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.

Growth in data centers overpowers Virginia’s renewable energy gains

 

Greenpeace rebranded National Landing, the future home to Amazon’s HQ2, with a human-sized Alexa, lamppost signs and street posters highlighting the company’s stalled progress towards its commitment to power its cloud with 100% renewable energy. Photo credit Greenpeace.

 

More than 100 massive data centers, over 10 million square feet of building space, dot the Northern Virginia landscape around Dulles Airport in what is known as “Data Center Alley.”

And the industry is growing fast.

Local governments welcome the contribution to their tax revenue, but these data centers come with a dark downside: they are energy hogs, and the fossil fuel energy they consume is driving climate change.

A new report from Greenpeace called Clicking Clean Virginia: The Dirty Energy Powering Data Center Alley describes the magnitude of the problem:

“Not including government data centers, we estimate the potential electricity demand of both existing data centers and those under development in Virginia to be approaching 4.5 gigawatts, or roughly the same power output as nine large (500-megawatt) coal power plants.”

As these data center operations continue to grow, they are providing the excuse for utilities, primarily Dominion Energy Virginia, to build new fracked-gas infrastructure, including gas generating plants and the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

Many of these same tech companies have publicly committed to using renewable energy, and in some cases they have invested heavily in solar and wind power in other states. With the exception of Apple, however, all these data center operators are falling far short in meeting their Virginia energy demand with renewables. Intentionally or not, that makes them complicit in Dominion’s fossil-fuel expansion.

One tech company in particular stands out in the report, due to the sheer size of its operations. Greenpeace calculates that Amazon Web Services, the largest provider of cloud hosting services in the world, has a larger energy load than the next four largest companies combined.

For a while, it looked like AWS would provide leadership commensurate with its size. In 2015, AWS helped break open the solar market in Virginia with an 80-megawatt solar farm. A year later it added another 180 megawatts of solar here, as well as a wind farm in North Carolina in Dominion territory.

Then the investments stopped, while the data center growth continued.

Today, Greenpeace estimates that AWS uses close to 1,700 megawatts for its Virginia data centers. Adjusted for their capacity factors, the renewable energy projects total just 132 megawatts, or less a tenth of the energy the data centers use.

The capacity factor of an energy facility reflects how much energy it actually produces, as opposed to its “nameplate” capacity. A solar facility produces only in daylight, but a data center consumes energy 24/7. To match all of its energy demand with solar energy, AWS would need more than 7,000 megawatts of solar—at least 15 times the amount in all of Virginia today.

For a company whose website promises a commitment to 100 percent renewable energy, that’s a major fail.

The Greenpeace report shows Amazon is not alone in data center operators that are dragging their feet on clean energy. It is simply, by far, the largest. The next three biggest data center operators—Cloud HQ, Digital Reality, and QTS—have no renewable energy at all in Virginia.

Better-known names like Microsoft and Facebook also operate Virginia data centers. Although both have invested in Virginia solar farms, they also fall well short of meeting their energy needs with renewables.

The tech giants are not entirely to blame in all this. As the Greenpeace report details, many of them have asked the General Assembly and the State Corporation Commission for more and better options for purchasing renewable energy. Their requests have largely been ignored.

Virginia’s monopoly system makes it hard for the companies to buy clean electricity from other providers. Our number one monopoly, Dominion Energy, claims to be working hard to meet the large customers’ demand for renewable energy, but its extensive investments in gas infrastructure pose a clear conflict of interest.

Surely, though, if anyone can stand up to Dominion on its home turf, it should be Amazon — which, of course, plans to make Virginia its home turf as well.

And AWS does have options, including more solar as well as land-based wind from the Rocky Forge wind farm and offshore wind from Virginia or North Carolina.

The fact that Amazon doesn’t even seem to be trying should be of great concern to Virginians. As Greenpeace puts it, “AWS’ decision to continue its rapid expansion in Virginia without any additional supply of renewable energy is a powerful endorsement of the energy pathway Dominion has chosen, including the building of the ACP, and a clear signal that its commitment to 100 percent renewable energy will not serve as a meaningful basis for deciding how its data center are powered.”

Amazon has already fired back at the Greenpeace report. In a statement, it asserts that “Greenpeace’s estimates overstate both AWS’ current and projected energy usage.”

However, the statement did not offer a different estimate. It also points to its investments in Virginia renewable energy (the same ones described in the report) and concludes, “AWS remains firmly committed to achieving 100 percent renewable energy across our global network, achieving 50 percent renewable energy in 2018. We have a lot of exciting initiatives planned for 2019 as we work towards our goal and are nowhere near done.”

