These bills could bring more clean energy to your community

Solar schools, climate resiliency, energy efficiency: Local governments are now involved in energy planning – whether they feel ready for it or not. Some localities have adopted climate goals that require them to look for ways to lower carbon emissions; others just want to save money on high energy bills.

Virginia has chipped away at the barriers to renewable energy and started putting hundreds of millions of dollars into energy efficiency programs, thanks to laws like Solar Freedom, the Virginia Clean Economy Act (VCEA) and the Clean Energy and Community Flood Preparedness Act, which made Virginia part of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI). 

But even a positive policy environment doesn’t flatten all barriers. At all levels of government — and for that matter, in homes and businesses — energy-saving projects get stalled by confusing information, lack of money or financing, layers of opaque bureaucracy or fear of uncertain outcomes. 

Attacks on Virginia’s clean energy transition framework and utility reform get most of the ink during this legislative session, but some less-noticed bills are focused on moving ahead by removing stumbling blocks to clean energy and identifying funding. 

I made a brief mention of some of these in my bill round-up last week, including House Joint Resolution 545 from Briana Sewell, D-Prince William, asking the Department of Energy to recommend ways to overcome barriers that keep local governments and their constituents from purchasing clean energy. There is also Senate Bill 1333 from Ghazala Hashmi, D-Richmond, to facilitate local clean energy projects for low- and moderate-income residents. Senate Bill 1419 from David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke, would allow retail choice in renewable energy purchasing, and Senate Bill 949 from Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, would allow residents to access low-cost public financing of clean energy. 

The shared solar bills I covered last week also allow local governments to participate. And although I’m not tracking them myself, there are other bills that encourage local resiliency planning, give localities authority to require electric vehicle charging infrastructure or support transit solutions. 

Overwhelmingly — but not exclusively! — the bills this year that try to move the ball forward on clean energy come from Democrats, a bad sign when the House and governor are Republican. I have seen many bills die in committee for reasons that have little to do with the bill, and Gov. Youngkin notoriously vetoed bills last year seemingly  as a “personal and political move” against the bills’ patron senator.  It’s also a short session this year, so if a bill is complicated or has opposition from favored industries, it goes into committee with a strike against it. 

But many of these bills support private investments or save money for taxpayers, which are thankfully still bipartisan priorities. And some energy innovations are now mainstream across Virginia, in red counties as well as blue. Among these are solar schools. 

So let’s take a deeper look at one piece of legislation, the solar school roofs study at the center of Senate Bill 848 from Barbara Favola, D-Arlington, and House Bill 1852 from Suhas Subramanyam, D-Loudoun.

solar panels on a school roof
Wilson Middle School, Augusta County. Photo courtesy of Secure Futures.

 I wish they all could be solar schools

In the summer of 2021, I was dismayed to learn that the school board for the city of Norfolk had been told none of their brand-new schools could be outfitted with solar panels because the roofs weren’t designed to take the extra weight. As a result, Norfolk could not do what dozens of school districts across Virginia have been doing: installing solar arrays to provide some or all of the energy the school consumed, saving money for taxpayers and giving students hands-on exposure to a fast-growing technology with terrific career potential.   

What a missed opportunity, and yet, Norfolk wasn’t alone. I soon learned about a new school in Richmond where educators were eager for solar, but the steep pitch of the roof on the main part of the building wasn’t suitable. That left only a flat-roofed side wing that couldn’t hold enough panels to meet more than a fraction of the school’s needs.

From conversations with architects and solar developers, I know that building a school with a roof that can hold solar panels doesn’t have to be an added expense; mainly, you just have to plan for it. Wyck Knox, the architect who designed Arlington’s two net-zero energy schools (among others), says even building a school that can produce as much energy as it uses doesn’t have to cost more, if you simply approach the design process with that goal

Designing a school with a solar-ready roof pays off when the school district enters a power purchase agreement (PPA) with a solar company that installs and owns the solar array. The school pays just for the electricity it produces, typically at a rate lower than what the utility charges. 

As of this year, the financing options have expanded. The Inflation Reduction Act allows tax-exempt entities like local governments and schools to claim federal tax credits for renewable energy and batteries directly. 

So why aren’t all schools solar schools? The answers might differ from one school district to the next, but generally it’s because nobody thought of it at the right time, or they don’t know how to go about it, or the right people aren’t on board. One stubborn facilities manager can stall a project indefinitely. 

The U.S. Department of Energy says energy is the second largest expensefor schools, after teacher salaries. Taxpayers should be able to expect their school districts will pursue strategies like onsite solar that reduce energy costs. 

Personally, I support requiring school districts to, at the very least, analyze whether they could save money with solar roofs before they lock in designs that don’t include them. However, House Republicans killed an effort last year to impose such a requirement. And some school officials say it isn’t needed because they want to do solar; they just need help with the process. 

With that in mind, Senate Bill 848 and House Bill 1852 task the Commission on School Construction and Modernization with developing recommendations to help schools incorporate renewable energy in the construction or renovation of schools. 

The commission itself recommended several pieces of legislation that are now before the General Assembly, including some around construction funding. That should make it easier to integrate solar recommendations into their other work. 

Favola said, “I am extraordinarily excited about the possibility of providing school systems with technical assistance on how to incorporate solar and other renewable energy components in their renovations and new buildings.”

You and me both, Senator. You and me both. 

This article was originally published in the Virginia Mercury on January 26, 2023.

Update January 27: I may have given Republicans too much credit, at least those in the House. Although Senator Favola’s bill sailed through a Senate committee and is headed for a floor vote, a House subcommittee killed Delegate Subramanyam’s companion bill–in spite of a long line of speakers in support and no opposition. It was a bad meeting for Subramanyam; his shared solar bill also died in that committee. Senator Sutterlein’s retail competition bill has also been killed in a bipartisan vote in Senate Commerce and Labor, a Dominion-friendly committee.

Attacks on Virginia’s climate laws are front and center at the General Assembly

People gathered in a square listening to speakers.
Climate advocates gathered at the Virginia Capitol on Friday to defend Virginia’s clean energy laws. Speakers included Senators Creigh Deeds, Ghazala Hashmi, David Marsden and Scott Surovell, and Delegates Rip Sullivan, Nadarius Clark, Rodney Willett and Alfonso Lopez. Photo courtesy of Mary-Stuart Torbeck, Virginia Sierra Club.

