Bills that passed, bills that failed, and how the General Assembly failed Virginia again on clean energy

Child on father's shoulders with sign reading "We need a healthy planet"

Photo credit Sierra Club.

When the General Assembly session opened January 9, legislators were presented with dozens of bills designed to save money for consumers, lower energy consumption, provide more solar options, and set us on a pathway to an all-renewables future. Almost none of these measures passed, while bills that benefited utilities kept up their track record of success.

Before I review the individual bills, it’s worth considering for a moment how very different Virginia’s energy future would look if the best of 2019’s bills had passed. In that alternate universe, Virginians could have looked forward to:

  • A freer and more open market for renewable energy at all levels, including unrestricted use of third-party financing for renewable energy, an end to punitive standby charges and arbitrary limits on customer solar, and new opportunities for local governments to install solar cost-effectively.
  • A mandate for utilities to achieve real energy efficiency results, not just to throw their customers’ money at programs.
  • An energy efficiency revolving fund to offer no-interest loans to local governments, public schools and public institutions of higher learning.
  • The right to choose an electricity supplier for renewable energy, instead of being restricted to more expensive and less desirable utility offerings (if available at all).
  • Tax credits for solar on landfills, brownfields and economic opportunity zones.
  • Rebates for low and moderate-income Virginians who install solar.
  • A new revenue source for spending on climate adaptation efforts, energy efficiency programs, and coalfields transition, made possible bythe auctioning of carbon allowances to power plants as part of joining the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative; half the lowered carbon emissions would have been achieved through installing wind and solar.
  • Movement towards an eventual phase-out of fossil fuels.
  • Stronger assurance that customers won’t be overcharged for the use of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline or other fracked-gas pipelines owned by utility affiliates.

But in a legislature still ruled by Dominion Energy and Republicans (in that order), what we mostly got instead were bills letting utilities charge their electricity customers for speculative development projects (HB 1840, HB 2738 and SB 1695) and rural broadband infrastructure (HB 2691), and another that would actually prevent the state from pursuing carbon reduction regulations (HB 2611).

A year ago legislators agreed that Dominion and Appalachian Power should propose hundreds of millions of dollars in energy efficiency programs, as a way to sop up some of those companies’ excess earnings instead of the unthinkable alternative of taking the money away from them. This year subcommittees killed bills (HB 2294, HB 1809) that would have insisted those programs be effective. (HB 2294 would have also made last year’s renewable energy goals mandatory.)

The energy efficiency bills that did pass were far more modest: making it harder for the SCC to reject utility-proposed programs (HB 2292 and SB 1662) and establishing a stakeholder group to provide input on programs (HB 2293).

“Energy Freedom,” and other similar legislation aimed at opening up the rooftop solar market, died on party-line votes in committee.

In fact, the party-line vote became a theme whenever bills came up that Dominion opposed. Anyone sitting through the House Commerce and Labor subcommittee hearing, watching one customer solar bill after another be unceremoniously killed, might have wondered if the vote buttons had gotten stuck.

The only significant renewable energy legislation to make it through the committee gauntlet was a long-negotiated Rubin Group bill that gives customers of Virginia’s rural electric cooperatives more opportunities to install solar, at the cost of accepting future new demand charges (HB 2547 and SB 1769). Whether it works in favor of all coop solar customers or not remains an open question. The coops would not provide advocates with any cost modeling and referred us to the solar industry trade association MDV-SEIA, which told us they couldn’t provide it either because of a confidentiality agreement within the Rubin Group.

But the bill does raise the limit on the amount of customer solar that can be built in those parts of the state served by rural electric coops. Customers of Dominion and APCo didn’t get even that much, though one bill—from a Republican—calls for those utilities to provide a total of $50 million in assistance to low-income, elderly and disabled customers for solar and energy efficiency. HB 2789 marks one of the rare bright spots of the 2019 session.

Two other minor renewable energy bills could make incremental progress for a handful of municipalities (HB 2792 and SB 1779) and school systems (HB 2192 and SB 1331).

And that, I’m sorry to say, is pretty much it for energy legislation this year.

Below is a final rundown of the bills that passed, followed by the ones that didn’t. Links in the bill numbers will take you to their summary pages in the Legislative Information Service. The summaries there should not be relied on, because amendments may make a bill quite different by the time it gets passed (or dies). Follow the links on a page to read the legislation or see vote results. Many of the committee hearings were recorded on video.

Bills that passed: renewable energy

HB 2192 (Rush) and SB 1331 (Stanley) is a school modernization initiative that includes language encouraging energy efficient building standards and net zero design. It also encourages schools to consider lease agreements with private developers (apparently there is one particular North Carolina firm that wants this). It does not provide for the more common use of third-party power purchase agreements. It has nice (but not mandatory) language on net zero schools. It allows leases with private developers who will construct and operate buildings and facilities. It permits public schools to contract with utilities for solar energy as part of the school modernization project. An amendment added language requiring that renewable energy facilities must be on school property and cannot be used to serve any other property. PPAs are not mentioned. Ambiguous language in these provisions may cause problems for schools. Both bills passed the House and Senate almost unanimously with Senator Black the only naysayer.

