Dominion Power defends its billion-dollar handout from ratepayers; squashes dissent; asks for more.

DominionLogoA Senate committee quickly killed SB 1095, a bill introduced by Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax) that could have brought an early end to a five-year prohibition on regulators’ ability to review Dominion Virginia Power’s earnings and to order refunds where warranted. The prohibition, passed two years ago as part of 2015’s SB 1349 (Frank Wagner, R-Virginia Beach), will mean as much as a billion dollars in extra cash to the utility—money that would otherwise be returned to customers.

After losing the vote on SB 1095 in Senate Commerce and Labor, Petersen introduced SB 1593, a bill that would have prohibited campaign contributions from public service corporations like Dominion Power. He was forced to withdraw the bill when Senate leaders complained he had filed it late.

Score two for Dominion. But in case you thought the utility giant might choose to lie low for a while, consider another of this year’s bills: HB 2291 (Terry Kilgore, R-Gate City). The legislation allows Dominion to seek approval to charge customers for billions of dollars in nuclear power plant upgrades. Kilgore has collected $162,000 in campaign contributions from Dominion’s parent company over the years, even though he represents an area of the state that is not served by Dominion Virginia Power (meaning it won’t be his constituents paying for his bill). Astoundingly, the bill passed the House of Delegates with only two dissenting votes (cast by Mark Keam, D-Vienna, and Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke).

Obviously, there is a pattern here. It actually began at least as far back as 2014, when another Kilgore-sponsored bill passed allowing Dominion to shift onto its customers several hundred million dollars of nuclear development costs that otherwise would not have been recovered for many years, if ever. The legislation inspired much criticism, but little action.

Taken together, these legislative giveaways add up to enormous sums of money. The 2015 legislation involved as much as a billion dollars in customer payments that exceed the profit margin allowed by the State Corporation Commission, according to an estimate offered by one commissioner. In the absence of SB 1349, Dominion would likely have had to issue refunds, lower rates, or both.

At the time, Dominion claimed that the EPA’s proposed Clean Power Plan would impose huge costs on ratepayers unless the General Assembly acted to stop base rates from rising. Legislators weren’t told the real effect of SB 1349 would be to keep base rates from falling. And meanwhile, customers’ utility bills could continue to rise because base rates make up only a portion of monthly bills.

Petersen’s bill this year took notice of the fact that the Clean Power Plan is now highly unlikely to take effect. SB 1095 would have reinstated the SCC’s authority to review rates if and when the Clean Power Plan was deemed truly dead. This misses the mark only in being way too generous to Dominion. As the SCC has pointed out, the review freeze period will be over before the Clean Power Plan is slated to take effect, so SB 1349 could not possibly protect ratepayers from compliance costs anyway.

SB 1349 is currently being challenged in court as an unconstitutional abrogation of the SCC’s power. Two former Attorneys General, Republican Ken Cuccinelli and Democrat Andy Miller, have weighed in on the side of consumers. The current Attorney General, Democrat Mark Herring, was harshly critical of the bill when it was before the General Assembly, but now says he is obligated to defend the law.

SB 1349 passed the General Assembly two years ago amid great confusion about what was in the bill and what it all meant. Legislators padded it out with modest solar-energy and energy-efficiency provisions to make it palatable to skeptical Democrats and ensure it would be signed by Governor McAuliffe.

But this year, legislators have no such excuse. They cannot have missed the torrent of criticism the law inspired, or the point that Dominion won’t spend a dime of its ill-gotten gain on compliance with the Clean Power Plan. It is hard to see the 9-2 vote in Commerce and Labor to kill Petersen’s SB 1095 as anything but a blatant, bipartisan gift to Dominion. (The dissenting votes came from Republicans Dick Black and Stephan Newman.)

Dominion’s corrosive effect on Virginia politics is one of the main threads of a book published last year called Virginia Politics & Government in a New Century: The Price of Power. Author Jeff Thomas outlines a whole host of ways in which Virginia politics have become mired in corruption. SB 1349 is Exhibit A.

Now the unearned largesse for Dominion—and the ignominious end to Senator Petersen’s effort to rein in Dominion’s influence—have become an issue in this year’s governor’s race. Republicans Denver Riggleman and Corey Stewart and Democrat Tom Perriello are all taking aim at the connection between Dominion’s campaign spending and the billion-dollar boondoggle it received from SB 1349. If Kilgore’s HB 2291 passes the Senate this month, they will have another example on which to build their case that Dominion’s campaign donations have corrupted Virginia’s legislative process.

Legislators themselves publicly reject the idea of a causal relationship between the steady stream of campaign cash and their votes in favor of the bills, while privately acknowledging the sway Dominion holds over the General Assembly. Indeed, the comfortable fiction that campaign donations don’t affect a politician’s votes is such an insult to voters’ intelligence that the wonder is why it took so many years to become a campaign issue.

Given Wagner and Kilgore’s leadership roles in the Republican-controlled House and Senate, the issue might not seem like obvious fodder for the Republican primary campaign. Of course, Wagner is also running for governor on the Republican ticket, so the assaults of challengers Riggleman and Stewart might simply be tactics designed to undermine the competition. If voters respond, though, we can expect to hear a lot more discussion of government corruption.

In today’s chaotic political environment, Democrats who don’t speak out could find themselves under fire, too. Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam, the other Democrat running for Governor, has accepted over $97,000 from Dominion since 2008, according to VPAP.org, and so far seems not to have joined the chorus of voices criticizing Dominion’s influence.

The anti-corporate sentiments that fueled Bernie Sanders’ campaign have only intensified with Donald Trump’s embrace of bankers and oil barons. Democratic voters today are less likely than ever to forgive leaders of their own party for cozying up to big corporations. If either Democratic candidate for governor cedes the issue of clean government to the other—or to Republicans—this might be the election in which it matters.

Renewable energy bills begin an uncertain journey through Virginia’s general assembly

VA capital Corrina BeallThree Senate Republicans and one Democrat met on Thursday to consider the fate of many of this year’s renewable energy bills. Reported out were two bills introduced by Frank Wagner that were crafted by utilities, the solar industry trade association MDV-SEIA, and Powered by Facts (a group currently focused on farms).

Other bills were not as lucky as these two. In theory all bills get another bite at the apple in the full Senate Commerce and Labor Committee, where they are on the docket for Monday afternoon. However, expectations are that the bills voted down in subcommittee will meet the same fate in full committee.

Wagner, the chairman of the Senate committee, named himself to his subcommittee along with fellow Republicans Ben Chafin and Glen Sturtevant, and Democrat Rosalyn Dance. So it was not surprising that this hand-picked group supported his bills. More disappointing was the solid opposition to anyone else’s proposals, including ones with even better potential to improve the solar market. That opposition came not only from the Wagner, Chafin and Sturtevant, but also from MDV-SEIA.