Every year I do a round-up of climate and energy bills at the start of the General Assembly session. This year, as expected, Republicans continue their assault on the hallmark legislation passed in 2020 and 2021 committing Virginia to a zero-carbon economy by 2050. In addition, this year features the usual assortment of bills doing favors for special interests, efforts to help residents and local governments go solar and a brand-new money and power grab by Dominion Energy.

Republicans are not down with the energy transition

Dominion Energy may have baked the transition to renewables into its planning, but unsurprisingly, the Virginia Republican Party thinks the fight to preserve fossil fuel dependence is a winning issue. The three foundational bills of Virginia’s energy transition — the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), the Virginia Clean Economy Act (VCEA) and Clean Cars — all come in for attack, either by outright repeal or death-by-a-thousand-cuts.

Senate Bill 1001 (Richard Stuart, R-Westmoreland) would repeal the Clean Energy and Community Flood Preparedness Act, the statute that propelled Virginia into the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. Participation in RGGI is the vehicle by which utilities buy allowances to emit carbon pollution. Under RGGI, the number of allowances available declines every year, and Virginia’s power sector would reduce CO2 emissions 30% by 2030. The allowance auctions have already raised hundreds of millions of dollars that by law must be used for low-income energy efficiency programs and flood resilience projects. A similar bill failed last year, and Senate Democrats have pledged to block the effort again. Meanwhile, Gov. Glenn Youngkin is trying to withdraw Virginia from RGGI administratively, a move that former Attorney General Mark Herring ruled wasn’t legal. 

Carbon allowance auctions are a foundational piece of the VCEA as well, but it is a much bigger law that touches on too many aspects of energy regulation for repeal of the whole thing. This isn’t stopping Republicans from trying to undermine key provisions. House Bill 2130 (Tony Wilt, R-Rockingham) and Senate Bill 1125 (Travis Hackworth, R-Tazewell) would give the State Corporation Commission more authority over closures of fossil fuel plants and require it to conduct annual reviews aimed at second-guessing the VCEA’s framework for lowering emissions and building renewable energy. Achieving the VCEA’s climate goals is decidedly not the purpose; meanwhile, the legislation would remove business certainty and undercut utility planning.

Other attacks on the VCEA take the form of favors for specific industries, but would effectively make the VCEA’s goal of reaching 100% carbon-free electricity by 2050 at the least cost to consumers impossible. I’ve dealt separately with small modular reactors, hydrogen and coal mine methane below. 

In addition, House Bill 1430 and House Bill 1480 (Lee Ware, R-Powhatan) exempt certain industrial customers categorized as “energy-intensive trade-exposed industries” from paying costs that the VCEA makes all customers pay. The exemption would last four years. The result would be nice for those industries but would shift costs onto everyone else. The bill seems likely to pass the House, but the same bill last year died in the Senate. However, Senate Bill 1454 (Jeremy McPike, D-Prince William) proposes the SCC put together a group of experts to study the issue and make recommendations.

In the transportation sector, no fewer than seven bills sought to repeal the Air Pollution Control Board’s authority to implement the Advanced Clean Car Standard: House Bill 1372 (Buddy Fowler, R-Hanover), House Bill 1378 (Wilt), Senate Bill 778 (Stuart), Senate Bill 779 (Stephen Newman, R-Bedford), Senate Bill 781 (Bill DeSteph, R-Virginia Beach), Senate Bill 782 (Bryce Reeves, R-Fredericksburg) and Senate Bill 785 (Ryan McDougle, R-Hanover). The Senate bills were killed in committee on Tuesday. The House bills are likely to pass that Republican-led chamber, but it appears clear that Senate Democrats intend to hang fast to Clean Cars.

Although so many identical bills might look like a failure of legislators to coordinate efforts, in fact the senators all signed on as co-patrons to each other’s bills, along with a dozen House Republicans. Republicans think they have a winning issue for the November election, and lots of them want to claim they filed “the” legislation attempting to repeal Clean Cars.

Raiding the store for polluter interests

If the VCEA is here to stay, there are some decidedly non-green industries that want to claim the green mantle to get in on the action. It’s not about making themselves feel better about their high greenhouse gas emissions. It’s about getting a piece of the market for renewable energy certificates and undermining the integrity of the renewable energy label. 

House Bill 1643 (Terry Kilgore, R-Scott) and Senate Bill 1121 (Hackworth) proclaim coal mine methane a renewable energy. House Bill 2178 (James Morefield, R-Tazewell) makes coal mine methane a qualifying industry for Virginia’s green job creation tax credit. 

Burning wood for electricity produces as much CO2 as coal, at a cost much higher than solar energy today. Yet House Bill 2026 (Israel O’Quinn, R-Bristol) and Senate Bill 1231  (Lynwood Lewis, D-Accomack) remove the requirement in the VCEA for the retirement of Dominion’s generating facilities that burn wood for electricity and allow these generating plants to qualify as renewable energy sources.

SMRs and hydrogen

Speaking of raiding the store, House Bill 2197 (Kathy Byron, R-Bedford) allows “advanced nuclear technology” to qualify for Virginia’s renewable portfolio standard (RPS). The bill defines the term as “a small modular reactor or other technology for generating nuclear energy,” which looks like an opening for existing nuclear plants as well. Even if it isn’t, treating any kind of nuclear technology as a renewable resource upsets the VCEA’s calibrated approach to nuclear as a zero-carbon technology alongside renewable energy, not in place of it. 

House Bill 2311 (Kilgore) goes a step further, declaring both nuclear and hydrogen to be renewable energy sources and making them eligible for the RPS. Hydrogen, of course, is a fuel made from other sources of energy, which can be renewable but are more typically fossil fuels currently. Given Youngkin’s interest in seeing hydrogen made from coal mine methane, you can see where this is headed.  

House Bill 2333 (Danny Marshall, R-Danville) calls on the SCC to develop a pilot program to support building small modular nuclear reactors, with a goal of having the first one operational by 2032. In spite of the word “pilot,” the bill is ambitious. It contemplates four sites, each of which can have multiple reactors of up to 400  megawatts each.  

Utility reform 

Some of these bills are reform bills; some are “reform” bills. To recognize the difference, it helps to know whether the proponent is a public interest organization or the utility itself. When Dominion tells you it has a bill you’re going to love, you can be pretty sure the result will be bad for ratepayers. 

Senate Bill 1321 (Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, and Creigh Deeds, D-Charlottesville) and House Bill 1604 (Ware), billed as the Affordable Energy Act, is real reform legislation that gives the SCC authority to lower a utility’s base rates if it determines that existing rates produce “unreasonable revenues in excess of the utility’s authorized rate of return.” 

