Northam’s energy plan: A blueprint for action or destined for dusty shelf?

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam standing in front of a new solar farm.

Governor Northam speaks at the opening of the Palmer Solar Center on May 23.

[Note: A version of this post originally appeared in Virginia Mercury on July 23. Virginia Mercury is a nonprofit, independent online news organization that launched this summer. Subscribe to its free daily newsletter here.]

Forget “all of the above.” Under Governor Ralph Northam, Virginia’s next Energy Plan will emphasize the features of a clean energy future: solar and wind, energy efficiency, electric vehicles, energy storage, and offshore wind. This marks a welcome departure from previous state energy plans, though whether the end result serves as a blueprint for action or just stuffing for a filing cabinet remains to be seen.

Since 2007, Virginia law has required the Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy (DMME) to write a ten-year Energy Plan in the first year of every new administration. The statute lists vague requirements for the plan, including that it be consistent with the Commonwealth Energy Policy, itself a toothless statute. That means each new governor can pretty much tell DMME what to focus on.

Previous governors’ plans have read more like campaign rhetoric than like meaningful indicators of an administration’s direction. Tim Kaine’s plan supported carbon reductions, but by the next spring Kaine was promoting construction of a coal plant in Wise County that would become one of the last coal plants ever built in America.

Bob McDonnell used his energy plan to announce Virginia as the Energy Capital of the East Coast, perhaps the strongest indication that Energy Plans need not be tethered to reality.

Terry McAuliffe pushed an “all of the above” agenda, heavy on offshore drilling, natural gas, and offshore wind. He later backpedaled on offshore drilling, went all in on gas pipelines, and forgot about offshore wind.

Northam surely feels the pressure to write a pro-clean energy plan, and not merely because economic trends have swung decisively in favor of wind and solar. In his short time in office, Governor Northam has deeply undermined his standing as an environmentalist. Even before his inauguration, his public silence about gas pipeline projects fed rumors of private support. Once in office, he caved early on negotiations with Dominion Energy over this year’s energy legislation; reappointed David Paylor, the controversial director of the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), whom he had promised to replace; and passed up a rare opportunity to appoint a progressive to the State Corporation Commission.

One bright spot remains DEQ’s work towards completion of rules to lower carbon emissions from power plants by trading carbon allowances with states to the north of us. But the plan is not yet finalized, and the devil (or Dominion’s fingerprints) may prove to be in the details.

The Energy Plan gives Northam an opportunity to change the subject, and possibly even to change course. DMME’s presentation at its initial public meeting on June 25 addressed only clean energy topics—no coal, no natural gas, no nuclear, no oil. For some topics, the agency has already proposed recommendations for policy changes and scheduled public meetings to discuss them.

In the solar and wind “stakeholder track,” DMME proposes to “increase the residential cap on net metering from 20 kW to 40 kW; increase the overall net metering program from 1% of the utility’s peak load to 3% of peak load; make third-party Power Purchase Agreements (PPAs) available throughout all utility service territories; increase the total PPA installation cap from 50 MW to 100 MW and increase the installation-specific cap from 1 MW to 2 MW.” These recommendations are guaranteed to be popular with solar advocates and industry members, but won’t get past the utility blockade without a fight.

Recommendations for other tracks run the gamut from practical to aspirational. A recommendation to track energy consumption by state agencies through an energy data registry and dashboard is specific and achievable. Less so is the recommendation for Virginia to “reach the voluntary goal of reducing energy consumption by 10 percent by 2020.” Yes, that would be nice, but getting there would require a level of utility cooperation we have never seen in Virginia, and that neither the General Assembly nor any previous governor has had the tenacity to fight for.

The fact that our utilities are so often barriers to positive change underscores a need for the Energy Plan to address one subject missing from DMME’s list: a comprehensive study of grid transformation. Within the next ten years covered by the Energy Plan, our electric grid will need to incorporate vastly more wind and solar generation (much of it consumer-sited), plus electric vehicle charging, battery storage, and new metering technology that gives consumers greater control over their energy use.

Left to their own devices, the utilities will create the energy generation and delivery system most profitable for themselves, not the one most efficient and beneficial for the public. If Governor Northam is serious about a clean energy future, his Energy Plan should kick off a comprehensive study of grid transformation, managed by an independent expert who can help DMME and stakeholders develop a specific, actionable roadmap for the future of Virginia’s energy economy.

Without such a roadmap, we are likely to make progress only in fits and starts and at greater expense than necessary. Utility bills are rising and will keep going up as a result of the legislation Northam supported. Now the Governor needs to make sure Virginians have something to show for it.

What the fate of one solar bill reveals about politics in Virginia

 

Want an extra solar panel on your roof, just in case? Too bad, chump. Better luck next year. Maybe.

While Dominion’s latest effort to legislate profits into perpetuity got all the press attention this winter, another story went largely ignored. A whole raft of bills that would have opened more opportunities for customer-owned and third-party owned renewable energy died in committee. So did bills supporting energy choice and an energy efficiency mandate.

