2017 guide to Virginia wind and solar policy

You can tell this picture wasn’t taken in Virginia because it has wind turbines in it. But at least the solar farm will look familiar to many Virginians these days. Photo credit Dennis Schroeder, NREL.

After several years of writing this annual update and often finding little to cheer about, I can finally share some good news. The nationwide boom in utility-scale solar has hit Virginia full force, juiced by low panel prices, corporate and state government demand, favorable tax policy and an abundance of good sites near transmission lines. We are a long way from unleashing our full potential; a lack of incentives, utility-inspired barriers, and a legislature still in thrall to fossil fuel interests continue to hold us back. In spite of this, Virginia is now attracting hundreds of millions of dollars in solar energy investments, and today the solar industry employs more of our residents than the coal industry.

The same cannot be said for wind energy; we are alone among all neighboring states in having no operating wind farms. Distributed generation like rooftop solar also remains a weak spot, even as customer interest continues to grow.

This survey of current policy is intended to help decision-makers, industry, advocates and consumers understand where we are today, who the players are, and where we could be going in the coming year. A few disclaimers: I don’t cover everything, the opinions expressed are purely my own, and as legal advice it is worth exactly what you’re paying for it.

  1. Overview: Virginia still lags, but we’ve now got some mo’

Even last summer it was clear utility-scale solar was on a roll in the commonwealth, leading me to predict Virginia would hit 200 megawatts (MW) by the end of 2016, up from 22 MW at the end of 2015. According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, we beat that number and then some.

Maryland North Carolina W. Virginia Tennessee Virginia
Solar* 637.8 3,015.8 3.4 171.1 238.3
Wind** 191 208 686 29 0
Total 828.8 3,223.8 689.4 200.1 238.3

Installed capacity measured in megawatts (MW) at the end of 2016. One megawatt is equal to 1,000 kilowatts (kW). Note that SEIA does not provide 2016 numbers for W. Virginia; shown are 2015.

*Source: Solar Energy Industries Association **Source: American Wind Energy Association 

The big numbers, however, still lie ahead. At the May event where Governor McAuliffe announced his directive to the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) to develop a carbon limit for Virginia, he also reported that Virginia has a total of more than 1,800 MW of solar installed or under development.

Several developments are driving these numbers:

  • Once the federal investment tax credit is factored in, the levelized cost of energy from solar is now below that of coal, nuclear, and natural gas.
  • Dominion committed to 400 MW of solar as part of 2015 legislation, and now indicates in its IRP an intent to build 240 MW per year through at least 2032.
  • Governor McAuliffe committed the state to getting 8% of its electricity from solar, a total of 110 MW.
  • Corporations, led by Amazon, are using new approaches to procure renewable energy on favorable terms, including indirect and virtual PPAs; this forces utilities to cooperate or be cut out of the action.
  • Other customers have stepped up pressure on their utilities to provide renewable energy.

You can find the list of projects that have submitted permit applications on the DEQ website. The list currently does not include regulated utility-owned projects, which until this year received permits from the State Corporation Commission (SCC). Under legislation passed in 2017, however, these projects will also be governed by the DEQ permit-by-rule process.

Industry experts caution that not all of these solar projects will get built; we may even be seeing a speculative bubble of sorts, reflecting a scramble to lock up the good sites now and worry about customers later.

You will find only one wind project on the DEQ list: Apex Clean Energy’s 75 MW Rocky Forge wind farm, which received its permit earlier this year but has not yet begun construction.

And in spite of Dominion Virginia Power having won the right to develop an estimated 2,000 MW of wind power offshore of Virginia Beach, there is still no timeline for offshore wind in Virginia. Dominion continues to include its two-turbine, 12 MW pilot project in its 2017 Integrated Resource Plan, with a projected in-service date of 2021. It does not include the larger resource as an option.

  1. Most customers still can’t buy renewable energy from Virginia utilities

Currently, the average Virginia resident can’t pick up the phone and call their utility to buy electricity generated by wind and solar farms (unless they are members of some rural electric cooperatives—see below). Worse, they can’t buy renewable energy elsewhere, either.

Virginia law is not the problem. Section 56-577(A)(6) of the Virginia code allows utilities to offer “green power” tariffs, and if they don’t, customers are supposed to be able to go elsewhere for it. Ideally, a utility would use money from voluntary green power programs to build or buy renewable energy for these customers. However, our two big investor-owned utilities, Dominion Energy Virginia (formerly Dominion Virginia Power) and Appalachian Power Company (APCo), have not done this. Instead, the utilities pay brokers to buy renewable energy certificates (RECs) on behalf of the participants. Participation by consumers is voluntary. Participants sign up and agree to be billed extra on their power bills for the service. Meanwhile, they still run their homes and businesses on regular “brown” power.

