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.

 

Virginia legislative session wraps up with action on solar, coal ash, and pumped storage

Next year I'm bringing him to lobby with me. Photo credit: Sierra Club

Next year I’m bringing him to lobby with me. Photo credit: Sierra Club

The Virginia General Assembly wraps up its 2017 session on Saturday, February 25. As usual, the results are a mixed bag for energy. On the plus side is the promise of a new solar purchase option for customers. On the downside, utility opposition to energy efficiency and distributed generation meant a lot of worthwhile initiatives never made it out of subcommittee.

Putting it into perspective, it could have been worse. For clean energy advocates in Virginia, that’s what we call a success!

Governor Terry McAuliffe has already acted on some of the bills that passed and will have until March 27 to act on the remaining bills. Under Virginia law, the governor can sign, veto, or amend the bills for legislators’ consideration.

“Rubin Group” bills move renewable energy forward—and back.

Negotiations between utilities, the solar industry trade association MDV-SEIA, and the group Powered by Facts produced three pieces of legislation that appear likely to become law (and all of which I’ve discussed previously). The most significant of these “Rubin Group” bills (named for facilitator Mark Rubin) is SB 1393 (Wagner), the so-called “community solar” bill, which is designed to launch a utility-controlled and administered solar option for customers. The utilities will contract for the output of solar facilities to be built in Virginia and will sell the electricity to subscribers under programs to be approved by the State Corporation Commission. Critical details such as the price of the offering will be determined during a proceeding before the State Corporation Commission.

This was the only one of the Rubin Group bills that had participation from members of the environmental community (Southern Environmental Law Center and Virginia League of Conservation Voters), and it received widespread (though not unanimous) support from advocates.

Broader legislation that would have enabled true community solar programs did not move forward. SB 1208 (Wexton) and HB 2112 (Keam and Villanueva), modeled on programs in other states, had the backing of the Distributed Solar Collaborative, a stakeholder group composed of everyone but utilities. In the Senate, Wexton’s bill was “rolled into” Wagner’s bill, but only her name, not the provisions of her bill, carried over.

SB 1395 (Wagner), a second Rubin Group bill, increases from 100 MW to 150 MW the size of solar or wind projects eligible to use the state’s Permit by Rule process, which is overseen by the Department of Environmental Quality. The legislation also allows utilities to use the PBR process for their projects instead of seeking a permit from the SCC, if the projects are not being built to serve their regulated ratepayers.

The third Rubin Group bill establishes a buy-all, sell-all program for agricultural generators of renewable energy. Although supported by MDV-SEIA as part of the package deal, passage of SB 1394 (Wagner) and HB 2303 (Minchew) should be considered a loss for solar. The program replaces existing agricultural net metering rules for members of rural cooperatives and could lead these coops to reach their 1% net metering cap prematurely, blocking other customers from being able to use net metering. And while negotiators say the program should be economically beneficial to participants, it appears to offer generators no options they don’t already have under existing federal PURPA law.

The governor has until March 27 to act on these bills.

Appalachian Power PPAs for private colleges only

Under HB 2390 (Kilgore), the existing pilot program that allows some third-party power purchase agreements (PPAs) in Dominion Power territory will be extended to Appalachian Power territory, but only for the private colleges and universities who could afford to hire a lobbyist to negotiate the special favor, and only up to a 7 MW program cap. APCo is expected to use passage of the bill to assert that PPAs for all other customers are now illegal. The governor has not indicated whether he will sign the bill.

Intellectual property

SB 1226 (Edwards, D-Roanoke) allows solar developers to keep confidential certain proprietary information that would otherwise be subject to disclosure under the state’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). It resolves a problem that has held up a solar project on the Berglund Center, a public building in Roanoke.

Storage, pumped or otherwise

HB 1760 (Kilgore) and SB 1418 (Chafin) allow Dominion Power to seek rate recovery for a scheme to use abandoned coal mines for pumped storage facilities. If you think this sounds weird and possibly dangerous, you are not alone. Usually the idea is to keep water out of coal mines to avoid the leaching of toxic chemicals into groundwater. Apparently no one has ever used coal mines for pumped storage before, and neither the company that would construct the project, nor the sites under consideration, nor the technology to be used, have been revealed.

