If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em? Dominion Energy now selling residential solar

Sierra Club members talk to Richmond homeowner Kevin Ciafarini about his experience with solar.

Dominion Energy never used to be happy about customers producing their own energy from solar. “Hostile” is more the word that springs to mind. The company has traditionally seen privately owned solar arrays as competition: The more solar panels people put on their roofs, the less electricity they buy from their utility.

But Virginia has long allowed net metering, and in 2020 our General Assembly came down firmly on the side of customers by expanding opportunities for onsite solar. Consumers responded with the enthusiasm legislators hoped for. Industry statistics show annual residential solar installations in the commonwealth roughly tripled from 2019 to today. 

If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. Virginia homeowners and businesses in the market for a solar array can now buy it from a wholly-owned subsidiary of Dominion Energy called BrightSuite. The BrightSuite website touts some of the same customer benefits that solar advocates have been pointing out all these years: consumer savings, carbon reductions, stable electric bills. And why shouldn’t Dominion sell solar? As the website declares, “We embrace change with a commitment first and foremost to meet our customers’ evolving energy needs.”

Well, amen to that! With climate chaos impacting people’s lives and high fossil fuel prices driving up utility bills faster than the rate of inflation, customers’ energy needs certainly have evolved, and they do now include onsite solar arrays. We just didn’t expect to hear that from Dominion. 

But that’s okay, we welcome latecomers! Moreover, while Dominion’s entry into the residential market will make some people uneasy, it could goose demand, growing the distributed solar market for everyone while pushing out the price-gougers.   

First, though, let’s address that unease. Having an affiliate of the local utility compete for a homeowner’s business puts independent installers at a definite disadvantage. Dominion has a much broader marketing reach, and BrightSuite’s use of the Dominion name carries an implied promise of trustworthiness. In a market crowded with competitors, name recognition and the assurance that a company isn’t going away any time soon are distinct advantages. 

But Dominion’s entry into the retail solar business could ultimately be good for independent installers. Dominion doesn’t do anything inexpensively, and its home solar offering appears to be no exception. If Dominion persuades more customers to look into home solar, and those customers then comparison shop, companies that can offer a better deal will get more business.  

Sarah Vogelsong recently wrote about a project of the HR Climate Hub, which solicited quotes from solar installers for the same single-family home in order to compare prices and service, and to flag potentially predatory sellers. The website offers helpful advice to Virginia homeowners about how solicit and compare offers. It also lists prices and terms from a dozen companies, ranging from a low of $2.10 per watt from Tesla to a high of $5.62 from Power Home Solar. Two small, well-regarded Virginia Beach installers submitted bids of $2.80 and $2.85. BrightSuite’s quote (added after the Mercury article ran) came in at $3.25. 

HR Climate Hub’s figures square with information from the Solar Energy Industries Association, which provides advice for consumers and tracks the average cost of residential solar systems through a service called SolarReviews. According to the website, “As of Jun 2022, the average cost of solar panels in Virginia is $2.66 per watt making a typical 6000 watt (6 kW) solar system $11,797 after claiming the 26% federal solar tax credit now available.”

I asked HR Climate Hub for additional information about the BrightSuite quote and was glad to learn the company uses high quality REC solar panels that carry a 25-year warranty, along with microinverters made by Enphase, a top-quality American company. So, no bottom shelf components here. However, the quote did not mention warranty or maintenance information for the installation work. These do not appear on the BrightSuite website either, apart from a one-year performance guarantee. 

It goes without saying that anyone investing thousands of dollars on a major home improvement should shop around, compare prices, and read warrantees. Prices listed on HR Climate Hub and SolarReviews are a good starting point. Where available, bulk purchase programs like those offered by Solarize NoVa and Virginia Solar United Neighbors provide discounts as well as expert advice. 

But it wouldn’t be surprising if even well-informed consumers choose to pay a premium to get a solar installation from BrightSuite simply because the company is associated with their utility. Name recognition goes a long way in marketing, and a lot of customers will want the security of knowing Dominion Energy isn’t likely to take the money and disappear into the night. With this marketing advantage, I expect BrightSuite will quickly emerge as a market leader in spite of its higher-than-average price. 

Ultimately, however, Dominion’s entry into the market may grow the pie for everyone. Homeowners who have held back from installing solar because they don’t know who to trust may feel confident enough to call BrightSuite. Once they have one quote, many will comparison shop.  

At the very least, Dominion’s entry into the home solar market should set a price ceiling. Why would anyone pay $5 per watt or more for a solar array from a company they probably don’t know anything about, when they could get $3.25 from their utility? Price gougers, beware: your time here is up.

This article appeared in the Virginia Mercury on June 17, 2022.

Dear readers: Many of you know that although I write independently of any organization, I also volunteer for the Sierra Club and serve on its legislative committee. The Sierra Club’s Virginia Chapter urgently needs funds to support its legislative and political work towards a clean energy transition. So this summer I’m passing the hat and asking you to make a donation to our “Ten Wild Weekends” fundraising campaign. Thanks!

Not a great time to roll out Dominion’s pricey solar tariff

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Well, that didn’t take long.

A few weeks after I wrote about rising natural gas prices, Dominion Energy Virginia asked the SCC for permission to raise the price of electricity by about $9 per month for the average residential customers, citing higher fuel costs. Virginia law allows utilities to pass through its fuel costs to customers, without a profit margin, making it unlikely the SCC will turn down the request. Natural gas is Dominion’s largest fuel source, so its electricity rates are highly vulnerable to price swings in the market for fracked gas.

That makes this a really peculiar time for Dominion to launch a new solar energy purchase option that will add about $20 per month on average for customers who elect to meet their entire electricity demand with solar, without exempting them from the coming bill increase due to higher gas prices. If the company were trying to discourage people from signing up for its solar product, it could hardly have chosen a better time. The fact that the company delayed the launch of this program for more than three years, only to offer it now, makes it all the more suspect.

Dominion’s solar option, confusingly (and wrongly) called “Community Solar” is the product of legislation passed in 2017, three years before the General Assembly authorized private solar developers to sell to Virginia customers. The 2020 legislation dubbed the private program “shared solar,” and it remains mired in SCC rulemaking.

But Dominion Community Solar is different. As I wrote back in 2018, when the SCC approved the program (and its launch seemed imminent), this program is really a solar tariff. Dominion generates electricity from solar and puts it on the grid, and customers who want to run their homes and businesses on solar pay extra on their bill.

As part of the deal, participants also get the renewable energy certificates (RECs) associated with the solar energy. That prevents Dominion from selling the RECs to anyone else or using them to show compliance with Virginia’s new renewable portfolio standard (RPS). This is important to avoid double-counting and ensure that solar paid for by the voluntary market is in addition to the solar developed to serve customers under the RPS.

