The SCC’s vanishing trick: turning shared solar into no solar

Photo courtesy of Department of Energy, via Wikimedia Commons.

With Virginia fully committed to the clean energy transition, you would think that by now, residents would be able to check a box on their utility bill to buy solar energy, or at least be able to call up a third-party solar provider to sell them electricity from solar.

Not so. Sure, if you’re fortunate enough to own your own house or commercial building, and it’s in a sunny location and the roof is sound, you can install solar panels for your own use. Renters, though, are completely out of luck, which means almost all lower and moderate-income people are shut out of the solar market.

Actually, we were all supposed to be able to buy solar by now. A 2017 law required utilities to offer a “community solar” program. Utilities would buy electricity from solar facilities and sell it to customers. At least one electric cooperative followed through, but although Dominion Energy, Virginia’s biggest utility, created a program and had it approved by the SCC in 2018, the company has never offered it.

So this year the General Assembly passed two bills that would finally bring the benefits of solar energy to a broader range of customers. One would be community solar but under a different name. It would let anyone buy electricity from a “shared solar” facility, with at least 30 percent of the output reserved for low-income customers.

The other, the leadoff section of the Solar Freedom legislation, would let residents of apartment buildings and condominiums share the output of a solar array located on the premises or next door.

The bills were narrowed in committee to apply only in Dominion Energy territory (and for the multifamily program, to a part of Southwest Virginia served by Kentucky Utilities). Dominion also lobbied successfully for changes to the shared solar bill that raised red flags with solar industry members and advocates. Dominion has a long history of putting barriers in the way of customers who want solar, and the final language of the shared solar legislation pretty much invited that sort of mischief.

Still, it was left to the State Corporation Commission to write rules implementing the programs, so customers had reason to hope Dominion would not be allowed to make the programs unwieldy and expensive.

Ha. What has emerged from the SCC in the form of proposed rules manages to be both incoherent and everything Dominion wants. The reason for that is clear: most of the rules are copied and pasted from proposals Dominion submitted in August.

Adopting the recommendations of a company that failed to follow through on its own program seems like a bad idea. Hasn’t Dominion abdicated its right to tell other companies how to execute community solar?

And of course, with Dominion writing the rules, the programs won’t work. The shared solar option doesn’t kick in until at least 2023, and customers won’t be told what it will cost them. The SCC proposes to hold an “annual proceeding” to decide each year how much subscribers will have to pay in the form of a minimum bill, an amount that can then change from year to year.

This minimum bill is not the eight or nine dollar fixed charge that all customers pay today; it’s a whole new charge representing various of Dominion’s real or imagined costs of doing business, which Dominion says it needs to recover from the subscribers to compensate it for the fact that some other company is now selling them electricity.

How much might this be? No one knows. And because no one knows, it’s also impossible for solar companies or other third-party providers to offer the program. They can’t sell a product whose price is unknown, and banks aren’t going to loan them money to build a solar facility with no assurance that there will be customers.

There are really only two ways to save this program. The SCC could hold an evidentiary hearing upfront to examine the costs Dominion claims it needs to recover and then decide what the minimum bill ought to be. If that number is so high that the program can’t work, the SCC gets the privilege of telling the General Assembly there won’t be a shared solar program after all.

Alternatively, the SCC can follow the lead of states that already have successful programs and set the minimum bill (upfront) at a level that still saves customers money, so projects have a fighting chance of getting off the ground. If Dominion thinks it is losing money on the deal, that’s a claim it can pursue in its next rate case — which is where the dispute belongs.

Either way, the industry needs clarity, and it needs it now.

Multifamily solar: from straightforward to hopeless

The drafters of Solar Freedom thought they’d avoided the mess that threatens to tank the shared solar program. The multifamily provision of Solar Freedom is simply a way to let residents of apartment buildings and other multifamily units enjoy the same benefits available to homeowners who install solar under the net metering program. Instead of putting solar on a roof they own, they can buy the output of solar panels on the roof of the building where they live. It’s not net metering, but that’s the model.