HB 2547 (Hugo) and SB 1769 (Sturtevant) make changes to the net metering program for customers of electric cooperatives. The overall net metering cap is raised from the current 1 percent to a total of 5%, divided into separate buckets by customer type and with an option for coops to choose to go up to 7%. Customers will be permitted to install enough renewable energy to meet up to 125% of previous year’s demand, up from 100% today. Third-party PPAs are generally legal for tax-exempt entities, with a self-certification requirement. However, the coops will begin imposing demand charges on customers with solar, to be phased in over several years, replacing any standby charges. This bill was negotiated between the coops and the solar industry via the “Rubin Group.” An amendment to the bill establishes a stakeholder group for further discussions with Dominion and APCo on net metering, a prospect that will appeal only to eternal optimists and amnesiacs who don’t remember the past five years of time-wasting, fruitless negotiations. SB 1769 passed both the Senate and House unanimously. HB 2547 passed the House unanimously and the Senate 36-4, with Black, Chase, Stuart and Suetterlein voting no this time, with no discernible reason for the change.

HB 2621 (Ingram) and SB 1398 (Stanley) authorize a locality to require the owner or developer of a solar farm, as part of the approval process, to agree to a decommissioning plan. This was a negotiated Rubin Group bill. SB 1398 was incorporated into SB 1091 (Reeves), which was amended to conform to the compromise language of HB 2621.

HB 2741 (Aird) establishes a rebate program for low and moderate-income households that install solar. Amended so it retains the structure of the program but removes funding. As amended it passed both House and Senate.

HB 2792 (Tran) and SB 1779 (Ebbin) establish a 6-year pilot program for municipal net metering for localities that are retail customers of investor-owned utilities. The initial bill negotiated with the utilities was much more limited than most localities wanted; further amendments whittled it down to a point where it won’t help localities with significant projects like landfill solar. However, we are told it will be useful for a few small on-site projects that don’t need PPAs. Even with the utilities on board, 21 House Republicans and one senator (Sutterlein) voted against the House bill, though only 12 House Republicans were hardcore enough to vote against the identical Senate bill when it crossed over. 

HB 2789 (O’Quinn) requires Dominion and APCo to develop pilot programs to offer solar and energy efficiency incentives to low-income, elderly and disabled customers. The energy efficiency money, totaling $25 million, is to come out of the amount the utilities are required to propose in efficiency spending under last year’s SB 966. The renewable energy incentives, also $25 million, cannot come out of that spending; the legislation is silent on how it will be paid for. Passed the House 90-9, with only Republicans as holdouts. Passed the Senate 37-3, with only Black, Stuart and Suetterlein in opposition.

Bills that passed: energy efficiency

HB 2292 (Sullivan) and SB 1662 (Wagner), dubbed the “show your work bill,” requires the SCC to provide justification if it rejects a utility energy efficiency program. As amended, the bills passed almost unanimously.

HB 2293 (Sullivan) establishes a stakeholder process to provide input on the development of utility energy efficiency programs. Passed both houses unanimously.

HB 2332 (Keam) protects customer data collected by utilities while allowing the use of aggregated anonymous data for energy efficiency and demand-side management efforts. A substitute changed the bill to one requiring the SCC to convene a Data Access Stakeholder Group to review customer privacy and data access issues. As amended, the bill passed both Houses unanimously. 

SB 1400 (Petersen) would have removed the exclusion of residential buildings from the Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) program, which allows localities to provide low-interest loans for energy efficiency and renewable energy improvements on buildings. After passing the Senate unanimously, the bill was amended in the House to remove the residential PACE authorization (it does expand PACE to include stormwater improvements). As amended, it passed both houses unanimously. It’s probably cheating putting this one in the“passed” category, but I needed the win. 

Bills that passed: energy transition and climate

HB 2611 (Poindexter) would prohibit Virginia from joining or participating in RGGI without support from two-thirds of the members of the House and Senate, making it sort of an anti-Virginia Coastal Protection Act. Passed the House on a 51-48 party-line vote. Passed the Senate on a 20-19 vote. Only one Republican, Jill Vogel, voted against it. The Governor is expected to veto it.

HB 2747 (Kilgore) and SB 1707 (Chafin) create a Southwest Virginia Energy Research and Development Authority “for the purposes of promoting opportunities for energy development in Southwest Virginia, to create jobs and economic activity in Southwest Virginia consistent with the Virginia Energy Plan prepared pursuant to Chapter 2 (§ 67-200 et seq.), and to position Southwest Virginia and the Commonwealth as a leader in energy workforce and energy technology research and development.” Among the powers listed are promotingrenewable energy on brownfield sites, including abandoned mine sites, and supporting energy storage, including pumped storage hydro. Fossil fuel projects are not listed, but are also not excluded. Both bills passed unanimously.

Bills that passed: other utility regulation

HB 1840 (Danny Marshall) allows utilities to develop transmission infrastructure at megasites in anticipation of development, charging today’s customers for the expense of attracting new customers. The legislation was amended to change the language to the nicer-sounding “business park,” but it continues to allow utilities to recover costs for constructing transmission lines and substations to serve these speculative projects. It passed unanimously in the Senate and 82-18 in the House, with mainly the newer Democrats voting no.

HB 2477 (Kilgore) originally would have eliminated one of the few areas of retail choice allowed in Virginia by preventing large customers from using competitive retail suppliers of electricity, including for the purpose of procuring renewable energy, in any utility territory with less than 2% annual load growth. A substitute bill removed most of the bad provisions and confined its operation to APCo, but also left it incomprehensible, so I can’t possibly tell you what it does. As far as I was able to determine, no customers opposed the final bill, which passed the House and Senate unanimously.