The $20 premium for the program will sound unreasonably high to people who have experience with community solar in other states, where it is typically offered at a discount to regular grid power. In many states, private developers build the solar facilities and sell the output to participants. The rate is typically fixed for many years, because solar has low O&M costs and uses no fuel. Customers still pay their utility for transmission and distribution, but the community solar fee replaces utility-delivered generation rates. Accordingly, participating customers are insulated from price increases due to higher natural gas (or coal) costs.

That is not Dominion Community Solar. Dominion’s program requires customers to pay for all the utility’s costs of running its generating plants and purchasing fuel and paying for rate adjustment clauses (RACs), including those for new renewable energy facilities that serve the entire rate base and RECs bought for the RPS. These solar-only customers will also have to pay Dominion’s costs for buying carbon allowances in the RGGI market, which the company incurs as a result of generating power from fossil fuels. (Dominion is hoping Governor Youngkin will succeed in pulling Virginia out of RGGI and has suggested shifting compliance costs from riders to base rates in the meantime, clearly as a way to mitigate the rate increase due to high gas prices.)

Dominion Community Solar customers will pay for all these costs of fossil fuel generation, and the cost of Dominion building renewable energy facilities for all its other customers. And then on top of all that, they will pay an extra $20 per month.

Let’s leave aside the question of whether $20 is even a fair premium for a solar tariff. Ultra-high gas prices, RPS riders and RGGI compliance costs are all new since the SCC authorized Dominion’s program in 2018. It’s hard to imagine the SCC agreeing today that program participants should pay all these costs in addition to the cost of developing community-sized solar arrays.

But something else has changed too: The shared solar legislation passed in 2020 promised customers the alternative of being able to buy solar from a third-party provider, unhooking participants from the roller-coaster ride of fossil fuel prices. As I noted before, though, shared solar is mired in proceedings at the SCC, where Dominion is seeking to impose such high fixed costs on participants as to make the program impossible to offer.

Right now, Dominion has an SCC hearing examiner mostly on its side.

If the SCC commissioners accept the hearing examiner’s recommendations, that could spell the end of shared solar—or at any rate, make Dominion’s $20 look good by comparison.

This article originally appeared in the Virginia Mercury on May 16, 2022.

Dear readers: Many of you know that although I write independently of any organization, I also volunteer for the Sierra Club and serve on its legislative committee. Today, the Sierra Club’s Virginia Chapter urgently needs funds to support its legislative and political work towards a clean energy transition. So for the first time I’m passing the hat and asking you to make a donation to our “Ten Wild Weekends” fundraising campaign. And if you’re free on June 12, come join the Solar Walk in Richmond that I’ll be co-leading!

A historic turning point: solar beat coal in Virginia in 2021

Photo by Activ Solar via Wikimedia Commons.

It had to happen sometime, but even staunch supporters of Virginia’s transition to clean energy might not have expected this so soon in a former coal state. The precipitous decline of coal as a fuel source, and the rise of solar energy as the new “fuel” of choice, resulted in solar facilities producing more electricity than coal did in Virginia over the course of 2021. 

Using Energy Information Agency data, the Weldon Cooper Center at the University of Virginia produced these two graphs. Bill Shobe, the center’s director of economic research, says Virginia generated 3,365 gigawatt-hours (GWh) of electricity with solar and 3,130 GWh with coal. 

Only three coal-fired plants remain in Virginia: Chesterfield (slated for retirement), Clover, and Virginia City. All have capacity factors in the ‘teens, meaning they are idle most of the time. They now run only during the coldest months of winter and the hottest months of summer (producing the spikes you see in the month-by-month graph), and all are under economic pressure to close for good. In addition, Dominion Energy owns the Mt. Storm coal plant just over the border in West Virginia that runs about 42 percent of the time. 

Is offshore wind expensive? Not compared to the alternatives

offshore wind turbines

A massive wind farm 27 miles off the coast of Virginia Beach moved one giant step closer to reality last November when Dominion Energy filed its Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind development plan with the State Corporation Commission. Dominion expects to begin construction on CVOW in 2024, and have all 2,587 megawatts of power connected to the grid in 2026.

But the wind farm’s price tag of $9.8 billion, and its $87 per megawatt hour levelized cost of electricity (LCOE), is causing heartburn over at the attorney general’s office. Scott Norwood, an expert for the Division of Consumer Counsel, criticized the project on three main grounds: that the cost of building CVOW is more than building a new nuclear reactor and 2-3 times as much as building solar facilities; that Dominion has overstated the benefits of the project; and that in any event, Dominion doesn’t need the energy before at least 2035. 

Recognizing that the General Assembly already made most of these points moot by declaring the project to be in the public interest, however, Norwood also recommended the SCC adopt consumer safeguards including periodic status reports and cost oversight. 

Anyone familiar with Dominion’s tendency to pad profits will say “Amen” to the call for strict SCC oversight. With a project this huge, the SCC must be especially vigilant.  Some of Norwood’s criticisms, however, seem more calculated for effect, while others miss the point. 

Norwood certainly knows his comment that CVOW is more expensive than nuclear is not true. The price tag of the only two nuclear reactors under development in the U.S. has ballooned so high ($30 billion and counting) that it almost makes Dominion’s former dream of a third nuclear reactor at North Anna look good. Norwood’s own devastating testimony likely helped kill the North Anna 3 project, which would have delivered electricity for $190 per megawatt-hour.

Norwood says Dominion has fudged the CVOW numbers and the project will cost customers more than the company admits, but still, Dominion would have to gold-plate every turbine before it could touch the cost of nuclear. 

This wasn’t the first time the General Assembly put its thumb on the scale for a Dominion project. The habit goes back to 2008, when a Dominion coal plant, the Virginia City Hybrid Energy Center, became the first project legislatively deemed “in the public interest.” Even back then its projected levelized cost of electricity was $93/MWh. Today, VCHEC loses so much money for customers that Dominion faces pressure at the SCC to close the plant. 

For that matter, I also see that my latest electricity bill from Dominion includes a non-bypassable charge for coal ash disposal of $5.68—an amount that exceeds the charges for participation in RGGI, new solar projects and the RPS program, combined. Pollution is also a cost of using fossil fuels, but it’s never included in the LCOE. 

Mr. Norwood did not suggest Dominion pursue new nuclear or new fossil fuel plants instead of offshore wind. If Dominion needed new generation, he says, solar is the low-cost alternative. It’s cheaper to build, and it produces electricity at a lower cost than offshore wind. He’s right: if all you cared about was LCOE, no one would build anything but solar in Virginia. 

But as critics never tire of pointing out, solar can’t provide electricity 24/7. Offshore wind has a hidden superpower: while solar production peaks in the middle of the day, the wind off our coast can produce electricity both day and night, is often strongest in the evening when demand rises, and is stronger in the winter when solar is less productive. Solar and offshore wind are complementary, and we can’t get to a carbon-free grid without both. So yes, we need CVOW.

