With Rooftop Solar Prices So Low, Virginia Schools Can’t Pass Up the Savings

By Will Driscoll

With today’s low solar prices, schools can save money by installing rooftop solar, and use the savings to improve education.  Schools in three Virginia communities are leading the way, achieving net energy savings after commissioning 1.7 megawatts of solar systems in 2016. Student leadership, power purchase agreements, and one outright purchase helped make it happen.

In Albemarle County, students helped drive a decision to install 1.1 megawatts of solar on six schools.  Back in 2014, Sutherland Middle School students gave pro-solar testimony in Richmond at a hearing on Dominion Virginia Power’s resource plans.  Meanwhile, students at Monticello High School wrote to the school board to make the case for solar.  The school division last year added rooftop solar to these schools and four others, by entering a power purchase agreement (PPA) with solar developer Secure Futures in Staunton.  The school division projects savings of at least $80,000 over the life of the 20-year PPA agreement, based on a projected annual increase of two percent in Dominion Virginia Power’s electricity rates.  (Photos below.)

Arlington’s new Discovery Elementary School is jam-packed with 497 kilowatts of solar panels.  That much solar was possible under Virginia’s net metering law because the school is heated using electric-powered geothermal heat pumps—so the school can net meter not only its air conditioning and lighting load but also its electric heating load.  The school district paid $1,369,500 for the solar system, funded through the same bond used to build the school.  The cost will be paid off in 14 years, assuming a two percent annual increase in energy costs, and the solar panels should produce free electricity for many years after that.  (That 14-year amortization is based on the bond’s interest rate of 2.63 percent and full-year 2016 energy cost avoidance of $101,000, increasing by two percent per year.)  The school is designed as a net-zero-energy building, and ran at net-zero in 2016. (Photo below.)

Lexington City Schools, which operates just three schools, added a 91.5 kW solar system to the Lylburn Downing Middle School. “No matter how big or how small a school division you are—and that translates into real life, no matter how big a corporation or how small—you can make an impact on the environment” explained School Principal Jason White in a video interview with Washington and Lee University’s Rockbridge Report.  Lexington School Superintendent Scott Jefferies added that the solar project “speaks beyond how much you can actually save financially—more so … that you’re actually trying to do something good for the environment.” Like Albemarle County, Lexington financed this solar system through a PPA with Secure Futures.

Looking Ahead:  To accelerate placement of cost-saving solar systems on schools—and to show our children that we care about their future—Virginia legislators could extend the right to enter into power purchase agreements (PPAs) beyond the current pilot program in the Dominion Virginia Power territory.  The legislature could also allow customers to net meter more solar-generated electricity than they consume, because we need all the solar we can get, and because Dominion claims it has difficulty siting solar generation.  And soon, legislators will need to increase the net metering limit, now fixed at one percent of total electricity consumption.

Virginia can produce 32 percent of its electricity from rooftop solar, according to a National Renewable Energy Laboratories report.  Virginia’s 2,093 public schools, with unshaded roofs ideal for low-cost commercial scale solar, represent a promising component of that potential.  Our progress in 2016 moved us eight schools closer to that target.

Albemarle County Schools–Photos 

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Staff of Mountain View Solar (in high-visibility clothing) and Secure Futures conduct commissioning tests for Albermarle High School’s solar installation. (Photo courtesy of Secure Futures LLC.)

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Sutherland Middle School’s 279 kW system. (Photo by Grant Gotlinger; courtesy of Secure Futures.)

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Baker-Butler Elementary School’s 224 kW system. (Photo by Grant Gotlinger, courtesy of Secure Futures.)

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Brownsville Elementary School’s 130 kW system. (Photo by Grant Gotlinger, courtesy of Secure Futures.)

Arlington’s Discovery Elementary School–Photo

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496 kW of solar panels on Arlington’s Discovery Elementary School, with a neighboring school shown at top left. (Photo courtesy of VMDO Architects and Digital Design & Imaging Service, Inc.)

 

 

How can we address climate change if we don’t talk about it?

cncartoons029881-549The Daily Press, Virginia’s fourth largest newspaper, recently ran an ambitious series of insightful articles on climate-change adaptation. The series movingly showed the daily reality of the many Virginians living near the coast, on the front lines of climate change.

The Newport News-based paper serves the Hampton Roads region, with particular focus on the Peninsula and Middle Peninsula. The paper’s readership territory is mostly low-lying, much of it adjacent to or near tidal waters, so there are plenty of sea-level rise and storm-flooding stories to cover. But one thing about the eight articles in the series that I’ve reviewed is odd, and also sad. Not one of them mentions “climate change” or “global warming.” To be sure, “sea-level rise” is mentioned often, along with “coastal flooding.” But the articles avoid mentioning the primary cause of those phenomena—global warming, aka climate change.

The Daily Press series’ focus is hyper-local: articles by six different reporters, each focusing on sea-level rise and other climate-change effects in a particular neighborhood or jurisdiction—Newport News, Carmines Island, Hampton; and York, Mathews, James City, Isle of Wight, and Gloucester Counties. Many residents and local officials were interviewed. The articles’ tone at times is elegiac, as people describe the way things were not long ago, and how they’ve changed for the worse as the waters rise. While climate-adaptation terms like “retreat” and “abandonment” aren’t mentioned, an official in Mathews County notes that property owners are beginning to donate their land to a nonprofit, a trend that he says is likely to accelerate. (Landowners can claim tax benefits for donating their property to qualifying nonprofits.)

In one of the saddest comments, an official in Hampton notes that the city’s building code may need to be updated to prevent houses from getting knocked off their foundations by “wave action.” Sadder yet, a Carmines Island resident says “We’re drowning down here. We need some help.”

