Watch your wallets: Dominion getting license to build nation’s most expensive nuclear plant

Erica Gray, Nuclear Issues Chair of the Sierra Club, at a protest against Dominion’s planned North Anna 3 nuclear reactor. Photo courtesy of the Sierra Club.

The Richmond Times-Dispatch reports that within the next few days, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission will approve a Combined Operating License (COL) for Dominion Virginia Power’s third nuclear power plant planned for its North Anna site in Surry County, Virginia. That means that as far as the federal agency is concerned, North Anna 3 is good to go.

As far as Virginia residents are concerned, though, this project has gone way too far already. Dominion has poured hundreds of millions of dollars of ratepayers’ money into NA3, and that’s money we will never see again. But that’s better by far than moving forward with what would be the most expensive nuclear plant ever built in the United States.

Dominion Resources CEO Tom Farrell dearly wants this nuke precisely because of its price tag. The more expensive the plant, the greater the profit for Dominion, under the perverse incentives of Virginia law. Before Mr. Farrell gets his way, though, the State Corporation Commission has to issue a Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity (CPCN).

The SCC has repeatedly made its skepticism plain. As recently as December 2016 it reiterated its warning that if Dominion were to be allowed to recover the $19.3 billion investment from its customers, it would “represent a large enough increase in electric bills for residential and business customers to impact Virginia’s economic climate.”

There is no reason to think the SCC will change its opinion now. Unless, that is, the legislature does something stupid to force the SCC to approve NA3. Given the power Dominion has over Virginia’s General Assembly, this can’t be ruled out.

So let’s briefly review the reasons why absolutely no one should want this nuclear plant to go forward.

NA3 is a terrible deal for the people who would have to pay for it.

The Attorney General’s office has calculated that the $19 billion price tag for NA3 would increase the bills of Dominion customers by 25% beginning its first year in operation. And that’s if it somehow avoids the cost overruns that have plagued other nuclear plants in recent years.

For a case study in how bad the economics of nuclear have become, one need look no further than South Carolina and Georgia, and the disastrous efforts of utilities SCANA and Southern Company to build the Summer and Vogtle nuclear plants. Construction is three years behind schedule and more than a billion dollars over budget, plagued by missteps that caused the bankruptcy of developer Westinghouse Electric Co. and threaten the survival of its parent Toshiba Corp.

The chairman of the Georgia Public Utilities Commission is questioning whether work on the Vogtle plants should even continue, given the escalating costs and the availability of lower-priced natural gas and renewables. Southern’s CEO recently told investors it may not be able to complete the project. Meanwhile, South Carolina customers have already seen their rates rise 20% to pay for the Summer plants, and SCANA is considering abandoning the project.

In states where utilities don’t have monopolies on generation, even existing nuclear plants are closing (including one owned by Dominion Resources in Wisconsin), or are begging for state subsidies to let them survive (as the company is doing in Connecticut). If fully-paid-for nuclear reactors aren’t competitive in today’s market, it can’t make sense to build a new one.

NA3 would make our electricity grid more vulnerable to outages.

Concentrating power generation at a single site is a bad idea. If something goes wrong, there is that much more power at risk. This is especially true when the site already has a known vulnerability, in this case its location on a fault line. An earthquake near North Anna in 2011 shut down the existing reactors for three months. A third plant in the same location, on the same fault line, increases the amount of generating capacity that could be forced offline without warning, challenging grid operators to find replacement sources—instantly.

National security experts say protecting the grid from weather events and physical and cyber-attacks requires moving away from large, centralized generating stations to dispersed sources located near consumers. NA3 would take us in the wrong direction.

We don’t need the power.

Virginia is part of PJM Interconnection, a regional power grid that covers all or part of thirteen states plus the District of Columbia, and includes over 1,300 generating units. Today, Dominion buys a portion of its power on the PJM wholesale market, at a price far below the projected cost of electricity from NA3. PJM already faces a power glut. Adding more generation to PJM would be expected to lower wholesale power prices. That would benefit buyers in other states, at the expense of the Virginia consumers paying for NA3.

Nuclear energy is not a climate solution.

