An early look at climate and energy bills in the 2021 session

Last year Virginia’s General Assembly passed more than 30 separate clean energy bills, which together put Virginia on a path to zero-carbon electricity by 2050, enabled massive investments in renewable energy, storage and energy efficiency and eased restrictions on distributed solar. 

But many of the bills that passed were not perfect, and most of the new mandates affect only the electric sector. Only about a quarter of Virginia’s greenhouse gas emissions comes from power plants, so getting serious about a zero carbon economy means finding ways to reduce emissions from transportation, buildings, industry and agriculture. 

Unfortunately, building on last year’s progress will be hard this winter, not because there aren’t plenty of opportunities, but because the legislative session that starts Jan. 13 is likely to be exceptionally short and tightly-controlled. If, as expected, Republicans force a 30-day session limit(including weekends and holidays), that means each chamber must dispose of its own bills even faster than that to meet the crossover deadline (around Jan. 28, I’m told), when bills that have passed one chamber “cross over” to be considered in the other. Leadership has responded by strictly limiting the number of bills a legislator can carry, hoping not to overwhelm the committees that have to vet the bills. 

One result is that complex bills haven’t got a prayer. Climate advocates and their legislative champions will be focused on bills that are narrowly-crafted (or at least short) and easy to explain. 

Adding to the challenge, for those who want to weigh in with their legislators, is the fact that very few bills appear in the Legislative Information System yet, in another departure from prior years. 

And then of course, there’s COVID-19, disrupting normal procedures and making it harder than ever for citizens to make their voices heard. 

So yeah, ain’t we got fun?

What follows is a list of bills that are far along in the drafting process, have a patron, and are likely to be filed this year. I’m omitting other initiatives that don’t seem likely to make it into legislation this year or that I don’t have enough information to go on. I have not seen the language for any of these bills, so descriptions are based on previous years’ legislation, information from legislators and advocates, or both.

Building codes

One of the most cost-effective ways to lower carbon emissions from buildings is by constructing them with an eye to saving energy right from the start. If the builder puts more insulation in the walls and attic, reduces draftiness and installs better windows, buyers will save money and future residents will have lower heating and cooling costs for decades. Any small increases in a buyer’s mortgage costs are recouped many times over in utility bill savings.  

A national standard for energy efficiency in residential buildings even takes the guesswork out. The standard, known as the International Energy Efficiency Code (IECC), is updated every three years by a national organization referenced in the law setting out procedures for adopting Virginia’s residential building code. Unfortunately, the Board of Housing and Community Development (BHCD) has long ignored its statutory obligation to keep Virginia’s building code at least consistent with these nationally recognized standards. 

As a result of that, and BHCD’s slow review process, Virginia’s building code is still behind the 2012-2018 IECC’s consumer protections.  Unless BHCD is compelled to protect residents consistent with national standards, sub-standard housing will continue to be built for years into the future.    

Ideally, the attorney general or the governor would direct BHCD to correct its latest decision to extend substandard code protections. Regardless, this long history of our building code underperforming national standards calls for legislative action. Sen. Jennifer Boysko, D-Fairfax, is expected to introduce legislation that would require the BHCD to adopt the latest IECC within 12 months.  

[Update: Boysko’s bill is SB1224. Delegate Kory has also introduced HB2227.]

Right to buy

It’s a strange paradox. The Virginia Clean Economy Act is one of the most ambitious clean energy laws in the U.S., calling on our utilities to add thousands of megawatts of solar and wind energy in the coming years. And yet most Virginia customers still can’t buy solar energy unless they install it on their own property. 

This is an absurd position for Virginia to be in today, insisting on an energy transition but not allowing customers to actually go buy electricity from solar. Indeed, this restriction threatens Virginia’s ability to meet its carbon reduction goals, for one reason in particular: data centers. 

Data centers are energy hogs, and this sector has grown so fast in Virginia it now makes up 12 percent of Dominion Energy’s total electric demand in the state. Most data center operators say they want to run on renewable energy, and we need them to make good on that. Otherwise, cutting carbon will be harder and more expensive for the rest of us. 

But we have to make it possible for them to do so. Right now, only the really big companies, like Microsoft or Facebook, can get Dominion to come to the table on solar deals. The rest don’t have that kind of market power. Neither, of course, do residential customers and small businesses. 

The irony is that customers actually had the right to go outside their utility to buy 100% renewable energy until just recently. The Virginia Code gives customers that right so long as their own utility wasn’t offering a 100% renewable energy product. But first Appalachian Power, and then Dominion Energy Virginia, triggered a “kill switch” by offering their own products. The trouble is, these products cost more, use existing facilities instead of adding new renewable energy to the grid, and in Dominion’s case, include the poison pill of dirty biomass energy.

Last year saw the passage of a bill patroned by Del. Jeffrey Bourne, D-Richmond, that would return to customers their right to go outside their utility to buy renewable energy from sellers who qualify as competitive service providers. But there was a catch: an amendment tacked on at the last moment made the bill effective only if passed again in 2021.

Delegate Bourne is bringing the bill back this year, with added language that would require competitive service providers who sell renewable energy in Virginia to offer a discount to low and moderate income consumers. The providers would have to offer 100% renewable energy at a 10% discount off the cost of the utility’s standard residential rate. [Update: the bill is HB2048.]

Workers install solar panels at Huguenot High School in Richmond. (Sun Tribe Solar)

Solar for public schools and other government buildings

Last year the VCEA and Solar Freedom legislation expanded the ability of customers to finance onsite solar projects by raising the cap on third-party power purchase agreements (PPAs) and making the program available to a wider range of customers in Appalachian Power territory, where it had previously been restricted. The new limits in Dominion territory are 500 MW for “non-jurisdictional” customers like local governments and schools and 500 MW for “jurisdictional” customers like residents and businesses; in Appalachian Power territory the new limit is 40 MW for all customers. This year a bill from Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, clarifies that the program in Appalachian Power territory applies to non-jurisdictional customers as well as jurisdictional customers. 

The bill also expands a pilot program for municipal net metering established in 2019 that allowed a local government to use surplus electricity generated by solar panels on one building for another building also owned by the locality. As originally enacted, however, the pilot program did not allow the locality to use PPA financing for its solar panels, a restriction that prevents budget-conscious local governments from using the program. Senator Edwards’ bill will let local governments of both Dominion and APCo use PPAs for solar projects installed under the pilot program. In addition, the previous caps on the municipal net metering pilot program are removed in favor of the general PPA program caps. 

[Update: Delegate Hurst introduced HB2049, which just addresses PPAs in APCo territory.]

Transportation

What RGGI does for the electric sector, the Transportation Climate Initiative (TCI) is supposed to do for transportation. As Sarah Vogelsong reported last week, Virginia is participating in the development of the multistate compact designed to lower carbon emissions from the transportation sector 30 percent by 2032, but it hasn’t yet pledged to join the compact. There may be some details to work out before that happens, including resolving concerns from environmental justice leaders who believe more of the revenues should go to historically underserved communities. So whether we will see a TCI bill this year is anyone’s guess, but I’ve included it here because of the impact it would have if it does show up.

Three other transportation bills are more certain. One, called the Clean Car Standard, simply requires manufacturers of electric vehicles to send some of their vehicles to Virginia dealers, so consumers can actually buy them. (Weirdly, many dealers are opposed.) Del. Lamont Bagby, D-Henrico, is expected to carry the bill; its passage is a priority for a long list of environmental and grassroots groups. [The bill is HB1965.]

A bill from Del. David Reid, D-Loudoun, would have Virginia offer incentives for the purchase of electric vehicles, following recommendations from a 2019 study. I’m told we should also expect at least one bill from Del. Mark Keam, D-Fairfax, and one from Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, to get more electric school buses on the road. [Reid’s bill is HB1979. Keam’s is HB2118.]