The two Wagner bills reported out are SB 1393 (the so-called community solar program) and SB 1394 (small agricultural generators). The bills have undergone some more recent changes, which I will get to in a bit.

The committee voted down Edwards’ SB 917 (containing minor fixes to the agricultural net metering law), Edwards’ SB 918 (expanding authorized uses of third party power purchase agreements), and Wexton’s SB 1208 (a more expansive community solar bill). Following a common practice in the General Assembly, SB 1208 was “rolled into” SB 1393, which is simply a polite way of extinguishing a bill. Similarly, SB 917 was rolled into SB 1394, even though the two are only vaguely related.

Over in House Commerce and Labor, several renewable energy bills will be heard by the energy subcommittee when it meets Tuesday afternoon. These include Keam’s HB 2112, the companion to Wexton’s SB 1208, and Minchew’s HB 2303, the companion to Wagner’s SB 1394. (The text of some House bills has not yet been updated to conform to changes in the Senate bills, but this seems likely to happen.)

Two new bills on third-party power purchase agreements have been added since my initial roundup. Chairman Kilgore introduced HB 2390, a bill that would, for a narrow class of privileged customers, extend to Appalachian Power territory the PPA pilot program currently running in Dominion territory. The pilot program specifically allows certain third-party power purchase agreements while forbidding all others. In Dominion territory the program is capped at 50 MW; the bill would place a 10 MW cap on the APCo program.

The PPA pilot program has allowed customers like Albermarle County Public Schools and the University of Richmond to install solar cost-effectively, and APCo customers have been itching to join it.

But Kilgore’s bill contains a limitation that is really pretty offensive. Unlike the pilot project in Dominion territory, where participants may include any non-profit of any size, as well as commercial customers with facilities of over 50 kW, Kilgore’s bill would allow only private colleges and universities to compete for the 10 MW in APCo territory. No public colleges, no churches, no community centers or town buildings. For a guy with a folksy demeanor, Kilgore seems to be one heck of an elitist.

A better PPA bill is Toscano’s HB 1800, stating that nonresidential and agricultural customers have the right to contract with other people to own and operate renewable energy facilities on the customer’s premises. Although a hearing examiner recently agreed with the solar industry and environmentalists that this right already exists in the Virginia Code, utilities have blocked on-site PPAs. Toscano’s bill would put an end to this harassment, while giving up on residential consumer PPAs. (The concession sounds bad but isn’t; residential customers can use leases to achieve the same result that PPAs afford.)

Other House bills. Also up in the House subcommittee on Tuesday will be the three worthy energy efficiency bills from Delegate Sullivan. In addition, Villanueva’s Alternative Energy and Coastal Protection Act is back for a third year as HB 2018. It would provide money for renewables and efficiency as well as badly-needed funds to help communities adapt to consequences of climate change such as sea level rise.

Now, about those Wagner bill changes:

Following revisions, “community” solar still looks like a winner, except for the community part. SB 1393 met with support from all corners of the room at the Senate subcommittee meeting on Thursday. Everyone, it seems, wants more solar options for consumers and is excited that the utilities seem willing to move forward to meet this growing demand.

Just don’t expect community solar. As now drafted, utilities control every aspect of the program. Although third-party developers would build the solar projects, the utilities can choose to buy the electricity through a PPA or buy and own the project themselves. Also, the project size limit of 2 MW, which has a community-scale feel to it, does not apply if a utility is simply designating 2 MW of a larger project to this program. In effect, if the utility contracts for a number of large projects across the state (which Dominion is indeed doing), it can simply designate parts of each as “community solar,” and fill the program that way.

That doesn’t make it a bad bill, just not a community solar bill. And while it looks like a tariff for the sale of renewable energy to participating customers, the bill continues to state that it is not a tariff for the supply of 100% renewable electricity—language that supposedly dodges the fight about under what circumstances third parties can legally sell renewable energy in Virginia.

Even with changes, agricultural RE bill’s possible benefits for some come at a cost to others. SB 1394 was reported unanimously from the Senate subcommittee Thursday, but drew opposition from both the Sierra Club and the solar consumer group VA-SUN. The current language of the bill contains improvements over the original (discussed here), but however well intentioned, it remains a bad bill.

The legislation establishes a pilot program that allows farmers to use a portion of their land for solar and enter a buy-all, sell-all contract with the utility. They will buy their power at retail and sell at a price that might not be much more than wholesale, so whether the program pencils out for farmers is uncertain. But that’s not my beef with it.

The problem is that this program is offered as a replacement to an entirely different program, one that allows farms to attribute the power output of a single solar array or wind turbine to all the various meters on the farm under the net metering statute. That’s a valuable option for farmers who want to meet their electric needs with renewable energy. Removing this option is a backwards step for wineries, breweries, organic farms, and any other farmer for whom solar power is an important part of their branding and marketing. (Consider that this bill applies to wind as well as solar; a small farmer would likely have only one wind turbine to serve the whole farm. You can’t put a little wind turbine on every building with an electric meter.)

The date at which agricultural generators can no longer opt to use the agricultural net metering provisions has been moved to 2019 (from 2018 in the original draft legislation), and the termination of the net metering option now applies only to coop members, not customers of Dominion and APCo. Existing agricultural net metering customers can continue to use the net metering provisions for 25 years, up from 20. These are all incremental improvements but don’t change the fundamental problem that the legislation trades away the rights of some customers in an effort to help others.

There is another problem. Projects developed under the buy-all, sell-all program would count against the 1% cap on the total amount of electricity produced by net metering in a utility’s service territory. This is wrong as a matter of principle (if they aren’t net metering, it shouldn’t count against a net metering limit) and also because a few large farmers using the buy-all, sell-all program would max out the 1% and leave nothing for homeowners or other coop customers.

From the coops point of view, that’s not a bug, that’s a feature; killing net metering is precisely their goal. That’s why the buy-all, sell-all program is not being offered as an option, which would be fine, but as a replacement, which is not.

I asked Dana Sleeper, Director of MDV-SEIA, why her organization was supporting the bill. She responded:

We felt that with the changes made in committee, it was more additive (creating options) then limiting. We had some models made in order to confirm that the proposed legislation would be a viable path for businesses to pursue, and my intent is to make those models publicly available so they may be helpful to those interested in pursuing the AgGEN option, should the bill pass. 