The Daily Press deserves great praise for this detailed, ongoing coverage of the climate crisis. This is the type of quality, in-depth local reporting that could earn a Pulitzer Prize. It focuses on human faces in nearby places dealing with a problem that is global, abstract, and too often easy for many Americans to ignore. Every Virginia official from Governor Terry McAuliffe on down, including all members of the General Assembly and our representatives in Congress, should read these articles.

But still, why the climate-change silence? Why not at least mention or better yet analyze the real issue—the underlying cause? True, the articles do frequently use the term “sea-level rise,” a phrase that Republican Delegate Chris Stolle of Virginia Beach once called “a left-wing term,” presumably because he recognizes that rising seas are caused by our greenhouse-gas emissions, which heat the planet, and knows that politicians in his party aren’t supposed to admit that. He received well-deserved ridicule for that comment, and at least some in his party are now willing to utter the expression “sea-level rise,” as long as they studiously avoid linking it to climate change. But when six Daily Press reporters write a series about rising seas and more-intense storms while failing to note the larger climate-change causes, something is amiss.

Perhaps the best clue for what is happening can be found in the comment of Garrey Curry, assistant Gloucester County administrator. He told the Daily Press: “Locally when we talk about sea level rise we try not to get bogged down to the whys and hows. We want to understand the trends.” Left unsaid, and apparently unchallenged by Daily Press reporter Frances Hubbard, was how one can understand the trends and implement solutions if one doesn’t talk or think about, much less act on, the “whys and hows.” Curry in effect admitted that he wants to avoid talking about climate change, apparently because he thinks it is too “controversial.” He of course is entitled to his views, but a newspaper ought not to avoid underlying causes to avoid controversy. Indeed a newspaper’s mission should be to enlighten readers about what’s causing the problems it’s reporting on.

At first I thought another clue explaining the Daily Press’s climate silence might be found in a rather appalling 2014 editorial, in which the paper blasted some local officials for taking climate change seriously. The officials’ crime back then? They had “jumped on the global warming bandwagon” which the paper called “trendy” and “a cult-like fad.”

But in the intervening years, as sea levels (and temperatures) continue to rise as predicted, the paper’s editorial staff seems to have had a change of heart (or perhaps a change of personnel). A powerful editorial this month summed up the findings of the paper’s series of articles on the human costs of the region’s flooding. The editors acknowledged (without mentioning the 2014 editorial): “Our global climate is getting warmer and th[e] temperature is rising faster than it has in the past. Glaciers are melting, and sea levels are rising. Human activity is the primary cause, or at least one of the primary causes, for these changes.” The editorial concluded: “We are in the eye of the storm, and our region can either take on a leadership role [in addressing climate change] or serve as a cautionary tale.”

Well said. The Daily Press editorial page’s change-of-heart since 2014 gives one hope. But the editorial also noted that the paper got complaints from some readers of the series who “buy into the counterintuitive argument that climate change is either a gross exaggeration or a complete hoax.” In other words, even though the paper’s articles on flooding studiously avoided mentioning climate change, readers predisposed to deny climate science apparently wanted the paper to be silent about not just climate change but also about the flooding itself.

The moral of this story, it seems to me, is that deniers are gonna deny. So there’s little point in remaining silent about climate change, or using euphemisms to dance around the topic, in order to avoid supposed “controversy” about the science. After all, that controversy derives from disinformation manufactured by the fossil-fuel industry and promoted by the front groups and politicians it controls. So better for a newspaper to just be truthful and candid, rather than try to avoid supposed controversy. And being truthful about sea-level rise—telling the whole truth—includes discussing the causes, not just the symptoms.

Michael Allen, an assistant professor of geography at Old Dominion University, made a similar point in the Virginian-Pilot last summer, gently chastising the Norfolk planning department for issuing a report on “resiliency” and “living with the water” while not mentioning “the elephant in the room,” climate change. Allen noted that the city’s Norfolk Vision 2100 plan “failed to acknowledge, even in passing, the causes of our ongoing problem or provide a scientific context to our challenges.”

Climate silence is hardly limited to one newspaper, one government entity, or one political party. Even environmental activists sometimes avoid mentioning climate change when discussing measures that are, in truth, all about climate change. Governor Terry McAuliffe, who has supported the EPA’s Clean Power Plan effort to address climate change, nevertheless is silent on climate when he’s out promoting unneeded gas pipelines that will increase greenhouse-gas emissions.

Researchers at George Mason and Yale Universities released a study in 2016 on what they called “a climate ‘spiral of silence’ in which even people who care about the issue shy away from discussing it because they so infrequently hear other people talking about it—reinforcing the spiral.” The GMU/Yale report noted that “fewer than half of Americans say they hear global warming discussed in the media (TV, movies, radio, newspapers/news websites, magazines, etc.) ‘at least once a week’ … or even ‘at least once a month.’” Some 30% of Americans say they hear about global warming only “once a year or less,” “never,” or they are “not sure.” A just-issued GMU/Yale report found that only about 15% of Americans understand that almost all climate scientists are convinced that human-caused global warming is happening. That figure is up from 11% in March 2016, but still is very concerning. This is not a time to be silent about climate change.

A major antidote to the spiral of climate silence, of course, is more and better news coverage of the climate crisis. The Daily Press series presents a curious case of talking eloquently about climate change symptoms while carefully avoiding talking about causes. The paper’s follow-up editorial makes up for that omission somewhat, but the causes of climate change need to be explained in news articles, not just in the opinion pages.