SB 1258 (Ebbin) adds storage to the mandate of the Virginia Solar Energy Development Authority.

Dominion’s nuclear costs, and the politics of the “rate freeze”

HB 2291 (Kilgore) allows Dominion to charge ratepayers for the costs of upgrading its nuclear facilities. Because the charges will appear as a rider on top of base rates, consumers would not be protected by the “rate freeze” Dominion pushed through in 2015’s SB 1349.

That 2015 legislation, of course, was supposedly designed to shield customers from the impact of the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, a ruse that has been since laid bare. Instead, it will allow Dominion to keep an estimated billion dollars of customers’ money it would otherwise have had to refund or forego. This year, with the CPP on death row under Trump, Senator Chap Petersen introduced SB 1095, which would repeal the rate freeze. His bill was promptly killed in committee, but continues to gain support everywhere outside the General Assembly. Governor McAuliffe belatedly announced his support for Petersen’s bill, but did not use his authority to resurrect it.

Petersen is encouraging the Governor to offer an amendment to Kilgore’s HB 2291 that would repeal the rate freeze, an option allowed by Virginia’s legislative procedure since both provisions affect the same provision of the Code.

Dominion, of course, says the CPP isn’t actually dead and buried just yet, and Republicans seem to fear its resurrection. HB 1974 (O’Quinn) requires the Department of Environmental Quality to submit any Clean Power Plan implementation plan to the General Assembly for approval, so they can stab it with their steely knives.  The governor is expected to veto the bill.

State’s failures on energy efficiency will now be tracked

SB 990 (Dance) requires the Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy to track and report on the state’s progress towards meeting its energy efficiency goals. Or in Virginia’s case, its lack of progress.

HB 1712 (Minchew) expands the provisions of state law that allow public entities to use energy performance-based contracting.

That’s it for energy efficiency legislation this year. Several good bills were offered but killed off in the House Energy Subcommittee, notably HB 1703 (Sullivan), which would have required electric utilities to meet efficiency goals, and HB 1636 (Sullivan again), which would have changed how the SCC evaluates energy efficiency programs. Delegate Sullivan, by the way, introduced a companion bill to SB 990, but his was killed in that same House subcommittee, all on the same day.

Coal ash legislation watered down but passes

SB1398 (Surovell) will require Dominion Power to monitor pollution and study options for the closure of its coal ash impoundments, including removal of the ash to secure, lined landfills. Unfortunately amendments in the House will allow Dominion to proceed with capping the waste in unlined pits while it completes the study. As one editorial put it, “Why not do it right the first time?” The editorial—along with a lot of people who have to live near the coal ash dumps—would like to see the governor offer amendments to the bill, but we’ve heard nothing from the governor’s office on that yet.

Republicans keep trying to throw taxpayer money down a rathole; Governor vetoes

Governor McAuliffe has already vetoed HB 2198 (Kilgore), which would reinstate the coal employment and production incentive tax credit and extend the allowance of the coalfield employment enhancement tax credit. SB 1470 (Chafin) is identical to HB 2198 and so likely faces a veto as well.

With Rooftop Solar Prices So Low, Virginia Schools Can’t Pass Up the Savings

By Will Driscoll

With today’s low solar prices, schools can save money by installing rooftop solar, and use the savings to improve education.  Schools in three Virginia communities are leading the way, achieving net energy savings after commissioning 1.7 megawatts of solar systems in 2016. Student leadership, power purchase agreements, and one outright purchase helped make it happen.

