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.

As Virginia prepares to join carbon-trading states, arguments erupt over the price of admission

photo courtesy of the Sierra Club

Virginia won’t enter the nine-state carbon emissions trading program known as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative until 2020 under regulations being finalized by the state, but debate about how much it might cost utility ratepayers is already heating up.

Estimates range from little or no cost — or even a cost savings — to as high as $12 per month for the average household, depending on who is doing the calculations and the assumptions they make.

An Associated Press article reports that State Corporation Commission staff testified before a legislative committee that joining RGGI via the Virginia Coastal Protection Act, SB 1666 and HB 2735, would cost Virginia households an added $7-12 per month. The Northam administration disputed the SCC figure, saying the true cost would be about a dollar per month.

Republicans killed the bill in both the Senate and House committees that day.

A few days later, the anti-RGGI bill, HB 2611 (Poindexter), sailed through the House on a party-line vote. It would prevent Virginia from participating in RGGI or any other carbon-reduction regimen. If it also passes the Senate in coming weeks, it faces certain veto by the governor.

So is joining RGGI an inexpensive way to incentivize utilities to save energy and lower carbon emissions, or will it pile costs onto customers?

RGGI, for those of you who need a quick brush-up on your carbon policies, is a cooperative, market-based effort that has been running in New England and the Mid-Atlantic states as far south as Maryland for the past decade.

It works by auctioning carbon pollution allowances to major emitters, gradually ratcheting down the number of allowances made available each year to incentivize conservation and the use of lower-carbon fuels. States use the money they raise to fund energy efficiency, community solar, weatherization and other programs, often focusing especially on low-income residents.

First things first: RGGI works.

According to a 2018 report by Analysis Group, the RGGI region has met its targets, and benefited economically as well:

“Over three years (2015-2017), the RGGI program led to $1.4 billion (net present value) of net positive economic activity in the nine-state region,” the report says. “Each RGGI state’s electricity consumers and local economy also experienced net benefits from the RGGI program. When spread across the region’s population, these economic impacts amount to nearly $34 in net positive value added per capita.”

Virginia’s carbon reduction plan, now in the final stages of drafting at DEQ, will have Virginia participate in the RGGI auctions but not raise money from auctioning allowances.

Beginning in 2020, RGGI will add Virginia carbon emissions (28 million tons, the baseline DEQ has chosen) to the total for the existing members (56 million tons), and our utilities will bid for and trade allowances with the utilities in the other nine states.

But unlike the existing RGGI states, under DEQ’s plan Virginia will distribute its share of carbon allowances to our utilities at no cost, based on their previous year’s electricity sales. Utilities will sell the allowances into the RGGI auction bucket and buy back as many as they need. Initially, at least, the effect on ratepayers should be pretty much a wash.

Chris Bast, chief deputy at the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality said DEQ’s modeling program estimated rates would increase about 1 percent as a result of the new regulations. That’s a much lower figure than the $7 per month the SCC estimated the program would cost even with free allowances.

State Corporation Commission spokesman Ken Schrad said the DEQ “has understated the price of carbon emissions and understated Dominion’s cost of money for future capital investments (borrowed from lenders or invested by shareholders).”

“DEQ modeled Dominion as if it was a deregulated utility in a competitive market,” Schrad said. “Dominion’s fossil fuel generating units must be paid for in rates regardless of whether they are generating electricity under its vertically integrated structure.”

Bast takes issue with this. “I don’t know where the SCC got its numbers,” Bast told me. “Many folks, including the DEQ, have done extensive modeling to determine the environmental and economic impacts of the rule. That modeling is part of the public record and is part of the extensive public process that has gone into crafting this regulation. The SCC’s analysis is an outlier by several orders of magnitude – nearly 600%. The SCC has not provided any comment about ratepayer impact during any of our regulatory proceedings.

“We’re simply asking the SCC to show their work. But, to date, they have refused to provide us with the analysis that supports their conclusions.”

Bast says DEQ has not modeled what the program would cost if utilities had to pay for allowances, as contemplated under the Coastal Protection Act. Paying for allowances, according to the SCC, could drive costs up by an additional $5 per month.

This is a moot point, for now, since the Coastal Protection Act did not pass. But advocates believe that auctioning allowances offers an opportunity to raise funds to invest in energy efficiency and climate programs, so the idea remains on everyone’s radar for next year.

