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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Virginia residents who want to do right by the planet are confronted with a bewildering array of renewable energy and “green power” options. Unfortunately, few of these programs actually deliver renewable energy. People who want the gold standard — electricity from new wind and solar projects — are completely out of luck if their utility is Dominion Energy Virginia or Appalachian Power.
To understand how there can be so many options and none of them good, we first have to talk about renewable energy certificates. RECs are a topic that is way more interesting than it sounds because — well, it would have to be, wouldn’t it? RECs are how we know that some electricity can be attributed to a renewable source. If you want to know what kind of renewable energy your utility is buying, or if you yourself want to buy renewable energy, RECs matter.
RECs are not electricity; they aren’t even real certificates. They were conceived of as an accounting tool enabling a utility to show it is in compliance with a state mandate to include a percentage of renewable energy in its mix. A utility amasses RECs associated with its own renewable generating sources, or buys them from renewable sources it doesn’t own, and then “retires” them to show compliance with the law. Since RECs are separate from the electricity itself, they can be bought and sold independently. There is even an online marketplace for your REC shopping convenience.
RECs are also how voluntary buyers of renewable energy, like customers of Arcadia or Dominion’s Green Power Program, know they’re actually getting what they pay for —assuming they understand that what they pay for is not actually energy, and may have no relationship to the electricity powering their home or business. If you buy RECs, you are still using whatever electricity your utility provides, but you are also paying a premium on top of your regular bill.
There is no nationwide, generally accepted definition of “renewable energy,” just as there is no definition of “natural” in food labeling. In Virginia, there is a state law defining what counts as renewable, and it includes not just solar, wind and hydro, but also a range of burnable fuels like biomass and municipal solid waste that foul the air and contribute to climate change. Buyer beware!
The Virginia Clean Economy Act narrowed the list of sources that Dominion and APCo can use to meet the law’s new renewable portfolio standard, and also limited the locations of qualifying facilities. After 2025, happily, most of the RECs retired by Dominion and APCo under the VCEA will come from Virginia wind and solar facilities.
But crucially, the VCEA didn’t change the definition of renewable energy in the code. Dominion won’t be able to use RECs from its biomass plants to meet the VCEA, but it can still sell them to anyone else and label the product “renewable” without falling afoul of the law. Anyone buying a renewable energy product from Dominion had better check the list of ingredients.
It’s not just Dominion. Anyone buying RECs from Arcadia or anywhere else should take a good look at what they are getting, and ask themselves if the money they spend means new renewable energy will be added to the grid.
The answer is probably no. If the RECs come from a wind farm in Texas or Iowa, the electricity from those turbines doesn’t feed into the grid that serves Virginia, so you can’t even pretend it is powering your house. It also doesn’t mean anyone built a wind farm because of REC buyers like you. Wind energy is already the cheapest form of new energy in the central part of the U.S. People build wind farms because they are profitable, not because they can sell RECs. In fact, those wind farms are swimming in surplus RECs, because states in the center of the country don’t have renewable energy mandates to make their own utilities buy them.
For that matter, a lot of RECs come from facilities that were built before the idea of RECs even existed. Hundred-year-old hydroelectric dams can sell RECs; so can fifty-year-old paper mills that sell biomass RECs from burning wood.
With this background, let’s look at the offerings available in Virginia and see which are worth paying more for.
Dominion Energy Virginia
In theory, Dominion customers will have the ability to buy real solar energy directly from independent providers beginning as early as 2023, thanks to shared solar legislation sponsored by Sen. Scott Surovell and Del. Jay Jones and passed in 2020. The law envisions independent solar developers building solar facilities in Virginia and selling the electricity (and the RECs) to subscribers who are Dominion customers. But the SCC opened a Pandora’s box last fall by allowing Dominion to propose the rules, and in an act of classic Dominion overreach, the utility has now proposed to collect an average of $75 a month as a “minimum bill” from every customer who buys solar energy from someone else. A fee like that would end the program before it ever started.
The matter is hardly settled. The solar industry has asked for an evidentiary hearing and suggested that the minimum bill should be set at a single dollar. If all else fails, the program may go forward serving only low-income customers, whom the legislation exempts from the minimum bill.
Dominion customers can hope for the best, but any shared solar option is still at least two years away.
In the meantime, the utility’s website lists four renewable energy options: two that sell RECs, one that sells actual energy (and retires the RECs for you) and one that doesn’t exist.