Low-cost wind and solar are increasingly viewed as the backbone of the 21st century electricity grid. Dominion’s latest integrated resource plan recognizes solar as the lowest-cost resource, even compared with “cheap” natural gas. Nuclear is not just more expensive; it is actually incompatible with large amounts of renewable energy. That’s because U.S. nuclear plants are designed to run all the time at a constant level, regardless of demand. At night when demand is low, nuclear plants still have to deliver power to the grid, even if it means turning off wind turbines that could supply free electricity.

Right now, Dominion stores surplus energy at its huge Bath County pumped storage facility. The stored energy supplies power in the daytime when demand rises. This pumped storage is good for consumers because it allows Dominion to run its baseload coal and nuclear plants for maximum efficiency. But it could just as well be used to store excess wind or solar energy.

Finally, nuclear waste is piling up with no long-term storage plan in place. Deliberately adding more waste when we have no idea what to do with it is beyond reckless. Our environmental agencies are underfunded and dealing with more problems than they can handle, even as climate change increases the magnitude of those problems. Far from being a climate solution, nuclear energy simply increases the burdens on our children and future generations.

Nuking clean energy: how nuclear power makes wind and solar harder

Dominion Resources CEO Tom Farrell is famously bullish on nuclear energy as a clean solution in a carbon-constrained economy, but he’s got it wrong. Nuclear is a barrier to a clean-energy future, not a piece of it. That’s only partly because new nuclear is so expensive that there’s little room left in a utility budget to build wind and solar. A more fundamental problem is that when nuclear is part of the energy mix, high levels of wind and solar become harder to achieve.

To understand why, consider the typical demand curve for electricity in the Mid-Atlantic, including Virginia. Demand can be almost twice as high at 5 p.m. as it is at 5 a.m., especially on a hot summer day with air conditioners running.

Average hourly load over a one-week period in January, April and July 2009. Credit B. Posner.

Average hourly load over a one-week period in January, April and July 2009. Credit B. Posner.

The supply of electricity delivered by the grid at any moment has to exactly match the demand: no more and no less. More than any other kind of generating plant, though, the standard nuclear reactor is inflexible in its output. It generates the same amount of electricity day in and day out. This means nuclear can’t be used to supply more than the minimum demand level, known as baseload. In the absence of energy storage, other fuel sources that can be ramped up or down as needed have to fill in above baseload.

Wind and solar have the opposite problem: instead of producing the same amount of electricity 24/7, their output varies with the weather and time of day. If you build a lot of wind turbines and want to use all the electricity they generate (much of it at night), some of it will compete to supply the baseload. Although solar panels produce during daylight when demand is higher, if you build enough solar you will eventually have to cut back on your baseload sources, too.

With enough energy storage, of course, baseload generating sources can be made flexible, and wind and solar made firm. Storage adds to cost and environmental footprint, though, so it is not a panacea. That said, Virginia is lucky enough to have one of the largest pumped storage facilities in the country, located in Bath County. Currently Dominion uses its 1,800 MW share of the facility as a relatively low-cost way to meet some peak demand with baseload sources like coal and nuclear, but it could as easily be used to store electricity from wind and solar, at the same added cost.

Without a lot of storage, it’s much harder to keep wind and solar from competing with nuclear or other baseload sources. You could curtail production of your wind turbines or solar panels, but since these have no fuel cost, you’d be throwing away free energy. Once you’ve built wind farms and solar projects, it makes no sense not to use all the electricity they can produce.

But if nuclear hogs the baseload, by definition there will be times when there is no load left for other sources to meet. Those times will often be at night, when wind turbines produce the most electricity.

The problem of nuclear competing with wind and solar has gotten little or no attention in the U.S., where renewables still make up only a small fraction of most states’ energy mixes. However, at an October 27 workshop about Germany’s experience with large-scale integration of renewable energy into the grid, sponsored by the American Council on Renewable Energy, Patrick Graichen of the German firm Agora Energiewende pointed to this problem in explaining why his organization is not sorry the country is closing nuclear plants at the same time it pursues ambitious renewable energy targets. Nuclear, he said, just makes it harder.