Other straightforward measures include House Bill 2267 (Wilt) and Senate Bill 1417 (David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke), which allow the SCC to decide to add the cost of a new utility generation project into base rates instead of granting a rate adjustment clause (RAC), and House Bill 1670 (Marshall), which returns rate reviews to every two years instead of the current three years. 

Dominion, however, has its own “reform” bill, introduced by its favorite Democratic Senate and Republican House leaders. As is typical for Dominion, Senate Bill 1265 (Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax) and House Bill 1770 (Kilgore) is long, dense and deadly effective in crushing competition and protecting profits. The bitter pill is sugarcoated with short-term rebates and concessions to minor reform proposals, such as biennial rate reviews in place of triennial reviews and consolidating many RACs into base rates. A somewhat less objectionable substitute moved forward in Senate subcommittee this week, but further negotiations are expected to produce yet more changes.

The warring factions may be able to find common ground in House Bill 2275 (Kilgore) and Senate Bill 1166 (Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax), legislation creating a structure for state energy planning.

House Bill 1777 (O’Quinn) and Senate Bill 1075 (Frank Ruff, R-Mecklenburg) change how the SCC regulates rates of Appalachian Power – but not Dominion. They require the SCC to conduct “annual rate true-up reviews (ART reviews) of the rates, terms and conditions for generation and distribution services” by March 31, 2025 and annually after. They also remove the requirement for an integrated resource plan. 

Retail choice

Past years have seen efforts to restore the ability of customers to buy renewable energy from providers other than their own utilities, an important option for a resident or business that wants to buy renewable energy at a competitive rate. Senate Bill 1419 (Suetterlein) marks at least the fourth year in a row for this effort. A Senate subcommittee voted against it this week.

Dominion’s “reform” bill, on the other hand, clamps down further on retail choice. In light of Youngkin’s support for retail choice in his energy plan, it is interesting to see Republicans like Kilgore instead enabling Dominion’s anticompetitive efforts. 

solar panels on a school roof
Wilson Middle School, Augusta County. Photo courtesy of Secure Futures.

Goosing investments in solar and efficiency

With the passage of the federal Inflation Reduction Act last summer, renewable energy and energy efficiency tax credits are more generous and easier to access than ever before. Senate Bill 848 (Barbara Favola, D-Arlington) and House Bill 1852 (Suhas Subramanyam, D-Loudoun) direct the Commission on School Construction and Modernization to figure out how to help schools take full advantage of onsite solar. 

House Joint Resolution 545 (Briana Sewell, D-Prince William) directs the Department of Energy to study barriers to clean energy investments by localities and their residents and issue recommendations to help. 

Senate Bill 1333 (Ghazala Hashmi, D-Richmond) creates a program within the Department of Energy to be known as the Commonwealth Solar and Economic Development Program. The program will implement solar, energy efficiency and other economic development projects in specified census tracts. 

Senate Bill 1323 (McClellan) requires the SCC to establish for Dominion Energy Virginia annual energy efficiency savings targets for customers who are low-income, elderly, disabled or veterans of military service. 

Senate Bill 984 (Monty Mason, D-Williamsburg) clarifies that lease arrangements for onsite solar are legal, whether or not they’re net metered, including when battery storage is part of the project. (For context: Leasing has always been an option for onsite solar, but the IRA has increased interest in this approach. It is considered especially attractive for residential projects that, except when the customer is low-income, are barred by Virginia law from using third-party power purchase agreements.) The bill also ensures owners can be paid for grid services using the facilities. Another welcome provision of the bill is removing standby charges for residential customers who have batteries along with their solar panels. Currently, residents with systems over 15 kW must pay hefty standby charges.

House Joint Resolution 487 (Marshall) directs the Department of Transportation to study the idea of putting solar panels in highway medians.

Meanwhile, House Bill 2355 (Jackie Glass, D-Norfolk) is a consumer-protection effort for buyers of rooftop solar and other small arrays, who have sometimes been the victims of unscrupulous companies that overcharge and under-deliver.

Shared solar

Virginia has been wading into community solar like a child at the seashore, dipping a toe in and then running away again and again, without ever truly entering the water. A 2020 law establishing a “shared solar” program in Dominion territory was supposed to get us swimming. At the SCC, however, Dominion won the right to impose such a high minimum bill as to make the program unworkable for any but low-income customers, who are exempt from the minimum bill.   

Senate Bill 1266 (Surovell) attempts to address the problems with the shared solar program in Dominion territory. Surovell was the author of the 2020 law and criticized the SCC’s action for making shared solar unavailable to anyone other than low-income residents. His approach would limit the minimum bill to more than twice the basic customer charge, while also increasing the size of the program to at least 10% of the utility’s peak load and allowing non-jurisdictional customers like local governments to participate. 

Senate Bill 1083 (Edwards and Surovell) creates a shared solar program in Appalachian Power territory. It builds on the framework of the existing program in Dominion territory, but the minimum bill is limited to $20. It also seeks to prevent the interconnection problems that industry members have complained about by limiting costs and requirements to those “consistent with generally accepted industry practices in markets with significant penetration levels of distributed generation.”

On the House side, House Bill 1853 (Suhas Subramanyam, D-Loudoun) combines both Senate bills into one bill that addresses both Dominion and Appalachian Power. For both, it limits the minimum bill to two times the basic customer charge, and it includes the interconnection language. 

offshore wind turbines

Offshore wind

Senate Bill 1441 (Mamie Locke, D-Hampton) moves up the VCEA’s deadline for offshore wind farm construction from 2034 to 2024, a change I don’t understand at all, given that the current timeline calls for completion of the Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind Project (CVOW) in 2026. The bill also requires that when Dominion seeks cost recovery, the SCC must give preference “for generating facilities utilizing energy derived from offshore wind that maximize economic benefits to the Commonwealth, such as benefits arising from the construction and operation of such facilities and the manufacture of wind turbine generator components.” I look forward to learning what’s behind that, too. 

Senate Bill 1854 (Subramanyam) seeks annual reports from the SCC on the progress of CVOW, including “the status and the anticipated environmental impacts and benefits of such projects” that  “analyze the current and projected capital costs and consumer rate impacts associated with such projects.” It also wants “an analysis of the ownership structure chosen by an electric utility for previously approved wind energy projects and the costs, benefits, and risks for consumers associated with utility-owned and third-party-owned projects.” This analysis would compare the Virginia project with other U.S. projects, potentially a useful analytical tool for the next offshore wind project that comes along. 

