Dominion keeps trying to pull the wool over our eyes

 

Sheep like these are used to keep grass mowed around solar panels.

Dominion’s ad would have done a better job of distracting us if it had included baby animals. Their failure is my opportunity! These lambs keep the grass short around the solar panels at a farm near New Hope, Virginia. Owners Ann and Riley Murray shared this picture.

When your kid greets you at the door with the cheery news that he’s swept the floor for you without being asked, you are probably right to wonder which breakable item is no longer in its usual place.

I have the same feeling about the series of full-page ads Dominion Energy has taken out in newspapers over the past few weeks bragging about the company’s investments in solar energy. The ads are misleading—I’ll get to that in a minute—but the more interesting question is what the company is up to that it hopes we’re too busy looking at solar panels to notice.

Here are some possible answers:

• It was recently reported that Dominion Energy paid no federal income tax for 2018, in spite of earning over $3 billion in U.S. income. In fact, the company received a $45 million rebate, making its effective tax rate -1%. That’s pretty sharp manipulation of the tax laws. No wonder CEO Thomas Farrell II is the highest paid executive in the utility sector, with a reported $20.6 million in income.

• Most of that untaxed income comes from customers here in Virginia, but not all of it is earned. Let’s recap just a few of the high points: In 2014, the General Assembly passed a law letting Dominion charge customers for hundreds of millions of dollars incurred in planning for a new nuclear plant the company isn’t building. Then in 2015 Dominion persuaded legislators to “freeze” regulators’ ability to examine the books and order refunds of what turned out to be hundreds of millions more in customer overpayments. Regulators said the number might eventually rise as high as a billion dollars. When grumbling about that reached a fever pitch, Dominion persuaded the still-compliant (!) legislature to pass another billlast year letting it spend the money instead of refunding it.

• After getting authority to spend all that customer money, one of Dominion’s first moves was to interpret “spending” as “keeping.” Instead of the massive spending on energy efficiency that the legislature put into the law, Dominion tried to discount the number by 40 or 50% so it could keep the rest as “lost revenue.”

• Dominion’s Atlantic Coast Pipeline could shape up to be a huge profit center for the company, but also a huge financial burden for utility customers. Dominion fought hard against a bill this year that would have protected customers if and when the pipeline ever gets built. The company eventually defeated the bill in a Dominion-friendly Senate committee, but not before voting revealed deep fault lines in the House.

• Slides from a presentation to an investor meeting in March show Dominion bragging about Virginia having a favorable regulatory environment (read: utilities get their way).

• That presentation caught the interest of several House Democrats for another reason: it boasted customer-funded spending numbers at least $3 billion higher than it gave its regulators at the State Corporation Commission just two weeks before. In a news release May 2, the seven delegates demanded Dominion produce a full accounting of its future spending plans. Del. Elizabeth Guzman, D-Prince William, whose office issued the release, said “Dominion’s days of facing no consequences when telling Virginians one thing and Wall Street another are coming to an end. The SCC is right to uncover Dominion’s inconsistencies and hold the monopoly accountable since it is Virginia ratepayers who will ultimately pay the price.”

• The delegates also noticed Dominion has decided it wants to make even more profit from its Virginia customers. This spring the company asked the State Corporation Commission to raise its rate of return on common equity from 9.2% to 10.75%, an astounding increase at a time of low interest rates and easy access to capital. Dominion may believe that by overreaching, it will win some middle ground. In the March presentation, Dominion told shareholders the company expects to earn an average 10.2% return on equity from its Virginia investments, still a full percentage point higher than the utility is currently authorized to earn.

• The Virginia Attorney General’s Office is fighting Dominion’s attempts to collect $247 million from ratepayers for environmental upgrades at its Chesterfield power plant, calling the spending “imprudent” given that it will provide “little or no value to customers.”

All of this should feel pretty brazen to Virginia leaders and the public, but when you want something you don’t deserve, it helps to be shameless.

