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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

(7)

$44

(20)

$104

(1)

2 Rhode Island $259 $107

(39)

$61

(5)

$91

(4)

3 Massachusetts $253 $115

(34)

$60

(6)

$78

(6)

4 Alaska $241 $129

(20)

$53

(13)

$59

(7)

5 New Hampshire $234 $127

(25)

$20

(44)

$87

(5)

6 Vermont $231 $120

(30)

$18

(48)

$93

(3)

7 New York $220 $115

(32)

$66

(3)

$39

(9)

8 Maine $217 $107

(40)

$6

(49)

$104

(2)

9 Pennsylvania $211 $121

(28)

$50

(15)

$40

(8)

10 Maryland $209 $145

(13)

$43

(22)

$21

(11)

11 Delaware $208 $152

(9)

$37

(26)

$19

(12)

12 Georgia $203 $157

(6)

$46

(19)

$0

(42)

13 New Jersey $200 $115

(33)

$63

(4)

$22

(10)

14 Alabama $197 $171

(3)

$26

(40)

$0

(39)

15 South Carolina $196 $177

(1)

$19

(47)

$0

(32)

16 Mississippi $184 $163

(4)

$21

(43)

$0

(49)

17 Ohio $183 $120

(29)

$59

(7)

$4

(19)

18 Virginia $182 $141

(14)

$31

(32)

$10

(13)

18 Hawaii $182 $177

(2)

$5

(50)

$0

(51)

20 Kansas $181 $125

(27)

$56

(11)

$0

(47)

21 Michigan $180 $106

(43)

$72

(2)

$2

(25)

22 North Dakota $179 $140

(15)

$32

(31)

$7

(15)

22 Texas $179 $155

(8)

$24

(41)

$0

(50)

24 Missouri $178 $134

(18)

$44

(21)

$0

(36)

25 Indiana $177 $129

(21)

$47

(17)

$1

(29)

26 Illinois $176 $96

(47)

$80

(1)

$0

(35)

27 Oklahoma $175 $135

(17)

$40

(24)

$0

(43)

28 Tennessee $174 $147

(10)

$27

(37)

$0

(37)

29 Wisconsin $171 $109

(37)

$57

(9)

$5

(17)

30 Minnesota $170 $108

(38)

$57

(10)

$5

(16)

31 Louisiana $169 $146

(11)

$23

(42)

$0

(46)

32 North Carolina $168 $145

(12)

$20

(45)

$3

(22)

33 Kentucky $167 $136

(16)

$30

(34)

$1

(30)

33 South Dakota $167 $129

(23)

$34

(28)

$4

(20)

35 Florida $164 $160

(5)

$4

(51)

$0

(44)

36 West Virginia $162 $126

(26)

$32

(30)

$4

(18)

36 Iowa $162 $109

(36)

$52

(14)

$1

(27)

38 Nevada $161 $128

(24)

$33

(29)

$0

(31)

38 Nebraska $161 $119

(31)

$42

(23)

$0

(33)

40 Arkansas $158 $129

(22)

$29

(36)

$0

(41)

41 Wyoming $154 $107

(41)

$46

(18)

$1

(28)

42 Arizona $153 $134

(19)

$19

(46)

$0

(48)

43 District of Columbia $148 $82

(51)

$58

(8)

$8

(14)

44 Idaho $146 $113

(35)

$30

(35)

$3

(23)

45 Montana $145 $103

(44)

$40

(25)

$2

(26)

46 Utah $144 $89

(49)

$55

(12)

$0

(34)

47 Colorado $141 $92

(48)

$49

(16)

$0

(38)

48 Oregon $135 $107

(42)

$26

(38)

$2

(24)

49 California $126 $96

(45)

$30

(33)

$0

(40)

50 Washington $125 $96

(46)

$26

(39)

$3

(21)

51 New Mexico $124 $88

(50)

$36

(27)

$0

(45)

 

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

______________________________

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

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

 

Does Dominion buy votes? Sure, but not the way you think.

