Energy Virginia; they are required by law to get their electricity from that utility and no other. If the SCC looks at self-dealing and shrugs, where are the customers supposed to go for protection?

That’s why Virginia has a law called the Affiliates Act that requires SCC approval before a regulated utility can commit its customers to any contract or arrangement with an affiliated company. Dominion had to commit electricity customers to the ACP in order to show FERC the pipeline was needed. Yet Dominion never even asked the SCC for approval.

Recognizing the risk to ratepayers, the Sierra Club petitioned the SCC to require Dominion to comply with the Affiliates Act by disclosing the affiliate relationship and seeking approval of the arrangement that affects captive customers. Without SCC approval, Dominion would seem to be on thin ice telling FERC it has the contracts in place that demonstrate the “need” for the ACP.

One would have thought the SCC would jump at the chance to weigh in. The FERC filings show it will cost ratepayers three to four times more to use the ACP than to stick with the competing pipeline that Dominion already has long-tem contracts with.

But on September 19, the SCC denied the Sierra Club’s petition. One of the reasons cited was that Dominion will have to get SCC approval before it actually charges ratepayers for any gas carried by the pipeline.

Meaning, the SCC says it will consider the merits of the problem only after Dominion has secured FERC approval, and after the ACP has already ripped a 600-mile gash across the countryside, dispossessing landowners, tearing up forests, and endangering streams and water supplies.

Well, that poses a bit of a problem, doesn’t it? If the SCC turns down Dominion’s rate recovery request at that point, its decision will cancel out the very argument of “need” that Dominion and its partners used to get the ACP approved by FERC. Meaning, the ACP should never have been built.

But the pipeline will be there in all its razed-earth, $5 billion glory. What then? Perhaps Dominion will instead use the pipeline to serve its LNG export terminal at Cove Point or go hawking its expensive gas to new industrial customers, as some politicians hope. But more likely, this being Virginia, we would expect our General Assembly to order the SCC to grant rate recovery anyway, citing energy security or whatever fig leaf Dominion comes up with.

And a systemic market failure will leave Virginians, along with residents of other states, paying more to burn fracked gas for decades, unwillingly and unfairly doing our part to exacerbate the climate crisis.

Virginia could soon have more than 2,500 MW of solar. We just need customers.

Photo by Activ Solar via Wikimedia Commons.

A review of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality website reveals developers have at least started the permitting process for 64 solar farms across 40 jurisdictions, representing over 2,400 megawatts (MW) of solar capacity.

This includes projects that are already in operation, like the thousand-acre, 80 MW Amazon Web Services farm in Accomack that kicked off the solar gold rush here in 2015. Amazon also has another 5 projects in development. By the end of 2017, Amazon will have 260 MW of solar in Virginia, accounting for more than half the solar in the state.

The DEQ total only includes projects above 5 MW. It also omits another 94 MW of Dominion Energy projects permitted by the State Corporation Commission, all of which will be in operation by late fall. (Under legislation passed this year, Dominion’s projects will now also follow the DEQ Permit By Rule process, which applies to projects between 5 and 150 MW.)

In all, Virginia would have over 2,550 MW of utility-scale solar if all the projects were to be completed, at the maximum size for which they are seeking permits. But a closer look at the DEQ “notices of intent” suggests that so far the projects seem to have attracted only a limited number of customers: Amazon, our utilities, and the Commonwealth of Virginia itself.

Governor McAuliffe pledged that the Commonwealth would buy 110 MW of solar, enough to meet 8% of its electrical demand, split between onsite and offsite arrays. Announced deals include 18 MW at Naval Station Oceana and two projects totaling 32 MW that will serve the University of Virginia. The Commonwealth is also the off-taker of a project that provides Microsoft with RECs, to date the only announced deal involving a corporation other than Amazon.