How big a problem is this likely to be in the U.S.? Certainly there is not enough nuclear in the PJM Interconnection grid as a whole to hog all the baseload in the region, and PJM has concluded it can already integrate up to 30% renewable energy without affecting reliability. But the interplay of nuclear and renewables is already shaping utility strategies. Dominion Virginia Power is on a campaign to build out enough generation in Virginia to eliminate its imports of electricity from out of state. And in Virginia, nuclear makes up nearly 40% of Dominion’s generation portfolio.

Now Dominion wants to add a third nuclear reactor at its North Anna site, to bring the number of its reactors in Virginia to five. If the company also succeeds in extending the life of its existing reactors, the combination would leave precious little room for any other energy resource that produces power when demand is low.

That affects coal, which is primarily a baseload resource. It would also impact combined-cycle natural gas plants, which are more flexible than coal or nuclear but still run most efficiently as baseload. But the greatest impact is on our potential for renewables.

This desire to keep high levels of nuclear in its mix explains Dominion’s lack of interest in land-based wind power, which produces mostly at night and therefore competes with nuclear as a baseload source. Dominion’s latest Integrated Resource Plan pretty much dismisses wind, assigning it a low value and a strangely high price tag in an effort to make it look like an unappealing option.

Dominion shows more interest in solar as a daytime source that fills in some of the demand curve above baseload. But given Dominion’s commitment to nuclear, its appetite for Virginia solar is likely to be limited. Already it insists that every bit of solar must be backed up with new natural gas combustion turbines, which are highly flexible but less efficient, more expensive and more polluting than combined-cycle gas, and add both cost and fuel-price risk.

Dominion’s seeming insistence that solar must be paired with gas to turn it into something akin to a baseload source is plainly absurd. It seems to be an effort to increase the cost of solar, part of an attempt to improve the company’s prospects of getting the North Anna 3 nuclear reactor approved in the face of its dismal economics.

Good resource planning would consider all existing and potential sources together, including using the existing pumped storage capacity in the way that makes most sense. We already know that North Anna 3 would be breathtakingly expensive. Evaluating it in the full context of other supply options will show it is even worse than Dominion acknowledges.

Dominion’s campaign to isolate Virginia’s power supply from the larger PJM grid also does a disservice to ratepayers. Keeping generation local benefits grid security when the generation is small-scale and distributed, but not when it’s a huge nuclear reactor sited on a fault line right next to two others. Otherwise, there is nothing wrong with importing power from other states. These are not hostile foreign nations. Pennsylvania is not going to cut us off if we don’t release their political prisoners.

In truth, it seems to be Tom Farrell’s plan to secure Dominion’s profitability for decades to come by walling off Virginia into a corporate fiefdom and controlling the means of production within it, like some retrograde Soviet republic. Utility customers, on the other hand, benefit much more from having our grid interconnected with PJM and the thousands of other power sources that help balance load and ensure reliability. One can only hope that Dominion’s regulators at the State Corporation Commission will see that.

Over the course of the next couple of decades, Virginia, like the rest of the U.S.—and indeed, the rest of the world—has to transition to an electricity supply that is almost entirely emissions-free. Very little planning has gone into making this happen, but several studies have shown it can be done. The Solutions Project offers a broad-brush look at how Virginia can combine onshore wind, offshore wind, solar and small amounts of other sources to reach a 100% clean energy future. Other researchers have done the same for PJM as a whole.

No doubt this will be a long and challenging journey, but the path we start out on should be the one most likely to get us to our goal. Nuclear seems likely to prove a stumbling block along the way, and an expensive one at that. Certainly, we shouldn’t make the problem worse.


Update: A number of commenters from the pro-nuclear camp have argued that nuclear is, or could be, more flexible than I’ve made it out to be. A new article in Utility Dive addresses this issue, concluding it is possible, but not easy, to make nuclear plants more load-following. France and Germany have succeeded to some degree, but U.S. nuclear plants pose greater challenges. “It can be done, but ‘the issue is that nuclear power plants weren’t designed to do that in the United States,’ said Jim Riley, senior technical advisor for nuclear operations at the Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry group that develops policy on issues related to nuclear energy.”

