A revised generation plan leaves Dominion’s case for its pipeline in shambles

In December of last year, regulators at the State Corporation Commission (SCC) took the unprecedented step of rejecting Dominion Energy Virginia’s Integrated Resource Plan (IRP). Among other reasons, the SCC said the utility had over-inflated projections of how much electricity its customers would use in the future.

On March 8, Dominion came back with a revised plan. And sure enough, when it plugged in the more realistic demand projections used by independent grid operator PJM, and accounted for some energy efficiency savings, the number of new gas plants it planned for dropped in half. Instead of 8-13 new gas combustion turbines, the revised plan listed only 4-7 of these small “peaker” units.

Yet there is a good chance Dominion is still overinflating its demand numbers.  Although the re-filed IRP is short and vague, it appears Dominion isn’t figuring in the full amount of the energy efficiency programs it must develop under legislation passed last year.

SB 966 required Dominion to propose $870 million in energy efficiency and demand-response programs designed to reduce energy use and the need for new generation. But Dominion has proposed just $118 million in its separate demand-side management filing (case PUR-2018-00168).

Moreover, the company has concocted a theory whereby it can satisfy that $870 million requirement by spending just 40 or 50 percent of it and pocketing the rest. In its DSM case Dominion argues that since the Virginia Code allows a utility to recover lost revenue resulting from energy efficiency savings, it can simply reduce the required spending by the amount of lost revenue it anticipates.

It’s a great theory, and suffers only from being wrong. (Oh, and also from infuriating legislators, energy efficiency advocates, and pretty much everyone else who was involved in crafting SB 966.)

It also indicates that Dominion’s demand figures in the IRP are based on plans to spend just a fraction of the $870 million in energy efficiency, achieving much less demand reduction than backers of the law envisioned.

If the SCC decides Dominion can’t withhold hundreds of millions of dollars in efficiency spending, that additional spending will have to be factored into demand projections. Thus the IRP’s demand projection can only go down—and with it, the number of gas plants that might be “needed.”

And yet even the resulting number is likely too high. Several of Dominion’s large corporate customers have been trying to leave its fond embrace to seek better renewable energy offerings elsewhere. (The SCC recently rejected Walmart’s effort to defect.) If they were allowed to leave, how much would that further reduce the need for new generation?

For that matter, those customers and many others, including many of the tech companies responsible for what demand growth there is, say they want renewable energy, not fossil fuels. Dominion claims the renewable generation will have to be backed by gas peaker plants, but energy storage would serve the same purpose and further reduce the need for gas. The SCC will rule on that question when—and if—Dominion ever requests permission to build one of those peakers. It is possible the utility will never build another gas plant.

That’s bad news for Dominion Energy’s other line of business, gas transmission and storage. With demand for new gas generation falling off a cliff, Dominion’s ability to rely on its customer base as an anchor client for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline becomes increasingly doubtful.

Dominion may actually have conceded as much in its re-filed IRP. In response to the SCC’s order that Dominion include pipeline costs in its modeling of the costs of gas generation, Dominion merely stated, without discussion, that it is using the tariff of the pipeline owned by the ACP’s competitor Transco, which supplies gas to Dominion’s existing plants.

This statement continues a pattern of Dominion avoiding any mention of the ACP in SCC proceedings, lest it invite hard questions. But Dominion can’t have it both ways. If it will use Transco, it doesn’t need the ACP. If it plans to use the much more expensive ACP and just isn’t saying so, it has lowballed the cost of gas generation and is misleading the SCC.

This is unfair to customers, and it may backfire on Dominion. The ACP received its federal permit on the strength of contracts with affiliate utilities, but Dominion hasn’t yet asked the SCC to approve the deal. Leaving the ACP out of the discussion in the IRP year after year makes it harder to win approval. When and if the company finally asks the SCC for permission to (over)charge ratepayers for its contract with the ACP, it will not have built any kind of a case for a public need or benefit.