House Bill 1797 (Nick Freitas, R-Culpeper) declares that ratepayers will be held harmless if CVOW’s annual net capacity factor falls below 42% as measured on a three-year rolling average. The capacity factor is the average output of the wind turbines as a percentage of their full potential. In its filing with the SCC, Dominion projected CVOW would hit that 42% mark. If wind speeds turn out to be stronger than projected, the turbines will produce more energy at a lower cost. If the wind (or the machinery) doesn’t meet expectations, the capacity factor will be lower and costs will be higher. The bill would make Dominion absorb the loss in that event. However, the SCC did just resolve this issue in a way that takes account of both ratepayer interests and the newness of the technology, making it unlikely that many legislators will want to revisit this topic.  

Senate Bill 1477 (Lewis) allows Dominion, subject to SCC approval, to create an affiliated company to build some or all of its offshore wind project, with the purpose of having the affiliate secure equity financing.

House Bill 2444 (Bloxom) moves up the timeline for Virginia offshore wind projects under the VCEA from 2034 to 2032 (I wonder if this is what Senator Locke’s bill was supposed to say). It also requires the SCC to give preference to requests for cost recovery by Dominion for “generating facilities utilizing energy derived from offshore wind that maximize economic benefits to the Commonwealth.” I don’t understand if this is intended to discourage Dominion from pursuing projects off the shores of other states, or if it is a poorly-worded way to support in-state manufacturing of components.

Residential PACE

Senate Bill 949 (Petersen) makes homeowners eligible for property-assessed clean energy (PACE) programs, which provide low-cost financing for energy efficiency and renewable energy upgrades. Currently PACE loans are only available to commercial customers. 

Data centers

Virginia has a data center problem. Northern Virginia hosts the largest concentration of data centers in the world, and the energy they consume now amounts to 21% of Dominion’s load. This growth has happened with no state oversight; indeed, it’s been goosed by a billion dollars’ worth of state tax incentives over the past decade. Meeting the energy demand of data centers requires more generation and more transmission lines, usually paid for by all utility customers. 

Senate Joint Resolution 240 (Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax), and House Joint Resolution 522 (Danica Roem, D-Manassas) task the Department of Energy with studying data centers’ impact on Virginia’s environment, energy supply, electricity rates and ability to meet climate targets. The bills also ask for recommendations on whether tax incentives should be conditioned on use of renewable energy or on meeting siting criteria. 

Both Roem and Petersen also have bills that deal with specific siting issues, mostly unrelated to energy. Senate Bill 1078 (Petersen) limits areas where data centers can be sited (e.g., not near parks and battlefields, a barb likely aimed at the Prince William Gateway project). However, it also requires localities to conduct site assessments for impacts on carbon emissions as well as water resources and agriculture. 

Meanwhile, though, legislators seem determined to increase taxpayer handouts to data centers. Following Governor Youngkin’s announcement about Amazon’s plans to invest billions of dollars in new data centers in Virginia, Delegate Barry Knight (R-Virginia Beach) filed House Bill 2479, creating the Cloud Computing Cluster Infrastructure Grant Fund to throw more money at a corporation that seems likely to have more money already than Virginia does.

Return of the gas ban ban 

Last year the natural gas industry tried to get a law passed to ban localities from prohibiting gas connections in new buildings. Some cities in other states have done that to protect the health and safety of residents and protect the climate; meanwhile, about 20 red states have passed laws to prevent their local governments from doing it. But no Virginia locality has attempted to ban gas connections, in part because as a Dillon Rule state, our local governments don’t appear to have that authority. That isn’t stopping the gas industry from seeking to ban bans here; House Bill 1783 (O’Quinn) and Senate Bill 1485 (Morrissey) would do just that. Obnoxiously, it calls the right to use gas “energy justice,” which is surely the best reason to oppose it.  

A version of this article appeared in the Virginia Mercury on January 18, 2023.

Update January 19: Two new bills have been added since yesterday. Senator Morrissey filed SB1485 (gas ban ban), and Senator Lewis filed SB1477 (Dominion offshore wind affiliate).

Update January 23: Delegate Bloxom filed HB2444, added to the offshore wind section above. Delegate Knight filed HB2479, a bill to enrich Amazon; see data centers.

Washington Gas loves its customers too much for their own good

Shows a lit gas stove ring
Choose your fuel source carefully: you are likely to have to live with your decision for the next 10-20 years. Image: iamNigelMorris, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Washington Gas has been emailing its Virginia customers this month to offer them rebates if they buy new gas appliances, including home heating equipment (up to $700) and water heaters (up to $400). What the message doesn’t say is that this is a terrible deal. Customers will be able to get far bigger incentives if they wait until January and buy electric equipment instead.

Under the just-passed Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), Uncle Sam will provide tax credits of up to $2,000 per year for electric heat pumps that provide both heating and air conditioning as well as heat pump water heaters. Lower-income customers will be able to access upfront discounts of up to $8,000 for a heat pump, $1,750 for a water heater, $840 for an induction stove, and other amounts for additional upgrades. If you’re converting from gas and your electric panel isn’t sized to handle the extra electric load, the IRA will help with an upgrade. (For a full rundown of rebates and tax credits for homes, see this list from Rewiring America.)

It used to be that gas furnaces were more efficient and cheaper to operate than most electric heating options, but today the reverse is true: An EnergyStar heat pump uses energy more efficiently and costs less to operate than a fossil fuel furnace or boiler. A heat pump water heater, which I’d never even heard of until recently, is more efficient than either gas or a standard electric hot water heater and, again, saves money on operation.

Advances in heat pump technology and induction stoves, concerns about climate change and growing awareness of the dangers of burning fossil fuels indoors mean the switchover from gas to electricity would have happened without the IRA. But the IRA’s rebates are expected to goose the transition and transform the building sector.

Many consumers haven’t heard about the IRA’s rebates yet, and they may not have given much thought to home electrification. They need this information, but they sure won’t get it from their gas company.

Washington Gas is pushing its gas appliance rebates now for an even bigger reason, though, and one that makes it especially important that customers give them a pass: Installing an expensive new gas furnace locks you into the company’s fond embrace for the life of the furnace, no matter how high natural gas prices go.

It’s true that electric appliances will further tie you to your electric utility (unless you have solar panels), and electricity rates have been going up as well. But electricity rates are going up mainly because fossil fuel costs have skyrocketed. Dominion Energy Virginia, for example, cited a 100% increase in the price of natural gas when it asked for a rate hike this summer. As the electric grid gets greener year by year, lower-priced wind and solar energy will have a moderating effect on electricity prices. Your gas utility, on the other hand, will never have anything to sell you but gas.