Dominion Energy Virginia committed to 400 MW in 2015, and the utility’s 2017 integrated resource plan proposes a continuous build-out of 240 MW per year for the next 25 years. Old Dominion Electric Cooperative has also contracted for 30 MW of solar at two locations, with Dominion Energy owning the projects. Most recently, Central Virginia Electric Cooperative contracted for the output of two 5-MW solar farms. (These do not appear on the DEQ site.)

Where can we find more customers?

This leaves most proposed solar farms in Virginia without identified customers. Certainly, Dominion will prove to be the buyer for many, and there is no good reason it should stop at 240 MW per year. Appalachian Power is also considering sites in Virginia and West Virginia, but its appetite appears limited to 25 MW. The Commonwealth probably has a couple more deals in the works to complete McAuliffe’s pledge, and the next governor could up the ante—especially now we know that purchases by public colleges and universities count.

But for renewable energy to make a serious contribution to our energy supply, new customers have to commit. Fortunately they don’t need to sign onto Dominion’s half-baked green tariff proposal; they can contract directly with developers, as Amazon did initially. When Dominion Energy bought the first Amazon project from its from developer, the parties negotiated a special rate. Industry members say that deal is too complicated to serve as a model for others, but Dominion has indicated an interest in finding a solution.

Dominion’s participation was not necessary for Amazon to move forward, and it would not be required for other large customers to follow suit. In particular, a financial model known as a “virtual PPA” may offer an attractive option. In this arrangement, a large user contracts for the output of a solar or wind farm, but does not actually take delivery of the electricity. Instead, the power is sold into the wholesale market while the customer buys electricity from its utility as usual. The sale of electricity in the wholesale market offsets the cost of power purchased from the utility, acting as a hedge against rising energy prices. The customer gets the renewable energy certificates (RECs) to legally “green” its electricity supply.

A virtual PPA avoids treading on the monopoly power of a utility because it does not require a customer to take delivery of energy from the solar farm. According to Niels Crone of Customer First Renewables, a company that helps large businesses and institutions maximize the value of renewables, virtual PPAs could be a good option for customers located in Virginia.

Crone says that although virtual PPAs (as well as physical PPAs) deliver the greatest bottom-line benefit with larger projects, smaller customers can aggregate their demand to take advantage of economies of scale. That means the benefits don’t have to be limited to the Amazons of the world. Smaller corporations, universities, hospitals and even local government can band together to lower their energy costs—and make a positive impact on Virginia’s environment and economy.

A Candidate’s Guide to Clean Energy and the Pipelines

Anti-pipeline activists gather at an event called Hands Across the Appalachian Trail on August 19. Photo courtesy of Chris Tandy.

Recently I attended a forum where a candidate for statewide office discussed his energy policies and voiced his support for wind and solar. He embraced a goal of Virginia reaching at least 30% renewable energy by 2030, which was roundly applauded. But then he added that we couldn’t get started on it without advances in battery storage, because, he said, without storage there is no way to put surplus wind and solar on the grid.

People around the room look dumbfounded. They weren’t energy experts, but they knew that was flat-out wrong. Later he made other statements that showed he misunderstood facts about energy, climate change and the grid, hadn’t questioned what he’d been told by utility lobbyists, or just hadn’t been paying much attention.

Maybe you are a candidate yourself (or you work for one), and you don’t want to embarrass yourself by saying so, but you frankly don’t understand what was wrong with that statement about wind and solar. Or perhaps you are an activist and you’d like to help your local candidate for office bone up on some of the most important issues he or she will have to vote on while in office.

Allow me to help. Here is what you need to know about the hot-button energy issues in Virginia today. I’ll also offer my opinion about where you should stand on those issues, but that part is up to you.

Solar is coming on strong—and it is the cheapest energy in Virginia today. This astounds people who don’t keep up with energy trends, but it’s what Dominion Energy Virginia’s latest integrated resource plan (IRP) reveals. Utility-scale solar farms, 20 megawatts (MW) and up, can produce electricity at a cost that beats coal, gas and nuclear. That’s why Dominion’s IRP proposes a build-out of 240 MW of solar per year. It’s why Amazon Web Services has been building 260 MW of solar in five Virginia counties to supply its data centers. It’s why, over the past year, developers have proposed more than 1,600 MW of additional solar capacity in counties across the state. It’s also why today, solar already employs more Virginians than coal.