In Dominion’s case, these RECs meet a recognized national standard, and some of them originate with wind turbines, but they primarily represent power produced and consumed out of state, and thus don’t displace any fossil fuel burning in Virginia. For a fuller discussion of the Dominion Green Power Program, see What’s wrong with Dominion’s Green Power Program.

Since RECs are not energy, Dominion customers are free to buy RECs from other providers, such as Arcadia. If you’re considering this route, read this post first so you understand what you are getting. Personally, I recommend instead making monthly tax-deductible donations to GRID Alternatives to put solar on low-income homes.

Appalachian Power’s “green pricing” program is worse than Dominion’s, consisting only of RECs from an 80 MW hydroelectric dam in West Virginia. In April of 2016 APCo filed a proposal with the SCC for a true renewable energy tariff under of §56-577(A)(6) that would combine wind, solar and hydro. None of the power would come from new projects; partly as a result, the tariff will cost more. That led a hearing examiner to recommend that the SCC reject the tariff as not in the public interest. A ruling by the SCC is expected this summer or fall.

Can you go elsewhere? Since the State Corporation Commission has ruled that REC-based programs do not qualify as selling renewable energy, under the terms of §56-577(A)(6), customers are currently permitted to turn to other licensed suppliers of electric energy “to purchase electric energy provided 100 percent from renewable energy.”

That means you should be able to go elsewhere to buy wind and solar. But Virginia utilities claim that the statute’s words should be read as requiring not only that another licensed supplier provide 100% renewable energy, but that it also supply 100% of the customer’s demand, all the time. Obviously, the owner of a wind farm or solar facility cannot do that. Ergo, say the utilities, a customer cannot go elsewhere.

In August of 2016, a hearing examiner for the SCC rejected this reading in favor of the plain language of the statute. Unfortunately, the case was terminated without the commissioners themselves ruling on the issue.

In spite of the roadblocks, an independent power seller called Direct Energy announced plans last year to sell a renewable energy product to Virginia residents in Dominion’s territory. (The company described the product as a combination of wind and municipal waste biomass.) This spring the SCC confirmed Direct Energy’s right to enter the Virginia market, but also ruled that Direct Energy will have to stop signing up customers once Dominion has its own approved renewable energy tariff. As of this writing, Direct Energy has not decided whether to proceed.

Within a few weeks of the ruling, Dominion filed plans for several new 100% renewable energy tariffs for large commercial customers, and indicated it expected to offer a residential renewable energy tariff as well. Until we see the details, it is hard to know whether this should be viewed as a genuinely positive step for customers or is merely intended to scare off competitors like Direct Energy. Because Dominion’s tariff is designed to meet the company’s “100% of the time” interpretation of the statute, it will include sources like forest biomass, which counts as renewable under the Virginia code but is highly polluting and doesn’t meet many national standards for sustainability. That makes it questionable whether anyone will want to pay extra for its product. If the SCC confirms its hearing examiner’s report rejecting the similar APCo tariff, Dominion may be forced back to the drawing board. (Note to Dominion CEO Robert Blue: Bob, you have the nation’s largest pumped storage facility. Wind, solar and pumped hydro would combine beautifully. You do not need to foist biomass on customers to meet your notion of 100% renewable.)

A new solar option is in the works. For both APCo and Dominion customers, another option is on the way. Under legislation passed this year under the misleading banner of “community solar,” both utilities will contract for power from solar farms to sell to consumers. Details—including price—still have to be worked out in a rulemaking proceeding at the State Corporation Commission. The new programs explicitly do not count as ones selling “electric energy provided 100 percent from renewable energy,” though ironically, they may be the first programs from Dominion and APCo to do exactly that for residential consumers.

Some coop members do have wind and solar options. Recently I learned that there are good green power programs in place in Virginia, available to members of some rural electric cooperatives. Old Dominion Electric Cooperative (ODEC), which supplies power to member cooperatives, buys the output of three wind farms in Maryland and Pennsylvania, and has contracted for two solar farms in Virginia that are slated to come online this year. Not all coops participate; ODEC has the list of those that do on its website.

  1. Community solar

Dominion loves the name “community solar.” The reality, not so much. The solar tariff discussed in section 2 uses that name but keeps the utility in control and gives customers no ownership interest. Dominion opposed true community solar legislation this year (as in past years) that would have put consumers in the driver’s seat.

This is not the first time Dominion has used the name “community solar” for a program that isn’t. In 2015 Dominion received SCC approval for a program it billed as an offer to sell electricity from solar panels. Unfortunately it turned out the “Dominion Community Solar” program would have involved customers paying extra so Dominion could sell solar energy to other people. Reading the details, it seemed clear it would attract customers only to the extent they didn’t understand it. Fortunately the company still hasn’t launched the program, but I’ve seen no formal withdrawal.

