Dominion’s proposed charge for solar program is absurdly high

Solar panels are well suited to the flat roofs of apartment buildings like this one in the Bronx, but they remain a rarity in Virginia despite a new law designed to open the market. Photo by Bright Power, Inc. – U.S. Department of Energy from United States, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

A Dominion Energy customer wrote me recently to ask what her condo association could do to go solar. The building’s roof can hold many more solar panels than needed to power the needs of the common area. Is it possible to sell the excess electricity to individual residents to power their units?

I get this question a lot, and in 2020, the Virginia General Assembly tried to change the answer from “no” to “yes.” As part of the Solar Freedom legislation, the State Corporation Commission was tasked with creating a shared solar program for residents of multifamily buildings like condominiums and apartment buildings, with orders to make the program available beginning in January 1, 2021. In other words, it ought to be available today.

And yet I still have to tell people they can’t do it now, and may not be able to ever, unless the SCC changes course. Would-be customers will have just one final chance this month to try to save the program. On March 25, the SCC will take public testimony at an evidentiary hearing to address the seemingly simple question threatening the viability of the Multifamily Shared Solar Program. The law allows Dominion to collect an administrative fee from customers who participate in the program. How much should that be? 

An administrative fee doesn’t sound like it could be enough to stall a program for more than a year, let alone deep-six it altogether. Dominion’s role in the Multifamily Shared Solar Program is limited to doing the accounting to make sure every unit gets credit for the share of the electricity the resident buys. That shouldn’t cost very much—perhaps a buck or two per month per customer. 

Yet Dominion proposes to impose an administrative fee of more than $87 per month—a charge so absurdly high that it would result in participants paying far more for electricity generated on the roof of their building than for the electricity Dominion delivers to them from elsewhere in the state. The SCC temporarily stopped the utility from implementing that fee, but it also stacked the deck to make a high fee almost inevitable. 

And that’s a program killer. Rooftop solar is still a lot more expensive than large, offsite solar facilities, so keeping fees low is critical to making the economics work. It’s also a matter of equity. Owners of single-family homes with rooftop solar benefit from Virginia’s net metering program, which guarantees them a one-for-one credit for any surplus electricity generated. Multifamily residents deserve something similar.

Indeed, the entire point of putting the Multifamily Shared Solar Program in Solar Freedom—a law otherwise focused on removing barriers to net metering—is to benefit Virginians who’ve been shut out of the solar market because they don’t own their own roofs. Renters in particular are more likely to have lower incomes than owners of single-family homes, so making the program available to them is important to the goal of reducing the energy burden on low- and moderate-income residents and ensuring that the transition to clean energy benefits people at all income levels.

I’m not just guessing about the intent behind Solar Freedom. I know the point is to offer residents of multifamily buildings an analog to net metering because I wrote most of the legislation as it was introduced, in collaboration with allies in local government and the legislators who introduced it. We wanted building owners and occupants to be able to work together to install onsite solar, free of SCC meddling and without the utility demanding a cut of the action. 

But as so often happens with legislative sausage-making, the bill changed as it went through negotiations and emerged from committees. The SCC was charged with developing a formal program, and Dominion was given a role in administering it. Yet the new language made clear that the original purpose remained. The SCC is to write regulations that “reasonably allow for the creation and financing of shared solar facilities” and “allow all customer classes to participate in the program, and ensure participation opportunities for all customer classes.” 

The legislation provides for participants to be credited on their utility bills with their share of the electricity generated by the solar panels. The SCC is to make an annual calculation of the 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.” To the definition of “bill credit rate” is added the admonition that the rate “shall be set such that the shared solar program results in robust project development and shared solar program access for all customer classes.” 

This language is consistent with a goal of putting multifamily buildings on par with single-family homes in making rooftop solar affordable. But, unlike the original legislative language, and unlike the rules of net metering, the final version of Solar Freedom instructs the SCC to “allow the investor-owned utilities to recover reasonable costs of administering the program.” 