None of the solar under development includes battery storage. It doesn’t have to, because electricity from solar all goes into one big grid.

The grid is HUGE. If you’re from around here, you probably remember the earthquake of August 2011. It was centered in Mineral, Virginia, but did damage all the way to Washington, D.C. It also caused an immediate shutdown of Dominion’s two nuclear reactors at North Anna that lasted for more than three months. That meant 1,790 megawatts (MW) of generating capacity, enough to power 750,000 homes, suddenly went offline. Do you remember what happened to your power supply at home? You probably don’t. Why not? Because your power didn’t go out.

That’s because the North Anna nuclear plants are only two out of more than 1,300 generating units (power plants) feeding a 13-state portion of the transmission grid managed by independent operator PJM Interconnection. When one unit fails, PJM calls on others. PJM’s job is to balance all this generation to meet demand reliably at the lowest cost.

The grid has no problem with solar. While solar makes up less than 1% of its electricity supply currently, a PJM study concluded the grid could handle up to 20% solar right now, without any new battery storage. Wind and solar together could make up as much as 30% of our electricity with no significant issues. The result would be less coal, less gas, and less carbon pollution—and $15.6 billion in energy savings.

Virginia already has energy storage. You could even say we are swimming in it. Bath County, Virginia is home to the world’s largest “battery” in the form of “pumped storage.” A pair of reservoirs provide over 3,000 megawatts of hydropower generating capacity that PJM uses to balance out supply and demand.

Actual batteries are also an option today, not sometime in the future. The price has dropped by half since 2014, to the point where solar-plus-storage combinations compete with new gas peaker plants. Batteries are also being paired with solar today to form microgrids that can power emergency shelters and other critical functions during widespread outages.

If Virginia goes totally gangbusters with solar, a day will come when there is so much electricity being generated from the sun in some areas that we’d need batteries. But, sadly, we aren’t anywhere near there yet.

So, you should definitely get on board with battery storage; just don’t make the mistake of thinking we can’t ramp up renewable energy today without it.

Make renewable energy your BFF. It probably polls better than you do. Renewable energy has favorability ratings most politicians only dream about. A Gallup poll last year showed 73% of Americans prefer alternative energy to oil and gas, a number that rises to 89% among Democrats. Republicans love it, too; North Carolina-based Conservatives for Clean Energy found that 79% of registered Republicans in their state are more likely to support lawmakers who back renewable energy options.

Distributed renewable energy—think rooftop solar—is especially popular with the greenies on the left and the libertarians on the right, and pretty much everyone in between. It offers benefits that utility solar does not. The policy that makes it affordable is called net metering. It gives solar owners credit for the excess solar electricity they put on the grid in the daytime, to be applied against the power they draw from the grid at night. If you want to support your constituents’ ability to power their own homes with solar, you should protect and expand their right to net meter their electricity.

People who understand Dominion’s pipeline hate Dominion’s pipeline. The proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline would carry fracked gas 600 miles from inside West Virginia through the heart of Virginia and into North Carolina. Instead of following highways, it cuts across mountains, rivers, forests and farms, and requires land clearing 150 feet wide the whole way. Landowners along the route are furious, as are lovers of the national forests and the Appalachian Trail, people who care about water quality, people who care about climate change, and fans of caves, bats and other wildlife.

The gas it will carry is extracted from shale formations deep underground using hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a loud, dirty and dangerous practice that doesn’t poll well in Virginia. More quietly (but in many ways worse), leaking wells, pipes, and storage reservoirs are estimated to emit enough greenhouse gases to cancel out the climate advantages of burning gas over coal, and increase smog. An analysis using industry data found that building the ACP and a second controversial pipeline project, the Mountain Valley Pipeline, would more than double the carbon footprint of Virginia’s power sector.