In Albemarle County, students helped drive a decision to install 1.1 megawatts of solar on six schools.  Back in 2014, Sutherland Middle School students gave pro-solar testimony in Richmond at a hearing on Dominion Virginia Power’s resource plans.  Meanwhile, students at Monticello High School wrote to the school board to make the case for solar.  The school division last year added rooftop solar to these schools and four others, by entering a power purchase agreement (PPA) with solar developer Secure Futures in Staunton.  The school division projects savings of at least $80,000 over the life of the 20-year PPA agreement, based on a projected annual increase of two percent in Dominion Virginia Power’s electricity rates.  (Photos below.)

Arlington’s new Discovery Elementary School is jam-packed with 497 kilowatts of solar panels.  That much solar was possible under Virginia’s net metering law because the school is heated using electric-powered geothermal heat pumps—so the school can net meter not only its air conditioning and lighting load but also its electric heating load.  The school district paid $1,369,500 for the solar system, funded through the same bond used to build the school.  The cost will be paid off in 14 years, assuming a two percent annual increase in energy costs, and the solar panels should produce free electricity for many years after that.  (That 14-year amortization is based on the bond’s interest rate of 2.63 percent and full-year 2016 energy cost avoidance of $101,000, increasing by two percent per year.)  The school is designed as a net-zero-energy building, and ran at net-zero in 2016. (Photo below.)

Lexington City Schools, which operates just three schools, added a 91.5 kW solar system to the Lylburn Downing Middle School. “No matter how big or how small a school division you are—and that translates into real life, no matter how big a corporation or how small—you can make an impact on the environment” explained School Principal Jason White in a video interview with Washington and Lee University’s Rockbridge Report.  Lexington School Superintendent Scott Jefferies added that the solar project “speaks beyond how much you can actually save financially—more so … that you’re actually trying to do something good for the environment.” Like Albemarle County, Lexington financed this solar system through a PPA with Secure Futures.

Looking Ahead:  To accelerate placement of cost-saving solar systems on schools—and to show our children that we care about their future—Virginia legislators could extend the right to enter into power purchase agreements (PPAs) beyond the current pilot program in the Dominion Virginia Power territory.  The legislature could also allow customers to net meter more solar-generated electricity than they consume, because we need all the solar we can get, and because Dominion claims it has difficulty siting solar generation.  And soon, legislators will need to increase the net metering limit, now fixed at one percent of total electricity consumption.

Virginia can produce 32 percent of its electricity from rooftop solar, according to a National Renewable Energy Laboratories report.  Virginia’s 2,093 public schools, with unshaded roofs ideal for low-cost commercial scale solar, represent a promising component of that potential.  Our progress in 2016 moved us eight schools closer to that target.

Albemarle County Schools–Photos 

image001

Staff of Mountain View Solar (in high-visibility clothing) and Secure Futures conduct commissioning tests for Albermarle High School’s solar installation. (Photo courtesy of Secure Futures LLC.)

image002

Sutherland Middle School’s 279 kW system. (Photo by Grant Gotlinger; courtesy of Secure Futures.)

image004

Baker-Butler Elementary School’s 224 kW system. (Photo by Grant Gotlinger, courtesy of Secure Futures.)

image003

Brownsville Elementary School’s 130 kW system. (Photo by Grant Gotlinger, courtesy of Secure Futures.)

Arlington’s Discovery Elementary School–Photo

image005

496 kW of solar panels on Arlington’s Discovery Elementary School, with a neighboring school shown at top left. (Photo courtesy of VMDO Architects and Digital Design & Imaging Service, Inc.)

 

 

Virginia General Assembly session opens. What can we expect?

Photo credit: Corrina Beall

Photo credit: Corrina Beall

The General Assembly failed to act on clean energy bills in 2016, but as the 2017 legislative session gets underway, advocates hope the delay will have only increased pressure for progress this year.

New energy legislation includes the four bills negotiated over the summer by the utilities and the solar industry promoting utility, community-scale, and agricultural renewable energy projects. The “Rubin Group” (named for facilitator Mark Rubin) brought together utilities, the solar industry trade group MDV-SEIA, and a group called Powered by Facts, but largely excluded environmental and consumer interests. Not surprisingly, the resulting bills are heavily weighted towards utility-scale solar, and utility control of solar in general.