This is not just a risk that Dominion Energy chose to take, it is a risk of the company’s own creation. It defied the Sierra Club’s efforts to have the SCC review the ACP contract early on, knowing it would face vigorous opposition from critics. But since then, its chances for approval have only gotten worse. Back then, the pipeline cost estimate came in at $3 billion less than it is today, Dominion Virginia Power was halfway through a massive buildout of combined-cycle gas plants, and the IRP included several more big, new, gas-hungry combined-cycle plants.

Now the ACP’s cost has climbed above $7 billion and may go as high as $7.75 billion, excluding financing costs, CEO Tom Farrell told investors last month in an earnings call. Meanwhile, the IRP includes an ever-shrinking number of gas plants, to be served by a different pipeline.

One investment management company told clients in January the spiraling price tag may make the ACP uncompetitive with existing pipelines. And Farrell faced a host of cost-related questions in his call with investors.

But Farrell downplayed the risk when it came to a question from Deutsche Bank about the need for SCC approval. Managing Director Jonathan Arnold asked, “On ACP, when you guys are talking about customers, does that include the anchor utility customers, your affiliate customers? Does whatever you’re going to negotiate with them need to be approved by the state regulatory bodies?”

Farrell’s answer sounds nonchalant. “In Virginia, it’s like any other part of our fuel clause. It will be part of the fuel clause case in 2021 or 2022 along with all the other ins and outs of our fuel clause.”

Oh, Mr. Farrell, it is not going to be that easy.

An earlier version of this article first appeared in the Virginia Mercury on March 20, 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. 

All I want for Christmas is a 500 MW offshore wind farm

Ivy Main with wind turbine

Yes, you will say I have expensive taste. But it’s not for me, it’s for the children! Picture their shining faces on Christmas morning when they find Santa has delivered 62 SiemensGamesa 8.0-megawatt, pitch-regulated, variable speed offshore wind turbines sporting a rotor diameter of 167 meters each, to a patch of ocean 27 miles east of Virginia Beach. 

Or the turbines could be GE’s sleek Haliade 150-6 MW like my friends up in Rhode Island got two years ago, or the MHI Vestas 10 MW beast that the cool kids are talking about. It sports a hub height of 105 meters and has blades 80 meters long. A single one of those bad boys can power over 5,000 homes.

But really I am not particular; these are just suggestions. 

I know we’re getting two turbines in 2020 as a demonstration project, and I’m grateful, I really am. But all the clued-in states are serious about offshore wind, and they’re building projects of 200 MW and up. We’ll be left behind if we don’t get in the game.

The states north of us are making port upgrades, attracting new businesses, and doing workforce training. They look at offshore wind as not just a jobs generator, but as a way to save money on energy costs, meet sustainability goals, improve the environment and reduce their reliance on fracked gas and imported energy. 

They’re positioning themselves to be serious players in a huge industry that a decade from now will employ tens of thousands of Americans. In the decade after that, offshore wind turbines will start delivering power to the West Coast, Hawaii and the Great Lakes region.  The effect will be transformative, as offshore wind energy feeds East Coast cities, pushes out the last of the Midwestern coal plants and leaves the fracking industry without a market.

Think that’s just the eggnog talking? Consider these indicators of an industry that’s taking off: 

1. Offshore wind is now a global industry.Offshore wind got its start in Europe more than 20 years ago as a way to get more wind energy without sacrificing valuable land space. But just in the last few years, it has spread to China, South Korea, Taiwan, Japan, and Vietnam in addition to the U.S. Analysts estimate China alone will have 28,000 megawatts installed by 2027. 

Offshore wind has been slow to advance in the U.S. because building 600-foot tall machines and planting them twenty-five miles out to sea is not cheap or easy, and the federal government had to devise a regulatory scheme from scratch. As the kinks get worked out and a manufacturing and supply chain emerges, the U.S. will move to the forefront of the industry. We always do.

2. Offshore wind competes on price in many markets. Offshore wind is cheaper than fossil fuels and nuclear in Europe already. That hasn’t been so true in the U.S. thanks to abundant coal and fracked gas, but even here, tumbling offshore wind prices have states looking at offshore wind as a way to help customers save money on energy. Bloomberg reported that Massachusetts’ first commercial-scale offshore wind farm will save electricity users $1.4 billion over 20 years. 

