There’s a lot to like in Northam’s energy plan, but missed opportunities abound

electric vehicle plugged in

Vehicle electrification gets a boost under the energy plan.

There is a lot to like in the Northam Administration’s new Virginia Energy Plan, starting with what is not in it. The plan doesn’t throw so much as a bone to the coal industry, and the only plug for fracked gas comes in the discussion of alternatives to petroleum in transportation.

The 2018 Energy Plan is all about energy efficiency, solar, onshore wind, offshore wind, clean transportation, and reducing carbon emissions. That’s a refreshing break from the “all of the above” trope that got us into the climate pickle we’re in today. Welcome to the 21stcentury, Virginia.

But speaking of climate, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) just released a special report that makes it clear we need “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society” to keep warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius. That’s only half again the amount of warming that has already brought us melting glaciers, a navigable Arctic Ocean, larger and more destructive hurricanes, and here in Virginia, the swampiest summer in memory. The fact that things are guaranteed to get worse before they get better (if they get better) is not a happy thought.

Perhaps no Virginia politician today has the courage to rise to the challenge the IPCC describes. Certainly, Governor Northam shows no signs of transforming into a rapid-change kind of leader. But as we celebrate the proposals in his Energy Plan that would begin moving us away from our fossil fuel past, we also have to recognize that none of them go nearly far enough, and missed opportunities abound.

Let’s start with the high points, though. One of the plan’s strongest sections champions offshore wind energy. It calls for 2,000 megawatts (MW) of offshore wind by 2028, fulfilling the potential of the area of ocean 27 miles off Virginia Beach that the federal government leased to Dominion Energy. In the short term, the Plan pledges support for Dominion’s 12-MW pilot project slated for completion in 2020.

Other East Coast states like Massachusetts and New York have adopted more ambitious timelines for commercial-scale projects, but the economics of offshore wind favor the Northeast over the Southeast, and they aren’t saddled with a powerful gas-bloated monopoly utility.  For Virginia, a full build-out by 2028 would be a strong showing, and better by far than Dominion has actually committed to.

Another strong point is the Administration’s commitment to electric vehicles. The transportation sector is responsible for more carbon emissions even than the electric sector, and vehicle electrification is one key response.

Even better would have been a commitment to smart growth strategies to help Virginians get out of their cars. Overlooking this opportunity is a costly mistake, and not just from a climate standpoint. Today’s popular neighborhoods are the ones that are walkable and bikeable, not the ones centered on automobiles. If we want to create thriving communities that attract young workers, we need to put smart growth front and center in urban planning—and stop making suburban sprawl the cheap option for developers.

Speaking of developers, how about beefing up our substandard residential building code? Lowering energy costs and preparing for hotter summers requires better construction standards. Houses can be built today that produce as much energy as they consume, saving money over the life of a mortgage and making homes more comfortable. The only reason Virginia and other states don’t require all new homes to be built this way is that the powerful home builders’ lobby sees higher standards as a threat to profits.

The Energy Plan mentions that updated building codes were among the recommendations in the Virginia Energy Efficiency Roadmap that was developed with funding from the U.S. Department of Energy and published last spring. I hope the only reason the Energy Plan doesn’t include them among its recommendations is that the Administration is already quietly taking action.

Meanwhile, it is not reassuring to see that the section of the plan devoted to attaining Virginia’s ten percent energy efficiency goal simply describes how our utilities will be proposing more efficiency programs as a result of this year’s SB 966 (the “grid mod” bill).

States that are serious about energy efficiency don’t leave it up to companies whose profits depend on a lack of efficiency. They take the job away from the sellers of electricity and give it to people more motivated. So if the Governor’s plan is merely to leave it up to Dominion and APCo without changing their incentives, we should abandon all hope right now.

Indeed, it is strange how often the Energy Plan finishes an in-depth discussion of an issue with a shallow recommendation, and frequently one that has the distinct odor of having been vetted by Dominion.

That observation leads us straight to grid modernization. The plan opens with a very fine discussion of grid modernization, one that shows the Administration understands both the problem and the solution. It opens by declaring, “Virginia needs a coordinated distribution system planning process.” And it notes, “One important rationale for a focus on grid modernization is that the transitions in our electricity system include a shift away from large, centralized power stations to more distributed energy resources.”

Well, exactly! Moreover: “The grid transformation improvements that the Commonwealth is contemplating include a significant focus on the distribution system, but our current resource planning process (Integrated Resource Plan or IRP) does not fully evaluate the integration of these resources. One overarching focus of this Energy Plan is the development of a comprehensive analysis of distributed energy resources.”

But just when you feel sure that the plan is about to announce the administration is setting up an independent process for comprehensive grid modernization, the discussion comes to a screeching halt. The plan offers just one recommendation, which starts out well but then takes a sudden turn down a dead-end road:

To ensure that utility investments align with long-term policy objectives and market shifts, Virginia should reform its regulatory process to include distribution system level planning in Virginia’s ongoing Integrated Resource Planning requirement.

Seriously? We need regulatory reform, but we will let the utilities handle it through their IRPs? Sorry, who let Dominion write that into the plan?

It’s possible the Administration is punting here because it doesn’t want to antagonize the State Corporation Commission (SCC). The SCC pretty much hated the grid mod bill and resented the legislation’s attack on the Commission’s oversight authority. And rightly so, but let’s face it, the SCC hasn’t shown any interest in “reforming the regulatory process.”

