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.

Virginia legislators named to review clean energy bills

Workers install solar panels at the University of Richmond.

Workers install solar panels at the University of Richmond.

Virginia’s 2016 legislative session began with a host of worthy bills promoting energy efficiency, wind and solar, but ended with almost none of the legislation even having been considered in committee. The Republican chairmen of the Senate and House Commerce and Labor committees instead “carried over” the bulk of the bills, announcing plans for a new subcommittee to study them and make recommendations for 2017.

Members of the subcommittee have now been named. Senator Frank Wagner has tapped Senators Black, Cosgrove, Stuart and Dance to serve. This information is now on the General Assembly website. Delegate Terry Kilgore has named Delegates Ware, Hugo, Ransome, Miller and Keam.

No meeting schedule has been announced, but lobbyists for the utilities and the solar industry trade association, MDV-SEIA, have begun meeting in private to discuss potential compromises. This can’t be called a stakeholder process; the meetings are not open to the public, and they have not invited participation by environmentalists or, with one exception, anyone on the consumer side representing the interests of local government, colleges and universities, churches, eco-friendly businesses or residential customers.

(The exception is a lobbyist for Loudoun County landowner Karen Schaufeld, a newcomer to energy issues who formed a group called Powered by Facts and hired lobbyists to advocate for expanded agricultural net metering and other pro-solar reforms.)

Anything that emerges from these meetings will likely have a significant impact on the subcommittee. Yet, given the importance of this issue to the commonwealth, the subcommittee should ensure it hears from all solar stakeholders. More importantly, committee members should explicitly adopt as their measure of progress a simple test: whether the language of a bill will lead to greater private investment in solar in Virginia. Wagner and Kilgore have said they want to see the growth of solar here, and all of the legislators publicly subscribe to the values of free market competition and consumer choice. But without a guidepost, we are likely to see the utilities bully the solar industry into a “compromise” that shifts the ground a bit but continues to strangle the private market–and leaves us further than ever behind other states.

Who’s who on the committee

All of the legislators named to the study committee are Commerce and Labor committee members, but beyond that, many of these appointments are surprising, as they don’t necessarily reflect demonstrated interest in the subject. It is also disturbing that only one Democrat was named from each side. (Dance is the Senate Democrat, Keam the House Democrat. They are also the only minorities represented.) There is no reason energy efficiency and renewable energy should be partisan issues, but in the past, party affiliation has been the single most powerful predictor of votes on clean energy.

To gage how these legislators approach the issues, I took a look at the Sierra Club’s Climate and Energy Scorecard for 2014 and 2015. Scores for 2016 are not yet available. It is important to note that in the House, most renewable energy legislation has been killed by unrecorded voice votes in the Commerce and Labor subcommittee, preventing the votes from being scored. So the scorecard is only a starting point.

The Senators

Frank Wagner himself earned a D in 2015, with a voting percentage of 60%. This was up from an F in 2014. The Virginia Beach Republican is the only member on this subcommittee to have exhibited a serious interest in energy issues, having shaped many of Virginia’s current policies. Unfortunately, he is closely allied with Dominion Power, voted for tax subsidies for the coal industry, tends to doubt the reality of climate change, and has been sharply critical of the EPA Clean Power Plan. On the plus side, he believes renewable energy should play an important role and was instrumental in launching the state’s bid for offshore wind. He also genuinely welcomes input from the public at meetings he runs.

That makes his committee choices all the more peculiar. Dick Black is better known as a social crusader who lines up with the far right wing of his party, most notably in opposition to abortion, gay rights and gun limits. Most recently, he made headlines by meeting with Syrian president Bashar Assad and urging the U.S. to lift economics sanctions against the Assad regime.

Black is a climate denier of the delusional variety, insisting at an event last August that global temperatures have not risen in 17 years and that no major hurricanes have hit the American mainland in 9 years. (2014 was the hottest year on record until 2015 seized the trophy. Superstorm Sandy, the largest Atlantic hurricane on record, struck in 2012.)

The forum was an “American for Prosperity grassroots event” (sic). The “crowd of about 18 people” included former Senator Ken Cuccinelli, no slouch himself in the climate denial department. Black compared EPA employees to “Bolshevik communists.” He and Cuccinelli used the event to criticize the Clean Power Plan as “part of a government scheme to send billions in taxpayer funds to ‘wind and solar scams’ and ‘billionaire liberals.’”