Another bill would require a Transit Modernization Study, which would gather information about how the public is currently being served by the existing transit system, including details as specific as which bus stops in which communities have benches and covered facilities. The study will determine which transit systems have infrastructure needs related to safety, reliability and environmental impact, such that when funding is available, the results of the study can ensure that funding is allocated equitably and to be used to make non-car options more appealing. A patron will be announced soon. [The patron is McQuinn, and the bill is HJ542.]

Environmental Justice

Del. Shelly Simonds, D-Newport News, and Keam are expected to introduce a bill that will expand last year’s Environmental Justice Act to change how the state forms and carries out environmental justice policies within agencies, and to ensure greater public involvement in the permitting process at DEQ. Among other issues, residents often learn too late that Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality has finalized a permit for a facility that will add to the pollution in their community. The legislation would also require DEQ to consider the cumulative impact of polluting facilities — that is, to take into account whether the community is already overburdened.

Low-income ratepayer protections

The State Corporation Commission has been busy writing implementing regulations for many of the programs established by 2020 legislation. Some of the rules that have come out of the SCC are disappointing enough that I wouldn’t be surprised to see corrective legislation, but probably not until next year. One exception, where legislation is needed right away, concerns the Percentage of Income Payment Program. 

The PIPP is an important feature of the Virginia Clean Economy Act  that caps utility bills for qualifying low-income customers. The SCC convened a stakeholder group to hammer out the details, but concluded the statute did not provide enough information to go on. An SCC order issued Dec. 23 left open critical elements of the program, and urged the General Assembly to provide additional legislative guidance. It is very late in the year to craft a response and secure a patron, but the administration and advocates are trying. 

Pipelines

A bill from Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, adds specificity to the currently vague process that governs small to medium changes in pipeline routes and may impact permit conditions like erosion control measures. Currently it is unclear under what conditions DEQ must re-examine plans it has previously approved. The legislation will bring clarity and explicit direction to all parties involved. [The bill is SB1311.]

At least one and possibly two other bills that would affect pipeline construction are also said to be in the works, but I have no details. [See SB1265, from Senator Deeds.]

Fossil fuel moratorium

Last year’s Virginia Clean Economy Act contains a two-year moratorium on new fossil fuel electric generating plants. Del. Joshua Cole, D-Fredericksburg, is expected to introduce legislation expanding this into a permanent moratorium on all new fossil fuel infrastructure, to take effect in 2022. The bill would exempt retail projects like local gas hook-ups but would otherwise affect not just electric generation, but pipelines, fracking infrastructure, refineries and processing facilities. 

Utility reform

Last year saw a number of bills that would affect how our utilities do business. These issues have not gone away, so we should expect to see legislation to strengthen SCC oversight and pare back the ability of utilities to pocket overearnings. [Clean Virginia produced a whole slew of bills. These include HB1835, HB1914, HB1984, HB2049, HB2160, and HB2200.]

Will there be bad bills?

Yes, we should expect to see a few bills from Republicans attempting to roll back parts (or all) of the Virginia Clean Economy Act, or trying to block Virginia’s participation in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. These aren’t expected to get far in the Democratically-controlled General Assembly. [So far the worst of the bunch is HB2265.]

This post originally appeared in the Virginia Mercury on January 4, 2021. It has been updated to reflect additional bill information.

Do hominoids dream of solar sheep?

Photo credit American Solar Grazing Association
http://www.solargrazing.org

Everybody has a favorite topic to bring up at parties when someone who knows them only vaguely and can’t remember what line of work they’re in seeks clues by asking, “So what have you been up to lately?”

“Advocating for offshore wind!” I used to respond brightly, which is why I wasn’t that popular at parties even before the pandemic.

But I got my longed-for turbines when Virginia Governor Ralph Northam and Dominion Energy committed to developing 2,600 megawatts of offshore wind by the middle of this decade.

So now I’m campaigning for another cutting-edge technology, or rather, for a cutting-edge combination of otherwise familiar technologies. I’m talking about agrivoltaics. For those of you not in the know, agrivoltaics refers to using land for solar panels and farming purposes at the same time. The “construction footprint” of solar—that is, the amount of land at a solar facility that is taken up by infrastructure and can’t be used for anything else—is less than 2%. The rest is up for grabs.

Consider one approach. At most utility-scale solar facilities, the ground under and between the rows of solar panels is planted in grass, which has to be mowed periodically. Instead of paying a maintenance crew to come through with lawn mowers, why not hire sheep to do the lawn care? The sheep do a better job at less cost, the shepherds get fresh pasture for their flock, and the soil gets nicely fertilized.

(Sheep, it turns out, are the grazers of preference. Cattle like to rub up against things that ought not to have 1200-pound animals rubbing against them, and goats—well, they’re goats: they eat the wiring.)

Photo credit Furman University.

I admit I have no personal knowledge of this, since I live in wooded suburbs with neither solar panels nor sheep. The closest I get to country life is owning a dog of the farm collie variety. And she shows no talent for herding, though it’s possible she is just not in her element. Five years after arriving here from rural South Carolina, Ellie has still not gotten over her indignation at having been “rescued” by a family without a farm.

Actually, I recently toyed with the fantasy of moving to a farm, which is such a COVID cliché that I apologize for mentioning it. But if my fellow residents of Northern Virginia haven’t done this yourselves, you will cry in your morning latte to learn that for the price of the average home in the D.C. area, you can buy hundreds of acres of open space elsewhere in Virginia, typically with a house thrown in. Alas, not a single listing mentioned suitability for solar, with or without sheep, and when I caught on that they didn’t mention internet access either, my enthusiasm waned.

So what I know about solar sheep comes mostly from the American Solar Grazing Association, which I urge you to check out because it is by far the cutest professional organization I have ever belonged to. Most of the projects it highlights are small in scale, given that the partnership between solar developers and shepherds is a new one. Still, the partnerships work because they save money for solar project owners and earn money for graziers.

A few Virginia farmers and developers have shown it works. The 3-megawatt Bedford Solar Farm has used sheep as the primary means of vegetation management since beginning operations in January 2018. Sheep are also on the job at the 1.3-megawatt solar facility at Carilion New River Valley Medical Center near Roanoke. The project owner, Secure Futures LLC, argues for the economic and environmental benefits in an enthusiastic blogpost (but beware of the b-a-a-a-d puns).

For others, the bigger benefit comes in community acceptance. The more a solar facility looks and operates like an agricultural use, the easier it will be to integrate it into the rural landscape. If we want Virginia to succeed in its quest to decarbonize our electricity supply, we need more solar. We need much more of it on rooftops and parking lots and closed landfills, but we also need the big projects. The carbon math just doesn’t work otherwise.

Virginia’s solar industry is young, but developers already report difficulty in securing permits for projects that require hundreds or even thousands of acres. The industry sweetened the pot this year by supporting laws that provide extra revenue to counties in exchange for hosting projects. But solar was already a good deal for county government and landowners, producing more revenue for both than farming alone. The people putting up a fuss are the neighbors.

Sheep graze under a solar array. (Photo courtesy Solar Power World and Nexamp)

I’m not terribly sympathetic to these folks. Virginia has lost way more farmland and forests to subdivisions than it ever will to solar projects, including the subdivisions many of those complaining neighbors live in (looking at you, Fawn Lake!). Land that is carved up and paved over never becomes a field or forest again, but solar is a temporary use; when the lease is up, the panels and their supports are taken away, and an open meadow remains.

As for concerns about losing land that was growing food, we need to keep in mind that more than 30 million acres of U.S. farmland is largely wasted today growing the 40 percent of U.S. corn production that gets processed into ethanol for mixing with gasoline. Solar is not competing with food.