As for true community solar, only one Virginia utility offers it: a member-owned rural electric cooperative in southwestern Virginia called BARC.

  1. The miserable sham that is Virginia’s Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS)

Many renewable energy advocates focus on an RPS as a vehicle for inducing demand. In Virginia, that’s a non-starter. Virginia has only a voluntary RPS, which means utilities have the option of participating but don’t have to. And unfortunately, the statute takes a kitchen-sink approach to what counts as renewable energy, so meeting it requires no new investment and no wind or solar. The SCC also insists that utilities take a least-cost approach to meeting the RPS, which means they use RECs from trash incinerators, wood burning, and old out-of-state hydro projects built prior to World War II. If utilities build wind and solar, they are required to sell the high-value RECs from these projects and buy low-cost junky ones instead. Thus, no matter how much solar Dominion builds, the RPS operates to ensure customers will never see solar as part of their energy mix.

The targets are also modest to a fault. Although nominally promising 15% renewables by 2025, the statute sets a 2007 baseline and contains a sleight-of-hand in the definitions section by which the target is applied only to the amount of energy not produced by nuclear plants. The combined result is an effective 2025 target of about 7%.

There appears to be no appetite in the General Assembly for making the RPS mandatory, and efforts to improve the voluntary goals have repeatedly failed in the face of utility and other industry opposition. The utilities have offered no arguments why the goals should not be limited to new, high-value, in-state renewable projects, other than that it would cost more to meet them than to buy junk RECs.

But with the GA hostile to a mandatory RPS and too many parties with vested interests in keeping the kitchen-sink approach going, it is hard to imagine our RPS becoming transformed into a useful tool to incentivize wind and solar.

That doesn’t mean there is no role for legislatively-mandated wind and solar. But it would be easier to pass a bill with a simple, straightforward mandate for buying or building a certain number of megawatts than it would be to repair a hopelessly broken RPS.

  1. Customer-owned generation 

Given the lack of wind or solar options from utilities, people who want renewable energy generally have to build it themselves. Low panel prices and the federal 30% tax credit make it cost-effective for most customers. The emergence of bulk purchasing coops, sometimes also called “solarize” programs, such as those offered through nonprofits VA-SUN and LEAP, makes the process easy for homeowners and businesses and further reduces costs.

Virginia allows net energy metering at the retail rate, though with limits (see section 6). Large commercial customers should also consider the advantages of solar in reducing high demand charges.

In 2016 the GA passed legislation enabling Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) loans for commercial customers. Localities now have an option to offer low-cost financing for energy efficiency and renewable energy projects at the commercial level. Arlington County received a federal grant to develop a PACE program that is expected to launch this year and be a model for other jurisdictions. A bill to extend PACE authorization to residential customers did not get out of committee last year.

Virginia offers no cash incentives or tax credits for wind or solar. The lack of a true RPS in Virginia means Virginia utilities generally will not buy solar renewable energy certificates (SRECs) from customers. SRECs generated here can sometimes be sold to utilities in other states or to brokers who sell to voluntary purchasers.

  1. Limits on retail net metering

Section 56-594 of the Virginia code allows utility customers with wind and solar projects to net energy meter at the retail rate. System owners get credit from their utility for surplus electricity that’s fed into the grid at times of high output. That offsets the grid power they draw on when their systems are producing less than they need. Their monthly bills reflect only the net energy they draw from the grid.

Residential customers can net meter systems up to 20 kW, although standby charges will apply to those between 10 and 20 kW (see section 8). Commercial customers can net meter up to 1,000 kW (1 MW). There is an overall cap of 1% of a utility’s peak demand that can be supplied by net metered systems (as measured at their rated capacity).

If a system produces more than the customer uses in a month, the credits roll over to the next month. However, at the end of the year, the customer will be paid for any excess credits only by entering a power purchase agreement with the utility. This will likely be for a price that represents the utility’s “avoided cost” of about 4.5 cents, rather than the retail rate, which for homeowners is about 12 cents. This effectively stops most people from installing larger systems than they can use themselves.

In 2015, the definition of “eligible customer-generator” was tightened to limit system sizes to no larger than needed to meet the customers demand, based on the previous 12 months of billing history. The SCC wrote implementing regulations (see 20VAC5-315-10 et seq.) but failed to address what happens with new construction.

The limitation presents a new barrier to current customers who want to expand their solar arrays because their business is expanding or they plan to buy an electric car. Why should they have to wait twelve months? But the limitation is also stupid. If customers want to install more clean, renewable energy than they need and are willing to sell the surplus electricity for avoided cost, why would you stop them from performing this service to society?