It gets worse. Gas companies have to maintain their network of pipelines and other infrastructure regardless of how many customers they have. Those costs will be spread over a shrinking rate base as more and more customers switch over to electricity, raising rates for the remaining customers. If you buy a new gas furnace now, you will be trapped in that shrinking pool of customers, paying ever more to maintain pipelines.

Today, Washington Gas charges customers a flat “system charge” of $11.25 per month, plus supply and distribution costs based on how much gas is used that month. Customers who electrify their homes escape the monthly system charge and gain the convenience of dealing with just one utility. But the real savings come in not being part of a shrinking rate base paying an ever-larger share of the gas company’s fixed costs.

That makes Washington Gas’s rebate offer doubly dangerous for customers who don’t know about the IRA. Someone whose old gas furnace is on the fritz might see the email and decide to use that small rebate to buy a new gas furnace, when they would be far better off keeping the old one limping along for a few more months. Come 2023, they would then reap the benefit of an electric heat pump with a much larger rebate or tax credit.

Consumers are set to save a lot of money and energy under the IRA’s incentives for home electrification — but not if they get locked into fossil fuels first.

This post was originally published in the Virginia Mercury on October 28, 2022.

Buckle up, folks: this federal climate bill is going to supercharge Virginia’s energy transition

Young woman holding sign that says Climate Action Now
Photo by Alex Kambis.

On Sunday the U.S. Senate passed the historic climate legislation package hammered out between Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin. The House is expected to follow suit this week, giving President Joe Biden a huge win on one of his administration’s priorities and finally making good on his pledge to tackle climate change.

The bill is titled the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), apparently because the senators think inflation is the only thing most Americans care about right now. But whether it reduces inflation is beside the point. The IRA marks the federal government’s most significant investment in clean energy and transportation ever. Its $370 billion of climate spending will cut U.S. emissions roughly 42% below 2005 levels by 2030, only slightly less than the reductions that would have been achieved through Biden’s signature Build Back Better bill.

This is a huge piece of legislation, though, and some of the compromises Schumer was forced to make are not climate-friendly. Manchin, after all, is a coal baron representing a state so dominated by the extraction industries that it has lost sight of any other future. Climate hawks have to hold their noses (beaks?) to accept some noxious provisions, such as the bill’s requirement for new offshore drilling lease sales. No doubt that one will cheer motorists who wrongly assume the government could lower gasoline prices just by turning on a spigot, if only it wanted to.

The bill also comes with a side deal meant to ensure completion of the Mountain Valley Pipeline, which starts in Manchin’s home state. That news promptly soured many activists in Virginia on the whole package.

Hang in there, people. The pipeline deal isn’t actually part of the IRA, and Manchin knows better than anyone that a promise of some second bill to be voted on in the future is a castle in the air. Maybe he’ll get it, maybe he won’t. Meanwhile, the IRA’s incentives for renewable energy, energy storage, energy efficiency, building electrification and electric vehicles are overwhelmingly more impactful than provisions designed to increase oil and gas production. The business case for new pipelines will only get worse.

Three recurring themes stand out in the IRA. One is the attention paid to ensuring benefits flow to low- and moderate-income residents and communities impacted by fossil fuel extraction. A second is the effort to incentivize manufacturing and supply chain companies to bring operations back to the U.S., using tax credits for manufacturing and requirements for U.S.-made components. The third is job creation and training for career jobs that pay well. The combined effect is that the law will benefit former coal workers in Southwest Virginia looking for employment at least as much as Northern Virginia suburbanites jonesing for Teslas.

Every state will see clean energy investments soar if the bill becomes law, but Virginia is especially well positioned. Though we have embarrassingly little wind and solar in our energy mix today, we have huge potential for both, a strong tech sector and a well-educated workforce.

Just as important, laws passed by the General Assembly in the past few years already provide the framework for our energy transition. Among them, the Virginia Clean Economy Act and participation in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative are pushing our utilities to decarbonize, including through investments in energy efficiency, solar and offshore wind. Solar Freedom removed barriers to private investments in distributed solar, while the Grid Modernization Act authorized upgrades to the distribution grid, and the Clean Cars Act started us down the road to vehicle electrification. For all of these, the IRA’s incentives make compliance easier and less expensive for both utilities and customers.

Renewable energy tax credits with an emphasis on equity and jobs

Photo courtesy of NREL

The IRA is a big bill with a lot of fine print detailing incentives for a wide range of technologies, mostly clean but with a few clunkers. (Hydrogen made from fracked gas, anyone?) Still, the largest share of the renewable energy tax credits will go to companies involved in the wind and solar industries. The credits will remain fixed for 10 years before ramping down, finally providing the business certainty and long planning window that clean tech companies have been begging for.

The more utilities take advantage of the law to install renewable energy, the greater the benefit to electricity customers. Renewable energy helps stabilize electricity costs, dampening the impact of high fossil fuel prices. The IRA’s tax credits will lower the cost of building wind and solar, saving money for Virginia customers as our utilities meet and exceed the VCEA’s targets for solar, storage and wind. (So, yes, the Inflation Reduction Act will live up to its name when it comes to electricity prices.)

For utility-scale projects like solar farms and offshore wind, obtaining the maximum tax credit requires that a steadily increasing percentage of the equipment used be American made. Credits available to manufacturers are intended to draw the supply chain back to the U.S. and will help those parts be cost-competitive. New prevailing wage and apprenticeship program requirements favor union labor and middle-class incomes for careers in green energy.

While large renewable energy facilities will contribute most to decarbonizing the grid, the most generous incentives in the IRA are reserved for distributed generation facilities under 1,000 kilowatts AC (1,300 kW DC), a category that includes most rooftop solar. For these projects, the investment tax credit will return to 30% for the next 10 years, with adders available if the facility is located on a brownfield or in an “energy community” (10%), uses domestic content (10%) or serves low-income residents (10-20%). The credits can be combined, making it entirely possible for a solar project on low-income housing in Virginia’s coalfields, built using American-made equipment, to qualify for tax credits of up to 70% of the cost.

Not only that, but taxpayers will be allowed to sell the credits, so people with no tax liability can still take advantage of the discounts. This feature will make solar affordable for homeowners who don’t owe enough in federal taxes to use the tax credits themselves. It will also make it possible for installers to discount the upfront cost of a solar array by the amount of the tax credit so customers don’t have to wait months for a tax refund.