Since the solar is onsite, none of these projects will be big. Keeping it simple and inexpensive is important. The law provides that utilities will credit participating customers for their share of solar at a rate “set such that the shared solar program results in robust project development and shared solar program access for all customer classes.” More specifically, the commission “shall annually calculate the applicable bill credit rate as the effective retail rate of the customer’s rate class, which shall be inclusive of all supply charges, delivery charges, demand charges, fixed charges and any applicable riders or other charges to the customer.”

The law couldn’t be clearer: there is to be no minimum bill, and the utility cannot load up a customer’s bill with lots of miscellaneous extra charges. All those charges that the SCC loads into the shared solar program’s minimum bill are, for the multifamily program, already included in the retail rate.

End of discussion? Not hardly. The SCC’s implementing rules — which are Dominion’s rules — get around this problem by dumping all the minimum bill elements from the shared solar rules onto the program provider instead (that is, the company that owns the solar panels).

Solar Freedom doesn’t actually allow that, either, so the SCC has decided these costs should be part of the one fee the utility is allowed to collect, for “reasonable costs of administering the program.” Never mind that items like “standby generation and balancing costs” have nothing to do with administering the program.

Oh, and the SCC won’t decide what the administrative charge will be until it holds an annual proceeding. And the amount can change every year. So once again, the SCC has designed a program that no solar company will be able to offer.

The SCC rules are so blatantly contrary to the program mandate set out in Solar Freedom that one can’t help but wonder whose side the SCC is on.

It is certainly not the customers’. We want solar.

The SCC is accepting comments on the proposed rules for both the shared solar and multifamily programs through Monday.

This article originally appeared in the Virginia Mercury on October 30, 2020.

Is a new pumped hydro project needed for the energy transition, or one more Dominion boondoggle?

Back in 2017, two Republican legislators from Southwest Virginia helped Dominion Energy Virginia secure legislation allowing the utility to charge ratepayers for a new pumped hydro storage facility to be built in the coalfields region. 

Dominion Energy headquarters, Richmond, VA
Dominion Energy’s new headquarters building in Richmond, Virginia

The law even deemed the project “in the public interest.” Three years later, Dominion included a new pumped hydro project in its 2020 Integrated Resource Plan. The 300-megawatt facility would be built in Tazewell County and come online in 2030.

But — surprise, surprise — details in the IRP reveal the project to be unneeded and its price exorbitant. That leaves just one question: Will the State Corporation Commission approve the IRP anyway?

Pumped hydro stores surplus energy using two reservoirs, one at the top of a hill and one at the bottom. When you need energy, you release water from the upper reservoir and let it flow down through a hydroelectric turbine to the lower reservoir. When you have a surplus of energy, you use it to pump water uphill to fill the upper reservoir. Repeat as needed. It’s not high-tech, but it gets the job done.

Today pumped storage is used mostly to store surplus energy at night from baseload fossil fuel and nuclear plants that run 24/7, then use the energy to meet the surge in demand during daylight and early evening hours. As wind and solar become bigger players, pumped storage can also help integrate these variable resources in much the same way that batteries can. 

But pumped storage is land-intensive, and each project has to be designed for its own particular site, making it expensive to develop. Or in this case, very expensive. In its 2017 Annual Report, Dominion said its project would cost up to $2 billion and provide up to 1,000 MW of storage capacity ($2 million per megawatt, not terrible for this kind of storage). Three years later the size has shrunk by 70 percent but the cost has actually gone up and now stands at $2.3 billion ($7.7 million per megawatt, genuinely terrible). 

That didn’t stop Dominion from including the 300 MW of new pumped storage hydro in every scenario of its IRP, not allowing its modeling software the option of rejecting it as unneeded or as more expensive than other options.

What was once an interesting project idea now looks a heck of a lot like another Dominion boondoggle.

As Virginia embarks on a transition to 100 percent carbon-free electricity, the ability to store energy has become a hot topic of discussion. How much do we need, and can batteries do it all? The one advantage that pumped storage has over batteries is that a pumped storage facility can supply energy over a longer duration: 10 hours as opposed to the four hours typical of most batteries. For the rare occasions when you really need those extra hours, pumped hydro can be a solution.

As it happens, though, Dominion is already the majority owner of the world’s largest pumped hydro project. The 3,000 MW facility in Bath County, Virginia, has been in operation since 1985. Dominion earns money by selling its energy storage service to the operator of the regional transmission grid, PJM Interconnection. 

