If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em? Dominion Energy now selling residential solar

Sierra Club members talk to Richmond homeowner Kevin Ciafarini about his experience with solar.

Dominion Energy never used to be happy about customers producing their own energy from solar. “Hostile” is more the word that springs to mind. The company has traditionally seen privately owned solar arrays as competition: The more solar panels people put on their roofs, the less electricity they buy from their utility.

But Virginia has long allowed net metering, and in 2020 our General Assembly came down firmly on the side of customers by expanding opportunities for onsite solar. Consumers responded with the enthusiasm legislators hoped for. Industry statistics show annual residential solar installations in the commonwealth roughly tripled from 2019 to today. 

If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. Virginia homeowners and businesses in the market for a solar array can now buy it from a wholly-owned subsidiary of Dominion Energy called BrightSuite. The BrightSuite website touts some of the same customer benefits that solar advocates have been pointing out all these years: consumer savings, carbon reductions, stable electric bills. And why shouldn’t Dominion sell solar? As the website declares, “We embrace change with a commitment first and foremost to meet our customers’ evolving energy needs.”

Well, amen to that! With climate chaos impacting people’s lives and high fossil fuel prices driving up utility bills faster than the rate of inflation, customers’ energy needs certainly have evolved, and they do now include onsite solar arrays. We just didn’t expect to hear that from Dominion. 

But that’s okay, we welcome latecomers! Moreover, while Dominion’s entry into the residential market will make some people uneasy, it could goose demand, growing the distributed solar market for everyone while pushing out the price-gougers.   

First, though, let’s address that unease. Having an affiliate of the local utility compete for a homeowner’s business puts independent installers at a definite disadvantage. Dominion has a much broader marketing reach, and BrightSuite’s use of the Dominion name carries an implied promise of trustworthiness. In a market crowded with competitors, name recognition and the assurance that a company isn’t going away any time soon are distinct advantages. 

But Dominion’s entry into the retail solar business could ultimately be good for independent installers. Dominion doesn’t do anything inexpensively, and its home solar offering appears to be no exception. If Dominion persuades more customers to look into home solar, and those customers then comparison shop, companies that can offer a better deal will get more business.  

Sarah Vogelsong recently wrote about a project of the HR Climate Hub, which solicited quotes from solar installers for the same single-family home in order to compare prices and service, and to flag potentially predatory sellers. The website offers helpful advice to Virginia homeowners about how solicit and compare offers. It also lists prices and terms from a dozen companies, ranging from a low of $2.10 per watt from Tesla to a high of $5.62 from Power Home Solar. Two small, well-regarded Virginia Beach installers submitted bids of $2.80 and $2.85. BrightSuite’s quote (added after the Mercury article ran) came in at $3.25. 

HR Climate Hub’s figures square with information from the Solar Energy Industries Association, which provides advice for consumers and tracks the average cost of residential solar systems through a service called SolarReviews. According to the website, “As of Jun 2022, the average cost of solar panels in Virginia is $2.66 per watt making a typical 6000 watt (6 kW) solar system $11,797 after claiming the 26% federal solar tax credit now available.”

I asked HR Climate Hub for additional information about the BrightSuite quote and was glad to learn the company uses high quality REC solar panels that carry a 25-year warranty, along with microinverters made by Enphase, a top-quality American company. So, no bottom shelf components here. However, the quote did not mention warranty or maintenance information for the installation work. These do not appear on the BrightSuite website either, apart from a one-year performance guarantee. 

It goes without saying that anyone investing thousands of dollars on a major home improvement should shop around, compare prices, and read warrantees. Prices listed on HR Climate Hub and SolarReviews are a good starting point. Where available, bulk purchase programs like those offered by Solarize NoVa and Virginia Solar United Neighbors provide discounts as well as expert advice. 

But it wouldn’t be surprising if even well-informed consumers choose to pay a premium to get a solar installation from BrightSuite simply because the company is associated with their utility. Name recognition goes a long way in marketing, and a lot of customers will want the security of knowing Dominion Energy isn’t likely to take the money and disappear into the night. With this marketing advantage, I expect BrightSuite will quickly emerge as a market leader in spite of its higher-than-average price. 

Ultimately, however, Dominion’s entry into the market may grow the pie for everyone. Homeowners who have held back from installing solar because they don’t know who to trust may feel confident enough to call BrightSuite. Once they have one quote, many will comparison shop.  

At the very least, Dominion’s entry into the home solar market should set a price ceiling. Why would anyone pay $5 per watt or more for a solar array from a company they probably don’t know anything about, when they could get $3.25 from their utility? Price gougers, beware: your time here is up.

This article appeared in the Virginia Mercury on June 17, 2022.

Dear readers: Many of you know that although I write independently of any organization, I also volunteer for the Sierra Club and serve on its legislative committee. The Sierra Club’s Virginia Chapter urgently needs funds to support its legislative and political work towards a clean energy transition. So this summer I’m passing the hat and asking you to make a donation to our “Ten Wild Weekends” fundraising campaign. Thanks!

West Virginia wants to raise Virginia power bills

photo of mountain scraped of soil for coal mining
Under the West Virginia order, customers will pay more to support the state’s coal industry. Sierra Club photo.