But it isn’t me who has to be persuaded, it’s the people who show up at public hearings to oppose what they regard as some kind of industrial eyesore. They don’t care that leasing land for solar may be what lets a family hold onto their farm. They don’t want to look at it.

So developers, and the utilities who buy the projects from them, have to do more to make themselves welcome by offering other benefits. It doesn’t have to be sheep. Some developers offer wildlife-friendly fencing and set aside land for walking trails. Another especially welcome trend is for facility owners to plant native wildflowers in place of grass to support bees and other pollinators.

If sheep don’t move you, pollinators should. We are in a biodiversity crisis as well as a climate crisis, and populations of native bees critical to pollination of many food crops are in steep decline. So why not make use of the space under solar panels to strike a blow for bees? Neighboring farmers also benefit, because studies show that attracting insect pollinators increases yields of food crops grown nearby. A study from Yale University found additional benefits, including the cooling effect of native plantings that increase solar production.

Minnesota and Maryland are leading the way in formalizing programs with guidelines and incentives for pollinator-friendly solar facilities, but Virginia is also out front on this topic. The Departments of Conservation and Recreation (DCR), Mines, Minerals and Energy (DMME), and Environmental Quality (DEQ) created the Virginia Pollinator-Smart Solar Program and developed a scorecard to help local governments and solar developers understand how to achieve pollinator-friendly status. (Check out the terrific webinar from last April.)

Wildflowers in front of solar panels illustrate pollinator plantings around solar panels
Photo credit Center for Pollinators in Energy, fresh-energy.org

Solar developer Sun Tribe announced it achieved the state’s first Gold Certified solar site under the program at Cople Elementary School in Westmoreland County, where the solar array sits on 4.3 acres. Small projects like this should be simple to replicate, but scaling up may be harder.

For one thing, the only large supplier of native plant seeds in our region, Ernst Conservation Seeds in Pennsylvania, projects that it would take up to ten years to build up enough stock to supply a robust utility-scale solar market. (Ernst also has a seed mix designed for those who want both pollinator plants and sheep among their solar panels; of course it’s called “Fuzz and Buzz.”)

The solar companies I’ve spoken with are enthusiastic, but they cite one other challenge: persuading their customers, including utilities, to accept sheep or pollinator plantings on site. So we may have to look to other kinds of customers for leadership: institutional buyers, corporations and government buyers — the kind of customers for whom social and environmental benefits add value beyond the cheap electricity they can get from solar.

I don’t imagine I will ever be able to give my dog a farm, with or without solar sheep, but I take comfort in the certainty that grazing, native plantings and other co-benefits will eventually become standard practice, simply because they’ll have to.

Meeting our energy needs sustainably means solar is going to become a visible part of our landscape. The job of the solar industry, its allies and its customers is to make that not just tolerable, but welcome. And for that, solar projects must offer more than energy.

This article originally appeared in the Virginia Mercury on December 11, 2020.

How a Biden presidency will help Virginia’s energy transition

Photo credit: NREL

Immediately following the 2016 election of Donald Trump, I wrote a column titled “Why Trump won’t stop the clean energy revolution.”

If you were to read it now, you would yawn. What seemed bold back then now feels like forecasting the inevitable. Of course coal has not come back. Of course wind and solar are cheaper now than fossil fuels. Of course people agree a zero-carbon future is achievable. 

Still, few of us could have predicted how far off course Trump would try to take us. Withdrawing from the Paris climate accord was the least of it. The Washington Post tallied more than 125 rollbacks of environmental regulations and policies over the past four years. Trump’s more flamboyant acts of perfidy distracted attention away from his sustained attack, not just on climate science, but on the laws protecting America’s lands, air and water.

Really, we should be grateful Trump staffed his administration with grifters and sycophants who repeatedly bungled the details and opened their decisions to legal challenge. Incompetence is underrated. Skilled managers would have done much more damage. 

Yet the past four years have also pushed us closer to the brink of climate chaos and the collapse of ecosystems. We wasted time we did not have. 

As president, Joe Biden will be able to undo most of the environmental rollbacks with new executive orders and agency actions. Biden has also promised a long list of new initiatives, though many of them would require Democratic control of the Senate. 

Virginia and other states partially filled the four-year void with commitments to decarbonize our electricity supply and build renewable energy. But even for Virginia the path to zero-carbon would be a lot easier with federal action. Public support for climate action is strong even from Republicans, though it’s hard to imagine a really aggressive climate bill getting a floor vote in the Senate while Mitch McConnell is in charge. (In my dreams, Maine Senator Susan Collins announces she is changing her party affiliation to Independent and will caucus with Democrats to get a climate bill passed. I have really great dreams.)

Let’s assume for now, though, that Joe is on his own. What can he do through executive orders and agency actions? A lot, it turns out, so I’ll just focus on a few high-profile moves and how they might affect the energy transition here in Virginia.

Carbon emissions: a new Clean Power Plan? Recall that back in 2016, the EPA finalized regulations under the Clean Air Act designed to reduce carbon emissions from power plants with state-by-state targets. Lawsuits and backpedaling by the Trump EPA prevented the Clean Power Plan from ever taking effect, and the replacement plan was derided for its weakness

Four years later, a Biden EPA could use the same Clean Air Act authority to write new regulations. The thing is, though, the Clean Power Plan put the squeeze on coal-dependent states but would have had virtually no effect on Virginia. And that was before the Virginia Clean Economy Act set us on a path to decarbonization, putting Virginia ahead of any revamped rule that might come out of the EPA now. 

A better scenario for us would be if the threat of new climate action from EPA brought Republican senators to the table for a climate bill that would, say, impose a carbon tax (or fee-and-dividend) in return for stripping EPA of its authority to regulate carbon emissions. 

But I promised to focus on what Biden can do without Congress, so let’s get back to that. 

Coal. Among the protections Trump tried to roll back are EPA regulations like the Mercury and Air Toxics Standard and the Coal Ash Rule, both of which limit pollution caused by coal plants. While both are in litigation (see “bungling,” above), we can expect the EPA under Biden to reverse course and, if anything, tighten these protections. Virginia has already committed to closing most of its coal plants, a decision that will prove even wiser when coal plants have to meet stricter standards.  

Of course, these Trump regulatory rollbacks didn’t do the coal industry any good. Nationally, coal plants have continued to close at an even faster rate than they did during Obama’s second term. The false hopes Trump offered for a coal renaissance forestalled real efforts to help communities in Appalachia transition. 

Here in Virginia, even coalfields legislators understand the need to diversify the economy of Southwest Virginia. Biden’s election is their wake-up call to stop trying to revive a past that was never a golden era for workers anyway, however enriching it was for the coal bosses. 

Fracked gas. Biden made it clear he would not ban fracking other than on federal lands, but we can expect stronger regulations to limit the leakage of methane from wellheads, pipelines and storage infrastructure. That’s a Virginia priority, too. 

Energy efficiency. Federal efficiency requirements for products including appliances and HVAC systems have proven to be low-cost and consumer-friendly. A renewed focus on strong national standards will help reduce per-capita energy consumption and help Virginia meet its carbon reduction goals at less cost to consumers. 

Wind and solar. It would take legislation to extend federal tax credits for renewable energy, but there are other actions the Biden administration can take to support wind and solar. These include increased funding of R&D through the Department of Energy (a program that already has support in Congress), and removing tariffs on imported solar panels. 

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission can also help wind and solar. FERC has caused its share of climate damage, most memorably for Virginians by approving the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley pipelines. FERC’s decisions also control the playing field for the electricity sector, including rules that currently disadvantage wind and solar in the wholesale markets. These rules could just as easily be rewritten. Although FERC is an independent agency, Biden will have an opportunity to appoint climate-friendly FERC commissioners as vacancies occur and terms expire. 

