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.