According to the article, some U.S. utilities are looking to tackle the challenge rather than retire their nuclear plants. These are nuclear plant owners that have to bid power into the wholesale market, where a nuclear plant, with its fixed operating costs, can’t compete with low-cost natural gas and renewable energy, especially at night. But of course, if you run a high-cost plant for fewer hours of the day, the average cost per kilowatt-hour increases.

Dominion doesn’t have to bid its nuclear into a wholesale market, so it has no incentive to try to run its plants flexibly. And given the astoundingly high cost of North Anna 3, curtailing its operation, and increasing the cost per kilowatt-hour produced, would be out of the question.

North Anna 3 would raise rates for Dominion Virginia Power customers by 25%

Some see a nuclear power plant cooling tower. Others see a rat-hole. Hang onto your wallet. Photo credit Wollenkratzer/Wikimedia Commons.

Some see a nuclear power plant cooling tower. Others see a rat-hole. Hang onto your wallet. Photo credit Wollenkratzer/Wikimedia Commons.

Dominion Virginia Power’s latest Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) includes construction of a third nuclear reactor at North Anna, just as previous IRPs have done every year since 2008. What’s new this year is that we finally have a price tag. Scott Norwood, a witness for the Attorney General’s Office of Consumer Counsel, says Dominion’s $19 billion forecast will mean an average rate increase of approximately 25.7% over current Virginia retail residential rates.

The 2015 IRP shows cost estimates for the new nuclear plant have spiraled upwards. Norwood notes that the forecasted capital cost is currently 55% higher than in 2011. This capital cost is not only ten times the cost of new natural gas generation, it is also higher than Dominion’s solar energy option—which happens also to be its least-cost option for complying with EPA’s Clean Power Plan.

Indeed, the NA3 price tag makes it far more expensive even than the other nuclear plants currently under construction in Tennessee, Georgia and South Carolina. All three are behind schedule and over budget, which hardly inspires confidence in the industry’s ability to contain costs anywhere.

In his testimony to the State Corporation Commission, Norwood argues that North Anna 3’s high price tag means it is not reasonable to keep it in the IRP. Section 56-599 of the Virginia Code requires the Commission to make a determination whether the IRP is “reasonable” and in the public interest.

Including nuclear in an IRP doesn’t commit Dominion to building a reactor or the SCC to approving it, so the SCC has not previously chosen to weigh in. Nor have elected leaders yet responded to the rising cost numbers.

Legislators may be tempted to ignore North Anna 3 until Dominion secures an operating license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (anticipated in 2017) and applies to the SCC for a Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity (with a decision likely in 2018).

Yet delaying the conversation is expensive. Dominion is already spending hundreds of millions of dollars annually on North Anna 3 development—and one way or another, Dominion expects customers to bear the cost.

In 2014 the company successfully lobbied for legislation shifting the costs it had incurred through 2013 onto its ratepayers, a move that sopped up Dominion’s overearnings and prevented a rate cut.

But those costs were chicken feed compared to what’s coming. By the end of 2018, Dominion will have spent close to $2 billion dollars on North Anna 3. The company can afford to front the money, in part because of 2015 legislation “freezing” rates until 2020 and allowing the company to keep what could amount to hundreds of millions of dollars more in excess earnings.

NAr costsIf the SCC waits until 2018 to consider the merits of North Anna 3 and then denies Dominion permission to move forward, the company will argue for the right to bill ratepayers for all that money it threw down the rat-hole. The SCC might not prove sympathetic, but General Assembly members maintain a strong record of doing anything Dominion wants.

Still, allowing Dominion to soak customers for $2 billion would be a welcome outcome compared to the alternative. Worse would be for the SCC to approve the plant—or more likely, for legislators to take it out of the hands of the SCC and simply vote to let Dominion proceed. Dominion has begun spinning a tale about North Anna 3 being needed for energy security, resource diversity, and compliance with new environmental rules. All of these are wrong, but they play into narratives that resonate with many lawmakers.