And indeed, FERC is already starting to come around. Chairman Neil Chatterjee recently hosted a technical conference and issued a proposed policy statement on carbon pricing in regional markets, an act that may have led Trump to demote him this month. 

Offshore wind. Within the Department of Interior, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) issues offshore energy leases and oversees development of offshore projects, including wind farms. More than a year ago offshore wind activity at BOEM ground almost to a halt, setting back one project after another. Congress isn’t happy, and it may direct more funding to BOEM to help re-start the process. 

Biden will also direct BOEM to get out of the way of current projects and begin the process of designating new offshore lease areas for development. Both of these are critical to Virginia’s clean energy plans. (Of course, an investment tax credit for offshore wind would help, too — but there I go again, looking for legislation.)

Transportation. Until Trump came in, the auto industry was gradually improving fuel economy standards in new cars and light trucks. Biden will put that program back in place, and likely impose more stringent tailpipe emission standards. These moves will boost the transition to electric and hybrid vehicles and lead to lower carbon emissions from the transportation sector, another Virginia priority.

Declaring a national climate emergency. It’s a long shot, but Biden could use his executive authority to declare a climate emergency the way Trump declared a national emergency to redirect funds from national defense to his border fence. There are many ways this could help the Virginia transition if Biden were to go this route. 

But of course he won’t. Biden is no Trump. And for that, we should all be grateful. 

This article was originally published in the Virginia Mercury on November 12, 2020.

The SCC’s vanishing trick: turning shared solar into no solar

Photo courtesy of Department of Energy, via Wikimedia Commons.

With Virginia fully committed to the clean energy transition, you would think that by now, residents would be able to check a box on their utility bill to buy solar energy, or at least be able to call up a third-party solar provider to sell them electricity from solar.

Not so. Sure, if you’re fortunate enough to own your own house or commercial building, and it’s in a sunny location and the roof is sound, you can install solar panels for your own use. Renters, though, are completely out of luck, which means almost all lower and moderate-income people are shut out of the solar market.

Actually, we were all supposed to be able to buy solar by now. A 2017 law required utilities to offer a “community solar” program. Utilities would buy electricity from solar facilities and sell it to customers. At least one electric cooperative followed through, but although Dominion Energy, Virginia’s biggest utility, created a program and had it approved by the SCC in 2018, the company has never offered it.

So this year the General Assembly passed two bills that would finally bring the benefits of solar energy to a broader range of customers. One would be community solar but under a different name. It would let anyone buy electricity from a “shared solar” facility, with at least 30 percent of the output reserved for low-income customers.

The other, the leadoff section of the Solar Freedom legislation, would let residents of apartment buildings and condominiums share the output of a solar array located on the premises or next door.

The bills were narrowed in committee to apply only in Dominion Energy territory (and for the multifamily program, to a part of Southwest Virginia served by Kentucky Utilities). Dominion also lobbied successfully for changes to the shared solar bill that raised red flags with solar industry members and advocates. Dominion has a long history of putting barriers in the way of customers who want solar, and the final language of the shared solar legislation pretty much invited that sort of mischief.

Still, it was left to the State Corporation Commission to write rules implementing the programs, so customers had reason to hope Dominion would not be allowed to make the programs unwieldy and expensive.

Ha. What has emerged from the SCC in the form of proposed rules manages to be both incoherent and everything Dominion wants. The reason for that is clear: most of the rules are copied and pasted from proposals Dominion submitted in August.

Adopting the recommendations of a company that failed to follow through on its own program seems like a bad idea. Hasn’t Dominion abdicated its right to tell other companies how to execute community solar?

And of course, with Dominion writing the rules, the programs won’t work. The shared solar option doesn’t kick in until at least 2023, and customers won’t be told what it will cost them. The SCC proposes to hold an “annual proceeding” to decide each year how much subscribers will have to pay in the form of a minimum bill, an amount that can then change from year to year.

This minimum bill is not the eight or nine dollar fixed charge that all customers pay today; it’s a whole new charge representing various of Dominion’s real or imagined costs of doing business, which Dominion says it needs to recover from the subscribers to compensate it for the fact that some other company is now selling them electricity.

How much might this be? No one knows. And because no one knows, it’s also impossible for solar companies or other third-party providers to offer the program. They can’t sell a product whose price is unknown, and banks aren’t going to loan them money to build a solar facility with no assurance that there will be customers.

There are really only two ways to save this program. The SCC could hold an evidentiary hearing upfront to examine the costs Dominion claims it needs to recover and then decide what the minimum bill ought to be. If that number is so high that the program can’t work, the SCC gets the privilege of telling the General Assembly there won’t be a shared solar program after all.

Alternatively, the SCC can follow the lead of states that already have successful programs and set the minimum bill (upfront) at a level that still saves customers money, so projects have a fighting chance of getting off the ground. If Dominion thinks it is losing money on the deal, that’s a claim it can pursue in its next rate case — which is where the dispute belongs.

Either way, the industry needs clarity, and it needs it now.

Multifamily solar: from straightforward to hopeless

The drafters of Solar Freedom thought they’d avoided the mess that threatens to tank the shared solar program. The multifamily provision of Solar Freedom is simply a way to let residents of apartment buildings and other multifamily units enjoy the same benefits available to homeowners who install solar under the net metering program. Instead of putting solar on a roof they own, they can buy the output of solar panels on the roof of the building where they live. It’s not net metering, but that’s the model.

Since the solar is onsite, none of these projects will be big. Keeping it simple and inexpensive is important. The law provides that utilities will credit participating customers for their share of solar at a rate “set such that the shared solar program results in robust project development and shared solar program access for all customer classes.” More specifically, the commission “shall annually calculate the applicable bill credit rate as the effective retail rate of the customer’s rate class, which shall be inclusive of all supply charges, delivery charges, demand charges, fixed charges and any applicable riders or other charges to the customer.”

The law couldn’t be clearer: there is to be no minimum bill, and the utility cannot load up a customer’s bill with lots of miscellaneous extra charges. All those charges that the SCC loads into the shared solar program’s minimum bill are, for the multifamily program, already included in the retail rate.

End of discussion? Not hardly. The SCC’s implementing rules — which are Dominion’s rules — get around this problem by dumping all the minimum bill elements from the shared solar rules onto the program provider instead (that is, the company that owns the solar panels).

Solar Freedom doesn’t actually allow that, either, so the SCC has decided these costs should be part of the one fee the utility is allowed to collect, for “reasonable costs of administering the program.” Never mind that items like “standby generation and balancing costs” have nothing to do with administering the program.

Oh, and the SCC won’t decide what the administrative charge will be until it holds an annual proceeding. And the amount can change every year. So once again, the SCC has designed a program that no solar company will be able to offer.

The SCC rules are so blatantly contrary to the program mandate set out in Solar Freedom that one can’t help but wonder whose side the SCC is on.

It is certainly not the customers’. We want solar.

The SCC is accepting comments on the proposed rules for both the shared solar and multifamily programs through Monday.

This article originally appeared in the Virginia Mercury on October 30, 2020.

Is a new pumped hydro project needed for the energy transition, or one more Dominion boondoggle?

Back in 2017, two Republican legislators from Southwest Virginia helped Dominion Energy Virginia secure legislation allowing the utility to charge ratepayers for a new pumped hydro storage facility to be built in the coalfields region. 

Dominion Energy headquarters, Richmond, VA
Dominion Energy’s new headquarters building in Richmond, Virginia

The law even deemed the project “in the public interest.” Three years later, Dominion included a new pumped hydro project in its 2020 Integrated Resource Plan. The 300-megawatt facility would be built in Tazewell County and come online in 2030.

But — surprise, surprise — details in the IRP reveal the project to be unneeded and its price exorbitant. That leaves just one question: Will the State Corporation Commission approve the IRP anyway?