Well, that’s nice.

But meanwhile, those data centers are using electricity generated from burning fossil fuels, driving climate change, and providing an excuse for new fracked gas infrastructure. Given the rapid pace of data center construction in Virginia, it’s going to take a lot of exciting initiatives from AWS — and all the other data center operators — to make any kind of meaningful impact.

Your guide to 2019 climate and energy bills

Virginia statehouse, where the General Assembly meetsUpdated (again!) January 23.

Clean energy and climate action are mainstream concepts with the public these days, but at Virginia’s General Assembly they have yet to gain much traction. Last year saw one renewable energy bill after another die in committee, along with legislation mandating lower energy use through energy efficiency and climate measures like having Virginia join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI).

The only major energy legislation to pass the GA in 2018 was the infamous SB 966, the so-called “grid mod” bill that included spending on energy efficiency and a stipulation that 5,500 megawatts (MW) of utility-owned or controlled solar and wind is “in the public interest.” But the bill didn’t actually mandate any efficiency savings or renewable energy investments, and it contained no support for customer-owned solar.

So clean energy advocates and climate activists are trying again, though the odds against them look as tough as ever. Republicans hold a bare majority of seats overall, but they dominate the powerful Commerce and Labor Committees that hear most energy bills. And Republicans overall (though with some exceptions) are more hostile to clean energy legislation than Democrats, and more willing to side with utilities against customers and competitors.

In particular, the House energy subcommittee has been a regular killing field for renewable energy bills. It consists of 7 Republicans and 4 Democrats, and last year every clean energy bill but one lost on party-line votes. Bills don’t advance to the full committee, much less to the House floor, unless they garner a majority in the subcommittee.

Over at Senate Commerce and Labor, Republicans hold an 11-4 majority on the full committee, and none of the Democrats are what you would call environmental champions. The electric utility subcommittee does not appear to be active this year.

A scattering of other clean energy and climate bills have been assigned to House Rules (which Republicans dominate 11-6) and Appropriations (12-10), where a subcommittee will several energy-related bills with fiscal impacts (at least three have been assigned to date). Some Senate bills will go to Finance.

Of course, this is an election year in Virginia, with every House and Senate seat up this fall. Legislators have reason to worry that the 2017 “blue wave” could turn into a 2019 flood tide that sweeps out not just vulnerable Republicans, but Democrats facing primary challenges from the left.

Will that persuade some of them to finally support clean energy, or at least some of the pragmatic initiatives that have broad popular support?

That’s the hope driving a number of bills framed around supporting market competition and customer choice, enabling private investments in renewable energy, and saving money for consumers and taxpayers. These are themes that appeal as much to conservatives as to liberals.

But a lot of these bills have the same problem they’ve always had. Dominion Energy opposes them, and Dominion controls the legislature.

Both Dominion and elected leaders maintain the fiction that it’s the other way around. That fiction allowed Senator Wagner and Delegate Kilgore, the chairmen of the Commerce and Labor Committees, to “refer” solar bills for secret negotiation between utilities and the solar industry via the private, closed-door Rubin Group.

About that Rubin Group

Frankly, I’ve never understood the notion that the solar industry ought to be able to work things out with the utilities so legislators don’t have to make decisions themselves. Solar installers negotiating with Dominion is like mice negotiating with the cat. The cat is not actually interested in peaceful coexistence, so it’s hard to imagine an outcome that makes life better for the mice.

And however much they insist they support solar, Kilgore, Wagner and company act like they’re secretly pleased that Kitty is such a good mouser. I don’t know how else to explain the way they lecture the mice on the virtues of compromise.

The Rubin Group has managed to produce legislation where the interests of the utilities and the solar industry align, primarily in ways that help utility-scale solar farms. When it comes to net metering and customer solar generally, however, Dominion hasn’t been willing to give up anything unless it gets something in return—and as it already has everything but the crumbs, progress seems to have stalled. I hear negotiations remain ongoing, however, so this isn’t the last word.

On the other hand, the solar industry did reach an accommodation with the electric cooperatives this year over customer solar. As member-owned non-profits, the coops are sometimes more responsive to the desires of their customer-owners, and this seems to be evidence of that. (Though see this blogpost from Seth Heald about the failures of democracy and transparency at Virginia’s larges coop, an issue now in litigation before the SCC.)

With the solar industry stalled in its talks with Dominion and a sense of urgency mounting, customer groups and other solar industry alliances have stepped into the void. Several bills seek to preserve and expand the market for customer solar with bills removing policy barriers. The most comprehensive of these is the Solar Freedom legislation put forward by Delegate Keam (HB 2329) and Senators McClellan and Edwards (SB 1456), removing 8 non-technical barriers to renewable energy deployment buy customers. Other net metering bills have similar provisions that tackle just one barrier at a time.