But if the chairmen of House and Senate Commerce and Labor thought the Rubin Group’s work would mean no one else would float new renewable energy bills, they were certainly wrong.

Community-scale solar. I’ve previously addressed the Rubin Group’s legislation that enables a utility-administered, community-scale program to sell solar to participants on a voluntary basis. I see Senator Wagner will be carrying the bill in the Senate, now designated SB 1393. I haven’t had time to compare the current bill to the draft previously shared with stakeholders, but I’m cautiously optimistic that it will produce a viable solar option for consumers. Even better would be HB 2112 from Delgate Keam and SB 1208 from Senator Wexton, which authorize a broader set of community solar models. Delegate Krizek’s solar gardens bill, HB 618, also authorizes shared solar.

Utility-scale solar. Another bill from the Rubin Group, SB 1395 (Wagner), would raise from 100 MW to 150 MW the size of wind and solar projects that qualify as “small renewable energy projects” subject to Permit By Rule (PBR) permitting by DEQ, and allowing utilities to use that process for facilities that won’t be rate-based. In contrast, Senator Deeds’ SB 1197 would undo much of the streamlining gained by the PBR process, sending projects to the SCC if they either disturb an area of 100 acres or more or are within five miles of a boundary between political subdivisions.

The third Rubin Group bill, Wagner’s SB 1388, would allow utilities to earn a margin when they obtain solar energy via power purchase agreements with (lower cost) third-party developers rather than building projects themselves.

Senator Marsden’s SB 813 exempts investor-owned utilities from the requirement that they consider alternative options, including third-party market alternatives, when building solar facilities that have been declared in the public interest. This is surely an attempt to smooth the way for utility-owned solar at the SCC. However, if you’re trying to get utilities to keep costs down by using third-party installers, this is the wrong incentive.

Agricultural net metering. The last bill from the Rubin Group, Senator Wagner’s SB 1394, would revoke the recently enacted code provisions that allow agricultural customers to attribute electricity from a renewable energy facility to more than one meter on their property for the purposes of net metering. The proposed legislation would terminate this provision in 2018 (grandfathering existing net metering customers for 20 years) and instead offer farmers a buy-all, sell-all option for their renewable production.

Under the proposed bill, negotiated between the utilities and Powered by Facts, farmers would have to buy all their (dirty) power from their utility at retail, and sell their renewable power to the utility at the utility’s avoided cost—essentially wholesale. This doesn’t sound like a good deal for the farmers, but we’re told it more or less pencils out. On the plus side, the bill would allow farmers to build up to 1.5 megawatts of renewable capacity on up to 25% of their land, or up to 150% of the amount of electricity they use, whichever is less, which is more than they can under today’s rules. (But since federal law allows anyone to sell power they produce from a qualifying facility into the grid at avoided cost, even this part of the bill is of dubious added benefit.)

Regardless, removing the net metering option seems both unnecessary and unwise; many farmers specifically want to run their farms on solar, for marketing reasons or otherwise, and taking away their ability to aggregate meters and use net metering will be viewed as a serious setback.

The first draft of this bill that I had seen contained a provision that projects under the new program would apply against the state’s 1% cap on total net metering output, even though the projects would not be net metered. Fortunately, I don’t see that in the current version. [Update: this provision does appear in the version of the bill reported out of the Senate subcommittee on January 27, presenting a reason sufficient in itself to oppose the legislation.]

An agricultural bill that is more readily supportable is Senator Edwards’ SB 917, which eases the rules for agricultural customer-generators and increases the size of projects that can qualify for meter aggregation under the net metering statute. It also extends the law to include small hydro projects.

PPAs. Two bills attempt to resolve the ongoing dispute over customers’ rights to use third-party power purchase agreements for their on-site renewable facilities. Delegate Toscano’s HB 1800 essentially reiterates what solar advocates believe to be existing law allowing on-site PPAs, but—as a peace offering to utilities—narrows it to exclude residential customers. Senator Edwards’ SB 918 takes a different approach, replacing the Dominion PPA pilot program with a permanent statewide program to be designed by the State Corporation Commission.