Pumped hydro stores surplus energy using two reservoirs, one at the top of a hill and one at the bottom. When you need energy, you release water from the upper reservoir and let it flow down through a hydroelectric turbine to the lower reservoir. When you have a surplus of energy, you use it to pump water uphill to fill the upper reservoir. Repeat as needed. It’s not high-tech, but it gets the job done.

Today pumped storage is used mostly to store surplus energy at night from baseload fossil fuel and nuclear plants that run 24/7, then use the energy to meet the surge in demand during daylight and early evening hours. As wind and solar become bigger players, pumped storage can also help integrate these variable resources in much the same way that batteries can. 

But pumped storage is land-intensive, and each project has to be designed for its own particular site, making it expensive to develop. Or in this case, very expensive. In its 2017 Annual Report, Dominion said its project would cost up to $2 billion and provide up to 1,000 MW of storage capacity ($2 million per megawatt, not terrible for this kind of storage). Three years later the size has shrunk by 70 percent but the cost has actually gone up and now stands at $2.3 billion ($7.7 million per megawatt, genuinely terrible). 

That didn’t stop Dominion from including the 300 MW of new pumped storage hydro in every scenario of its IRP, not allowing its modeling software the option of rejecting it as unneeded or as more expensive than other options.

What was once an interesting project idea now looks a heck of a lot like another Dominion boondoggle.

As Virginia embarks on a transition to 100 percent carbon-free electricity, the ability to store energy has become a hot topic of discussion. How much do we need, and can batteries do it all? The one advantage that pumped storage has over batteries is that a pumped storage facility can supply energy over a longer duration: 10 hours as opposed to the four hours typical of most batteries. For the rare occasions when you really need those extra hours, pumped hydro can be a solution.

As it happens, though, Dominion is already the majority owner of the world’s largest pumped hydro project. The 3,000 MW facility in Bath County, Virginia, has been in operation since 1985. Dominion earns money by selling its energy storage service to the operator of the regional transmission grid, PJM Interconnection. 

Three thousand megawatts is a lot of storage; the Bath County facility is even nicknamed “the world’s largest battery.” So building more pumped storage would only be reasonable if the Bath County facility were already being used to its maximum capacity (or was projected to max out in the future), and if a new facility could meet a need that can’t be met by alternatives like batteries. Unfortunately for Dominion, neither of those is true. Tazewell is a solution in search of a problem. 

Consumers smell a rat. Dominion customer Glen Besa intervened in the IRP case this summer to challenge the inclusion of the Tazewell project. Besa retired a few years ago as director of the Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club; he is acting on his own behalf in this case, represented by attorney William Reisinger of the firm ReisingerGooch. 

The firm hired energy storage expert Kerinia Cusick. Her testimony points out that the IRP shows the Bath County facility is expected to be used lessover the coming years, not more. The IRP projects capacity factors for the facility will decline steadily from 10.7 percent in 2021 to 7.5 percent in 2035. If an existing facility has spare capacity, there is no good case for building another facility like it.

Cusick also compared the $2.3 billion cost of the Tazewell project to an equivalent amount of battery storage. Not surprisingly, the battery storage won hands down. Indeed, Cusick noted, the cost of battery storage has fallen over the years and is projected to continue doing so. By contrast, she found Dominion had understated the costs of the pumped storage project by excluding items like land costs and taxes. (The real number she calculated, unfortunately, is not available to us. It has been redacted from the public version of Cusick’s testimony.)

In sum, there is no need for the Tazewell project, and no economic case to support it. Adding billions of dollars in unneeded infrastructure to Dominion’s rate base will add profit for Dominion shareholders but drive up electricity bills for consumers.

There’s no way the SCC would let Dominion get away with this if legislators hadn’t used the magic words “in the public interest.” Now the question is whether those magic words are all it takes to ram a project through.

The SCC takes its job of protecting ratepayers seriously; it does not welcome legislative interference. Only grudgingly did the SCC allow itself to be coerced into approving Dominion’s offshore wind pilot when the legislature proclaimed the pilot project in the public interest. In that case, after pointing out the high cost and risks borne by ratepayers, the SCC order concluded by grumbling, “Recent amendments to Virginia laws that mandate that such a project be found to be ‘in the public interest’ make it clear that certain factual findings must be subordinated to the clear legislative intent expressed in the laws governing the petition.”

But the offshore wind pilot was just that, a pilot, and its $300 million price tag represented an investment in a new industry that is expected to become a mainstay of Virginia’s future energy supply. Legislators knew the costs, and judged them acceptable. 

Pumped hydro, on the other hand, is a mature technology. The proposed Tazewell project won’t lead to bigger and better things, driving costs down along the way. Legislators deemed it “in the public interest” for Dominion to locate a pumped storage project in the coalfields because they are desperate for jobs there. But they were misled about the actual cost. That ought to matter.

If it doesn’t matter — if the SCC decides “in the public interest” always means a blank check to Dominion, written by the General Assembly but charged to the account of customers — then legislators need to change the law. We can’t afford another boondoggle.

This article originally appeared in the Virginia Mercury on October 7, 2020.

The facts about coal plants Dominion didn’t want you to know

smokestack

Photo credit Stiller Beobachter

Last winter, during the fight to pass the Virginia Clean Economy Act, Dominion Energy lobbyists went out of their way to save the company’s youngest coal plant in Wise County. It worked. Legislators exempted the Virginia City Hybrid Energy Center from closure until 2045, when Dominion has to shutter all its fossil fuel generation.

VCHEC was approved in 2008 and built in 2013 as a boondoggle for Dominion, earning the company an enhanced rate of return. It was also intended as an expensive gift from then-Gov. Tim Kaine to coalfield Democrats, who went on to lose their seats anyway. Even then, it was a terrible deal for Dominion’s customers and the climate, with all the carbon pollution you expect from coal and a cost that was twice that of cleaner alternatives.

No wonder it proved to be one of the last coal plants ever built in the U.S.

Knowing this, and knowing the determination of this year’s General Assembly to turn the commonwealth in the direction of clean energy, you might not have expected VCHEC to have a lot of friends left in Richmond. But Dominion never told legislators what it would cost consumers to keep its coal plants running. Among all the criticism of the price tag associated with Virginia’s energy transition — much of that criticism coming from Dominion itself — one crucial fact gets lost: It’s coal that is hitting consumers the hardest.

An analysis Dominion reluctantly made public last month as part of its Integrated Resource Planning case shows that VCHEC is far and away the worst performing economically of all the utility’s fossil fuel-burning plants. This one coal plant carries a 10-year net present value of negative $472 million. (The analysts didn’t extend their calculations out to 2045, where it would certainly cross a billion dollars; maybe they were running low on red ink.)

VCHEC isn’t the only coal plant in Dominion’s fleet with a negative valuation, just the worst. In fact, all the Virginia coal plants have negative values.

These are Dominion’s numbers, not those of the Sierra Club or the other environmental and consumer groups challenging Dominion’s plans. The Sierra Club hired a consulting company to run its own analysis, using a standard utility model. That analysis concluded it would be cheaper for customers to build more solar now and speed up the closure not just of VCHEC but of all Dominion’s coal plants. This includes even the company’s Mount Storm coal plant in West Virginia, the only one assigned a positive economic value in Dominion’s analysis. From a customer standpoint, all of them should go.

Maybe that’s not too surprising. We already knew coal was dead. But how many of us knew we were paying to prop up the corpse?

Dominion’s lawyers tried to keep the terrible cost numbers out of the public’s hands, contending it was “confidential commercial and financial information that other entities could use to their competitive advantage in future negotiations.” I can imagine these future meetings: the other entities would be so busy mocking Dominion that, indeed, negotiations might stall permanently.