Virginia’s leaders are also taking the long view on cost. In any new industry, early projects are more expensive than later ones. Europe’s 30 years of experience developing an offshore wind industry shows costs fall steadily as project experience and new technology enable developers to produce more energy with fewer turbines. States up and down the East Coast are pursuing offshore wind projects not only because they want clean energy, but because they expect these early investments to lead to lower-cost power as the industry achieves scale. 

State leaders also see economic development and job growth as important benefits, and those aren’t reflected in LCOE either. This is another area where SCC oversight can ensure the greatest public benefit from CVOW. Testimony filed by a Sierra Club expert urges that Dominion’s economic development plan be revised with specific metrics around the VCEA’s goals for diversity, equity and inclusion in the offshore wind workforce. Like reducing pollution, creating jobs for residents from low-income and minority communities adds to CVOW’s overall value.

Having criticized the VCEA’s overly-generous cost cap myself at the time, I agree with the AG’s office that the SCC has to keep a tight watch on expenses as Dominion moves forward with CVOW. But move forward it should, because Virginia needs offshore wind. 

This commentary originally appeared in the Virginia Mercury on April 1, 2022.

Dominion’s proposed charge for solar program is absurdly high

Solar panels are well suited to the flat roofs of apartment buildings like this one in the Bronx, but they remain a rarity in Virginia despite a new law designed to open the market. Photo by Bright Power, Inc. – U.S. Department of Energy from United States, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

A Dominion Energy customer wrote me recently to ask what her condo association could do to go solar. The building’s roof can hold many more solar panels than needed to power the needs of the common area. Is it possible to sell the excess electricity to individual residents to power their units?

I get this question a lot, and in 2020, the Virginia General Assembly tried to change the answer from “no” to “yes.” As part of the Solar Freedom legislation, the State Corporation Commission was tasked with creating a shared solar program for residents of multifamily buildings like condominiums and apartment buildings, with orders to make the program available beginning in January 1, 2021. In other words, it ought to be available today.

And yet I still have to tell people they can’t do it now, and may not be able to ever, unless the SCC changes course. Would-be customers will have just one final chance this month to try to save the program. On March 25, the SCC will take public testimony at an evidentiary hearing to address the seemingly simple question threatening the viability of the Multifamily Shared Solar Program. The law allows Dominion to collect an administrative fee from customers who participate in the program. How much should that be? 

An administrative fee doesn’t sound like it could be enough to stall a program for more than a year, let alone deep-six it altogether. Dominion’s role in the Multifamily Shared Solar Program is limited to doing the accounting to make sure every unit gets credit for the share of the electricity the resident buys. That shouldn’t cost very much—perhaps a buck or two per month per customer. 

Yet Dominion proposes to impose an administrative fee of more than $87 per month—a charge so absurdly high that it would result in participants paying far more for electricity generated on the roof of their building than for the electricity Dominion delivers to them from elsewhere in the state. The SCC temporarily stopped the utility from implementing that fee, but it also stacked the deck to make a high fee almost inevitable. 

And that’s a program killer. Rooftop solar is still a lot more expensive than large, offsite solar facilities, so keeping fees low is critical to making the economics work. It’s also a matter of equity. Owners of single-family homes with rooftop solar benefit from Virginia’s net metering program, which guarantees them a one-for-one credit for any surplus electricity generated. Multifamily residents deserve something similar.

Indeed, the entire point of putting the Multifamily Shared Solar Program in Solar Freedom—a law otherwise focused on removing barriers to net metering—is to benefit Virginians who’ve been shut out of the solar market because they don’t own their own roofs. Renters in particular are more likely to have lower incomes than owners of single-family homes, so making the program available to them is important to the goal of reducing the energy burden on low- and moderate-income residents and ensuring that the transition to clean energy benefits people at all income levels.

I’m not just guessing about the intent behind Solar Freedom. I know the point is to offer residents of multifamily buildings an analog to net metering because I wrote most of the legislation as it was introduced, in collaboration with allies in local government and the legislators who introduced it. We wanted building owners and occupants to be able to work together to install onsite solar, free of SCC meddling and without the utility demanding a cut of the action. 

But as so often happens with legislative sausage-making, the bill changed as it went through negotiations and emerged from committees. The SCC was charged with developing a formal program, and Dominion was given a role in administering it. Yet the new language made clear that the original purpose remained. The SCC is to write regulations that “reasonably allow for the creation and financing of shared solar facilities” and “allow all customer classes to participate in the program, and ensure participation opportunities for all customer classes.” 

The legislation provides for participants to be credited on their utility bills with their share of the electricity generated by the solar panels. The SCC is to make an annual calculation of the bill credit rate “as the effective retail rate of the customer’s rate class, which shall be inclusive of all supply charges, delivery charges, demand charges, fixed charges and any applicable riders or other charges to the customer.” To the definition of “bill credit rate” is added the admonition that the rate “shall be set such that the shared solar program results in robust project development and shared solar program access for all customer classes.” 

This language is consistent with a goal of putting multifamily buildings on par with single-family homes in making rooftop solar affordable. But, unlike the original legislative language, and unlike the rules of net metering, the final version of Solar Freedom instructs the SCC to “allow the investor-owned utilities to recover reasonable costs of administering the program.” 

And that’s the opportunity Dominion wants to exploit. As soon as the SCC began the process of writing rules for the Multifamily Shared Solar Program, Dominion advanced the claim that the administrative fee should be based on essentially all of the costs of operating an electric utility. Instead of the multifamily program mirroring net metering, Dominion took as its model a larger program under a very different law. The Shared Solar legislation, also passed in 2020, creates a program for community solar facilities that can be onsite or offsite, can serve many more customers anywhere in Dominion’s territory, and can even be carved out of a utility-scale solar facility. The shared solar law specifically allows Dominion to charge most customers a “minimum bill” with a list of components, and also an “administrative fee.” 

Things aren’t going well for the Shared Solar program at the SCC. A hearing examiner recently recommended the commission adopt a minimum bill of more than $55, based on an SCC staff recommendation. It did not trouble the hearing examiner or the staff that the number puts the cost of shared solar above the cost of Dominion’s own electricity, a program killer according to community solar developers.

But cramming the minimum bill elements into the multifamily program’s administrative fee would be an even greater blow to a program whose economics are already constrained by the smaller size of onsite projects. It also seems obvious from a plain reading of the two laws that the General Assembly did not intend to burden multifamily residents with the fees it authorized for the Shared Solar participants.

Unfortunately for customers, the SCC approved the cramming in concept last July, ignoring this plain legislative intent. Based on that, SCC staff proposed options for the administrative fee of either $16.78 or $57.26, with the higher fee using the same reasoning that just led to the hearing examiner’s $55 recommendation in the shared solar program. 

The SCC ought to reject these numbers and instead adopt the dollar or two that running the multifamily shared solar program will actually cost Dominion. But to do so, commissioners will have to reverse their earlier, egregious decision and embrace what seems to be (for them) the novel concept that the General Assembly intended the plain meaning of its words. Only then will residents of multifamily buildings gain their solar freedom. 