Another group of bills don’t seem intended to win Republican support, much less Dominion’s. Bills that will dramatically alter our energy supply, put Virginia at the forefront of climate action and rein in utility power have no chance of passage this year, but may become part of a platform for strong climate action next year if a pro-environment majority wins control of the GA.

The list below may look overwhelming, so let me just note that this is not even comprehensive, and additional bills may yet be filed.

I’ve separated the bills into categories for easier reference, but watch for overlap among them. I’ve put Solar Freedom up first (because I can!); after that, bills are ordered by number, with House bills first.

Solar Freedom 

HB 2329 (Keam) and SB 1456 (McClellan and Edwards) is the Solar Freedom bill that removes barriers to renewable energy installations by utility customers, mostly in the net metering provisions, and adds language to the Commonwealth Energy Policy supporting customer solar. The 8 provisions are:

  • Lifting the 1% cap on the total amount of solar that can be net metered in a utility territory
  • Making third-party financing using power purchase agreements (PPAs) legal statewide for all customer classes
  • Allowing local government entities to install solar facilities of up to 5 MW on government-owned property and use the electricity for other government-owned buildings
  • Allowing all customers to attribute output from a single solar array to multiple meters on the same or adjacent property of the same customer
  • Allowing the owner of a multi-family residential building or condominium to install a solar facility on the building or surrounding property and sell the electricity to tenants
  • Removing the restriction on customers installing a net-metered solar facility larger than required to meet their previous 12 months’ demand
  • Raising the size cap for net metered non-residential solar facilities from 1 MW to 2 MW
  • Removing standby charges for residential and agricultural net metering customers

Other renewable energy bills

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.

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.

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 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).

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.

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 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 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, but does not seem to contemplate the more common use of third-party power purchase agreements.

HB 2241 (Delaney) establishes a green jobs training tax credit.

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.

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. In the House version only, one additional provision allows investor-owned utilities (Dominion and APCo) to ask the SCC to raise the net metering cap if they feel like it, but I’m told it is not expected to be in the final legislation. This bill was negotiated between the coops and the solar industry via the “Rubin Group.”

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.

HB 2641 (Gooditis) makes third-party power purchase agreements for distributed renewable energy resources legal statewide.

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.

HB 2741 (Aird) establishes a rebate program for low and moderate-income households that install solar.

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.

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.

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.

Energy Efficiency (some of which have 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.

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

HB 2294 (Sullivan) establishes mandatory energy efficiency goals for electric and gas utilities.

HB 2295 (Sullivan) creates an energy efficiency fund and board to administer it.

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.

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.

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.

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

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. (Update: HB 1635 passed Commerce and Labor on January 23 and heads to the floor of the House. Read this blogpost to understand what’s going on.)

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. The Governor has made this bill a priority.

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 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.

HB 2501 (Rasoul) directs the Division of Energy at DMME to include a greenhouse gas emissions inventory in the Virginia Energy Plan.

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.

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.

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.”

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.

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.

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. (I haven’t confirmed this, but that might be Dominion as well as APCo.)

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.

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.

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 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?

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”).


This article originally appeared in the Virginia Mercury on January 17, 2019. I’ve updated it to include later-filed bills and one or two that I missed originally. 

Appalachian Power gets approval to sell 100 percent renewable energy to customers. Hold the champagne.

Photo credit Andy Beecroft via Wikimedia.

Last week the State Corporation Commission (SCC) approved a request from Appalachian Power Company (APCo) to offer its customers the option of buying electricity entirely from renewable sources. The sources will be primarily wind and hydro, with some solar to be added as it gets built. Participants will pay a premium of less than 4% over ordinary “brown” power, resulting in bill increases of $4.25 per month for a customer who uses 1,000 kW per month.

The approval gives APCo more than a new way to meet customers’ desire for renewable energy. It also triggers a provision in Virginia law that blocks competitive service providers from selling renewable energy to all but the largest of a utility’s customers once the utility itself has an approved offering. Both APCo and Dominion Energy Virginia have long sought to close off competition, but this marks the first time either has succeeded.

The SCC order goes against the recommendation of hearing examiner D. Matthias Roussy, Jr., who had advised against approval of APCo’s tariff.