Fortunately for all of us, the Attorney General’s Office of Consumer Counsel persuaded the SCC the information should be public. Some information truly is confidential; this is merely embarrassing. Dominion’s customers—and the General Assembly—should know what it’s costing us to prop up coal.

This article originally appeared in the Virginia Mercury on September 24, 2020.

The analysis Dominion ultimately produced, showing 10-year Net Present Values for certain of its generating units, under various scenarios. Notice biomass doesn’t do too well either. The analysis omits some additional units, apparently because they are already scheduled for retirement.

Hurricanes mean power outages. Resilience hubs can help.

Satellite imagery shows Hurricane Isabel in 2003

Hurricane Isabel was one of Virginia’s worst natural disasters–and it was only a category 2 storm when it made landfall in North Carolina. Photo credit NOAA National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service (NESDIS)

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says this year’s hurricane season could set a record for the number of storms big enough to be given names. NOAA now predicts a total of 19 to 25 named storms (winds of 39 mph or greater) in the Atlantic, of which 7 to 11 are likely to become hurricanes. Isaias, a Category 1 hurricane, was already the ninth named storm of this season.

With global warming heating the ocean and making hurricanes worse, states and localities have to prepare not just for the storms but also for their aftermath, when residents are left without power, sometimes for days.

I still have keen and unpleasant memories of 2003’s Hurricane Isabel, one of Virginia’s deadliest and costliest storms. My family was among the 2 million households who lost power.

For eight days we used a camp lantern for light and cooked outside over fires kindled in a Weber grill. We ate our way through the thawing contents of the freezer, then got creative with canned foods. We have a well with an electric pump, so our water supply consisted of what was in the jugs and pots we filled before the storm hit. And without power for our septic pump, we could not put anything down the drain or flush toilets. (My daughters were just hitting their teen years at the time. You can imagine how well they took this.)

Still, we were lucky. We didn’t need power to run a medical device like an oxygen machine or wheelchair, or to keep medicine refrigerated. Firewood and a grill gave us a cooking option we wouldn’t have had if we lived in an apartment, and we owned plenty of jugs and pots to hold water. Most importantly, if it had gotten bad enough we could have left in our car — something many city dwellers don’t have, especially if they are low-income or elderly.

After Isabel, a lot of my neighbors went out and got generators, buying peace of mind for themselves but underscoring how the wealth gap affects even the ability to weather a storm. Yet in these intervening years, electricity has truly become central to everything Americans do. We get our information over the internet; business happens online; cell phones have replaced landlines. In an emergency, having access to electricity can mean the difference between getting help and having none.

The traditional government response to a hurricane warning is to issue evacuation orders and designate emergency shelters, but experience has shown that a lot of people stay put. Some can’t afford to leave or lack transportation. Others have pets they can’t take with them and won’t leave behind, or they fear looters might take advantage of their absence. Distrust of government probably plays a role, too, making some folks prefer to take their chances with a storm than let people in uniform tell them what to do.

And this year, of course, the pandemic will make people even more hesitant to leave home.

The hurricane hunker-downers, and everyone else left without power after a storm, need access to electricity that doesn’t depend on the grid. There weren’t many options 17 years ago, when Isabel hit. Since then, though, the technological innovations that are transforming our energy supply have also created ways to keep the power flowing that don’t require balky, fuel-dependent generators.

Solar panels on a community center, school or other centrally-located and publicly-accessible building can provide continuous power when the sun is shining; adding batteries allows the panels to keep providing power at night and when the grid is down. Even just a few solar panels can power lights and provide cellphone charging. A larger array will run a refrigerator, microwave, television and coffeemaker. If it is large enough, it can even provide heating and cooling.

A site like this might serve as an emergency shelter for evacuees, or be part of a microgrid that includes nearby critical services such as a police or fire station. But it could be just a neighborhood location where people drop by to charge phones and computers, heat food, get news and see familiar faces. This concept is known as a “resilience hub,” and it’s the sort of modest investment that punches above its weight in community benefits. Good emergency planning should include locating a resilience hub wherever people are most likely to suffer in the aftermath of a storm due to lack of mobility, old age, disability or poverty.

The challenge, of course, is that a resilience hub or microgrid requires an upfront investment. Solar panels pay for themselves over time by reducing electricity bills, but someone still has to front the cost. Legislation passed this year makes that much easier, and local governments are already saving money with solar on public buildings across the state.

The battery is more of a problem. If it simply sits around waiting for a power outage, it won’t earn its keep over the 10-15 years of its useful life. A battery that isn’t providing useful services on a regular basis is also bad for the planet, since batteries have an environmental footprint of their own.

But a battery doesn’t need to sit idle. When it is not being used to provide stored energy in a power outage, the battery could provide a range of benefits to the grid, helping to meet peak demand, integrate renewable energy, and provide frequency regulation and other ancillary services. This is such a valuable service to the grid that in Vermont, utility Green Mountain Power pays for much of the cost of batteries in the homes of customers in exchange for the right to use them.

Virginia has no resilience hubs yet, and the fiscal crisis caused by the pandemic means local governments may not have funding for them. However, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is offering $500 million in grants under a program that looks tailor-made for resilience hubs and microgrids that power critical services and other community needs on an emergency basis.

Our utilities could also play an active role. The recently enacted Virginia Clean Economy Act (VCEA) provides all the authority Dominion Energy Virginia and Appalachian Power need to support solar-plus-storage at neighborhood locations. The law permits the utilities to even own the solar, if they want to, if an array meets a 50-kilowatt minimum size.

More importantly, Dominion and Appalachian can own the batteries, or contract with third parties to be able to use them. The VCEA sets out ambitious energy storage targets that include a “goal of installing at least 10 percent of such energy storage projects behind the meter”—a category that includes most customer-sited storage. The VCEA also allows utilities to select storage projects on a basis other than cost if a project “materially advances non-price criteria, including favoring geographic distribution of generating facilities.”

The State Corporation Commission took comments this summer on how to implement the VCEA’s requirements for energy storage. This is a good opportunity for the SCC to look beyond utility-scale projects that deliver storage services to the grid cheaply, but do nothing to provide backup power when the grid goes down. The SCC should insist utilities include storage at resilience hubs in neighborhoods that are most at risk from storms, and where residents are least likely to have other options when the grid goes down.

That probably won’t be near my house, but I’m okay with help going to the communities where it is most needed. This year’s pandemic has exposed the interconnectedness of our lives in ways that usually lie beneath the surface. Whether it’s a virus, a natural disaster, climate change or acts of injustice, we are really all part of the same community.

This article originally appeared in the Virginia Mercury on August 24, 2020.

Climate action begins at home. (Literally. With houses.)

cartoon pig laying bricksYou remember the story of the Three Little Pigs. First the little pigs built themselves a house out of straw, but the big, bad wolf huffed and puffed and blew it down. Barely escaping with their lives, the little pigs built a new house out of sticks, but again the big, bad wolf blew it down. Wiser at last, the little pigs built their third house out of brick, and they lived happily ever after because the wolf could not blow it down.

When you were a child, you probably did not realize what must be obvious to you now: the story is really about the importance of building codes. Shoddy construction brings nothing but grief, as the little pigs learned, and in the end it costs you more than if you had used high-quality materials right from the start.

The story is silent on whether our young porcine heroes also concerned themselves with the energy performance of their house, but it stands to reason they would have taken an interest in the U factors of windows and the R values of wall and ceiling insulation. Their experience with tropical storm-force wolf breath would have given them an appreciation for the snuggest possible construction. Possibly they even went on to put solar panels on their roof and an electric vehicle in the garage, but on this we can only speculate.

I bring up this story now because Virginia is in the final stages of adopting an update to its residential building code, a process the Board of Housing and Community Development undertakes every three years. In addition to ensuring the safety of wiring and plumbing and so forth, the Uniform Statewide Building Code sets standards that determine whether a new home is drafty and expensive to heat and cool, or will be comfortable, healthy and frugal with energy.