By Djembayz – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=26128831

Observers, critics, and even legislators agree that utility giant Dominion Resources is the single most powerful force in the Virginia General Assembly. It gets the legislation passed that it wants, and it almost always succeeds in killing bills it doesn’t like. Media stories point out one reason for this huge influence: the company gives more money to political campaigns than does any other individual or corporation.

But it’s more complicated than that. Dominion distributes its largesse among Republicans and Democrats alike according to rank and power, not according to party affiliation, and not according to how they vote. Legislators stay on the gravy train even when they occasionally vote against Dominion’s interests. (No lawmaker consistently votes against Dominion’s interests. That would be weird. It is, after all, a utility.)

In the General Assembly, the most money goes to members of the Senate and House Commerce and Labor Committees, which hear most of the bills affecting energy policy. But Dominion also donates to the campaigns of nearly every incumbent lawmaker, regardless of committee assignment. It does not, however, donate to their challengers. Only to the victors go the spoils.

So today let’s look at some of the lucky recipients of Dominion’s money. This information comes from the Virginia Public Access Project, vpap.org, supplemented by information available on the General Assembly website. 

Legislators whose campaigns have received more than $50,000 from Dominion (lifetime)

Recipient Party District number and region Total $ from Dominion 2014-2015 election cycle
Sen. Saslaw D 35  NoVa (Fairfax/Falls Church) 298,008 57,500
Del. Kilgore R 1    Southwest 162,000 35,000
Sen. Deeds D 25   Piedmont 109,700 1,500
Sen. Norment R 3    Middle Peninsula/Tidewater 107,740 21,500
Del. Cox* R 66   Central 90,799 29,099
Sen. Wagner R 7    Tidewater 79,735 26,885
Del. Plum** D 36   NoVa 78,750 4,000
Del. Hugo R 40  NoVa 54,400 11,000
Sen. Obenshain R 26  Shenandoah Valley 51,000 5,000

Notes:

  • Lifetime totals may include more than one campaign committee. Creigh Deeds collected money for Delegate, Senate, AG and Governor’s races, which explains how he racked up this much in donations; he was also formerly a member of Commerce and Labor, but by 2014 he’d been removed from the committee.
  • I chose 2014-2015 as a single election cycle comparison because both House and Senate seats were up that year.
  • *Cox is not on Commerce and Labor but is House Majority Leader, a position that propelled him into the ranks of top Dominion recipients.
  • **Plum is a former member of House Commerce and Labor and currently a member of the Commission on Electric Utility Regulation. (Other Commission members include Delegates Kilgore, Hugo, Miller, Villanueva and James; and Senators Norment, Lucas, Saslaw and Wagner.)

Saslaw, Kilgore, Norment, Wagner, Hugo and Obenshain all sit on the Commerce and Labor committees that hear most of the bills affecting Dominion’s business dealings. Wagner chairs Senate C&L and runs it as his personal fiefdom; Saslaw did the same when Democrats held the Senate. He will be Chairman again if control switches back. In addition to sitting on Senate C&L, Norment is the Senate Majority Leader.

Kilgore chairs House C&L, and like Wagner, he controls not just the docket but usually the outcome of votes. Hugo is House Majority Caucus Chairman in addition to being a member of C&L.

These powerful men (they are all men, and all white) get the biggest donations, but anyone with a seat on the committee can expect to collect donations from Dominion.