The SCC had previously rejected a similar program APCo proposed in 2016, primarily due to its high cost. That program, too, would have repackaged the utility’s existing wind and hydro projects that all ratepayers currently pay for, and passed on the cost of those contracts to participants in the renewable energy program. The result was a price premium for the program of about 18%, which the SCC deemed unreasonable.

But APCo didn’t go back to the drawing board and redesign its program; it just changed the pricing. The cost to participants will now be based on the market value of renewable energy certificates (RECs) generated by facilities like the ones APCo owns.

REC prices are set by supply and demand, and an oversupply of wind RECs in the market has pushed prices way down over the past few years. Using REC prices allowed APCo to slash the cost of its renewable energy program by more than 75%.

On the one hand, this is a false calculation, since the value of RECs has little to do with the actual cost of developing and operating a project. On the other hand, the SCC liked the result: a lower cost to participants.

Some customers agreed. A number of APCo’s customers offered support for the program at the SCC. For them, this marks the first opportunity they will have to buy energy from specific wind and solar projects (okay, and a lot of decades-old hydro, too). Currently their only option is buying RECs to offset the dirty power they use, so they are willing to accept a price premium based on REC values.

Other customers were less impressed. Wal-Mart Stores opposed the program because the company prefers to save money by buying renewable energy, not spend more on it. As summarized by the Hearing Examiner, Wal-Mart felt the APCo tariff would be okay as a REC offering, but a real renewable energy tariff ought to “permit the customer to realize the benefits and risks of taking service from renewable energy sources”—i.e., offer at least the potential of saving money for the customer.

Wal-Mart has a point. Given the plunging costs of building and operating new renewable energy projects in recent years, a utility could, in theory, offer a renewable energy tariff at below the cost of brown power. Wind and solar increasingly outcompete even existing coal plants, and APCo is still heavily reliant on coal.

But APCo isn’t going to do any such thing. If its customers can buy renewable energy at a discount, who would want to buy power from fossil fuels?

So APCo had to make sure its program costs more. Tying it to REC prices means it always will, because RECs are always an additional cost.

Just as importantly, APCo has to make sure no other seller of electricity can be allowed to compete with a better or cheaper product. That’s where section § 56-577 A 5 of the Virginia Code comes to the aid of our monopoly utilities. Now that APCo has an approved tariff for a 100% renewable energy tariff, no competitive supplier can come on to its turf with a product that’s better, or simply different. (The Code contains an exception for very large customers.)

Concern about this squelching of competition drove most of the opposition to APCo’s tariff at the SCC, from both competitive suppliers like Collegiate Clean Energy and environmental advocates like the Southern Environmental Law Center, as well as a number of customers. For them, the SCC Order approving APCo’s program represents a loss for consumer choice that will inevitably lead to less renewable energy development.

Separately, Dominion Energy Virginia filed for approval of its own renewable energy tariff, following the Commission’s rejection of the company’s initial proposal last year (correctly in my view). Last month a hearing examiner recommended Dominion’s new tariff be approved, though with changes that would make it significantly cheaper than what Dominion wants. Dominion’s proposal as filed would have cost the average customer an extra $20 per month.

But on January 9, two days after the SCC approved APCo’s tariff, Dominion filed a request to withdraw its application. The request states that the company intends to file a new application “consistent with the principles outlined” in the APCo order.

Although Dominion’s request doesn’t specify which principles it has in mind, they likely include the SCC’s determination that a renewable energy tariff need only match demand on a monthly basis, not the hourly basis Dominion used. According to the hearing examiner’s report, Dominion’s insistence on hourly matching was a significant factor in the program’s high cost.

Dominion’s withdrawal of its renewable energy tariff grants a temporary reprieve to competitive service providers like Direct Energy, which wants to offer renewable energy to Dominion customers. But if Dominion re-files with a program that meets SCC approval, the window of opportunity for competition in the electric sector in Virginia will close permanently in both major utility territories, absent a change in the law.

Anticipating this, Direct Energy sought legislation in the 2018 session that would have ensured the ability of competitors to offer renewable energy even after the SCC approved a utility’s own tariff. Neither the House bill (from Delegate Michael Mullin, D-Newport News) nor the Senate bill (from Senator David Sutterlein, R-Roanoke) made it out of the Commerce and Labor committee. Delegate Mullin is trying again this year; his bill is HB 2117.

Cliona Robb, a lawyer with the law firm of Christian & Barton who represents Direct Energy, says her client hopes for a better outcome in the General Assembly this year.

With the SCC’s order approving APCo’s program, harm to competition is no longer hypothetical. If legislators are serious about renewable energy development in Virginia, keeping the door open to competition has to be a key priority.


This article first appeared in the Virginia Mercury on January 10, 2019.