As for why MDV-SEIA opposed other pro-solar bills like Wexton’s and Edwards’, she answered:

MDV-SEIA was a participant in the Rubin stakeholder group process over the course of many months and, along with the other stakeholders, agreed to support a slate of bills that moved the needle on solar issues in VA. As part of the group, we included professional lobbyists in order to ensure that political perspective was built in. One of the recommendations from the lobbyists was to draw clear lines around those bills coming out of our stakeholder process versus those put forward by other groups, as it would cause confusion among legislators who have a lot on their plates during a short session. 

For that reason, any bills that were seen by legislators as being duplicative were folded into the Rubin group bills. That’s not to say we don’t see the merit of them, it’s simply that there were many concerns about those proposals which were addressed by the Rubin bills. Our lobbyist, when asked, noted that while we appreciated the thought and effort put into the legislation, we recommended folding them into our bill. There were some bills that did not cover the same topics as those discussed in the working group (for example, the tax credit bill), and we supported them wholeheartedly. 

Lobby efforts underway. MDV-SEIA is inviting supporters to its second Clean Energy Lobby Day on Tuesday; register here.

Separately, Secure Futures LLC and other solar industry members are also encouraging advocates of distributed generation to attend the House subcommittee meeting on Tuesday. They urge support for HB 1800 and HB 2112, and opposition to HB 2303 and HB 2390. (Opposition to HB 2303 puts them at odds with MDV-SEIA on the agricultural solar issue.)

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.

Virginia utilities back legislation to offer consumers a solar option

Photo credit iid.com

Photo credit iid.com

A group comprised primarily of Virginia utilities and solar industry members has proposed four pieces of legislation for the 2017 Virginia legislative session. The bills address four areas the group agreed to work on: creating a pilot program to offer solar energy to customers on a voluntary basis, under the name of “community solar”; raising from 100 MW to 150 MW the size limit for wind and solar projects that can take advantage of the streamlined Permit by Rule process, and allowing utilities to use that process in some circumstances; creating a program to allow farmers to sell some surplus solar to the grid; and allowing utilities to earn a profit on solar facilities they don’t build themselves (an incentive for them to do more deals with developers, whose costs are less and who receive more favorable tax treatment).

The group, referred to as the Rubin Group after its moderator, Richmond lawyer Mark Rubin, formed earlier this year when the Commerce and Labor Committees of the General Assembly refused to act on a suite of renewable energy and energy efficiency bills offered during the 2016 session. The committee chairmen, Senator Frank Wagner and Delegate Terry Kilgore, said members needed more time to consider the proposals, though they were similar to ones submitted (and killed) in previous years. Wagner and Kilgore assigned a special subcommittee to study the legislation and make recommendations for next year.

The subcommittee met once in the spring to hear summaries of the bills. It took no further action until December 8, when four members showed up to hear presentations from the Rubin Group and ask a few questions. The hearing took half an hour. No one mentioned energy efficiency.

Setting aside more contentious issues, the Rubin Group had agreed to focus on drafting legislation where they felt compromise between the solar industry and the utilities was possible. That left out a lot, including the many bills dealing with net metering issues and third-party ownership. They also chose not to bring in environmental or consumer groups until they had nearly completed drafting their bills, though they did include an advocacy group called Powered by Facts that focused on agricultural customers. Representatives from Southern Environmental Law Center and League of Conservation Voters were finally brought in to review and comment solely on the community solar bill. Other stakeholders were briefed on the bills in late November but not allowed to see the legislation until today. (As of this writing, the bills had not yet been posted anywhere I can link to.)

The community solar bill has generated the most interest, especially from residential customers who can’t put solar on their own roofs and are eager for options. And a review of the language suggests that in concept, at least, this bill holds a great deal of promise for bringing solar to average Virginians.

However, the name “community solar” is something of a misnomer for the Rubin Group’s bill, which might better be described as enabling a program for utility-administered, community-scale solar. The legislation provides for the utility to solicit bids for new solar facilities to be built by private developers around the state. The utility will contract for the output of the facilities and sell the electricity to customers who want to buy solar. Customers will never own the projects.

The bill is labeled a three-year pilot program. It consists of generating facilities up to 2 megawatts in size, for an initial total of 4 MW for APCo and 25 MW for Dominion. When a program is 90% subscribed, the utilities will add facilities up to a total of 10 MW for APCo and 40 MW for Dominion. Each utility will issue requests for proposals (RFPs) from developers, and will purchase the output and the associated renewable energy certificates (RECs). The utility will retire the RECs on the customer’s behalf, which assures customers they are actually getting solar. Electric cooperatives are also authorized to conduct similar pilot programs.

The utilities will be allowed to recover all of their costs through a rate schedule, including for squishy categories like administrative and marketing charges, plus a margin determined by the “weighted average cost of capital.”

The legislation does not set the price of the electricity, something left to the State Corporation Commission to decide under tight parameters. Leaving the price out of the legislation is reasonable, given that the RFPs haven’t even been issued yet, but it does mean we have no idea at this point whether customers will see a savings from the program either immediately (highly unlikely) or in the future. But the legislation does allow customers to lock in a fixed price for as long as they are in the program, giving them the price stability that is one of the major benefits of solar.

In addition, the members of the Rubin Group say they have agreed to abide by a Memorandum of Understanding they drafted to guide implementation of the bill at the SCC. This MOU has not been made public, and in any case the SCC would not be bound by it, but it may help ensure that regulations implementing the pilot program meet the parties’ expectations.

So how much of a difference could this program make? As a rule of thumb, supplying an average Virginia household with 100% solar energy requires the output of 10 kilowatts (kW) worth of solar panels. Thus the program total of 50 MW (50,000 kW) would be enough to supply 5,000 average Virginia households if they were to meet their entire electric load this way, or more if they are energy efficient or plan to meet only a portion of their load with solar. By comparison, Dominion alone claims to have over 30,000 customers in its Green Power Program. That program offers mostly wind RECs from other states, and does not reduce customers’ use of ordinary grid power from fossil fuels and nuclear. Thus there seem to be more than enough customers primed to sign up for a program that is infinitely better than what they are paying extra for today.

The astute reader will wonder why Dominion didn’t just change its Green Power Program to a Virginia solar program, something it could do through the State Corporation Commission without new legislation. If any astute reader figures that out, please let me know, because I’ve been wondering about it for years.

Regardless, the Rubin bill holds promise as an option for customers who can’t put solar on their own rooftops. It would mean more solar projects get built in Virginia, creating jobs and bringing new economic development to localities across the state. It would decrease demand for dirty power and possibly persuade our utilities that the future really does lie with solar, not with fracked gas.

Calling it community solar seems unwise, however. Virginians are wary of a bait-and-switch from a utility with a long history of promising the moon and delivering green cheese.