He received a grade of F from the Sierra Club in both 2014 and 2015. With a voting percentage of just 14% last year, he had the worst record in the Senate on climate and energy bills. In sum, the appointment of Dick Black to this committee can’t be called an effort to seek out thoughtful voices on the issues.

John Cosgrove is a solid conservative on name-brand issues like guns and abortion, though decidedly lacking Black’s flair for headlines. With a 67% score, he received a grade of D from the Sierra Club in 2015, up from an F in 2014. A review of the bills he has introduced in the last two years showed none related to climate or energy, again raising the question of why he was chosen for this particular subcommittee.

Richard Stuart’s voting record of 50% earned him an F in 2015, down from a C in 2014. However, he earned an award from the Sierra Club in 2014 for introducing a bill to regulate fracking; the bill did not pass. Senator Stuart also received “extra credit” on the 2015 scorecard for introducing the bill that established the Virginia Solar Energy Development Authority. In 2016, he also introduced one of the more ambitious renewable energy bills, working with Schaufeld’s Powered by Facts.

Roslyn Dance is the lone Democrat and only woman selected from the Senate. She has consistently voted on the side of clean energy, and was the patron of 2015 legislation raising the size limit on net-metered projects from 500 kW to 1 megawatt. This work earned her an award from the Sierra Club that year.

Dance scored 100% on both the 2014 scorecard (when she was a delegate) and the 2015 scorecard, for a grade of A+ each year. However, she came in for intense criticism in the 2016 session for abstaining on Senator Surovell’s coal ash bill, knowing it would fail in committee without her vote. The bill would have required Dominion Virginia Power to move stored coal ash out of unlined ponds along rivers for disposal in lined facilities away from water sources. Dance’s abstention was widely thought to be a favor to Dominion Power, saving the company from what might have been a nasty fight on the Senate floor.

The Delegates

Terry Kilgore, Chairman of House Commerce and Labor, represents part of rural southwest Virginia, and has close ties to Appalachian Power Company and the coal industry, both of which contribute generously to his campaigns. Bills opposed by utilities have little chance in his committee. In 2015, he earned an F on the energy and climate scorecard, with a 50% score, down from a D (63%) in 2014.

Lee Ware represents a suburban and rural area west of Richmond, stretching from the western side of Chesterfield County. He earned a C (75%) in 2014 and an F (50%) in 2015. In spite of these scores, he has shown an independent, thoughtful approach to energy legislation, and has demonstrated a serious interest in promoting energy efficiency. His bill to change how the State Corporation Commission evaluates utility efficiency programs is one of the pieces of legislation to be considered this summer.

Tim Hugo represents a suburban Northern Virginia district. He earned a D (67%) in 2014, with extra credit for introducing a bill that reclassified solar equipment as “pollution control equipment,” earning it a critical exemption from a local business property tax known as a “machinery and tools” tax. In 2015 his score dropped to an F (56%), in spite of an extra credit bump from introducing the House version of the Solar Development Authority bill.

As Majority Caucus Chair, Hugo’s poor scores reflect the leadership’s pro-coal, anti-regulation platform. He is nonetheless keenly interested in promoting solar energy, at least where he can do so without running into utility opposition. His close ties to Dominion have often meant he led the opposition to pro-solar net metering reforms, keeping them from moving out of the committee.

Margaret Ransone is the only woman named to the House subcommittee. She received an F (57%) in 2015, down from a C (71%) in 2014. She represents counties along the Northern Neck, near Richmond. She is not on the Commerce and Labor energy subcommittee, and has shown no particular interest in the subject. Her website suggests a mix of the ideological (pro-gun, anti-abortion) and the practical (high speed internet for rural areas).

Jackson Miller received an F (44%) in 2015, down from a D (63%) in 2014. His district is close to Hugo’s, covering the City of Manassas and part of Prince William County in the outer suburbs of Northern Virginia. Miller is Majority Whip for the House. He has consistently voted against expanding net metering options.

Mark Keam is the only Democrat on the House subcommittee as well as the only ethnic minority (he is Korean). He received an A+ (100%) in 2015, up from an A (88%) in 2014. He has generally supported expanded opportunities for renewable energy.