The Energy Plan’s failure to take up this challenge is all the more discouraging in light of a just-released report from the non-profit Grid Lab that evaluates Dominion’s spending proposal under SB 966 and finds it sorely lacking. The report clearly lays out how to do grid modernization right. It’s disheartening to see the Administration on board with doing it wrong.

Dominion’s influence also hobbles the recommendations on rooftop solar and net metering. This section begins by recognizing that “Net metering is one of the primary policy drivers for the installation of distributed solar resources from residential, small business, and agricultural stakeholders.” Then it describes some of the barriers that currently restrain the market: standby charges, system size caps, the rule that prevents customers from installing more solar than necessary to meet past (but not future) demand.

But its recommendations are limited to raising the 1% aggregate cap on net metering to 5% and making third-party power purchase agreements legal statewide. These are necessary reforms, and if the Administration can achieve them, Virginia will see a lot more solar development. But why not recommend doing away with all the unnecessary policy barriers and really open up the market? The answer, surely, is that Dominion wouldn’t stand for it.

Refusing to challenge these barriers (and others—the list is a long one) is especially regrettable given that the plan goes on to recommend Dominion develop distributed generation on customer property. Dominion has tried this before through its Solar Partnership Program, and mostly proved it can’t compete with private developers. If it wants to try again, that’s great. We love competition! But you have to suspect that competition is not what this particular monopoly has in mind.

The need to expand opportunities for private investment in solar is all the more pressing in light of the slow pace of utility investment. Legislators have been congratulating themselves on declaring 5,000 megawatts (MW) of solar and wind in the public interest, and the Energy Plan calls for Dominion to develop 500 MW of solar annually. I suspect our leaders don’t realize how little that is. After ten years, 5,000 MW of solar, at a projected capacity factor of 25%, would produce less electricity than the 1,588-MW gas plant Dominion is currently building in Greensville, operating at a projected 80% capacity.

Offshore wind capacities are in the range of 40-45%, so 2,000 MW of offshore wind will produce the amount of electricity equivalent to one of Dominion’s other gas plants. It won’t quite match the 1,358-MW Brunswick Power Station, or even the 1,329-MW Warren County Power Station, but Dominion also has several smaller gas plants.

But at this point you get the picture. If all the solar and wind Virginia plans to build over ten years adds up to two gas plants, Virginia is not building enough solar and wind.

That gets us back to climate. The Administration can claim credit for following through on developing regulations to reduce carbon emissions from power plants by 30% by 2030, using the cap-and-trade program of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) of the northeastern states. If successful, that still leaves us with 70% of the carbon emissions in 2030, when we need to be well on our way to zero. And for that, we don’t have a plan.

Of course, Ralph Northam has been Governor for only nine months. He has some solid people in place, but right now he has to work with a legislature controlled by Republicans and dominated by Dominion allies in both parties, not to mention an SCC that’s still way too fond of fossil fuels. Another blue wave in the 2019 election could sweep in enough new people to change the calculus on what is possible. In that case, we may yet see the kind of leadership we need.

 

This article first appeared in the Virginia Mercury on October 15, 2018.

Solar tours this weekend will showcase much more than solar panels

solar panels on a house

This house looks ordinary, but it boasts a superpower: its solar panels produce all the energy the homeowners use.

Innovative lighting, rain gardens, mini-split heat pumps, electric vehicles, and high-tech appliances—what do these have to do with solar panels? They will all be featured at homes and businesses opening their doors to the public on Saturday and Sunday, October 6 and 7, as part of the National Solar Tour.

You can find open houses and tours near you using this map or the listing on this site. For those in Northern Virginia, a downloadable booklet describes more than 40 solar and green homes participating in the Metro DC tour. The website also tells you where you can buy a hard copy if you prefer. Some homes didn’t make it into the booklet, which went to press over the summer.

The American Solar Energy Society (ASES) started the National tour more than two decades ago, but the Washington metro area tour is now in its 28thyear. This is pretty astonishing if you think about where solar technology was in 1990.

As a “tourist” during the early days, I remember the gee-whiz feeling I got exploring the handiwork of early solar adopters. It is the tragedy of my life that I live in the woods and can’t have my own solar panels. Fortunately, the tours have always been about more than just generating electricity. Back then, they had to be, because not many people could afford solar PV. Good design and energy efficiency took center stage.

Through the tours I learned about passive solar houses, solar hot water, insulation made from old blue jeans, natural light via “daylighting,” the incorporation of recycled materials into beautiful tile and countertops, eco-friendly siding materials, and how to live with nature using native plants and rain gardens. More recently the tours have branched out to include electric vehicles and green roofs.

This year’s Metro DC tour booklet includes new homes built to Passive House standards and loaded with cool features, but to my mind the more interesting entries are ordinary homes that have undergone a thoughtful retrofit. Here is a description of one of the latter:

This 1950s ranch house has solar PV, solar hot water, solar space heating, a cupola/solar chimney, solar daylight tubes, solar attic fan, solar sidewalk lights, south facing energy efficient windows, 2 highly efficient energy star minisplit heat pumps (26-SEER), a fireplace insert wood stove, exterior insulation finishing system (EIFS), CFL/LED lighting, kitchen counter tops made from recycled glass, and recycled floor tiles in the foyer and basement. The yard has a 1000-gallon cistern, food forest, 2 rain gardens, permeable walkways, 2 rain barrels, and 2 compost piles. There is also an aquaponics system, a Chevy Volt and a plug-in Prius. Installation by Greenspring Energy.

These renovations suggest an important point: reducing energy use doesn’t require us to tear down our homes and start over. And thank heavens for that, since most of us aren’t going to do that anyway.