Three thousand megawatts is a lot of storage; the Bath County facility is even nicknamed “the world’s largest battery.” So building more pumped storage would only be reasonable if the Bath County facility were already being used to its maximum capacity (or was projected to max out in the future), and if a new facility could meet a need that can’t be met by alternatives like batteries. Unfortunately for Dominion, neither of those is true. Tazewell is a solution in search of a problem. 

Consumers smell a rat. Dominion customer Glen Besa intervened in the IRP case this summer to challenge the inclusion of the Tazewell project. Besa retired a few years ago as director of the Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club; he is acting on his own behalf in this case, represented by attorney William Reisinger of the firm ReisingerGooch. 

The firm hired energy storage expert Kerinia Cusick. Her testimony points out that the IRP shows the Bath County facility is expected to be used lessover the coming years, not more. The IRP projects capacity factors for the facility will decline steadily from 10.7 percent in 2021 to 7.5 percent in 2035. If an existing facility has spare capacity, there is no good case for building another facility like it.

Cusick also compared the $2.3 billion cost of the Tazewell project to an equivalent amount of battery storage. Not surprisingly, the battery storage won hands down. Indeed, Cusick noted, the cost of battery storage has fallen over the years and is projected to continue doing so. By contrast, she found Dominion had understated the costs of the pumped storage project by excluding items like land costs and taxes. (The real number she calculated, unfortunately, is not available to us. It has been redacted from the public version of Cusick’s testimony.)

In sum, there is no need for the Tazewell project, and no economic case to support it. Adding billions of dollars in unneeded infrastructure to Dominion’s rate base will add profit for Dominion shareholders but drive up electricity bills for consumers.

There’s no way the SCC would let Dominion get away with this if legislators hadn’t used the magic words “in the public interest.” Now the question is whether those magic words are all it takes to ram a project through.

The SCC takes its job of protecting ratepayers seriously; it does not welcome legislative interference. Only grudgingly did the SCC allow itself to be coerced into approving Dominion’s offshore wind pilot when the legislature proclaimed the pilot project in the public interest. In that case, after pointing out the high cost and risks borne by ratepayers, the SCC order concluded by grumbling, “Recent amendments to Virginia laws that mandate that such a project be found to be ‘in the public interest’ make it clear that certain factual findings must be subordinated to the clear legislative intent expressed in the laws governing the petition.”

But the offshore wind pilot was just that, a pilot, and its $300 million price tag represented an investment in a new industry that is expected to become a mainstay of Virginia’s future energy supply. Legislators knew the costs, and judged them acceptable. 

Pumped hydro, on the other hand, is a mature technology. The proposed Tazewell project won’t lead to bigger and better things, driving costs down along the way. Legislators deemed it “in the public interest” for Dominion to locate a pumped storage project in the coalfields because they are desperate for jobs there. But they were misled about the actual cost. That ought to matter.

If it doesn’t matter — if the SCC decides “in the public interest” always means a blank check to Dominion, written by the General Assembly but charged to the account of customers — then legislators need to change the law. We can’t afford another boondoggle.

This article originally appeared in the Virginia Mercury on October 7, 2020.

The facts about coal plants Dominion didn’t want you to know

smokestack

Photo credit Stiller Beobachter

Last winter, during the fight to pass the Virginia Clean Economy Act, Dominion Energy lobbyists went out of their way to save the company’s youngest coal plant in Wise County. It worked. Legislators exempted the Virginia City Hybrid Energy Center from closure until 2045, when Dominion has to shutter all its fossil fuel generation.

VCHEC was approved in 2008 and built in 2013 as a boondoggle for Dominion, earning the company an enhanced rate of return. It was also intended as an expensive gift from then-Gov. Tim Kaine to coalfield Democrats, who went on to lose their seats anyway. Even then, it was a terrible deal for Dominion’s customers and the climate, with all the carbon pollution you expect from coal and a cost that was twice that of cleaner alternatives.

No wonder it proved to be one of the last coal plants ever built in the U.S.