For real community solar, we will have to look to legislation developed by the Virginia Distributed Solar Collaborative. This broad-based group of solar stakeholders includes consumers, local government employees and environmentalists as well as solar industry representatives (but not utilities). The Collaborative developed its own model bill this summer based on legislation from other states. The model bill gives much greater freedom to customers to cooperate in the development and ownership of renewable energy facilities for their own benefit. Customers don’t have to wait for their utility to choose a developer, and they can choose to own a share of a facility, not just buy some of the electricity generated. Utilities can own facilities, but so can non-profit or for-profit entities. Utilities are required to purchase the output of the community facilities, and to issue bill credits to its customers who are subscribers.

As a practical matter, members of the Virginia Distributed Solar Collaborative don’t expect the General Assembly to adopt their model instead of something that comes with the Dominion Power seal of approval. But it’s important for legislators to understand what the alternative looks like, and why their constituents may feel that a utility-operated program shouldn’t be the only option.

Your 2016 guide to Virginia wind and solar policy

Photo credit: Sierra Club

Photo credit: Sierra Club

I could make short work of this year’s update by saying that not much has changed in the way of Virginia renewable energy policy in the past year. The General Assembly punted on almost all of the relevant bills that were presented this winter, and a subcommittee that was formed to review those bills has taken no action to date.

But if the policies haven’t changed, the landscape has. While our legislators sat on their hands, everyone else embarked on what, for Virginia, amounts to a solar binge. Dominion Virginia Power began making good on a pledge to install 400 megawatts (MW) of solar in state by the end of the decade. The Governor has taken the first steps to fulfill a pledge to have state agencies meet 8% of their electric demand with solar. Large corporations suddenly want to take advantage of low solar prices and favorable tax policies to do deals in Virginia. Residents are flocking to bulk purchasing cooperatives for rooftop solar. A few universities and schools are using third-party power purchase agreements (PPAs) to install solar under the limited provisions of Dominion Power’s pilot program.

Very little of this is reflected in the statistics—yet. According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, Virginia increased its total renewable energy capacity from 14 MW at the end of 2014 to 22 MW at the end of 2015. A few years ago, an increase of more than 50% would have been amazing. Today we just have to point out that 22 MW is how much solar capacity North Carolina installs on average every single week.

  1. The further we go, the behinder we get
Maryland North Carolina W. Virginia Tennessee Virginia
Solar* 465 2,294 3.4 132 22
Wind** 190 0 583 29 0
Total 655 2,294 586 161 22

Installed capacity measured in megawatts (MW) at the end of 2015. One megawatt is equal to 1,000 kilowatts (kW).

*Source: Solar Energy Industries Association **Source: American Wind Energy Association 

This year we will show real progress. Based on the projects announced to date, Virginia will likely have more than 200 MW of solar online by the end of 2016, with more projects in the queue for 2017. So we are headed in the right direction, but these numbers still represent only a tiny fraction of what we could see if we removed the barriers currently holding back private investment in the solar industry and pushed our utilities to make renewables central to their planning.

Moreover, we still have no wind farms in the state, and neither of our investor-owned utilities included Virginia wind in their latest Integrated Resource Plans (with the exception of Dominion Power’s two pilot offshore wind turbines, which probably won’t get built). The one bright spot on wind energy is that Apex Clean Energy continues to move forward with its Rocky Forge wind farm, scheduled for completion next year.

We also have to view Virginia’s progress on solar in the broader context of energy development. Dominion Virginia Power will have built 4,300 MW of new natural gas generation by the end of the decade and has indicated its interest in building far more. The company will add this to a portfolio that’s already 96% fossil fuel and nuclear. This summer two more companies announced plans to build natural gas plants in Virginia, aiming to burn some of the fracked gas that Dominion plans to bring through the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. When the state’s dominant utility is all-in on natural gas, it’s hard for a different energy model to find elbow room.

But we do have good solar and wind resources, and plenty of demand. What we need are policies that welcome participants to the market.

  1. Virginia utilities won’t sell wind or solar to customers*

(*except those with billions of dollars and famous CEOs—see section 14)

Currently, the average Virginia resident can’t pick up the phone and call their utility to buy electricity generated by wind and solar farms. Worse, they can’t buy renewable energy elsewhere, either.

This wasn’t supposed to happen. Section 56-577(A)(6) of the Virginia code allows utilities to offer “green power” tariffs, and if they don’t, customers are supposed to be able to go elsewhere for it. Ideally, a utility would use money from voluntary green power programs to build or buy renewable energy for these customers. However, Virginia utilities have not done this, except in very tiny amounts. Instead, utilities pay brokers to buy renewable energy certificates (RECs) on behalf of the participants. Participation by consumers is voluntary. Participants sign up and agree to be billed extra on their power bills for the service. Meanwhile, they still run their homes and businesses on regular “brown” power, which is not what they want.

In Dominion’s case, these RECs meet a recognized national standard, and some of them originate with wind turbines, but they primarily represent power produced and consumed out of state, and thus have no effect on the power mix in Virginia. For a fuller discussion of the Dominion Green Power Program, see What’s wrong with Dominion’s Green Power Program.

Appalachian Power’s “green pricing” program is even worse, offering RECs from an 80 MW hydroelectric dam in West Virginia. No wind, and no solar.

Other REC programs are available to Virginia consumers. If you’re considering this route, read this post first.

The State Corporation Commission has ruled that REC-based programs do not qualify as selling renewable energy, so under the terms of §56-577(A)(6), customers are currently permitted to turn to other licensed suppliers of electric energy “to purchase electric energy provided 100 percent from renewable energy.”

So you should be able to go elsewhere to buy wind and solar—say, from a solar facility on someone else’s land, or even from a facility on your own rooftop that someone else owns and operates for you. (For more on that, see section 10 on third-party power purchase agreements.) But Virginia utilities claim that the statute’s words mean that not only must another licensed supplier provide 100% renewable energy, it must also supply 100% of the customer’s demand, all the time. Obviously, the owner of a wind farm or solar facility cannot do that. Ergo, say the utilities, a customer cannot go elsewhere.

On August 31, however, a hearing examiner for the SCC rejected this reading. If the SCC agrees, Virginia residents might have new options.

Anticipating the possibility of an adverse ruling from the SCC, this spring APCo filed a proposal with the SCC for a new tariff under of §56-577(A)(6). Instead of RECs, APCo now proposes to offer real green power, combining wind, solar and hydro. None of the power will come from new projects; partly as a result, the tariff will cost more. The SCC will hold a hearing on the proposal this fall. If approved, APCo customers would finally be able to order renewable energy from their utility. But it would also likely close off customers’ ability under the statute to turn to other suppliers of renewable energy.