Sea level rise is already taking a toll in Virginia with “sunny day” flooding regularly crippling low-lying areas of Hampton Roads. If you’ve pledged to address climate change, you need to understand how building gas pipelines will undermine the very efforts to reduce such threats.

Now, if you don’t want to oppose Dominion, you might be inclined to minimize all these issues, or to tell voters the destruction of all we hold dear is just the price we pay for cheap energy. I’m sure you can phrase it better than that.

Before you do, though, you should also spend a few minutes to understand why critics say the ACP will raise energy prices, not lower them. That’s because Dominion’s gas-burning electric generating plants already have long-term contracts to use another company’s pipeline, for less money. Using the ACP instead of cheaper alternatives means raising costs to consumers.

Dominion also plans to build more gas-fired power plants so it can fill the pipeline. Gas plants are built to last 30 years or more, pipelines 50 years. Locking us into gas infrastructure for decades when solar is already cheaper than gas now is a seriously bad bet.

And if you think Dominion is going to shoulder the loss of a bad bet, better think again. That’s what its captive ratepayers are for.

Another name for those people is “voters.”

Virginia utilities and advocates square off over net metered solar

Solar now employs more Virginians than coal, but utility efforts to roll back net metering threaten Virginia businesses that install rooftop solar. Here, staff of Mountain View Solar (in high-visibility clothing) and Secure Futures conduct commissioning tests for Albermarle High School’s solar installation. Photo courtesy of Secure Futures LLC.

Advocates of distributed solar energy in Virginia are watching nervously this summer as electric utilities and the solar industry negotiate the future of net metering, the policy that makes rooftop solar economically viable in a state with no other incentives.

Virginia utilities finally see the value of solar to themselves, which is good news for the solar businesses that build large projects. But the utilities’ enthusiasm does not extend to solar owned by their customers. Dominion Energy Virginia and its fellows see rooftop solar as a threat to their monopoly power that needs to be curtailed, not a contribution to our energy security that they should encourage. But by attacking net metering, they endanger the many small businesses whose bread-and-butter comes from the residential and commercial sector.

The utilities’ own solar plans are fairly modest compared to national trends, but they are practically revolutionary for a state with deep ties to fossil fuels. Dominion Energy Virginia proposes to add 240 MW of solar annually, presumably in addition to projects supplying corporate customers like Amazon. Appalachian Power is looking to add 25 MW of solar in Virginia or West Virginia by the end of 2019. Old Dominion Electric Cooperative (ODEC), which serves most of Virginia’s rural electric cooperatives, announced contracts for two projects totaling 30 MW. (Dominion Energy immediately bought the projects.)

All this activity has helped to fuel a rapid rise in the number of solar jobs in Virginia. (In case you missed it, solar employs more Virginians than coal.) But utility projects represent only part of the potential market in Virginia, especially if residents and businesses are encouraged to invest in solar themselves.

The utilities’ hostility to customers generating their own electricity has led to barriers that hold back the market for distributed solar. These barriers include limits on system sizes, standby charges, program caps and challenges to third-party power purchase agreements (PPAs). (For a full discussion of these barriers, see my 2017 guide to Virginia wind and solar policy.)

Utilities would particularly like to do away with net metering, a program that allows solar owners to feed excess solar power to the grid during the day and then draw power from the grid when the sun isn’t shining, paying only for the net of the power drawn from the grid. Utilities say net metering results in solar owners not paying their fair share of grid upkeep. Solar advocates say everyone benefits when customers invest in solar.

“Value of solar” studies from other states largely support the advocates’ contention that solar owners provide more value to the grid and to their fellow customers than they get in return. Three years ago the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality facilitated the beginnings of a value of solar analysis for Virginia, but the utilities walked away when they didn’t like where it was headed. Without this kind of valuation, utilities and advocates are left talking past each other.