3. Early movers in the U.S. are already doubling down. Massachusetts and New York, which committed to a limited number of offshore wind projects early in order to capture a piece of the jobs pie, now want more projects. New York has set a goal of 2,400 MW by 2030; this fall Governor Andrew Cuomo announced a solicitation for 800 MW. This fall New Jersey announced a solicitation for 1,100 MW of capacity, a down payment on the state’s goal of 3,500 MW by 2030. 

3. Large multinational companies are buying the entrepreneurial start-ups.This year Ørsted, the energy giant formerly known as DONG Energy (for Danish Oil and Natural Gas) acquired Deepwater Wind, the scrappy developer of the Block Island project as well as projects in other states. French company EDF Renewables bought Fishermen’s Energy, another homegrown company that sought to give fishing interests a stake in wind projects. 

Along with big developers have come big law firms. You know there’s going to be serious money involved when $800 an hour lawyers trawl for clients at industry conferences. 

4. Oil and gas companies have moved in. Shell Oil and its partner EDP Renewables just spent $135 million for the right to develop a lease area off Massachusetts large enough to accommodate 1,600 MW of wind turbines. Norway’s Equinor (formerly Statoil) also put in $135 million for another section of the lease area, with the third piece going to a European partnership. 

American oil companies haven’t shown the same level of interest yet, but their suppliers in the Gulf of Mexico are handing out cards at offshore wind conferences, advertising their offshore expertise in everything from cables to shipbuilding.

5.  Offshore wind turbines have evolved away from their land-based kin. Unfettered by space limitations, offshore turbines now average close to 6 MW, more than twice the size of the typical land-based turbine. Wind farms slated for completion over the next several years will use even larger turbines, ranging in size up to a General Electric 12 MW turbine expected to deploy in 2021, and even larger ones still on the drawing boards. 

Foundations are diversifying, too, away from the original “monopile” design that mimics its land-based counterparts. Floating turbines will become mainstream in the next decade, enormously increasing design options as well as potential locations for wind farms. 

This will prove a special boon to the U.S., because while most of the East Coast is blessed with a shallow outer continental shelf that allows for fixed foundations even 30 miles from shore, the deep waters of the West Coast require floating technology to feed energy-hungry California. And the open ocean offers a lot of space.

So what’s holding Virginia back?

Dominion Energy holds the lease on the commercial-scale Wind Energy Area off Virginia. The company won it for a mere $1.6 million back in 2013, and not a whole lot seems to have happened with it since then. Dominion needs a customer, or perhaps just competition.

But Governor Northam is determined to see Virginia become a supply chain hub for at least the Mid-Atlantic states, and he has adopted a goal of achieving 2,000-MW of wind energy off our coast by 2030. 

That means I am not the only person in Virginia who wants a wind farm in my Christmas stocking, although I am likely the only one trying to get you to picture that image.

Admittedly, even Santa could find this a tall order (ho ho ho!), but Virginia is now rife with data centers that consume huge amounts of energy, owned by corporations that have promised the energy will be clean. So far the actions of these corporate players have lagged behind their promises. 

So if Santa can’t bring the governor and me a 500 MW wind farm off the coast of Virginia, maybe Amazon will deliver.

This column originally appeared in the Virginia Mercury on December 24, 2018. As this is now December 26, perhaps you think people are asking me if I got my wind farm yesterday. But no one has. Because of course they know it is out there, only waiting for us to do the hard work to make it a reality.

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.

On the heels of its big legislative win, what kind of grid does Dominion want to build for us?

white electric tower

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Note: This post originally appeared in the Virginia Mercury on July 23. Virginia Mercury is a nonprofit, independent online news organization that launched just this summer. Subscribe to its free daily newsletter here.

Imagine that you have hired a builder to design and build a three-story house for you. He brings you the plans for the first floor and proposes to start work right away. “These look okay,” you say, “but I need to see the plans for the whole house.”

“Don’t you worry about that,” says the builder. “I have it all figured out. I’ll show you the second floor when the first is done, and the third floor after that.”