Remarkably, the board is currently proposing to continue outdated efficiency standards dating back years instead of adopting the more energy-saving provisions of the latest International Energy Conservation Code (IECC), or even going beyond the IECC to Earth Craft or Passive House standards.

In spite of the global pretensions of its name, the IECC is a national model code. Virginia law specifically instructs the board to refer to the IECC in adopting provisions that permit buildings to be constructed at least cost “consistent with recognized standards of health, safety, energy conservation and water conservation.” The code suggests that the board may go beyond the IECC for purposes of health and safety, but should not fall short of its standards.

So why is the board proposing lower standards? As far as we know, there is no wolf lobby advocating for flimsy homes, but there is a homebuilder lobby doing its own share of huffing and puffing — and Virginia’s code adoption process gives the homebuilders an outsized role in the decision-making process.

Better-insulated houses cost builders slightly more to build. They pass along the added costs if they can, but if buyers won’t pay more, the higher costs cut into profits. This being bad for business, builders prefer to lobby for lower standards that are cheaper to meet, insisting they have only the poor buyers’ pocketbooks at heart.

Their argument is, if you will pardon the expression, hogwash. Research demonstrates that houses built to the highest efficiency standards save far more money on energy over time than they add to the upfront cost of the house. This becomes especially important for occupants who don’t make much money and who struggle to afford utility bills.

The board should ignore homebuilder objections and put the needs of building occupants first. Gov. Ralph Northam made it clear with his Executive Order 43 last fall that the commonwealth is now committed to a path of clean energy and energy efficiency. Bringing energy costs down for residents is not a side effect of the energy transition, but a feature. As he noted in the order, “Low-income households pay proportionately more than the average household for energy costs and often experience negative long-term effects on their health and welfare.”

The climate crisis also makes it urgent that we use building codes to reduce our fossil fuel use. The Virginia Clean Economy Act will transition the electric sector to clean energy, but it does not require buildings to become more efficient. This is a problem because buildings represent 40 percent of all energy use and houses typically last between 40 and 100 years.

Some retrofits can be made later, at higher cost, but the cheapest and simplest approach is to build houses snugly to begin with. They should also be sited with solar in mind and have wiring in place to make solar easy. Ultimately (and “ultimately” has got to be pretty darn soon), we have to start building homes that produce as much energy as they use.

The board is accepting comments on its proposal through June 26. The Sierra Club has set up a webpage to forward comments urging the board to adopt high efficiency standards.

Update July 1: The Board of Housing and Community Development is no longer accepting written comments from the public on its proposed updates to the building code. Advocates may write to Governor Northam asking him to insist that the Board at least adopt the provisions of the 2018  International Energy Conservation Code, and additional measures recommended by the Sierra Club’s comments to the Board to save more energy and combat climate change.  

An earlier version of this article appeared originally in the Virginia Mercury on June 23, 2020.

What part of ‘zero’ doesn’t Dominion understand?

Photo courtesy os the Sierra Club.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Dominion Energy Virginia filed its 2020 Integrated Resource Plan on May 1. Instead of charting the electric utility’s pathway to zero carbon emissions, it announced its intent to hang on to all its gas plants, and even add to the number. In doing so, it revealed a company so thoroughly wedded to fracked gas that it would rather flout Virginia law and risk its own future than do the hard work of transforming itself.

The Virginia Clean Economy Act may be new, but Dominion can hardly claim to be surprised by the commonwealth’s move away from fossil fuels. Gov. Ralph Northam’s executive order last September set a statewide target of zero carbon emissions from the electric sector by 2050. “Challenge accepted,” said a Dominion spokesman at the time, and in February of this year the company claimed it was embracing a 2050 net-zero-carbon goal company-wide. A month later, passage of the Clean Economy Act moved the deadline up to 2045 for Dominion, keeping it at 2050 for utilities that lack Dominion’s head start of 30 percent nuclear power.

Dominion’s IRP, however, does not accept the challenge to get off fossil fuels. It rejects the challenge, directing a giant middle finger at the governor and the General Assembly. Dominion’s “preferred” plan keeps the utility’s existing fracked gas generating plants — currently 40 percent of its electric generation — operating through 2045. The IRP acknowledges this violates the law, so it argues against the law.

The IRP posits that if Dominion stops burning gas in Virginia, it will instead simply buy electricity from out of state, some of which will be generated by gas, and this will cost more money without reducing carbon emissions at the regional level. Better, then, to keep burning gas in Virginia.

It gets worse. The IRP actually proposes increasing the number of gas combustion turbines in Dominion’s fleet. The VCEA imposes a two-year moratorium on new fossil fuel plants, so Dominion’s timetable has these gas peaker plants coming online in 2023 and 2024. The justification is vague; the IRP cites “probable” reliability problems related to adding a lot of solar, but it offers no analysis to back this up, much less any discussion of non-gas alternatives.

Dominion’s flat-out refusal to abandon gas by 2045 poisons the rest of the document. The IRP is supposed to show a utility’s plans over a 15-year period, in this case up to 2035. And for those years, the IRP includes the elements of the VCEA that make money for Dominion: the build-out of solar, offshore wind and energy storage projects. It also includes money-saving retirements of outmoded coal, oil and biomass plants, as the VCEA requires. Heck, it even includes plans to close a coal plant the VCEA would allow to stay open in spite of its poor economic outlook (the Clover plant, half-owned by Old Dominion Electric Cooperative.)

But the IRP proposes no energy efficiency measures beyond those mandated by the VCEA between now and 2025. Dominion hates energy efficiency; it reduces demand, which is bad for business. So the company has made no effort to think deeply about how energy efficiency and other demand-side measures can support a zero-carbon grid — or, for that matter, how customer-owned solar can be made a part of the solution, rather than part of the problem.

This isn’t surprising: a plan that contemplates keeping gas plants around indefinitely looks very different, even in the first 15 years, from a plan that closes them all within 10 years after that.

A company that really accepted the challenge of creating a zero-carbon energy supply would not just get creative in its own planning; it would look beyond generating and supplying electricity, at the larger universe of solutions. It would advocate for buildings constructed to need much less energy, including for heating and cooling, to lessen the seasonal peaks in energy demand.

It would want the state to embrace strong efficiency standards. It would press its corporate and institutional customers to upgrade their facilities and operations to save energy, especially at times of peak demand. It would partner with communities to create microgrids. It would invest in innovation.

In short, it would ask “How can we achieve our fossil-free goal?” instead of asking “How can we keep burning gas?”

It’s not hard to understand why Dominion clings to gas; its parent company is fighting desperately to keep the Atlantic Coast Pipeline project alive in the face of spiraling costs (now up to $8 billion), an increasingly uphill battle at the State Corporation Commission to stick utility ratepayers with the costs of a redundant gas supply contract and a dearth of other customers anywhere along the route.

What is really hard to understand, though, is why Dominion chose to be quite so transparent in its disdain for the VCEA. Senator Jennifer McClellan and Delegate Rip Sullivan, both Democrats, who introduced the law and negotiated its terms with Dominion lobbyists and other stakeholders through many long days and nights, reacted to the IRP with entirely predictable outrage. In a statement they responded:

“The VCEA requires Virginia utilities to step up to the plate and be active leaders in carbon reduction. Dominion Energy’s IRP is tantamount to quitting the game before the first pitch is thrown. The law sets clear benchmarks for Virginia to reach 100 percent clean energy by 2045, not for utilities to plan to import carbon-polluting energy from West Virginia or Kentucky.”

Senator McClellan, it might be pointed out, could be on her way to becoming Virginia’s next governor. Most companies would hesitate to offend a leader of her stature, as well as such a prominent Democratic leader as Delegate Sullivan.