Besides which, existing homes make up so much of our housing stock that making big efficiency gains depends on how well we retrofit and weatherize old homes. So if a house built in the 50s can be turned into a solar energy showcase, the rest of us should be taking notes.

Workshop Explores Local Government Clean Energy Financing Alternatives

Representatives from six local governments in Northern Virginia attended a workshop on budget-neutral, clean energy alternative financing options for local governments at the Fairfax County Government Center on September 7.

Presenters discussed financing approaches that can help local governments meet their energy and climate goals while saving taxpayer dollars. Specifically, the workshop covered Power Purchase Agreements (PPAs) for solar projects and Energy Savings Performance Contracts (ESPCs) for a range of energy efficiency retrofits. These budget-neutral tools allow local governments to invest in long-term energy savings without the up-front costs.

Elected officials and local government staff, as well as representatives of the Northern Virginia Regional Commission and community members attended the workshop organized by the Great Falls Group of the Sierra Club with the assistance of Fairfax Supervisor John Foust. The workshop was also televised for remote viewing.

The workshop video and background materials are available online.

Clean Energy Financing Workshop

More than 50 local government staff and community members attended the workshop organized by the Great Falls Group of the Sierra Club

Solar PPAs available for most Northern Virginia localities

 A PPA is a contract in which a local government agrees to purchase solar-generated energy from a solar developer at a set price over the term of the contract (typically 15-25 years). In his presentation, Eric Hurlocker of the GreeneHurlocker Law Firm explained why PPAs are attractive to local governments; they require no capital outlay, involve no fuel price risk, and make effective use of tax incentives, allowing local governments to focus on their core functions.

Eric Hurlocker

Eric Hurlocker attributes the surge in VA PPA projects to approaching sunset of the federal solar tax credit

Patricia Innocenti, Deputy Procurement Director for Fairfax County, stated the county will send out its first solar PPA request for proposals (RFP) for the Reston Community Center before the end of the year. This RFP also will encompass other Fairfax County government buildings. Fairfax County plans to draft the RFP so that other jurisdictions can ride the contract following contract award.

PPAs are governed by the terms of a pilot program applicable to customers of Dominion Energy Virginia, including localities that are members of the Virginia Energy Purchasing Governmental Association (VEPGA).

Click to view the fact sheet on on-site solar options for Virginia’s local governments.

Opportunities for local governments to receive state-level technical support for ESPCs

Nam Nguyen of the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals, and Energy (DMME) presented the many advantages of ESPCs. The ESPC is a “financial mechanism to pay for today’s facility upgrades with tomorrow’s energy savings,” said Nguyen. Third-party contractors, called energy service companies (ESCOs), take on the investment risk, and state law requires the contractors to guarantee the energy savings for localities. DMME calculates that ESPCs have provided $860 million in energy savings in Virginia since 2001.

Nam Nguyen

Nam Nguyen, VA DMME, explains the many advantages of ESPCs and the technical and project management support his department provides to local governments

Nguyen made a Fact Sheet on ESPCs available to participants.

Justin Moss, Energy Coordinator for the Fairfax County Public Schools, said his department considers ESPCs “a very viable option to help replace aging equipment when we lack bond funding for that.” Their ESPC for 106 schools has saved $29 million in energy costs to date.

While smaller jurisdictions often know ESPCs could save them millions of dollars, they fear they lack staff and expertise to manage ESPC projects. This is where DMME comes in. Nguyen explained that his department provides technical and engineering support to ensure governments are empowered to negotiate good terms for the contract. DMME also provides hands-on project management support throughout the duration of the contract. Since there is no charge for requesting an initial energy audit to determine the feasibility of pursuing an ESPC project at government-owned facilities, it is a wonder why more Virginia localities do not take greater advantage of this financing tool.

Click to view the full-length workshop video.

More 2018 bills: energy efficiency, storage, and electric vehicles

 

This prototype of the 2020 Tesla Roadster is not among the EVs available for test drives at Conservation Lobby Day. I’m using the picture anyway because it is as close as I will ever come to owning one. Photo credit Smnt via Wikimedia Commons.

My post last week covered the significant renewable energy bills, especially solar bills, introduced by the end of the first week of the 2018 legislative session. In this post I tackle three other bill categories of interest to clean energy advocates: energy efficiency, energy storage, and electric vehicles.

There is more to some of these bills than my brief description indicates; I just highlight the points I think are most interesting. Also, as with the solar bills, there may be more bills added in the coming week, so keep checking back for updates.

Energy Efficiency

Virginia’s woeful performance on energy efficiency was the subject of a recent guest post here by my colleague Melissa Christensen. A number of legislators have tried in recent years to turn this around, with remarkably little success.

Delegate Rip Sullivan has worked as hard as anyone on finding legislative fixes. He has several efficiency bills this year. HB 963 is the most impactful, requiring electric and gas utilities to meet energy efficiency targets, and to submit plans to the State Corporation Commission (SCC) for its approval describing how they will achieve the targets. The bill would also require utilities and the SCC to prioritize money-saving efficiency measures over proposals for new generation or transmission facilities.

Taking a narrower approach to the problem, two other Sullivan bills address the four tests the SCC uses to determine whether to approve an energy efficiency program proposed by a utility. The SCC has relied on the Ratepayer Impact Measure (RIM) test to reject programs that otherwise would provide cost-effective energy savings. HB 964 removes the RIM test from the list of tests the SCC is required to consider when determining that an energy efficiency program proposed by an electric utility is in the public interest. Instead, the SCC would consider whether the net present value of a program’s benefits exceeds the net present value of its costs as determined under the Total Resource Cost Test, the Utility Cost Test, and the Participant Test.