And that’s the opportunity Dominion wants to exploit. As soon as the SCC began the process of writing rules for the Multifamily Shared Solar Program, Dominion advanced the claim that the administrative fee should be based on essentially all of the costs of operating an electric utility. Instead of the multifamily program mirroring net metering, Dominion took as its model a larger program under a very different law. The Shared Solar legislation, also passed in 2020, creates a program for community solar facilities that can be onsite or offsite, can serve many more customers anywhere in Dominion’s territory, and can even be carved out of a utility-scale solar facility. The shared solar law specifically allows Dominion to charge most customers a “minimum bill” with a list of components, and also an “administrative fee.” 

Things aren’t going well for the Shared Solar program at the SCC. A hearing examiner recently recommended the commission adopt a minimum bill of more than $55, based on an SCC staff recommendation. It did not trouble the hearing examiner or the staff that the number puts the cost of shared solar above the cost of Dominion’s own electricity, a program killer according to community solar developers.

But cramming the minimum bill elements into the multifamily program’s administrative fee would be an even greater blow to a program whose economics are already constrained by the smaller size of onsite projects. It also seems obvious from a plain reading of the two laws that the General Assembly did not intend to burden multifamily residents with the fees it authorized for the Shared Solar participants.

Unfortunately for customers, the SCC approved the cramming in concept last July, ignoring this plain legislative intent. Based on that, SCC staff proposed options for the administrative fee of either $16.78 or $57.26, with the higher fee using the same reasoning that just led to the hearing examiner’s $55 recommendation in the shared solar program. 

The SCC ought to reject these numbers and instead adopt the dollar or two that running the multifamily shared solar program will actually cost Dominion. But to do so, commissioners will have to reverse their earlier, egregious decision and embrace what seems to be (for them) the novel concept that the General Assembly intended the plain meaning of its words. Only then will residents of multifamily buildings gain their solar freedom. 

Note: those wishing to testify at the SCC hearing must sign up by March 22.

This article originally appeared in the Virginia Mercury on March 10, 2022.

Looking backward, Virginia Republicans attack climate action and coddle coal

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

Even before taking office, Governor Glenn Youngkin made two rookie mistakes: he declared his intention to pull Virginia out of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) by executive order, not realizing it can only be done by legislation; and he nominated the much-reviled Trump-era EPA chief Andrew Wheeler to be his Secretary of Natural Resources, apparently unaware the appointment would need approval from the Democratic-led Senate he had just infuriated with the RGGI announcement. 

Evidently not a man to admit a blunder, on his first day in office Youngkin signed an  executive order directing the Department of Environmental Quality to notify RGGI of his intent to withdraw Virginia from the carbon-cutting program, and to develop an “emergency regulation” to send to the Air Pollution Control Board for the same purpose. The language in the order is a little less than he pledged, and yet still not legal.

These are unfortunate signs that Youngkin, who ran for governor as a moderate Republican, intends to govern as a burn-the-house-down extremist when it comes to the environment. 

It’s surprising to see Youngkin pursuing Trumpist energy policies, and not just because they failed so dismally when Trump tried them. As the former CEO of a multibillion-dollar private equity investment company, Youngkin is, presumably, not an idiot. He has acknowledged climate change is real and affecting Virginia, and he has access to the same polls the rest of us do that show Americans are concerned and want government action to address the crisis. Corporate America is also calling for action; CEOs of more than 70 of the world’s largest corporations wrote a letter last June calling on governments to adopt policies capable of capping the global rise in temperature at no more than 1.5 decrees Celsius. 