2016 bills show Virginia might finally get serious (sort of) about energy efficiency

Clive Upton/Wikimedia Commons

Clive Upton/Wikimedia Commons

Energy efficiency: it’s the resource that everyone praises and few pursue. If Dominion Virginia Power approached efficiency programs with the enthusiasm it devotes to building natural gas plants, then—well, it wouldn’t need the new gas plants.

And that’s the crux of the problem. Virginia’s utilities earn more money by building stuff than by not building it, and the excuse to build new stuff comes when demand for electricity increases. If people use less electricity—say, by buying more efficient lighting and appliances—that’s good for consumers, but bad for utility profits.

The Virginia State Corporation Commission hasn’t helped matters; it takes a skeptical view of utility-sponsored energy efficiency programs, rarely approving the kind of programs that would be needed for Virginia to make progress towards its modest goal of lowering electricity use 10% by 2022. Changing the SCC’s attitude through legislation is hard; doing so without the support of the utilities is impossible.

This is where the Governor finds his opportunity for modest progress. Terry McAuliffe has been very, very good to Dominion. He’s supported its fracked-gas pipeline, its budget-busting nuclear ambitions, its new gas plants, and even the rate boondoggle it secured last year that allows it to pick the pockets of Virginia ratepayers to the tune of a billion dollars.

So the least Dominion can do is to support the Governor’s efforts to improve Virginia’s dismal record on energy efficiency, reflected in HB 1053 (referred to House Commerce and Labor) and SB 395 (Senate Commerce and Labor). In a sign the utility may have acquiesced, the bills patrons are Delegate Terry Kilgore, the powerful chairman of the House Commerce and Labor Committee, and Senator Kenny Alexander, a Democrat on Senate Commerce and Labor who has shown no previous interest in reforming energy policy—but who, like Kilgore, ranks utilities among his top donors.

The legislation replaces an ineffective lost-revenue provision in the Code with an incentive-based approach intended to reward investor-owned utilities for success. According to a fact sheet the Administration is sharing with legislators, the utilities will reap bonuses in proportion to the amount of energy saved through implementing cost-effective programs:

  • An additional 1% of the actual costs of the program, if the utility achieves a levelized cost of saved energy (LCSE) for the program at or below six cents per kilowatt-hour;
  • An additional 2% of the actual costs of the program, if the utility achieves a LCSE for the program at or below five cents per kilowatt-hour;
  • An additional 3% of the actual costs of the program, if the utility achieves a LCSE for the program at or below four cents per kilowatt-hour;
  • An additional 4% of the actual costs of the program, if the utility achieves a LCSE for the program at or below three cents per kilowatt-hour.

These two Administration bills have the most momentum behind them, but they are not the only legislation out there looking for ways to make serious energy efficiency gains. The best of the bills is HB 576 (Rip Sullivan, D-Arlington, in Commerce and Labor). It requires the SCC to approve cost-effective efficiency programs and, more significantly, establishes robust new energy efficiency goals that utilities would be required to meet.

Sullivan has clearly spent a lot of time this year thinking about the policy barriers to energy efficiency. He correctly pegs SCC procedure as one of the problems.

HB 575 (in Commerce and Labor) as well as HB 352 (Lee Ware, R-Powhatan, also in Commerce and Labor) take aim at the way the SCC evaluates energy efficiency programs. Sullivan’s bill would make it easier for a program to meet the SCC’s standards. As currently written, Ware’s would actually make it harder; however, we hear this may be a drafting error, so we will be watching for amendments that would make this a bill to support.

Two more good bills from Sullivan also deserve mention. HB 1174 (in Commerce and Labor) requires the SCC to report on Virginia’s progress towards our 10% energy reduction goal. HB 493 (referred to Appropriations) creates an Energy Efficiency Revolving Fund to provide no-interest loans to localities, school divisions, and public institutions of higher education.

Freshman Delegate John Bell (D-Chantilly) has introduced a modest bill of such remarkable common sense that it shouldn’t be needed (but is). HB 808 requires government agencies to use LED light bulbs instead of incandescent bulbs when installing, maintaining or replacing outdoor light fixtures. The bill has been referred to the Committee on General Laws.