Most people are aware by now that inflation has hit the energy sector hard, with fossil fuels in particular skyrocketing in price over the past year. 

Dominion Energy Virginia, the state’s dominant utility, says it needs to charge residential customers an extra $14.93 per month on average to cover higher natural gas prices. Appalachian Power, which serves Southwest Virginia as well as West Virginia, has already asked the West Virginia Public Service Commission for permission to increase residential bills by an average of $18.41 to cover higher coal and gas prices, and is likely to seek a similar increase from Virginia customers this summer.  

But for residents of Southwest Virginia, that could be just the beginning of the rate increases: West Virginia wants to force APCo customers to pay even more, and not just in West Virginia. If the West Virginia PSC has its way, Virginia customers would have to shoulder their “share” of the cost of propping up two money-losing West Virginia coal plants. 

The PSC’s order of May 13 reiterates previous instructions to APCo to keep its West Virginia coal plants running at least 69 percent of the time, even when the plants lose money. This decision comes on top of a decision in October of 2021 allowing APCo to charge customers for hundreds of millions of dollars in costs to prolong the life of these coal plants out to 2040. An expert hired by the Sierra Club found it would cost up to $1.1 billion more to keep the plants operating until 2040 instead of retiring them in 2028. 

For Virginia customers, the problem is that these West Virginia coal plants, Amos and Mountaineer, also provide electricity to Southwest Virginia, so Southwest Virginia residents have to pay for them. Even before the fuel price spikes of the past year and a half, APCo wanted to charge its Virginia customers for the upgrades approved by the West Virginia PSC. The company will certainly also want Virginians to pay for the even higher costs that will follow from the 69 percent run requirement.

Virginia’s State Corporation Commission has so far held off on approving the millions of dollars that would be Virginia’s share of the costs to upgrade Amos and Mountaineer. But with the West Virginia PSC plowing ahead to support its state’s favored industry, it’s not at all clear the SCC will stand its ground. 

APCo’s study claims that closing Amos and Mountaineer will cost ratepayers more than keeping them open, ensuring there will be a battle of the experts come the September hearing. The study is opaque in its methodology and reasoning. But APCo almost certainly didn’t assume the plants would have to run 69 percent of the time regardless of market conditions, and it probably also didn’t factor in today’s sky-high fossil fuel costs that further support retiring the coal plants and investing in cheaper, price-stable wind and solar.

Obviously, the biggest losers here are West Virginia residents. They will bear the largest share of these costs, one more price of living in a state run by fossil fuel oligarchs.

In an alternate universe, West Virginia would have developed an economy that took advantage of its extraordinary natural beauty, one based on small farms, four-season tourism, artist enclaves and vacation homes: think Vermont but with better weather. Instead, fossil fuel and mining barons bought up mineral rights, paid off politicians, and despoiled vast swaths of the state, leaving most residents dependent on dirty jobs or piecing together a living from low-wage work. 

I’m rooting for West Virginia to change course for a post-coal world, but that’s not easy for a state where politicians, bureaucrats and industry conspire to maintain the power of extraction industries. Virginians, however, shouldn’t be forced to enable this misuse of power. The SCC should reject West Virginia’s effort to make Virginia customers pay to prop up West Virginia coal.

This article originally appeared in the Virginia Mercury on June 10, 2022.

Dear readers: Many of you know that although I write independently of any organization, I also volunteer for the Sierra Club and serve on its legislative committee. The Sierra Club’s Virginia Chapter urgently needs funds to support its legislative and political work towards a clean energy transition. So this summer I’m passing the hat and asking you to make a donation to our “Ten Wild Weekends” fundraising campaign. Thanks!

Not a great time to roll out Dominion’s pricey solar tariff

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Well, that didn’t take long.

A few weeks after I wrote about rising natural gas prices, Dominion Energy Virginia asked the SCC for permission to raise the price of electricity by about $9 per month for the average residential customers, citing higher fuel costs. Virginia law allows utilities to pass through its fuel costs to customers, without a profit margin, making it unlikely the SCC will turn down the request. Natural gas is Dominion’s largest fuel source, so its electricity rates are highly vulnerable to price swings in the market for fracked gas.

That makes this a really peculiar time for Dominion to launch a new solar energy purchase option that will add about $20 per month on average for customers who elect to meet their entire electricity demand with solar, without exempting them from the coming bill increase due to higher gas prices. If the company were trying to discourage people from signing up for its solar product, it could hardly have chosen a better time. The fact that the company delayed the launch of this program for more than three years, only to offer it now, makes it all the more suspect.

Dominion’s solar option, confusingly (and wrongly) called “Community Solar” is the product of legislation passed in 2017, three years before the General Assembly authorized private solar developers to sell to Virginia customers. The 2020 legislation dubbed the private program “shared solar,” and it remains mired in SCC rulemaking.

But Dominion Community Solar is different. As I wrote back in 2018, when the SCC approved the program (and its launch seemed imminent), this program is really a solar tariff. Dominion generates electricity from solar and puts it on the grid, and customers who want to run their homes and businesses on solar pay extra on their bill.