A growing number of legislators also seem interested in ending Dominion’s monopoly and bringing retail choice to Virginia. Though the bill that would have done that didn’t make it out of committee this year, the high-handed tone of the IRP will push more legislators into the anti-monopoly camp.

Arrogance and complacency seem like dangerous traits in times like these, but that’s Dominion for you. It will rise to any challenge, as long as the challenge doesn’t require anything the company didn’t already want to do.

A version of this article appeared in the Virginia Mercury on May 14, 2020.

Want a better understanding of how this year’s legislation works? I’m presenting the ins and outs of over a dozen bills in these three webinars:

  • What to expect when you’re expecting an energy transition, May 14, 2020 (recording available here)
  • New solar opportunities for homeowners, businesses and nonprofits, May 21, 2020, 5:30 p.m., register here
  • New tools for local governments to cut carbon, May 28, 2020, 5:30 p.m., register here

COVID-19 throws a lemon at Virginia’s plan for an energy transition. It’s time for lemonade.

solar panels on a school roof

The solar panels on Wilson Middle School are saving money for Augusta County taxpayers. Photo courtesy of Secure Futures.

In mid-March, the Virginia General Assembly passed legislation to transition our economy from fossil fuels to clean energy over the coming years. Two weeks later, Virginia shut down in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Among the businesses whose very existence is now in peril are the energy efficiency companies and solar installers we will be counting on to get us off fossil fuels.

Home weatherization and energy efficiency programs have come to an almost complete halt in Virginia, including programs run by Dominion Energy Virginia. Nationwide, the energy efficiency sector has lost almost 70,000 jobs. Meanwhile, companies that install solar, especially rooftop systems, report plummeting sales. The Solar Energy Industries Association reports that nationally, 55 percent of solar workers are already laid off or suffering cutbacks.

The timing seems terrible — although to be fair, there’s no good time for an economy-crushing, worldwide pandemic. Eventually, however, the virus will run its course or be defeated through vaccine or cure. At that point, we will face a choice: we can stagger blinking out into the sunlight aimlessly wondering now what?, or we can execute the well-developed plan we have spent these weeks and months formulating.

Let’s go with the second option.

First, it’s worth remembering that nothing happening now will change the trajectory of clean energy. Solar and wind had banner years in 2019, continuing their steady march to dominance. Wind has become the largest single source of electricity in two states, Iowa and Kansas. The island of Kauai in Hawaii is now 56 percent powered by renewable energy, mostly solar. Across the U.S. wind, solar and hydro produce more electricity than coal. Wind is the cheapest form of new electric generation nationally; solar takes pride of place in Virginia.

Meanwhile, fossil fuel is even more firmly on its way out. Six of the top seven U.S. coal companies have gone into bankruptcy since 2015. That was before the lockdown sent energy demand down, further hurting high-priced coal.

Fracked gas helped kill coal but is itself vulnerable to price competition from renewables. Odd as it sounds, the collapse in oil prices will make natural gas more expensive. That’s because oil producers in Texas and North Dakota are closing wells that produced natural gas along with oil. The tightening supply of gas may finally make fracking companies in Appalachia profitable, but it means higher prices for utilities. Wind and solar will just keep looking better.

The Trump administration is still trying futilely to hold back the tide, but the U.S. will get a lot farther riding the wave than struggling against it. Congressional leaders should declare the country “all in” on clean energy. Instead of bailing out the highly polluting fossil fuel industries, they should put that money to work creating more jobs and economic development — and actually doing something about climate change — with energy efficiency and renewables.

Congress should return the Investment Tax Credit for solar (and offshore wind) to the 30 percent level in effect last year and keep it there, instead of continuing the phase-out now in effect. Congress should also give solar owners the option of taking the credit as a cash grant, as it did during the last recession, and for the same reason: tax-based incentives are less useful in a recession, when companies can’t use the credits.

Virginia’s Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner have a critical role to play in convincing their colleagues to support solar. So far neither is rising to the task.

On the state level, Northam did the right thing in signing this year’s energy legislation, allowing utilities and industry members to start planning for the future. But the Clean Economy Act gets wind and solar off to a very slow start; Dominion doesn’t have to build Virginia solar for five years yet. And though the new laws remove many policy constraints on customer-sited solar, they offer next to nothing in the way of financial incentives.

Governor Northam should make it clear he intends to make rooftop solar a priority for next year, along with projects on closed landfills, former coal mine areas, and other brownfields, with a special focus on areas hardest-hit economically. He can also encourage corporations that do business in Virginia to meet their sustainability goals with Virginia wind and solar, starting right now.

The governor should also prioritize building efficiency. Virginia will be adopting a new residential building code this year, and if past years are any indication, its energy efficiency provisions will fall short of the most recent model code standard. It’s up to the governor to make sure Virginia adopts the full code.

Local governments are already taking advantage of suddenly-empty buildings to accelerate maintenance and repairs. But it’s a good time to think bigger, with new financing tools available that make energy efficiency retrofits and solar facilities cash-positive right from the start.

Energy performance contracting allows the energy savings to pay for retrofits. The Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy keeps a list of pre-qualified energy service companies and offers expertise to help local government employees navigate the process.

This year’s legislation also greatly expanded local governments’ ability to finance on-site solar through third-party power purchase agreements, effective July 1. The PPAs are structured so that a school district, municipality or any commercial or non-profit customer can have a solar array installed at no cost, paying just for the energy produced.

In December, Fairfax County awarded contracts for PPAs to install solar on more than a hundred sites, including schools and other government buildings. The county’s contract is “rideable,” which allows other counties and cities to piggyback, getting the same terms without the need for new contract negotiations.

Unfortunately, local governments in southwest Virginia are prevented from pursuing PPAs — not by state legislation, which allows it starting July 1, but by a contract with Appalachian Power that governs their electricity purchases from the utility. The contract is up for renewal this year; disgracefully, APCo is refusing to agree to new terms allowing the localities to use solar PPAs. APCo should back off, and let local governments in economically depressed southwest Virginia start saving money and supporting solar jobs this year.

Arlington County has gone beyond on-site solar, contracting for a share of a large solar farm in southern Virginia that will provide more than 80 percent of the electricity for county government operations. It’s a model any locality can adopt.

Virginia residents and businesses also have good reasons to focus on clean energy. The enforced down-time many people are experiencing means more time to research options, and companies are motivated to offer low prices on energy efficiency upgrades and rooftop solar.

The federal government offers more generous tax credits this year than next. Credits for residential energy efficiency equipment and a deduction for energy efficient commercial buildings expire at the end of this year.

The investment tax credit for solar (as well as for geothermal heat pumps, fuel cells and small wind turbines) stands at 26% for projects placed in operation this year, but it will drop to 22% in 2021. It falls to 10% for commercial customers and disappears altogether for residential customers in 2022. If Congress acts to raise the credit to 30%, buyers will get an even bigger boost. If it doesn’t, there will be a rush this year to get projects done by the end of the year, so customers should secure their place in line now.

Virginia nonprofits have helped hundreds of residents and businesses save money on solar and EV chargers through bulk purchasing programs. Virginia Solar United Neighbors just announced a series of virtual information sessions to promote the Arlington Solar EV Co-op. And LEAP, which closed operations temporarily due to the virus, reports it has restarted two programs, Solarize NOVA and Solarize Piedmont.

In an ideal world, the U.S. would already be well along in executing a comprehensive plan for a clean energy transition, one that includes job retraining for workers, and that resists counterproductive efforts to save the fossil fuel industry. But we can do the next best thing, and use the tools of government, the market and consumer choice to speed us in the right direction.

COVID-19 has handed all of us a big, fat lemon. Let’s make some lemonade.

 

A version of this article appeared originally in the Virginia Mercury on April 30, 2020.