A final feature is that the tax credits will now also be available as direct payments to tax-exempt entities like local governments, schools and churches. Direct pay will have the biggest impact in states that don’t allow third-party power purchase agreements (PPAs), but it’s a great option anywhere.

The “adder” for brownfields will be of interest to many Virginia localities that want to find ways to safely use closed landfills and old industrial sites, while Virginia’s government has already identified brownfields as a great opportunity for solar.

But the biggest market opportunities would seem to be for solar on low-income housing and in areas impacted by fossil fuel extraction. Carrie Hearne, associate director for renewable energy and energy efficiency at Virginia’s Department of Energy, said the many federal funding programs laid out in the IRA “would provide great opportunities for energy infrastructure investments in communities that are most in need, and in turn, help to lower energy bills. These federal funds could also contribute to the commonwealth’s goal of competitive rates, reliable and responsible delivery of energy alongside rural economic development.”

To understand how the solar industry sees these opportunities, I called the leaders of three solar companies that develop onsite solar in low-income areas and in the coalfields: Dan Conant of West Virginia-based Solar Holler, Tony Smith of Staunton-based Secure Futures and Ruth Amundsen of Norfolk Solar. Not surprisingly, they all predicted stunning growth in both distributed solar and jobs as a result of the IRA.

Solar has made fewer inroads in Southwest Virginia than in other parts of the state, which Conant sees as an opportunity. One of the few unionized solar companies in the area, and the only one I know of focused exclusively on Appalachia, Solar Holler has been expanding into Southwest Virginia and hiring workers at a steady clip. (Disclosure: I own a tiny stake in Solar Holler.)

The company already uses American-made components, so Conant said coalfields residents will be able to take advantage of two of the adders to install solar on their homes and businesses at half price, with low-income residents paying even less. The IRA’s manufacturing tax credits for American solar companies will further reduce the cost of the projects.

Conant was especially excited about the IRA’s impact on jobs in Appalachia. He expects to ramp up hiring significantly once the IRA becomes law. It took no prodding from me for him to add, “I truly believe this bill will let us get to 100% clean energy in 15 years.”

Secure Futures also has projects underway in Southwest Virginia as well as elsewhere across the state. The company uses third-party PPAs to allow tax-exempt customers like schools and nonprofits to go solar with no money down, paying just for the electricity produced by the panels. Although the IRA allows these customers to get the tax benefits without a PPA, Secure Futures president Tony Smith said tax-exempt entities will still do better using PPAs to take advantage of accelerated depreciation.

Smith said the IRA will make an already strong solar market in Virginia even stronger, as the higher tax credits will push down prices and the transferability of the credits will make it easier to attract more investors to solar. At the same time, a provision of the VCEA requiring Dominion Energy Virginia to acquire renewable energy certificates (RECs) from distributed generation facilities has created a strong market for these certificates, helping to finance projects and making solar even more affordable for institutional customers that sell their solar RECs.

On the other side of the commonwealth, Norfolk Solar also installs solar in low-income communities, offering PPAs to both commercial customers and low-income residents in economically distressed areas that qualify for special tax treatment as Qualified Opportunity Zones. (Under Virginia law, residential PPAs are available only to low-income customers.) Amundsen pointed out that the 10-year time horizon of the tax credits is an added benefit of the IRA to both her customers and potential investors because it allows for long-range planning and multi-year projects.

Energy storage will stand on its own

The VCEA established one of the most ambitious goals for energy storage development in the nation. But current federal law offers tax credits for energy storage only when it is part of a renewable energy project. The limitation has led to the proliferation of solar-plus-batteries projects around the country. It’s an ideal combination because it allows solar energy to be used when it is needed, unshackled from the time of day that it’s produced.

But uncoupling storage from renewable energy projects is a more efficient way to manage the grid, said Steve Donches, a Loudoun County attorney who represents battery storage companies and recently served on the Virginia Energy Storage Task Force.

“In many instances, the best location for storage supporting the grid is not where the renewables are located but rather near grid chokepoints or inside load pockets,” he said. “Moreover, site selection flexibility can often be important from a zoning permitting perspective. The new approach allows developers to be more nimble and locate where it is most useful and cost efficient.”

Recognizing this, the IRA provides a tax credit of up to 30% for energy storage whether or not it is part of a renewable energy facility.

This will make grid storage less expensive and easier for our utilities to install, and it will also benefit customers who want to put batteries in their buildings for back-up power. Amundsen noted that her customers sometimes can’t afford to include a battery at the time they install solar; the IRA will let them take the tax credit for storage even if they buy the battery later. This is especially important, she said, for resilience in low-income neighborhoods, where adding a battery to a solar-powered church or community center allows it to “island” during a power outage and provide a refuge for neighbors.

Homeowners will see huge benefits from building electrification

A cleaner electricity grid makes it possible to decarbonize other sectors of the economy by substituting electricity for fossil fuels in transportation and buildings; hence the climate advocates’ mantra “Electrify everything.” Yet while new electric appliances have become more energy efficient and attractive to consumers than the ones they replace, the switch comes with a price tag.

Under the new law, price will no longer be a barrier. The IRA offers rebates to residents to upgrade their homes with new electric technology such as heat pumps for heating and cooling (up to $8,000), electric induction stoves ($840), heat pump water heaters ($1,750) and upgrades to home electrical systems to support all the new load ($4,000). The rebates phase out for higher-income earners. Lower-income families replacing old and inefficient appliances will see the greatest energy savings as well as the highest rebates.

The federal rebates are a fantastic complement to existing Virginia programs for low-income energy efficiency upgrades. A major attraction of Virginia’s participation in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative is the hundreds of millions of dollars it raises for low-income efficiency programs such as those devoted to upgrading multifamily housing like apartment buildings. Coordinating the state programs with the new federal rebates should be an urgent priority to ensure the broadest possible benefits to low-income Virginians.

Meanwhile, gas utilities had better start planning for the end of their business. There is no longer any reason to expand and upgrade gas distribution pipelines, because from here on in their customer base will be shrinking, not growing, resulting in stranded assets.

Electric vehicles aren’t just for the rich any more

Santeri Viinamäki, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

The IRA provides a $7,500 EV tax credit for new vehicles, including those made by manufacturers like Tesla and Toyota that had reached volume caps in previous law. Restrictions apply, including income limits, vehicle price caps and supply chain sourcing rules. The act also now adds a credit of up to $4,000 for used vehicles, making ownership possible for more people at all income levels.