HB 2691 (O’Quinn) originally would have established a pilot program for electric utilities to provide broadband services in underserved areas, and raise rates for the rest of us to pay for it. The bill was amended so utilities can only provide the capacity on their lines to private broadband suppliers. The investment is eligible for recovery as an electric grid transformation project under last year’s SB 966, presumably so it is paid for out of utility overearnings instead of a new rate increase.The amended bill passed both houses almost unanimously.   

HB 2738 (Bagby) and SB 1695 (Wagner) authorizes utilities to acquire rights of way for sites that the Virginia Economic Development Partnership Authority decides could be developed to attract new customers, and allows utilities to recover costs from existing customers. A substitute tightened the requirements somewhat, but it remains another giveaway to utilities in the name of speculative development, at the expense of landowners and consumers.The House bill passed 85-13with mostly newer Democrats in opposition, then passed the Senate 37-3, with McPike, Spruill and Suetterlein voting no. The Senate bill passed 34-6; although the bills appear to have been identical, Chase, Newman and Peake also voted no. The House vote on SB 1695 was 84-13.

And now for the also-rans.

Bills that failed: renewable energy

HB 2329 (Keam) and SB 1456 (McClellan and Edwards) is the Solar Freedom bill that would have removed 8 barriers to renewable energy installations by utility customers, including lifting the 1% net metering cap, removing PPA caps, and allowing municipal net metering. HB 2329 was defeated inCommerce and Labor 8-7 on a party-line vote. The Senate companion was killed in Commerce and Labor on a 10-3 party-line vote.

HB 1683 (Ware) gives electric cooperatives greater autonomy, including authority to raise their total system caps for net metering up to 5% of peak load. Amended to remove the net metering language, then withdrawn by patron.

HB 1809 (Gooditis) follows up on last year’s HB 966 by making the renewable energy and energy efficiency provisions mandatory. If utilities don’t meet annual targets, they have to return their retained overearnings to customers. Defeated inCommerce and Labor subcommittee 3 on party-line vote, with only Democrats supporting.

HB 1869 (Hurst), SB 1483 (Deeds) and SB 1714 (Edwards) creates a pilot program allowing schools that generate a surplus of solar or wind energy to have the surplus credited to other schools in the same school district. HB 1869defeated in Commerce and Labor subcommittee 3 on party-line vote. In Senate Commerce and Labor, SB 1714 was incorporated into SB 1483, then defeated unanimously.

HB 1902 (Rasoul) would provide a billion dollars in grant funding for solar projects, paid for by utilities, who are required to contribute this amount of money through voluntary contributions (sic). Killed in Appropriations subcommittee on party-line vote.

HB 1928 (Bulova) and SB 1460 (McClellan) expands utility programs allowing third-party power purchase agreements (PPAs) for renewable energy while continuing to restrict the classes of customers who are allowed to have access to this important financing tool. In committee hearings, utility lobbyists claimed there was no need for the legislation because there is “plenty of room left” under the existing caps. Industry members testified that there is a lot more in the queue than is public, and caps will likely be reached this year. HB 1928 killed in Commerce and Labor subcommittee 3 by a 6-4 vote; Republican Tim Hugo voted with Democrats in support of the bill. SB 1460 killed in Senate Commerce and Labor 10-3, with only Democrats supporting.

HB 2117 (Mullin) and SB 1584 (Sutterlein) fixes the problem that competitive service providers can no longer offer renewable energy to a utility’s customers once the utility has an approved renewable energy tariff of its own. Now that the SCC has approved a renewable energy tariff for APCo, this is a live issue. HB 2117defeated inCommerce and Labor subcommittee 3 on party-line vote. Although the patron of SB 1584, David Sutterlein, is a Republican, his bill died in Senate Commerce and Labor 11-1, with only fellow Republican Ben Chafin voting for it, and Republican Stephen Newman abstaining.

HB 2165 (Davis and Hurst) and HB 2460 (Jones and Kory), and SB 1496 (Saslaw) provide an income tax credit for nonresidential solar energy equipment installed on landfills, brownfields, in economic opportunity zones, and in certain utility cooperatives. This is a Rubin Group bill. HB 2165 and HB 2460 were left in the Committee on General Laws (i.e, they died there). SB 1496 was amended in Finance to change it from a tax credit to a grant-funded program, but with no money. Then it passed the committee and the Senate unanimously.  However, it was then killed unanimously in a House subcommittee of Commerce, Agriculture, Natural Resources & Technology.

HB 2241 (Delaney) establishes a green jobs training tax credit. Failed in House Finance subcommittee on party-line vote.

HB 2500 (Sullivan) establishes a mandatory renewable portfolio standard (RPS) for Virginia, eliminates carbon-producing sources from the list of qualifying sources, kicks things off with an extraordinarily ambitious 20% by 2020 target, and ratchets up the targets to 80% by 2027. Failed inCommerce and Labor subcommittee 3 with only Democrat Mark Keam supporting it.

HB 2641 (Gooditis) makes third-party power purchase agreements for distributed renewable energy resources legal statewide. Killed in Commerce and Labor subcommittee 3 by a 6-3 vote. Delegate Hugo, who had voted for Bulova’s narrower PPA bill, joined the other Republicans in voting against this broader one.

HB 2692 (Sullivan) allows the owner of a multifamily residential building to install a renewable energy facility and sell the output to occupants or use for the building’s common areas. Stricken from docket.

HJ 656 (Delaney) would have the Virginia Resources Authority study the process of transitioning Virginia’s workforce from fossil-fuel jobs to green energy jobs. Failed to report from Rules subcommittee on party-line vote, all Republicans voting against it.