The future of net metering is now a subject for discussion by the Rubin Group, an informal, by-invitation-only committee formed by the utilities and solar industry members in 2016. The project is named for its moderator, Mark Rubin. Although barely a year old and lacking full stakeholder representation, the Rubin Group has achieved almost a quasi-legislative status with the blessing of the chairmen of the House and Senate Commerce and Labor Committees. Last year these committees passed only solar bills that had been negotiated through the Rubin Group (or in one case, that the House chairman himself had introduced), and committee members were discouraged from offering amendments.

But the Group’s lack of transparency and limited input was a mistake, Rubin has since acknowledged. This year the Group expanded to include the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) and the Virginia Manufacturer’s Association. In addition, outsiders have been invited to participate in occasional conference calls and meetings.

At the first such meeting in June, Rubin said the Group would work on four other topics besides net metering: implementation of last year’s “community solar” legislation; addressing barriers to large utility-scale projects; meeting the needs of corporate purchasers; and land use issues.

But net metering was the hot-button concern, with most of the attendees urging action to expand opportunities for rooftop solar and remove current limits on net metering. By contrast, utility interests expressed a desire for “alternatives.”

A second stakeholder meeting in July further increased advocates’ concern. Participants report Rubin began the discussion of net metering by saying the Group believed “net metering as it is now operating in Virginia is unsustainable.” Such an assertion prejudges the issue, says Aaron Sutch of VA-SUN, and implies the existence of supporting data that the utilities simply don’t have. “Nearly every every study shows that net metered solar benefits all users of the electric grid by providing power when and where it’s needed most.”

In fact, he pointed out to Rubin in a later email, a 2016 Navigant study commissioned by Dominion “concludes that up to 2,000 MW of distributed solar can be integrated into the [Virginia] grid without major upgrades or system-wide issues,” and with cost savings to ratepayers of $75 per MWh.

Sierra Club volunteer Susan Stillman, who runs the Solarize program for the Town of Vienna, also wrote to the Rubin Group to express her concern that the entire discussion seems to be focused on limiting net metering as a way to discourage distributed solar. “No one ever said what aspect of net metering is not sustainable.  How do you solve a problem that you’ve not defined? Net metered solar in Virginia is minuscule so I’m hard pressed to understand that this is a technical issue and that the grid is being harmed.”

Virginia law caps net metered solar at 1% of a utility’s overall electric utility sales. There is no website to tell the public how much net metered solar currently exists—which in itself is a problem—but industry members say we are nowhere near the 1% limit today.

Stillman says net metering is critical to keeping the program simple enough for the average homeowner to understand. “The calculation that every prospective solar customer makes is ‘when will my system be paid off?’  Solar companies know how to approximate this payoff now to a reasonable level of accuracy, and net metering helps with this calculation.  When you change net metering so that customers don’t get full retail, a whole new level of FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt) is introduced making prospective solar customers more uncomfortable and less likely to move forward with the purchase.​”

Sutch and Stillman are members of the Virginia Distributed Solar Alliance, a group of solar industry members and advocates who are seeking to expand opportunities for residents and businesses to install solar. Alliance members have made protecting and expanding net metering their top priority this year. Unfortunately, they were not offered a seat at the Rubin Group table.

The Rubin Group is supposed to act only by consensus, and at least two of the members say they are committed to protecting the interests of the distributed solar community. SELC attorney Will Cleveland and Scott Thomasson of the advocacy group Vote Solar, who is also a board member of the solar industry trade group MDV-SEIA, have both said they disagreed with Rubin’s characterization of net metering as unsustainable. Indeed, says Cleveland, the problem with the net metering law is that it is too restrictive.

Utilities like Dominion Energy are used to getting what they want, and no doubt they see the Rubin Group as one more way to achieve their aims. But they’ve been doing very well with it. Last year the Rubin Group helped them expand their ability to build more utility scale solar at lower cost to themselves, for which they gave up nothing in return. This year, the Rubin Group is trying to help them some more through the work of the other subgroups. It seems reasonable that in exchange for all this help, they should return the favor and give small solar companies a chance to expand their businesses, too.