As part of the deal, participants also get the renewable energy certificates (RECs) associated with the solar energy. That prevents Dominion from selling the RECs to anyone else or using them to show compliance with Virginia’s new renewable portfolio standard (RPS). This is important to avoid double-counting and ensure that solar paid for by the voluntary market is in addition to the solar developed to serve customers under the RPS.

The $20 premium for the program will sound unreasonably high to people who have experience with community solar in other states, where it is typically offered at a discount to regular grid power. In many states, private developers build the solar facilities and sell the output to participants. The rate is typically fixed for many years, because solar has low O&M costs and uses no fuel. Customers still pay their utility for transmission and distribution, but the community solar fee replaces utility-delivered generation rates. Accordingly, participating customers are insulated from price increases due to higher natural gas (or coal) costs.

That is not Dominion Community Solar. Dominion’s program requires customers to pay for all the utility’s costs of running its generating plants and purchasing fuel and paying for rate adjustment clauses (RACs), including those for new renewable energy facilities that serve the entire rate base and RECs bought for the RPS. These solar-only customers will also have to pay Dominion’s costs for buying carbon allowances in the RGGI market, which the company incurs as a result of generating power from fossil fuels. (Dominion is hoping Governor Youngkin will succeed in pulling Virginia out of RGGI and has suggested shifting compliance costs from riders to base rates in the meantime, clearly as a way to mitigate the rate increase due to high gas prices.)

Dominion Community Solar customers will pay for all these costs of fossil fuel generation, and the cost of Dominion building renewable energy facilities for all its other customers. And then on top of all that, they will pay an extra $20 per month.

Let’s leave aside the question of whether $20 is even a fair premium for a solar tariff. Ultra-high gas prices, RPS riders and RGGI compliance costs are all new since the SCC authorized Dominion’s program in 2018. It’s hard to imagine the SCC agreeing today that program participants should pay all these costs in addition to the cost of developing community-sized solar arrays.

But something else has changed too: The shared solar legislation passed in 2020 promised customers the alternative of being able to buy solar from a third-party provider, unhooking participants from the roller-coaster ride of fossil fuel prices. As I noted before, though, shared solar is mired in proceedings at the SCC, where Dominion is seeking to impose such high fixed costs on participants as to make the program impossible to offer.

Right now, Dominion has an SCC hearing examiner mostly on its side.

If the SCC commissioners accept the hearing examiner’s recommendations, that could spell the end of shared solar—or at any rate, make Dominion’s $20 look good by comparison.

This article originally appeared in the Virginia Mercury on May 16, 2022.

Dear readers: Many of you know that although I write independently of any organization, I also volunteer for the Sierra Club and serve on its legislative committee. Today, the Sierra Club’s Virginia Chapter urgently needs funds to support its legislative and political work towards a clean energy transition. So for the first time I’m passing the hat and asking you to make a donation to our “Ten Wild Weekends” fundraising campaign. And if you’re free on June 12, come join the Solar Walk in Richmond that I’ll be co-leading!

A historic turning point: solar beat coal in Virginia in 2021

Photo by Activ Solar via Wikimedia Commons.

It had to happen sometime, but even staunch supporters of Virginia’s transition to clean energy might not have expected this so soon in a former coal state. The precipitous decline of coal as a fuel source, and the rise of solar energy as the new “fuel” of choice, resulted in solar facilities producing more electricity than coal did in Virginia over the course of 2021. 

Using Energy Information Agency data, the Weldon Cooper Center at the University of Virginia produced these two graphs. Bill Shobe, the center’s director of economic research, says Virginia generated 3,365 gigawatt-hours (GWh) of electricity with solar and 3,130 GWh with coal. 

Only three coal-fired plants remain in Virginia: Chesterfield (slated for retirement), Clover, and Virginia City. All have capacity factors in the ‘teens, meaning they are idle most of the time. They now run only during the coldest months of winter and the hottest months of summer (producing the spikes you see in the month-by-month graph), and all are under economic pressure to close for good. In addition, Dominion Energy owns the Mt. Storm coal plant just over the border in West Virginia that runs about 42 percent of the time. 

Dominion’s proposed charge for solar program is absurdly high

Solar panels are well suited to the flat roofs of apartment buildings like this one in the Bronx, but they remain a rarity in Virginia despite a new law designed to open the market. Photo by Bright Power, Inc. – U.S. Department of Energy from United States, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

A Dominion Energy customer wrote me recently to ask what her condo association could do to go solar. The building’s roof can hold many more solar panels than needed to power the needs of the common area. Is it possible to sell the excess electricity to individual residents to power their units?

I get this question a lot, and in 2020, the Virginia General Assembly tried to change the answer from “no” to “yes.” As part of the Solar Freedom legislation, the State Corporation Commission was tasked with creating a shared solar program for residents of multifamily buildings like condominiums and apartment buildings, with orders to make the program available beginning in January 1, 2021. In other words, it ought to be available today.

And yet I still have to tell people they can’t do it now, and may not be able to ever, unless the SCC changes course. Would-be customers will have just one final chance this month to try to save the program. On March 25, the SCC will take public testimony at an evidentiary hearing to address the seemingly simple question threatening the viability of the Multifamily Shared Solar Program. The law allows Dominion to collect an administrative fee from customers who participate in the program. How much should that be? 