Dominion donations to Commerce and Labor Committee members

Senate

Senator Party District number and region Total $ from Dominion 2014-2015 election cycle
Wagner (Chair) R 7  Tidewater 81,985 26,885
Saslaw (former Chair, Minority Leader) D 35  NoVa (Fairfax/Falls Church) 298,008 57,500
Norment R 3    Middle Peninsula to Tidewater 107,740 21,500
Newman R 23 Roanoke area 20,500 3,000
Obenshain R 26  Shenandoah Valley 51,000 5,000
Stuart R 28  Fredericksburg area 20,750 6,000
Stanley R 20  Southside 19,500 9,000
Cosgrove R 14  Tidewater 7,000 2,000
Chafin R 38  Southwest 10,500 6,500
Dance D 16  Central 25,692 9,000
Lucas D 18  Tidewater 31,950 5,200
McDougle R 4    Central 47,250 10,000
Black R 13  NoVa (outer suburbs) 9,750 1,000
Sturtevant* R 10  Central 4,000
Spruill D 5    Tidewater 35,419 4,200

*Sturtevant joined the Senate in 2016.

House Commerce and Labor Special Subcommittee on Energy

Delegate Party District number, region Total $ from Dominion 2014-2015 cycle
Kilgore (Chair) R 1    Southwest 162,000 (top) 35,000
Byron R 22  Southwest 24,500 4,000
Ware, L. R 65  Central 26,800 4,000
Hugo R 40  NoVa 54,400 11,000
Marshall, D.W. R 14  Southside 20,250 5,000
Cline R 24  West (Lexington area) 13,750 3,000
Miller, J R 50  NoVa (western suburbs) 29,000 7,500
Loupassi R 68  Central 20,000 5,000
Habeeb R 8    Southwest 12,500 5,000
Villanueva R 21  Tidewater 11,000 3,500
Tyler D 75  Southside 17,000 4,000
Keam D 35  NoVa 8,750 2,750
Lindsey D 90  Tidewater 3,300 2,300

Other House Commerce and Labor members (not on energy subcommittee)

Delegate Party District number, region Total $ from Dominion 2014-2015 cycle
Bell, Robert B. R 58  Piedmont 14,500 3,500
Farrell* R 56  Central 0 0
O’Quinn R 5    Southwest 6,500 3,000
Yancey R 94  Tidewater 10,000 3,500
Ransone R 99  Northern Neck 8,500 2,500
Ward, J D 92  Tidewater 23,500 5,000
Filler-Corn D 41  NoVa 10,500 3,000
Kory D 38  NoVa 6,250 1,000
Bagby D 74  Central 2,000 1,000
  • Names appear in the order they are listed on the General Assembly website for each committee. In the Senate, this reflects seniority; in the House, Republicans come first, and then seniority.
  • *Peter Farrell is the son of Thomas Farrell, II, CEO of Dominion Resources. He gets no cash from Dominion and abstains on votes that directly affect the utility. Those who worry that the family relationship might keep him off the gravy train will be relieved to know his dear old dad gives his campaign $10,000 a year, and more than a dozen other top Dominion executives also pitch in hundreds or thousands of dollars apiece annually to make sure he stays on the public payroll.

Compared to whom?

One problem with singling out Dominion is that it is only the biggest and most conspicuous player of the influence game. It has plenty of company. Appalachian Power Company (APCo) also donates generously to legislators in leadership positions and those on C&L. And our utilities are not exceptions. Richmond is awash in corporate cash.

So let’s look at Appalachian Power Company’s top dozen Senate and House recipients in 2014-2015. We can compare these amounts to what these guys (all men again) received from Dominion and Altria, another large Virginia company that isn’t in the utility business. And just for fun, I’ve added columns showing donations from the solar industry trade group MDV-SEIA and the environmental group Sierra Club.