These bills generally had one thing in common: they were opposed by the same utility that was touting its own clean energy investments as a reason to vote for the Ratepayer Rip-Off.

Most of the rejected bills would have promoted customer investments in solar, a segment of the market that Dominion’s legislation won’t help. These bills included:

  • HB 54 (Sullivan) state tax credit of 35% on renewable energy property
  • SB 313 (Edwards) and SB 311 (Edwards) community solar
  • HB 393 (Keam) remove the 1% cap on net metered projects and provide for an SCC study of the impact of net metering
  • HB 1060 (Tran) remove the 1% cap on net metered projects
  • HB 1253 (Tran) expand net metering by local governments
  • HB 421 (Sullivan) allow owners of multifamily residential buildings to install renewable energy facilities and sell output to occupants
  • HB 930 (Lopez) allow net metering program for multifamily customer-generators
  • HB 978 (Guzman) require utilities to justify standby charges with a value of solar study (withdrawn by the patron, reportedly at the request of utilities)
  • SB 82 (Edwards) expand agricultural net metering program
  • HB 1155 (Simon) affirm legality of third-party power purchase agreements (PPAs) for customer solar.
  • SB 83 (Edwards) expand availability of PPAs statewide
  • HB 1252 (Kilgore) allow PPAs for non-profits in APCo territory (passed the House with support of APCo but withdrawn by the patron before a Senate hearing when the utility decided that it didn’t like the bill it had negotiated with advocates in Southwest Virginia after all)

It’s tempting to focus blame on the utilities for the demise of these bills, but the fate of one additional bill reminds us where accountability properly lies. SB 191 (Favola) would have allowed net metering customers to install enough solar to meet up to 125% of their previous 12 months’ electric demand, up from 100% currently. As under current law, they still could not sell any surplus electricity at retail. This last point is key: it means customers have no financial incentive to install more solar than they will actually use, and if they do, it’s the utilities that come out ahead.

APCo and the Coops said they were opposed to it anyway, and were written out of the bill to save it. But Dominion agreed to the bill, with the addition of an amendment it wanted. The bill passed the Senate, and a lobbyist for Dominion joined a representative of the Sierra Club (yours truly) to speak in its favor in the House Commerce and Labor subcommittee. Lobbyists for APCo and the Coops also spoke in its favor, just to be nice. No one rose in opposition.

But the subcommittee killed it anyway on a party-line vote.* One of the Republican committee members offered an excuse about “sending it” to the Rubin Group—which, however, they did not do. Discussions with observers later suggested that the vote was a petty, partisan act of retribution against the patron for something entirely unrelated to the legislation.

So while the utilities’ desire to protect their monopoly makes them oppose customer solar, and utility campaign donations persuade legislators to vote accordingly, ultimately voters have only the legislators themselves to blame for the barriers holding back solar in Virginia.

Elections have consequences, as the saying goes, and the fact that Republicans managed to retain a majority in the House by the slimmest of margins this past November was enough for them to be able to continue their long practice of killing popular solar initiatives in subcommittee. The election that was decided by drawing a name from a hat also determined that rooftop solar bills would not advance out of subcommittee, even when they are small, relatively inconsequential, and completely unopposed.

Advocates had hoped the close election would influence Republicans to moderate their trigger-happy approach to clean energy bills. No part of Republican ideology says customers should not install their own solar. Indeed, in past years Republicans have sometimes been leading advocates for rooftop solar.

Maybe Republicans will do better next year, especially if grassroots anger continues to strengthen the Democrats, and Republicans feel the heat. Otherwise, solar advocates will be highly motivated to support Democrats in the 2019 election.

Of course there are plenty of Democrats in the pockets of the utilities, too. That makes it especially important that a growing number of legislators have pledged to refuse campaign contributions from public utilities and their parent corporations. Delegate Mark Keam (D-Vienna) is the latest to “break up” with Dominion over its undue influence on the legislative process.

The pledge isn’t a guarantee of how a legislator will vote, but for frustrated clean energy advocates it offers a simple litmus test that proved out well this year, as pledge-takers overwhelmingly voted against Dominion’s bill. Solar advocates who found this past legislative session more frustrating than ever may find some satisfaction in persuading their own legislators to follow Keam’s example (and get some press attention for it, too).


* The six Republicans voting to table (kill) SB 191 were O’Quinn, Byron, Hugo, Marshall, Habeeb, and Ransone. The four Democrats supporting the bill were Ward, Kory, Heretick, and Bourne.

Virginia buys Dominion’s pig in a poke

How Dominion sees the bill.

A pig in a poke is defined as “an object offered in a manner that conceals its true value, especially its lack of value.” The expression is said to go back about five hundred years to English marketplaces. A poke was a sort of sack, but why 16th century people bought pigs in sacks, and why they would have bought a sack without looking inside, is not at all clear. I’m guessing the seller was the local pig monopoly, and the buyers were timid leaders who meekly paid their farthings and hoped for the best. After all, that is how we do it in the marketplace of Virginia’s General Assembly when Dominion Energy Virginia comes peddling legislation.