How RGGI works:

Under the Coastal Protection Act, auction proceeds would go into the state’s coffers to fund energy efficiency and resiliency programs that benefit the public. Utilities would be able to recover the costs of buying allowances from their customers, so there would be more impact on rates than there would be if allowances are free.

The Coastal Protection Act takes an extra step and actually requires investor-owned utilities to build wind and solar to achieve at least 50 percent of the required emissions reduction. If that amount were to exceed what they planned to build anyway, it would mean more costs paid for by customers—though maybe not a lot, if it speeds up the retirement of old fossil fuel plants that ought to close anyway.

RGGI reduces carbon emissions over time by gradually decreasing the number of auction allowances available in the region year after year. As the carbon cap tightens, either allowances become more expensive, or utilities reduce emissions, or both.

So far the RGGI states have succeeded in reducing emissions without higher allowance prices. They have done this in large part by closing coal plants and investing in energy efficiency and renewable energy, including programs paid for by auctioning the carbon emissions allowances.

Most RGGI states also have mandates for efficiency and renewable energy, which Virginia lacks. (In spite of the hoopla around it, last year’s “grid mod” bill did not require utilities to achieve any specific efficiency or renewable energy outcomes.) The combined effect of all these actions is that the prices paid for auction allowances in RGGI have stayed low.

According to the Analysis Group, consumers in RGGI states have benefited:

“On the one hand, the inclusion of the cost of CO2 allowances in wholesale prices tends to increase wholesale electricity prices in the RGGI region at the beginning of the 2015-2017 period,” the report says.

“But these near-term impacts are more than offset during these years and beyond, because the states invest a substantial amount of the RGGI auction proceeds on energy efficiency programs that reduce overall electricity consumption and on renewable energy projects that reduce the use of higher-priced power plants. Consumers gain because their overall electricity bills go down.

“Since RGGI’s commencement in 2009, energy and dollar savings resulting from all states’ investments in energy efficiency and renewable energy has more than offset the wholesale market price increases associated with inclusion of allowance costs in market bids.”

Virginia is as well-positioned as any of the RGGI states to meet the carbon-reduction goals.

Utilities can reduce energy demand through energy efficiency, resulting in less need for carbon-emitting fuel to be burned. They can also replace coal-fired generation with power from gas (with about half the CO2 of coal) or renewables (zero C02 for wind, water and solar; biomass has CO2 emissions as high as coal, but decision-makers pretend it’s carbon neutral).

Our nuclear plants, which provide a big chunk of Virginia’s electricity, are already operating at full capacity, and that’s not expected to change.

Intuitively, the solutions wouldn’t be expected to cost very much. Some of Virginia’s coal plants aren’t running very much these days anyway, putting them precariously close to the point where it is cheaper to close them than keep paying to have them available. As for alternatives, Dominion says solar is the cheapest form of new energy.

And energy efficiency is, famously, the lowest-cost energy resource, and vastly underutilized in Virginia.

In fact, projections have Dominion coming in under the RGGI cap for at least several years, putting our utilities in the happy (for them) position of possibly making money in the auctions.

But that doesn’t quite settle the matter.

There is one other consideration that could affect rates: Virginia utilities participate in the regional transmission organization known as PJM, which runs the wholesale power market. Anything that makes Virginia power more expensive makes it less attractive to the market.

That is surely part of the SCC staff’s concern.

To understand this dynamic, I consulted economist Bill Shobe, a professor at the Center for Economic and Policy Studies at the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University of Virginia, who studies carbon markets.

Shobe said that if Virginia utilities get CO2 allowances for free based on their previous year’s electricity generation, as the DEQ plan calls for, there should be no impact on their power plants’ competitiveness in PJM. The cost to customers would be little or nothing.

But if a coal or gas plant has to add the cost of CO2 allowances to its price of power, as happens in other RGGI states, power plants from non-RGGI states that don’t have to charge for CO2 will have a price advantage.

Shobe said if a Virginia utility adds the cost of CO2 allowances to the price of power from its own fossil fuel plants, those plants won’t run as much. Even the utility itself might buy cheaper wholesale power rather than run its own plants. Worse, the imported power could be higher in CO2 than the Virginia power it displaces, a problem known as “leakage.”

Dominion Energy Virginia’s 2018 Integrated Resource Plan, a document that forecasts how the utility will meet electric demand, predicted that if Virginia joined RGGI, its four big gas plants would run only an average of 64 percent of the time in 2025, compared to 79 percent in a scenario with no carbon constraints.