Taking a different tack, HB 965 defines the Total Resource Cost Test as a test to determine if the benefit-cost ratio of a proposed energy efficiency program or measure is greater than one. An energy efficiency program or measure that meets the Total Resource Cost Test is declared to be in the public interest. If it fails the test, it would then be reviewed under the other tests.

Delegate Tim Hugo’s HB 1261 proposes another way to undercut the SCC’s over-reliance on the RIM test. The bill provides that an energy efficiency program proposed by an electric utility is in the public interest if the net present value of the benefits exceeds the net present value of the costs as determined by any three of the existing law’s four benefit-cost tests. At least, that is surely the intent. Other reviewers say the bill’s wording could potentially be interpreted in a way that undermines its intent.

Two other Sullivan bills also deserve mention. HB 560 establishes a revolving fund to provide no-interest loans to any locality, school division, or public institution of higher education for energy conservation or efficiency projects. HB 204 would allow localities to adopt ordinances to assist commercial building owners in getting energy usage data for tenants in the building.

Finally, Delegate Bell’s HB 58 would generally require state agencies to use LED bulbs instead of incandescent light bulbs for new outdoor lighting fixtures or when replacing bulbs in existing fixtures.

Energy storage

Energy storage is one of the hot topics in energy today. In most states, the focus is on advanced battery technology, which can take the form of battery packs small enough for residential and commercial customers, or arrays large enough to provide utilities with an alternative to new generating plants. The value of customer-sited battery systems goes beyond being able to use solar energy at night; batteries can also provide grid services and help communities prepare for widespread power outages caused by storms or attacks on the grid.

In Virginia, Dominion Energy currently seems more interested in pumped storage hydropower, a decades-old technology that uses reservoirs to store surplus energy, traditionally energy generated at night from coal and nuclear plants, for use in the daytime. A 2017 law gives Dominion support for pumped storage using old coal mines, potentially a boost for the economy of Southwest Virginia but an unproven technology rife with questions about its economic viability and environmental impacts.

At any rate, energy storage will be playing an increasingly important role in Virginia as elsewhere, and three of this year’s bills address it. Delegate Toscano’s HB 1018 seeks to incentivize customer acquisition of energy storage systems with a tax credit of 30% of an energy storage system’s cost, up to $5,000 for a residential storage system or $75,000 for a commercial system. Delegate Habeeb’s HB 782 addresses energy storage at the utility level. It requires the SCC to establish a pilot program under which Dominion and APCo would submit proposals to deploy batteries, up to 10 MW for APCo and up to 30 MW for Dominion.

HJ 101 (Toscano) is a study bill. It tasks the Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy with conducting a two-year study to determine what regulatory reforms and market incentives are necessary to increase the use of energy storage devices in Virginia (including pumped storage hydropower).

Electric Vehicles

As with battery storage, electric vehicle technology is only just starting to register as an important topic in Virginia, and its impact—on utilities, the grid, air pollution and the economy—is just beginning to be discussed. This may be the year legislators become engaged. DriveElectric RVA, an electric vehicle advocacy group, plans to offer test drives of EVs at the capitol on January 22, Conservation Lobby Day.

Three bills deal with EVs this year. HB 469 (Reid) offers a tax credit of up to $3,500 for purchase of a new electric vehicle. HB 922 authorizes local governments to install charging stations and charge for the electricity (individuals and businesses can already do so). HJ 74 (Reid) requires a study of the impacts of vehicle electrification, including on workers in the automotive repair industry. One of the selling points for EVs is that they require minimal maintenance.

How Did Virginia Get So Far Behind on Energy Efficiency?

  • Dominion Energy ranks 50th in energy efficiency among the 51 largest electric utilities in the nation (ACEEE)
  • Virginia has captured only 2% of its efficiency potential (EPRI)
  • Robust energy efficiency policy in VA could increase employment by 38,000 jobs by 2030 (DMME Energy Plan 2014)
  • VA’s residential electricity bills ranked 10th highest in the U.S in 2015, commercial bills ranked 13th highest (U.S. Energy Information Administration)

In the past year, numerous reports from research institutes, industry think tanks, and government entities have exposed Virginia’s poor energy efficiency performance. Considering the clear economic and environmental benefits that energy efficiency provides to Virginia’s businesses and residents, and in light of Virginia’s untapped energy efficiency potential, electric utilities should prioritize meeting demand through improving energy efficiency rather than building new expensive power plants.

Virginia Utilities Are Significantly Underperforming in Achieving Energy Efficiency.

Virginia’s largest investor-owned utility, Dominion Energy, holds a very weak record on energy efficiency – ranking 50th (next to last) in efficiency efforts among the 51 largest electric utilities in the nation, according to the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE). In this utilities report, Dominion Energy earned only 11% of total energy efficiency points (5.5 out of 50) and performed far worse than peer utilities in the Mid-Atlantic region (MD, NJ, PA, and VA). In contrast, Maryland’s BG&E utility company ranks 4th in the nation. In addition, a 2016 independent survey of the 30 largest investor-owned utility companies ranked Dominion last for energy efficiency using two separate measures.