You argue with the builder, pointing out that as it is your money, you have the right to assure yourself the result will be what you want. If you haven’t even seen the blueprint for the whole house, how can you approve the ground floor? Heck, you can’t even judge if all the stuff he wants to put in is actually needed. (It looks awfully expensive.)

“Please,” says the builder, now deeply offended. “I’m an expert. You should trust me.”

If this scenario sounds far-fetched, that’s because you don’t live in the world of Virginia utility regulation. In that world, Dominion Energy Virginia, the state’s largest utility, has just filed a plan with the State Corporation Commission (SCC) to spend almost $1 billion of its customers’ money for the first phase of what it says will be three phases of grid modernization, amounting to $3.5 billion. The company maintains that all the things it plans to do now are necessary to the overall strategy, but it isn’t saying what that strategy is.

“During Phase 1 of the Plan,” writes Dominion Energy Senior Vice President Edward Baine, “the Company will focus on installing the foundational infrastructure that will enable all other components of the Grid Transformation Plan.” That sounds like it ought to lead into a discussion of what the grid of the future will look like, but sadly, the other “components” turn out to be just more spending.

That might in fact be the whole plan: spend money, lots of it. Baine explains the “drivers” of the plan, like recognizing threats to the grid, and he describes how it will “enable” things like new rate structures and integrating renewable energy. But new rate structures and renewable energy integration aren’t actually part of the plan Dominion wants the SCC to approve.

This will make it very hard for the SCC to judge whether the investments are “reasonable and prudent,” as Virginia law requires. Knowing this, Baine argues the SCC shouldn’t impose a cost-benefit test on its plans. Already that position has drawn sharp criticism even from supporters of the legislation that authorized the spending.

Take smart meters, also known as “advanced metering infrastructure” (AMI). Smart meters don’t just measure electricity use, but do so on an hourly or more frequent basis, and they provide two-way communication instead of just one-way reporting to the utility.

Properly designed and deployed, smart meters are central to the grid of the future. Dominion proposes to spend over $500 million to provide all its customers with this advanced technology during Phase 1. Unfortunately, that doesn’t include making full use of their potential.

Where ordinary electric meters mostly just tell the utility how much electricity a customer has used, smart meters provide detailed information that can be used to help pinpoint power outages and spikes in demand. That’s helpful for the utility, but just using them that way, as Dominion proposes, leaves most of the benefits of smart meters untapped.

Justifying the expense of smart meters requires using them to allow customers to control how and when they use electricity, as well as to make the most efficient rate designs and determine how to get the most benefit from solar panels, batteries and electric vehicle charging. That only happens where a utility offers time-of-use rates and other incentives to change behavior and prompt investments by consumers.

Using smart meters this way would result in lower energy use, more customer-investments in solar and batteries, and savings for everyone. But time-of-use rates and similar incentives aren’t in Phase 1, and they don’t look to be part of Phases 2 or 3 either.

Dominion seems to think it can get approval to spend money on smart meters based on how they could be used, rather than on how the company actually plans to use them. Baine notes that smart meters can tell customers how much electricity they’re using in any 30-minute period. “Customers will be able to choose their preferred mode of communication,” writes Baine, “and then receive high usage alerts when their energy usage exceeds a certain level.”

Yes, and then what? Baine doesn’t say.

It’s not just a matter of wanting to take it slow. Since 2009, 400,000 of its customers have received smart meters, Dominion tells us, giving it ample time to try out all these features. It hasn’t.

Merely installing another 1.4 million smart meters isn’t going to lead to grid nirvana.

Grid “hardening” is another example. Physical upgrades in the name of security and resilience make up more than $1.5 billion of Dominion’s proposed spending. This is not grid transformation, it’s the opposite: beefing up the old grid. Most of the proposed investments are the same kind of capital investments Dominion makes routinely, with nothing modernized about it. Unfortunately, Dominion wrote the law to give itself permission to use customer money for grid hardening, so all the SCC can do is ask whether the specific spending proposals are reasonable and prudent.