An administrative fee doesn’t sound like it could be enough to stall a program for more than a year, let alone deep-six it altogether. Dominion’s role in the Multifamily Shared Solar Program is limited to doing the accounting to make sure every unit gets credit for the share of the electricity the resident buys. That shouldn’t cost very much—perhaps a buck or two per month per customer. 

Yet Dominion proposes to impose an administrative fee of more than $87 per month—a charge so absurdly high that it would result in participants paying far more for electricity generated on the roof of their building than for the electricity Dominion delivers to them from elsewhere in the state. The SCC temporarily stopped the utility from implementing that fee, but it also stacked the deck to make a high fee almost inevitable. 

And that’s a program killer. Rooftop solar is still a lot more expensive than large, offsite solar facilities, so keeping fees low is critical to making the economics work. It’s also a matter of equity. Owners of single-family homes with rooftop solar benefit from Virginia’s net metering program, which guarantees them a one-for-one credit for any surplus electricity generated. Multifamily residents deserve something similar.

Indeed, the entire point of putting the Multifamily Shared Solar Program in Solar Freedom—a law otherwise focused on removing barriers to net metering—is to benefit Virginians who’ve been shut out of the solar market because they don’t own their own roofs. Renters in particular are more likely to have lower incomes than owners of single-family homes, so making the program available to them is important to the goal of reducing the energy burden on low- and moderate-income residents and ensuring that the transition to clean energy benefits people at all income levels.

I’m not just guessing about the intent behind Solar Freedom. I know the point is to offer residents of multifamily buildings an analog to net metering because I wrote most of the legislation as it was introduced, in collaboration with allies in local government and the legislators who introduced it. We wanted building owners and occupants to be able to work together to install onsite solar, free of SCC meddling and without the utility demanding a cut of the action. 

But as so often happens with legislative sausage-making, the bill changed as it went through negotiations and emerged from committees. The SCC was charged with developing a formal program, and Dominion was given a role in administering it. Yet the new language made clear that the original purpose remained. The SCC is to write regulations that “reasonably allow for the creation and financing of shared solar facilities” and “allow all customer classes to participate in the program, and ensure participation opportunities for all customer classes.” 

The legislation provides for participants to be credited on their utility bills with their share of the electricity generated by the solar panels. The SCC is to make an annual calculation of the 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.” To the definition of “bill credit rate” is added the admonition that the rate “shall be set such that the shared solar program results in robust project development and shared solar program access for all customer classes.” 

This language is consistent with a goal of putting multifamily buildings on par with single-family homes in making rooftop solar affordable. But, unlike the original legislative language, and unlike the rules of net metering, the final version of Solar Freedom instructs the SCC to “allow the investor-owned utilities to recover reasonable costs of administering the program.” 

And that’s the opportunity Dominion wants to exploit. As soon as the SCC began the process of writing rules for the Multifamily Shared Solar Program, Dominion advanced the claim that the administrative fee should be based on essentially all of the costs of operating an electric utility. Instead of the multifamily program mirroring net metering, Dominion took as its model a larger program under a very different law. The Shared Solar legislation, also passed in 2020, creates a program for community solar facilities that can be onsite or offsite, can serve many more customers anywhere in Dominion’s territory, and can even be carved out of a utility-scale solar facility. The shared solar law specifically allows Dominion to charge most customers a “minimum bill” with a list of components, and also an “administrative fee.” 

Things aren’t going well for the Shared Solar program at the SCC. A hearing examiner recently recommended the commission adopt a minimum bill of more than $55, based on an SCC staff recommendation. It did not trouble the hearing examiner or the staff that the number puts the cost of shared solar above the cost of Dominion’s own electricity, a program killer according to community solar developers.

But cramming the minimum bill elements into the multifamily program’s administrative fee would be an even greater blow to a program whose economics are already constrained by the smaller size of onsite projects. It also seems obvious from a plain reading of the two laws that the General Assembly did not intend to burden multifamily residents with the fees it authorized for the Shared Solar participants.

Unfortunately for customers, the SCC approved the cramming in concept last July, ignoring this plain legislative intent. Based on that, SCC staff proposed options for the administrative fee of either $16.78 or $57.26, with the higher fee using the same reasoning that just led to the hearing examiner’s $55 recommendation in the shared solar program. 

The SCC ought to reject these numbers and instead adopt the dollar or two that running the multifamily shared solar program will actually cost Dominion. But to do so, commissioners will have to reverse their earlier, egregious decision and embrace what seems to be (for them) the novel concept that the General Assembly intended the plain meaning of its words. Only then will residents of multifamily buildings gain their solar freedom. 

Note: those wishing to testify at the SCC hearing must sign up by March 22.

This article originally appeared in the Virginia Mercury on March 10, 2022.

A divided General Assembly can find common ground on clean energy

Almost two years ago, Virginia’s General Assembly made history with a series of laws shepherding Virginia towards a future of clean, low-cost wind and solar energy. During this year’s election campaign, Republican talking points included attacks on the Virginia Clean Economy Act (VCEA), the law at the center of the transition. But talk, as they say, is cheap. With the VCEA protected by the Democratic majority in the Senate, Republicans didn’t have to put forward a serious alternative, and they didn’t.