Bills that failed: energy efficiency (some of which had RE components)

HB 2243 (Sullivan) creates an energy efficiency revolving fund to offer no-interest loans to local government, public schools, and public institutions of higher learning. Killed in Appropriations subcommittee on party-line vote.

HB 2294 (Sullivan) establishes mandatory energy efficiency goals for electric and gas utilities. Killed in Commerce and Labor subcommittee 3 on party-line vote.

HB 2295 (Sullivan) creates an energy efficiency fund and board to administer it. Killed in an Appropriations subcommittee on a party-line vote.

SB 1111 (Marsden) requires utilities to provide rate abatements to certain customers who invest at least $10,000 in energy efficiency and, by virtue of their lower consumption, end up being pushed into a tier with higher rates. Stricken at the request of the patron.

HB 2070 (Bell, John) provides a tax deduction for energy saving products, including solar panels and Energy Star products, up to $10,000. Stricken from docket in Finance subcommittee.

Bills that failed: energy transition and climate

HB 1635 (Rasoul, with 9 co-patrons) imposes a moratorium on fossil fuel projects, including export facilities, gas pipelines and related infrastructure, refineries and fossil fuel exploration; requires utilities to use clean energy sources for 80% of electricity sales by 2028, and 100% by 2036; and requires the Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy to develop a (really) comprehensive climate action plan, which residents are given legal standing to enforce by suit. This is being referred to as by the Off Act. Defeated on the floor of the House 86-12.

HB 1686 (Reid, with 14 co-patrons) and SB 1648 (Boysko) bans new or expanded fossil fuel generating plants until Virginia has those 5,500 MW of renewable energy we were promised. This is referred to as the Renewables First Act. HB 1686:Defeated inCommerce and Labor Subcommittee 3. 2 Democrats voted for it, 6 Republicans and 1 Democrat against. SB 1648 PBI’d 12-0 in Commerce and Labor.

HB 2501(Rasoul) directs the Division of Energy at DMME to include a greenhouse gas emissions inventory in the Virginia Energy Plan. Killed in Commerce and Labor subcommittee 3 on party-line vote.

HB 2645 (Rasoul, with 13 co-patrons), nicknamed the REFUND Act, prohibits electric utilities from making nonessential expenditures and requires refunds if the SCC finds they have. It also bars fuel cost recovery for more pipeline capacity than appropriate to ensure a reliable supply of gas. Other reforms in the bill would undo some of the provisions of last year’s SB 966, lower the percentage of excess earnings utilities can retain, and require the SCC to determine rates of return based on cost of service rather than peer group analysis. Democrat Steve Heretick voted with Republicans to kill the bill in Commerce and Labor subcommittee 3.

HB 2735 (Toscano) and SB 1666 (Lewis and Spruill) is this year’s version of the Virginia Coastal Protection Act, which would have Virginia formally join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI). It dedicates money raised by auctioning carbon allowances to climate adaptation efforts, energy efficiency programs, and coalfields transition. HB 2735 died in Commerce and Labor subcommittee 3 on party-line vote. SB 1666 met the same fate in Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources, with Democrat Rosalyn Dance abstaining.

HJ 724 (Rasoul) is a resolution “Recognizing the need for a Green New Deal in Virginia which promotes a Just Transition to a clean energy economy through lifting working families.” This was referred to Commerce and Labor subcommittee 3, where it was left without a hearing.

Bills that failed: other utility regulation

HB 1718 (Ware) requires an electric utility to demonstrate that any pipeline capacity contracts it enters are the lowest-cost option available, before being given approval to charge customers in a fuel factor case. Delegate Ware testified in committee that the bill was not intended to stop the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, but would simply guide the SCC’s review of a rate request after the pipeline is operational. Dominion’s lobbyist argued the legislation was unnecessary because the SCC already has all the authority it needs, and it shouldn’t be allowed to look back to second-guess the contents of the ACP contract. The bill passed the House 57-40. Do look at the votes; this is the most interesting energy vote of the year, as it neatly separates the Dominion faction from the pro-consumer faction. Unfortunately, the bill was then killed in Senate Commerce & Labor, where the Dominion faction runs the show, so most senators didn’t have the opportunity to demonstrate whose side they’re on.

HB 2503 (Rasoul) requires the State Corporation Commission to conduct a formal hearing before approving any changes to fuel procurement arrangements between affiliates of an electric utility or its parent company that will impact rate payers. This addresses the conflict of interest issue in Dominion Energy’s arrangement to commit its utility subsidiary to purchase capacity in the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.  Stricken from docket.   

HB 2697 (Toscano) and SB 1583 (Sutterlein) supports competition by shortening the time period that a utility’s customer that switches to a competing supplier is barred from returning as a customer of its utility from 5 years to 90 days. HB 2697 died in House Commerce and Labor subcommittee 3 on a party-line vote, with all the Republicans voting against it. SB 1583 died in Senate Commerce and Labor 11-2, with only Republicans Newman and Chafin voting for it. Democrats Saslaw, Dance and Lucas joined the rest of the Republicans in demonstrating their Dominion-friendly bonafides.

SB 1780 (Petersen) requires, among other things, that utilities must refund to customers the costs of anything the SCC deems is a nonessential expenditure, including spending on lobbying, political contributions, and compensation for employees in excess of $5 million. It directs the SCC to disallow recovery of fuel costs if a company pays more for pipeline capacity from an affiliated company than needed to ensure a reliable supply of natural gas. It requires rate reviews of Dominion and APCo in 2019 and makes those biennial instead of triennial, and provides for the SCC to conduct an audit going back to 2015. It tightens provisions governing utilities’ keeping of overearnings and provides for the allowed rate of return to be based on the cost of providing service instead of letting our utilities make what all the other monopolists make (“peer group analysis”).  Killed in Commerce and Labor 12-1, with only Republican Richard Stuart supporting the bill.