Again, since Dominion isn’t telling us what kind of grid it is building for us, there is no way to know whether any given project will contribute to it, or even be necessary at all. If the grid of the future will be based on distributed energy, microgrids, and consumer control, we might not need the substation Dominion wants to make into an impregnable fortress. Modern solutions like solar-plus-storage, demand response, and energy efficiency could provide greater resiliency and security at a lower cost.

Of course, we have every reason to suspect Dominion is not interested in building a grid that empowers consumers, lowers energy use and spurs private investment in solar and storage. Its business model depends on keeping control over the grid and getting people to use more energy rather than less. If it can’t do that, it figures, the next best thing is to find ways to spend our money.

The amount of customer money at stake makes the SCC’s oversight role very important. It can insist Dominion lay out its full vision for the grid, demonstrate how each spending item fits that vision, and prove it meets a consumer cost-benefit test. With a little dose of courage, it could even go further, and insist on seeing a plan that makes full use of smart meters, including time-of-use rates and other incentives for efficiency, solar and storage.

The General Assembly, too, has a role to play, by filling a vacancy on the SCC this summer. If legislators are unhappy with Dominion’s cavalier approach to spending, they have one last chance to appoint a commissioner who will side with consumers, and send Dominion back to the drawing board.

Northam’s energy plan: A blueprint for action or destined for dusty shelf?

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam standing in front of a new solar farm.

Governor Northam speaks at the opening of the Palmer Solar Center on May 23.

[Note: A version of this post originally appeared in Virginia Mercury on July 23. Virginia Mercury is a nonprofit, independent online news organization that launched this summer. Subscribe to its free daily newsletter here.]

Forget “all of the above.” Under Governor Ralph Northam, Virginia’s next Energy Plan will emphasize the features of a clean energy future: solar and wind, energy efficiency, electric vehicles, energy storage, and offshore wind. This marks a welcome departure from previous state energy plans, though whether the end result serves as a blueprint for action or just stuffing for a filing cabinet remains to be seen.

Since 2007, Virginia law has required the Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy (DMME) to write a ten-year Energy Plan in the first year of every new administration. The statute lists vague requirements for the plan, including that it be consistent with the Commonwealth Energy Policy, itself a toothless statute. That means each new governor can pretty much tell DMME what to focus on.

Previous governors’ plans have read more like campaign rhetoric than like meaningful indicators of an administration’s direction. Tim Kaine’s plan supported carbon reductions, but by the next spring Kaine was promoting construction of a coal plant in Wise County that would become one of the last coal plants ever built in America.

Bob McDonnell used his energy plan to announce Virginia as the Energy Capital of the East Coast, perhaps the strongest indication that Energy Plans need not be tethered to reality.

Terry McAuliffe pushed an “all of the above” agenda, heavy on offshore drilling, natural gas, and offshore wind. He later backpedaled on offshore drilling, went all in on gas pipelines, and forgot about offshore wind.

Northam surely feels the pressure to write a pro-clean energy plan, and not merely because economic trends have swung decisively in favor of wind and solar. In his short time in office, Governor Northam has deeply undermined his standing as an environmentalist. Even before his inauguration, his public silence about gas pipeline projects fed rumors of private support. Once in office, he caved early on negotiations with Dominion Energy over this year’s energy legislation; reappointed David Paylor, the controversial director of the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), whom he had promised to replace; and passed up a rare opportunity to appoint a progressive to the State Corporation Commission.

One bright spot remains DEQ’s work towards completion of rules to lower carbon emissions from power plants by trading carbon allowances with states to the north of us. But the plan is not yet finalized, and the devil (or Dominion’s fingerprints) may prove to be in the details.

The Energy Plan gives Northam an opportunity to change the subject, and possibly even to change course. DMME’s presentation at its initial public meeting on June 25 addressed only clean energy topics—no coal, no natural gas, no nuclear, no oil. For some topics, the agency has already proposed recommendations for policy changes and scheduled public meetings to discuss them.

In the solar and wind “stakeholder track,” DMME proposes to “increase the residential cap on net metering from 20 kW to 40 kW; increase the overall net metering program from 1% of the utility’s peak load to 3% of peak load; make third-party Power Purchase Agreements (PPAs) available throughout all utility service territories; increase the total PPA installation cap from 50 MW to 100 MW and increase the installation-specific cap from 1 MW to 2 MW.” These recommendations are guaranteed to be popular with solar advocates and industry members, but won’t get past the utility blockade without a fight.