  1. Progress on meter aggregation derailed by agricultural solar bill

Under a bill passed in 2013, owners of Virginia farms with more than one electric meter are permitted to attribute the electricity produced by a system that serves one meter (say, on a barn) to other meters on the property (e.g., the farmhouse and other outbuildings). This is referred to as “agricultural net metering.” Unfortunately, there have been complaints from installers about a lack of cooperation from utilities in actually using this provision.

Advocates had hoped that agricultural net metering would be a first step towards broader meter aggregation options, but 2017 legislation instead took agricultural customers in a new direction. Beginning this year, farmers can elect to devote up to a quarter of their acreage to solar panels, up to 1.5 MW or 150% of their own electricity demand. The electricity must be sold to the utility at its avoided cost, while the farmer must buy all its electricity from the utility at retail. A farmer who chooses to do this cannot also use agricultural net metering. Agricultural net metering will be terminated entirely in 2019 in territory served by electric cooperatives, though existing customers are grandfathered.

The change would seem to give farmers no rights they did not already have under federal law, but industry sources I trust say some farmers will indeed be able to make money this way. However, taking away the agricultural net metering option is a backward step for farmers who want to use the solar they produce and aggregate meters.

  1. Standby charges on larger home systems

The current system capacity limit for net-metered residential solar installations is 20 kW. However, for residential systems between 10 kW and 20 kW, a utility is allowed to apply to the State Corporation Commission to impose a “standby” charge on those customers. Both Dominion and APCo have approval from the SCC to impose standby charges so high that solar installers say the larger systems often don’t make economic sense.

Utilities argue that customers with solar panels don’t pay their fair share of the upkeep of the grid, shifting costs to those who don’t own solar. A range of “value of solar” studies in other states have generally found the reverse, concluding that distributed solar provides a net benefit to the grid and to society at large. A stakeholder group in Virginia completed the initial phase of a value of solar study in 2014 but got no further after the utilities pulled out of the process.

Standby charges and other net metering issues will be a major focus of attention this year as a topic in the “Rubin Group” discussion. See section 19.

  1. Homeowner associations cannot ban solar

Homeowner association (HOA) bans and restrictions on solar systems have been a problem for residential solar. In the 2014 session, the legislature nullified bans as contrary to public policy. The law contains an exception for bans that are recorded in the land deeds, but this is said to be highly unusual; most bans are simply written into HOA covenants. In April of 2015 the Virginia Attorney issued an opinion letter confirming that unrecorded HOA bans on solar are no longer legal.

Even where HOAs cannot ban solar installations, they can impose “reasonable restrictions concerning the size, place and manner of placement.” This language is undefined. The Maryland-DC-Virginia Solar Energy Industries Association has published a guide for HOAs on this topic.

  1. Third-party ownership

One of the primary drivers of solar installations in other states has been third-party ownership of the systems, including third-party power purchase agreements (PPAs), under which the customer pays only for the power produced by the system. For customers that pay no taxes, including non-profit entities like churches and colleges, this is especially important because they can’t use the 30% federal tax credit to reduce the cost of the system if they purchase it directly. Under a PPA, the system owner can take the tax credit (as well as accelerated depreciation) and pass along the savings in the form of a lower electricity price.

The Virginia Code seems to sanction this approach to financing solar facilities in its net metering provisions, specifically §56-594, which authorizes a “customer generator” to net meter, and defines an eligible customer generator as “a customer that owns and operates, or contracts with other persons to own or operate, or both, an electrical generating facility that . . . uses as its total source of fuel renewable energy. . . “ (emphasis added).

Notwithstanding this provision, in 2011, when Washington & Lee University attempted to use a PPA to finance a solar array on its campus, Dominion Virginia Power issued cease and desist letters to the university and its Staunton-based solar provider, Secure Futures LLC. Dominion claimed the arrangement violated its monopoly on power sales within its territory. Secure Futures and the university thought that even if what was really just a financing arrangement somehow fell afoul of Dominion’s monopoly, surely they were covered by the exception in §56-577(A)(6) available to customers whose own utilities do not offer 100% renewable energy. (See Section 2, above.)

Yet the threat of prolonged and costly litigation was too much. The parties turned the PPA contract into a lease, allowing the solar installation to proceed but without the advantages of a PPA.

(Note that PPAs are sometimes referred to as “leases,” but they are distinct legally. Leasing solar equipment is like renting a generator; both provide power but don’t involve the sale of the electricity itself. I have never heard of a utility objecting to a true lease.)