Dominion has not yet followed APCo’s lead on this one. If the SCC rules that the statute means what it says, we would expect Dominion to offer a green power program consisting of true renewable energy. Indeed, Dominion seems to be working on a green tariff this fall that it is calling “community solar” (see next session). Its real interest may well be the same as APCo’s.

We hope the SCC will require both APCo and Dominion to follow best practices recommended by groups like Advanced Energy Economy Institute: “Utility renewable energy tariff programs must require that utilities build, purchase or contract for a portfolio of renewable energy through a competitive process, and charge customers according to the actual cost of the portfolio, whether that be a net premium or net savings for customers.”

  1. Community solar? Not hardly

Last year Dominion received SCC approval for a program it billed as an offer to sell electricity from solar panels. Notwithstanding its name, however, the “Dominion Community Solar” program is not an offer to sell electricity generated from solar energy, and reading the details, one can only conclude it would attract customers only to the extent they were deceived about it. Perhaps someone within Dominion pointed out to the brass how close this looks to consumer fraud; at any rate, a year has passed and the company still hasn’t launched it.

As for true community solar, only one Virginia utility offers it: a member-owned rural electric cooperative in southwestern Virginia called BARC. The rest of you are out of luck at the moment. Every year for the past several years, legislation has been introduced to support community solar, and every year it has died in the face of utility opposition.

A few bills this year would have enabled community solar, but they were “carried over to 2017”—i.e., killed. A small working group put together by the solar industry association and the utilities is currently trying to come up with a program that utilities will find acceptable. The group has issued a “Request for Information,” available online, and is holding public meetings this fall to get input on a proposal that looks much more like a green tariff than like community solar. (Clearly Dominion likes the name “community solar”–just not, you know, actual community solar.) Another group, the Distributed Solar Collaborative, which includes all stakeholders except utilities, is also evaluating models from other states and plans to put forward a true community solar alternative.

  1. Virginia’s Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) is a miserable sham

Many advocates focus on an RPS as a vehicle for inducing demand. In Virginia, that’s a mistake. Virginia has only a voluntary RPS, which means utilities have the option of participating but don’t have to. Any costs they incur in meeting the goals can be charged to ratepayers. Until a few years ago, utilities even got to collect bonus money as a reward for virtue, until it became clear that there was nothing very virtuous going on.

Making our RPS mandatory rather than voluntary would do nothing for wind and solar in Virginia without a complete overhaul. The statute takes a kitchen-sink approach to what counts as renewable energy, so meeting it requires no new investment and no wind or solar.

The targets are also modest to a fault. Although nominally promising 15% renewables by 2025, the statute sets a 2007 baseline and contains a sleight-of-hand in the definitions section by which the target is applied only to the amount of energy not produced by nuclear plants. The combined result is an effective 2025 target of about 7%.

The RPS is as impotent in practice as it is in theory. In the case of Dominion Virginia Power, the RPS has been met largely with old hydro projects built prior to World War II, trash incinerators, and wood burning, plus a small amount of landfill gas and—a Virginia peculiarity—RECs representing R&D rather than electric generation.

There appears to be no appetite in the General Assembly for making the RPS mandatory, and efforts to improve the voluntary goals have repeatedly failed in the face of utility or industry opposition. The utilities have offered no arguments why the goals should not be limited to new, high-value, in-state renewable projects, other than that it would cost more to meet them than to buy junk RECs.

But with the GA hostile to a mandatory RPS and too many parties with vested interests in keeping the kitchen-sink approach going, it is hard to imagine our RPS becoming transformed into a useful tool to incentivize wind and solar.

That doesn’t mean there is no role for legislatively-mandated wind and solar. But it would be easier to pass a bill with a simple, straightforward mandate for buying or building a certain number of megawatts than it would be to repair a hopelessly broken RPS.

  1. Customer-owned generation: for most, the only game in town

Given the lack of wind or solar options from utilities, people who want renewable energy generally have to build it themselves. A federal 30% tax credit makes it cost-effective for those with cash or access to low-cost financing, and bulk purchasing through nonprofits VA-SUN and LEAP makes the process easier and reduces costs.

Last year the GA passed legislation enabling Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) loans for commercial customers. Localities now have an option to offer low-cost financing for energy efficiency and renewable energy projects at the commercial level. A bill to extend PACE authorization to residential customers did not get out of committee this year.

Virginia offers no cash incentives or tax credits for wind or solar. The Virginia legislature passed a bill in 2014 that would offer an incentive, initially as a tax credit and then as a grant program, but it did not receive funding. The same bill, reintroduced in 2015, died in a subcommittee.

The lack of a true RPS in Virginia means Virginia utilities generally will not buy solar renewable energy certificates (SRECs) from customers. SRECs generated here can sometimes be sold to utilities in other states (as of now only Pennsylvania) or to brokers who sell to voluntary purchasers.

  1. Limits to net metering hamper growth

Section 56-594 of the Virginia code allows utility customers with wind and solar projects to net energy meter. System owners get credit from their utility for surplus electricity that’s fed into the grid at times of high output. That offsets the grid power they draw on when their systems are producing less than they need. Their monthly bills reflect only the net energy they draw from the grid.

If a system produces more than the customer uses in a month, the credits roll over to the next month. However, at the end of the year, the customer will be paid for any excess credits only by entering a power purchase agreement with the utility. This will likely be for a price that represents the utility’s “avoided cost” of about 4.5 cents, rather than the retail rate, which for homeowners is closer to 12 cents. This effectively stops most people from installing larger systems than they can use themselves.

Legislation passed in 2015 makes it less likely that new solar owners will have any surplus. At Dominion’s insistence, the definition of “eligible customer-generator” was amended to limit system sizes to no larger than needed to meet the customers demand, based on the previous 12 months of billing history. The SCC wrote implementing regulations (see 20VAC5-315-10 et seq.) but failed to address what happens with new construction. The solar trade association MDV-SEIA continues to work towards a solution to that problem.

The new limitation is a problem for other reasons as well. Some solar customers want to install larger systems than they previously needed because their business is expanding or they plan to buy an electric car. But the limitation is also stupid. If customers want to install more clean, renewable energy than they need and are willing to sell the surplus electricity into the grid at the wholesale power price, why would you stop them from performing this service to society? I can understand that the paperwork isn’t worth the hassle for very small amounts of excess electricity, but if there isn’t an app for that yet, I bet some Virginia Tech students could make one.

  1. Aggregated net metering allowed for farms only

Under a bill introduced by Delegate Randy Minchew (R-Leesburg) and passed in 2013, owners of Virginia farms with more than one electric meter are permitted to attribute the electricity produced by a system that serves one meter (say, on a barn) to other meters on the property (the farmhouse and other outbuildings). This is referred to as “agricultural net metering.” Efforts to expand aggregated net metering beyond farms have not succeeded.