Virginia investor-owned utilities are not even close to reaching Virginia’s voluntary energy efficiency goal of reducing electricity use by 10% by 2022 (relative to 2006 base consumption – equal to a reduction of 10.76 million megawatt hours). According to the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals, and Energy (DMME), utilities had achieved less than 10% of the reduction goal by the end of 2015. In Dominion’s 2017 Integrated Resource Plan (IRP), State Corporation Commission (SCC) staff witness Eichenlaub testified that, based on current programs, Dominion Energy could achieve only 80% of the 10% reduction target by 2032—still deficient a decade late.

Graphic1

Even the electric utility industry’s own research organization (Electric Power Research Institute, or “EPRI”) reveals how far behind Virginia is in energy efficiency efforts. EPRI’s recent report shows that Virginia has captured only 2% of its efficiency potential. Based on current programs, policies and activities, Virginia will only achieve 7% of its energy efficiency potential by 2035, ranking near the lowest in the nation – 48th out of 50 states and the District of Columbia.

Achieving Advances in Energy Efficiency Will Reap Great Benefits for Virginia.

Improving energy efficiency is the lowest cost and most readily available resource to save money and meet energy demand. Energy efficiency consistently ranks as the lowest-cost resource—averaging 3 cents per kilowatt hour—and is one-half to one-third the cost of building new power plants.[i] While improving energy efficiency will obviously conserve natural resources, reduce pollution, and mitigate adverse health effects from air pollutants, improvements will also bring direct economic benefits to Virginia through job creation, increased economic competitiveness, and reduced electricity bills.

Graphic2

Energy efficiency is a growing industry in Virginia. According to the Virginia Energy Efficiency Council (VAEEC), revenue generated from this sector has increased from nearly $300 million in 2013 to $1.5 billion today. Energy efficiency currently already supports over 75,000 jobs in Virginia but it could support more. Indeed, Virginia’s Energy Plan states that robust energy efficiency policy could increase employment by 38,000 jobs by 2030.

Energy efficiency can help maintain and attract business to Virginia. Almost half of Fortune 500 companies (48% in 2016) have set greenhouse gas emissions reduction and/or energy efficiency targets. In Dominion’s 2017 IRP case, a coalition of data center providers and customers in Virginia recently confirmed that their investors want them to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Data centers constitute the largest share of Dominion’s forecasted load growth. Advanced Energy Economy confirms, “for many companies, the ability to control energy costs […] is a key factor when deciding where to locate or expand their operations.” By lowering greenhouse gas emissions, efficiency will make Virginia more attractive to businesses.

Improving energy efficiency will benefit consumers, especially low-income consumers vulnerable to increases in electricity bills. Dominion Energy claims to have among the lowest rates in the nation. Yet a report by the Virginia Poverty Law Center reveals that Dominion Energy’s rates are average and its bills have increased 30% between 2006 and 2016. Of that increase, 42% comes from rate adjustment clauses (RACs)[ii] – keeping the base rates low but resulting in higher bills. These increases impact low-income households more severely, as these households spend a greater proportion of their income on utilities than the average family. Rappahannock Electric Co-op recently confirmed that low-income customers often consume more electricity due to poor insulation and older, less efficient appliances.

Dominion Energy is planning several large new power plants to meet projected demand. Yet Virginia has great, untapped potential for reducing customers’ electric bills and meeting demand by pursuing energy efficiency instead. Advances in energy efficiency will grow Virginia’s economy, increase its economic competitiveness, and benefit consumers (especially low-income consumers).

Policy Recommendations

There are several regulatory obstacles to stronger utility energy efficiency action in Virginia. Other peer states have achieved significant advances through the following policies.

  1. Make the voluntary energy efficiency resource standard (EERS) a mandatory EERS.
  2. Broaden the State Corporation Commission’s cost-effectiveness criteria to include more energy efficiency benefits. This broadened definition would result in more energy efficiency programs being approved.
  3. Allow electric utilities to decouple their profits and sales, and provide utilities with performance incentives. (Decoupling has already occurred for Virginia natural gas companies.)

Key Recent Reports

 

____________________

[i] For additional information on energy efficiency as a resource, see the Alliance to Save Energy’s Energy 2030 Reports, available at http://bit.ly/2BMHFl3, and McKinsey & Company’s 2009 report Unlocking Energy Efficiency in the US Economy, available at http://bit.ly/2hf3HAM.

[ii] For additional information on Rate Adjustment Clauses (RACs), see Virginia Energy Purchasing Governmental Association’s Elected Official’s Guide to Ensuring Fair Regulation for Electricity at http://vepga.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/VEPGA_16SummaryUpdate_ElectedOfficialsGuide.pdf. One example of RACs are fuel adjustment clauses that affect prices for fossil fuels, such as natural gas and coal. Thus, when prices spiked during the polar vortex several years ago, the price increase is reflected in an RAC.

 

____________

About Melissa Christensen

Melissa is an intern with the Virginia Sierra Club Legislative Committee researching opportunities in energy efficiency. Having grown up in Belgium and recently lived in Shanghai for two years, Melissa is passionate about accelerating the world’s transition to a sustainable economy.

 

 

Electric Co-op Seeks to Double Fixed Access Charge in Move Against Solar

IMG_0042

A residential solar installation in REC’s rural territory.

In a little-noticed move earlier this year Rappahannock Electric Cooperative applied for a rate increase and restructuring that will make homeowner solar less attractive, and disproportionately affect many low-income customers in the process. REC, Virginia’s fourth largest electric utility, asked the State Corporation Commission to approve doubling the monthly access charge all residential customers must pay. The SCC hearing in the case is set for for October 31. REC’s move has received virtually no attention in the media despite its potential large impact on consumers and the commonwealth’s utility and solar industries.