Now that the Republicans have won the governorship and a majority in the House of Delegates, passing any new legislation (or repealing anything already in place) will require bipartisan action. Democrats want to protect Virginia’s progress in tackling carbon emissions and putting equity into energy planning. Republicans want to reduce burdens on industry. Both sides want affordable electricity and a robust economy that creates jobs. Rhetoric aside, there is much to agree on.

Solar is wildly popular with conservatives as well as liberals, in part because it saves money. With no fuel costs, and ever-falling prices of solar panels, solar arrays are now the go-to choice for utilities that need more power. It is cheaper for a utility to build a new solar facility today than to operate an existing coal plant in Virginia. 

As for existing gas plants, they compete with solar only when the price of fracked gas is low. Gas prices have doubled in the past year, so Virginia’s current reliance on natural gas for 60% of our electricity generation hurts everyone’s wallets. 

And while fracked gas is imported from other states, we can build solar and wind facilities here in the Commonwealth and off our coast, so our own workers and businesses benefit. The faster we bring on the energy transition, the better for our economy. 

The energy transition also means cleaner air and water for our children, improving the efficiency of homes to make them more comfortable and less costly to live in, reducing the energy burden on low-income residents, helping coastal communities adapt to rising sea levels, and giving people greater freedom to invest their own money in solar panels on their own property. All of these are part of the VCEA and the other bills that guide our energy transition, and repealing them now would be shooting ourselves in both feet.

Nonetheless, there is room for improvement. Last year legislators established a fund to put renewable energy on abandoned mine sites and other brownfields, but didn’t allocate money. Under the bipartisan infrastructure bill just passed in Congress, Virginia will receive an estimated $23,579,905 annually in federal abandoned mine land funding. Once former mine sites are cleaned up, they will be ideal locations for solar facilities, and the General Assembly should make sure that happens. 

Other federal funding will support smart grid and transmission investments. Some of these projects are already underway in Virginia, and the General Assembly should make sure that savings go to ratepayers, not to utilities.

Solar on schools has been one of the greatest success stories of the past few years in Virginia, with more than 45 jurisdictions signing contracts that will put solar panels on school roofs at no up-front cost, and with energy savings every year. But some schools are still built with roofs that aren’t designed to support solar. That has to change. 

Indeed, in 2019 the General Assembly passed a Republican-sponsored bill that went further, declaring it “the intent of the General Assembly that new public school buildings and facilities and improvements and renovations to existing public school buildings and facilities be designed, constructed, maintained, and operated to generate more electricity than consumed.” In 2022, legislators could turn this into a requirement, saving money for taxpayers across the Commonwealth. 

Community solar offers another money-saving opportunity. Legislation passed in 2020 will allow residents and businesses to buy electricity from shared solar projects developed by private companies. The initial program is small and confined to customers of Dominion Energy, which is trying to persuade regulators to mandate crushingly high minimum bills. Legislators can fix these problems by expanding the program statewide and capping the minimum bill. 

The General Assembly has repeatedly failed to rein in the power of utilities like Dominion, which uses its influence to protect its profits at the expense of consumers. The ability to make unlimited political contributions backfired on Dominion when its $200,000 contribution to an anti-Youngkin campaign was exposed. But public utilities should not be allowed to buy influence, period. Let’s make this the year that stops.

This op-ed appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch on November 27,2021. 

Has the energy transition hit a roadblock in Virginia, or just a rough patch of pavement?

Photo credit: Mark Dixon from Pittsburgh, PA, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Election Day was a tough day for climate advocates. 

After two years of historic progress that included passage of the Virginia Clean Economy Act (VCEA), the centerpiece of the Commonwealth’s plan to decarbonize the electric sector by 2050, voters handed a narrow victory to its critics. Republicans will take over as governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general and, barring any surprises in two recounts, the House of Delegates.

During the campaign, former Carlyle Group CEO Glenn Youngkin criticized the VCEA for raising rates and putting “our entire energy grid at risk.”  While largely supportive of solar and wind (especially offshore wind, which he “wholly supports”), Youngkin also argued for more natural gas to feed “the rip-roaring economy that I’m going to build.” This is, essentially, the old “all of the above” strategy we hoped had been buried for good, coupled with unfounded fear-mongering about power outages. 

On the bright side, Governor-elect Youngkin has acknowledged that climate change is real and is causing damage here in Virginia. At the same time, he supposedly told a Norfolk State University audience in October that he didn’t know what is causing climate change. It seems likely this was a clumsy lie prompted by political expedience, rather than a reflection of actual ignorance. Two years ago Youngkin touted Carlyle Group’s record as “the first major private investment firm to operate on a carbon-neutral basis.” That’s not something you do just to be on trend.

So yes, Youngkin knows that increasing greenhouse gas emissions are driving the warming of the planet, and at Carlyle he was willing to do something about it. But now that he’s a politician, Youngkin is embracing natural gas in a way that suggests he’d rather ignore the truth about methane than take a stance unpopular in his party. Heck, for all we know, he may now even subscribe to the plan recently laid out by U.S. Senate Republicans to address climate change by increasing natural gas production and exports. 