Note: those wishing to testify at the SCC hearing must sign up by March 22.

This article originally appeared in the Virginia Mercury on March 10, 2022.

Of synagogues and subsidies

A while back I was engaged in an online discussion with other solar advocates about renewable energy — specifically, how to get more of it built. Some of the participants I knew, others I did not. The conversation was lively, ranging from the need for better education to public policy and incentives.

But then one of the participants threw in an unexpected comment. His email read, “Aren’t we all tired of synagogues?”

The question stopped me cold. I had never heard anyone express weariness of synagogues, much less understood that to be a consensus sentiment. However, I’m not Jewish, so if it were something my Jewish friends grumbled about among themselves but did not share more widely, then I wouldn’t necessarily know about it.

But our discussion was about renewable energy, so surely the comment could not really be about a physical house of worship. “Synagogue” had to be shorthand for something else. If someone said “aren’t we all tired of church,” it might be understood to refer to doctrinal thinking, or more likely, to preaching. You could see how someone would be tired of renewable energy advocates preaching about the benefits of wind turbines and solar panels. Could “synagogue” be meant as a sort of metaphor for haranguing people?

It seemed like a stretch, even assuming the person who had made the comment was Jewish, which I didn’t know. I looked back at the email to see if the name might give me a clue. At that moment, another email came through from him: “Sorry about that autocorrect, it was supposed to be ‘subsidies.’”

Ah.

I was relieved that synagogue fatigue was off the table, but now I had a new question to ponder: Are we, in fact, all tired of subsidies?

Opposition to subsidies is one of the touchstones of free-market capitalism, and even within the wind and solar industries you will find believers in the proposition that if a technology can’t attract enough customers on its own merits, it deserves to remain niche, and the government ought not to put its fat thumb on the scale.

Republican attacks on the Virginia Clean Economy Act, passed last year by the Democrat-controlled General Assembly, are often framed as opposition to the government “picking winners and losers.” The law certainly does that, by directing utilities to close coal plants and incorporate an increasing percentage of electricity from wind and solar.

Some Republicans are raising the same objection in response to the Biden administration’s plans for addressing the climate crisis. Technological advances and market forces are already moving us inexorably towards a clean energy economy—but not fast enough. So Biden’s initiatives rely on the full range of government powers, subsidies among them, to drive down greenhouse gas emissions nationwide in an effort to avoid a worldwide climate catastrophe.

But here’s the thing: to the extent the U.S. has anything resembling an energy policy, subsidies have always been a tool of first resort. Indeed, this has been the case literally since the nation’s founding. Often the difference between Republicans and Democrats is not in whether they embrace subsidies, but which ones they favor.

Cash grants, tax credits, loan guarantees, low-cost access to public land, public purchasing requirements, protective tariffs and federal R&D funding all shape the way energy is produced, delivered and consumed, and they are responsible for the fossil-fuel heavy energy economy we have today. Even U.S. foreign policy and our military have been deployed for the benefit of extractive industries. A century ago, the National Guard came to the aid of the coal barons against striking miners. More recently, a think tank crunched numbers to estimate the U.S. spends $81 billion per year to  protect global oil supplies. That figure rises to over $3 trillion when you count the Iraq war.

Externalities matter, too. If an industry is allowed to inflict damage to a community’s air and water, that is a form of subsidy that can be partly measured in dollars spent on health care and clean-up. Regulations requiring expensive pollution controls can lessen the economic advantages of offloading costs onto the public, but any remaining costs shouldered by the public are a subsidy to the polluter.

Conversely, by displacing fossil fuels, a clean energy facility may confer a public benefit far exceeding the cost of any government subsidy it receives. When we’re dealing with climate change, the public benefit of carbon-free energy is immense.

None of this is an argument against the merits of free market competition, which remains the economy’s most important driver of innovation leading to better and cleaner energy technologies. Well-designed subsidies should work with the market, not against it, to speed the energy transition towards a net-zero future.

And to that we should all say, Amen.

This article originally appeared in the Virginia Mercury on September 14, 2021.

Everybody talks about bringing solar to low-income households. This guy is doing it (and you can, too).

Photo credit Don Crawford for GiveSolar

Regular readers of this blog know I discourage Virginians from spending their money on so-called green energy offerings from Dominion Energy, Appalachian Power, or REC sellers like Arcadia. They might make you feel better about the electricity you use, but the best products do little to put new solar projects on the grid, and the worst are actually counter-productive

There is a better way to put solar on the grid and salve your conscience, while also cutting out the middleman. Take the money you were going to pay to Dominion Energy for its Green Power Program (or are already paying, if I didn’t warn you off soon enough), and give it to someone who will put actual solar panels on actual houses in Virginia.

That someone might be Jeff Heie, whose non-profit, GiveSolar, works with low-income home-builder Habitat for Humanity in Rockingham County, Virginia to outfit Habitat homes with rooftop solar. The homeowner gets a 4-kilowatt system that cuts their electricity bill by $40; they commit to sending half that amount back to GiveSolar to help pay for the cost of solar on future Habitat homes. 

GiveSolar keeps installation costs down by holding solar “barn-raisings” using volunteers from the community and a solar company, Green Hill Solar, that is willing to install at cost. As a result, a 4-kW system can be installed for $5,000, about half price. 

Eventually GiveSolar expects its Solar Seed Fund to be self-funding as owners of Habitat homes send in their $20 per month repayments, but meanwhile the organization needs donations to get the program up and running. Heie hopes to raise $100,000 to put solar on 20 homes.

It sounds like a lot of money, until you consider that Dominion reports it has 30,000 Virginia customers enrolled in its Green Power Program. If all those customers are currently spending an average of just $5 per month on pointless RECs, and if they sent that money to GiveSolar instead, Heie would raise 150% of his goal every month

Indeed, Heie has plans to take his model to other Habitat for Humanity affiliates around Virginia; he told me he has already heard from five that are interested in installing solar. His approach has also won him the support of other nonprofits, including Solar United Neighbors of Virginia, which is helping to raise $20,000 for the first four projects in Rockingham County and has secured a $10,000 matching grant.

There is a huge need for projects like these. Many low-income Virginia residents spend more than 6 percent of their income on electricity and home heating. Legislators have responded with programs providing funding for low-income energy efficiency programs; capping energy costs for customers who qualify under a percentage-of-income calculation; authorizing Dominion to install solar on some low-income homes (with the utility’s usual profit-margin, and without the barn-raising); and establishing a shared solar program that, if successful, will give some low-income residents the ability to buy electricity from community solar facilities. 

But the potential for rooftop solar to lower energy costs and displace fossil fuels is so huge, and these government programs so limited, that there’s still plenty of room for GiveSolar’s inexpensive, hands-on, and self-sustaining approach. The Habitat homeowners who benefit pay the money back over time, creating a virtuous cycle. Donors don’t have to guess whether their money is building solar projects; they can see it happen, and even take part. Neighbors help neighbors, and by doing so, help the planet.