Knowing this, and knowing the determination of this year’s General Assembly to turn the commonwealth in the direction of clean energy, you might not have expected VCHEC to have a lot of friends left in Richmond. But Dominion never told legislators what it would cost consumers to keep its coal plants running. Among all the criticism of the price tag associated with Virginia’s energy transition — much of that criticism coming from Dominion itself — one crucial fact gets lost: It’s coal that is hitting consumers the hardest.

An analysis Dominion reluctantly made public last month as part of its Integrated Resource Planning case shows that VCHEC is far and away the worst performing economically of all the utility’s fossil fuel-burning plants. This one coal plant carries a 10-year net present value of negative $472 million. (The analysts didn’t extend their calculations out to 2045, where it would certainly cross a billion dollars; maybe they were running low on red ink.)

VCHEC isn’t the only coal plant in Dominion’s fleet with a negative valuation, just the worst. In fact, all the Virginia coal plants have negative values.

These are Dominion’s numbers, not those of the Sierra Club or the other environmental and consumer groups challenging Dominion’s plans. The Sierra Club hired a consulting company to run its own analysis, using a standard utility model. That analysis concluded it would be cheaper for customers to build more solar now and speed up the closure not just of VCHEC but of all Dominion’s coal plants. This includes even the company’s Mount Storm coal plant in West Virginia, the only one assigned a positive economic value in Dominion’s analysis. From a customer standpoint, all of them should go.

Maybe that’s not too surprising. We already knew coal was dead. But how many of us knew we were paying to prop up the corpse?

Dominion’s lawyers tried to keep the terrible cost numbers out of the public’s hands, contending it was “confidential commercial and financial information that other entities could use to their competitive advantage in future negotiations.” I can imagine these future meetings: the other entities would be so busy mocking Dominion that, indeed, negotiations might stall permanently.

Fortunately for all of us, the Attorney General’s Office of Consumer Counsel persuaded the SCC the information should be public. Some information truly is confidential; this is merely embarrassing. Dominion’s customers—and the General Assembly—should know what it’s costing us to prop up coal.

This article originally appeared in the Virginia Mercury on September 24, 2020.

The analysis Dominion ultimately produced, showing 10-year Net Present Values for certain of its generating units, under various scenarios. Notice biomass doesn’t do too well either. The analysis omits some additional units, apparently because they are already scheduled for retirement.

The dog that didn’t bark: the case of the missing electric co-op members.

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Photo by Seth Heald

 

Readers of Rappahannock Electric Cooperative’s monthly magazine, Cooperative Living, found a surprise when the magazine’s May 2020 issue arrived. The surprise wasn’t what was in the magazine, but what was missing, calling to mind Sherlock Holmes’s key insight in Arthur Conan Doyle’s story The Adventure of Silver Blaze, featuring a dog that didn’t bark. As Holmes explained to a Scotland Yard detective, sometimes what didn’t happen is as significant as what did.

In an annual tradition going back at least a decade and likely much longer, REC each May publishes in its member magazine a list of co-op members or former members whom REC owes money to but has lost track of. The list usually takes up around two full pages, with perhaps 500 to 800 names listed in small print. Readers are encouraged to look for their own names as well as names of others, and to notify REC if they have information about how to find these missing people. The funds in question are “retired capital credits,” a/k/a “patronage capital,” meaning money belonging to the co-op member-owners that has been invested in the co-op for a time and can now be returned. (As a cooperative, REC is owned by its customers, who are called “member-owners” or just “members.”)

But this year, instead of listing the names in its magazine, REC advised readers they could view the list online. The magazine gave no explanation why REC had changed its longstanding annual practice of publishing the list in the magazine, which is mailed to all of REC’s roughly 140,000 member-owners, some of whom don’t have internet service.

So, wondering why REC had changed its publication practice, I took a look at the list online and discovered that it was 74 pages long, with about 21,000 names.

One mystery solved. Others arise.

One mystery was solved. No wonder REC didn’t print the list in Cooperative Living—doing so would have taken up nearly two entire monthly issues of the 40-page magazine. But additional mysteries arose:

  • Why is the list so long this year (37 times longer than in most years)?
  • How does an electric co-op with around 140,000 members lose track of 21,000 members or former members?
  • Why didn’t REC explain in its magazine why this year’s list is so huge?
  • And is REC’s board at all concerned about a system that retains people’s money for such a long time that 21,000 of them can’t be located when it’s time to return the funds?