Yet at least some Dominion leaders seem to be aware that other people think the company should be ashamed of its greed, and that some of these people are voters who may eject its friendly legislators from office this fall. Their answer is to run an ad about solar panels to distract us and change the conversation.

But the ad just starts its own conversation — and not in the intended way.

The ad brags, “At Dominion Energy, we’ve increased the number of solar panels in Virginia from 5,250 to over 2 million since 2015. And we’re now the 4th largest solar producer in the nation.”

First off, a minor point, but a symptomatic one: that “fourth largest” claim doesn’t hold up. As of last September, a ranking of the largest solar owners put Dominion in 10th place. Even using the updated number (2,600 MW) from Dominion’s March 2019 investor presentation wouldn’t get the company to fourth place unless other companies have been hastily selling off projects. It does appear Dominion can rightly claim to be the fourth largest solar owner among energy holding companies that own electric utilities. But so what?

The Virginia number catches our attention, though. Two million solar panels sounds like a lot. It’s just that — well, somebody check my math here, but if those are average 300-watt panels, that comes out to 600 MW, which is a pitifully small amount compared to Dominion’s fossil fuel investments. We’re glad to have any solar at all, but it isn’t something to write friends in California about (they’ve got 24,000 MW of solar and counting).

Speaking of California, that and North Carolina are where the rest of Dominion’s solar projects are, in case you’re wondering. The laws are better there. Dominion didn’t write their laws.

Also, while we are at it, almost none of the solar Dominion is developing is for ordinary residents, in spite of what the ad implies. Almost all of it is for data centers and other large customers. Dominion is counting the 350 MW of solar it is developing for Facebook towards the commitment it made to the General Assembly last year to develop 3,000 MW of renewable energy by 2022.

Legislators who thought Dominion would build a lot of solar for regular folks when they agreed to last year’s boondoggle bill should find that disappointing. If they didn’t get solar for their constituents, what exactly did they get?

Unfortunately for Dominion, that brings us back to the long list of things the company was hoping we would ignore while we look at bright shiny objects. Ads about solar panels aren’t enough to distract people from the billions of dollars Dominion is taking from our pockets.

Perhaps the executives at Dominion will conclude the ad just wasn’t good enough. Next time they could try putting sheep in the picture with the solar panels. Especially baby sheep.

Maybe they thought about it and were afraid it would remind Virginians they were getting fleeced.

But they had better try something. Because right now, frankly, no one is distracted.

This article first appeared in the Virginia Mercury on May 6, 2019. 

Virginia’s solar job numbers rose 9% in 2018

Workers install solar panels at the University of Richmond.

The Solar Foundation has released its National Solar Jobs Census for 2018, showing solar jobs in Virginia increased from 3,565 in 2017 to 3,890 in 2017, an increase of 9%.

That puts Virginia 20thin the nation for solar jobs, though only 34thif measured on a per capita basis.

Nationwide, solar job numbers fell 3.2% to 242,000 jobs as the Trump administration’s tariffs on solar panels took a toll, yet 29 states saw increases. The Solar Foundation projects a 7% increase in 2019.

The Virginia job numbers sound good until you compare us to the competition. To the south of us, North Carolina continues to eat our lunch, with 6,719 solar jobs, while Maryland to the north has 4,515. Both these states lost jobs compared to 2017, but remain way ahead of Virginia both in absolute terms and jobs per capita. (Not surprisingly, they also have a lot more solar installed.)

In fact, measured in solar jobs per capita, Virginia remains an East Coast laggard. Every state on the Atlantic except Georgia and Pennsylvania has more solar workers per capita than Virginia has—and those two states are not far behind us.

This is especially unsettling because while North Carolina and states to the north of us have renewable portfolio standards (RPS) that require their utilities to buy renewable energy, most southeastern states do not. The fact that they are beating Virginia on solar jobs suggests we have a lot of room left for improvement.