A utility rate increase by itself might not be big news. What’s unusual is that the new revenues REC says it needs would come mostly from hefty access-charge increases for all residential and small-commercial customers. The access charge is the fixed monthly amount all consumers pay just for having a meter hookup, regardless of how little or how much electricity they consume. In what will surely be a shock to many low-income and low-consumption REC customers, the co-op’s residential access charge would double from $10 to $20 per month.

REC cites rising costs in delivering power as the reason for seeking more revenue. In a speech at the co-op’s annual meeting last August, REC president and CEO Kent Farmer claimed that the main reason for redesigning its rates so as to double access charges is that “[w]e’ve got a lot of customers who are installing solar panels.” But REC employee Matthew Faulconer acknowledged in the co-op’s SCC filing just last week that in fact only 0.3 percent of REC’s customers have thus far installed any form of distributed generation.

So REC’s move to restructure how it collects revenues appears to be an effort to stall the growth of future solar (and efficiency), rather than an attempt to solve any rate-design problem that the co-op currently has. REC’s low-usage customers, most of whom don’t have solar, will still see large increases in their monthly bills. They’ll be collateral damage in the co-op’s effort to slow solar growth. In his August speech REC’s Farmer emphasized that customers with average (not to mention higher) monthly electricity usage may not pay all that much more, since “by increasing that customer [access] charge we were able to reduce the kilowatt hour charge. So hopefully the net effect of what you will pay assuming the Commission approves our rate increase is just slightly more than what you are currently paying.” Yes, “hopefully,” that is assuming your monthly usage is average or above.

But of course, unlike children in Lake Wobegon, not all REC customers are above average. A good number of the co-op’s members obviously use less electricity than the average co-op member’s 1,283 kWh monthly consumption. And it’s a safe bet that a good number of those low-usage customers have lower incomes than those who consume more than average. Low-usage consumers will see a much bigger percentage jump in their bills.

In the co-op’s SCC filing last week REC’s Faulconer, with a (metaphorical) wave of the hand, dismissed the basic fairness issue this poses for the co-op’s low-income customers. He argues that in fact REC’s low-income customers tend to consume electricity in higher-than-average amounts. What makes REC think this is the case? Faulconer says “a good indicator of income level is whether a consumer qualifies for state administered fuel assistance, which includes income as an eligibility factor.” And, Faulconer explains, “the typical REC member receiving fuel assistance used an average of 1,323 kWh per month, 40 kWh higher than the current residential class monthly average.”

Implicit in Faulconer’s and REC’s reasoning is that customers receiving state fuel assistance are a good proxy for all low-income customers. But that proposition is absurd on its face. Surely it would come as a surprise to those low-income customers who keep their electricity consumption low to live within their means without government assistance, or who heat with wood to save money, or who cannot afford or don’t want air conditioning.

Certainly consumer groups aren’t buying the notion that access-charge hikes don’t harm low-income customers. The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) has opposed rate-restructuring efforts like REC’s that increase fixed monthly charges. Joining AARP in fighting such increases are the NAACP, Consumers Union, and the National Consumer Law Center. All these groups point out that increasing fixed fees makes it harder for customers to control their monthly bills.

The fact is, REC’s proposed rate restructuring, if approved, would be a significant wealth transfer from low-consumption customers to higher-consuming members. To accomplish such a fundamental shift in an effort to stall solar growth is very much in line with the philosophy of Koch brothers-funded groups such as the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), Americans For Prosperity, and similar organizations. (REC through its membership in the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA) supports ALEC.) Even if REC isn’t coordinating directly with these groups, the co-op seems to have internalized their way of thinking about the need to fight homeowner solar so utilities can keep burning fossil fuel.

In a Sierra Club filing in REC’s rate case Melissa Whited of Synapse Energy Economics notes that the co-op could raise the additional revenues it needs without raising access charges and thereby disproportionately favoring one group of customers over another. Whited points out that REC’s proposal, by favoring those who consume more over those who consume less, gives inefficient price signals that promote waste in electricity consumption.

Utilities across the country, working with Koch-affiliated groups, have been fighting distributed solar by attempting to roll back renewable energy mandates and net metering laws. They’ve also been trying to raise fixed monthly access charges, although often being denied or scaled back by their regulators. In these efforts utilities rarely mention the significant benefits of distributed solar, and REC certainly didn’t, either in Farmer’s speech to co-op members, or in the utility’s SCC filing. REC this summer sent out a number of “beat the peak” messages, asking customers to cut back their usage on hot sunny afternoons to save the co-op from having to buy expensive power during those peak hours. But the co-op never acknowledges that its customers with solar are helping the co-op in a big way during those peak hours. It’s certainly easier to make a case for solar-discouraging rate restructuring if you ignore the benefits that solar brings to the co-op and its members.

REC may also be seeking a rate restructuring before the SCC now as a stalking horse for Dominion Energy Virginia, which is also an ALEC member and also rarely passes up an opportunity to slow distributed solar. In 2009 the General Assembly, in a subtle anti-solar maneuver that seems to have attracted little notice, passed legislation allowing Virginia electric cooperatives to increase access charges without SCC approval, provided the overall rate change is revenue neutral (such as when higher access charges are offset by reduced kWh rates). REC temporarily waived its right to skip SCC scrutiny for access-charge increases as part of its acquisition of customers from Allegheny Power in 2010, but that temporary waiver ends in two years. So REC could have delayed its access-charge restructuring until then and skipped SCC review for it. But going before the SCC now can give REC’s board and management some cover against angry customers, and also can help Dominion and other utilities by setting a precedent, if the SCC approves.