• The REC-based Green Power Program has been around for a decade, and as of 2019 it had more than 31,000 subscribers. Dominion’s “product content label” projected that for 2020 the program would likely consist of 56 percent wind RECs, 34 percent biomass RECs, and 10 percent solar RECs. Facilities are advertised as being “in Virginia and the surrounding region,” but the fine print reveals sources as far away as Mississippi, Georgia, Missouri and Alabama, none of which are part of the PJM transmission grid that serves Virginia. (Side note: the biomass icon is a cow, not a tree, which is misleading but charming, unless they might be burning cows, in which case it is deeply disturbing.) With the website out of date, I contacted Dominion for current content information: solar is now up to 13 percent, but, sadly, biomass still makes up 35 percent of the mix (but now it has a leaf icon!).
• REC Select. When I say “buyer beware,” I have this offering in mind. Dominion has been authorized to go Dumpster diving to buy the cheapest RECs from around the country and from any facility that meets Virginia’s overly-expansive definition of renewable energy. The website implies that so far the company is only buying wind RECs from Oklahoma and Nebraska, an indication of just how cheap those are. But under the terms of the program, the RECs could come from 50-year-old paper mills in Ohio or hundred-year-old hydroelectric dams. No educated consumer would buy this product, and both Dominion and the SCC should be ashamed of themselves for putting it out there.
• The 100% Renewable Energy Program delivers actual energy from Virginia, and retires RECs on your behalf. That’s the good news. But only a few of the solar farms are new; the rest of the energy comes from old hydro plants and, worse, from biomass plants that are so highly polluting that they don’t qualify for Virginia’s renewable energy mandate under the VCEA. The inclusion of biomass makes the program more expensive than it would be otherwise. So why include biomass when no one wants it? Because Dominion doesn’t really care if you sign up for this program. The company only offers it to close off a provision in the law that allowed customers to buy renewable energy from competitors if their own utility doesn’t offer it.
• Dominion’s website does list one attractive program under the name “community solar.” Like the shared solar program already discussed, it would deliver actual solar energy from new facilities to be built in Virginia, while retiring the RECs on your behalf. This would pass all our tests, except that it doesn’t exist. The SCC gave Dominion the green light to offer the program more than two years ago, and we’ve heard nothing since, even though the enabling legislation appears to make it mandatoryfor both Dominion and APCo.
APCo never developed a community solar program either, and the shared solar program discussed earlier would not be available to APCO customers even if it gets off the ground. But APCo does have two renewable energy offerings.
• For its Virginia Green Pricing program, APCo put together wind and hydro from its own facilities. That means it’s actual energy and reasonably priced, at less than half a cent per kWh. But these are existing facilities that all its customers had been paying for until APCo figured out how to segment the market and make more money, and the hydro is old. (As with Dominion’s renewable energy program, the real purpose of the new product was to close off competition.)
• Even cheaper is Alternative Option-REC, the RECs for which “may come from a variety of resources but will likely be associated with energy from waste, solid waste and hydro facilities.” No biomass, anyway, but I still have trouble imagining who would pay extra for (literally) garbage.
Virginia electric coops
Some electric cooperatives offer real renewable energy to customers, and a couple have community solar programs that are quite attractive.
• Many coops also sell RECs, of mixed quality. Shenandoah Valley Electric Cooperative offers RECs generated by wind farms owned or contracted byOld Dominion Electric Cooperative, the generation cooperative that supplies power to most Virginia coops. Rappahannock Electric Cooperative, however, sells only biomass RECs.
• Bottom line: if you are a member of an electric cooperative, you may have better options than either Dominion or APCo is offering — and if you don’t, hey, you’re an owner of the coop, so make some noise!
If you like RECs, you don’t have to buy them from your own utility. The folks at Arcadia have struggled for years to offer products that put new renewable energy on the grid. In states that allow community solar, Arcadia now offers wind and solar from projects in those states. Everywhere else, they just sell RECs. The website provides no information indicating where the facilities are, meaning they could be out in the same central plains states that are awash in surplus wind RECs. Their game plan appears to be for all the nice liberals with climate guilt to throw enough money at red state RECs that eventually the day will come when demand exceeds supply and drives the price up enough to incentivize new projects. The plan sounds self-defeating to me, but in any case, buyers should keep in mind that the RECs bought before that glorious date will have incentivized precisely nothing.
Obviously, if you have a sunny roof, you can install solar onsite and net-meter. Of all the programs available today, that’s the one that will save you money instead of making you spend more.