Update: Senator Sutterlein has also filed a bill this year that would continue to allow competition even once a utility has an approved green tariff. The Senate bill is SB 1584.

Amazon will need even more energy in Virginia. Will they make it clean?

Entrance to Crystal City Metro Station in Arlington, Virginia

Crystal City in Arlington will be the heart of Amazon’s new Virginia headquarters. Renewable energy options on site are limited. Photo credit Woogers via Wikimedia Commons.

Amazon Web Services jump-started the utility solar industry in Virginia in 2015, when it announced plans for its first solar farm in Accomack County. Three years later, Amazon remains the biggest purchaser of solar in the commonwealth, allowing it to offset some of the enormous amount of energy used by its data centers.

Yet the company’s energy footprint in Virginia far exceeds the energy output of its solar projects. The addition of a new headquarters in Arlington will further increase its need for electricity, and will attract new residents who will also use electricity. All this demand poses a problem for the company and the climate: Dominion Virginia Power will burn more coal and fracked gas to meet Amazon’s energy need, unless Amazon acts to ensure the power comes from renewable sources.

Like many big tech companies, Amazon has adopted aggressive sustainability goals, including a “long-term commitment to achieve 100% renewable energy usage” for its data centers. But the details of its commitment are fuzzy, and the qualifier “long-term” makes the commitment meaningless.

Earth to Jeff Bezos: in the “long term” climate change will put HQ2 under water.

If Amazon still wants a habitable planet to compete in, it should consider the entire energy footprint of its operations, and make sure it is meeting these needs 24/7 with clean, renewable energy. Solar should be a big part of the plan, but so should land-based wind and offshore wind, which complement solar by providing power in the evening and at night. An investment in battery storage would round out the package nicely.

Virginia officials made a perfunctory mention of renewable energy availability to Amazon in the state’s bid package (see page 184). This was accompanied by a quote from Bob Blue of Dominion Energy, promising to sell the company renewable energy. (Be pleased, Mr. Bezos; that’s not a promise he’s made to the rest of us.)

Arlington County has reportedly discussed with Amazon how to make its new campus as environmentally-friendly as possible. Arlington is considering making a commitment to 100 percent renewable energy by 2035, so it has a real incentive to ensure that newcomers are part of the solution, not part of the problem.

Given today’s building technology, there is no reason the National Landing campus should not set a new standard for energy-efficient design. Ideally that will include on-site solar as well. Local officials also want to see enough improvements to transit, pedestrian and biking routes to keep 25,000 new commuters from spewing air pollution while they sit in traffic.

Even if Amazon and Arlington do everything right, though, the campus will need to purchase electricity from off-site generation—and there is still the matter of those power-hungry data centers.

Amazon can take Bob Blue up on his offer and let Dominion supply the company with all the renewable energy it needs. Caveat emptor, though: Dominion’s idea of renewable energy includes resources of dubious value to the climate, like the burning of trash and woody biomass.

And, thanks largely to Dominion’s clout in the General Assembly, Virginia has many barriers to on-site solar, which limit customers’ ability to supply their own renewable energy. We also boast a renewable portfolio standard that works approximately opposite to that of every other state, by ensuring wind and solar will never be part of our resource mix.

Come to think of it, we could really use Amazon’s negotiating chops with our legislators.

In any case, with or without Dominion’s help, Amazon will find plenty of opportunities to procure wind as well as more solar in Virginia. Apex Clean Energy’s Rocky Forge wind farm near Roanoke is already permitted and ready for construction as soon as a customer shows up. Apex now has two additional wind farms in development in southwest Virginia—a nice way to support areas of the state outside of Northern Virginia.

Offshore wind is another opportunity to deliver energy at scale while supporting jobs in the Hampton Roads region. Although offshore wind is poised to become a huge industry in the U.S. within the next ten years, right now only the northeastern states are moving forward with offshore wind farms in the near term. Amazon could make it happen here, too.

Dominion Energy has secured approval for two test turbines off the Virginia coast, but the utility has been slow-walking plans to develop hundreds more turbines in the commercial lease area it owns the rights to. In part that’s because Dominion doesn’t see how to get the State Corporation Commission (SCC) to approve the cost to ratepayers.

That wouldn’t be an issue if Amazon were the buyer, but nor is Amazon limited to Dominion as a supplier of offshore wind. Amazon could let Dominion and its developer, Ørsted, compete against Avangrid, the developer that holds the lease on the Kitty Hawk offshore wind area just over the border in North Carolina. The power from both areas has to come to shore at the same point in Virginia Beach, where a high-voltage transmission line is available. Avangrid has already announced that it is speeding up its development work in hopes of appealing to Virginia customers.