In spite of shrinking employment and the impact of tariffs, solar installations nationally rose 8% in 2018, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) in its Sustainable Energy in America Factbook. (BNEF also shows higher job numbers for solar than the Solar Foundation recorded, possibly due to different methodologies.)

More installed capacity by fewer workers may reflect higher productivity on the part of the industry, as installers learn to work better and faster, and as communities support them with streamlined permitting and public education.

The growth in utility-scale solar is surely a factor also. Rooftop residential and commercial solar is labor-intensive, while large, ground-mounted arrays allow significant economies of scale. Statistics from the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) show utility-scale solar has been driving much of the increase in solar installations over the past several years.

Although solar remains a very small part of the nation’s overall energy mix, the BNEF report shows it makes up a significant share of new energy being built, even beating out natural gas in 2016 and 2017. BNEF also shows solar jobs run only barely behind jobs in gas. Considering only electric generation, solar jobs are way ahead of all other sources, including gas. (Coal lost the jobs race several years ago, even in Virginia, and in spite of the subsidies we throw at coal mining.)

For Virginia policy makers who are focused on job creation, solar is a clear winner. As the Solar Foundation notes, “In the five-year period between 2013 and 2018, solar employment increased 70% overall, adding 100,000 jobs. By comparison, overall U.S. employment grew only 9.13% during that same period.”

This article originally appeared in the Virginia Mercury on February 14, 2019. 

It’s time for the General Assembly to side with customers, not utilities, on solar

Solar canopy over a parking lot

Solar panels on parking lots, landfills, rooftops and other sites could provide a lot of clean electricity if policy barriers are removed.

Last winter, the Virginia General Assembly passed legislation giving utilities the green light to develop 5,500 megawatts (MW) of wind and solar energy. This marks a milestone for Virginia, offering the possibility for an amount of solar equal in output to Dominion Energy’s newest gas-fired power plant in Greensville.*

Amid the general celebration of this support for utility solar and wind, few legislators noticed that the bill did nothing to help residents and businesses that want to build renewable energy for their own use. Private investment drives most of the solar market in many other states, so leaving it out of the picture means squandering an opportunity.

Customers—and the solar companies who depend on small-scale solar— hope it’s their turn this year. They’d like to see the General Assembly give customer-built solar the same level of love in 2019 that it gave utility solar in 2018.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t square with the agenda of our utilities, which want to protect their monopolies on electric generation. Over the past few years, Dominion Energy and its fellow utilities have blocked dozens of bills aimed at removing some of the policy barriers stifling the market.

Just one example: Fairfax County, like many jurisdictions across the state, owns a closed landfill. It can’t be used for most purposes, but it could hold a solar array large enough to power multiple county buildings.

Yet no fewer than four different provisions of Virginia’s net metering law keep a cost-effective project from moving forward: a 1 MW limit on commercial solar arrays; a requirement that electricity from a solar facility must be used onsite; a rule that a solar facility can’t be larger than needed to meet the site’s electric demand over the preceding year; and a prohibition on meter aggregation that keeps a customer with solar on one building from sharing it with another building.

These would all be simple legislative fixes, but for years now Dominion and the other utilities have opposed the reforms.

Other reforms are needed, too. The solar industry faces a ceiling on the total amount of solar customers can own under the net metering program; utilities killed bills that would raise the ceiling. Businesses tried to lift restrictions on third-party financing using power purchase agreements. Utilities killed the bills. Homeowners tried to get out from under the oppressive fees called standby charges that utilities impose to keep customers from putting up more than 10 kilowatts (kW) of solar panels. Utilities killed the bills.

Killing bills clearly must get tedious. So, this year, Dominion is using the occasion of a report to the General Assembly on solar energy last month to launch a propaganda campaign against the whole radical idea of customers producing their own energy supply.

The 44-page, glossy brochure boasts photographs of sunlight slanting across solar panels nestled in fields of dandelions. Much of it is devoted to touting Dominion’s own progress in installing solar. Dominion claims its 1,600 MW of solar make it a national leader, though that might have to be taken with a grain of salt given that the U.S. now has more than 58,000 MW of solar.