If the SCC staff analyzed how REC’s access-charge doubling will disproportionately affect low-income customers, it hasn’t disclosed its reasoning. In his prefiled testimony in the rate case, SCC principal utilities analyst Marc A. Tufaro simply said: “Staff is generally not opposed to the proposed increases in the Access Charges by REC.”

Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring is also a party in the case, through the Office of Consumer Counsel. That office has yet to publicly reveal its position concerning the access charge.

Seth Heald is a member of REC. He received an MS degree in energy policy and climate this year and serves as chair of the Sierra Club Virginia Chapter.

UPDATE: November 1, 2017: 

The Sierra Club announced today that it and the other parties to the REC rate case reached a settlement, pending final SCC approval.  The settlement reduces the overall revenue increase from $22.2 million to $18 million and scales back the residential access-charge increase from 100% to 40%. “This settlement is a significant win for REC’s member-owners because doubling their fixed access charges would have disproportionately harmed members who have invested in clean energy and energy efficiency,” said Kate Addleson, Director of Sierra Club’s Virginia Chapter. “REC’s proposal also would have harmed many low-income customers who try to reduce their energy consumption to keep their bills affordable, and would have discouraged co-op members  from investing in energy efficiency and rooftop solar in the future.”

As part of the settlement, REC also agreed to work with the Sierra Club to implement specific methods and procedures to provide co-op members advance notice and an opportunity to provide in-person and written comments to REC’s board before access charges can be increased in the future.

 

 

Memo to legislators: Virginia is not a low-cost energy state

Sure, there is something to be said for using a lot of energy–if you’re a Jack Russel Terrier. For the rest of us, not so much.
Photo credit Steve-65 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https-::commons.wikimedia.org:w:index.php?curid=17865919

Anyone who has attended the annual meeting of the House Energy Subcommittee has watched the Republican majority vote down all manner of legislation designed to improve Virginia’s poor ranking on energy efficiency. Since energy bills have to survive this subcommittee before the rest of the General Assembly gets to hear them, this little band of naysayers effectively holds back progress on initiatives that would save money and reduce energy use.

Why would they do that? As discussed in my last post, these delegates almost invariably vote the way Dominion Virginia Power wants them to. And Dominion doesn’t like these bills. The utility is in the business of selling electricity, and energy efficiency is bad for business.

Of course the utilities don’t put it that way. At this year’s subcommittee meeting, Dominion Virginia Power lobbyist Bill Murray explained his company’s opposition to one of Delegate Rip Sullivan’s energy efficiency bills by saying that real efficiency gains depend on the actions of individuals, and Virginians aren’t incentivized to take these actions because Dominion keeps our rates so admirably low.

This might put you in mind of former Vice President Dick Cheney’s dismissal of conservation as a sign of personal virtue but not a sound basis for energy policy. Let’s set that aside. Murray’s comments might also be thought unfair to his own client, which has tried and failed to get approval from the State Corporation Commission for various programs that would help consumers practice personal virtue. (If you wonder why, in that case, he was standing there opposing legislation designed to produce a better result, you are missing the point of the Subcommittee Hearing. It’s Kabuki theatre, people, and you really shouldn’t miss it.)

For now, however, let’s simply ask whether Mr. Murray’s claim is correct. Are we really paying less for energy than residents of other states?

We should first clarify whether we are talking about rates, or bills. Dominion prefers to focus on rates, but what people pay are bills. Few people can tell you what their electricity rate is, but most have a sense of the bottom line on their monthly bill.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Agency, Virginia’s 2016 residential rates stand at an average of 10.72 cents per kilowatt-hour, which is indeed about 12% below the national average of 12.21.* The average for our peer group, the South Atlantic region, is 11.11 cents per kWh, with Maryland at the high end (14.01 cents), and Georgia at the low end (9.92 cents).

When it comes to monthly bills, however, Virginia residential customers ($130.58) pay almost exactly the South Atlantic average ($131.20), but we are way above the national average ($114.03). (Note the bills are based on 2015 data; the EIA has not updated this chart for 2016.) If having to pay more for electricity is the primary motivation to adopt energy efficiency measures, Virginians are more motivated than most Americans.

Several factors can make a state have lower bills despite higher rates. Among these is energy efficiency. Energy efficiency is why a state like California, with high incomes and notoriously high residential electricity rates (16.99 cents/kWh), still has average monthly bills ($94.59) that are 30% below Virginia’s. California has succeeded in keeping per capita energy use flat for decades while the U.S. average climbed steadily, only flattening out in the past ten years. California is currently ranked 49th in the nation for per capita energy consumption, and 49th in total energy costs. “California” is a bad word among Virginia Republicans, who assume anything that state does must be bad, but California’s experience has to be considered by anyone who cares about energy costs.

Back at the Energy Subcommittee meeting, Bill Murray did not mention California, but he did offer his opinion on the cause of Virginia’s higher-than-average bills. He noted that many Virginians use electric heat pumps to heat their homes, which drives up winter electricity use, resulting in higher bills on average. (An EIA analysis using 2009 data showed that 55% of Virginia households heat with electricity, higher than the U.S. average but less than the South Atlantic average.)

To get a look at the whole energy picture across states, I created the table below that compares residents’ costs of electricity, natural gas and fuel oil across the U.S. Virginia ranked 18th out of 51. Because it isn’t weather-adjusted, it can’t tell the full story. However you slice it, though, Virginia is not a low-cost energy state.