Wait, you say, isn’t this also the Russian plan? Sell more gas and, if worse comes to worst, Siberia heats up enough to become a vacation destination? Let’s just say it’s not a coincidence that the senators promoting this “solution” come from North Dakota, Alaska and Wyoming—all states that are big energy exporters, but more importantly, where people think a few degrees of warming would be kind of nice. But given that the population of all three states combined is significantly less than the population of Northern Virginia alone, we probably don’t want them making policy for us.

The fact that we have no idea where Youngkin stands on the need for climate solutions is only one part of the problem facing climate activists in Virginia’s upcoming legislative session. The bigger problem is that a lot of our Republican legislators are outright hostile to climate science and Virginia’s framework for the energy transition. These folks are loaded for bear, and they will use their narrow win to flood the House with bills aimed at rolling back the energy transition. 

In addition to VCEA, the Republican hit list includes the Clean Energy and Community Preparedness Act, which directed Virginia to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI); the Clean Car Standard, which promotes sales of electric vehicles; and the Commonwealth Clean Energy Policy, which makes the transition to a net-zero-energy economy official state policy.  

Whether these bills will pass the House is less certain, given the benefits these laws are already delivering. The VCEA spurred “incredible growth” in solar installations, making Virginia fourth in the nation for new solar generation in 2020, and the world’s biggest offshore wind blade manufacturer just announced plans for a facility in Portsmouth, Virginia. Does anyone really want to stop that momentum? Tens of millions of dollars are already flowing to climate adaptation projects in coastal areas thanks to RGGI’s carbon allowance auctions. Pulling the plug on that cash flow would hurt Republicans representing the area. 

Notwithstanding the rhetoric, the VCEA is good for business and consumers. Ratepayers will save money through the mandated closure of uneconomic coal, oil and biomass plants, and by the removal of barriers to distributed renewable energy generation. Solar’s low cost positions it to overtake fossil fuels as the go-to generation source for utilities, but the VCEA creates the market certainty that attracts investment. And offshore wind—the most expensive part of the VCEA, but the part Youngkin apparently likes—is also popular on both sides of the aisle as an engine of investment and job creation.   

That doesn’t mean anti-VCEA bills won’t pass the House; being bad policy is never enough to kill legislation, or even stop people who ought to know better from voting for it. In 2019, an anti-RGGI bill from Del. Charles Poindexter (R-Franklin) passed both the House and Senate on party-line votes. It was prevented from taking effect only thanks to a veto from Governor Northam. Today, I can count very few House Republicans who won’t toe the same party line.

With Democrats still in charge of the Senate, Youngkin isn’t likely to find a RGGI or VCEA repeal on his desk. Creating an energy transition framework was one of the Democrats’ biggest successes in the past two years, and protecting that success will be a party priority. 

But there are many ways Republicans can undercut climate action. They might attract just enough Democratic votes with bills that, for example, grant exemptions for powerful industries that have friends among Senate Democrats. They could also use the budget process to undermine the transition by starving agencies and grant programs of funding. 

If politics doesn’t completely get in the way, though, there should be room for consensus on some new areas of progress. Highly efficient schools with solar roofs save money for taxpayers; electric school buses are good for children’s health; solar on abandoned mine sites promise employment to residents of Southwest Virginia. 

Beyond the General Assembly, executive agencies have had the job of implementing all the various parts of the RGGI program and the VCEA. And the agencies, of course, answer to the governor. The Department of Environmental Quality will have signed off—or not—on the Mountain Valley Pipeline’s permits before Younkin takes office, but after that, we can expect DEQ to return to being the easy-permitting, lax-enforcing agency it was of old.

As for the Department of Energy, that agency has been going gangbusters turning Virginia into a clean energy leader and promoting new models like brownfields redevelopment and clean energy financing. Hopefully those efforts offer so much in the way of economic opportunities that a businessman like Youngkin will want them to continue. 

But that, like so much else, remains to be seen. 

This article was originally published in the Virginia Mercury on November 16, 2021.

Of synagogues and subsidies

A while back I was engaged in an online discussion with other solar advocates about renewable energy — specifically, how to get more of it built. Some of the participants I knew, others I did not. The conversation was lively, ranging from the need for better education to public policy and incentives.

But then one of the participants threw in an unexpected comment. His email read, “Aren’t we all tired of synagogues?”

The question stopped me cold. I had never heard anyone express weariness of synagogues, much less understood that to be a consensus sentiment. However, I’m not Jewish, so if it were something my Jewish friends grumbled about among themselves but did not share more widely, then I wouldn’t necessarily know about it.

But our discussion was about renewable energy, so surely the comment could not really be about a physical house of worship. “Synagogue” had to be shorthand for something else. If someone said “aren’t we all tired of church,” it might be understood to refer to doctrinal thinking, or more likely, to preaching. You could see how someone would be tired of renewable energy advocates preaching about the benefits of wind turbines and solar panels. Could “synagogue” be meant as a sort of metaphor for haranguing people?