So many bills filed, so few remain: almost-halftime status report on climate and energy legislation

Virginia statehouse, where the General Assembly meetsTuesday, January 5 marks “crossover” at the Virginia General Assembly, the date when House bills go over to the Senate, and Senate bills to the House. Any legislation that hasn’t made it through the gantlet to a successful vote in its starting chamber evaporates in a puff of smoke, if it has not already died due to causes natural or unnatural.

I’ve hot-linked the bill numbers to their pages in the Legislative Information Service; follow the links on the page to read the legislation or see vote results. The information below is based on what was available as of yesterday, February 3.

Many of the committee hearings were recorded on video.

Renewable energy bills

Solar Freedom, the bill to remove barriers to customer-owned solar statewide, met implacable resistance from Republicans in control of the Commerce and Labor committees, as did narrower bills focused just on power purchase agreements (PPAs). That meant the only significant renewable energy legislation moving forward is a bill negotiated between the rural electric cooperatives and solar advocates that will ease restrictions on customer solar in coop territory. See HB 2547 (Hugo) and SB 1769 (Sturtevant), below.

Two bills that would have provided financial support for solar have passed their committees, but only after the money part got taken out.

A watered-down municipal renewable energy bill survives, but in a disappointingly limited form. An interesting solar-on-schools bill now looks less interesting.

Legislation enabling localities to impose new decommissioning requirements on large solar farms will likely move forward.

Here is the status of the renewable energy bills I’ve been tracking, with a little color commentary sprinkled in:

 HB 2329 (Keam) and SB 1456 (McClellan and Edwards) is the Solar Freedom bill that would have removed 8 barriers to renewable energy installations by utility customers, including lifting the 1% net metering cap, removing PPA caps, and allowing municipal net metering.  Advocates gave this everything they had, with hundreds of citizens lobbying for the bill and showing up at the subcommittee hearings.But Republicans held firm for their utility friends. HB 2329 was defeated in Commerce and Labor 8-7 on a party-line vote with two Democrats absent and one (Lindsay) present but strangely not voting. The Senate companion was killed in Commerce and Labor on a 10-3 party-line vote. Some of the reforms in Solar Freedom also appear in weakened form in one bill (HB 2547 and SB 1769) that moves forward—but only for the electric cooperatives.   

HB 1683 (Ware) gives electric cooperatives greater autonomy, including authority to raise their total system caps for net metering up to 5% of peak load. Amended to remove the net metering language, then withdrawn by patron.

HB 1809 (Gooditis) follows up on last year’s HB 966 by making the renewable energy and energy efficiency provisions mandatory. If utilities don’t meet annual targets, they have to return their retained overearnings to customers. Defeated in Commerce and Labor subcommittee 3 on party-line vote, with only Democrats supporting.

HB 1869 (Hurst), SB 1483 (Deeds) and SB 1714 (Edwards) creates a pilot program allowing schools that generate a surplus of solar or wind energy to have the surplus credited to other schools in the same school district. HB 1869 defeated in Commerce and Labor subcommittee 3 on party-line vote. In Senate Commerce and Labor, SB 1714 was incorporated into SB 1483, then defeated unanimously.

HB 1902(Rasoul) would provide a billion dollars in grant funding for solar projects, paid for by utilities, who are required to contribute this amount of money through voluntary contributions (sic). Killed in Appropriations subcommittee on party-line vote.

HB 1928 (Bulova) and SB 1460 (McClellan) expands utility programs allowing third-party power purchase agreements (PPAs) for renewable energy while continuing to restrict the classes of customers who are allowed to have access to this important financing tool. In committee hearings, utility lobbyists claimed there was no need for the legislation because there is “plenty of room left” under the existing caps. Industry members testified that there is a lot more in the queue than is public, and caps will likely be reached this year. HB 1928 killed in Commerce and Labor subcommittee 3 by a 6-4 vote; Republican Tim Hugo voted with Democrats in support of the bill. SB 1460 killed in Senate Commerce and Labor 10-3, with only Democrats supporting.

HB 2117 (Mullin) and SB 1584 (Sutterlein) fixes the problem that competitive service providers can no longer offer renewable energy to a utility’s customers once the utility has an approved renewable energy tariff of its own. Now that the SCC has approved a renewable energy tariff for APCo, this is a live issue. HB 2117 defeated in Commerce and Labor subcommittee 3 on party-line vote. Although the patron of SB 1584, David Sutterlein, is a Republican, his bill died in Senate Commerce and Labor 11-1, with only fellow Republican Ben Chafin voting for it, and Republican Stephen Newman abstaining.

STILL ALIVE: HB 2165 (Davis and Hurst) and HB 2460 (Jones and Kory), and SB 1496 (Saslaw) provide an income tax credit for nonresidential solar energy equipment installed on landfills, brownfields, in economic opportunity zones, and in certain utility cooperatives. This is a Rubin Group bill. HB 2165 and HB 2460 remain stuck in the Committee on General Laws (not a good sign). SB 1496 was amended in Finance to change it from a tax credit to a grant-funded program, but with no money. Then it passed the committee unanimously. 