Recipient Party APCo Dominion Altria MDV-SEIA** Sierra Club***
Sen. Saslaw D 20,000 57,500 27,500 1,000 0
Sen. McDougle R 15,000 10,000 26,500 0 0
Sen. Wagner R 12,500 26,885 10,500 2,500 0
Sen. Norment R 12,500 21,500 35,000 2,500 0
Del. Hugo R 10,000 11,000 2,500 500 0
Del. Cox R 10,000 29,099 0 0 0
Del. Kilgore R 7,500 35,000 2,000 0 0
Del. Miller R 6,500 7,500 2,000 0 0
Sen. Alexander* D 4,500 5,000 1,500 0 0
Del. Habeeb R 4,000 5,000 500 0 0
Sen. Obenshain R 2,500 5,000 1,000 0 0
Sen. Stanley R 3,600 9,000 6,000 0 0
  • *Kenny Alexander was a member of Senate Commerce and Labor in 2014 and 2015.
  • **MDV-SEIA donated to only five candidates in the 2014-2015 election cycle. In addition to the contributions shown, the association gave $2,500 to Delegate Villanueva.
  • ***Sierra Club-Va. Chapter made a total of $33,410 in campaign contributions during the 2014-2015 election cycle, but very few of its recipients sit on Commerce & Labor. Of those who do, Delegate Villanueva received the largest donation, $200. Sierra Club Legislative Director Corrina Beall notes that “most of Sierra Club’s donations are in-kind donations rather than cash donations. Our contributions are made in staff time spent communicating with our members and supporters about candidates who we have endorsed.”

What do you get if you’re not a big shot or on C&L?

Dominion gives to almost everyone; after all, bills that pass committee still have to go to the floor. I chose half a dozen lesser-known delegates at random to compare to the Commerce and Labor committee members. All have been in the General Assembly for at least six years.

Here’s what they got for the 2014-2015 legislative cycle. I threw in APCo and Altria for comparison.

$ From Dominion $ From APCo $ from Altria
Anderson, R (R) 2,000 275 1,000
Edmunds, J   (R) 1,500 0 1,000
Knight, B (R) 3,500 1,275 1,000
McQuinn, D (D) 3,750 1,500 500
Watts, V (D) 2,000 500 1,000
Helsel, G (R)* 0 0 1,000
  • *Helsel received $2,500 from Dominion in 2011-2012 but nothing since, and has never received money from APCo.

So the little people did about as well as the C&L members who aren’t on the energy subcommittee, but less well than the subcommittee members.

What does the money buy?

Legislators swear they don’t allow the money to influence their votes. And yet it seems obvious that donors expect that very thing. There’s a clear gap between what the donors think their money buys, and what legislators think they give in return. You might call this the “credibility gap.” And yet as I’ve observed before, if a few thousand bucks is enough to buy a vote, then the real scandal isn’t that legislators can be bought, but that they can be bought so cheaply. Obviously, there is more to it.

Defenders of unlimited campaign contributions like to think donors give money to candidates whose views they share, or to lawmakers who have done a good job in office and need the money to win election and continue doing a fabulous job. That seems to describe Sierra Club’s approach, but it certainly doesn’t describe Dominion’s. Dominion gives money to everyone, and almost none of the recipients need the money to stay in office.

According to VPAP, more than 50% of Virginia legislators ran unopposed during the last election. Only 10% of members had races that could be described as anything close to competitive (defined as a margin of less than 10%). Even if you totally approve of the job these legislators are doing, you don’t need to give them money to make sure they keep their seats. The only purpose of contributions to these members is to buy influence by helping them build power.

House Commerce and Labor Chairman Terry Kilgore, for example, has not had an opponent since 2007, when he took 72% of the vote. Yet since 2008, he has collected $135,500 from Dominion, among almost $2 million in contributions from all sources.

What does he do with all that money? VPAP shows that during the 2014-2015 season he spent some $80,000 on staff and political consultants, $50,000 on legal and accounting, $35,000 on fundraising (hello?), $23,000 on something called “Community Goodwill,” $22,000 on mail, printing and postage, $12,000 on “Legislative Session,” $11,000 on travel and meals, $28,000 on advertising, signage, and phone calls, and another $15,000 or so on other campaign-related things. All this for a part-time legislator running unopposed.