It’s also worth noting that two bills I previously included in the roundup of climate-related legislation would also have a significant impact on energy efficiency investments. HB 351 (Ron Villanueva, R-Virginia Beach, referred to Commerce and Labor) and SB 571 (Donald McEachin, D-Richmond, referred to Agriculture) would direct the Governor to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), the cap-and-trade plan that the northeastern states have used successfully to reduce carbon emissions and raise funds to further the RGGI goals. In Virginia, these funds would include millions of dollars for energy efficiency.

Finally, there’s a bill expanding Virginia’s authorization for Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) programs, which allow localities to loan money to property owners for energy efficiency and renewable energy. HB 941 (David Toscano, D-Charlottesville) expands the authorization for PACE programs to include residential and condominium projects.

 

Virginia schools taking giant steps into solar, and saving money for taxpayers

Visitors tour the solar installation on the roof of Wakefield HS in Arlington. Photo credit Phil Duncan

Visitors tour the solar installation on the roof of Wakefield HS in Arlington. Photo credit Phil Duncan

Amory Fischer was a high school sophomore in Albermarle County in central Virginia four years ago when he got interested in the idea of using solar panels to provide some of the power used by the local schools. He found a lot of people shared his enthusiasm, but economic and policy hurdles stood in the way.

In 2012, a local middle school used federal stimulus money to install solar PV and solar hot water. Unfortunately, schools without grant funding couldn’t afford to follow suit. Although the cost of solar panels had fallen to record low levels, buying and installing them still required a significant upfront capital investment. And as tax-exempt entities, public schools couldn’t take advantage of the 30% federal tax credit available to residents and businesses.

Then, in 2013, the Virginia General Assembly passed a law allowing nonprofits and local governments, among others, to buy solar power using a tax-advantaged financing method known as a third party power purchase agreement (PPA).* PPAs can be structured to require no upfront capital from the customer, just payment for the electricity the solar panels produce. Suddenly, for the first time, the economics favored solar for Virginia schools.

Amory and fellow students collaborated with Lindsay Snoddy, the school division’s Environmental Compliance Manager, and spent the next year educating teachers, staff, parents and the community about the benefits of solar and the opportunities presented by the new law. Partnering with environmental groups 350 Central Virginia and the Piedmont Group of the Sierra Club, they formed the Solar Schools Initiative and circulated a petition that garnered nearly a thousand signatures in support of putting solar on Albermarle schools.

It worked. Once school board members understood that a PPA would let the schools install solar panels at no additional cost premium over regular “brown” power—and indeed, would even save them money—their support was unanimous. The school board issued a Request for Proposals and chose Staunton-based solar developer Secure Futures, LLC to develop the projects.

Students and community members gather at Sutherland Middle School in Albemarle County on May 28 to celebrate the student engagement that led to the signing of a contract to put solar on Sutherland and five other schools.

Students and community members gather at Sutherland Middle School in Albemarle County on May 28 to celebrate the student engagement that led to the signing of a contract to put solar on Sutherland and five other schools.

Six area schools will have solar panels installed by the end of this year: two high schools, a middle school, and three elementary schools. Together, the installations will total 3,000 solar panels for a combined 1 megawatt (1,000 kW) of capacity, producing about 14% of the electricity used by the schools.

Amory Fischer is now a junior at Virginia Tech, where he studies Environmental Policy and Planning. This summer he will be working for Secure Futures and trying to encourage more schools across the Commonwealth to go solar.

He will find a promising market, so far largely untapped. A small number of schools elsewhere in Virginia already boast solar panels, but most of them are small systems designed more for their educational value than to make a significant contribution to the school’s power demand. One significant exception is the Center for Energy Efficient Design, an educationally-focused building in Franklin County that “enables students and community members to explore various energy devices and techniques to make intelligent decisions about energy and housing.” It was completed in 2010 and designed to PassivHaus and LEED Platinum standards. In addition to solar panels, two wind turbines help meet the electric demand, and the building includes other energy and water-saving features like a geothermal system, solar hot water and a green roof. The project reflects an impressive commitment from the Franklin County School Board going back to 2004.