Why most ‘renewable energy’ options don’t add new wind and solar to the grid

bucket of green paint with spill
Photo credit: Neep at the English Language Wikipedia.

Virginia residents who want to do right by the planet are confronted with a bewildering array of renewable energy and “green power” options. Unfortunately, few of these programs actually deliver renewable energy. People who want the gold standard — electricity from new wind and solar projects — are completely out of luck if their utility is Dominion Energy Virginia or Appalachian Power. 

To understand how there can be so many options and none of them good, we first have to talk about renewable energy certificates.  RECs are a topic that is way more interesting than it sounds because — well, it would have to be, wouldn’t it? RECs are how we know that some electricity can be attributed to a renewable source. If you want to know what kind of renewable energy your utility is buying, or if you yourself want to buy renewable energy, RECs matter.

RECs are not electricity; they aren’t even real certificates. They were conceived of as an accounting tool enabling a utility to show it is in compliance with a state mandate to include a percentage of renewable energy in its mix. A utility amasses RECs associated with its own renewable generating sources, or buys them from renewable sources it doesn’t own, and then “retires” them to show compliance with the law. Since RECs are separate from the electricity itself, they can be bought and sold independently. There is even an online marketplace for your REC shopping convenience. 

RECs are also how voluntary buyers of renewable energy, like customers of Arcadia or Dominion’s Green Power Program, know they’re actually getting what they pay for —assuming they understand that what they pay for is not actually energy, and may have no relationship to the electricity powering their home or business. If you buy RECs, you are still using whatever electricity your utility provides, but you are also paying a premium on top of your regular bill. 

There is no nationwide, generally accepted definition of “renewable energy,” just as there is no definition of “natural” in food labeling. In Virginia, there is a state law defining what counts as renewable, and it includes not just solar, wind and hydro, but also a range of burnable fuels like biomass and municipal solid waste that foul the air and contribute to climate change. Buyer beware!  

The Virginia Clean Economy Act narrowed the list of sources that Dominion and APCo can use to meet the law’s new renewable portfolio standard, and also limited the locations of qualifying facilities. After 2025, happily, most of the RECs retired by Dominion and APCo under the VCEA will come from Virginia wind and solar facilities. 

But crucially, the VCEA didn’t change the definition of renewable energy in the code. Dominion won’t be able to use RECs from its biomass plants to meet the VCEA, but it can still sell them to anyone else and label the product “renewable” without falling afoul of the law. Anyone buying a renewable energy product from Dominion had better check the list of ingredients. 

It’s not just Dominion. Anyone buying RECs from Arcadia or anywhere else should take a good look at what they are getting, and ask themselves if the money they spend means new renewable energy will be added to the grid. 

The answer is probably no. If the RECs come from a wind farm in Texas or Iowa, the electricity from those turbines doesn’t feed into the grid that serves Virginia, so you can’t even pretend it is powering your house. It also doesn’t mean anyone built a wind farm because of REC buyers like you. Wind energy is already the cheapest form of new energy in the central part of the U.S. People build wind farms because they are profitable, not because they can sell RECs. In fact, those wind farms are swimming in surplus RECs, because states in the center of the country don’t have renewable energy mandates to make their own utilities buy them.  

For that matter, a lot of RECs come from facilities that were built before the idea of RECs even existed. Hundred-year-old hydroelectric dams can sell RECs; so can fifty-year-old paper mills that sell biomass RECs from burning wood. 

With this background, let’s look at the offerings available in Virginia and see which are worth paying more for. 

Dominion Energy Virginia

In theory, Dominion customers will have the ability to buy real solar energy directly from independent providers beginning as early as 2023, thanks to shared solar legislation sponsored by Sen. Scott Surovell and Del. Jay Jones and passed in 2020. The law envisions independent solar developers building solar facilities in Virginia and selling the electricity (and the RECs) to subscribers who are Dominion customers. But the SCC opened a Pandora’s box last fall by allowing Dominion to propose the rules, and in an act of classic Dominion overreach, the utility has now proposed to collect an average of $75 a month as a “minimum bill” from every customer who buys solar energy from someone else. A fee like that would end the program before it ever started.

 The matter is hardly settled. The solar industry has asked for an evidentiary hearing and suggested that the minimum bill should be set at a single dollar. If all else fails, the program may go forward serving only low-income customers, whom the legislation exempts from the minimum bill. 

Dominion customers can hope for the best, but any shared solar option is still at least two years away. 

In the meantime, the utility’s website lists four renewable energy options: two that sell RECs, one that sells actual energy (and retires the RECs for you) and one that doesn’t exist. 

• The REC-based Green Power Program has been around for a decade, and as of 2019 it had more than 31,000 subscribers. Dominion’s “product content label” projected that for 2020 the program would likely consist of 56 percent wind RECs, 34 percent biomass RECs, and 10 percent solar RECs. Facilities are advertised as being “in Virginia and the surrounding region,” but the fine print reveals sources as far away as Mississippi, Georgia, Missouri and Alabama, none of which are part of the PJM transmission grid that serves Virginia.  (Side note: the biomass icon is a cow, not a tree, which is misleading but charming, unless they might be burning cows, in which case it is deeply disturbing.) With the website out of date, I contacted Dominion for current content information: solar is now up to 13 percent, but, sadly, biomass still makes up 35 percent of the mix (but now it has a leaf icon!).

• REC Select. When I say “buyer beware,” I have this offering in mind. Dominion has been authorized to go Dumpster diving to buy the cheapest RECs from around the country and from any facility that meets Virginia’s overly-expansive definition of renewable energy. The website implies that so far the company is only buying wind RECs from Oklahoma and Nebraska, an indication of just how cheap those are. But under the terms of the program, the RECs could come from 50-year-old paper mills in Ohio or hundred-year-old hydroelectric dams. No educated consumer would buy this product, and both Dominion and the SCC should be ashamed of themselves for putting it out there.

• The 100% Renewable Energy Program delivers actual energy from Virginia, and retires RECs on your behalf. That’s the good news. But only a few of the solar farms are new; the rest of the energy comes from old hydro plants and, worse, from biomass plants that are so highly polluting that they don’t qualify for Virginia’s renewable energy mandate under the VCEA. The inclusion of biomass makes the program more expensive than it would be otherwise. So why include biomass when no one wants it? Because Dominion doesn’t really care if you sign up for this program. The company only offers it to close off a provision in the law that allowed customers to buy renewable energy from competitors if their own utility doesn’t offer it.

• Dominion’s website does list one attractive program under the name “community solar.” Like the shared solar program already discussed, it would deliver actual solar energy from new facilities to be built in Virginia, while retiring the RECs on your behalf. This would pass all our tests, except that it doesn’t exist. The SCC gave Dominion the green light to offer the program more than two years ago, and we’ve heard nothing since, even though the enabling legislation appears to make it mandatoryfor both Dominion and APCo. 