In 2013 Dominion and the solar industry negotiated a compromise that specifically allows customers in Dominion territory to use third-party PPAs to install solar or wind projects under a pilot program capped at 50 MW. Projects must have a minimum size of 50 kW, unless the customer is a tax-exempt entity, in which case there is no minimum. Projects can be as large as 1 MW. The SCC is supposed to review the program every two years beginning in 2015 and has authority to make changes to it. I’m not aware the SCC has reviewed the program to date.

Appalachian Power and the electric cooperatives declined to participate in the PPA deal-making, so the legal uncertainty about PPAs continues in their territories. In June of 2015, Appalachian Power proposed an alternative to PPAs. An evidentiary hearing was held September 29, 2015. A veritable parade of witnesses testified that APCo”s program was expensive, unworkable and unnecessary, given the plain language of the statute allowing PPAs.

Almost a year later, on August 31, 2016, the hearing examiner finally issued her report, recommending that APCo’s application be rejected, both because it was a lousy program and because she, too, read the Code to allow PPAs currently, making a utility alternative unnecessary. Before the commission itself could confirm the ruling, APCo withdrew its application.

In 2017, the legislature passed a bill to allow private colleges and universities—but no one else—in APCo territory to use PPAs to install a maximum of 7 MW of renewable energy.

Meanwhile, Secure Futures has developed a third-party-ownership business model that it says works like a PPA for tax purposes but does not include the sale of electricity. This allows the company to install larger projects in more parts of Virginia (including most recently a 1.3 MW solar array to be installed at Carilion New River Valley Medical Center in Southwest Virginia, which I have to mention here because the project combines solar and sheep farming and therefore will make for cute photos). Currently Secure Futures is the only solar provider offering this option, which it calls a Customer Self-Generation Agreement.

  1. Tax exemption for third-party owned solar

In 2014 the General Assembly passed a law exempting solar generating equipment “owned or operated by a business” from state and local taxation for installations up to 20 MW. It did this by classifying solar equipment as “pollution abatement equipment.” Note that this applies only to the equipment, not to the buildings or land underlying the installation, so real estate taxes aren’t affected.

The law was a response to a problem that local “machinery and tools” taxes were mostly so high as to make third-party PPAs uneconomic in Virginia. In a state where solar was already on the margin, the tax could be a deal-breaker.

The 20 MW cap was included at the request of the Virginia Municipal League and the Virginia Association of Counties, and it seemed at the time like such a high cap as to be irrelevant. However, with solar increasingly attractive economically, Virginia’s tax exemption rapidly became a draw for solar developers, including Virginia utilities.

In 2016 Dominion proposed changing the exemption to benefit its own projects at the expense of those of independent developers. In the end, the statute was amended in a way that benefits utility-scale projects without unduly harming smaller projects. Many new projects will now be only 80% exempt, rather than entirely exempt. However, the details are complex, with different timelines and different size classes, and anyone looking to use this provision should study it carefully.

  1. Dominion-owned distributed solar

In 2011, the General Assembly passed a law allowing Dominion to build up to 30 MW of solar energy on leased property, such as roof space on a college or commercial establishment. The demonstration program was intended to help Dominion learn about grid integration. The SCC approved $80 million of spending, to be partially offset by selling the RECs (meaning the solar energy would not be used to meet Virginia’s RPS goals). The “Solar Partnership Program” resulted in several commercial-scale projects on university campuses and corporate buildings, but the program did not offer any economic advantages, and it seems to have fizzled out. The new Dominion Energy web page still mentions it, but currently the link does not lead to more information.

  1. Dominion Solar Purchase Program

The same legislation that enabled the “Solar Partnership” initiative also authorized Dominion to establish “an alternative to net metering” as part of the demonstration program. The alternative is a buy-all, sell-all deal for up to 3 MW of customer-owned solar. As approved by the SCC, the program allows owners of small solar systems on homes and businesses to sell the power and the associated RECs to Dominion at 15 cents/kWh, while buying regular grid power at retail for their own use. Dominion then sells the power to the Green Power Program at a hefty markup. It is not clear whether the program continues to be available; the links on the new Dominion Energy website don’t lead anywhere helpful.

I ripped this program from the perspective of the Green Power Program buyers, but many installers also feel it is a bad deal for customers, given the costs involved and the likelihood that the payments represent taxable income. Finally, selling the electricity may make new system owners ineligible for the 30% federal tax credit on the purchase of the system.

  1. Utility renewable energy tariffs for large customers

In May of this year, Dominion applied to the SCC for permission to offer six new voluntary schedules for customers with a peak demand of at least 1,000 kW (1 MW). The tariff would use a mix of sources that count as renewable under the Virginia Code but still pollute, including biomass—making it only sort-of green.