Dominion also claimed the cheaper imported power would come with such a higher carbon footprint than the power it was replacing that the whole deal would be counterproductive as a CO2 reduction strategy.

Skeptics should note that Dominion didn’t report the assumptions behind the modeling. Even its consultant, ICF, included a disclaimer that it was using the information Dominion gave it but “makes no assurances as to the accuracy of any such information or any conclusions based thereon.”

It’s also not clear that Dominion recognized any difference between getting free allowances and having to pay for them.

Shobe explained that Dominion’s modeling program didn’t account for DEQ’s use of “output-based allocation”— that is, distributing carbon allowances for free based on a utility’s generation in the previous year. This approach, said Shobe, incentivizes the utility to keep generating as much zero- or low-carbon electricity as it can so it will get as many allowances the next year as possible, and it will use its allowances to keep its own power competitive with imports.

The modeling that ICF did for Dominion, say Shobe, “treats all allowances as if they are sold at auction. Period. They don’t even attempt to model free allowances much less output-based allocation.”

With free allowances, customer costs should be minimal.

What if we auction the allowances?

Shobe said auctioning allowances instead of distributing them for free would make the power from Virginia’s fossil fuel plants less competitive in the PJM market. Yet customers will still have to pay for the capital cost of these huge gas plants that the SCC itself foolishly allowed Dominion to build, even if the power they generate is less competitive in PJM.

(“Foolishly” is obviously my term for it. The SCC not only doesn’t admit it did anything wrong, it rejected Dominion’s IRP in part because the company didn’t propose building yet another giant gas plant.)

The SCC’s high-end estimate seems to be based on this concern, but its numbers are much higher than even Dominion’s.

Dominion’s IRP estimated that joining RGGI would “cost Virginia customers about $530 million over the period 2020 to 2030,” or $53 million per year. The IRP says the impact would be about $3.50-$5 per month for residential customers, depending on the approach taken.

Even that estimate has to be taken with a bucket of salt. As the SCC staff noted at the time, Dominion overestimated the costs of joining RGGI by using overly high demand projections and failing to assume any decrease in demand from the hundreds of millions of dollars in efficiency programs the utility is required to design.

Obviously, those programs will also lower carbon emissions, helping Virginia meet the RGGI targets—as will building the solar energy envisioned by the grid mod bill.

So how the SCC staff has now come up with cost estimates even higher than Dominion’s is a head-scratcher. Nothing in the Coastal Protection Act appears to add costs beyond what Dominion knew about for its IRP.

This debate is surely not over.

We hope DEQ and the SCC will come together on a shared set of facts and assumptions, but meanwhile it is worth noting two points.

One is that even Dominion agrees some sort of carbon regulation at the federal level is likely eventually, even if it doesn’t happen under President Donald Trump’s administration.

Starting to shrink our carbon footprint now instead of later is going to save us money, even apart from its climate and health benefits.

The other is that the RGGI approach brings proven economic benefits to customers. As the Analysis Group report showed, customers in RGGI states actually saw lower bills in spite of higher rates because of the investments in energy efficiency.

If that happens in Virginia, joining RGGI will actually put more money in the pockets of customers.

 

A version of this article first appeared in the Virginia Mercury on February 6, 2019. 

Your guide to 2019 climate and energy bills

Virginia statehouse, where the General Assembly meetsUpdated (again!) January 23.

Clean energy and climate action are mainstream concepts with the public these days, but at Virginia’s General Assembly they have yet to gain much traction. Last year saw one renewable energy bill after another die in committee, along with legislation mandating lower energy use through energy efficiency and climate measures like having Virginia join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI).

The only major energy legislation to pass the GA in 2018 was the infamous SB 966, the so-called “grid mod” bill that included spending on energy efficiency and a stipulation that 5,500 megawatts (MW) of utility-owned or controlled solar and wind is “in the public interest.” But the bill didn’t actually mandate any efficiency savings or renewable energy investments, and it contained no support for customer-owned solar.

So clean energy advocates and climate activists are trying again, though the odds against them look as tough as ever. Republicans hold a bare majority of seats overall, but they dominate the powerful Commerce and Labor Committees that hear most energy bills. And Republicans overall (though with some exceptions) are more hostile to clean energy legislation than Democrats, and more willing to side with utilities against customers and competitors.

In particular, the House energy subcommittee has been a regular killing field for renewable energy bills. It consists of 7 Republicans and 4 Democrats, and last year every clean energy bill but one lost on party-line votes. Bills don’t advance to the full committee, much less to the House floor, unless they garner a majority in the subcommittee.