Who leads on climate and energy in the General Assembly—and how to get your legislators to up their game

Sierra Club Legislative Chair Susan Stillman presents the Good Government award to Senator Chap Petersen. Photo credit Sierra Club.

Each year the Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club issues grades to Virginia legislators for their votes on bills related to energy and climate change. It’s not an easy task, especially in the House, where too many good bills die on unrecorded voice votes in small subcommittees, defying attempts to hold legislators accountable. Other bills become victims of party politics. In spite of this, the scorecard manages to separate the champions from the also-rans, not to mention the boneheads running in the opposite direction. Guest blogger Corrina Beall, Legislative Director for the Virginia Sierra Club, lays it all out for you.

 

By Corrina Beall

The Sierra Club Virginia Chapter 2017 Climate and Energy Scorecard grades the Commonwealth’s state-level elected officials on their votes during the 2017 General Assembly Session on legislation that will have an impact on Virginia’s energy policies and standards to fight climate change. Eighteen of Virginia’s 40 senators and 36 of 100 delegates received a score of 80 percent or better on the 2017 Scorecard, reflected in their A+, A and B grades.

Check out your Senator’s and Delegate’s grades and let them know what you think! Thank them for supporting good environmental policies, or let them know that they need to do better. Scorecard available online, here: http://www.sierraclub.org/virginia/general-assembly-scorecard

As a voter, your elected officials care about your opinions even when you disagree. Regardless of party affiliation, your legislator will be interested to know that passionate environmentalists live in his or her district. Even if you never thought it was possible, you may be able to find some common ground. Talk with your legislator about shared values, and from there, the outcome of a friendly conversation about how we govern is anybody’s guess.

Legislators at all ends of the political spectrum need to hear from environmentalists who live in the districts they represent. The environment isn’t a partisan issue: everyone wants clean air to breathe, clean water to drink, and to protect those resources for future generations.

Nine legislators deserve your special thanks this year for their work to protect our environment our air, water or land during the 2017 Legislative Session. Seven will be awarded by are receiving awards from the Virginia Chapter this summer:

  1. Senator Chap Petersen, Good Government Award
  2. Senator Scott Surovell, Water Champion Award
  3. Delegate Mark Keam, Energy Freedom Award
  4. Senator Jennifer Wexton, Energy Freedom Award
  5. Delegate Rip Sullivan, Legislative Leader Award
  6. Senator Jeremy McPike, Environmental Justice Award
  7. Delegate Kaye Kory, Environmental Justice Award

In addition, Senators Amanda Chase and Richard Stuart will be recognized for outstanding contributions on specific bills that help protect Virginia’s water quality from the consequences of our fossil fuel dependency.

Here is the full run-down:

Senator Richard Stuart (R-28) has led on water quality issues in coastal Virginia during his tenure in the Virginia Senate. Since the first commercial oil well was drilled in 1896 in Virginia, it is estimated that seven thousand oil and gas wells have been drilled in the state. Until 1950, there were no permitting or environmental requirements of well operators– and wells no longer in use were not plugged or closed, but simply abandoned. These abandoned wells, and those that are abandoned by insolvent companies, are called “orphan” wells.

According to the latest state review of oil and natural gas environmental regulations, there are at least 130 orphaned wells in Virginia. Orphaned wells that predate regulation often go unnoticed because their locations were never recorded. According to the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy (DMME), the cost of plugging an orphaned well is between $50,000 and $60,000. It took fifteen years for DMME to accumulate sufficient funds to complete a project of plugging seven wells.

Virginia’s orphan well program is funded by fees charged to well operators when they apply for a well site permit. The fee was set at $50 in 1990, and remained stagnant until this General Assembly Session. Sen. Stuart introduced successful legislation Senate Bill 911 that will increase the fee from $50 to $200.