Meanwhile, the vast sums required for a new reactor would siphon money away from much more cost-effective strategies that can deliver carbon pollution reductions far sooner, including investments in solar and energy efficiency. That makes it critical for the SCC to put an end to the North Anna 3 rat-hole this year.

The Commission will hold a hearing on Dominion’s IRP on October 20. The case is PUE-2015-00035.

Dominion admits cost of North Anna 3 will top $19 billion

photo by Peter Burke/Wikimedia

A nuclear plant in Pennsylvania. Photo by Peter Burke/Wikimedia

Dominion Virginia Power is projecting that the capital cost of a third nuclear reactor at its North Anna facility will total over $19 billion, according to filings in its 2015 biennial review before the State Corporation Commission (PUE-2015-00027).

This works out to over $13,000 per installed kilowatt, according to the testimony of Scott Norwood, an energy consultant hired by the Attorney General’s Department of Consumer Counsel to analyze Dominion’s earnings evaluations. He notes that this capital cost is “approximately ten times the capital cost of the Company’s new Brunswick combined cycle unit,” which will burn natural gas.

As a result of this high capital cost, the “total delivered cost of power from NA3 is more than $190 per MWh in 2028.” That translates into 19 cents per kilowatt-hour.

By comparison, in 2014 the average wholesale price of electricity in the PJM region (which includes Virginia) was 5.3 cents per kWh. Dominion currently sells electricity to its customers at retail for between 5.5 and 11 cents/kWh.

In other words, NA3 is ridiculously expensive.

Dominion had kept its cost projections for NA3 secret until this rate case forced the disclosure. Previously, executives had acknowledged only that the cost would be “far north of 10 billion.”

This cost revelation may point to the real reason Dominion pushed so hard for SB 1349, the 2015 legislation that insulates the company from rate reviews until 2022.

As Norwood testifies, “DVP forecasts a dramatic increase in NA3 development costs over the next five years, during which there will be no biennial reviews.”

These costs are dramatic. A table included in Norwood’s testimony shows Dominion expects to have spent $4.7 billion on NA3 development by the end of 2020. By the time the SCC is allowed to review this spending, more than one-quarter of the total cost will have been spent, and Dominion will be looking to ratepayers to cover the bills.

With perfect deadpan, meanwhile, Dominion executives told legislators this year that SB 1349 was necessary to protect ratepayers from higher costs to be imposed by compliance with the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan.

This isn’t the first time legislators have been snookered in the cause of NA3. Recall that in 2014 Dominion succeeded in lobbying for a law that allowed it to shift 70% of already-spent NA3 development costs onto ratepayers, some $323 million. The effect was to soak up the company’s over-earnings so it would not have to rebate millions of dollars to customers.

This year’s snookering was more comprehensive. Given that Dominion has continued to over-earn, those who opposed SB 1349 assumed it was this year’s version of the 2014 maneuver, designed to protect over-earnings this year and for years to come. Now it appears the real purpose of SB 1349 was to allow Dominion to spend freely on NA3 development costs in amounts that it knew would be unacceptable to state regulators, not to mention the public.

That Dominion thought it could do so in secret is especially reprehensible. Lawmakers and the Governor should be outraged by this deception, whether they voted for SB 1349 or not.

The Attorney General’s office is now trying to force Dominion to justify NA3 to regulators before it racks up billions in sunk costs. Norwood recommends that the SCC “initiate a proceeding to address the prudence of DVP’s planned future investments for development of NA3. This proceeding would allow the Company to present its case regarding the need for and cost effectiveness of NA3, including the value of the proposed project from a fuel diversity perspective and as a means to comply with any final version of the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed Clean Power Plan and other potential future environmental regulations.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

McAuliffe’s Energy Plan has a little something for (almost) everyone

On October 1, the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy released the McAuliffe administration’s rewrite of the Virginia Energy Plan. Tomorrow, on October 14, Governor McAuliffe is scheduled to speak about the plan at an “executive briefing” to be held at the Science Museum of Virginia in Richmond. Will he talk most about fossil fuels, or clean energy? Chances are, we’ll hear a lot about both.