In his classic 2007 book on socially organized silence (The Elephant in the Room: Silence and Denial in Everyday Life) the sociologist Eviatar Zerubavel explains that silence is a form of communication that often speaks louder than words. Moreover silence, like denial, “usually involves refusing to acknowledge the presence of things that actually beg for attention.” He adds, “ignoring something is more than simply failing to notice it. It’s often the result of some pressure to actively disregard it. By enabling … collective denial, conspiracies of silence prevent us from confronting, and consequently solving, our problems.” (Emphasis added.) There is considerable pressure in our society to be silent about climate change’s causes, originating primarily from fossil-fuel interests and politicians they control who spread lies and distortions about climate science.

Those of us who understand and care about climate change in this post-truth, alternative-fact age must push back against this pressure, and refuse to be silent or use euphemisms to avoid supposed “controversy.” Otherwise we are letting the disinformers control the boundaries of conversation. That’s just what the climate disinformers and their fossil-fuel backers want, and just what our commonwealth and our country cannot afford to let them do.

And finally it’s worth noting another small form of climate silence related to the Daily Press series. The Virginia Public Access Project (VPAP) issues a daily news summary, compiled from newspapers and other media sources around the state. VPAP is a non-partisan project, widely supported, used, and admired by people from all over the political spectrum (including me).

A couple of years ago I noticed that VPAP’s daily summaries relegate articles on climate change and environmental issues to a section titled “Virginia Other,” placed near the bottom of the report. I brought my observation to VPAP’s attention, noting the growing importance of climate change in Virginia and suggesting the topic deserves better treatment than “Other.” VPAP executive director David Poole politely responded, but declined to put climate and environment articles in their own section. The result is that VPAP’s “Other” section sometimes has nothing but environmental and climate articles. And “Other” is where VPAP listed the Daily Press’s articles on climate adaptation.

I noticed them there because “Other” is often the most important VPAP section—and therefore the one I always read first.

Seth Heald is chair of the Sierra Club’s Virginia Chapter. He expects to receive an M.S. degree in Energy Policy and Climate from Johns Hopkins University in May, 2017.

Why Trump won’t stop the clean energy revolution

A protest in Manhattan against the presidency of Donald Trump, held the day after the election. Photo credit Rhododendrites - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=53011447

A protest in Manhattan against the presidency of Donald Trump, held the day after the election. Photo credit Rhododendrites – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=53011447

It is not an overstatement to say that Donald Trump’s win over Hillary Clinton horrified everyone who is worried about climate change. Reading the news Wednesday morning was like waking up from a nightmare to discover that there really is a guy coming after you with a meat cleaver.

You might not be done for, though. You could just end up maimed and bloodied before you wrest the cleaver away. So with that comforting thought, let’s talk about what a Trump presidency means for energy policy over the next four years.

I’ve had a lot of time to think about this. As a career pessimist, I’ve been worried about the possibility of a Trump win since last spring. I can fairly say I was panicking before panic became mainstream. But even with the worst-case scenario starting to play out, I’m convinced we will continue making progress on clean energy.

There is no getting around how much harder a Trump presidency makes it for those of us who want the U.S. to meet its obligations under the Paris climate accord. It’s not clear that Trump can actually “cancel” the accord, as he has promised to do. On the other hand, a man who puts fossil fuel lobbyists and climate skeptics in charge of energy policy is hardly likely to ask Congress for a carbon tax.

Nothing good can come of it when the people in charge relish chaos and embrace ignorance. Destroying the EPA will not stop glaciers melting and sea levels rising.

But just as politicians can’t repeal the laws of physics driving global warming, so there are other forces largely beyond their control. Laws and regulations currently in place; state-level initiatives; market competition; technological innovation; and popular attitudes towards clean energy have all driven changes that will withstand a fair amount of monkeying with. It’s worth a quick review of these realities.

Coal is still dead

Donald Trump’s promise to bring back coal jobs is about as solid as his promise to force American companies to bring jobs back from China. Even if he’s sincere, he can’t actually do it.

The economic case for coal no longer exists, and that remains true even if Trump and anti-regulation forces in Congress gut EPA rules protecting air and water. Fracking technology did more than the Obama administration to drive coal use down by making shale gas cheap. A glut of natural gas pushed prices down to unsustainable levels and kept them there so long that utilities chose to close coal plants or convert them to gas rather than wait.

What gas started, renewables are finishing. Today, coal can’t compete on price with wind or solar, either. That leaves coal with no path back to profitability. Not many utilities want to pollute when not polluting is cheaper.

Nor will the export market recover. China doesn’t want our coal, and a president who pursues protectionist trade policies will find it hard to get other countries to take our products.

It’s also hard to find serious political support for coal outside of a handful of coal states. Politicians say they care about out-of-work coal miners, but they care more about attracting industry to their states with cheap energy. That is certainly the case in Virginia, where Governor McAuliffe didn’t even include coal mining or burning anywhere in his energy plan.

If there is a silver lining for coal miners, it’s that without an Obama bogeyman to blame for everything, coal-state Republicans will have to seek real solutions to unemployment in Appalachia.

Solar and wind are still going to beat out conventional fuels

Analysts predict renewable energy, especially solar, will become the dominant source of electricity worldwide in the coming decades. Already wind and solar out-compete coal and gas on price in many places across the U.S. As these technologies mature, prices will continue to fall, driving a virtuous cycle of escalating installations and further price reductions.

While federal policies helped make the clean energy revolution possible, changes in federal policy now won’t stop it. Today the main drivers of wind and solar are declining costs, improvements in technology, corporate sustainability goals, and state-level renewable energy targets.