More recently, Arlington County has made a commitment to sustainable design in its schools as well as other county-owned buildings. Its LEED Gold-certified Wakefield High School, completed in 2013, includes a 90-kW solar PV installation. The county’s next school building will be even more ambitious. Discovery Elementary School, under construction on the grounds of Williamsburg Middle School, will include 496 kW of solar to allow the super-efficient building to produce as much electricity as it consumes. Buildings that achieve that feat are referred to as “net zero energy.”

Net zero is also the goal of advocates in Harrisonburg, who are pushing the city to include solar and other green features on a school building that is currently in the design phase. Bishop Dansby, a member of the Harrisonburg-Rockingham Green Network, says residents collected more than 800 signatures in support of a net zero energy school, but the school board has not told them yet whether it will adopt the recommendation. One encouraging sign: the board has hired Charlottesville-based VMDO Architects, the firm behind Arlington’s Discovery school.

Other Virginia localities are decidedly lagging, including ones you’d expect to see in the lead. Affluent, tech-savvy Fairfax County is missing in action on solar schools; advocates point to an insular and uninterested school bureaucracy as the primary barrier. A group of students at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology hopes to change that with a petition drive aimed at getting the county to act.

_____________________

*Unfortunately, the 2013 PPA law applies only to customers of Dominion Virginia Power as part of a two year “pilot program.” The legality of PPAs elsewhere in Virginia is unclear. However, Secure Futures offers a PPA alternative called a Customer Self-Generation Agreement that offers similar benefits. The company believes is legal in all parts of Virginia.

McAuliffe touts gas and nuclear, says it’s not his job to worry about risks

And he'll have to, given the hash we adults are making of it.  Photo courtesy of Glen Besa.

And he’ll have to, given the hash we adults are making of it. Photo courtesy of Glen Besa.

A forum on climate change held last Wednesday in Richmond was supposed to be about moving to clean energy, but it sometimes seemed to be more of a platform for Governor Terry McAuliffe to tout plans for more natural gas and nuclear energy in the Commonwealth. It wasn’t that he neglected energy efficiency, wind and solar—he had plenty of good things to say about these, and even a few initiatives to boast of. It was just that they paled against the backdrop of massive new natural gas and nuclear projects, to which he seems even more firmly committed.

The event was a conference called “The Next Frontier of Climate Change,” organized by The New Republic magazine and the College of William and Mary. Moderator Jeffrey Ball of Stanford University shaped the conference as a series of interviews, beginning with Governor McAuliffe. You can see video of the interview here.

Ball started out asking about the politics of climate change, which gave McAuliffe a chance to reiterate his convictions that climate change is real, that we can see it happening today in Hampton Roads, and that part of meeting the challenge involves supporting the kind of 21st century technologies that will also make Virginia an exciting and attractive place to live. That includes offshore wind and solar.

But McAuliffe also made it clear he sees everything through the lens of economic growth, and his top priority is attracting new business to fill the gap left by shrinking federal spending in the state. “When I ran for governor,” he explained, “I tried to put everything in an economic issue: what is good for the Commonwealth, how do you grow and diversify. I preside over a commonwealth that, we are the number one recipient of Department of Defense dollars, number one. Now, that’s great when they’re spending, but when they’re cutting like they’re cutting today, it has a dramatic impact.”

He is also persuaded that renewable energy, even with all its job benefits, won’t get him as much economic growth as cheaper fossil energy can, and his friends at Dominion Resources and its subsidiary, Dominion Virginia Power, have convinced him that means backing their plans for natural gas and nuclear.

McAuliffe said he supports EPA’s Clean Power Plan, and said in the course of the interview that he thought it would result in lower electricity rates for Virginians over the long run; but he’d still like it to demand less of our utilities. He echoed assertions from legislators and utilities that the draft plan’s treatment of existing nuclear plants makes it “unfair” to Virginia. Repeating a line that is now standard among Virginia politicians, he claimed the Clean Power Plan doesn’t give us “full credit” for reducing our carbon emissions by building nuclear reactors back in the 70’s. He has been raising the issue with the Obama Administration, and feels confident EPA will make the changes he requested.

Neither McAuliffe nor anyone else has explained why we should get credit for doing something 40 years ago for entirely different reasons, at a time when very few people had climate change on their radar screens. But never mind that; according to this theory, which he asserted again at the conference, the Clean Power Plan’s failure to credit us for our nukes puts us at a disadvantage compared to coal-heavy states like West Virginia and Kentucky that haven’t done diddley-squat.