If you don’t have a sunny roof, but you’d still like to see your money put solar onto the grid, consider contributing to a church, school or non-profit that is going solar, or to an organization that puts solar on low-income homes. Two that operate in Virginia are Give Solar, which puts solar on Habitat for Humanity houses, and GRID Alternatives, which trains workers to install solar on low-income homes here and abroad. If everyone in Virginia who is currently buying RECs were to choose this alternative instead, it would put millions of dollars to work building new solar in Virginia, and lowering the energy bills of people who most need the help.
And that might make it the best option of all.
A version of this article first appeared in the Virginia Mercury on May 21, 2021.
Dominion Energy held its annual shareholder meeting virtually on May 5. Prior to the meeting, some shareholders submitted questions to the company in hopes of getting better transparency about its thinking regarding a range of pressing questions facing both the company and society at large. In an article that ran in the Virginia Mercury the week before the meeting, I offered a list of questions I’d really like answers to as well.
I wasn’t able to attend the shareholder meeting, but I understand the questions mostly did not get answers at that time, with the exception of a non-sequitur CEO Bob Blue offered up in response to a question about third-party sales of renewable energy (read on!). The company has promised to email responses to the people who submitted questions.
2. In last year’s IRP, Dominion’s preferred scenario would have it keeping its gas plants open indefinitely, even past 2045, when the Virginia Clean Economy Act requires them to be closed. The refusal to plan for full compliance with the law almost certainly impacts the decisions Dominion is making today. Now that Bob Blue has taken over the reins of Dominion from former CEO Tom Farrell, has that changed, and can we expect Dominion to take actions consistent with a full phase-out of fossil fuels before 2045?
3. The energy transition will require construction of tens of thousands of megawatts of solar on hundreds of thousands of acres of land across Virginia. However, community resistance to utility-scale solar farms in Virginia is growing, in large part because they look more like industrial uses than like agricultural uses. As a result, some projects are not being permitted, a costly waste of the company’s time and resources. It’s possible to combine solar with traditional agricultural uses like animal grazing, or to install native plants to support pollinators and provide wildlife habitat, both of which would increase community acceptance. Dominion installs pollinator plantings along some of its transmission line rights-of-way, so the company has experience in this area. Will Dominion begin doing this at its solar projects? If not, what is Dominion doing to “sweeten the pot” for local communities in order to secure permits?
4. Dominion offers residential customers the option of a renewable energy product that includes biomass energy, a source that is not carbon-free and produces more air pollution than coal. The inclusion of biomass also makes the tariff more expensive than it would be without biomass. In contrast to this unattractive option, two years ago Dominion received SCC approval to sell solar to residential customers via a “community solar” product. This would have appealed to far more customers, but Dominion never followed through. Why not?
5. With no solar option available, residents who don’t own a house with a sunny roof are currently shut out of the solar market in Dominion’s Virginia territory. In 2019 and 2020 the General Assembly considered legislation that would have allowed customers to buy renewable energy from third party providers. The bill passed the House each year but failed in a Senate committee due to Dominion’s opposition. If Dominion isn’t interested in selling solar to its customers today, why not let them buy it from others?
Mr. Blue reportedly answered this question at the meeting by exclaiming, “Because deregulated markets don’t work, they fail! Look at Texas!”
I can, with difficulty, draw a line from the question to Blue’s answer, but it is not a straight one. Nor is it an honest one, since the causes of the Texas debacle don’t apply here (beyond a similar overreliance on natural gas).
Here is the answer that is most probably true: “We threw together our so-called renewable energy offering for the sole purpose of blocking out competitors, and the SCC stupidly let us get away with it. If we cared about climate change, we would offer a clean renewable energy product people actually want, but we only care about profit. That requires us to keep our customers locked in, but nothing says we have to make them happy.”
But because hope springs eternal, I’ll also add an answer that I would much prefer Mr. Blue to give: “Under my new leadership, we are taking climate science seriously and will develop the renewable energy options our customers want. My goal is to offer a solar tariff so good that none of our customers will want to look elsewhere, and the question will become moot.”
6. According to Dominion’s 2020 IRP, data centers make up 12 percent of Dominion’s load in Virginia, a number that has been increasing by 20 percent per year. Data center operators say they want renewable energy but have trouble getting it from Dominion. The biggest tech companies negotiate deals for solar, but smaller customers have fewer attractive options. What is Dominion doing to ensure that data centers have access to solar energy at attractive market rates?