The legislation that put Virginia into RGGI will lead to a 30 percent cut in the Commonwealth’s electric sector CO2 emissions by 2030. Companion legislation, the Virginia Clean Economy Act (VCEA), extends the carbon cutting out to 2050, to hit zero carbon emissions from the electric sector. Youngkin complains that RGGI costs ratepayers money, but it’s not like the money raised through carbon allowance auctions disappears into the ether: it pays for coastal flood-control projects and low-income energy efficiency programs that Virginia wasn’t funding before. Maybe Youngkin intends to replace these hundreds of millions of dollars with some of the federal funding coming to Virginia through the federal infrastructure bill—you know, the legislation that Virginia’s Republican congressmen voted against

Or maybe he doesn’t really care about the human consequences of his actions, since Virginia governors can’t run for reelection. Even last fall Youngkin was being talked about as a potential presidential candidate based on his ability to say nothing of substance for an entire campaign season. It was a good trick, but it’s a hard one to pull off twice. If Youngkin runs for president, he’ll be doing it as the guy who started his governorship by torching Virginia’s climate action plan.

Whether they are fellow flame-throwers or not, General Assembly Republicans are rallying around the new governor. Two bills filed last week seek to do legally what Youngkin wanted to do by executive fiat. SB532 (Stuart) and HB1301 (Kilgore) would repeal the Clean Energy and Community Flood Preparedness Act, direct DEQ to suspend the Commonwealth’s participation in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative and remove provisions for using revenues from the auctions. 

SB81 (Stanley) would prohibit the Air Pollution Control Board from considering health, environmental, scientific, or economic factors when making regulations—an attack on both RGGI and clean car regulation, as well as on the independence and very mission of the Air Board. SB657 (Stuart) also attacks the Air Board’s authority (and that of the Water Board for good measure).

HB118 (Freitas) goes bigger. It repeals key features of the VCEA, including achieving zero carbon emissions by 2050; allowing the SCC to approve new fossil fuel plants only if a utility has met energy-saving goals and can prove cost-effectiveness; allowing utilities to recover costs of compliance with Virginia’s new renewable portfolio standard; and making wind, solar and offshore wind projects “in the public interest,” magic words that assure utilities they will get paid for making these investments.

The Freitas bill might pass the House, now that Republicans hold a slim majority, but neither of these two bills should pass the Senate with Democrats in charge. Creating the framework for the energy transition was a signature success for Virginia Democrats, and it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which they will let it be taken from them. 

That isn’t stopping other Republicans from taking their own shots. Several bills seek to undermine the energy transition in various ways; all of them are bad policy.

  • HB74 (also Ware) would subsidize certain large industrial customers by allowing them to share in the benefits, yet exempting them from the costs, of the energy transition, shifting their share of the costs onto all other customers. 
  • HB5 (Morefield) raids the RGGI funds to get money for his own district. 
  • HB892 (Kilgore) and SB398 (McDougle) subsidize RGGI costs for certain fossil fuel generators, another raid on the funds. 
  • HB1204 (Kilgore) prevents the RPS from taking effect until 2025 and guts the carve-out for distributed generation permanently. It also removes the authority of the Air Pollution Control Board over air pollution permits for “minor” sources of pollution.
  • HB1257 (Kilgore, on a roll!) guarantees customers access to natural gas in the name of “energy justice,” banning local electrification efforts, and making it really hard for the city of Richmond to terminate its gas utility.
  • HB1261 (Bloxom) also strips the Air and Water Boards of their permit-granting authority. 
  • HB73 (Ware) and SB761 (Sutterlein) eliminates language putting wind, solar and offshore wind in the public interest, undercutting the market certainty that put Virginia into the top ranks for solar energy in the past year and attracted a major offshore wind turbine blade manufacturing facility to Portsmouth. (The bill also lets the SCC put costs of new facilities into a utility’s rate base instead of tacking on a rate adjustment clause. If this were the only thing the bill did, it would be worth supporting.)

Not all the bills we are likely to see this year have been filed yet, so there is a good chance we will see further attacks on climate action, all with the pretense of saving money. I will continue updating this post when I hear of other bills like these. 

“Virginia is no longer anti-coal,” — new Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares. 