And indeed, the true value (or lack of value) of this year’s boondoggle bill (HB 1558/SB 966) will probably not be understood for months or even years to come. The General Assembly passed this legislation that will govern billions of dollars of new spending paid for by Virginia customers after just a handful of hearings over a few weeks, and with no study or input from outside experts. If you will excuse the expression, this is a lousy way to make sausage.

Arguably, the only thing worse than this bill is the law it seeks to fix, the infamous “rate freeze” legislation of 2015 that simply let Dominion keep a billion dollars of customer money to line its own pockets. You’d think legislators would have learned something about legislating in haste and repenting at leisure.

But the legislation could have been worse. We know this because it was worse; the bills Dominion originally put forward returned even less money to consumers, gave the utilities even more leeway on spending, and included the infamous “double dip” that the SCC said would let Dominion charge customers twice for the same projects. The bills improved over the next few weeks under pressure from progressive Democrats, conservative Republicans, the SCC, the Attorney General’s office, the Governor, and consumer and environmental groups.

Whether it is good enough now remains a matter of debate. Conservatives for Clean Energy and the League of Conservation Voters support the bill, especially the provisions relating to investments in energy efficiency and renewable energy. The Sierra Club, an early opponent, used what leverage it had to get the worst provisions changed before removing its opposition late in the game (while still not supporting the bill). The AG’s Office of Consumer Counsel and Appalachian Voices never dropped their opposition.

Nevertheless, the poke has been bought, so you should definitely take a look at the pig. The Virginia Poverty Law Center and the Southern Environmental Law Center produced a handy summary of the bill’s final provisions compared to both the original bill and the status quo under the 2015 law (and sometimes also to the pre-2015 law).

The summary describes the categories of new spending authorized by the law, but a lot is left to interpretation—Dominion’s interpretation, mostly. Customers don’t seem to have any say in how their money gets spent. They are just supposed to feel happy with the provisions granting them some initial refunds reflecting a portion of the overearnings from past years, plus the utility’s savings from the federal tax cut. Going forward, though, the likelihood of further refunds or rate cuts seems remote. The whole point of the bill is to allow utilities to spend overearnings and avoid refunds. And as always, rates can continue to go up through “rate adjustment clauses” (RACs) like the ones that tacked new charges onto electricity bills even when base rates were frozen.

Moreover, what VPLC’s summary (understandably) lacks is a comparison to what ought to be in there: full refunds based on a review of past earnings rather than legislative guesstimates; mandatory—and much higher—levels of energy efficiency, wind and solar; proper regulatory oversight of rates and spending; and an independent assessment of grid modernization needs rather than blanket permission for a utility to indulge in projects that benefit itself most.

We’ll have to wait until next year for any new legislation, but it is not too early to start laying the groundwork. Governor Northam should direct his administration to begin working with national experts on a comprehensive grid modernization study. The goal should not be to tinker around the edges of current law and policy, but to draft a new and better approach from the ground up. (For a great discussion of why we need this study and what it should look like, see Tom Hadwin’s blogpost from last week.)

Meanwhile, legislators should promise their constituents that they will never again allow a public utility to write our energy laws and force through massive and complex changes over the course of a few weeks of the legislative session. Next time Dominion offers a pig in a poke, the answer should be no.

Grid Transformation for the 21st Century: why Virginia needs to get this right

Thomas Hadwin served as an executive with electric and gas utilities in Michigan and New York. He is actively involved in promoting a modern energy system for Virginia.

With proper planning, the 21st century power grid will be smart, efficient and resilient. Without good planning, it could be an expensive mess. Photo credit McKay Savage, India.

The General Assembly recently passed a bill intended to promote modernization of our existing electricity grid. It is important for Virginians to understand the costs, benefits and various ways of upgrading our state’s grid, so that they can decide for themselves whether the new legislation provides the best path forward. Making the right choices about this affects our family finances and the competitiveness of our state economy.

An electricity grid is the system of wires and facilities that move electricity from where it is produced to where it is used. Thomas Edison created the first utility in New York City in 1882. A portion of it was still in use until 2007.

The Traditional Grid

For over a century, the grid met the same basic functions and contained equipment that Edison would have recognized, at least in concept. The system evolved to have electricity produced at a distance from where it is used. Since more electricity is lost the farther it is transported, high voltage transmission lines were developed to minimize these losses. These are the very tall, usually lattice-like, steel towers with long drooping lines that you see from the highway. We can’t use electricity at such high voltage, so it is stepped down using big transformers to lower levels. Sometimes several types of lower voltage lines are used to get the energy closer to where it needs to go.