Virginia is committed to vehicle electrification through its adoption of clean cars legislation in 2021 and a 2022 law requiring state agencies to buy electric light-duty vehicles whenever the total cost of ownership is less than it would be for a vehicle with an internal combustion engines. But further speeding up the transition to EVs will create ripple effects requiring careful planning. Electricity demand will increase and do so unevenly, requiring load management programs and upgrades to parts of the distribution grid.

https://www.virginiamercury.com/2021/05/05/data-centers-and-electric-vehicles-will-drive-up-virginia-electricity-demand-uva-forecaster-predicts/embed/#?secret=EvWicAM2Bx

Charging all these vehicles will also be an issue. Many would-be EV customers lack the ability to charge at home, either because they don’t own the space where they park or because their homes aren’t wired for easy installation of a charger. The problem is especially acute for people who rent apartments in buildings that lack charging stations.

No matter how generous the credits, people won’t buy EVs if they can’t charge them. Virginia must require multifamily buildings to include enough charging stations for all the residents who want them, ensure public charging stations are plentiful and convenient in low-income neighborhoods and improve its residential housing code to ensure new homes are wired to facilitate installation of chargers.

For best results, lean in

Photo credit iid.com

Virginia law requires each new governor to produce an energy plan in October of the first year in office, so Virginia’s Department of Energy is currently in the process of writing a plan that will have Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s stamp on it. The plan must be one that “identifies actions over a 10-year period consistent with the goal of the Commonwealth Clean Energy Policy set forth in § 45.2-1706.1 to achieve, no later than 2045, a net-zero carbon energy economy for all sectors, including the electricity, transportation, building, agricultural, and industrial sectors.”

Governor Youngkin hasn’t shown much enthusiasm for Virginia’s energy transition to date, having tried to gut the VCEA and repeal RGGI. Yet with the IRA making so many incentives available for clean energy and electric vehicles, leaning in to the energy transition now will allow the commonwealth to reap huge rewards in the form of economic development, job growth, cleaner air and lower energy bills.

The opportunities for Virginia are enormous; the governor should make the most of them.

This article originally ran in the Virginia Mercury on August 9, 2022.

Dear readers: Many of you know that although I write independently of any organization, I also volunteer for the Sierra Club and serve on its legislative committee. The Sierra Club’s Virginia Chapter urgently needs funds to support its legislative and political work towards a clean energy transition. So this summer I’m passing the hat and asking you to make a donation to our “Ten Wild Weekends” fundraising campaign. Thanks!

What new Virginia laws reveal about how the natural gas industry sees its future 

Natural gas is having a moment. The war in Ukraine spotlighted Europe’s heavy reliance on Russian gas and the challenge of replacing it with new supplies from elsewhere. Suddenly the Biden administration, after talking so much about the need to get off fossil fuels, wants to expand oil and gas production and boost exports of liquified natural gas. 

The president still intends to address the climate crisis, just not right now. The sudden shift brings to mind St. Augustine’s prayer: “Lord, make me virtuous, but not yet!”

Don’t be fooled, though. In fact, natural gas is facing an existential crisis. Back when it was cheap, it wasn’t profitable; now that prices are high, U.S. consumers have better alternatives. Europeans will want to import our expensive LNG only until they have other options. Today’s tight supplies obscure the big-picture reality that the gas industry is in the fight for its life. 

The fracking industry likes to bill its product as the cleaner and cheaper alternative to coal in generating electricity. And indeed, advances in fracking technology produced a years-long glut of gas, driving prices so low that gas overtook coal as the top fuel in U.S. power generation beginning in 2015. Gas made up 38.3 percent of electricity in 2021 compared to coal’s 21.8 percent. 

But competition from ever-cheaper wind and solar have stalled the gas industry’s growth in the power sector. Today utilities are more interested in building renewable energy and battery storage than new gas plants. Natural gas was projected to make up only 16 percent of new U.S. electricity generating capacity in 2021, compared to 39 percent for solar and 31 percent for wind. 

High prices will exacerbate this trend. Natural gas prices today are higher than at any time since 2008, having more than trebled in just the past two years. The rise began well before the war in Ukraine, and now international market demand has pushed it higher. This is good for fracking companies that spent the last 10 years losing money, but from a utility’s perspective, price-stable renewables just look better and better. 

Graph of 5 years of natural gas prices in US dollars.
Natural gas (USD/MMBtu) https://tradingeconomics.com/commodity/natural-gas

Fortunately for the gas industry, making electricity is just one use for its product. Methane remains the dominant fuel for heating buildings, with about half of U.S. homes and businesses using it for space heating, water heating, cooking and other appliances. It is also a feedstock for many industrial operations, including fertilizer and plastics manufacturing. Protecting the first use, and expanding the second, are critical to staving off obsolescence. 

That explains three pieces of legislation passed in Virginia in the past two years, all modeled on bills enacted in other states. One, which I’ll discuss in a minute, originally would have prohibited local governments from banning new gas connections within their jurisdiction, protecting the industry’s access to new retail customers. Another sets up a way for gas companies to include methane from pig waste lagoons and other non-fossil sources in their pipelines, allowing them to claim green credit — and subsidies — for marketing what they call renewable natural gas. 

Finally, 2021 legislation promotes “advanced recycling” of waste plastics — using a process called chemical conversion to turn plastic into other plastic or into fuel and then burning it — in part to forestall efforts to phase out single-use plastics like Styrofoam food containers and plastic bags. As a technology, chemical conversion is inelegant, being energy-intensive and highly polluting. As a business, the economics are questionable (and the main company benefiting from the law canceled plans for a facility in Virginia). But as PR, the reframing is brilliant. Why not expand plastics production forever if we can turn the waste into fuel or new plastic?

Indeed, the success of the law can be seen in Gov. Glen Youngkin’s new executive order ostensibly promoting recycling while overturning a previous order from Ralph Northam that required executive agencies to give up single-use plastics by 2025. General Assembly members are also falling for the propaganda, proposing via the state budget to delay the ban on polystyrene food containers that was to have taken effect beginning next year. 

Banning the bans: the gas industry fights building electrification

RNG and plastics are important for the gas industry, but protecting its market share in the building sector is central to its future. Ultimately it is doomed to failure. All-electric buildings are a requirement for a fully decarbonized economy, and their health and safety advantages make a compelling case for localities that want to help meet climate targets by preventing new homes from being connected to gas lines. Some cities in solidly blue states have banned new gas hook-ups; elsewhere, red state legislatures are passing laws to ban the bans.