And of course, most of Dominion’s solar is in other states; and of the solar in Virginia, most is being built in response to demand from the state government and corporate customers. Only a few of the solar farms Dominion includes will actually serve ordinary ratepayers.

The achievements amount to even less for Dominion’s customer-sited projects. The company’s Solar Partnership Program for commercial customers built only 7.7 MW out of the 30 MW the SCC approved five years ago. The Solar Purchase Program that Dominion once hoped might replace net metering has produced a grand total of 2 MW.

And then there are the 18 schools across the commonwealth that are the lucky recipients of solar panels in Dominion’s “Solar for Students” program. Each school gets 1.2 kW worth of solar panels, or roughly enough to run an old refrigerator. (In fairness, those old refrigerators are electricity hogs. If you have one, replace it.)

If these programs demonstrate Dominion’s level of competence building rooftop solar, that seems like reason enough to open up the private market.

It’s also worth keeping in mind that the reason customers are trying so hard to remove Virginia’s policy barriers is that they don’t just want electricity, they want solar. Yet absolutely none of the solar energy from any project Dominion builds or buys, even those paid for by Virginia ratepayers, will stay in Virginia to meet our voluntary renewable portfolio standard (RPS).

If that surprises you, check out a different document Dominion filed last month, with significantly less fanfare than it gave the solar report. The other filing, Dominion’s annual report to the State Corporation Commission (SCC) on renewable energy, confirms that Dominion sells the “renewable attributes” of solar energy produced here to utilities in other states in the form of renewable energy certificates (RECs).

Then, for the Virginia RPS, Dominion buys cheaper RECs from facilities like out-of-state, century-old hydro dams, biomass (wood) burners, trash incinerators, and a large but mysterious category called “thermal” that is nowhere defined but definitely has nothing to do with solar. So other states get the bragging rights to our solar, and we get dams, trash and wood, plus a mystery ingredient.

But regardless of who gets to claim it, all solar is good solar in a world threatened by climate change. That’s my attitude, anyway, and I only wish Dominion shared it. But, returning our attention to the glossy solar brochure, we find Dominion instead doing its darnedest to undermine the idea of solar built by anyone but the lovable monopoly itself.

The report offers up a poll that concludes: “Solar power is the most popular energy source of all those tested in this polling (Nuclear, Wind, Solar, Natural Gas, and Coal).” But then it goes on to suggest customers don’t understand solar, don’t want to spend much money on it, and don’t really value it very highly after all.

For example, the report follows news of solar’s 82% positive rating with this caveat: “However, when asked to choose what is most important to them regarding their own electricity provider . . .customers chose as follows: dependability and reliability 53%; affordability 28%; investing in renewable energy 16%.”

The poll apparently didn’t give respondents the option of choosing solar andreliability andaffordability. Pollsters must not have told folks that customers in other states enjoy all three at once, or that solar actually has a positive effect on grid reliability and customer savings.

If the question had been, “How biased is this poll?” I bet they could have scored 100%.

After delivering a few more similarly manipulated polling results, the report goes on to discuss the results of last summer’s solar stakeholder process. Readers may recall that Dominion hired consultant Meridian Institute to convene a series of meetings to get feedback on renewable energy policy questions. Hundreds of Virginians took the trouble to attend in person or by phone to share their expertise and opinions.

The result, presented in an 18-page appendix to Dominion’s report, is impressive only for how completely inane it is.

Here, for example, is how Meridian opens its summary of stakeholder feedback:

Most stakeholders who expressed a general opinion about the expansion of renewable energy in Virginia indicated that they support such expansion. Others indicated that their support for renewable energy was dependent on a variety of factors. Some stakeholders did not express a general opinion about the expansion of renewable energy in Virginia.

I am sorry to say it goes on like that for pages.