The transmission lines bring the electricity to a population center or industrial complex to where it will be used. At this point a complex set of equipment called a substation is used to reduce to reduce the voltage to the various levels used by industries, businesses and residences. Once the voltage is reduced at the substation, it enters the distribution system. These are the lines that you see on the poles along the street where you live, where the voltage is reduced one last time to the level you use in your home. Other wires are also on those poles for telephone and cable TV service. If you live in a city, or a new subdivision, those lines are often underground.

Electricity doesn’t move like cars on a road, from Point A to Point B. So you can’t really say where electricity was produced or where it was used.

For about 100 years, the design of the system worked well. There was a steady increase in demand. As generating stations got bigger, electricity became cheaper to produce. The centralized power plants feeding distant loads were easy to manage. Electricity flowed one-way, as did the information back to the utility grid supervisors.

Some things began to change in the second half of the 20th century. Transmission lines were interconnected between utilities so a surplus in one area could be used to meet a shortfall in another. These early “power pool” arrangements evolved into the sophisticated Regional Transmission Organizations (RTOs) and Independent System Operators (ISOs) that we have today. PJM is the organization that manages electric generation and transmission in a 13-state region that includes Virginia.

A Shift 40 years in the making

By the mid-1970s, new power plants became so expensive (especially nuclear units) that a fundamental change occurred. Every time a new conventional power plant (fossil or nuclear) was built, the price of electricity went up.

As fuel costs and electricity prices increased, appliances and buildings were designed to use energy more efficiently. Demand continued to increase, however, as a larger population and greater economic activity kept electricity use rising.

When the recession hit in 2008, families tightened their belts and businesses found ways to produce more goods and services using less energy. For the first time, growth in population and economic activity no longer created a higher demand for electricity. Over the past ten years, growth in U.S. electricity demand has been relatively flat. In 2017, a year of population growth and greater economic activity, total electricity use in the U.S. was 2.1 % lower than the year before.

Stable or declining growth in demand disrupted the utility business model which depended on the steady increase in electricity use to provide enough revenue to cover past investments and provide funds for new projects.

About the same time, new technologies were introduced that further complicated matters for utilities. Concern about environmental impacts associated with extracting and burning fossil fuels increased interest in methods of generating electricity using ways that did not require fuel. Electricity generated from solar and wind power used energy that was naturally renewed. These fuel-free methods were primarily technology driven and took advantage of a learning-curve that has resulted in on-going price reductions of 50% every 4-5 years.

Small modular solar units allowed electricity to be generated at customer locations. Although this reduced customer costs, it made things more challenging for utilities. It reduced their revenues at a time when those revenues were already challenged by flat growth in demand. And these units were located within the distribution network which could result in the flow of electricity opposite to the direction for which the system was designed.

The Modern Grid

It is a huge shift for utilities that have operated in the same way for 100 years to move to a new way of doing business. The energy industry is undergoing a similar transition to what the computer industry experienced several decades ago. We once had highly centralized mainframe computers controlled by a few specialists. Now we have networks of personal computers that provide choices and new possibilities for everyone.

Putting customer needs at the center of the modern grid requires a new mindset. Utilities, especially those owned by private holding companies, have been mostly focused on creating revenue streams to reward shareholders and reducing the effects of regulators’ actions on profits. Many utilities do not even think in terms of “customers.” Instead they talk about “ratepayers” because, from their private parent company’s point of view, that’s where the money comes from.

Smart meters, solar, and batteries

Creating a modern grid will require replacing old electro-mechanical controls and monitoring equipment with modern digital devices. Having a two-way flow of information will help utilities more quickly determine when a line is down and dispatch a crew to the correct location. Smart meters provide utilities with more information about customer usage and save the cost of reading meters. But regulators should be sure that the hundreds of millions spent on new meters (and paid for by ratepayers) also benefit the customers. If designed correctly, with reliable, rapid communications, customers can access that data for use by home energy systems that optimize comfort and lower costs. Water heaters, as well as heating and cooling systems, can be controlled remotely by utilities or private aggregators to turn off for a short period to reduce peaks and save customers money.

A system dependent on digital devices and software control is much more vulnerable to cyber-security threats and must be designed with that in mind.

Creating a two-way flow of energy will also make the grid more capable. Utility-scale solar provides clean energy at a lower cost, but it still follows the old central station philosophy and requires a connection to transmission lines. By installing a significant amount of new solar at dispersed locations within the distribution system, it improves the reliability and resiliency of the grid.

Output from solar units can be variable. But those variations can be highly predictable. Anticipated changes can be matched from other contributions throughout the grid, especially with PJM’s large surplus of generation. Batteries have economic applications now, but will be even more useful as prices decline by half every 4-5 years. Energy storage can supply backup power, frequency and voltage regulation, and other valuable grid services.

Consolidated Edison, the utility that serves New York City, is intending to use distributed solar, storage, energy efficiency and other grid improvements to avoid the need to construct a new $1 billion substation. When utilities avoid building new facilities in order to save customers money, they need to have other means of remaining financially sound.