Tax credits. Delegate Hugo’s HB 1891 provides a tax credit for residents who install geothermal heat pumps—a nice idea, but it will face tough sledding in a tight budget year. That budget reality could also doom Delegate Sullivan’s HB 1632, offering a broader renewable energy property tax credit (it would include geothermal heat pumps).

In spite of the current budget deficit, Republicans are making a new attempt to reinstate taxpayer subsidies for coal mining companies (Delegate Kilgore’s HB 2198). Delegate Morefield’s HB 1917 takes a better approach, offering a new tax credit for “capital investment in an energy production facility in the coalfield region.” This is worth watching, as it is not limited to coal facilities but applies to any facility that has “the primary purpose of producing energy for sale.”

Climate. Republicans seem inclined to make a renewed attack on the EPA’s Clean Power Plan (Delegate O’Quinn’s HB 1974), even though Trump’s election seems likely to send it to an early grave. This probable fate inspired Senator Petersen’s SB 1095, which says that if and when the Clean Power Plan is really declared dead, then the notorious “rate-freeze” imposed two years ago will end. As readers know, that law (Wagner’s SB 1349 from the 2015 session), will allow Dominion to keep an estimated $1 billion in excess revenues; at the time, Dominion said the law was needed to protect its customers from rate hikes required by compliance with the Clean Power Plan. Unfortunately the condition in Petersen’s bill doesn’t seem likely to kick in for at least a year or two, and possibly more; we’d prefer to see the legislation revoke the freeze immediately, and put the ill-gotten gains to use as a massive stimulus package supporting clean energy jobs.

On the flip side, Delegate Villanueva is gamely making another run at getting Virginia to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (HB 2018) as a way to change utility incentives and raise money for climate adaptation and clean energy.

Nuclear. Delegate Kilgore has introduced HB 2291, a bill to make it easier for Dominion Virginia Power to stick ratepayers with the costs of any upgrades it makes to its nuclear power plants. The bill further attacks and undermines the SCC’s authority to determine whether expenses are reasonable, the sort of favor to Dominion that has become a theme in recent years. Kilgore doesn’t even represent any Dominion customers; he’s in APCo territory. I guess that’s why he’s okay with raising rates for Dominion customers.

Energy efficiency. Efficiency bills suffered the same fate as renewable energy bills last year; many were offered, but few were chosen. (Actually, it might have been none. We don’t do much energy efficiency in Virginia.)

Delegate Sullivan is trying again to set energy efficiency goals with HB 1703, or at the very least to have government track our progress towards meeting (or rather, not meeting) the state’s existing goal, with HB 1465. He is also trying again to change how the SCC evaluates energy efficiency programs to make them easier to implement (HB 1636). Senator Dance’s SB 990 also sets an energy consumption reduction goal.

Delegate Krizek’s HJ 575 would authorize a study of infrastructure investments that yield energy savings. Delegate Minchew’s HB 1712 authorizes energy performance-based contracting for public bodies.

Miscellaneous. Delegate Kilgore’s HB 1760 supports a new pumped storage facility in the Coalfields region (news to me). Senator Ebbin’s SB 1258 would add energy storage to the work of the Virginia Solar Development Authority, which seems eminently sensible.

More bills are likely to be filed in the coming days, and I would promise to update you on them if I weren’t marking Trump’s inauguration by leaving the country for a week. Serious advocates should peruse the LIS website and perhaps sign up for the bill tracking service “Lobbyist in a Box.” Also watch for a clean energy lobby day that MDV-SEIA will organize, likely on the yet-to-be-announced day the House Commerce and Labor Subcommittee on Energy meets, usually in early February.

This year’s legislative session lasts a mere 45 days, weekends included. Cynics say the tight schedule limits the damage politicians can do, but in reality it just means lawmakers have to lean heavily on lobbyists and constituents—and as the lobbyists are on hand, and the constituents are at home, the schedule favors the lobbyists. So if you want to make your voice heard, now’s the time.