Recommendations for other tracks run the gamut from practical to aspirational. A recommendation to track energy consumption by state agencies through an energy data registry and dashboard is specific and achievable. Less so is the recommendation for Virginia to “reach the voluntary goal of reducing energy consumption by 10 percent by 2020.” Yes, that would be nice, but getting there would require a level of utility cooperation we have never seen in Virginia, and that neither the General Assembly nor any previous governor has had the tenacity to fight for.

The fact that our utilities are so often barriers to positive change underscores a need for the Energy Plan to address one subject missing from DMME’s list: a comprehensive study of grid transformation. Within the next ten years covered by the Energy Plan, our electric grid will need to incorporate vastly more wind and solar generation (much of it consumer-sited), plus electric vehicle charging, battery storage, and new metering technology that gives consumers greater control over their energy use.

Left to their own devices, the utilities will create the energy generation and delivery system most profitable for themselves, not the one most efficient and beneficial for the public. If Governor Northam is serious about a clean energy future, his Energy Plan should kick off a comprehensive study of grid transformation, managed by an independent expert who can help DMME and stakeholders develop a specific, actionable roadmap for the future of Virginia’s energy economy.

Without such a roadmap, we are likely to make progress only in fits and starts and at greater expense than necessary. Utility bills are rising and will keep going up as a result of the legislation Northam supported. Now the Governor needs to make sure Virginians have something to show for it.

What will it take for Virginia’s largest jurisdiction to raise the bar on energy policy?

cars on a flooded roadway

Cars caught in a flash flood during Northern Virginia’s intense rainstorm on July 17. Photo courtesy of Hayfield Varsity Gymnastics, https://twitter.com/hayfieldgvgym?lang=en.

Last week, 40 drivers traveling on the George Washington Parkway had to be rescued near National Airport when a flash flood brought water up to their car doors. This week, Northern Virginia experienced a tornado, more flash flooding and road closures, more rescues and more power outages.

Extreme weather events like these are among the effects climate scientists were warning about in 2007, when Fairfax County adopted the Cool Counties Climate Stabilization Declaration. The County committed to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 20% below its 2005 baseline by 2020 and by 80% by 2050.

So how is the County doing with that? Not so good.

Last week, more than 10 years after its Cool Counties Declaration, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors finally adopted what it called an Operational Energy Strategy for its own facilities, vehicles, and other operations with specific—but astonishingly weak—targets and deadlines for action. Supervisors who voted for the plan called it  “a step forward” or “a baseline.” (Watch the video here; discussion begins at 1:29:22.)

Local activists were less kind. “It may not be fiddling while Rome burns, but it comes close,” wrote the co-founder of Faith Alliance for Climate Solutions (FACS) Scott Peterson in a Washington Post op-ed.

To their credit, Supervisors John Foust (Dranesville District) and Dan Storck (Mt. Vernon District) urged their colleagues to adopt stronger measures. “We are out of the mainstream on renewable energy,” Foust told his colleagues.

“Do we really believe this effort is proportional to the challenges or the opportunities?” asked Storck. “The waters are rising, and they are rising in the Mt. Vernon District.”

The Board’s action is yet another disappointment for Fairfax residents interested in aggressive action to combat climate change and to reduce the county’s long-term energy costs. The Sierra Club, FACS and others have tried for years to get Fairfax County to live up to the commitment it made in 2007. (In those days I was part of a citizen’s group that offered advice to the County on ways to implement energy savings. Our suggestions were ignored, and in 2009 the County disbanded our group.)

The County Board is dominated by Democrats who say they care about climate change, but even meeting the County’s obligations as a member of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (MWCOG) seems to lie beyond their ambitions. A chart prepared by the Sierra Club comparing Fairfax County’s climate and energy goals for its local operations to those of MWCOG and other local jurisdictions makes the County’s shortcomings clear. The most striking example: MWCOG says its members should meet 20% of their electricity needs with renewable energy by 2020. Fairfax County’s plan for renewable energy begins and ends with a single solar facility on one warehouse in Springfield.