Soon the use of electric vehicles will be widespread. Batteries paid for as part of the price of the vehicle can be used to store renewable energy during the times when it is plentiful for use at other times when it is more valuable.

Resilience and Reliability

Some grid investments improve the ability to withstand stresses without loss of service. This is called resilience. It can involve undergrounding distribution lines to reduce the exposure to storm damage. Resilience is in a large part about what does not happen and therefore, is closely related to reliability. But investments in undergrounding can be very expensive and have diminishing returns. Other investments might be more cost-effective.

Having some local generation and the ability to temporarily isolate from the larger grid, using microgrids, can maintain some level of operation if the larger grid goes down. Public buildings, hospitals, university and commercial campuses, and industrial parks can benefit from this. Battery storage can also contribute to both resiliency and reliability. These are complex issues and the tradeoffs must be carefully evaluated.

Transmission lines put underground can have lower reliability than overhead lines, which are typically not very vulnerable to storm damage. Underground transmission is projected to have half the life span of overhead lines. Once the great disruption during the lengthy construction period is complete, they do have less of a visual impact, however. But this comes at a much higher cost.

Creating a Modern Grid: the roles of regulators and utilities

States that are well underway with grid modernization have begun with a legislative directive that broadly defines the goals to be achieved and empowers the state regulator to embark on the process of establishing the regulatory framework to facilitate the necessary activities. Usually milestones are specified to evaluate progress.

Legislation often specifies the major goals of the modernized system such as: a more flexible grid that offers a wider variety of more personalized energy options; that is more secure against threats; with decisions made considering both cost and environmental sustainability; and has a more diverse mix of both centralized and distributed generation, etc. New laws also often encourage the development of research and development activities to attract innovative new businesses, and the establishment of funding sources that provide low-cost financing for energy efficiency and small-scale renewable projects.

The regulators then convene a series of stakeholder workshops to better understand the challenges faced by the utilities and the desires of their customers. This can be a transformative experience for a state. Collaboration between many interests can set the stage for long-term cooperation that lowers costs, provides new employment, and makes the state an attractive location for both businesses and residents.

Utility regulators must be strong and independent to objectively review and balance the various interests. A cooperative relationship with the legislature and the executive branch is helpful when new laws might be required to ensure the financial health of utilities serving in a new role.

Utilities have a central role in developing our modern grid, but not the only role. States that have provided opportunities for innovative private companies to provide various energy services have created a path for lower energy costs and greater employment. Utilities must provide the platform for this to take place and they can profit by providing services that enable transactions between private companies and utility customers.

We must give utilities a fair return on their legacy investments and provide an opportunity for them to prosper by serving their customers better, perhaps with performance based rates. A modern grid should not create winners and losers. It should be a place for many to prosper by providing value to customers.

The wires are the natural monopoly. The utilities have accepted regulatory oversight and fair rates in exchange for a fair return and freedom from competition (on the wires side). That agreement should remain intact and proper regulatory oversight must occur. Utilities can be responsible for the distribution platform and still allow opportunities for private companies to provide a variety of services that have value to customers and the grid. This leads to a vibrant state economy, lower costs and increased employment.

The high cost of doing it wrong

If we do not move forward, we will pay a price. If utilities are allowed to drag 20th century habits deep into the 21st century, it will eventually harm them and the rest of the state as well. For example, Duke Energy has proposed a $13 billion grid modernization program. Critics, including Google and the North Carolina ratepayer advocate, say the plan has little justification and will not benefit customers or clean energy.

The North Carolina Utility Commission has said that Duke has not provided “compelling evidence” that its plan to modernize the grid would result in “meaningful benefits to ratepayers despite its cost.” Duke, like Dominion, is struggling to justify building new power plants in the face of flat demand for electricity. Investments in “gold-plated distribution infrastructure” will provide it with the revenue it desires. A Google representative said the costs attributed by Duke to grid modernization are “seemingly arbitrary.” The staff of the state regulatory commission agreed, saying that they are “not persuaded that all the components of the . . .  initiative will result in modernizing the grid.” The staff went on to say there is “substantial uncertainty regarding what exactly will be included.”

The general counsel of the North Carolina Sustainable Energy Association noted that, “Some grid modernization is certainly needed, but the price tag put forward by Duke is shocking, and what’s in their proposal is shocking as well.” He added that “there’s been very little meaningful public input.”

“If the customers are paying for 100 percent of these programs in their rates,” said an EDF spokesman, “then let’s give them 100 percent of the benefits.”

Lessons for Virginia

This sounds like the opportunity just squandered by the Virginia General Assembly. Instead of putting us on the path to an effective modern grid, the legislators have given the utilities permission to spend billions over the next 10 years with diminished regulatory involvement. This will add significantly to utility bills in Virginia that are already the 10th highest in the nation. There are no specifics in the bill that identify how this money will be spent or whether the money paid by customers will actually result in a modern grid similar to what is being developed in other states.