It seemed like a stretch, even assuming the person who had made the comment was Jewish, which I didn’t know. I looked back at the email to see if the name might give me a clue. At that moment, another email came through from him: “Sorry about that autocorrect, it was supposed to be ‘subsidies.’”

Ah.

I was relieved that synagogue fatigue was off the table, but now I had a new question to ponder: Are we, in fact, all tired of subsidies?

Opposition to subsidies is one of the touchstones of free-market capitalism, and even within the wind and solar industries you will find believers in the proposition that if a technology can’t attract enough customers on its own merits, it deserves to remain niche, and the government ought not to put its fat thumb on the scale.

Republican attacks on the Virginia Clean Economy Act, passed last year by the Democrat-controlled General Assembly, are often framed as opposition to the government “picking winners and losers.” The law certainly does that, by directing utilities to close coal plants and incorporate an increasing percentage of electricity from wind and solar.

Some Republicans are raising the same objection in response to the Biden administration’s plans for addressing the climate crisis. Technological advances and market forces are already moving us inexorably towards a clean energy economy—but not fast enough. So Biden’s initiatives rely on the full range of government powers, subsidies among them, to drive down greenhouse gas emissions nationwide in an effort to avoid a worldwide climate catastrophe.

But here’s the thing: to the extent the U.S. has anything resembling an energy policy, subsidies have always been a tool of first resort. Indeed, this has been the case literally since the nation’s founding. Often the difference between Republicans and Democrats is not in whether they embrace subsidies, but which ones they favor.

Cash grants, tax credits, loan guarantees, low-cost access to public land, public purchasing requirements, protective tariffs and federal R&D funding all shape the way energy is produced, delivered and consumed, and they are responsible for the fossil-fuel heavy energy economy we have today. Even U.S. foreign policy and our military have been deployed for the benefit of extractive industries. A century ago, the National Guard came to the aid of the coal barons against striking miners. More recently, a think tank crunched numbers to estimate the U.S. spends $81 billion per year to  protect global oil supplies. That figure rises to over $3 trillion when you count the Iraq war.

Externalities matter, too. If an industry is allowed to inflict damage to a community’s air and water, that is a form of subsidy that can be partly measured in dollars spent on health care and clean-up. Regulations requiring expensive pollution controls can lessen the economic advantages of offloading costs onto the public, but any remaining costs shouldered by the public are a subsidy to the polluter.

Conversely, by displacing fossil fuels, a clean energy facility may confer a public benefit far exceeding the cost of any government subsidy it receives. When we’re dealing with climate change, the public benefit of carbon-free energy is immense.

None of this is an argument against the merits of free market competition, which remains the economy’s most important driver of innovation leading to better and cleaner energy technologies. Well-designed subsidies should work with the market, not against it, to speed the energy transition towards a net-zero future.

And to that we should all say, Amen.

This article originally appeared in the Virginia Mercury on September 14, 2021.

You call that democracy? How Virginia’s electric co-ops fail their member-owners.

Virginia’s thirteen electric cooperatives were exempted from most provisions of the 2020 Virginia Clean Economy Act, which caps carbon pollution from power plants and requires investor-owned utilities to meet renewable-energy and energy-efficiency targets. In lobbying for the VCEA exemption, cooperatives no doubt touted their claimed status as member-owned and democratically governed. In theory that means co-op members can direct their co-ops to adopt programs friendly to consumers and the environment. But events last month showed again that some of the commonwealth’s electric co-ops are not as democratic as they claim. 

Summer is annual-meeting time for electric co-ops. Like all consumer cooperatives, electric co-ops are owned by their customers (called “member-owners”). Democratic control of the cooperative is one of seven “cooperative principles” that all electric cooperatives claim to adhere to. The key to genuine democratic control is board-of-director elections, which happen at each co-op’s annual meeting, where member-owners vote for board candidates. 

Two examples from Virginia electric co-op annual meetings last month demonstrate ways large and small in which incumbent co-op boards game the election process to help their favored board candidates. The most egregious case occurred at Rappahannock Electric Cooperative (REC), which serves rural and suburban Virginians in 22 counties. In a five-way race in REC’s August board election there was a clear winner among co-op member-owners who selected a candidate. Hanover County businessman Roddy Mitchell got more than twice as many member-owner votes as any of the four other candidates. You might call that a landslide win.

But through REC’s needlessly arcane and confusing proxy-voting process, REC’s board was able to allocate some 6,000 additional votes to the board-favored candidate, thereby swinging the election win to him. That board-favored candidate came in fourth out of five when looking at votes that member-owners cast for candidates.

When a board controls 40 to 60 percent or more of all votes, as REC’s board generally does, the board effectively controls the election outcome and “democracy” is an empty label.  

REC’s board controls huge numbers of votes each year because proxy ballots left blank are deemed by REC’s board as a delegation of the member-owner’s vote to the incumbent board to decide whom to cast them for. Moreover, REC offers those who send in a proxy, even a blank one, a chance to win cash prizes. That encourages member-owners to submit blank proxies, even if they have no interest in the election or makeup of the board. REC election tally forms going back over a decade show that every year REC’s incumbent board controls enough proxies to control election outcomes. For at least the past twelve years no candidate has won a race without getting the board-controlled votes. 