(You know, I hope someone is passing all this along to the folks in West Virginia and Kentucky, who have been screaming bloody murder about how tough it will be for them to comply with the Clean Power Plan. I don’t get the sense they are aware they have this terrific advantage over Virginia and can expect shortly to begin luring away our businesses. Mitch McConnell, for one, seems entirely oblivious of the favor the EPA is doing his state. What a shame it would be if all of McConnell’s anti-EPA rhetoric were based on a simple misunderstanding!)

Maybe our governor needs to put a few items on his reading list, like the PJM analysis that shows the Clean Power Plan puts Virginia at an advantage over neighboring states, especially if it joins a regional compliance program. He should also check out a new report from Virginia Advanced Energy Industries Coalition and the Advanced Energy Economy Institute that describes the tremendous job growth in renewable energy and energy efficiency that will flow from compliance with the Clean Power Plan. Given the opportunities presented, the Governor should embrace more stringent goals, and should look to clean energy rather than nuclear as the money-saving, job-creating approach to compliance.

However, McAuliffe’s enthusiasm for nuclear goes beyond using it to wangle a softer carbon reduction target out of the EPA. He told Ball repeatedly that he is a “huge fan” of nuclear energy, thinks a new nuclear plant should be part of Virginia’s compliance with the Clean Power Plan, and expressed delight over Dominion’s plans for a third reactor at North Anna.

And yet, when confronted with a question from the audience about the wisdom of building another nuclear plant on an earthquake fault line, he said cheerfully that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission won’t approve a plant that isn’t safe. Worrying about it isn’t his job.

We’d better hope his confidence in the NRC is well placed—and hope too that the NRC successfully resists the political pressure to approve the plant that it will no doubt receive from Governor McAuliffe.

Ball suggested that what was behind the question on nuclear was a contention that if the state ramped up its investments in efficiency and renewable energy it would not need to build a new nuclear plant. McAuliffe assured Ball that wind, solar and efficiency couldn’t do that yet. He knew that because—ahem—he’d heard it from Dominion.

I guess no one has told the Governor that asking Dominion for its take on efficiency is like asking Exxon about electric cars.

McAuliffe’s enthusiasm for big projects that promise more business for Virginia (and Dominion) has also caused ongoing friction between the Governor and members of the public over natural gas pipelines. This led to the incident at the conference that grabbed headlines, with an angry protester trying to shout down the Governor.

At issue was McAuliffe’s support for Dominion’s controversial Atlantic Coast Pipeline. The proposed 550-mile natural gas transmission project will require the seizure and clear-cutting of a 125-foot wide right-of-way across Virginia from West Virginia to the coast in North Carolina, through national forests and private land. And of course, it will increase Virginia’s carbon footprint by enabling the burning of more fossil fuel here.

Pipeline opponents had brought into the New Republic event a banner reading “McAuliffe: Pipeline will be Climate Chaos.” During the Q&A period the protester reminded McAuliffe that he had once opposed natural gas fracking in Virginia.

But McAuliffe remained unruffled even as the protester hurled insults at him, until she was escorted from the room. “We’re not doing the fracking here,” he said, by way of explaining his support for the pipeline. “The fracking is done elsewhere. I’m not, as the governor of Virginia, going to stop fracking in America today.” Therefore, he concluded, we might as well take advantage of the fracking going on elsewhere to “bring cheap gas to parts of Virginia that can open up and build the economy.”

It seemed no one had alerted him to research indicating the gas boom will start to go bust just five years from now. If that happens, of course, higher gas prices will make the Governor’s manufacturing renaissance go bust, too, leaving Virginia worse off than before. Coupled with Dominion’s plans to bring online a staggering 4,300 MWs of new natural gas generating plants by 2019, Virginia is putting itself at the mercy of a natural gas market that is entirely outside our control.

But when I asked the Governor if he wasn’t worried about the risks of over-investing in natural gas, he shrugged off the concern. It’s not his job to review Dominion’s plans, he said.

Well, sure. But there’s a problem with cheerleading for every big energy project that comes along and taking no responsibility for their downsides. This is the “all of the above” strategy that brought us the climate crisis. From a governor who knows climate change is happening before our eyes in Virginia, we’re still hoping for better.