Over at Senate Commerce and Labor, Republicans hold an 11-4 majority on the full committee, and none of the Democrats are what you would call environmental champions. The electric utility subcommittee does not appear to be active this year.

A scattering of other clean energy and climate bills have been assigned to House Rules (which Republicans dominate 11-6) and Appropriations (12-10), where a subcommittee will several energy-related bills with fiscal impacts (at least three have been assigned to date). Some Senate bills will go to Finance.

Of course, this is an election year in Virginia, with every House and Senate seat up this fall. Legislators have reason to worry that the 2017 “blue wave” could turn into a 2019 flood tide that sweeps out not just vulnerable Republicans, but Democrats facing primary challenges from the left.

Will that persuade some of them to finally support clean energy, or at least some of the pragmatic initiatives that have broad popular support?

That’s the hope driving a number of bills framed around supporting market competition and customer choice, enabling private investments in renewable energy, and saving money for consumers and taxpayers. These are themes that appeal as much to conservatives as to liberals.

But a lot of these bills have the same problem they’ve always had. Dominion Energy opposes them, and Dominion controls the legislature.

Both Dominion and elected leaders maintain the fiction that it’s the other way around. That fiction allowed Senator Wagner and Delegate Kilgore, the chairmen of the Commerce and Labor Committees, to “refer” solar bills for secret negotiation between utilities and the solar industry via the private, closed-door Rubin Group.

About that Rubin Group

Frankly, I’ve never understood the notion that the solar industry ought to be able to work things out with the utilities so legislators don’t have to make decisions themselves. Solar installers negotiating with Dominion is like mice negotiating with the cat. The cat is not actually interested in peaceful coexistence, so it’s hard to imagine an outcome that makes life better for the mice.

And however much they insist they support solar, Kilgore, Wagner and company act like they’re secretly pleased that Kitty is such a good mouser. I don’t know how else to explain the way they lecture the mice on the virtues of compromise.

The Rubin Group has managed to produce legislation where the interests of the utilities and the solar industry align, primarily in ways that help utility-scale solar farms. When it comes to net metering and customer solar generally, however, Dominion hasn’t been willing to give up anything unless it gets something in return—and as it already has everything but the crumbs, progress seems to have stalled. I hear negotiations remain ongoing, however, so this isn’t the last word.

On the other hand, the solar industry did reach an accommodation with the electric cooperatives this year over customer solar. As member-owned non-profits, the coops are sometimes more responsive to the desires of their customer-owners, and this seems to be evidence of that. (Though see this blogpost from Seth Heald about the failures of democracy and transparency at Virginia’s larges coop, an issue now in litigation before the SCC.)

With the solar industry stalled in its talks with Dominion and a sense of urgency mounting, customer groups and other solar industry alliances have stepped into the void. Several bills seek to preserve and expand the market for customer solar with bills removing policy barriers. The most comprehensive of these is the Solar Freedom legislation put forward by Delegate Keam (HB 2329) and Senators McClellan and Edwards (SB 1456), removing 8 non-technical barriers to renewable energy deployment buy customers. Other net metering bills have similar provisions that tackle just one barrier at a time.

Another group of bills don’t seem intended to win Republican support, much less Dominion’s. Bills that will dramatically alter our energy supply, put Virginia at the forefront of climate action and rein in utility power have no chance of passage this year, but may become part of a platform for strong climate action next year if a pro-environment majority wins control of the GA.

The list below may look overwhelming, so let me just note that this is not even comprehensive, and additional bills may yet be filed.

I’ve separated the bills into categories for easier reference, but watch for overlap among them. I’ve put Solar Freedom up first (because I can!); after that, bills are ordered by number, with House bills first.

Solar Freedom 

HB 2329 (Keam) and SB 1456 (McClellan and Edwards) is the Solar Freedom bill that removes barriers to renewable energy installations by utility customers, mostly in the net metering provisions, and adds language to the Commonwealth Energy Policy supporting customer solar. The 8 provisions are:

  • Lifting the 1% cap on the total amount of solar that can be net metered in a utility territory
  • Making third-party financing using power purchase agreements (PPAs) legal statewide for all customer classes
  • Allowing local government entities to install solar facilities of up to 5 MW on government-owned property and use the electricity for other government-owned buildings
  • Allowing all customers to attribute output from a single solar array to multiple meters on the same or adjacent property of the same customer
  • Allowing the owner of a multi-family residential building or condominium to install a solar facility on the building or surrounding property and sell the electricity to tenants
  • Removing the restriction on customers installing a net-metered solar facility larger than required to meet their previous 12 months’ demand
  • Raising the size cap for net metered non-residential solar facilities from 1 MW to 2 MW
  • Removing standby charges for residential and agricultural net metering customers

Other renewable energy bills

HB 1683 (Ware) gives electric cooperatives greater autonomy, including authority to raise their total system caps for net metering up to 5% of peak load.