As the revolution unfolds over the next decade, the folly of investing in new fossil fuel and nuclear infrastructure will become increasingly clear. Natural gas itself is cheap right now, but new gas infrastructure built today will become worthless before it can recover its costs and return a profit. Corporations like Dominion Resources and Duke Energy are investing in gas transmission pipelines and gas generating plants only because they think they can profit from them now, and force captive utility customers to bear the cost of paying off the worthless assets later.

Advocates fighting new gas infrastructure have mostly had to work at the state level, since they’ve received little help from the Feds. That much won’t change. The cavalry isn’t coming to save us? Well, we are no worse off than we were before. We just have to do the job ourselves.

Dominion’s gas build-out is still a bad idea

Dominion Power is enthusiastic about natural gas, but we’ve seen this movie before. Environmentalists and their allies tried, and failed, to stop Dominion’s newest coal plant in Wise County from being built. Regulators approved it in spite of Dominion’s cost projections showing a levelized cost of energy of 9.3 cents per kilowatt-hour. That’s about twice the wholesale price of energy today, and well above where wind and solar would be even without subsidies.

Approval to construct the plant came in the fall of 2008. A mere eight years later, that looks like a terrible decision. Dominion Virginia Power shows no further interest in building coal plants. Instead, it has since built two huge natural gas plants and received approval to build a third. Its sister company is building the Atlantic Coast Pipeline to lock ratepayers into even more gas.

Eight years from now, those will look like equally bad decisions.

Renewable energy is popular with everyone

One of the most remarkable pieces of legislation passed during the last few years was the extension of the Investment Tax Credit and the Production Tax Credit, subsidies that have underpinned the rapid spread of solar and wind power. It turns out that Republicans don’t actually hate subsidies; they only hate the ones that benefit other people.

Wind energy is one of the bright spots in the red states of the heartland. Farmers facing volatile markets for agricultural products appreciate the stable income they get from hosting wind turbines among the cornfields, and they aren’t going to give that up.

And everybody, it turns out, loves solar energy. There’s a simple, populist appeal to generating free, clean energy on your own roof. The failure on Tuesday of a utility-sponsored ballot measure in Florida is especially notable: the constitutional amendment would have ended net metering and led to steep declines in solar installations in the Sunshine State. Voters said no. The lesson will resonate across the South: people want solar.

Indeed, public polling for years has shown overwhelming support for wind and solar energy, across the political spectrum. Even people who don’t understand climate change think it’s a good idea to pollute less. And the energy security benefits of having wind and solar farms dotting the landscape are simple and intuitive. So while the fossil fuel industry may use a friendly Trump administration to launch attacks on renewable energy, no populist army will back them.

The Clean Power Plan was important, but not transformative

Congressional Republicans have talked smack about the EPA for years, and the Clean Power Plan raised the needle on the right wing’s outrage meter to new levels. Most EPA rules have a layer of insulation from Congressional meddling as long as Senate Democrats retain the ability to filibuster legislation that would repeal bedrock environmental laws like the Clean Air Act. And laws protecting the air and water have such broad public backing that it is hard to imagine even the Chaos Caucus going there.

The Clean Power Plan could be different. Trump’s choice of a new Supreme Court justice will produce a conservative majority that might well strike down Obama’s most important carbon rule. For a handful of states that rely heavily on electricity from aging coal plants and aren’t compelled to close them under other air pollution rules, this will buy them a few years. (But see “Coal is still dead,” above.)

For most states, though, the Clean Power Plan was never going to be a game-changer. Many states were given targets that are easy to meet, or that they have already met. As I’ve pointed out before, Virginia’s target is so modest that the state could meet it simply by adopting a few efficiency measures and supplying new demand with wind and solar. That’s if the state decided to include newly-built generating sources in its implementation plan, which it doesn’t have to do.

By its terms, the Clean Power Plan applies only to carbon pollution from power plants in existence as of 2012. Newer generating plants are regulated under a different section of the Clean Air Act, under standards that new combined-cycle gas plants can easily meet. That’s a gigantic loophole that Dominion Virginia Power, for one, intends to exploit to the fullest, and it’s the reason the company supported the Clean Power Plan in court.

Regardless of whether it is upheld in the courts, however, the Clean Power Plan has already had a significant effect nationwide by forcing utilities and state regulators to do better planning. It led to a raft of analyses by consulting firms showing how states could comply and actually save money for ratepayers by deploying cost-effective energy efficiency measures. If the Clean Power Plan doesn’t become law, states can ignore those reports, but their residents should be asking why.

For Virginia, nothing has changed at the state level. Or has it?

Virginia has off-year elections at the state level, so Trump’s election has no immediate effect on state law or policy. Most significantly, Terry McAuliffe is still governor of Virginia for another year, he still knows climate change is real, and his Executive Order 57, directing his senior staff to pursue a strategy for CO2 reductions, is still in effect. McAuliffe has disappointed activists who hoped he would become a climate champion, but Trump’s win could light a fire under his feet. He has an opportunity to put sound policies in place, if he chooses to do so.

Offshore drilling in Virginia probably isn’t back on the table

Trump has promised to re-open federal lands for private exploitation, reversing moves by the Obama administration. His website says that includes offshore federal waters. However, the decision by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management to take Virginia out of consideration for offshore drilling isn’t scheduled to be revisited for five years. Trump’s people could change the process, perhaps, but there’s not much demand for him to do so. With oil prices low, companies aren’t clamoring for more places to drill.