Speaking of things that cost ratepayers money, bills to subsidize coal are back this year. As we have all learned, coal is no longer a competitive fuel in Virginia. It lost out first to fracked gas, and more recently to solar. But in a compromise with coalfields Republicans, the VCEA excluded one coal plant, the Virginia City Hybrid Energy Center (VCHEC) in Wise County, from a requirement that Dominion Energy Virginia close its Virginia coal plants this decade. In theory, VCHEC could stay open until 2045, when the VCEA requires Dominion to reach zero carbon across all its generation.

In reality, though, the reprieve isn’t enough to save the coal plant. Dominion’s own analysis, from its 2020 Integrated Resource Plan case, assigned VCHEC a net present value of negative $472 million just for the ten years from 2020-2029. Dominion didn’t try to extend that analysis out to 2045, but clearly the cost to customers from running a money-losing coal plant for 25 years would top a cool billion. Not surprisingly, the SCC is considering requiring Dominion to retire VCHEC to save money for its customers.

Given concerns about RGGI’s cost to consumers, you might think Southwest Virginia Republicans would lead the charge to retire the money-losing coal plant in their midst. You would be wrong. To understand why, it will help you to know that the counties making up Southwest Virginia are not in Dominion’s service territory, but in Appalachian Power’s. The people who benefit from keeping a coal plant open in Wise County are not the same people who have to pay for the plant’s spectacular losses. 

As an excuse to keep the plant open, coalfields Republicans claim it’s to help the environment. Yes, really. Some of VCHEC’s fuel is waste coal excavated from the piles of mining waste that litter the coalfields, a toxic legacy of the era when coal was king and environmental regulations went unenforced. Burning the waste coal is one way to get rid of it, though not the only way or, for that matter, the right way. 

As a new report from the Appalachian State School of Law discusses, the federal infrastructure bill (again, the same one Virginia Republicans voted against) will provide millions of dollars to Virginia to remediate abandoned minelands, including these piles of toxic waste. (The report, titled Addressing Virginia’s Legacy GOB Piles, has been sent to General Assembly members but is not yet available online.)

In a letter to Senator John Edwards, report lead author Mark “Buzz” Belleville expressed his strong disagreement with bills aimed at encouraging the burning of waste coal. As he wrote, “Waste coal is of lower quality, requiring additives for combustion and resulting in even greater CO2 emissions and traditional air pollution than newly-mined coal. As the report notes, existing GOB piles can be disposed of or remediated in other manners that do not undermine Virginia’s commitment to a transition to clean energy.”

Rather than use the coming federal funds to remediate GOB piles, Republicans would prefer that Dominion customers be forced to pay hundreds of millions of dollars in higher energy costs and put more pollution into the air. 

So at the same time they rail against the costs of RGGI and VCEA, Republicans are using waste coal as a reason to raise costs even more. 

  • HB656 (Wampler) dangles a tax credit for using waste coal. 
  • SB120 (Hackworth) and HB657 (Wampler) declare waste coal a “renewable energy” source and exempts VCHEC from the requirement that it close by 2045. 
  • HB894 (Kilgore) outright prohibits the SCC from requiring Dominion to retire VCHEC “before the end of its useful life.” (Would that be before or after Virginia becomes so hot we all move to Canada?)
  • HB1326 (Kilgore, trying everything he can think of) makes it “in the public interest” for utilities to use waste coal, and gives utilities a way to charge ratepayers extra for doing so.

Electricity customers had better get used to being used as a political football by legislators who attack the costs of the energy transition but have no qualms about making ratepayers subsidize coal. 

This post originally appeared in the Virginia Mercury on January 20, 2022. It has been updated to include bills filed since then.