For large customers that want wind and solar, the options are more limited. In 2013, Dominion Power introduced a Renewable Generation Tariff to allow customers to buy renewable power from providers, with the utility acting as a go-between and collecting a monthly administrative fee. The program was poorly designed and got no takers.

In 2015, Amazon Web Services made Dominion’s RG tariff irrelevant. Amazon contracted directly with a developer for an 80 MW solar farm, avoiding Dominion’s monopoly restrictions with a plan to sell the electricity directly into the PJM (wholesale) market. Dominion Energy (the merchant affiliate of Dominion Virginia Power) then bought the project, and Dominion Virginia Power negotiated a special rate with Amazon for the power. This contract became the basis for an “experimental” tariff that Dominion now offers to customers with a peak demand of 5 MW or more, with a program cap of 200 MW.

Since that first deal, Dominion and Amazon have followed up with contracts for an additional 180 MW of solar in five Virginia counties.

Dominion used a different model for a deal with Microsoft. After the SCC turned down Dominion’s application to charge ratepayers for a 20-MW solar farm in Remington, Virginia, Dominion reached an agreement with Microsoft and the Commonwealth of Virginia under which the state will buy the output of the project, while Microsoft buys the RECs.

Dominion has also entered into a contract to sell the output of a 17 MW solar facility to the University of Virginia and the Darden School of Business.

Dominion has a strong incentive to make deals with large institutions that want a lot of renewable energy: if they don’t like what Dominion is offering, they can do an end run around the utility. Amazon has shown other companies how to use PJM rules that let anyone develop projects for the wholesale market regardless of utility monopolies, and then “attribute” the solar or wind energy to their operations in any state. With the tax exemption discussed in section 11, Virginia projects apparently now pencil out pretty well.

Some observers caution that the process is still not easy. One of the tasks the Rubin Group says it plans to take on this year is considering further changes to help large customers.

  1. Dominion continues to add utility-scale solar for its own portfolio

Even before Amazon and Microsoft showed an interest in large-scale solar projects here, Dominion had announced it wanted to develop 400 MW of solar in Virginia. In 2015, two bills promoted the construction of utility-scale solar by declaring it in the public interest for utilities to build solar energy projects of at least 1 MW, and up to an aggregate of 500 MW. The bill was amended at the solar industry’s behest to allow utilities the alternative of entering into PPAs for solar power prior to purchasing the generation facilities at a later date, an option with significant tax advantages.

Dominion got off to a rocky start when the SCC rejected the company’s plan to charge ratepayers for its first project, a 20 MW solar farm in Remington, Virginia because the company had not considered cheaper third-party alternatives. Governor McAuliffe helped save the project by working out a deal with Microsoft, as discussed above. Further projects fared better, however, and Dominion is now so enthusiastic about solar that its latest Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) calls for it to engage in a continuous build-out at a rate of 240 MW per year, all for the benefit of its regular ratepayers.

Although Dominion will be able to charge ratepayers for these projects, the SCC will probably insist that the RECs be sold—whether to utilities in other states that have RPS obligations, or to customers who want them for their own sustainability goals, or perhaps even to voluntary green power customers. If this happens, the result will be that Dominion still won’t use solar to meet the Virginia RPS, and ordinary customers will still not have solar as part of the electricity they pay for. That’s the weird world of RECs for you.

  1. Governor McAuliffe initiates program to purchase 110 MW of solar

Following a recommendation by the Governor’s Climate Change and Resiliency Commission, on December 21, 2015, Governor McAuliffe announced that the Commonwealth would commit to procuring 8% of its electricity from solar, with 75% of that built by Dominion and 25% by private developers.

The first deal that will count towards this goal is an 18 MW project at Naval Station Oceana, announced on August 2, 2016. The Commonwealth will buy the power and the RECs. (The Remington Project did not count, because as the buyer of the RECs, only Microsoft can claim the right to be buying solar power.) A 17 MW solar farm supplying the University of Virginia will also count towards the 8%, according to Deputy Secretary of Commerce and Trade Hayes Framme.

  1. Still waiting for wind

No Virginia utility is actively moving forward with a wind farm on land. Dominion Power’s website used to list 248 MW of land-based wind in Virginia as “under development,” without any noticeable progress. The current web page omits mention of these projects.

On the other hand, Appalachian Power’s most recent IRP suggests an interest in wind as a low-cost renewable resource. The bad news is that it isn’t proposing to build any new wind in Virginia.

With no utility buyers, Virginia has not been a friendly place for independent wind developers. In previous years a few wind farm proposals made it to the permitting stage before being abandoned, including in Highland County and on Poor Mountain near Roanoke.