Like the versions written by previous governors, McAuliffe’s plan boasts of an “all of the above” approach. But don’t let that put you off. In spite of major lapses of the drill-baby-drill variety, this plan has more about solar energy, offshore wind, and energy efficiency, and less about coal, than we are used to seeing from a Virginia governor.

Keep in mind that although the Virginia Code requires an energy plan rewrite every four years, the plan does not have the force of law. It is intended to lay out principles, to be the governor’s platform and a basis for action, not the action itself. This is why they tend to look like such a hodge-podge: it’s just so easy to promise every constituency what it wants. The fights come in the General Assembly, when the various interests look for follow-through.

Here’s my take on some of the major recommendations: IMG_3954

Renewable energy. Advocates and energy libertarians will like the barrier-busting approach called for in the Energy Plan, including raising the cap on customer-owned solar and other renewables from the current 1% of a utility’s peak load to 3%; allowing neighborhoods and office parks to develop and share renewable energy projects; allowing third-party power purchase agreements (PPAs) statewide and doubling both the size of projects allowed and the overall program limit; and increasing the size limits on both residential (to 40 kW) and commercial (to 1 MW) net metered projects, with standby charges allowed only for projects over 20 kW (up from the current 10 kW for residential, but seemingly now to be applied to all systems).

It also proposes a program that would allow utilities to build off-site solar facilities on behalf of subscribers and provide on-bill financing to pay for it. This sounds rather like a true green power program, but here the customers would pay to build and own the project instead of simply buying electricity from renewable energy projects.

Elsewhere in the recommendations, the plan calls for “flexible financing mechanisms” that would support both energy projects and energy efficiency.

In case unleashing the power of customers doesn’t do enough for solar, the plan also calls for the establishment of a Virginia Solar Energy Development Authority tasked with the development of 15 megawatts (MW) of solar energy at state and local government facilities by June 30, 2017, and another 15 MW of private sector solar by the same date. Though extremely modest by the standards of Maryland and North Carolina, these goals, if met, would about triple Virginia’s current total. I do like the fact that these are near-term goals designed to boost the industry quickly. But let’s face it: these drops don’t even wet the bucket. We need gigawatts of solar over the next few decades, so let’s set some serious long-term goals for this Authority, and give it the tools to achieve them.

Finally, the plan reiterates the governor’s enthusiasm for building offshore wind, using lots of exciting words (“full,” “swift,” “with vigor”), but neglecting how to make it happen. Offshore wind is this governor’s Big Idea. I’d have expected more of a plan.

And while we’re in “I’d have expected more” territory, you have to wonder whatever happened to the mandatory Renewable Portfolio Standard that McAuliffe championed when running for office. Maybe our RPS is too hopeless even for a hopeless optimist.

Energy Efficiency. Reducing energy consumption and saving money for consumers and government are no-brainer concepts that have led to ratepayers in many other states paying lower electricity bills than we do, even in the face of higher rates. Everyone can get behind energy efficiency, with the exception of utilities that make money selling more electricity. (Oh, wait—those would be our utilities.) The Energy Plan calls for establishing a Virginia Board on Energy Efficiency, tasked with getting us to the state’s goal of 10% savings two years ahead of schedule. But glaringly absent is any mention of the role of building codes. Recall that Governor McDonnell bowed to the home builders and allowed a weakened version of the residential building code to take effect. So far Governor McAuliffe hasn’t reversed that decision. If he is serious about energy efficiency, this is an obvious, easy step. Where is it?

Fracking_Site_in_Warren_Center,_PA_04

Natural Gas. Did I say offshore wind was the governor’s Big Idea? Well, now he’s got a bigger one: that 500-mile long natural gas pipeline Dominion wants to build from West Virginia through the middle of Virginia and down to North Carolina. Governor McAuliffe gets starry-eyed talking about fracked gas powering a new industrial age in Virginia. So it’s not surprising that the Energy Plan includes support for gas pipelines among other infrastructure projects. As for fracking itself, though, the recommendations have nothing to say. A curious omission, surely? And while we are on the subject of natural gas, this plan is a real testament to the lobbying prowess of the folks pushing for natural gas vehicles. Given how little appetite the public has shown for this niche market, it’s remarkable to see more than a page of recommendations for subsidies and mandates. Some of these would apply to electric vehicles as well. But if we really want to reduce energy use in transportation, shouldn’t we give people more alternatives to vehicles? It’s too bad sidewalks, bicycles and mass transit (however fueled) get no mention in the plan.