  1. Standby charges hobble the market for larger home systems and electric cars

Dominion Power and Appalachian Power are at the forefront of a national pushback against policies like net metering that facilitate customer-owned generation.

The current system capacity limit for net-metered solar installations is 1 MW for commercial, 20 kW for residential. However, for residential systems between 10 kW and 20 kW, a utility is allowed to apply to the State Corporation Commission to impose a “standby” charge on those customers.

Seizing the opportunity, Dominion won the right to impose a standby charge of up to about $60 per month on these larger systems, eviscerating the market for them just as electric cars were increasing interest in larger systems. (SCC case PUE- 2011-00088.) Legislative efforts to roll back the standby charges were unsuccessful, and more recently, Appalachian Power instituted even more extreme standby charges. (PUE-2014-00026.)

The standby charges supposedly represent the extra costs to the grid for transmission and distribution, though there is a great deal of disagreement on that score, and a lot of suspicion that utilities’ real concern is that they will make less money as demand for their dirty energy product falls.

In the summer of 2013, in a filing with the SCC (PUE-2012-00064, Virginia Electric and Power Company’s Net Metering Generation Impacts Report), Dominion claimed it could also justify standby charges for its generation costs, and indicated it expected to seek them after a year of operating its Solar Purchase Program (see discussion below). As far as I can tell, it hasn’t carried out this threat yet, and it would likely need legislation to do so.

  1. Good news for residential solar: homeowner association bans are largely a thing of the past

Homeowner association (HOA) bans and restrictions on solar systems have been a problem for residential solar. In the 2014 session, the legislature nullified bans as contrary to public policy. The law contains an exception for bans that are recorded in the land deeds, but this is said to be highly unusual; most bans are simply written into HOA covenants. In April of 2015 the Virginia Attorney issued an opinion letter confirming that unrecorded HOA bans on solar are no longer legal.

Even where HOAs cannot ban solar installations, they can impose “reasonable restrictions concerning the size, place and manner of placement.” This language is undefined. The Maryland-DC-Virginia Solar Energy Industries Association has published a guide for HOAs on this topic.

  1. Virginia utilities continue their fight against PPAs; now a losing battle?

One of the primary drivers of solar installations in other states has been third-party ownership of the systems, including third-party power purchase agreements (PPAs), under which the customer pays only for the power produced by the system. For customers that pay no taxes, including non-profit entities like churches and colleges, this is especially important because they can’t use the 30% federal tax credit to reduce the cost of the system if they purchase it directly. Under a PPA, the system owner can take the tax credit (as well as accelerated depreciation) and pass along the savings in the form of a lower electricity price.

The Virginia Code seems to sanction this approach to financing solar facilities in its net metering provisions, specifically §56-594, which authorizes a “customer generator” to net meter, and defines an eligible customer generator as “a customer that owns and operates, or contracts with other persons to own or operate, or both, an electrical generating facility that . . . uses as its total source of fuel renewable energy. . . “

Notwithstanding this provision, in 2011, when Washington & Lee University attempted to use a PPA to finance a solar array on its campus, Dominion Virginia Power issued cease and desist letters to the university and its Staunton-based solar provider, Secure Futures LLC. Dominion claimed the arrangement violated its monopoly on power sales within its territory. Secure Futures and the university thought that even if what was really just a financing arrangement somehow fell afoul of Dominion’s monopoly, surely they were covered by the exception in §56-577(A)(6) available to customers whose own utilities do not offer 100% renewable energy. (See Section 2, above.)

Yet the threat of prolonged and costly litigation was too much. The parties turned the PPA contract into a lease, allowing the solar installation to proceed but without the advantages of a PPA.

After a long and very public fight in the legislature and the press, in 2013 Dominion and the solar industry negotiated a compromise that specifically allows customers in Dominion territory to use third-party PPAs to install solar or wind projects under a pilot program capped at 50 MW. Projects must have a minimum size of 50 kW, unless the customer is a tax-exempt entity, in which case there is no minimum. Projects can be as large as 1 MW. The SCC is supposed to review the program every two years beginning in 2015 and has authority to make changes to it. I’m not aware the SCC has reviewed the program to date.

Appalachian Power and the electric cooperatives declined to participate in the PPA deal-making, so the legal uncertainty about PPAs continues in their territories. In June of 2015, Appalachian Power proposed an alternative to PPAs. An evidentiary hearing was held September 29, 2015. A veritable parade of witnesses testified that APCo”s program was expensive, unworkable and unnecessary, given the plain language of the statute allowing PPAs.

Almost a year later, on August 31, 2016, the hearing examiner finally issued her report, recommending that APCo’s application be rejected, both because it is a lousy program and because she, too, reads the Code to allow PPAs currently, making a utility alternative unnecessary. If the commissioners agree with her, this would be a victory for the solar industry and customers. How useful it will be depends on the scope of the final order, however, and on how they view APCo’s effort to close off the opening afforded by §56-577(A)(6) by offering its own renewable energy product.

The problem cries out for a legislative fix. Advocates pushed hard for legislation this year that would open the Virginia market to private investment through third-party PPAs; but as previously noted, the Commerce and Labor committees ducked their responsibilities and failed to act on the bills.

Meanwhile, Secure Futures has developed a third-party-ownership business model that it says works like a PPA for tax purposes but does not include the sale of electricity, and therefore should not trigger a challenge from Appalachian Power or other utilities. Currently Secure Futures is the only solar provider offering this option, which it calls a Customer Self-Generation Agreement.

  1. Tax exemption for third-party owned solar proves a market driver

In 2014 the General Assembly passed a law exempting solar generating equipment “owned or operated by a business” from state and local taxation for installations up to 20 MW. It did this by classifying solar equipment as “pollution abatement equipment.” Note that this applies only to the equipment, not to the buildings or land underlying the installation, so real estate taxes aren’t affected.

The law was a response to a problem that local “machinery and tools” taxes were mostly so high as to make third-party PPAs uneconomic in Virginia. In a state where solar was already on the margin, the tax could be a deal-breaker.

The 20 MW cap was included at the request of the Virginia Municipal League and the Virginia Association of Counties, and it seemed at the time like such a high cap as to be irrelevant. However, with solar increasingly attractive economically, Virginia’s tax exemption rapidly became a draw for solar developers, including Virginia utilities.

In 2016 Dominion proposed changing the exemption to benefit its own projects at the expense of those of independent developers. In the end, the statute was amended in a way that benefits utility-scale projects without unduly harming smaller projects. Many new projects will now be only 80% exempt, rather than entirely exempt. However, the details are complex, with different timelines and different size classes, and anyone looking to use this provision should study it carefully.