It will take several years for Amazon to build out HQ2, but given how much electricity the company already uses in Virginia, there is no reason to wait on making new investments in renewable energy. Virginians, and the planet, will thank you.

This post first appeared in the Virginia Mercury on November 26, 2018. 

SCC rips into Dominion’s offshore wind pilot, approves it anyway

Photo credit: Phil Holman

The Virginia State Corporation Commission (SCC) approved Dominion Energy Virginia’s proposed Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind (CVOW) project on Friday, but not happily. A press releasefrom the SCC complains about the project’s “excessive costs” and the way it is structured to make customers, rather than the developer, shoulder risks:

The offshore wind project consists of two wind turbines to be built by Dominion that would begin operating in December 2020. In its factual findings, the Commission determined that the company’s proposal puts “essentially all” of the risk of the project, including cost overruns, production and performance failures, on Dominion’s customers. Currently, the estimated cost of the project is at least $300 million, excluding financing costs.

The Commission found that the offshore wind project was not the result of a competitive bidding process to purchase power from third-party developers of offshore wind. Doing so would likely have put all or some of the risks on developers as has been done with other offshore wind projects along the East Coast of the United States. The Commission also found that any “economic benefits specific to [the project] are speculative, whereas the risks and excessive costs are definite and will be borne by Dominion’s customers.”

In spite of these harsh words, the SCC goes on to conclude that the language of the giant energy bill passed by the General Assembly last winter, SB 966, leaves regulators no choice but to approve CVOW:

The Commission concluded that the offshore wind project “would not be deemed prudent [under this Commission’s] long history of utility regulation or under any common application of the term.” However, the Commission ruled, as a matter of law, that recent amendments to Virginia laws that mandate that such a project be found to be “in the public interest” make it clear that certain factual findings must be subordinated to the clear legislative intent expressed in the laws governing the petition.

Obviously, the SCC has a point about the high cost of CVOW. Even Dominion agreed that if you just want 12 megawatts (MW) of power, you can get it a lot more cheaply than $300 million. The SCC’s Final Orderis even harsher on this topic. Moreover, the SCC doesn’t see any future for offshore wind as a matter of pure economics.

Nor is it all that reassuring that Dominion has said the price tag won’t have any impact on rates. What Dominion means is that we ratepayers have already paid for it, and as we aren’t going to get our money back anyway, we may as well enjoy seeing it put to use in building an offshore wind industry.

That’s where Dominion is (sort of) right, and the SCC (sort of) wrong. CVOW is the first step in the Northam administration’s plan to build an offshore wind industry in Virginia and install at least 2,000 MW of offshore wind turbines in the coming decade, a goal shared by many members of the General Assembly.

Northam says CVOW will lead to the commercial projects. Dominion says maybe, maybe not (“It’s too soon to have that conversation,” in the words of Dominion’s Katharine Bond). At any rate, it sure won’t happen without CVOW first.

Critics have said it’s silly to insist on a pilot project when other states are going forward with full-scale wind farms. That’s not entirely fair. As the first project in federal waters, the first in the Mid-Atlantic, and the first to be located 27 miles out to sea, CVOW’s two turbines will have much to teach the industry about offshore wind installation and performance in this part of the world. The whole U.S. offshore wind industry stands to benefit.

And also, Dominion has us over a barrel. Dominion holds the lease for the 2,000 MW; nobody else can come in and build it. So if Northam wants an offshore wind industry with thousands of new jobs, he has to do it Dominion’s way or not at all.

Clearly the SCC would choose not to do it at all. But then, the SCC has never shown any understanding of the climate crisis and the pressing need for Virginia to respond by developing as much wind and solar as possible, as rapidly as possible.

In the long term, we have to build out much more than 2,000 MW of offshore wind. As we do, and as costs decline in response to increasing economies of scale and technological improvements, the price tag of one pilot project will shrink in proportion to the billions of dollars flowing into the offshore wind industry and decarbonizing our electricity supply.

If it’s Dominion’s way or the highway, we have to do it Dominion’s way—for now—and then make sure it gets done.

No doubt the SCC would disagree. Yet to its credit, on Friday the SCC also approved Dominion’s purchase of power from a proposed 80-megawatt solar facility dubbed the “Water Strider” project. Unlike the offshore wind project, the solar project met the Commission’s prudency test because it involves a purchase from a private developer and followed a competitive bidding process. This resulted in a price to customers that the SCC felt is “in line with market rates.”