Photo credit Ed Brown, Wikimedia Commons.

Coal. Coal has fallen on hard times, indeed, when even Virginia’s energy plan makes no recommendations involving it. Oh, there’s a whole section about creating export markets for coal technology, as in, helping people who currently sell equipment to American coal companies find a living in other ways. These might be Chinese coal mining companies; but then again, they might be companies that mine metals in Eastern Europe, or build tunnels, or do something totally different. The Energy Plan seems to be saying that coal may be on its way out, but there’s no reason it should drag the whole supply chain down with it. Good thinking.

Nuclear. If you think the coal industry has taken a beating these past few years, consider nuclear. Nationwide, the few new projects that haven’t been canceled are behind schedule and over budget, going forward at all only thanks to the liberality of Uncle Sam and the gullibility of state lawmakers. But there it is in the Energy Plan: we’re going to be “a national and global leader in nuclear energy.” Watch your wallets, people. Dominion already raided them for $300 million worth of development costs for a third plant at North Anna. That was just a down payment.

Photo: U.S. Coast Guard

Photo: U.S. Coast Guard

Offshore drilling. As with nuclear, favoring offshore oil drilling seems to be some kind of perverse obsession for many Virginia politicians. Sure enough, the energy plan says we should “fully support” it. As for the downside potential for a massive spill of crude oil fouling beaches, ruining fishing grounds, destroying the coastal tourism economy, and killing vast numbers of marine animals, the plan says we must be prepared “to provide a timely and comprehensive response.” I bet Louisiana was at least equally prepared.

Governor McAuliffe gets his chance on energy and climate

 

Virginia Sierra Club activists Tom Ellis and Ann Moore. Photo by Ivy Main

Virginia Sierra Club activists Tom Ellis and Ann Moore. Photo by Ivy Main

2014 is shaping up to be an exceedingly interesting year for energy policy in Virginia. The rewrite of the Virginia Energy Plan, the re-establishment of the Governor’s Climate Commission, and EPA’s just-proposed carbon rule create three separate pathways that will either intersect to form a coherent and coordinated state policy, or will take us into a chaotic tangle of competing agendas.

Add in the myopia of the State Corporation Commission and the control of the General Assembly by utility and coal interests, and we’ve got an unpredictable plotline here. All you energy watchers are going to want to stock up on popcorn for this show. Or better yet, become a player—read on to find out how.

First there’s the energy plan. Virginia law requires a new iteration every four years, with this year’s due October 1. To help with the work, Governor McAuliffe appointed the Virginia Energy Council two weeks ago. The Council consists primarily of energy industry members, with only one environmental representative and no consumer advocates. (Although come to think of it, that might be because Virginia doesn’t have any consumer advocates. But still.)

The Council will be working with the staff of the Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy, which has already begun holding “listening sessions” and accepting comments to get input from the public. The next one will be held tonight, June 17, in Annandale, Virginia. Get there early and sign up for a speaking slot. Other locations include South Boston on June 19, Abingdon on June 24, Norfolk on June 26, and Harrisonburg on July 1.

The existing energy plan, created under Governor McDonnell, is the sort of “all of the above” hodgepodge that you’d expect from a process where you bring in a bunch of energy company executives and say, “Have at it!” I’d be concerned that the same fate awaits the new one, but for a couple of new factors: the reboot of the Governor’s Commission on Climate Change and the looming threat of EPA’s carbon rule. (Making this the first time ever that I’ve welcomed anything I called a looming threat.)

The Climate Commission was supposed to have launched by now, and if it had, I might have been able to say something definite about how it will interact with the Energy Council. Unfortunately, Governor McAuliffe got a little sidetracked by something you may have heard about: the political chaos that ensued when a certain Democratic senator resigned his seat and threw the Senate into Republican hands under suspect circumstances in the middle of a battle over the Governor’s signature initiative.