  1. Dominion “Solar Partnership” Program encounters limited success

In 2011, the General Assembly passed a law allowing Dominion to build up to 30 MW of solar energy on leased property, such as roof space on a college or commercial establishment. The SCC approved $80 million of spending, to be partially offset by selling the RECs (meaning the solar energy would not be used to meet Virginia’s RPS goals). The program has resulted in several commercial-scale projects on university campuses and corporate buildings. Unfortunately, it has also been plagued by delays and over-spending.

The program was supposed to proceed in two phases, with 10 MW in place by the end of 2013, and another 20 MW by December 31, 2015. However, the program got off to a very slow start. In August of 2014 the company acknowledged it was behind schedule and would likely not achieve more than 13 or 14 MW of the 30 MW authorized before it ran out of money. On May 7, 2015 Dominion filed a notice with the SCC that it needed to extend the phase 2 end date to December 31, 2016, and confirmed that it would install less than 20 MW altogether.

Although Dominion’s web page suggests that it is still taking applications, I’m doubtful.

  1. Dominion’s Solar Purchase Program: bad for sellers, bad for buyers, and not popular with anyone

The same legislation that enabled the “Solar Partnership” initiative also authorized Dominion to establish “an alternative to net metering” as part of the demonstration program. The alternative turned out to be a buy-all, sell-all deal for up to 3 MW of customer-owned solar. As approved by the SCC, the program allows owners of small solar systems on homes and businesses to sell the power and the associated RECs to Dominion at 15 cents/kWh, while buying regular grid power at retail for their own use. Dominion then sells the power to the Green Power Program at an enormous markup.

I ripped this program from the perspective of the Green Power Program buyers, but the program is also a bad deal for most sellers. Some installers who have looked at it say it’s not worth the hassle given the costs involved and the likelihood that the payments represent taxable income to the homeowner. There is also a possibility that selling the electricity may make homeowners ineligible for the 30% federal tax credit on the purchase of their system. Sellers beware.

And then there’s the problem that selling the solar power means you aren’t powering your home or business with solar—which is the whole point of installing it, right?

  1. Dominion’s Renewable Generation tariff for large users of energy finds no takers; Amazon forces a change, with a new tariff in the works that will be available to others

Currently non-utility renewable energy facilities are subject to a size limit of 1 MW for net-metered projects. These limitations constrain universities, corporations, data centers, and other large users of energy that might want to run on wind or solar. On top of this, the utilities’ interpretation of Virginia law prohibits a developer from building a wind farm or a solar array and selling the power directly to users under a power purchase agreement.

In 2013, Dominion Power rolled out a Renewable Generation Tariff (PUE-2012-00142) to allow customers to buy larger amounts of renewable power from providers, with the utility acting as a go-between and collecting a monthly administrative fee.

From the start the program appeared cumbersome and bureaucratic, and Dominion confirmed to me this summer that they have never had any takers. Then suddenly last year, Amazon Web Services made Dominion’s tariff irrelevant. Amazon contracted directly with a developer for an 80 MW solar farm, avoiding Dominion’s monopoly restrictions with a plan to sell the electricity directly into the PJM (wholesale) market. Dominion Energy (an affiliate of Dominion Virginia Power) then bought the project, and Dominion Virginia Power negotiated a special rate with Amazon for the power. This contract became the basis for an “experimental” tariff that Dominion proposes to offer to customers with a peak demand of 5 MW or more, with a program cap of 200 MW. A hearing examiner at the SCC has recommended approval of the special rate.

Dominion used a different model for its deal this year with Microsoft. After the SCC turned down Dominion’s application to charge ratepayers for a 20-MW solar farm in Remington, Virginia, Dominion reached an agreement with Microsoft and the Commonwealth of Virginia under which the state will buy the output of the project, while Microsoft buys the RECs.

Dominion has a strong incentive to make deals with large corporations that want a lot of renewable energy: if they don’t like what Dominion is offering, they can do an end run around the utility. Amazon has shown other companies how to use PJM rules that let anyone develop projects for the wholesale market regardless of utility monopolies, and then “attribute” the solar or wind energy to their operations in any state. With the tax exemption discussed in section 11, Virginia projects apparently now pencil out pretty well.

  1. Dominion moves into utility-scale solar

Well before Amazon and Microsoft showed an interest in large-scale solar projects here, Dominion had announced it wanted to develop 400 MW of solar in Virginia. In 2015, at the utility’s behest, two bills promoted the construction of utility-scale solar by declaring it in the public interest for utilities to build solar energy projects of at least 1 MW, and up to an aggregate of 500 MW. The bill was amended at the solar industry’s behest to allow utilities the alternative of entering into PPAs for solar power prior to purchasing the generation facilities at a later date, an option with significant tax advantages.

Dominion’s first solar project will be a 20 MW solar farm in Remington, Virginia; however, the SCC rejected the company’s plan to charge ratepayers for the project because the company had not considered cheaper third-party alternatives. Governor McAuliffe helped save the project by working out a deal with Microsoft, as discussed above. Meanwhile, Dominion had also solicited bids for additional projects. To date, three have been announced, totaling 56 MW.

Although Dominion will be able to charge ratepayers for these projects, the SCC insists that the RECs be sold—whether to utilities in other states that have RPS obligations, or to customers who want them for their own sustainability goals, or perhaps even to voluntary green power customers. The result is that Dominion still won’t have any solar in its fuel mix. That’s the weird world of RECs for you.

  1. Governor McAuliffe promises the state will purchase 110 MW of solar

Following a recommendation by the Governor’s Climate Change and Resiliency Commission, on December 21, 2015, Governor McAuliffe announced that the Commonwealth would commit to procuring 8% of its electricity from solar, with 75% of that built by Dominion and 25% by private developers.

The first deal that will count towards this goal is an 18 MW project at Naval Station Oceana, announced on August 2, 2016. The Commonwealth will buy the power and the RECs. (The Remington Project did not count, because as the buyer of the RECs, only Microsoft can claim the right to be buying solar power.)

  1. Will a Solar Development Authority help?

One of the MacAuliffe Administration’s initiatives last year was a bill to establish the Virginia Solar Development Authority. The Authority is explicitly tasked with helping utilities find financing for solar projects; there is no similar language about supporting customer-owned solar. So far, nothing seems to have come of it.

  1. Any wind energy yet? Nope, still waiting

No Virginia utility is actively moving forward with a wind farm on land. Dominion Power’s website used to list 248 MW of land-based wind in Virginia as “under development,” without any noticeable progress. Now it just says 247 MW are “being evaluated.” That’s closer to reality, but they probably should put it in the past tense. There has been a lot of press about the standoff in Tazewell County, where supervisors blocked Dominion’s proposed wind farm. Today, Dominion’s advocacy for its project feels perfunctory. The company has signaled it prefers solar, and its 2016 IRP dismisses wind as too costly.