Environmental protection begins at home . . . and the grassroots will just get stronger

I would hate for anyone to mistake this stock-taking for optimism. The mere fact that the clean energy revolution is underway does not mean it will proceed apace. Opportunities abound for Trump to do mischief, and nothing we have heard or seen from him during the campaign suggests he will rule wisely and with restraint.

But advancing environmental protection has always been the job of the people. Left by itself, government succumbs to moneyed interests, and regulators are taken captive by the industries they are supposed to regulate. Americans who want clean air and water and a climate that supports civilization as we know it have to demand it. It will not be given to us.

Sound economics, common sense, and technological innovation are on our side. Most important, though, is the groundswell of public support for clean energy and action on climate. That never depended on the election, and it won’t stop now.

Basic change in utility business and regulation is inevitable: Advanced energy is coming to all utilities, like it or not.

Photo credit: Sierra Club

Photo credit: Sierra Club

Occasionally I ask other people to write for this blog, not merely because I am lazy, but also because energy policy is such a broad topic that I sometimes overlook new developments and perspectives. This week guest blogger Jane Twitmyer takes a step back from the battle over our energy future to point out that the battlefield itself is shifting under our feet—a fact which, if ignored, could cost utility customers dearly.  –I.M.

A favorite utility narrative holds that the federal Clean Power Plan is the reason we must upgrade our electric utility system and reduce emissions from fossil fuels. Without it, we could continue to run our big coal and gas plants and leave unchanged the transmission grid that has served us so well. But the truth is, the EPA as ‘bully’ is a myth. A new report from the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) concludes “significant changes are occurring” in the way we generate and use electricity regardless of whether or not the Clean Power Plan, still under court challenge, is implemented. One change: NERC has tripled the amount of new renewable energy generation it predicts for next year.

NERC is just catching up with analysts and investment banks, who have been documenting the changes for several years. The Rocky Mountain Institute warns that grid-connected, solar-plus-battery-storage systems “will be economic within the next 10-15 years for many customers in many parts of the country,” undercutting utility sales and turning electricity markets “upside down.”

Investment analysts agree. CitiGroup predicts utilities could suffer a “50%+ decline in their addressable market.” Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla, just made an offer to buy SolarCity because he believes on-site generation will eventually supply a third of our total electricity, and will be accompanied by huge amounts of battery storage like Tesla’s Powerpack.

Musk believes electric cars will increase demand for electricity, but other analysts see energy efficiency lowering demand. Efficient buildings are given a central place in the new energy mix in the NERC report.

Using less energy, or increasing our energy intensity, will reduce demand significantly without creating the economic disaster we have been warned will occur. Minnesota found the state’s efficiency program returned $4 for every $1 invested, helping to create almost $6 billion in new economic output. One of Warren Buffet’s utilities expects to reduce demand enough to close a couple of old coal plants and still not need any new generation until 2028. The utility is financing those retrofits for its customers’ buildings.

E-Lab, a group at the Rocky Mountain Institute that works with all industry stakeholders to chart our electricity systems, also sees changes in grid management systems making delivery of electricity more efficient. Pilot projects using new technology with grid-regulating software and designed with a variety of regulatory changes and financing models are being tested all around the country.

Each kilowatt-hour supplied by a rooftop solar panel, stored in an on-site battery, or saved by an efficient building, means one less kilowatt-hour utilities must generate. This inevitable reduction in central grid demand is why the future isn’t just about switching resources, like burning gas instead of coal, or even building solar and wind farms. The future is about a re-imagined system that allows and encourages you and me and our local mall to make our own electricity on-site, feeding some of what we make into storage and some onto the grid, and allowing us to draw on the grid when we need to.

We have the technology to create the new system, and regardless of any new EPA rules, this is the right time to replace the old technology. In 2010, 70% of our coal plants and all of our nuclear facilities were more than 30 years old. Recently SNL Energy identified 21,357 MW of coal, gas and nuclear generation “at risk” of early closure through 2020, plants that are inefficient and no longer economic to run.

Here in Virginia, our utilities don’t seem to be getting the message. Dominion Virginia Power has chosen to put most of its new investment dollars into large-scale natural gas plants, not renewable energy. Five or six years ago natural gas was believed to be the ‘transition’ fuel that could take us from coal to renewables-based electricity. We now understand that methane, released when extracting and distributing gas, is 86 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than CO2 while it is in the atmosphere. In addition, methane emissions have been both underreported and inaccurately measured, raising concerns that the climate impact of natural gas may be far greater than originally thought. New methane rules are being developed that should give us a better picture of actual emission levels, but it is already clear that if natural gas is a bridge fuel, the bridge must be a short one.

With analysts predicting the transition to renewable energy will happen sooner rather than later, investing heavily in new gas plants carries a significant economic risk as well as a climate risk. Investors like UBS Bank believe too many large plants will be “structural losers,” assets whose use is diminished before they are paid for. Going forward, we will still need to use some measure of natural gas, but natural gas can no longer be labeled the ‘transition’ fuel.

Our utility systems are at a crossroad. One road requires our utilities, our regulators and our legislators to re-imagine our electricity system, rethinking the old monopoly rate regulations that reward centralized fossil fuel generation. This reimagined system will require a grid that is no longer the rigid one-directional distributer of electricity, but rather one that finds value in resources that generate and store electricity where it is used. If we fail to take that road, the alternative path will lead to ‘grid defection’: customers choosing to leave the grid and provide their own electricity by installing solar with batteries and retrofitting their buildings to use less. One thing is certain: a top down, monopolistic, state-regulated system is NOT the future.