If you persist in reading the Meridian summary, the most you will get out of it is what we all knew going into it: utilities disagree with customers and the solar industry about whether existing restrictions on customer solar are good or bad.

Except, the report does not even say that. It only says the “participants” in the solar stakeholder process disagreed on these questions. Putting it that way leaves open the possibility that some customer, somewhere, in one of those meetings, might have taken the utilities’ side.

If so, the customer’s name was Tooth Fairy.

I have little doubt Dominion provided a copy of its pretty solar report to every legislator in Richmond, and is already using it in its fight against expanding the rights of customers in Virginia to go solar. Dominion will point to its report as proof that customers are too stupid and too conflicted to be allowed to make their own decisions. Ergo, Dominion should control all solar in Virginia, on rooftops as well as elsewhere.

Legislators should indeed read the report. And then after they’ve had a good laugh, they should tell Dominion no.

——————

*That equivalence is because Dominion projects its 1,588 MW Greensville plant will run at 80% of its full capacity. Solar farms, generating only during daylight hours, achieve capacity factors in the range of 25%, while rooftop solar comes in a little less.


This post originally appeared in the Virginia Mercury on December 7, 2018.

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.

Solar tours this weekend will showcase much more than solar panels

solar panels on a house

This house looks ordinary, but it boasts a superpower: its solar panels produce all the energy the homeowners use.

Innovative lighting, rain gardens, mini-split heat pumps, electric vehicles, and high-tech appliances—what do these have to do with solar panels? They will all be featured at homes and businesses opening their doors to the public on Saturday and Sunday, October 6 and 7, as part of the National Solar Tour.

You can find open houses and tours near you using this map or the listing on this site. For those in Northern Virginia, a downloadable booklet describes more than 40 solar and green homes participating in the Metro DC tour. The website also tells you where you can buy a hard copy if you prefer. Some homes didn’t make it into the booklet, which went to press over the summer.

The American Solar Energy Society (ASES) started the National tour more than two decades ago, but the Washington metro area tour is now in its 28thyear. This is pretty astonishing if you think about where solar technology was in 1990.

As a “tourist” during the early days, I remember the gee-whiz feeling I got exploring the handiwork of early solar adopters. It is the tragedy of my life that I live in the woods and can’t have my own solar panels. Fortunately, the tours have always been about more than just generating electricity. Back then, they had to be, because not many people could afford solar PV. Good design and energy efficiency took center stage.

Through the tours I learned about passive solar houses, solar hot water, insulation made from old blue jeans, natural light via “daylighting,” the incorporation of recycled materials into beautiful tile and countertops, eco-friendly siding materials, and how to live with nature using native plants and rain gardens. More recently the tours have branched out to include electric vehicles and green roofs.

This year’s Metro DC tour booklet includes new homes built to Passive House standards and loaded with cool features, but to my mind the more interesting entries are ordinary homes that have undergone a thoughtful retrofit. Here is a description of one of the latter:

This 1950s ranch house has solar PV, solar hot water, solar space heating, a cupola/solar chimney, solar daylight tubes, solar attic fan, solar sidewalk lights, south facing energy efficient windows, 2 highly efficient energy star minisplit heat pumps (26-SEER), a fireplace insert wood stove, exterior insulation finishing system (EIFS), CFL/LED lighting, kitchen counter tops made from recycled glass, and recycled floor tiles in the foyer and basement. The yard has a 1000-gallon cistern, food forest, 2 rain gardens, permeable walkways, 2 rain barrels, and 2 compost piles. There is also an aquaponics system, a Chevy Volt and a plug-in Prius. Installation by Greenspring Energy.

These renovations suggest an important point: reducing energy use doesn’t require us to tear down our homes and start over. And thank heavens for that, since most of us aren’t going to do that anyway.

Besides which, existing homes make up so much of our housing stock that making big efficiency gains depends on how well we retrofit and weatherize old homes. So if a house built in the 50s can be turned into a solar energy showcase, the rest of us should be taking notes.