It may still be true that middle-class homeowners don’t feel the bite of energy bills enough to go to the trouble of figuring out what they should do to save energy. If it’s hard, people don’t do it—which is one reason energy efficiency programs are designed to make it easier. But middle-class homeowners also aren’t the only ones who would benefit. Across Virginia, people with incomes below 50% of the poverty level spend at least 40%, and often more than half their income, on energy bills.

So if cost equals motivation, Virginians are motivated. What’s lacking are the energy efficiency programs to help people save energy, and the laws to enable those programs.

 

Overall Rank State Total Energy Cost Monthly Electricity Cost (Rank) Monthly Natural-Gas Cost (Rank) Monthly Home Heating-Oil Cost (Rank)
1 Connecticut $304 $155

(7)

$44

(20)

$104

(1)

2 Rhode Island $259 $107

(39)

$61

(5)

$91

(4)

3 Massachusetts $253 $115

(34)

$60

(6)

$78

(6)

4 Alaska $241 $129

(20)

$53

(13)

$59

(7)

5 New Hampshire $234 $127

(25)

$20

(44)

$87

(5)

6 Vermont $231 $120

(30)

$18

(48)

$93

(3)

7 New York $220 $115

(32)

$66

(3)

$39

(9)

8 Maine $217 $107

(40)

$6

(49)

$104

(2)

9 Pennsylvania $211 $121

(28)

$50

(15)

$40

(8)

10 Maryland $209 $145

(13)

$43

(22)

$21

(11)

11 Delaware $208 $152

(9)

$37

(26)

$19

(12)

12 Georgia $203 $157

(6)

$46

(19)

$0

(42)

13 New Jersey $200 $115

(33)

$63

(4)

$22

(10)

14 Alabama $197 $171

(3)

$26

(40)

$0

(39)

15 South Carolina $196 $177

(1)

$19

(47)

$0

(32)

16 Mississippi $184 $163

(4)

$21

(43)

$0

(49)

17 Ohio $183 $120

(29)

$59

(7)

$4

(19)

18 Virginia $182 $141

(14)

$31

(32)

$10

(13)

18 Hawaii $182 $177

(2)

$5

(50)

$0

(51)

20 Kansas $181 $125

(27)

$56

(11)

$0

(47)

21 Michigan $180 $106

(43)

$72

(2)

$2

(25)

22 North Dakota $179 $140

(15)

$32

(31)

$7

(15)

22 Texas $179 $155

(8)

$24

(41)

$0

(50)

24 Missouri $178 $134

(18)

$44

(21)

$0

(36)

25 Indiana $177 $129

(21)

$47

(17)

$1

(29)

26 Illinois $176 $96

(47)

$80

(1)

$0

(35)

27 Oklahoma $175 $135

(17)

$40

(24)

$0

(43)

28 Tennessee $174 $147

(10)

$27

(37)

$0

(37)

29 Wisconsin $171 $109

(37)

$57

(9)

$5

(17)

30 Minnesota $170 $108

(38)

$57

(10)

$5

(16)

31 Louisiana $169 $146

(11)

$23

(42)

$0

(46)

32 North Carolina $168 $145

(12)

$20

(45)

$3

(22)

33 Kentucky $167 $136

(16)

$30

(34)

$1

(30)

33 South Dakota $167 $129

(23)

$34

(28)

$4

(20)

35 Florida $164 $160

(5)

$4

(51)

$0

(44)

36 West Virginia $162 $126

(26)

$32

(30)

$4

(18)

36 Iowa $162 $109

(36)

$52

(14)

$1

(27)

38 Nevada $161 $128

(24)

$33

(29)

$0

(31)

38 Nebraska $161 $119

(31)

$42

(23)

$0

(33)

40 Arkansas $158 $129

(22)

$29

(36)

$0

(41)

41 Wyoming $154 $107

(41)

$46

(18)

$1

(28)

42 Arizona $153 $134

(19)

$19

(46)

$0

(48)

43 District of Columbia $148 $82

(51)

$58

(8)

$8

(14)

44 Idaho $146 $113

(35)

$30

(35)

$3

(23)

45 Montana $145 $103

(44)

$40

(25)

$2

(26)

46 Utah $144 $89

(49)

$55

(12)

$0

(34)

47 Colorado $141 $92

(48)

$49

(16)

$0

(38)

48 Oregon $135 $107

(42)

$26

(38)

$2

(24)

49 California $126 $96

(45)

$30

(33)

$0

(40)

50 Washington $125 $96

(46)

$26

(39)

$3

(21)

51 New Mexico $124 $88

(50)

$36

(27)

$0

(45)

 

Data derived from WalletHub, “2016’s Most & Least Energy-Expensive States,’ July 13, 2016, https://wallethub.com/edu/energy-costs-by-state/4833/#methodology. I was only interested in energy consumption in buildings, so I backed out the numbers for motor fuel cost.

______________________________

*The EIA data reflect statewide averages. Dominion’s own residential rates tend to be lower than Virginia’s statewide average. It costs more to bring electricity to rural areas, so APCo and the coops would be expected to have higher rates. And urban dwellers use less electricity on average than rural residents, which keeps bills lower for city folks in Dominion territory. But since most states have a mix of urban and rural residents, it seems correct to compare statewide averages.

Note, too, that the discussion here—and at the Energy Subcommittee meeting—concerned residential rates. Virginia’s commercial rates are significantly better than the U.S. average.