Though the Water Strider project looks like a clear winner for ratepayers, its approval wasn’t a foregone conclusion either. After a long history of approving one fossil fuel project after another, the SCC has belatedly begun to question Dominion’s projections about its need for more generation, at precisely the time when the new generation happens to be solar and wind.

For now, the SCC believes it must bow to the will of the General Assembly. For these two projects, that’s a good thing, but ratepayers will be in trouble if the SCC declines to assert its oversight authority in other filings under SB 966. Dominion wants to spend billions of dollars over the coming years on smart meters, software, burying power lines and other grid projects. Customers still need the SCC to make sure we get our money’s worth.

This article originally appeared in the Virginia Mercury

There’s a lot to like in Northam’s energy plan, but missed opportunities abound

electric vehicle plugged in

Vehicle electrification gets a boost under the energy plan.

There is a lot to like in the Northam Administration’s new Virginia Energy Plan, starting with what is not in it. The plan doesn’t throw so much as a bone to the coal industry, and the only plug for fracked gas comes in the discussion of alternatives to petroleum in transportation.

The 2018 Energy Plan is all about energy efficiency, solar, onshore wind, offshore wind, clean transportation, and reducing carbon emissions. That’s a refreshing break from the “all of the above” trope that got us into the climate pickle we’re in today. Welcome to the 21stcentury, Virginia.

But speaking of climate, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) just released a special report that makes it clear we need “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society” to keep warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius. That’s only half again the amount of warming that has already brought us melting glaciers, a navigable Arctic Ocean, larger and more destructive hurricanes, and here in Virginia, the swampiest summer in memory. The fact that things are guaranteed to get worse before they get better (if they get better) is not a happy thought.

Perhaps no Virginia politician today has the courage to rise to the challenge the IPCC describes. Certainly, Governor Northam shows no signs of transforming into a rapid-change kind of leader. But as we celebrate the proposals in his Energy Plan that would begin moving us away from our fossil fuel past, we also have to recognize that none of them go nearly far enough, and missed opportunities abound.

Let’s start with the high points, though. One of the plan’s strongest sections champions offshore wind energy. It calls for 2,000 megawatts (MW) of offshore wind by 2028, fulfilling the potential of the area of ocean 27 miles off Virginia Beach that the federal government leased to Dominion Energy. In the short term, the Plan pledges support for Dominion’s 12-MW pilot project slated for completion in 2020.

Other East Coast states like Massachusetts and New York have adopted more ambitious timelines for commercial-scale projects, but the economics of offshore wind favor the Northeast over the Southeast, and they aren’t saddled with a powerful gas-bloated monopoly utility.  For Virginia, a full build-out by 2028 would be a strong showing, and better by far than Dominion has actually committed to.

Another strong point is the Administration’s commitment to electric vehicles. The transportation sector is responsible for more carbon emissions even than the electric sector, and vehicle electrification is one key response.

Even better would have been a commitment to smart growth strategies to help Virginians get out of their cars. Overlooking this opportunity is a costly mistake, and not just from a climate standpoint. Today’s popular neighborhoods are the ones that are walkable and bikeable, not the ones centered on automobiles. If we want to create thriving communities that attract young workers, we need to put smart growth front and center in urban planning—and stop making suburban sprawl the cheap option for developers.

Speaking of developers, how about beefing up our substandard residential building code? Lowering energy costs and preparing for hotter summers requires better construction standards. Houses can be built today that produce as much energy as they consume, saving money over the life of a mortgage and making homes more comfortable. The only reason Virginia and other states don’t require all new homes to be built this way is that the powerful home builders’ lobby sees higher standards as a threat to profits.

The Energy Plan mentions that updated building codes were among the recommendations in the Virginia Energy Efficiency Roadmap that was developed with funding from the U.S. Department of Energy and published last spring. I hope the only reason the Energy Plan doesn’t include them among its recommendations is that the Administration is already quietly taking action.

Meanwhile, it is not reassuring to see that the section of the plan devoted to attaining Virginia’s ten percent energy efficiency goal simply describes how our utilities will be proposing more efficiency programs as a result of this year’s SB 966 (the “grid mod” bill).

States that are serious about energy efficiency don’t leave it up to companies whose profits depend on a lack of efficiency. They take the job away from the sellers of electricity and give it to people more motivated. So if the Governor’s plan is merely to leave it up to Dominion and APCo without changing their incentives, we should abandon all hope right now.

Indeed, it is strange how often the Energy Plan finishes an in-depth discussion of an issue with a shallow recommendation, and frequently one that has the distinct odor of having been vetted by Dominion.