Appalachian Power

APCo never developed a community solar program either, and the shared solar program discussed earlier would not be available to APCO customers even if it gets off the ground. But APCo does have two renewable energy offerings. 

• For its Virginia Green Pricing program, APCo put together wind and hydro from its own facilities. That means it’s actual energy and reasonably priced, at less than half a cent per kWh. But these are existing facilities that all its customers had been paying for until APCo figured out how to segment the market and make more money, and the hydro is old. (As with Dominion’s renewable energy program, the real purpose of the new product was to close off competition.) 

• Even cheaper is Alternative Option-REC, the RECs for which “may come from a variety of resources but will likely be associated with energy from waste, solid waste and hydro facilities.” No biomass, anyway, but I still have trouble imagining who would pay extra for (literally) garbage. 

Virginia electric coops

Some electric cooperatives offer real renewable energy to customers, and a couple have community solar programs that are quite attractive.  

• Central Virginia Electric Cooperative and BARC Electric Cooperativeoffer community solar programs that not only deliver actual solar energy, but also let customers lock in a fixed price for 20-25 years. Four other coops also offer a solar energy option, and at least one other is working on it.

• Many coops also sell RECs, of mixed quality. Shenandoah Valley Electric Cooperative offers RECs generated by wind farms owned or contracted byOld Dominion Electric Cooperative, the generation cooperative that supplies power to most Virginia coops. Rappahannock Electric Cooperative, however, sells only biomass RECs.

• Bottom line: if you are a member of an electric cooperative, you may have better options than either Dominion or APCo is offering — and if you don’t, hey, you’re an owner of the coop, so make some noise!

Arcadia

 If you like RECs, you don’t have to buy them from your own utility. The folks at Arcadia have struggled for years to offer products that put new renewable energy on the grid. In states that allow community solar, Arcadia now offers wind and solar from projects in those states. Everywhere else, they just sell RECs. The website provides no information indicating where the facilities are, meaning they could be out in the same central plains states that are awash in surplus wind RECs. Their game plan appears to be for all the nice liberals with climate guilt to throw enough money at red state RECs that eventually the day will come when demand exceeds supply and drives the price up enough to incentivize new projects. The plan sounds self-defeating to me, but in any case, buyers should keep in mind that the RECs bought before that glorious date will have incentivized precisely nothing. 

Other options

Obviously, if you have a sunny roof, you can install solar onsite and net-meter. Of all the programs available today, that’s the one that will save you money instead of making you spend more. 

If you don’t have a sunny roof, but you’d still like to see your money put solar onto the grid, consider contributing to a church, school or non-profit that is going solar, or to an organization that puts solar on low-income homes. Two that operate in Virginia are Give Solar, which puts solar on Habitat for Humanity houses, and GRID Alternatives, which trains workers to install solar on low-income homes here and abroad. If everyone in Virginia who is currently buying RECs were to choose this alternative instead, it would put millions of dollars to work building new solar in Virginia, and lowering the energy bills of people who most need the help.

And that might make it the best option of all.

A version of this article first appeared in the Virginia Mercury on May 21, 2021.

Carbon-free electricity by 2035? Virginia is ready.

(Photo by Dennis Schroeder / NREL)

Virginia’s General Assembly made history in 2020 by becoming the first state in the South to pass a law requiring the full decarbonization of its electric sector. The Virginia Clean Economy Act requires our two largest utilities, Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power, to close all Virginia carbon-emitting power plants by 2045. As of 2050, the state will not issue carbon allowances to any other power plants in the commonwealth, including those owned by electric cooperatives and independent generators.  

Less than a year later, President Joe Biden wants to move up the date for a carbon-free electric grid nationwide to 2035. Biden is also targeting a net-zero carbon economy by 2050. On that, Virginia is actually more ambitious, at least on paper, since the Commonwealth Energy Policy sets a goal for a net-zero economy by 2045. 

But the electric sector has to come first, mainly because it’s the linchpin for reductions in the rest of the economy.  Clean electricity allows for clean transportation when cars, trucks and buses are electrified, and for clean buildings when gas heating and gas appliances are replaced with electric. It’s harder to zero out emissions from industry and agriculture; we do need more time to develop cost-effective solutions for those. 

The good news is the U.S. is already halfway to zero, according to a new report from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory that compared CO2 emissions from the power sector today to projections 15 years ago. But a lot of that achievement came from replacing coal with fracked gas, with energy efficiency and renewables making up the rest. From here on in, efficiency and carbon-free sources have to carry the whole load.

What would it take for Virginia to achieve a carbon-free grid just 14 years from now, half the time allowed by the VCEA? Questions fall roughly into three categories: cost, feasibility and reliability. All three will be easier to overcome if the whole country is working together towards a single goal, especially if the federal government does more than just point the way. But there’s a strong case for optimism regardless.  

Cost

Cost is the biggest concern in the minds of most people, but it shouldn’t be. It’s been three years since solar became the cheapest form of new power generation in Virginia, and prices continue to drop. The International Energy Administration declared last year that falling prices mean solar is “becoming the new king of the world’s electricity markets,” poised to become the primary source of new electricity generation worldwide by 2030. (Did you read about the solar project in Saudi Arabia that will deliver solar at barely over a penny per kilowatt-hour?)

Wind has been the cheapest form of generation for years in many states, and its price is still falling. Of course, for Virginia the big wind opportunity lies offshore. Offshore wind technology is still in its infancy in the U.S., making it relatively expensive, but its price trajectory is also steeply downward. Once the industry scales up and American manufacturing, supply chain and workforce replace European imports, prices will fall further — though it may never match solar on price. 

The only expensive part of an all-renewables scenario right now is the challenge of keeping supply in sync with demand. But as with wind and solar, the cost of battery storage technologies has been falling.

Meanwhile, what happens to our existing fossil fuel plants? Closing coal plants was already the right move for consumers. Virginia’s few remaining coal plants don’t run much and are money sinks. Dominion’s newest coal plant, for example, has a 10-year net present value of negative $472 million. Shuttering coal plants will save money today as well as speeding us along the path to zero carbon.

By contrast, we have a lot of gas plants that currently make money, so our utilities are even more loath to plan for their demise. Dominion spent most of the last decade building out a huge fleet of natural gas combined-cycle plants on the theory that fracking would make gas a cheap fuel forever. The theory ignored the growing competitiveness of wind and solar that was evident even early on in the building spree. This isn’t just hindsight talking; in 2013 I wrote that Dominion’s newly-approved 1,358-megawatt Brunswick County Power Station was destined to become a giant concrete paperweight as clean energy displaced fossil fuels. Yet a few years later Dominion added to its paperweight collection with the even larger Greensville County Power Station. 

In both cases the equally short-sighted State Corporation Commission approved these investments, so bad luck, ratepayers: we are stuck paying off the capital costs whether the plants run or not. That does not mean we have to operate them; projections show that by 2030 it will be cheaper to turn gas plants into solar panel factories while we run our grid on wind and sunlight. 