Senator Chap Petersen (D-34) showed remarkable leadership by proposing to repeal a statute enacted in 2015 (the now-infamous SB 1349), which froze electric rates at levels that are designed to allow Dominion and Appalachian Power to over-collect money from customers. Virginians are now paying too much for their electricity because our largest utilities are earning unjustified profits. Petersen’s bill would have unfrozen utility rates, and allowed for base rate reviews for both utilities, ultimately resulting in lower electric bills and possibly a refund to consumers.

Additionally, Petersen sponsored Senate Bill 1593, which would ban political contributions from regulated monopolies. Petersen’s stand brought the issue of money in politics to the forefront, a focus that has spilled over into the gubernatorial race.

Senator Scott Surovell (D-36) introduced successful legislation this year to place a moratorium on coal ash disposal permits until the issue has been studied and information has been provided to the regulating entity, the Department of Environmental Quality. Senate Bill 1398 requires Dominion to assess a range of alternatives for disposing or recycling coal ash, the toxic byproduct of burning coal for electricity.

Despite the dangers associated with coal ash, it remains both ever-present and under-regulated. Coal ash is the second largest industrial waste stream in the United States. Vast quantities of poorly-contained ash sit in numerous pits along many of the Commonwealth’s most prized rivers, including the James, the Clinch, and the Potomac Rivers. In many cases, coal ash disposal sites are located upstream from popular fishing, kayaking, and hunting destinations.

The bill is an important step toward protecting every Virginian’s right to clean water. Senator Amanda Chase (R-11) co-patroned the bill. Chase raised the profile of this issue and rallied support around this measure, and after a weakened version of the bill passed in both chambers, she pushed for the Governor to strengthen the bill by amending it to include a prohibition on future issuance of permits until the studies are submitted to DEQ in December of 2017.

At the Request of the Virginia Distributed Solar Collaborative, Senator Jennifer Wexton (D-33) and Delegate Mark Keam (D-35) introduced companion legislation to establish community-owned renewable energy programs in Virginia with Senate Bill 1208 and House Bill 2112. Community-owned projects are not legal in Virginia, but could provide the option to power homes and businesses with clean energy for renters, apartment and condo dwellers, low-income families, and buildings that have unfavorable characteristics for on-site generation like deep shade.

Development of wind or solar energy that provides power to multiple community members leverages an economy of scale to reduce the price for each individual customer. By owning or leasing the solar or wind system, each community member taking part in the project can reduce his or her utility bills. Although these bills failed, they helped legislators understand what a true “community solar” bill looks like, and have helped set the stage for future efforts.

Delegate Rip Sullivan (D-48) introduced a suite of bills on energy efficiency this year in addition to a bill to establish renewable energy property tax credits in Virginia, HB 1632. Sullivan’s bills include HB 1703 (energy efficiency goals), HB 1636 (adjusting energy efficiency programs’ criteria for approval by the SCC), and HB 1465. Only HB 1465 passed.

House Bill 1465, which will become law in July, requires the Department of Mines, Minerals, and Energy (DMME) to track and report on the state’s progress towards meeting its energy efficiency goal. Virginia has a voluntary goal, set in 2007, of reducing electricity consumption by 10 percent by 2022, and we are only a tenth of the way there. Despite the modesty of our goal, at our current pace we will not attain it. This legislation requires that the Governor, the General Assembly and the Governor’s Executive Committee on Energy Efficiency will receive an annual report on our progress. Sullivan’s bill will provide a tool to hold the Commonwealth accountable for reaching our energy efficiency goal, and increase government transparency.

Senator Jeremy McPike (D-29) and Delegate Kaye Kory (D-38) introduced Senate Bill 1359 and its companion, House Bill 2089, which require every public school board in the state to adopt a plan to test for lead in each school’s drinking water. Children are particularly vulnerable to the harmful effects of lead poisoning, but often do not look sick. Lead in the body can cause brain damage and developmental problems including learning disabilities, impulsive behavior, poor language skills and memory problems. This bill will become law in July.