Nonetheless, Apex Clean Energy has obtained a permit to develop a 75-MW Rocky Forge wind farm in Botetourt County. No customer has been announced, but the company believes the project can produce electricity at a competitive price, given its good location and improved turbine technology. Construction, once planned for this year, is now slated for 2018.

As for Virginia’s great offshore wind resource, little progress has been made towards harnessing it, even as the nation’s first offshore wind project began generating electricity in the waters off Rhode Island last year. Dominion won the federal auction for the right to develop about 2,000 MW of wind power off Virginia Beach in 2013, and the company has completed a Site Assessment Plan (SAP) that is awaiting approval.

We had originally been told the federal government’s timeline would lead to wind turbines being built off Virginia Beach around 2020. Now, however, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management says Dominion has five years from approval of the SAP to submit its construction and operations plan, after which we’ll have to wait for review and approval. Presumably the project will also require an environmental impact statement. So the whole process would be quite slow even if Dominion were committed to moving forward expeditiously.

But in fact, it seems increasingly clear that Dominion is just going through the motions and has little interest in seeing the project through. Its 2017 Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) does not even include offshore wind in any of its scenarios for the next 15 years, except for the 12 MW that would be produced by the two test turbines of its VOWTAP project.

Yes, so what about VOWTAP? Dominion had been part of a Department of Energy-funded team to try out new technology, with two pilot turbines due to be installed in 2017. After a second round of bids to build the project still came in higher than expected, Dominion told DOE last spring it could not commit to construction even by 2020, upon which DOE pulled funding. Dominion executives have not declared the project dead, however, and while there has been no public discussion of reviving it, the 2017 IRP suggests an in-service date of 2021.

[Update: on July 10, 2017, Dominion announced it had signed a memorandum of understanding with Denmark-based DONG Energy, one of the largest offshore wind developers in Europe, to complete the two pilot turbines. According to a Dominion press release, the MOU also gives DONG “the exclusive rights to discuss a strategic partnership with Dominion Energy about developing the commercial site based on successful deployment of the initial test turbines.”]

  1. The EPA Clean Power Plan is (probably) dead; long live the McAuliffe clean energy plan!

The Trump administration’s pullback on the Paris accord and the Clean Power Plan are depressing evidence that the Koch brothers have more influence on government than the American people do. Yet the practical effect in Virginia is small. The Clean Power Plan’s targets for Virginia were modest to a fault, and the state could have written an implementation plan that complied with the federal law while still allowing construction of an unlimited number of new gas-burning plants, sending total carbon emissions soaring.

Governor McAuliffe’s recent Executive Directive 11, on the other hand, ties emissions reductions from Virginia power plants to those in other states that have committed to reducing carbon emissions, leaving somewhat less room for mischief in implementation. There are still plenty of pitfalls ahead, and some Republican leaders have vowed to prevent it from ever taking effect. But any constraints on greenhouse gas emissions would serve to increase the value of emissions-free sources like wind and solar. The DEQ web page will show public participation opportunities.

  1. Solar initiatives underway ahead of the 2018 Session

The legislative initiatives that passed in 2017 dealt primarily with utility-scale solar. Since then, the solar industry has announced plans to focus more on removing barriers to distributed generation, a decided challenge given the utilities’ determination to curtail net metering.

The utilities and the solar industry have reconvened solar policy discussions via the Rubin Group, named for its moderator, Mark Rubin. Steering committee members this year include the electric cooperatives, Dominion, APCo, the solar industry trade group MDV-SEIA, the farm advocate Powered by Facts, the environmental group Southern Environmental Law Center, and the Virginia Manufacturer’s Association. The Rubin Group held a meeting on June 19 to get input from other stakeholders, and a follow-up email announced plans for the following subgroups:

  • Large Customer  (Convener: Katharine Bond, Dominion Energy, with Advanced Energy Economy, Ceres, and World Wildlife Fund as Key Participants)
  • Large Developer/Utility-Scale Solar (Convener: Francis Hodsoll, SolUnesco & MDV-SEIA Board Member)
  • Net Metering (Co-Conveners: Sam Brumberg, Virginia’s Electric Cooperatives & Scott Thomasson, Vote Solar & MDV-SEIA Board Member)
  • Land Use (Convener: Karen Schaufeld, Powered by Facts)
  • Community Solar Implementation for Dominion Energy (Conveners: Katharine Bond & Nate Frost, Dominion Energy)

The Rubin Group will accept comments at RubinGroup2017@gmail.com. [Update: Although this was the email address given out at the public meeting, we have learned it goes to Sam Brumberg, attorney for the electric cooperatives, who says he checks it only a few times per month. He recommends contacting Mark Rubin directly at rubin.mark3@gmail.com.]