On the other hand, Appalachian Power’s IRP suggests an interest in wind as a low-cost renewable resource. The bad news is that it isn’t proposing to build any new wind in Virginia.

With no utility buyers, Virginia has not been a friendly place for independent wind developers. In previous years a few wind farm proposals made it to the permitting stage before being abandoned, including in Highland County and on Poor Mountain near Roanoke.

Nonetheless, Apex Clean Energy is in the development stages for the 75-MW Rocky Forge wind farm in Botetourt County. No customer has been announced, but the company believes the project can produce electricity at a competitive price, given its good location and improved turbine technology. Construction is planned for 2017.

As for Virginia’s great offshore wind resource, little progress has been made towards harnessing it, even as the nation’s first offshore wind project will begin generating electricity this fall in the waters off Rhode Island. In 2013 Dominion won the federal auction for the right to develop about 2,000 MW of wind power off Virginia Beach, and the company completed a Site Assessment Plan (SAP) this spring.

We had originally been told the federal government’s timeline would lead to wind turbines being built off Virginia Beach around 2020. Now, however, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management says Dominion has five years from approval of the SAP to submit its construction and operations plan, after which we’ll have to wait for review and approval. Presumably the project will also require an environmental impact statement. So the whole process would be quite slow even if Dominion were committed to moving forward expeditiously. But in fact, it seems increasingly clear that Dominion is just going through the motions and has no interest in seeing the project through. Its 2016 Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) does not even include offshore wind in any of its scenarios for the next 15 years, except for the 12 MW that would be produced by the two test turbines of its VOWTAP project.

Yes, so what about VOWTAP? Dominion had been part of a Department of Energy-funded team to try out new technology, with the pilot turbines due to be installed in 2017. After a second round of bids to build the project still came in higher than expected, Dominion told DOE this spring it could not commit to construction even by 2020, upon which DOE pulled funding. Dominion executives swear the project isn’t necessarily dead, but that puts me in mind of the “ex-parrot” in the Monty Python skit, still on its perch only because it’s been nailed there.

  1. The Clean Power Plan tries to make it better to switch than fight

On August 3, 2015, EPA issued the final rule known as the Clean Power Plan. Under the rule, states with existing fossil-fuel generating plants must develop plans to reduce total carbon pollution from power plants, which could include using renewable energy as an offset to fossil fuel. In Virginia, the task of developing a state implementation plan (SIP) falls to the Department of Environmental Quality. Earlier this year the Supreme Court stayed implementation of the EPA rule while a Circuit Court considers a challenge, following which Virginia Republicans pushed through a budget provision prohibiting DEQ from developing a SIP while the federal rule is stayed.

Assuming the Clean Power Plan survives challenge, it could help incentivize construction of wind and solar facilities. While Virginia’s goals under the plan are modest, the rule means the state, utilities and the SCC must for the first time take carbon emissions into account in their planning. The EPA has signaled a strong interest in seeing wind and solar deployed as solutions.

Sierra Club scorecard plumbs divisions among Virginia legislators

SC ScorecardBy and large, Virginia Republicans are still locked in a fossil fuel echo chamber, where “all of the above” and “war on coal” guide their votes. Virginia Democrats mostly acknowledge the damage climate change is doing to the commonwealth and around the planet and support a course correction. And regardless of ideology, large majorities from both parties vote for whatever Dominion Power wants.

These are the major takeaways from this year’s legislative session and the 2016 Climate and Energy Scorecard, just released by the Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club. Constituents and clean energy advocates will want to look at not just the raw grades of individual legislators, but also the discussion provided in the report, to understand the dynamics of our General Assembly.

Twenty-eight Democrats earned perfect scores. All but a handful of Republicans earned failing grades. Sierra Club gave extra credit to legislators who introduced bills that advanced clean energy. This included several Republicans highlighted in the scorecard, but their bad votes on other bills dragged down their overall scores.

This is really a shame, since some Republicans have worked hard to advance clean energy legislation. Leesburg Delegate Randy Minchew comes to mind here for his dogged efforts on behalf of distributed solar energy, something you might not guess from his overall grade of D.

Often, it seems, reform-minded Republicans go along with their party’s more retrograde positions where they are pressured to do so by their party leaders, or where the votes are so lopsided that there is nothing to gain from breaking with the majority.

If party leaders have an outsize influence on voting, so too does Dominion Power. In fact, if you want to know who the true champions of the people are, don’t look at party affiliation. Look for the few legislators who will stand up to the most powerful political force in Richmond.

That assumes you can find votes to examine. In the introduction to the Sierra Club scorecard, Legislative Chair Susan Stillman noted with frustration this year’s paucity of recorded votes available to score:

The challenges of producing a fair and even scorecard are growing, as are the opportunities for Virginia citizens to have a clear and accurate picture of their elected representative’s voting record. Transparency in the General Assembly sunk to a new low this year: 95% of the bills defeated in the House of Delegates were done so on an unrecorded vote or no vote at all. This is not business-as-usual: just over a decade ago, nearly every bill that passed through the House received a recorded vote.

An ongoing problem, both for scorecard referees and for clean energy advocates, is that most bills that would advance the cause of renewable energy and energy efficiency never make it out of committee; in the House, the bills are heard in a tiny subcommittee. Not only do votes go unrecorded, but this approach deprives most of our elected representatives of the opportunity to vote on some of the most important energy policy issues facing Virginia.

And then there was this year, in which even the subcommittee members never got a chance to vote. A dozen or so of the most promising clean energy bills were never heard at all, but were sent to a newly-formed interim study subcommittee, ostensibly for the purpose of giving these bills the benefit of greater deliberation. The effect was to kill them quietly for the year.

As Stillman notes, all these unrecorded votes make it hard to know where the vast majority of legislators stand:

Without a recorded vote, the public is deprived of the full measure of his or her elected official’s voting history. And the problem of unrecorded votes is growing worse. This year’s unprecedented rate of unrecorded votes in the House is up from 76% in 2015—a 25% jump in one year. Virginia legislators are killing more bills than ever without accountability for their actions. This practice is wrong, and it’s dangerous for our democracy.

Stillman gives a shout-out to the founding members of the new, bipartisan Transparency Caucus for its efforts to make all votes public and ensure every bill gets a hearing.

These would be modest reforms, but welcome. If sunlight is the best disinfectant, there’s a big, dirty House (and Senate) in Richmond that need cleaning.

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.