But the biggest expense Kilgore reported was not for his campaign, but for the campaigns of fellow Republicans. Donations to other candidates and party committees in 2014 and 2015 added up to about $174,000. Dominion’s money indirectly helps candidates who might have competitive campaigns; directly, it helps Kilgore build power and influence for himself.

We could do a similar analysis on the Democratic side with Senator Saslaw, who draws at least token opposition in every election but has never won by less than a 17-point margin. He still collected over a million dollars in campaign contributions in 2014-2015, and spent all but a fraction of it on donations to party committees and other candidates.

In both cases, and for all the other top recipients of Dominion’s cash, the campaign donations have nothing to do with candidates getting elected, and everything to do with securing the loyalty of legislative power brokers who, by doling out money themselves, can deliver the votes on Dominion-backed bills when needed. Rank-and-file legislators don’t vote for a Dominion bill because they got a $1,000 donation. They vote for a bill when their party leader tells them to, especially when that leader can remind them he’s helped direct tens of thousands of dollars to their campaigns.

And then there’s this troubling aspect . . .

I’d be remiss not to mention one other peculiarity of Virginia election law, which is that candidates are not prohibited from using campaign money for personal expenses. The Washington Post ran a series of outraged editorials about this a few years ago that is worth looking up (I wrote about it here). This same practice cost now-Vice President Mike Pence an election way back in 1990, when records showed Pence used campaign donations to pay his mortgage and other personal expenses. But here in Virginia, the Post’s revelations about Delegate Hugo paying his cell phone bills with campaign money produced neither repercussions nor changes in the law.

Some legislators introduce legislation every year to ban the use of campaign cash for private gain; every year it fails in an unrecorded subcommittee vote. See, e.g., Delegate Marcus Simon’s HB 1446 this year.

Why doesn’t anyone turn down the money?

It’s pretty hard to find legislators who don’t take Dominion’s money. The vast majority who do includes Senator Chap Petersen, who made news this year first by calling for a repeal of the 2015 boondoggle that will net Dominion a billion-dollar windfall at customer expense, and when that bill failed (in Senate Commerce & Labor, ahem), by calling for a ban on campaign contributions from public service corporations like Dominion. Petersen received $2,500 from Dominion in the 2014-2015 cycle, and another $1,000 in 2016. Of course, that was before the 2017 session brouhaha.

One legislator who has sworn off Dominion’s money is Delegate Rip Sullivan, an Arlington Democrat known for his bills to improve Virginia’s dismal achievements on energy efficiency—bills that Dominion opposes when they come before Commerce and Labor. (The only efficiency bill that passed this year is one from Senator Dance that merely requires tracking of energy efficiency progress. Sullivan’s identical House bill was killed in the House energy subcommittee.)

I asked Sullivan why he doesn’t take Dominion’s money. I liked his answer so much that I’ll give him the last word:

“I have very publicly made clear from the day I announced for the HOD that I would not take any money from Dominion. I have been equally clear that a major part of my agenda in RVA relates to climate and renewable energy–as you know, I’ve introduced numerous bills on renewable energy tax credits, community solar, energy efficiency, etc. . . .

“I have also made clear that I understand the reality that to make progress on these issues in the GA I will need to interact and hopefully work with Dominion. And I have tried to establish and maintain relationships there to hopefully facilitate dialogue, understanding and hopefully progress on environmental issues. But I never want there to be any question about where–or with whom–I stand on these issues, and I don’t want anyone questioning my motives or actions with any suggestion about getting money from Dominion. And, of course, I want Dominion to understand that I am not beholden to them in any way. Frankly, it’s just cleaner (pardon the pun) to not take Dominion money, and shame on me if I can’t find somewhere else anyway to raise the thousand bucks they’d give me.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Appalachian Power PPAs for private colleges only

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

Intellectual property

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

Storage, pumped or otherwise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

State’s failures on energy efficiency will now be tracked

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

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

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

Coal ash legislation watered down but passes

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

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

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

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.