A divided General Assembly can find common ground on clean energy

Almost two years ago, Virginia’s General Assembly made history with a series of laws shepherding Virginia towards a future of clean, low-cost wind and solar energy. During this year’s election campaign, Republican talking points included attacks on the Virginia Clean Economy Act (VCEA), the law at the center of the transition. But talk, as they say, is cheap. With the VCEA protected by the Democratic majority in the Senate, Republicans didn’t have to put forward a serious alternative, and they didn’t.

Now that the Republicans have won the governorship and a majority in the House of Delegates, passing any new legislation (or repealing anything already in place) will require bipartisan action. Democrats want to protect Virginia’s progress in tackling carbon emissions and putting equity into energy planning. Republicans want to reduce burdens on industry. Both sides want affordable electricity and a robust economy that creates jobs. Rhetoric aside, there is much to agree on.

Solar is wildly popular with conservatives as well as liberals, in part because it saves money. With no fuel costs, and ever-falling prices of solar panels, solar arrays are now the go-to choice for utilities that need more power. It is cheaper for a utility to build a new solar facility today than to operate an existing coal plant in Virginia. 

As for existing gas plants, they compete with solar only when the price of fracked gas is low. Gas prices have doubled in the past year, so Virginia’s current reliance on natural gas for 60% of our electricity generation hurts everyone’s wallets. 

And while fracked gas is imported from other states, we can build solar and wind facilities here in the Commonwealth and off our coast, so our own workers and businesses benefit. The faster we bring on the energy transition, the better for our economy. 

The energy transition also means cleaner air and water for our children, improving the efficiency of homes to make them more comfortable and less costly to live in, reducing the energy burden on low-income residents, helping coastal communities adapt to rising sea levels, and giving people greater freedom to invest their own money in solar panels on their own property. All of these are part of the VCEA and the other bills that guide our energy transition, and repealing them now would be shooting ourselves in both feet.

Nonetheless, there is room for improvement. Last year legislators established a fund to put renewable energy on abandoned mine sites and other brownfields, but didn’t allocate money. Under the bipartisan infrastructure bill just passed in Congress, Virginia will receive an estimated $23,579,905 annually in federal abandoned mine land funding. Once former mine sites are cleaned up, they will be ideal locations for solar facilities, and the General Assembly should make sure that happens. 

Other federal funding will support smart grid and transmission investments. Some of these projects are already underway in Virginia, and the General Assembly should make sure that savings go to ratepayers, not to utilities.

Solar on schools has been one of the greatest success stories of the past few years in Virginia, with more than 45 jurisdictions signing contracts that will put solar panels on school roofs at no up-front cost, and with energy savings every year. But some schools are still built with roofs that aren’t designed to support solar. That has to change. 

Indeed, in 2019 the General Assembly passed a Republican-sponsored bill that went further, declaring it “the intent of the General Assembly that new public school buildings and facilities and improvements and renovations to existing public school buildings and facilities be designed, constructed, maintained, and operated to generate more electricity than consumed.” In 2022, legislators could turn this into a requirement, saving money for taxpayers across the Commonwealth. 

Community solar offers another money-saving opportunity. Legislation passed in 2020 will allow residents and businesses to buy electricity from shared solar projects developed by private companies. The initial program is small and confined to customers of Dominion Energy, which is trying to persuade regulators to mandate crushingly high minimum bills. Legislators can fix these problems by expanding the program statewide and capping the minimum bill. 

The General Assembly has repeatedly failed to rein in the power of utilities like Dominion, which uses its influence to protect its profits at the expense of consumers. The ability to make unlimited political contributions backfired on Dominion when its $200,000 contribution to an anti-Youngkin campaign was exposed. But public utilities should not be allowed to buy influence, period. Let’s make this the year that stops.

This op-ed appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch on November 27,2021. 

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

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

Election Day was a tough day for climate advocates. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Increasing fixed charges on electricity bills hurts customers–and society 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of synagogues and subsidies

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

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

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

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

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

Ah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And to that we should all say, Amen.

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

What do we owe to each other?

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo credit Don Crawford for GiveSolar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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