Public support for these bans will grow as people learn more about the hazards of using gas in their homes. Read enough stories about methane leaking from underground pipes and in homes (and occasionally exploding and setting fire to buildings), or about the health impacts of indoor air pollution from gas heaters and stoves, and you may wonder why we ever thought it a good idea to have open flames in our homes. Yet once a house is built with a gas furnace and appliances, it is much harder for a homeowner to go all-electric. 

To be clear, though, no Virginia jurisdiction has sought to ban gas connections, and it’s not clear whether they could do so in a Dillon Rule state like Virginia. Right now, a law to keep them from doing so sounds a little on the hysterical side, like prohibiting people from walking tigers off-leash. 

Indeed, the proponents of HB1257 could cite only a much narrower threat. The City of Richmond recently committed itself to achieving net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Unlike almost any other city in Virginia, Richmond owns a gas utility that serves its residents and businesses. Sometime in the next 28 years, if the city is serious, it will have to sell the utility or shut down gas service, forcing customers to look elsewhere if they want gas. 

The gas industry and its industrial customers used this far-off threat as a pretext for a Virginia ban-the-ban bill. In its original form, HB1257 (Kilgore) declared it the right of every person to access natural gas, calling this “energy justice,” and explicitly forbidding any public entity from doing anything to interfere with this sacred right. (Oh, except that gas utilities don’t have to supply gas even to willing customers if they can’t make money doing so, and they are free to cut off service to anyone who can’t pay their bills. Justice stretches only so far as profit permits.) 

The Republican-led House passed the whole bill, but the Democratic-led Senate pared it back to deal just with a locality that gets out of the gas utility business, requiring that it give three years’ notice and try to sell or auction off the utility. The final version omits the “energy justice” language that was such an inspiring tribute to George Orwell, but it solves the “immediate” problem in Richmond. 

But it’s not likely that we have seen the end of legislative efforts in Virginia to ban local restrictions on natural gas connections. The gas industry needs to lock in new customers now, because its future is looking very bleak indeed. 

This column originally appeared in the Virginia Mercury on April 21, 2022.

Dominion’s proposed charge for solar program is absurdly high

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The legislation provides for participants to be credited on their utility bills with their share of the electricity generated by the solar panels. The SCC is to make an annual calculation of the bill credit rate “as the effective retail rate of the customer’s rate class, which shall be inclusive of all supply charges, delivery charges, demand charges, fixed charges and any applicable riders or other charges to the customer.” To the definition of “bill credit rate” is added the admonition that the rate “shall be set such that the shared solar program results in robust project development and shared solar program access for all customer classes.” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Looking backward, Virginia Republicans attack climate action and coddle coal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Election Day was a tough day for climate advocates. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With a federal windfall incoming, Virginia should require school districts to build to green standards

The solar panels powering Arlington, Virginia’s Discovery Elementary School, seen through the windows of a science classroom. Photo by Ivy Main

More than $4.3 billion in federal stimulus dollars will be flowing to Virginia this year as part of the American Rescue Plan, with cities and counties in line for another $2.7 billion. In a joint statement in May, Governor Northam and Democratic leaders laid out spending priorities that included rehabilitating and upgrading the infrastructure in public schools. The General Assembly plans to meet for a special legislative session in August to allocate the funds. In addition to the federal money, Virginia also finds itself in the happy position of having surplus funds of its own to spend.

As it stands now, the federal funds cannot be used for new school construction, a restriction that upsets school officials in areas with aging schools and no budget to replace them. But whether some money is spent on new schools or not, the General Assembly should not just throw dollars out the door and hope for the best. Virginia has an enormous opportunity to improve student health and learning, correct historic injustices, and meet the demands of the climate crisis, but only if the right standards are in place from the outset.

First, funding should be prioritized to Title 1 schools, which are those with at least 40 percent of children from low-income families. Given Virginia’s history of segregation and racism, a high number of Title 1 schools are in Black communities, while others are in parts of rural Virginia that have been left behind economically.  Title 1 schools on average are older and in worse condition than schools in more affluent areas, and the students are more likely to suffer from asthma and other health problems that are exacerbated by mold and poor indoor air quality. Improving indoor air quality and student well-being should be the primary goals for all new or renovated facilities, and it makes sense to start with the students most in need.

Second, while many localities are attracted to the idea of shiny new schools, in most cases it takes less time and costs less to retrofit an old school that is structurally sound than to tear it down and build new. It’s also better for the environment, even if the new school would be built to a “green” standard. Children don’t need new buildings; they need healthy, high-performing buildings. A beautiful remodel of the historic school their parents and grandparents attended could be just what the doctor ordered.

Third, new or renovated schools should be required to meet the highest standards for energy efficiency, including windows, insulation and HVAC. New construction should also be all-electric, as should most renovated buildings. This maximizes taxpayer savings on energy costs over the lifetime of the building, supports the goal of healthy indoor air, and is consistent with Virginia’s commitment to phase out fossil fuels.

Fourth, if the roof will be new or upgraded, it should be made solar-ready, allowing the school to take advantage of third-party power purchase agreements (PPAs) or solar services agreements to install solar panels. Leveraging private capital to pay for the school’s primary energy source stretches construction dollars. These agreements provide financing for solar facilities at no upfront cost and typically save money for schools from the outset. Once the solar panels are paid off, energy bills plummet and savings pile up.

New schools and deep retrofits can even achieve net-zero status affordably, and ought to be required to do so in most cases. Net-zero schools become a source of community pride and offer educational benefits as students learn about energy and how solar panels work. According to a study conducted for Fairfax County Public Schools, the additional upfront cost of building a net-zero-ready school (one that will produce as much energy as it uses once solar panels are added) is only about 5 percent more than standard construction, and the additional cost is recovered through energy savings in under 10 years. Renovating older schools to net-zero costs 11 percent more, but still pays off in 15 years.

Even if we weren’t worried about climate, these standards would make sense for student health and taxpayer savings. Yet today, school districts are not required to build high performance schools, and most don’t. The result is higher operating costs, and in some cases school boards being told that their brand-new schools won’t support solar. Solar companies say it’s probable that solar would be just fine, but this shouldn’t even be an issue. Yet it will continue to be cited as an obstacle if solar-readiness is not made standard.

Our children deserve better. Virginia should seize this year’s historic opportunity to invest in healthy, high-performing schools that are free of fossil fuels and will deliver long-term benefits for taxpayers and the climate.