Feasibility

 A rapid transition to a carbon-free grid poses logistical challenges. We need enough suitable land to hold all that solar. (Agrivoltaics will help.) The federal government needs to identify new areas of the ocean for offshore wind turbines. We also need solutions to seasonal fluctuations in demand. We need new transmission lines. We need enough lithium for batteries, steel for turbines, silicon for solar and a trained workforce, stat!  

Federal coordination will be key to solving many of these challenges, but we can also reduce land acquisition and transmission barriers if we don’t insist on replacing large, utility-owned fossil fuel power plants only with large, utility-owned wind and solar farms. Virginians will benefit far more if we prioritize solar and storage on rooftops, parking lots, brownfields, closed landfills and rights-of-way. That’s not just about space, but about assigning value to benefits like storm resilience, emergency preparedness and local jobs. 

For the same reason, we should insist on building homes better. Houses that are well insulated need less heat in the winter and air conditioning in the summer, reducing the problem of seasonal swings in energy demand. (They are also healthier and more comfortable.)

Reliability

A rapid transition to a carbon-free grid is a climate imperative, but it’s still a tall order for a utility or a regulator whose job it is to keep the lights on. Batteries, energy efficiency and demand response programs can do only so much. Planners will also have to factor in the likelihood that by 2035, many vehicles will be electric, and electricity will replace gas appliances in new buildings and retrofits. Balancing supply and demand 24/7 with just today’s tools would not be an easy job. 

And, fortunately, they will not be working with today’s tools. The pace of change in energy and computer technology over the past 14 years will be matched or exceeded by the pace of the next 14. Green hydrogen gets all the press, but hundreds of other innovations will also combine to make a zero-carbon energy supply feasible and reliable — and, not incidentally, far better for people and the planet than what we have now. 

In fact, we are witnessing the launch of a new era in energy, what Tony Seba’s RethinkX Project calls “the fastest, deepest, most profound disruption of the energy sector in over a century,” driven by low-cost solar, wind and battery storage (SWB).

The Project’s report Rethinking Energy 2020-2030 puts it this way: “The SWB disruption of energy will closely parallel the digital disruption of information technology. Just as computers and the Internet slashed the marginal cost of information and opened the door to hundreds of new business models that collectively have had a transformative impact upon the global economy, so too will SWB slash the marginal cost of electricity and create a plethora of opportunities for innovation and entrepreneurship. What happened in the world of bits is now poised to happen in the world of electrons.” 

So, a carbon-free grid by 2035? Bring it on, President Biden. Virginia is ready.

A version of this article ran in the Virginia Mercury on April 16, 2021.

In the aftermath of a devastating winter storm, can we take lessons from Texas?

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

It is never fun to see our fellow Americans suffer, whether it’s from pandemic diseases or weather disasters. Our hearts go out to the residents of Texas who suffered without electricity and heat for days, some of them also without safe drinking water, and a few of them even dying from exposure, fires or carbon monoxide poisoning as they tried to keep warm. 

On the other hand, picking apart the preposterous excuses from Texas leaders seeking to avoid responsibility for the fully preventable power outages and the misery that accompanied them—well, that’s another matter. And it’s made so much easier by those leaders’ insistence on trying to score political points instead of admitting that at least some of the blame rests on their shoulders. 

Take Governor Greg Abbott, who went on Fox News to blame liberals for the debacle. Ignoring his state’s failure to plan for climate change and invest in power grid winterization, he told talk show host Sean Hannity the problem was actually the portion of the state’s electricity supply that comes from wind and solar. “This shows how the Green New Deal would be a deadly deal for the United States of America. Our wind and our solar got shut down, and they were collectively more than 10 percent of our power grid, and that thrust Texas into a situation where it was lacking power on a statewide basis.”

No one in Abbott’s echo chamber pointed out that a) solar actually did just fine, b) states like Iowa and South Dakota, with much worse winter weather, rely much more heavily on wind power than Texas does, yet there are no stories about their turbines seizing up and their grids collapsing, and c) if a shortage of ten percent shuts your grid down, you have way more problems than you can blame on the Green New Deal. In fact, the biggest factor in the grid failure was some 28,000 megawatts of coal, nuclear and gas power that went offline, as the Electric Reliability Council of Texas reported

For his part, former Governor Rick Perry preferred swaggering to problem-solving, saying in a blog post, “Texans would be without electricity for longer than three days to keep the federal government out of their business.” This seems to have been written at about the same time Governor Abbott was asking the federal government for disaster relief

And then there was Ted Cruz. I’m not referring to the farce of his skipping out on the post-storm misery to fly to Cancun, then pinning it on his daughters before high-tailing it home to make a show of handing out relief supplies. That incident just reminds us that no matter how deep our divisions, Americans can always find unity in our collective loathing of Ted Cruz.  

No, in this case I want to point to a pair of tweets from Cruz, almost exactly two years apart. February 13, 2019: “Success of TX energy is no accident: it was built over many years on principles of free enterprise & low regulation w more jobs & opportunities as the constant goal. We work to export this recipe for success t more & more states so that all Americans enjoy the same prosperity.” 

And here he is on February 22 of this year, reacting to news that free enterprise and low regulation had produced $5,000 electric bills for some customers in the aftermath of the storm: “This is WRONG. No power company should get a windfall because of a natural disaster, and Texans shouldn’t get hammered by ridiculous rate increases for last week’s energy debacle. State and local regulators should act swiftly to prevent this injustice.”

Luckily for us, lots of other people have been more interested in understanding what happened and preventing it from happening again than in trying to duck blame and score political points. The real story, it turns out, is simple at its core: “low regulation” meant the Texas grid and power providers did not adequately prepare for winter storms that climate change is making worse than they used to be. And because the Texas grid is cut off from the rest of the country (a feature, not a bug, to cowboy politicians), when the crisis hit there was no way to import power from other states that were better prepared.

Let’s take a closer look at what went wrong, how it could have been avoided, and what lessons it offers for the rest of us. 

The setup: an isolated grid with “free enterprise and low regulation”

The grid that serves Texas is uniquely isolated, which also gives it a unique vulnerability. The Electric Reliability Council of Texas serves most of the state, and no other states. Texans are proud of that (or were before this month), because it means there is no role for federal regulators like FERC. It also means that when power ran out, ERCOT couldn’t just import it from parts of the country with a surplus. Of course, states near Texas also suffered in the storm, so there may not have been a lot of surplus power to be had. It is worth noting, though, that the border city of El Paso fared better than the rest of Texas because it is not part of ERCOT but part of a larger regional transmission organization (RTO) serving several southwestern states.

Another feature of ERCOT is the low regulation that Ted Cruz celebrated. ERCOT keeps it simple for power generators. They get paid for the power they produce. Other RTOs have what is called a “capacity market” to reward generating plants just for being available to run when called on, and they penalize participants who fail to perform. ERCOT does neither. With a reserve capacity of only about ten percent and no way to guarantee generators would be available when needed, ERCOT had set itself up for trouble.