Moreover, in sharp contrast to D.C., Arlington, and Montgomery County, Fairfax County has not implemented a community energy and climate action plan to address the 97% of GHG emissions contributed by the private sector.  In fact, the county has not even begun to develop such an action plan. The recommendations of a 2012 Private Sector Energy Task Force, initiated by the Board Chair, have languished.

Fairfax County’s inaction is as puzzling as it is disappointing. With a population of over 1.1 million, Fairfax is Virginia’s largest county as well as the second-richest county in the nation, after neighboring Loudoun. One in seven Virginians lives in Fairfax. We’ve got 414,000 homes and 116,000 businesses, including a strong tech sector that increasingly demands renewable energy—not least of all because it can save them money.

Nor is Fairfax held back by politics. The county has steadily grown more Democratic in elections. In 2017, Democrat Ralph Northam beat his Republican challenger by a whopping 36 points.

So what would it take to move Fairfax County from left-behind to leader? Advocates agree the County needs to make three big changes: commit to serious targets for renewable energy and energy efficiency in county operations; actively assist residents and businesses to save energy and go solar; and become an advocate for stronger state policies, including removing barriers to customer-sited solar.

A ten-point action plan might look like this:

1).  Ensure that County staff provides a thorough one-year review of the approach, cost savings, and GHG reductions under the County Operations Energy Strategy, including the consideration of options necessary to meet the goals of the MWCOG Climate and Energy Action Plan for 2017 to 2020.

2). Expedite the proposed Request for Proposals for Solar Purchase Power Agreements (PPA) announced on July 11th(but curiously not included in the Energy Strategy).  By late 2018, the County should finalize a PPA contract to facilitate the installation of on-site solar on county buildings.  By drafting the RFP and contract to allow the Fairfax County Public Schools and other localities to ride the contract, Fairfax County government could jumpstart solar development and jobs in Northern Virginia.

3).  Participate in a September 7 workshop at the County Government Center on budget-neutral clean energy funding alternatives (e.g., Energy Savings Performance Contracts, Solar Power Purchase Agreements, public-private partnerships).  This workshop will provide an improved understanding of the opportunities provided by these funding alternatives to support more aggressive energy and climate goals while limiting impacts on county real estate taxes. FCPS has achieved several million dollars in energy savings using ESPCs to obtain GHG reductions and can serve as a model of success.

4).  Complete its ongoing Commercial Property Assessed Clean Energy (C-PACE) initiative by enacting an ordinance necessary to support a C-PACE Program and by implementing the program by late 2019.  This action will provide critical financing to supercharge the inclusion of energy efficiency and renewable energy measures in eligible buildings, thereby supporting the County’s goals to repurpose and revitalize underutilized buildings.

5).  Develop and implement a County-wide Energy and Climate Action Plan to address GHG emissions from residents and businesses.

6).  Develop and implement an action plan to increase county resiliency in order to prepare for the impacts of climate change and help reduce the impact and costs of extreme weather events.

7).  Meet all obligations under Cool Counties and the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments Climate Plan.

8). Support county staff by increasing staffing levels for energy and climate functions and by establishing a dedicated Energy Office reporting directly to the County Executive. Without an effective organizational structure and adequate resources, implementation of key recommendations is highly uncertain and the county is unlikely to maximize energy cost savings or meet its own climate goals.

9).  Engage in strong advocacy with the General Assembly and the Governor to promote the enactment of legislation removing barriers to customer-sited solar.  This legislation has already been endorsed by the county’s Environmental Quality Advisory Committee.  Removing these barriers would allow the County to pursue the installation of a major solar array on the Lorton Landfill.

10).  Work with the Virginia Association of Counties to enlist its support for legislation to remove barriers to on-site solar.

Given its size and resources, Fairfax County can’t continue to sit back and wait for others to do the hard work. Climate change has reached us. To paraphrase Supervisor Storck, the waters are rising, and they are rising here.