STILL ALIVE:  HB 2192 (Rush) and SB 1331 (Stanley) is a school modernization initiative that includes language encouraging energy efficient building standards and net zero design. It also encourages schools to consider lease agreements with private developers (apparently there is one particular North Carolina firm that wants this). It does not contemplate the more common use of third-party power purchase agreements. HB 2192 was amended in General Laws, where it passed unanimously. It still has nice (but not mandatory) language on net zero schools. It allows leases with private developers who will construct and operate buildings and facilities. It permits public schools to contract with utilities for solar energy as part of the school modernization project. New language requires that renewable energy facilities must be on school property and cannot be used to serve any other property. PPAs are still not mentioned. Ambiguous language in these provisions may cause problems for schools. SB 1331 was amended with what appears to be the same language as its House counterpart. It reported unanimously from Finance.

HB 2241 (Delaney) establishes a green jobs training tax credit. Failed in House Finance subcommittee on party-line vote.

HB 2500 (Sullivan) establishes a mandatory renewable portfolio standard (RPS) for Virginia, eliminates carbon-producing sources from the list of qualifying sources, kicks things off with an extraordinarily ambitious 20% by 2020 target, and ratchets up the targets to 80% by 2027. Failed in Commerce and Labor subcommittee 3 with only Democrat Mark Keam supporting it.

STILL ALIVE:  HB 2547 (Hugo) and SB 1769 (Sturtevant) makes changes to the net metering program for customers of electric cooperatives. The overall net metering cap is raised from the current 1 percent to a total of 5%, divided into separate buckets by customer type and with an option for coops to choose to go up to 7%. Customers will be permitted to install enough renewable energy to meet up to 125% of previous year’s demand, up from 100% today. Third-party PPAs are generally legal, with a self-certification requirement. However, the coops will begin imposing demand charges on customers with solar, to be phased in over several years, replacing any standby charges. This bill was negotiated between the coops and the solar industry via the “Rubin Group.” You have to hand it to the coops, this is huge movement on their part, if not perfect, and it is too bad that Dominion and APCo held fast to their obstructionist position rather than allow their customers more freedom to install solar. An amendment to the bill establishes a stakeholder group for further discussions with Dominion and APCo on net metering, a prospect that will appeal only to eternal optimists and amnesiacs who don’t remember the past five years of time-wasting, fruitless negotiations. Delegate Hugo told me he tried to get Dominion and APCo to sign on to the coop deal but couldn’t persuade them—and I understand from others that he did make a real effort. But he scoffed at my suggestion that maybe Dominion shouldn’t have the final say. HB 2547 reported unanimously from Commerce and Labor. SB 1769 was amended to include the same stakeholder language requiring the mice to continue negotiations with the cat. It has now passed the Senate unanimously.

STILL ALIVE: HB 2621 (Ingram) and SB 1398 (Stanley) authorize a locality to require the owner or developer of a solar farm, as part of the approval process, to agree to a decommissioning plan. This is a Rubin Group bill. An amended version of HB 2621 reported from Counties, Cities and Towns unanimously. SB 1398 was incorporated into SB 1091.

HB 2641 (Gooditis) makes third-party power purchase agreements for distributed renewable energy resources legal statewide. Killed in Commerce and Labor subcommittee 3 by a 6-3 vote. Delegate Hugo, who had voted for Bulova’s narrower PPA bill, joined the other Republicans in voting against this broader one.

HB 2692 (Sullivan) allows the owner of a multifamily residential building to install a renewable energy facility and sell the output to occupants or use for the building’s common areas. Stricken from docket.

STILL ALIVE: HB 2741 (Aird) establishes a rebate program for low and moderate-income households that install solar. Amended so it retains the structure of the program but removes funding; otherwise it was going to be sent to Appropriations to die. As amended it was reported Commerce and Labor unanimously.

STILL ALIVE: HB 2789 (O’Quinn) requires Dominion and APCo to apply for approval of three-year programs to incentivize low-income energy efficiency and solar totaling $25 million each. The efficiency spending comes out of the money utilities are required to spend under last year’s grid mod legislation. The solar spending is new money. Somehow I missed this bill in my earlier round-up. It passed the House 88-11. The nay votes are  all Republicans: Adams, L.R., Byron, Cole, Fariss, Freitas, Gilbert, Landes, Poindexter, Wright, Brewer and LaRock.

STILL ALIVE: HB 2792 (Tran) and SB 1779 (Ebbin) establishes a 6-year pilot program for municipal net metering for localities that are retail customers of investor-owned utilities. The initial bill negotiated with the utilities was predictably much more limited than most localities wanted; further amendments have left it useful for only a few small on-site projects that don’t need PPAs. Fairfax County supervisor Jeff McKay testified in committee it would do nothing to help the county’s projects.Tran presented the amended bill in committee just a day or two after coming under fire from conservative Republicans for a bill that would ease one restriction on late-term abortions. In an obviously orchestrated attempt to demonstrate that conservative middle-aged white men still wield the power in Richmond, Delegate Hugo said he needed time to read the amendment. Committee chairman Terry Kilgore obliged, saying they would come back to it. Kilgore then kept Tran waiting through several hours of other bills, many of which also had new amendments, before letting her bill come back up. (Proving once again that middle school has nothing on the General Assembly.) As amended, HB 2792 reported from Commerce and Labor 19-2, with only Republicans Hugo and Head voting no.

HJ 656 (Delaney) would have the Virginia Resources Authority study the process of transitioning Virginia’s workforce from fossil-fuel jobs to green energy jobs. Failed to report from Rules subcommittee on party-line vote, all Republicans voting against it.