If generators had faced penalties for nonperformance, they could have—and almost certainly would have—spent the money needed to prepare their facilities for colder-than-usual weather. Winterization is a normal cost of doing business for a power provider in a northern state, but Texas winters are usually warm enough not to require it. If you won’t be penalized for not winterizing, you have little incentive to do it when you’re competing on cost with other power sellers. 

ERCOT was vulnerable for another reason. Demand for power in Texas is usually higher in summer, with air conditioners running, than it is in the state’s typically mild winters, so ERCOT plans for that. But in cold weather, gas-fired power plants face competition for fuel, when some of the gas supply goes for heating buildings. This month, when gas wells and pipelines also froze up, there simply wasn’t enough fuel to go around. ERCOT’s overreliance on gas proved to be a liability much greater than the smaller amount of renewable energy on the grid. 

The last important feature of the Texas system is retail competition. Electricity customers in ERCOT can choose among dozens of power providers. Some providers keep rates constant; others offer a variable rate that just passes through the wholesale cost of power, with only a small monthly fee added. When wholesale rates are low, the consumer saves money on a plan like that. But regulators didn’t insist on any safeguard to protect customers against the possibility of wholesale prices spiking to astronomical levels due to a power shortage. That’s exactly what happened in the aftermath of this month’s storm. 

That $5,000 power bill Cruz criticized? That’s unfettered free-market supply-and-demand at work. It’s a feature, not a bug. If you don’t like that feature, Senator Cruz, maybe low regulation isn’t for you. Helping consumers avoid power bills in the thousands of dollars would have been easy, but it would have required a little bit of regulation. 

The storm; or how nature takes no interest in political posturing

Well before this storm hit, ERCOT was fully aware of the vulnerabilities of its particular brand of laissez-faire operations. Ten years ago, in the wake of another winter storm, Texas operators were warned of the dire consequences that could ensue if they did not require generators to winterize operations. 

But, they didn’t, and this chart from the U.S. Energy Information Agency shows what happened to generation as a result. Before the storm, you can see natural gas and coal plants running less when high winds produce plenty of cheaper wind power, then cranking up when wind speeds drop. As the week goes on, power supply from natural gas plants increases to meet higher demand from colder weather, while other generation holds steady. Then suddenly you see every category of energy resource except solar drop in output, as critical components of some generating units freeze up and the units fall offline, while fuel supplies also dwindle. Some wind generation falls off, but so does coal, nuclear, and—especially—natural gas, just as they are all needed most.   

The storm was, to be sure, one of the worst winter storms ERCOT had ever faced. And the situation could have been worse. If operators had not proactively cut power to customers, demand in excess of supply would have damaged grid infrastructure so severely that large swaths of the population would have been without power for weeks or months. (Let us now praise faceless bureaucrats, for they just saved Texas.)

So it was bad, and could have been worse. Why didn’t Texas prepare for it, even after being warned? I have one theory. People who cling to simplistic notions that global warming “should” produce only warmer winters have a tiresome habit of pointing to cold weather as evidence that climate change isn’t real, but I think they also take secret comfort in the idea that if the planet is warming, extreme cold weather events will become less common, with less need to prepare for them. If your political philosophy requires you to see regulation as an evil, your own willful misunderstanding of climate science might provide all the excuse you’re looking for not to act. 

Could it happen here? 

Bad weather can happen anywhere, and it’s always safer not to gloat. That said, several features distinguish ERCOT from PJM, and Texas from Virginia. As noted before, PJM has a capacity market that rewards even otherwise-uneconomic generators for hanging around being ready to produce at short notice, and those generators are penalized if they don’t perform when needed. As a result, we are much less likely to see the kind of power shortage and price spikes that Texans experienced. (Not that PJM is without flaws. Its capacity market unnecessarily discriminates against wind and solar, its policies are making the integration of renewable energy harder than it ought to be, and it has incentivized such an oversupply of gas generation that consumers are paying higher prices for the inefficiency. But that’s another story.)  

Virginia also features monopoly power companies rather than retail choice. There is plenty of disagreement as to whether that is good or bad for consumers. The monopoly model requires strong regulation to ensure captive consumers aren’t being overcharged, and are being offered the products they want—like renewable energy. Critics (and I’m among them) have argued that Virginia isn’t doing enough on this front. 

On the other hand, the retail choice model depends on consumers being well informed, and also requires regulators to scrutinize the tactics of power providers and punish the ones who take advantage of unwary consumers. So, ironically, a deregulated electricity market requires strong regulation to protect participants. Strong regulation could have prevented Texas providers from offering residential customers a tariff based on wholesale prices, with risks that residents couldn’t easily understand or mitigate against.   

Texas was also more vulnerable to disruption because power generators were not required to winterize their plants or penalized for not doing so. Sure, a winterized plant would have turned a hefty profit in this storm, but in a more average winter, the extra cost would not have paid off. The option not to winterize isn’t a good one in PJM. As a result, when the power does go out in PJM, the problem is inevitably in the delivery infrastructure, not the generation.

Virginia’s system of vertically-integrated utilities means our utilities own their electric generation as well as the power lines. They can charge customers for building and maintaining those generating facilities, so they have less incentive to skimp on weatherization. That increases the reliability of those facilities. But even if several power plants in Virginia were to fail all at once, we could still draw power from more than 1,200 facilities across PJM, or even from the larger Eastern Interconnection. By design, Texas does not have that option.

One distinction between ERCOT and PJM that doesn’t make a difference, in spite of Governor Abbott’s claims, is the greater percentage of wind in ERCOT than in PJM. Wind actually makes up 23% of generation in ERCOT, more than perhaps Abbott wanted to admit, given that most of it came online under his watch. In PJM, wind makes up only about 3%. If Abbott were correct that wind turbines can’t handle winter weather, that would be a reason for more northern grids like PJM to avoid wind. But of course, Abbott’s claim is political wishful thinking divorced from reality. Wind turbines operate just fine in the much colder winters of Iowa, the Dakotas, Canada—heck, even in the frigid and stormy North Sea, where offshore wind ramps up production in winter

As for solar, you could see from the chart that it was not affected by the cold weather. Texas residents who were lucky enough to have both rooftop solar and batteries spent the aftermath of the storm bragging about never losing power. That’s a compelling argument not just for more solar in the generation mix, but for more distributed generation in particular, including solar microgrids and resilience hubs to help communities weather future storms. 

In the wake of this month’s storm, the independent Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) analyzed what went wrong and issued recommendations for Texas grid operators. Among the unsurprising recommendations: ERCOT should do better planning for resource adequacy and increase its interconnections to other power systems so it does not have to go it alone. 

I would add one more recommendation: keep your ideology out of it. You can’t deliver reliable power that is also reasonably priced without robust regulation. If leaders refuse to learn from this winter, they’ll simply set up Mother Nature for another opportunity to mess with Texas.   

A version of this article appeared in the Virginia Mercury on February 25, 2021.