Notice how the answers to the previous question apply here. Dominion has a huge opportunity to lead on climate, requiring only that the company actually care.
7. A year ago Dominion canceled the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, losing the almost $3 billion already spent on the project but saving the additional $5 billion-plus it would have cost to complete the project. About the same time, Dominion sold off its entire gas transmission business, indicating it had come to see pipelines as poor investments. This makes sense since the company already gets all the gas it needs through existing pipelines, and going forward, climate policies and the increasing competitiveness of renewable energy and battery storage mean gas use will decline. But then the company contracted for 12.5% of the shipping capacity of the Mountain Valley Pipeline through its subsidiary Public Service Company of North Carolina, at a cost of at least $50 million per year. How can the company justify this investment? Is there an exit clause in the contract, or will shareholders suffer in the event the company is not allowed to pass this cost on to ratepayers?
8. Dominion is currently pursuing relicensing of its two aging nuclear reactors at North Anna, which are already beyond their 40-year design life. According to the 2020 IRP, Dominion plans to run the North Anna reactors, as well as its two reactors in Surry County, at least through 2045, the period covered by the IRP. Nuclear is a carbon-free resource, but so are wind and solar, and nuclear plants in other states are closing because they are no longer economically competitive. What will it cost Dominion to refurbish these nuclear plants to keep them in operation safely so far beyond their design life? And what will it cost the company if, in spite of refurbishing, one or more of the reactors can’t pass a safety inspection, or even suffers a major failure?
9. Millions of customers in Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina are at risk from hurricanes and other weather events that can knock out power for many days at a time. Today, onsite solar-plus-storage can keep critical facilities operating and allow community centers and schools to serve local residents who have lost power, ensuring they have a place to store medicines that need refrigeration and to charge cellphones, motorized wheelchairs and other devices. If Dominion were to supply the batteries for these facilities, the company could access them for grid storage and services when they are not needed as backup power. In addition to offering a new profit center, it would relieve some of the pressure on line crews who work to restore power after a storm. When will Dominion offer this lifesaving service to its customers?
10. Electric vehicle charging will increase demand for electricity in Virginia, and it also offers an opportunity for the company to deploy vehicle-to-grid technology, making use of the batteries in buses and private vehicles to help balance the grid. Virginia’s General Assembly rejected legislation that would have allowed Dominion to own and control the batteries in school buses in Virginia, but it passed a bill to help local school districts buy electric buses. Will Dominion now support the ability of the school districts to buy electric school buses and own the batteries themselves, and work with them to implement a vehicle-to-grid program?
Virginia’s General Assembly made history in 2020 by becoming the first state in the South to pass a law requiring the full decarbonization of its electric sector. The Virginia Clean Economy Act requires our two largest utilities, Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power, to close all Virginia carbon-emitting power plants by 2045. As of 2050, the state will not issue carbon allowances to any other power plants in the commonwealth, including those owned by electric cooperatives and independent generators.
Less than a year later, President Joe Biden wants to move up the date for a carbon-free electric grid nationwide to 2035. Biden is also targeting a net-zero carbon economy by 2050. On that, Virginia is actually more ambitious, at least on paper, since the Commonwealth Energy Policy sets a goal for a net-zero economy by 2045.
But the electric sector has to come first, mainly because it’s the linchpin for reductions in the rest of the economy. Clean electricity allows for clean transportation when cars, trucks and buses are electrified, and for clean buildings when gas heating and gas appliances are replaced with electric. It’s harder to zero out emissions from industry and agriculture; we do need more time to develop cost-effective solutions for those.
The good news is the U.S. is already halfway to zero, according to a new report from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory that compared CO2 emissions from the power sector today to projections 15 years ago. But a lot of that achievement came from replacing coal with fracked gas, with energy efficiency and renewables making up the rest. From here on in, efficiency and carbon-free sources have to carry the whole load.
What would it take for Virginia to achieve a carbon-free grid just 14 years from now, half the time allowed by the VCEA? Questions fall roughly into three categories: cost, feasibility and reliability. All three will be easier to overcome if the whole country is working together towards a single goal, especially if the federal government does more than just point the way. But there’s a strong case for optimism regardless.
Cost is the biggest concern in the minds of most people, but it shouldn’t be. It’s been three years since solar became the cheapest form of new power generation in Virginia, and prices continue to drop. The International Energy Administration declared last year that falling prices mean solar is “becoming the new king of the world’s electricity markets,” poised to become the primary source of new electricity generation worldwide by 2030. (Did you read about the solar project in Saudi Arabia that will deliver solar at barely over a penny per kilowatt-hour?)