Virginia can do much better than this. We should immediately embark on a program to get this right in the next legislative session in a way that is fair to the regulated utilities and their customers. Bringing in objective outside specialists could guide us toward an innovative, lower cost, clean, efficient and reliable energy future.

 

Show up and be counted

Just in case you own neither a television nor a mailbox, don’t read a newspaper, only use your computer to watch videos of a Japanese cat with a thing for boxes, and never answer a telephone call from an unfamiliar number because it might be Rachel from Cardholder Services . . .

Tomorrow is Election Day in Virginia. Judging from the ads, politicians think you are most interested in which candidate has a hidden agenda of coddling violent gang members, or which one will dramatically lower our taxes simply by cutting the waste that every one of his predecessors somehow missed.

But I’d like to put in a plug for choosing candidates who support people over corporations, the public good over special interests, the environment over polluters, and the free market over monopoly. And if the candidates you’re choosing between don’t do any of those things as well as they should, vote anyway, because only by voting do you have the right to hold elected officials accountable.

The Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club has endorsed candidates at the state and local level whose background and responses to questionnaires and interviews show they are most likely to support the environment in office. The endorsements are made by the chapter’s Political Committee and the volunteer Executive Committee, in consultation with members most knowledgeable about the issues and the candidates. As a non-partisan organization, the Sierra Club can and does endorse Republicans as well as Democrats, but the Republican vow of ignorance on climate change tends to make it hard to find ones the Club can endorse. (The standout exception is Republican Delegate Randy Minchew of Leesburg.)

A group called Activate Virginia has also compiled a handy list of candidates who have pledged not to take contributions from the likes of Dominion Energy, which has used its remarkable influence to enrich itself at the expense of consumers and lull even otherwise savvy leaders into supporting the expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure.

Personally, I find it pretty easy to know who to vote for. No serious candidate still denies that the planet is warming or that humans are causing it. (Regrettably, we have a lot of un-serious candidates.) Governor McAuliffe finally put in motion a proposed rulemaking that would lower carbon emissions from power plants. Ralph Northam has pledged to see it through if he is elected Governor. Ed Gillespie has pledged to kill it. Northam gets my vote.

New fracked gas pipelines will raise energy prices and commit Virginia to decades more of rising greenhouse gas emissions, while crowding out cleaner and cheaper renewable energies like wind and solar. Candidate for Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax opposes the pipelines, while Jill Vogel repeats the mindless “all of the above” pablum so popular with politicians who aren’t troubled by the difference between a mountaintop dotted with wind turbines and one blown up for its coal. Fairfax gets my vote.

Attorney General Mark Herring has been a champion for the environment and consumers in court and before the State Corporation Commission. His challenger John Adams has a cool name. Herring gets my vote.

Times-Dispatch articles expose Dominion’s manipulation of government for its own enrichment—and that ain’t the half of it

Over the past few days the Richmond Times-Dispatch has run a three-part special report detailing Dominion Energy’s grip on the Virginia General Assembly and the company’s abuse of that power to enrich itself at the expense of its captive customers. Journalists Robert Zullo and Michael Martz examine how Dominion’s use of business and personal connections, campaign contributions and lobbying led to a series of laws that enriched the company and eroded the State Corporation Commission’s regulatory authority.

And Dominion still gets off too easy.

But before we get into that, first let me praise the RTD for even running this series. As recently as a few years ago, the paper assiduously avoided printing anything critical of Dominion outside the narrow confines of letters to the editor. News articles almost invariably adopted Dominion’s messaging and quoted Dominion spokespersons with no effort at independent verification. A single quote from an environmentalist or other critic, buried deep in the text, represented the only nod towards journalistic balance.

This has changed, as the paper’s remarkable exposé demonstrates. Zullo and Martz are not alone; columnist Jeff Schapiro frequently criticizes Dominion in ways that would never have seen print before. Somehow the RTD’s editors have found their spine.

The authors don’t editorialize. They quote a wide array of insiders and observers, though the absence of voices from the environmental community is striking. The coverage of personalities is sometimes even positive; Dominion CEO Tom Farrell, for example, comes off more as an upstanding citizen than as a master manipulator.

Indeed, many of the critics interviewed for the series pull their punches. Most of those quoted are full participants in the “Virginia Way,” a system in which going along to get along is embedded in the political culture. They are careful when criticizing Dominion, unwilling to tar their colleagues and, perhaps, aware they owe their own professional success to the same system that got us into this mess.

Overall, however, Dominion is right to hate the hot white light of journalistic scrutiny. Corporate greed doesn’t look good in print when the readers are its victims, and Dominion’s machinations are recorded here in excruciating detail. They culminate in the passage of 2015’s SB 1349, the law stripping the State Corporation Commission of its authority to review utility base rates and order refunds until 2022.

Dominion positioned its bill as a way to “protect” customers from the costs of complying with the federal Clean Power Plan, but it was not hard to recognize the Clean Power Plan as a politically charged fig leaf. SB 1349 was always about letting Dominion keep excess earnings. The Clean Power Plan, after all, was not scheduled to kick in until 2022, when rates would unfreeze. Meanwhile, as one SCC commissioner estimates, Dominion will keep as much as a billion dollars of money it has not earned.