As NERC concluded, changes to the energy mix, and to the level of demand, are happening with or without the Clean Power Plan. They are happening because it is time to rebuild our aging energy infrastructure. They are happening because the technology is now available to create an energy system that protects our air and our water as well as our atmosphere. And the changes are happening because a rebuilt system, designed as an interactive network, not a one directional, top-down grid, will actually be a cheaper system. It will be a system that is more reliable and more resilient, as well as more secure from storms and attack. That rebuilt system will serve Virginia’s electricity customers better without risk to our air, our water or our climate.

Jane Twitmyer is a renewable energy consultant and advocate.

 

Complaint: utilities’ role in Atlantic Coast Pipeline violates antitrust laws

pipelinemadnessDominion Resources’ plan to use the captive ratepayers of its electricity subsidiary to guarantee a customer base for its Atlantic Coast Pipeline venture has caused critics—including me—to complain that the scheme presents a clear conflict of interest. According to a complaint filed with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), it’s also a violation of federal antitrust laws.

Lawyer Michael Hirrel, who retired last year from the Antitrust Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, has asked the FTC to investigate “whether ACP’s project constitutes a prohibited monopolization by Dominion, Duke and Piedmont, under Section 2 of the Sherman Act, and an unfair method of competition, under Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act.”

Dominion Virginia Power is currently engaged in an aggressive build-out of natural gas generating plants, with three new units representing 4,300 megawatts of generating capacity, coming online between 2014 and 2019. The company’s latest integrated resource plan and presentations to stakeholders reveal plans for over 9,000 megawatts more. By comparison, the company has promised a mere 400 megawatts of solar.

Where there are gas plants, there must be gas, and this massive build-out means a guaranteed stream of income for the lucky owners of gas transmission pipelines. The fact that one such pipeline is partly owned by Dominion Virginia Power’s parent corporation is clearly a conflict of interest. Because Dominion holds a monopoly on electricity sales, its customers will be stuck paying for gas—and guaranteeing a revenue stream for pipeline owners—for decades to come.

This is a bad deal for customers and the climate, but according to Hirrel, it is also anticompetitive and warps the normal decision-making of the companies involved.

(In addition to Dominion Resources, the other owners of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline are Duke Energy, Piedmont Natural Gas and AGL Resources. AGL is being acquired by Southern Company, meaning three of the four partners own electricity subsidiaries that are regulated monopolies that can stick ratepayers with the cost of paying for gas. As for the fourth partner, Piedmont is a regulated monopoly distributor of natural gas. Just to make things even more cozy, Piedmont is being acquired by Duke.)

Hirrel’s complaint notes: “If Dominion, Duke and Piedmont were to acquire their gas and its transportation, plus electricity generation, in competitive markets, they would, the Commission must suppose, engage in a very different decision making process. But that process will be rendered moot when they acquire and transport their own natural gas, and generate their own electricity. They will distribute the electricity and gas to their own monopoly retail customers, who have no alternative. Those customers must pay the costs of Dominion, Duke and Piedmont’s decisions, whether the costs were efficiently assumed or not.”

Hirrel also points out that in a truly competitive market, Dominion and Duke might not pursue a natural gas strategy at all, because of the economic risks involved. They might, for example, consider whether investments in wind and solar would be more economical and avoid the potential for stranded investments.

“But in the present universe,” he concludes, “the one in which Dominion, Duke and Piedmont propose to become the monopoly suppliers of the inputs for their own monopoly customers, they need not engage in any such economically efficient decision making process. If they make bad decisions, they will not suffer. The costs of those bad decisions will be borne by the monopoly customers of their retail electricity and natural gas distribution systems.”

I called Mr. Hirrel to ask what action he expects the FTC to take. He says the Commission typically takes anywhere from two weeks to two months to determine whether to open an investigation when it receives a complaint like this. If it chooses to investigate, it may also ask the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to delay its approval process for the ACP pending conclusion of the FTC investigation.

Hirrel copied FERC on his complaint, making it a public document within the ACP docket (CP15-554).

Update: on June 23, the Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club submitted a letter to the FTC providing further information supporting the antitrust complaint. The letter and supporting documents can be found at http://wp.vasierraclub.org/LetterInFull.pdf.

Charging green customers more without doing more: Appalachian Power discovers the beauty of market segmentation, and moves to block competition

This wind farm isn't in Virginia, and APCo's proposal doesn't include building any new wind. But the cows are cute. Photo credit: NREL

This wind farm isn’t in Virginia, and APCo’s proposal doesn’t include building any new wind. But the cows are cute. Photo credit: NREL

Appalachian Power Company has asked the State Corporation Commission to approve a 100% renewable energy product it wants to offer its environmentally-conscious electricity customers. These customers would pay about 18% more for a combination of wind and hydro than they currently do for “brown” power. But APCo doesn’t plan to build new facilities. It will simply segregate out some of its existing wind and hydro (none of it in Virginia) to package as a new, higher-priced product.[i] The case is PUE-2016-00051.

Since APCo currently sells the renewable energy certificates (RECs) associated with these wind and hydro projects to buyers elsewhere, the change means it would terminate those contracts and provide the RECs to its green energy customers along with the electricity. RECs represent the “renewable attributes” of the power (the bragging rights, if you will), so the electricity by itself doesn’t count as renewable if it doesn’t come with the RECs.

The price of RECs represents only a part of the 18% premium. RECs are really cheap nationally, because supply exceeds demand.[ii] Another driver of the premium is that wind energy was more expensive back in 2007-2010, when these projects were built. Falling wind prices and a natural gas glut have pushed overall energy prices down since then. APCo customers are still paying off the cost of its wind farms (or in the case of two of them, are still paying on power purchase contracts). APCo proposes to shift the burden of paying for those wind farms onto the customers it believes are willing to pay more. At least theoretically, this means it will also reduce the price it charges the rest of its customers, who (it assumes) don’t care where their power comes from.