I checked with REC and learned that this year’s list of lost REC members is long because in 2017 REC’s power supplier, Old Dominion Electric Cooperative (ODEC), returned patronage capital (a/k/a capital credits) to its member owners, including REC. ODEC had originally obtained that patronage capital from margins (excess annual revenues) that ODEC received decades ago—in the 1980s and apparently even earlier.

REC’s practice for patronage capital it receives back from ODEC is to pass the funds through to REC’s members who bought electricity from REC during the years in which ODEC originally collected the patronage capital. REC said it waits three years after receiving the funds from ODEC before concluding that a former member cannot be located, and then publishes the list of those missing.

I looked at ODEC’s 2017 annual report and learned that in December 2016 its board of directors “declared a patronage capital retirement of $5.8 million, to be paid on April 3, 2017.” REC is the largest member-owner of ODEC, so REC received a good portion of that $5.8 million capital-credit retirement in 2017.

Of course, many of REC’s member-owners from over 30 years ago are no longer around. And that explains why REC can’t find some 21,000 of its former member owners—many of them are long since dead, and others moved away.

Perhaps some REC members will check the 21,000-name list and recognize a name or two, but it seems likely that most of those 21,000 people or their heirs won’t be found. One REC member who checked the list saw her deceased father’s name on it. He moved away from Virginia decades ago and then died in 2013. When the daughter contacted REC, the co-op sent her a letter explaining the cumbersome steps she will have to follow to collect the several hundred dollars owed to her father’s estate.

ODEC financial statements show that ODEC paid additional capital credits to its member-owners in years after 2017: $14.1 million in 2018 and $4.3 million in 2020. That 2018 payment is nearly three times the 2017 amount, meaning that when REC publishes next year’s list of lost members, which may be as long as this year’s, the amounts involved will be substantially greater. This is important, because some people recognizing names of deceased relatives on this year’s list might conclude that the amount they can get from REC now is not worth the considerable trouble it could take to gather the documentation needed to make a claim to REC.  But their calculus on that might change if they know that next year there might be nearly triple as much available. And if they gather and submit the paperwork this year, they won’t have to repeat that process next year.

The theory of cooperative ownership of an electric utility is that member-owners, who are the business’s customers, invest some of their funds in the business as capital, in order to keep the costs of goods sold (electricity) low. That’s why electric co-ops retain excess annual revenues (called “margins”) for a time and then later pay them back to members as retired capital credits, if conditions allow. (More on that here.)  But is that business model really working when a cooperative holds on to the funds for so many decades that a significant number of the member-owners whose funds were retained can no longer be found? One would hope that’s an issue REC’s board members find concerning, but we don’t know what REC’s board thinks because it operates in complete secrecy when setting REC’s capital-credit policies.

For the past two years, the Repower REC reform campaign has urged REC’s board to be fully transparent about the co-op’s capital credit policies, but the board has resisted. REC doesn’t even tell its members what their accrued total capital credit balance is unless the members know enough to ask for that information. Repower REC urged REC to disclose that basic information at least once a year on each member’s bill, but the co-op hasn’t done it.

Lack of transparency discourages democratic participation.

By not fully informing REC member-owners about the details of their co-op’s (and its power supplier’s) capital credit practices, REC’s board indirectly discourages member-owner participation in the democratic governance of the co-op. For if more member-owners understood the details of how capital credits are supposed to work, and how they actually work in practice at REC, then more co-op members would be motivated to demand that board members address a situation where tens of thousands of co-op members (or their heirs) may be losing the funds they invested in the co-op decades ago.

According to the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, “the return of [co-op members’] investment through the allocation and retirement of capital credits is one of the concepts that defines a cooperative and distinguishes it from another form of business.” To remain relevant as a legitimate form of business ownership for a monopoly utility, REC, ODEC, and other electric co-ops need to step up their game when it comes to transparency about capital credit practices and ensuring that patronage capital is actually returned to co-op members in a fair and timely manner.

When a 140,000-member Virginia electric cooperative can’t find 21,000 of its members or former members to return their investments, something is wrong.

Seth Heald is a member-owner of Rappahannock Electric Cooperative and co-founder of the Repower REC campaign.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.