Yet by concentrating on the money, the RTD misses bigger implications. Dominion’s corruption of our legislative process doesn’t just mean consumers are getting ripped off. It means Dominion has been able to undermine efforts to reduce energy use, protect our electric grid, move to greater use of renewable energy, and free us from dependence on fossil fuels.

Heck, under Dominion’s influence, elected leaders don’t even appreciate why these should be their priorities. Politicians genuinely think building fracked-gas pipelines like the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley pipelines will lower energy costs. (In case you missed it, they won’t.) This is the real damage Dominion does, that legislators don’t even know they’ve internalized the utility’s propaganda. This is the exercise of the “third dimension of power,” the hidden type of power described in former UVA professor Vivian Thomson’s recent book Climate of Capitulation.

As a result it doesn’t occur to our elected leaders to ask questions when Dominion promises to reduce carbon emissions while planning to build more fossil fuel generation. (The answer to the question is in the fine print; or if you prefer blunt speech, it’s a lie.)

These leaders acquiesce when Dominion lobbyists urge them to reject mandatory energy efficiency standards on the basis that Virginia has such low-cost electricity (wrong) that we can’t succeed at energy efficiency the way other states do (and anyway the SCC won’t let us, so we shouldn’t even try).

Dominion takes baby steps on renewable energy, and elected officials express their gratitude without noticing how dismally far behind our neighboring states we remain. (How kind of Dominion! Let’s give them some more money!) Democrats used to try to pass renewable energy mandates; they don’t any more. Dominion doesn’t like to be told what to do. So rather than fight and lose, legislators now say they don’t like mandates. That’s a true climate of capitulation.

In short, the people’s representatives pass bills Dominion wants, or reject ones Dominion opposes, and persuade themselves the legislature is in charge.

The RTD cites one especially telling example of this. “Since 1996, Dominion has been [Delegate Ken Plum’s] top political donor, contributing $105,750, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.” Yet, “’I’ve never felt squeezed by them,’ Plum said of the utility’s lobbying corps. ‘I have felt informed by them.’”

That’s what you call good lobbying. The lobbied official never feels squeezed, just informed.

It’s obvious enough that Dominion distributes money to legislators from both parties because it expects to buy influence. Legislators know this, and many acknowledge that it works on their colleagues. As for themselves, however, they are certain they can take money without being influenced. Even Ken Cuccinelli, who advocates for the SCC to regain its authority over Dominion, dismisses the idea of banning campaign contributions from public utilities. (Mind you, he offers no other solutions.)

Voters are rightly more skeptical, as demonstrated by the groundswell of support for Senator Chap Petersen’s proposals to repeal the rate freeze and to bar campaign contributions from regulated public utilities. Dozens of candidates seeking office this year have pledged not to take Dominion money, and according to the group Activate Virginia, 8 incumbents and 46 House candidates have promised to roll back the rate freeze.

In both cases, the question is why so few incumbents have signed on. Perhaps, after reading the RTD’s report, they will understand why they should. What’s at stake goes way beyond money.

A Candidate’s Guide to Clean Energy and the Pipelines

Photo courtesy of Chris Tandy.

Recently I attended a forum where a candidate for statewide office discussed his energy policies and voiced his support for wind and solar. He embraced a goal of Virginia reaching at least 30% renewable energy by 2030, which was roundly applauded. But then he added that we couldn’t get started on it without advances in battery storage, because, he said, without storage there is no way to put surplus wind and solar on the grid.

People around the room look dumbfounded. They weren’t energy experts, but they knew that was flat-out wrong. Later he made other statements that showed he misunderstood facts about energy, climate change and the grid, hadn’t questioned what he’d been told by utility lobbyists, or just hadn’t been paying much attention.

Maybe you are a candidate yourself (or you work for one), and you don’t want to embarrass yourself by saying so, but you frankly don’t understand what was wrong with that statement about wind and solar. Or perhaps you are an activist and you’d like to help your local candidate for office bone up on some of the most important issues he or she will have to vote on while in office.

Allow me to help. Here is what you need to know about the hot-button energy issues in Virginia today. I’ll also offer my opinion about where you should stand on those issues, but that part is up to you.

Solar is coming on strong—and it is the cheapest energy in Virginia today. This astounds people who don’t keep up with energy trends, but it’s what Dominion Energy Virginia’s latest integrated resource plan (IRP) reveals. Utility-scale solar farms, 20 megawatts (MW) and up, can produce electricity at a cost that beats coal, gas and nuclear. That’s why Dominion’s IRP proposes a build-out of 240 MW of solar per year. It’s why Amazon Web Services has been building 260 MW of solar in five Virginia counties to supply its data centers. It’s why, over the past year, developers have proposed more than 1,600 MW of additional solar capacity in counties across the state. It’s also why today, solar already employs more Virginians than coal.