(In fairness. the senator’s backers insist he acted only out of the purest self-interest and not because he’d been bribed, there being a legal difference. Still, from now on anyone who screws over a large number of friends at once will be said to have “Pucketted” them.)

As you may remember, Governor Kaine established the first Governor’s Commission on Climate Change back in 2007 to study the effects of global warming on Virginia and to make recommendations on what to do about it. The commission issued a well-thought-out report replete with excellent suggestions. The report was put on a shelf and admired for a while, until Governor McDonnell found out about it. He acted swiftly, taking down the Commission’s web page lest anyone think he believed in rising sea levels and flooding and predictions about the dire consequences of global warming—you know, the sort of thing you can actually see going on now in Hampton Roads, the second-largest metropolitan area in Virginia.

Governor McAuliffe, on the other hand, not only “believes in” climate change and the risks it poses to Virginia, but also believes there are huge job and growth opportunities to be had by taking action in response. He has made it clear he does not want his commission to start from scratch, but rather to pick up where the Kaine commission left off.

McAuliffe’s Energy Plan must also take account of carbon emissions in a way the McDonnell plan never tried to. On June 2, EPA issued a proposed rule to address carbon pollution from existing electric generating plants, intended to reduce overall emissions nationwide by 30% by 2030. Although the rule won’t be final for a year, and states will then have as long as two years to implement it, and there will be lawsuits trying to block it from ever being implemented—still it means no one can ignore carbon now.

If you want to weigh in on the carbon rule, EPA will be holding hearings around the country, including in Washington, DC on July 30, or you can email your comments.

The proposed rule is not simple. Each state has been given a carbon budget for all its electric generating plants combined, expressed in pounds per megawatt-hour, and arrived at by some still-rather-opaque notion of what a given state is capable of. The cleanest states are thought to have policies in place to get even cleaner, so their targets are more ambitious than those of the dirtiest states. The dirty, coal-intensive states, having done so little to clean up in the past, are thought incapable of making a whole lot of progress now, and so are rewarded by being graded on a curve. Interestingly, it is not the clean states crying foul, but the dirty ones.

Virginia’s carbon target falls in the middle, but achieving it will require improvements of 37.5% over 2012 levels. This sounds harder than it is, given that we have several natural gas plants under construction that will presumably count towards lowered emissions as they dilute the coal in the state’s power mix. EPA also assumes that existing plants can operate at higher efficiencies that will reduce emissions per unit of energy produced.

The carbon rule also contains what seems to be a freebie of 6% of existing nuclear power, a provision intended to encourage the continued operation of nuclear plants that still have time remaining on their licenses but are no longer economic. In Virginia’s regulated market, our nuclear plants don’t have to compete on the open market and so aren’t in danger of being shut down for economic reasons, but apparently we get the freebie anyway.

Beyond that, however, the carbon rule will clearly put a thumb on the scale in favor of energy efficiency and carbon-free power sources. The EPA is right to think we have plenty of those to call on. A few years ago, ACEEE released a study showing Virginia could readily achieve energy efficiency savings of almost 20% cost-effectively, and much more if we really rolled up our sleeves. Since then, the few utility programs that have addressed energy efficiency have barely moved the needle. This means the low-hanging fruit still clings there, only now it’s really, really ripe.

Add in offshore wind (which can provide about 10% of state energy needs just from the initial lease area that Dominion Power bought rights to), some land-based wind (a few more percentage points) and solar energy (estimated to be able to produce 18-25% of our demand), and we know we can blow right through the EPA target.

As we also know, though, Dominion CEO Tom Farrell has his heart set on a new nuclear plant, which would suck up all the money that might otherwise go to renewables and dampen the utility’s interest in efficiency. Given nuclear’s high cost, the need for taxpayer and ratepayer subsidies, and the public safety risks involved, the free market isn’t on his side. But with captive ratepayers and the legislature on the company payroll, Farrell’s dream remains a possibility in Virginia.

As I say, it’s going to be an interesting year.