The “fuel” that’s helping America fight climate change isn’t natural gas

You’ve heard the good news on climate: after a century or more of continuous rise, U.S. CO2 emissions have finally begun to decline, due largely to changes in the energy sector. According to the Energy Information Agency (EIA), energy-related CO2 emissions in 2015 were 12% below their 2005 levels. The EIA says this is “because of the decreased use of coal and the increased use of natural gas for electricity generation.”

Is the EIA right in making natural gas the hero of the CO2 story? Hardly. Sure, coal-to-gas switching is real. But take a look at this graph showing the contributors to declining carbon emissions. Natural gas displacement of coal accounts for only about a third of the decrease in CO2 emissions.

Courtesy of the Sierra Club Beyond Coal Campaign, using data from the Energy Information Agency.

Courtesy of the Sierra Club Beyond Coal Campaign, using data from the Energy Information Agency.

By far the biggest driver of the declining emissions is energy efficiency. Americans are using less energy overall, even as our population grows and our economy expands

Energy efficiency is sometimes called the “first fuel” because cutting waste is a cheaper and faster way to meet energy demand than building new power plants. Improvements in energy performance cut across all sectors of the economy, from industrial machines to home electronics to innovations like LED bulbs replacing famously wasteful incandescent light bulbs.

Energy efficiency’s stunning success in lowering carbon emissions should get more attention, and not just because it is cheaper than building new natural gas-fired power plants. Efficiency has no downsides. Natural gas has plenty. Indeed, when methane leakage from drilling and infrastructure is factored in, natural gas doesn’t look much like a climate hero at all.

And that’s not the full story. A growing share of the credit for carbon reductions also goes to non-carbon-emitting sources, primarily wind, and solar. Both sources exhibit double-digit growth rates. Wind power in the U.S. has grown from a little over 9,000 megawatts (MW) in 2005 to more than 74,000 MW by the end of 2015. In 2005, the solar market scarcely existed. By early this year, we had 29,000 MW installed.

The solar trend is particularly exciting because we are just starting to see the big numbers that result from solar’s exponential growth. In the first quarter of 2016, more solar came online in the U.S. than all other power sources combined. Analysts like Bloomberg New Energy Finance see solar becoming the world’s dominant energy source over the next 25 years, driving out not just coal but also a lot of gas generation as solar becomes the cheapest way to make energy.

For an inspiring look at how this will happen, check out this presentation by author Tony Seba. As Seba argues, solar isn’t a commodity like fossil fuels; it is a technology like computers and cell phones. When technologies like these take off, they take over. Seba refers to solar technology, battery storage, electric vehicles and self-driving vehicles as “disruptive” technologies that are advancing together to upend our energy and transportation sectors.

Another graph shows us how critical these advancements will be. The U.S. is on track to achieve President Obama’s goal announced last year of lowering carbon emissions 17% below 2005 levels by 2020, but we will need more aggressive measures to meet our Paris Agreement target of 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2025. After 2025, of course, we will have to cut greenhouse emissions even further and faster.

Slide4Given the urgency of the climate crisis, we don’t have the option of waiting around for the solar revolution to bankrupt the oil and gas industry and fossil-bound electric utilities. These companies will not go quietly; already they are maneuvering to lock customers into fossil fuels. Power producers are engaged in a mad rush to build natural gas plants, and wherever possible, to stick utility customers with the costs.

For Virginians who have felt especially under attack from fracked gas projects recently, this final graph shows it’s not your imagination: Virginia is second only to Texas in new gas plant development underway. And this graph captures only a fraction of the new gas that Virginia’s major utility, Dominion Virginia Power, wants to build. In presentations to state officials, it revealed plans for more than 9,000 megawatts of additional gas generating capacity.

Based on Energy Information Agency data. Chart excludes natural gas generating units already under construction as well as those scheduled to come online after 2020.