None of the solar under development includes battery storage. It doesn’t have to, because electricity from solar all goes into one big grid.

The grid is HUGE. If you’re from around here, you probably remember the earthquake of August 2011. It was centered in Mineral, Virginia, but did damage all the way to Washington, D.C. It also caused an immediate shutdown of Dominion’s two nuclear reactors at North Anna that lasted for more than three months. That meant 1,790 megawatts (MW) of generating capacity, enough to power 750,000 homes, suddenly went offline. Do you remember what happened to your power supply at home? You probably don’t. Why not? Because your power didn’t go out.

That’s because the North Anna nuclear plants are only two out of more than 1,300 generating units (power plants) feeding a 13-state portion of the transmission grid managed by independent operator PJM Interconnection. When one unit fails, PJM calls on others. PJM’s job is to balance all this generation to meet demand reliably at the lowest cost.

The grid has no problem with solar. While solar makes up less than 1% of its electricity supply currently, a PJM study concluded the grid could handle up to 20% solar right now, without any new battery storage. Wind and solar together could make up as much as 30% of our electricity with no significant issues. The result would be less coal, less gas, and less carbon pollution—and $15.6 billion in energy savings.

Virginia already has energy storage. You could even say we are swimming in it. Bath County, Virginia is home to the world’s largest “battery” in the form of “pumped storage.” A pair of reservoirs provide over 3,000 megawatts of hydropower generating capacity that PJM uses to balance out supply and demand.

Actual batteries are also an option today, not sometime in the future. The price has dropped by half since 2014, to the point where solar-plus-storage combinations compete with new gas peaker plants. Batteries are also being paired with solar today to form microgrids that can power emergency shelters and other critical functions during widespread outages.

If Virginia goes totally gangbusters with solar, a day will come when there is so much electricity being generated from the sun in some areas that we’d need batteries. But, sadly, we aren’t anywhere near there yet.

So, you should definitely get on board with battery storage; just don’t make the mistake of thinking we can’t ramp up renewable energy today without it.

Make renewable energy your BFF. It probably polls better than you do. Renewable energy has favorability ratings most politicians only dream about. A Gallup poll last year showed 73% of Americans prefer alternative energy to oil and gas, a number that rises to 89% among Democrats. Republicans love it, too; North Carolina-based Conservatives for Clean Energy found that 79% of registered Republicans in their state are more likely to support lawmakers who back renewable energy options.

Distributed renewable energy—think rooftop solar—is especially popular with the greenies on the left and the libertarians on the right, and pretty much everyone in between. It offers benefits that utility solar does not. The policy that makes it affordable is called net metering. It gives solar owners credit for the excess solar electricity they put on the grid in the daytime, to be applied against the power they draw from the grid at night. If you want to support your constituents’ ability to power their own homes with solar, you should protect and expand their right to net meter their electricity.

People who understand Dominion’s pipeline hate Dominion’s pipeline. The proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline would carry fracked gas 600 miles from inside West Virginia through the heart of Virginia and into North Carolina. Instead of following highways, it cuts across mountains, rivers, forests and farms, and requires land clearing 150 feet wide the whole way. Landowners along the route are furious, as are lovers of the national forests and the Appalachian Trail, people who care about water quality, people who care about climate change, and fans of caves, bats and other wildlife.

The gas it will carry is extracted from shale formations deep underground using hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a loud, dirty and dangerous practice that doesn’t poll well in Virginia. More quietly (but in many ways worse), leaking wells, pipes, and storage reservoirs are estimated to emit enough greenhouse gases to cancel out the climate advantages of burning gas over coal, and increase smog. An analysis using industry data found that building the ACP and a second controversial pipeline project, the Mountain Valley Pipeline, would more than double the carbon footprint of Virginia’s power sector.

Sea level rise is already taking a toll in Virginia with “sunny day” flooding regularly crippling low-lying areas of Hampton Roads. If you’ve pledged to address climate change, you need to understand how building gas pipelines will undermine the very efforts to reduce such threats.

Now, if you don’t want to oppose Dominion, you might be inclined to minimize all these issues, or to tell voters the destruction of all we hold dear is just the price we pay for cheap energy. I’m sure you can phrase it better than that.

Before you do, though, you should also spend a few minutes to understand why critics say the ACP will raise energy prices, not lower them. That’s because Dominion’s gas-burning electric generating plants already have long-term contracts to use another company’s pipeline, for less money. Using the ACP instead of cheaper alternatives means raising costs to consumers.

Dominion also plans to build more gas-fired power plants so it can fill the pipeline. Gas plants are built to last 30 years or more, pipelines 50 years. Locking us into gas infrastructure for decades when solar is already cheaper than gas now is a seriously bad bet.

And if you think Dominion is going to shoulder the loss of a bad bet, better think again. That’s what its captive ratepayers are for.

Another name for those people is “voters.”