Wind has been the cheapest form of generation for years in many states, and its price is still falling. Of course, for Virginia the big wind opportunity lies offshore. Offshore wind technology is still in its infancy in the U.S., making it relatively expensive, but its price trajectory is also steeply downward. Once the industry scales up and American manufacturing, supply chain and workforce replace European imports, prices will fall further — though it may never match solar on price.
The only expensive part of an all-renewables scenario right now is the challenge of keeping supply in sync with demand. But as with wind and solar, the cost of battery storage technologies has been falling.
Meanwhile, what happens to our existing fossil fuel plants? Closing coal plants was already the right move for consumers. Virginia’s few remaining coal plants don’t run much and are money sinks. Dominion’s newest coal plant, for example, has a 10-year net present value of negative $472 million. Shuttering coal plants will save money today as well as speeding us along the path to zero carbon.
By contrast, we have a lot of gas plants that currently make money, so our utilities are even more loath to plan for their demise. Dominion spent most of the last decade building out a huge fleet of natural gas combined-cycle plants on the theory that fracking would make gas a cheap fuel forever. The theory ignored the growing competitiveness of wind and solar that was evident even early on in the building spree. This isn’t just hindsight talking; in 2013 I wrote that Dominion’s newly-approved 1,358-megawatt Brunswick County Power Station was destined to become a giant concrete paperweight as clean energy displaced fossil fuels. Yet a few years later Dominion added to its paperweight collection with the even larger Greensville County Power Station.
In both cases the equally short-sighted State Corporation Commission approved these investments, so bad luck, ratepayers: we are stuck paying off the capital costs whether the plants run or not. That does not mean we have to operate them; projections show that by 2030 it will be cheaper to turn gas plants into solar panel factories while we run our grid on wind and sunlight.
A rapid transition to a carbon-free grid poses logistical challenges. We need enough suitable land to hold all that solar. (Agrivoltaics will help.) The federal government needs to identify new areas of the ocean for offshore wind turbines. We also need solutions to seasonal fluctuations in demand. We need new transmission lines. We need enough lithium for batteries, steel for turbines, silicon for solar and a trained workforce, stat!
Federal coordination will be key to solving many of these challenges, but we can also reduce land acquisition and transmission barriers if we don’t insist on replacing large, utility-owned fossil fuel power plants only with large, utility-owned wind and solar farms. Virginians will benefit far more if we prioritize solar and storage on rooftops, parking lots, brownfields, closed landfills and rights-of-way. That’s not just about space, but about assigning value to benefits like storm resilience, emergency preparedness and local jobs.
For the same reason, we should insist on building homes better. Houses that are well insulated need less heat in the winter and air conditioning in the summer, reducing the problem of seasonal swings in energy demand. (They are also healthier and more comfortable.)
A rapid transition to a carbon-free grid is a climate imperative, but it’s still a tall order for a utility or a regulator whose job it is to keep the lights on. Batteries, energy efficiency and demand response programs can do only so much. Planners will also have to factor in the likelihood that by 2035, many vehicles will be electric, and electricity will replace gas appliances in new buildings and retrofits. Balancing supply and demand 24/7 with just today’s tools would not be an easy job.
And, fortunately, they will not be working with today’s tools. The pace of change in energy and computer technology over the past 14 years will be matched or exceeded by the pace of the next 14. Green hydrogen gets all the press, but hundreds of other innovations will also combine to make a zero-carbon energy supply feasible and reliable — and, not incidentally, far better for people and the planet than what we have now.
In fact, we are witnessing the launch of a new era in energy, what Tony Seba’s RethinkX Project calls “the fastest, deepest, most profound disruption of the energy sector in over a century,” driven by low-cost solar, wind and battery storage (SWB).
The Project’s report Rethinking Energy 2020-2030 puts it this way: “The SWB disruption of energy will closely parallel the digital disruption of information technology. Just as computers and the Internet slashed the marginal cost of information and opened the door to hundreds of new business models that collectively have had a transformative impact upon the global economy, so too will SWB slash the marginal cost of electricity and create a plethora of opportunities for innovation and entrepreneurship. What happened in the world of bits is now poised to happen in the world of electrons.”
So, a carbon-free grid by 2035? Bring it on, President Biden. Virginia is ready.