So the way to win an REC board election is to please incumbent board members, not to get the most votes from member-owners. That isn’t fair and it isn’t democratic. It leads to board groupthink, insulates boards from the concerns of member-owners, and discourages well-informed, knowledgeable co-op members from running for board.

A National Rural Electric Cooperative Association governance task force report recommended against using board-controlled proxies to swing election results. But REC’s board continues to ignore that recommendation years after it was made.  

Meanwhile, neighboring Shenandoah Valley Electric Cooperative’s (SVEC) board changed the co-op’s bylaws at a closed board meeting in June to help out an incumbent board member facing a strong challenge from another candidate in the August election. The board added a bylaw provision saying that in the case of a tie between an incumbent and non-incumbent candidate the incumbent would be deemed the winner of a one-year board term! 

As if that isn’t bad enough, REC board chair Chris Shipe said publicly a few weeks ago that SVEC’s board is considering changing its (fair) direct election process next year to a proxy system like REC’s. If SVEC follows through on that, then its board, like REC’s, will be able to determine election outcomes. That would make SVEC’s new tie-vote bylaw unnecessary. There are no ties when incumbent board members control election outcomes. 

SVEC’s board would then be fully insulated from member-owner concerns. That would greatly help incumbent board members, who recently approved major fixed-monthly-charge increases that disproportionately affect the co-op’s low-income member-owners and those who’ve invested in rooftop solar or energy efficiency.

There is currently no government oversight of Virginia electric co-op elections, and no law to ensure fair board-election procedures, prohibit abusive proxy practices, or prohibit using board-imposed bylaw changes to favor incumbents. This is important because electric cooperatives are essential service providers that operate as monopolies. Monopoly utilities seldom act in the best interest of their customers unless subjected to meaningful scrutiny, accountability, and independent oversight. Such oversight is lacking when entrenched co-op boards have ironclad control of board-election outcomes. It’s time for the General Assembly to step in and ensure basic, fair election practices to give Virginia electric cooperative member-owners a true say in the governance of the utilities they own.

Seth Heald is a retired U.S. Justice Department lawyer and has a master of science degree in energy policy and climate. He is a member-owner of Rappahannock Electric Cooperative and co-founder of Repower REC, a campaign to bring genuine democracy to Virginia’s electric co-ops. More information at RepowerREC.com

What do we owe to each other?

Americans’ commitment to a shared sense of purpose has hit a low point with our response to COVID-19. Photo credit Noah Wulf via Wikimedia Commons.


The politicization of coronavirus vaccines and mask-wearing has been a depressing reminder of the downside of American individualism. The successful functioning of a free republic depends on people taking personal responsibility for their actions. Too often now that translates into a disregard for the rights of others, coupled with an insistence that our own opinions, even if they are founded on the shifting sands of rumor, must be given as much respect as any expert’s.  

In the case of COVID-19, the results have been catastrophic: the loss of hundreds of thousands of American lives, hospital stays for millions more, and lingering disability for a number we can’t yet calculate. They are as much victims of the ideology of personal freedom as of the virus itself. 

Anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers (usually but not always the same people) could choose to stay home so as not to endanger others by their choices, and perhaps some do. But many claim a right to go where they please, be served in whatever businesses they wish to frequent and send their children unmasked to schools that they insist must be open. Confronted with some version of the maxim that your right to swing your arm ends where the other guy’s nose begins, they insist the other guy ought to swing his arm, too, because bloody noses aren’t real. 

COVID-19 is not the only example of the damage that ensues when a large segment of society elevates the rights of individuals over obligations to society. Second Amendment absolutism has led to the peculiar result that the right to own a gun is valued more highly in law than the right not to be killed by one. 

I would argue that the refusal on the part of a vocal minority to even acknowledge climate change and the role of humans in causing it similarly has its roots in American individualism. To concede we are in a crisis is to accept the need for action to counter the rise in atmospheric CO2. Though the collective benefits of action are enormous (extending even to the ability of our civilization to endure), some individual sacrifice has to happen in the short term. Yet for some people, individual sacrifice in the service of the greater good is unthinkable. What’s in it for them?

That’s why climate activists (myself included) so often emphasize the benefits to individuals of the energy transition: cleaner air, the superior comfort of energy-efficient homes, lower electricity bills from cheap wind and solar. Even the appeal to parental love — Save the planet for your children! — assumes the primacy of self-interest. But that avoids the more difficult question of what my obligation is to my neighbor’s children, or for that matter, children elsewhere in the world. What do human beings owe to each other?

It may feel impossible to have a serious conversation about rights and responsibilities when our public sphere is so contaminated by falsehoods, mistrust and conspiracy theories. But we still have to try, because the ability of our society to navigate the many challenges ahead of us depends on a consensus about what we owe to one another. 

Successfully tackling the big issues – both familiar ones like the economy, racial and wealth inequality, and threats from abroad, and emerging threats like cyberterrorism, climate chaos, plastic pollution and looming ecological collapse — requires collective action. A nation of individuals all fiercely guarding their individual rights and recognizing no responsibilities towards others is on its way to collapse.

This column appeared first in the Virginia Mercury on August 28, 2021.