APCo says if demand is high enough, it will invest in new renewable energy facilities to add supply, which might decrease the cost of the tariff in the future. Cost declines have made new wind competitive with fossil fuels, so a tariff based on new facilities would have lower pricing.

Page 37 of APCo’s filing shows the effect of the accounting change on a customer’s bill for a residential customer using 120 kWh/month:

100% RE: $160,  non-RE customers: $135

or an extra $25/month, $300/year

By my math that comes out to:

100% RE: 13.3 cents/kWh,   non-RE customers: 11.3 cents/kWh

No doubt APCo is responding to consumer demand in proposing this renewable energy tariff. Virginians have become much more vocal, and much less patient, about wanting their utilities to invest in clean energy. But APCo has less virtuous motives as well. Offering electricity generated by 100% renewable energy closes off one avenue under which solar developers currently argue that third-party power purchase agreements (PPAs) are legal. PPAs are a common tool for financing solar projects, and are the only way some customers can afford to buy renewable energy. They are not being used today in APCo territory because of the risk that the utility will sue, claiming a violation of its monopoly on electricity sales.

The Virginia Code contains an exception to utilities’ exclusive monopoly in their territory: if a utility doesn’t sell 100% renewable energy to its customers, anyone else can. The SCC previously ruled that selling RECs doesn’t count, so APCo and Dominion’s own green power programs (consisting mostly of overpriced RECs) do not close the loophole. I have always wondered why they didn’t just do what APCo now proposes, if for no other reason than to close the loophole. The Code says nothing about the green power having to be reasonably priced.

Recall that we are still waiting for the SCC to rule on APCo’s terrible PPA-alternative proposal. The solar industry and environmental groups opposed the proposal not just because it was expensive, convoluted and certain to fail, but also because the Code’s renewable energy exception appears to allow PPAs already, making the APCo program unnecessary.[iii]

APCo and Dominion argue that the Code exception applies only where the seller supplies 100% of the customer’s demand, 100% of the time, with 100% renewable energy. A single wind farm can’t guarantee around-the-clock output, so APCo has combined wind energy with some hydro. That’s something a wind or solar developer can’t do, especially when the developer is merely putting solar panels on a customer’s roof.

These are nice legal arguments guaranteed to keep lawyers employed and the market in limbo. From the public policy point of view, though, there is nothing to be gained by suppressing the renewable energy market. Why squelch private investment and deny customers the right to use a popular financing tool to install wind and solar? For customers willing to pay a premium, why limit them to APCo’s product? If a company wants only wind power or solar power, why not let them contract with any willing provider?

The SCC should definitively declare in favor of PPAs, open the market to competition, and let the free market get to work. If the SCC won’t do it, the legislature should. If customers want APCo’s renewable energy product, terrific. If they can do better elsewhere, let them. We all win by creating new clean energy jobs, having carbon-free electricity displace fossil fuels, and giving customers the products they want.


[i] Page 6 of APCo’s Petition states: “Initially, the Company will assign to Rider REO the output of its renewable generators that are currently under long-term Purchased Power Agreements (the ‘Renewable PPAs’): the Summerville hydro-electric facility, and the Camp Grove, Fowler Ridge, Beech Ridge, and Grand Ridge wind facilities.” The Summersville dam, in West Virginia, was built in 2001. The Camp Grove Wind farm is in Illinois and began operation in 2007. Fowler Ridge, in Indiana, was commissioned in 2008. Beech Ridge, in West Virginia, became operational in 2010. Grand Ridge, in Illinois, was built in 2009.

[ii] It appears from APCo’s filing that its wind RECs sell for $18/MWh, or 1.8 cents/kWh. I don’t see a price stated for hydro RECs in APCO’s filing, but they typically have little value.

[iii] A second basis for believing that PPAs are legal does not rely on the Code exception. Rulings from Iowa and New Hampshire have recognized that PPAs involving rooftop solar are not the kind of electricity sales covered by public utility regulations. APCo’s new offering does not undercut that argument.

 

Why does Dominion Power support EPA’s Clean Power Plan?

DominionLogoWhen utility giant Dominion Resources Inc. filed a brief in support of the federal Clean Power Plan last week, a lot of people were caught off guard. Hadn’t Dominion CEO Tom Farrell said as recently as January that it would cost consumers billions of dollars? Why, then, is the utility perfectly okay with it now?

Well, first, because the mere threat of the plan has already cost Virginia consumers a cool billion, but it’s all going straight into Dominion’s pockets. What’s not to like? Otherwise, as applied to the Commonwealth, the Clean Power Plan itself is a creampuff that could even save money for ratepayers. Farrell’s claim that it will cost billions, made at a Virginia Chamber of Commerce-sponsored conference, seems to have been a case either of pandering to his conservative audience, or of wishful thinking. (Looking at you, North Anna 3!)

And second, Dominion’s amicus brief indicates its satisfaction with the way it thinks Virginia will implement the Clean Power Plan. Dominion has been lobbying the Department of Environmental Quality to adopt a state implementation plan allowing for unlimited construction of new natural gas plants (and perhaps that new nuclear plant), which happens to be Dominion’s business plan.

If you can get everything you want and still look like a green, progressive company, why wouldn’t you support the Clean Power Plan?

The only risk here is that it makes Virginia Republicans look like idiots. Their number one priority this legislative session was stopping the Clean Power Plan, largely on the grounds of cost. They ignored the hard numbers showing the plan essentially gives Virginia a pass, and instead relied on propaganda from fossil fuel-backed organizations like Americans for Prosperity and, crucially, the word of Dominion Power lobbyists.