That observation leads us straight to grid modernization. The plan opens with a very fine discussion of grid modernization, one that shows the Administration understands both the problem and the solution. It opens by declaring, “Virginia needs a coordinated distribution system planning process.” And it notes, “One important rationale for a focus on grid modernization is that the transitions in our electricity system include a shift away from large, centralized power stations to more distributed energy resources.”

Well, exactly! Moreover: “The grid transformation improvements that the Commonwealth is contemplating include a significant focus on the distribution system, but our current resource planning process (Integrated Resource Plan or IRP) does not fully evaluate the integration of these resources. One overarching focus of this Energy Plan is the development of a comprehensive analysis of distributed energy resources.”

But just when you feel sure that the plan is about to announce the administration is setting up an independent process for comprehensive grid modernization, the discussion comes to a screeching halt. The plan offers just one recommendation, which starts out well but then takes a sudden turn down a dead-end road:

To ensure that utility investments align with long-term policy objectives and market shifts, Virginia should reform its regulatory process to include distribution system level planning in Virginia’s ongoing Integrated Resource Planning requirement.

Seriously? We need regulatory reform, but we will let the utilities handle it through their IRPs? Sorry, who let Dominion write that into the plan?

It’s possible the Administration is punting here because it doesn’t want to antagonize the State Corporation Commission (SCC). The SCC pretty much hated the grid mod bill and resented the legislation’s attack on the Commission’s oversight authority. And rightly so, but let’s face it, the SCC hasn’t shown any interest in “reforming the regulatory process.”

The Energy Plan’s failure to take up this challenge is all the more discouraging in light of a just-released report from the non-profit Grid Lab that evaluates Dominion’s spending proposal under SB 966 and finds it sorely lacking. The report clearly lays out how to do grid modernization right. It’s disheartening to see the Administration on board with doing it wrong.

Dominion’s influence also hobbles the recommendations on rooftop solar and net metering. This section begins by recognizing that “Net metering is one of the primary policy drivers for the installation of distributed solar resources from residential, small business, and agricultural stakeholders.” Then it describes some of the barriers that currently restrain the market: standby charges, system size caps, the rule that prevents customers from installing more solar than necessary to meet past (but not future) demand.

But its recommendations are limited to raising the 1% aggregate cap on net metering to 5% and making third-party power purchase agreements legal statewide. These are necessary reforms, and if the Administration can achieve them, Virginia will see a lot more solar development. But why not recommend doing away with all the unnecessary policy barriers and really open up the market? The answer, surely, is that Dominion wouldn’t stand for it.

Refusing to challenge these barriers (and others—the list is a long one) is especially regrettable given that the plan goes on to recommend Dominion develop distributed generation on customer property. Dominion has tried this before through its Solar Partnership Program, and mostly proved it can’t compete with private developers. If it wants to try again, that’s great. We love competition! But you have to suspect that competition is not what this particular monopoly has in mind.

The need to expand opportunities for private investment in solar is all the more pressing in light of the slow pace of utility investment. Legislators have been congratulating themselves on declaring 5,000 megawatts (MW) of solar and wind in the public interest, and the Energy Plan calls for Dominion to develop 500 MW of solar annually. I suspect our leaders don’t realize how little that is. After ten years, 5,000 MW of solar, at a projected capacity factor of 25%, would produce less electricity than the 1,588-MW gas plant Dominion is currently building in Greensville, operating at a projected 80% capacity.

Offshore wind capacities are in the range of 40-45%, so 2,000 MW of offshore wind will produce the amount of electricity equivalent to one of Dominion’s other gas plants. It won’t quite match the 1,358-MW Brunswick Power Station, or even the 1,329-MW Warren County Power Station, but Dominion also has several smaller gas plants.

But at this point you get the picture. If all the solar and wind Virginia plans to build over ten years adds up to two gas plants, Virginia is not building enough solar and wind.

That gets us back to climate. The Administration can claim credit for following through on developing regulations to reduce carbon emissions from power plants by 30% by 2030, using the cap-and-trade program of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) of the northeastern states. If successful, that still leaves us with 70% of the carbon emissions in 2030, when we need to be well on our way to zero. And for that, we don’t have a plan.

Of course, Ralph Northam has been Governor for only nine months. He has some solid people in place, but right now he has to work with a legislature controlled by Republicans and dominated by Dominion allies in both parties, not to mention an SCC that’s still way too fond of fossil fuels. Another blue wave in the 2019 election could sweep in enough new people to change the calculus on what is possible. In that case, we may yet see the kind of leadership we need.

 

This article first appeared in the Virginia Mercury on October 15, 2018.