STILL ALIVE: SB 1091 (Reeves) imposes expensive bonding requirements on utility-scale solar farms, taking a more drastic approach than HB 2621 (Ingram) and SB 1398 (Stanley) to resolving the concerns of localities about what happens to solar farms at the end of their useful life. SB 1091 was amended to conform to the compromise language of HB 2621 and has passed the Senate unanimously.

Energy Efficiency (some of which have RE components)

We’re seeing modest progress in efficiency bills this year, mostly of the greasing-the-wheels variety. One of particular interest is Chap Petersen’s bill enabling Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) financing programs for residential buildings.

HB 2243 (Sullivan) creates an energy efficiency revolving fund to offer no-interest loans to local government, public schools, and public institutions of higher learning. Killed in Appropriations subcommittee on party-line vote.

STILL ALIVE: HB 2292 (Sullivan) and SB 1662 (Wagner), dubbed the “show your work bill,” requires the SCC to provide justification if it rejects a utility energy efficiency program. HB 2292 reported from Commerce and Labor with a substitute. SB 1662 passed the Senate with only 6 Republicans in opposition.

STILL ALIVE: HB 2293 (Sullivan) establishes a stakeholder process to provide input on the development of utility energy efficiency programs. Reported unanimously from Commerce and Labor with a substitute.

HB 2294 (Sullivan) establishes mandatory energy efficiency goals for electric and gas utilities. Killed in Commerce and Labor subcommittee 3 on party-line vote.

HB 2295 (Sullivan) creates an energy efficiency fund and board to administer it. Killed in an Appropriations subcommittee on a party-line vote.

STILL ALIVE: HB 2332 (Keam) protects customer data collected by utilities while allowing the use of aggregated anonymous data for energy efficiency and demand-side management efforts. Reported unanimously from Commerce and Labor with a substitute.

SB 1111 (Marsden) requires utilities to provide rate abatements to certain customers who invest at least $10,000 in energy efficiency and, by virtue of their lower consumption, end up being pushed into a tier with higher rates. Stricken at the request of the patron.

STILL ALIVE: SB 1400 (Petersen) removes the exclusion of residential buildings from the Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) program, which allows localities to provide low-interest loans for energy efficiency and renewable energy improvements on buildings. Passed the Senate unanimously.

HB 2070 (Bell, John) provides a tax deduction for energy saving products, including solar panels and Energy Star products, up to $10,000. Stricken from docket in Finance subcommittee.

Energy transition and climate

Bills designed to push Virginia towards a clean energy future died in the face of unanimous Republican opposition. House Republicans also united to pass a bill prohibiting Virginia from implementing its carbon reduction plan. But in a faint nod to reality, most Republicans and Democrats support legislation to help southwest Virginia develop renewable energy and energy storage (as long as it doesn’t cost anything).

HB 1635 (Rasoul, with 9 co-patrons) imposes a moratorium on fossil fuel projects, including export facilities, gas pipelines and related infrastructure, refineries and fossil fuel exploration; requires utilities to use clean energy sources for 80% of electricity sales by 2028, and 100% by 2036; and requires the Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy to develop a (really) comprehensive climate action plan, which residents are given legal standing to enforce by suit. This is being referred to as the “Off Act.” Defeated on the floor of the House 86-12.

HB 1686 (Reid, with 14 co-patrons) and SB 1648 (Boysko) bans new or expanded fossil fuel generating plants until Virginia has those 5,500 MW of renewable energy we were promised. This is referred to as the “Renewables First Act.” HB 1686: Defeated in Commerce and Labor Subcommittee 3. 2 Democrats voted for it, 6 Republicans and 1 Democrat against. SB 1648 PBI’d 12-0 in Commerce and Labor.

STILL ALIVE: HB 2611 (Poindexter) would prohibit Virginia from joining or participating in RGGI without support from two-thirds of the members of the House and Senate, making it sort of an anti-Virginia Coastal Protection Act. Passed the House on party-line vote.

HB 2501 (Rasoul) directs the Division of Energy at DMME to include a greenhouse gas emissions inventory in the Virginia Energy Plan. Killed in Commerce and Labor subcommittee 3 on party-line vote.

HB 2645 (Rasoul, with 13 co-patrons), nicknamed the REFUND Act, prohibits electric utilities from making nonessential expenditures and requires refunds if the SCC finds they have. It also bars fuel cost recovery for more pipeline capacity than appropriate to ensure a reliable supply of gas. Other reforms in the bill would undo some of the provisions of last year’s SB 966, lower the percentage of excess earnings utilities can retain, and require the SCC to determine rates of return based on cost of service rather than peer group analysis. Democrat Steve Heretick voted with Republicans to kill the bill in Commerce and Labor subcommittee 3.

HB 2735 (Toscano) and SB 1666 (Lewis and Spruill) is this year’s version of the Virginia Coastal Protection Act, which would have Virginia formally join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI). It dedicates money raised by auctioning carbon allowances to climate adaptation efforts, energy efficiency programs, and coalfields transition. HB 2735 died in Commerce and Labor subcommittee 3 on party-line vote. SB 1666 met the same fate in Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources, with Democrat Rosalyn Dance abstaining.

STILL ALIVE: HB 2747 (Kilgore) and SB 1707 (Chafin) create a Southwest Virginia Energy Research and Development Authority which will, among other things, promote renewable energy on brownfield sites, including abandoned mine sites, and support energy storage, including pumped storage hydro. HB 2747 reported unanimously from Commerce and Labor and was referred to Appropriations, where it passed with a substitute (presumably removing its fiscal impact, though I haven’t looked closely enough to confirm that). SB 1707 reported from Local Government and then from Finance, also with a substitute, presumably the same one.