Sure, it wasn’t just Republicans; a lot of Virginia Democrats swallowed Dominion’s argument during the 2015 legislative session that the Clean Power Plan would be so expensive for consumers that the General Assembly had to pass a bill—the notorious SB 1349—freezing electricity rates through the end of the decade so they would not skyrocket.

SB 1349 suspended the ability of regulators at the State Corporation Commission to review Dominion’s earnings. One outraged commissioner, Judge Dimitri, calculated that the effect of this “rate freeze” would be to allow Dominion to pocket as much as a billion dollars in excess earnings, money that ratepayers would otherwise have received in refunds or credits.

Nor has SB 1349 even prevented rates from going up, since the State Corporation Commission’s approval of Dominion’s latest mammoth gas plant[1] will tack on 75 cents to the average customer’s monthly bill.

Environmental groups had opposed the gas plant, arguing approval is premature since we don’t know what Virginia’s Clean Power Plan will look like, and that Dominion hadn’t properly considered other options.

It gets worse. Building more of its own gas plants allows Dominion to terminate contracts to buy power from other generators. In theory, this should represent an offsetting savings for consumers. But as Judge Dimitri explained in a concurrence, SB 1349 means Dominion doesn’t have to subtract this savings from the bill it hands those ratepayers.[2]

As Sierra Club Virginia Chapter Director Glen Besa noted, “The State Corporation Commission decision today proves that there really is no electricity rate freeze. The SCC just allowed Dominion to raise our electricity rates and increase carbon pollution for a power plant we don’t need.”

Now, let’s have a look at what is actually in Dominion’s Clean Power Plan brief. In part, it is a defense of EPA’s holistic approach to regulating generation and a rejection of the conservative claim that the agency should not be allowed to regulate “outside the fence line” of individual plants. Adopting the conservative view, argues Dominion, could lead to widespread, expensive coal plant closures.

But mostly, Dominion likes the Clean Power Plan because the company feels well positioned to take advantage of it. The brief makes this argument with classic corporate understatement:

Dominion believes that, if key compliance flexibilities are maintained in the Rule, states adopt reasonable implementation plans, and government permitting and regulatory authorities efficiently process permit applications and perform regulatory oversight required to facilitate the timely development of needed gas pipeline and electric transmission infrastructure, then compliance is feasible for power plants subject to the Rule.

What Dominion means by “reasonable implementation plans” requires no guesswork. Virginia clean energy advocates want a mass-based state implementation plan that includes new sources, so power plant CO2 emissions from Virginia don’t actually increase under the Clean Power Plan. You or I might think that reasonable, given the climate crisis and EPA’s carbon-cutting goals. But that’s not what Dominion means by “reasonable.”

Dominion’s business plan, calling for over 9,000 megawatts of new natural gas generation, would increase CO2 emissions by 60%. To Dominion, a 60% increase in CO2 must therefore be reasonable. Anything that hinders Dominion’s plans is not reasonable. QED.

“Needed gas pipeline . . . infrastructure” is no puzzle either. Dominion wants approval of its massive Atlantic Coast Pipeline. That pipeline, and more, will be needed to feed the gaping maws of all those gas plants. Conversely, Dominion, having gone big into the natural gas transmission business, needs to build gas generating plants to ensure demand for its pipelines.

Dominion is not the only electric utility betting big on natural gas. Southern Company and Duke Energy have also recently spent billions to acquire natural gas transmission and distribution companies. Moody’s is criticizing these moves because of the debt incurred. From a climate perspective, though, the bigger problem is that this commitment to natural gas comes right at the time when scientists and regulators are sounding the alarm about methane leakage.

There is surely some irony that Dominion, while defending the EPA’s plan to address climate change, is doing its level best to increase the greenhouse gas emissions that drive it.

Indeed, anyone reading Dominion’s brief and looking for an indication that Dominion supports the Clean Power Plan because it believes the utility sector needs to respond to the climate crisis would be sadly disappointed.

On the other hand, the brief positively sings the praises of “market-based measures” for producing the lowest possible costs. This is a little hard to take, coming from a monopoly that uses its political and economic clout to keep out competition and reap excessive profits through legislation like SB 1349, and which intends to use its captive ratepayers to hedge the risks of its big move into natural gas transmission.


[1] SCC case PUE-2015-00075 Final Order, March 29, 2016.

[2] Commissioner Dimitri, in a concurring opinion:

“I would find that SB 1349 cannot impact the Commission’s authority in this matter because it violates the plain language of Article IX, Section 2, of the Constitution of Virginia, for the reasons set forth in my separate opinion in Case No. PUE-2015-00027.

“Indeed, the instant case further illustrates how SB 1349 fixes base rates as discussed in that separate opinion. The evidence in this case shows that Dominion plans to allow certain NUG contracts, currently providing power to customers, to expire while base rates are frozen by SB 1349. The capacity costs associated with these contracts, however, are currently included in those base rates. Thus, as explained by Consumer Counsel, this means that “the Company’s base rates will remain inflated” because Dominion (i) will no longer be paying these NUG capacity costs, but (ii) will continue to recover such costs from its customers since base rates are frozen under SB 1349. Based on Dominion’s cost estimates, between now and the end of 2019, it will have recovered over $243 million from its customers for NUG capacity costs that the Company no longer incurs. While other costs and revenues are likely to change up and down during this period and would not be reflected in base rate changes precluded by SB 1349, these NUG costs are known, major cost reductions that will not be passed along to customers.” [Footnotes omitted.]