Based on Energy Information Agency data. Chart excludes natural gas generating units already under construction as well as those scheduled to come online after 2020.

Dominion and other gas-happy utilities are betting that once plants are built and consumers are on the hook, regulators won’t want to see them idled ten years from now just because renewable energy has made them obsolete.

Indeed, Dominion and other utilities, including Duke Energy, Southern Company, and NextEra in the Southeast and DTE Energy in the Midwest, even plan to use electricity customers to make money for the gas pipelines they are building, locking Americans further into gas.

This is madness. The only sound energy plan today is one that looks forward to an era of minimal fossil fuel use. It puts efficiency and renewables front and center, shifting natural gas and other fuels to supporting roles that will shrink over time.

The shift is inevitable. Delaying it means allowing the climate crisis to worsen, while sticking customers with higher bills for decades to come. That may suit some utilities just fine, but the cost is too high for the rest of us.

 

Northern Virginia activists are ready for 100% renewable energy future

 

Ready for 100 Community Outreach Coordinator Taylor Bennett, Mount Vernon Group of the Sierra Club Chair Dean Amel, and Virginia Chapter Sierra Club Chair Seth Heald.

Ready for 100 Community Outreach Coordinator Taylor Bennett, Mount Vernon Group of the Sierra Club Chair Dean Amel, and Virginia Chapter Sierra Club Chair Seth Heald at Alexandria’s Earth Day celebration in April.

Clean energy advocates in Virginia know we are engaged in a steep uphill climb, and are still so far from the top that we have only a general idea of what it will look like. But activists in Arlington and Alexandria believe it’s time for bold leadership. They are calling on their communities to set a goal of 100% clean and renewable electricity by 2035.

The Ready for 100 Campaign launched today as part of a push by the Sierra Club to show that a future without fossil fuels is achievable. Sierra Club volunteers are working with community groups and other leaders to promote the benefits of clean energy locally. According to Seth Heald, Chair of the Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club, fifteen U.S. cities, including San Diego, CA, Georgetown, TX, and Columbia, MD, have already committed to 100% clean energy.

Arlington County already has a reputation for its leadership in the energy sector, with a commitment to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050 and a number of innovative programs to reduce energy consumption. Now, says Heald, it is time for Arlington to take the next step to “eliminate the fossil-fuel generated pollution that comes from electricity production and is damaging our health and undermining our quality of life.”

Arlingtonians for a Clean Environment (ACE) has signed on as a partner in the effort. “Arlington County has already set a high bar for Virginia, but we can do even better,” said Executive Director Elenor Hodges. “I think this is an effort many residents will get behind.”

Copy of Copy of 1168 ReadyFor100_Logo_Color“Our current dependence on fossil fuels means that my generation will be dealing with the impact of climate change for our entire lives,” said Helene Turvene a junior at Washington-Lee High School. “A commitment now to 100% renewable energy not only will help to begin reversing those impacts, but it will position our community for a more sustainable future. Students want to know that local leaders are acting with us, and future generations, in mind.”

Alexandria residents are also behind the effort. Samantha Adhoot is an Alexandria-based pediatrician who has often sounded the alarm about the effects of climate change and fossil fuel pollution on children’s health. “By transitioning to 100% clean energy, our city could prevent thousands of asthma attacks and dozens of premature deaths every year,” she said. “This would be a big step in the right direction toward allowing our kids to breathe easier.”

Although the 2035 goal is long-term, the campaign’s benefits could be immediate. The solar industry now employs over 200,000 people nationwide, and with fewer than 1% of them in Virginia, we have tremendous room for growth. And of course, investments in energy efficiency mean savings on utility bills that keep adding up. Stanford scientists say the transition to 100% renewable energy will save the average American family $260 dollars per year in energy costs, and another $1,500 per year in health care costs.

Taylor Bennett, Community Outreach Coordinator for the Ready for 100 Campaign, is hoping to hear from others who want to join the effort. She can be reached at Taylor.Bennett@SierraClub.org.