HJ 724 (Rasoul) is a resolution “Recognizing the need for a Green New Deal in Virginia which promotes a Just Transition to a clean energy economy through lifting working families.” This was referred to Commerce and Labor subcommittee 3, but there is no further information about it in the LIS.

Other utility regulation

 Bills that preserve, protect, and extend the monopoly power of our utilities are doing well. On the other hand, Dominion has so far failed to kill a bill strengthening the standards of review the SCC will use in considering whether to allow rate recovery for pipeline capacity. 

STILL ALIVE: HB 1718 (Ware) requires an electric utility to demonstrate that any pipeline capacity contracts it enters are the lowest-cost option available, before being given approval to charge customers in a fuel factor case. The discussion in the committee was lively. Delegate Ware assured the committee the bill was not intended to stop the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, but would simply guide the SCC’s review of a rate request after the pipeline is operational. Dominion’s lobbyist argued the legislation was unnecessary because the SCC already has all the authority it needs, and it shouldn’t be allowed to look back to second-guess the contents of the ACP contract. The bill passed the committee 11-8, with Democrats Keam, Kory, Bagby, Toscano, Heretick, Mullin and Bourne joining Republicans Ware, Byron, Webert and Wilt in support.  Republicans voting against were Kilgore, Hugo, Marshall, Robert Bell, O’Quinn, Yancey, Ransone, and Head. Democrat Eileen Filler-Corn abstained. [UPDATE 2/5/19: HB 1718 passed the House on a bipartisan vote of 57-40, with Filler-Corn abstaining again. Here is the tally of who voted on which side.]

STILL ALIVE: HB 1840 (Danny Marshall) allows utilities to develop transmission infrastructure at megasites in anticipation of development, charging today’s customers for the expense of attracting new customers. Reported from Commerce and Labor with a substitute. Democrats Bagby, Heretick, Mullin and Bourne joined the Republicans in support.

STILL ALIVE: HB 2477 (Kilgore) would eliminate one of the few areas of retail choice allowed in Virginia by preventing large customers from using competitive retail suppliers of electricity, including for the purpose of procuring renewable energy, in any utility territory with less than 2% annual load growth. A substitute bill in Commerce and Labor removes this language but replaces it with other requirements designed to make it difficult for large customers to leave the embrace of their incumbent monopoly. The substitute passed 15-2, with only Delegates Filler-Corn and Keam opposed.

HB 2503 (Rasoul) requires the State Corporation Commission to conduct a formal hearing before approving any changes to fuel procurement arrangements between affiliates of an electric utility or its parent company that will impact rate payers. This addresses the conflict of interest issue in Dominion Energy’s arrangement to commit its utility subsidiary to purchase capacity in the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.  Stricken from docket.

STILL ALIVE: HB 2691 (O’Quinn) establishes a pilot program for electric utilities to provide broadband services in underserved areas, and raise rates for the rest of us to pay for it, proclaiming this to be in the public interest. A substitute bill has utilities only providing the capacity on their lines to private broadband suppliers, and makes the investment eligible for recovery as an electric grid transformation project (seriously!), but prevents utilities from going into broadband services themselves. The amended bill passed Commerce and Labor unanimously.

HB 2697 (Toscano) and SB 1583 (Sutterlein) supports competition by shortening the time period that a utility’s customer that switches to a competing supplier is barred from returning as a customer of its utility from 5 years to 90 days. HB 2697 died in House Commerce and Labor subcommittee 3 on a party-line vote, with all the Republicans voting against it. SB 1583 died in Senate Commerce and Labor 11-2, with only Republicans Newman and Chafin voting for it. Democrats Saslaw, Dance and Lucas joined the rest of the Republicans in demonstrating their Dominion-friendly bonafides.

STILL ALIVE: HB 2738 (Bagby) and SB 1695 (Wagner) authorizes utilities to acquire rights of way on land that the Virginia Economic Development Partnership Authority decides could attract new customers to the site, and allows utilities to recover costs from existing customers. Because, you know, having utilities seize Virginians’ land for speculative development is already going so well for folks in the path of the pipelines. Who could complain about paying higher rates to help it happen more places?  A substitute tightens the requirements somewhat without changing the basics. HB 2738 reported from Commerce and Labor 19-1 (Kory opposing, Keam abstaining). SB 1695 now has a similar amendment; it passed the Senate 34-6 and has been referred to House Commerce and Labor. The dissenting senators are an interesting mix of Rs and Ds: Chase, McPike, Newman, Peake, Spruill, and Suetterlein.

SB 1780 (Petersen) requires, among other things, that utilities must refund to customers the costs of anything the SCC deems is a nonessential expenditure, including spending on lobbying, political contributions, and compensation for employees in excess of $5 million. It directs the SCC to disallow recovery of fuel costs if a company pays more for pipeline capacity from an affiliated company than needed to ensure a reliable supply of natural gas. It requires rate reviews of Dominion and APCo in 2019 and makes those biennial instead of triennial, and provides for the SCC to conduct an audit going back to 2015. It tightens provisions governing utilities’ keeping of overearnings and provides for the allowed rate of return to be based on the cost of providing service instead of letting our utilities make what all the other monopolists make (“peer group analysis”).  Killed in Commerce and Labor 12-1, with only Republican Richard Stuart supporting the bill.

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.