A separate initiative is the Virginia Distributed Solar Alliance, which includes solar companies, environmental groups, consumers and solar advocates, but not utilities. As its name suggests, it focuses on removing barriers to smaller-scale, customer-sited projects, defending net metering and educating the public about the added benefits distributed solar bring to the grid and the community. The VA-DSA recently launched its website and is welcoming members.

 

 

Potential 50,000 Rooftop Solar Jobs in Virginia, for Ten Years

By Will Driscoll

Virginia could produce 32 percent of its electricity from rooftop solar installations, according to a report from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL).  Yes, that’s a lot:

  • It’s 28,500 megawatts of solar capacity—almost double the 15,000 megawatts that Dominion Virginia Power found would save customers $1.5 billion, but said it wouldn’t know where to site the solar panels.
  • Installing that much rooftop solar in Virginia would yield about 50,000 jobs for ten years, based on the number of U.S. solar jobs in 2016 and the number of megawatts of solar installed.
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Al Chiriboga and Andrew Schultz of Convert Solar install a 10 kilowatt solar system on an office building in Virginia Beach.

The NREL analysis evaluated the potential for solar on buildings with at least one unshaded roof plane that is nearly flat, or faces east, southeast, south, southwest, or west.  If any such roof plane could accommodate at least 1.5 kilowatts of solar panels, NREL modeled solar on that roof plane.  Summing across all buildings in Virginia yielded a technical potential of 28,500 megawatts of rooftop solar.  NREL found that nationwide, 66 percent of large building rooftop area is suitable for solar, versus 49 percent for medium-size buildings and 26 percent for small buildings.

The technical potential is simply what the laws of physics allow, combined with common sense—i.e., no north-facing panels.  (NREL did count west-facing panels, which have value for meeting late afternoon electricity demand, and east-facing panels, which are equally productive.)  NREL assumed an average solar panel efficiency of 16 percent, and noted that if panels averaging 20 percent efficiency were used, the solar potential would be 25 percent greater (because 20 is that much greater than 16).  At least three firms make solar panels exceeding 20 percent efficiency.

The technical potential is just a theoretical maximum.  Yet the economic potential, or the sum of all money-saving rooftop solar investments, may not be far behind, especially over the next ten years, as solar costs keep falling due to technology improvements and economies of scale.  Each year more building owners realize they can save money with rooftop solar, including Virginia school systems.

 J Elkin Install Shockoe Solar 12.7 KW.jpg
Ryan Phaup and Andrew Harrison of Shockoe Solar install photovoltaic panels in Urbanna, VA.

The Solar Foundation counted 260,077 U.S. solar workers in 2016, and the Solar Energy Industries Association reported 2016 U.S. solar installations of 14,626 megawatts.  Dividing the two yields 18 workers per megawatt of solar installed.  Finally, spacing out the installation of NREL’s 28,500 megawatts of Virginia rooftop solar over ten years would mean 2,850 megawatts of rooftop solar installed per year, times 18 workers per megawatt, or 50,000 workers—for a ten-year period.

For rooftop installations, the jobs per megawatt would tend to exceed 18, since rooftop jobs are smaller and more labor-intensive than the 2016 U.S. mix of utility-scale solar (10,000 megawatts) and rooftop solar.  That is the experience of Edge Energy, whose co-owner Anthony Colella reports that installing one megawatt of solar per year requires a staff of 20—a roofing crew, an electrical crew, a project manager, a production manager, and sales and administrative support staff.  He sees a growing solar potential in Virginia, and says his firm plans to add 15-20 staff members this year and a similar number in 2018.

On the other hand, as the rooftop solar industry grows to meet the NREL potential, economies of scale should also come into play, enabling firms to sell and install more panels in less time.  So on balance, 18 jobs per megawatt, and 50,000 jobs over ten years, seems like a good ballpark estimate.

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Henry Portillo (peak), Tulio Guzman and Carlos Cardona of Edge Energy celebrate an 8 kilowatt solar installation in Arlington, VA.

The NREL report noted that “In practice, the integration of a significant quantity of rooftop solar into the national portfolio of generation capacity would require a flexible grid, supporting infrastructure, and a suite of enabling technologies.”

Mr. Colella of Edge Energy said that “to reach for the big numbers,” Virginia needs to lift the size limits on residential and commercial systems; eliminate demand charges on larger systems; change the voluntary renewable portfolio standard into a requirement, with a closed Virginia market for solar renewable energy credits; and allow solar leases, solar power purchase agreements, and community solar.

In response to the NREL projection, a Dominion Virginia Power representative stated that the utility is installing solar toward a state goal of 500 megawatts of solar by 2020.  Appalachian Electric Power declined to comment.

Virginia currently has 238 megawatts of solar capacity, compared to North Carolina, which has 3,012 megawatts.

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.