HB 1809 (Gooditis) follows up on last year’s HB 966 by making the renewable energy and energy efficiency provisions mandatory. If utilities don’t meet annual targets, they have to return their retained overearnings to customers.

HB 1869 (Hurst), SB 1483 (Deeds) and SB 1714 (Edwards) creates a pilot program allowing schools that generate a surplus of solar or wind energy to have the surplus credited to other schools in the same school district.

HB 1902 (Rasoul) would provide a billion dollars in grant funding for solar projects, paid for by utilities, who are required to contribute this amount of money through voluntary contributions (sic).

HB 1928 (Bulova) and SB 1460 (McClellan) expands utility programs allowing third-party power purchase agreements (PPAs) for renewable energy while continuing to restrict the classes of customers who are allowed to have access to this important financing tool.

HB 2117 (Mullin) and SB 1584 (Sutterlein) fixes the problem that competitive service providers can no longer offer renewable energy to a utility’s customers once the utility has an approved renewable energy tariff of its own. Now that the SCC has approved a renewable energy tariff for APCo, this is a live issue.

HB 2165 (Davis and Hurst) and HB 2460 (Jones and Kory), and SB 1496 (Saslaw) provide an income tax credit for nonresidential solar energy equipment installed on landfills, brownfields, in economic opportunity zones, and in certain utility cooperatives. This is a Rubin Group bill.

HB 2192 (Rush) and SB 1331 (Stanley) is a school modernization initiative that includes language encouraging energy efficient building standards and net zero design. It also encourages schools to consider lease agreements with private developers, but does not seem to contemplate the more common use of third-party power purchase agreements.

HB 2241 (Delaney) establishes a green jobs training tax credit.

HB 2500 (Sullivan) establishes a mandatory renewable portfolio standard (RPS) for Virginia, eliminates carbon-producing sources from the list of qualifying sources, kicks things off with an extraordinarily ambitious 20% by 2020 target, and ratchets up the targets to 80% by 2027.

HB 2547 (Hugo) and SB 1769 (Sturtevant) makes changes to the net metering program for customers of electric cooperatives. The overall net metering cap is raised from the current 1 percent to a total of 5%, divided into separate buckets by customer type and with an option for coops to choose to go up to 7%. Customers will be permitted to install enough renewable energy to meet up to 125% of previous year’s demand, up from 100% today. Third-party PPAs are generally legal, with a self-certification requirement. However, the coops will begin imposing demand charges on customers with solar, to be phased in over several years, replacing any standby charges. In the House version only, one additional provision allows investor-owned utilities (Dominion and APCo) to ask the SCC to raise the net metering cap if they feel like it, but I’m told it is not expected to be in the final legislation. This bill was negotiated between the coops and the solar industry via the “Rubin Group.”

HB 2621 (Ingram) and SB 1398 (Stanley) authorize a locality to require the owner or developer of a solar farm, as part of the approval process, to agree to a decommissioning plan. This is a Rubin Group bill.

HB 2641 (Gooditis) makes third-party power purchase agreements for distributed renewable energy resources legal statewide.

HB 2692 (Sullivan) allows the owner of a multifamily residential building to install a renewable energy facility and sell the output to occupants or use for the building’s common areas.

HB 2741 (Aird) establishes a rebate program for low and moderate-income households that install solar.

HB 2792 (Tran) and SB 1779 (Ebbin) establishes a 6-year pilot program for municipal net metering for localities that are retail customers of investor-owned utilities.

HJ 656 (Delaney) would have the Virginia Resources Authority study the process of transitioning Virginia’s workforce from fossil-fuel jobs to green energy jobs.

SB 1091 (Reeves) imposes expensive bonding requirements on utility-scale solar farms, taking a more drastic approach than HB 2621 (Ingram) and SB 1398 (Stanley) to resolving the concerns of localities about what happens to solar farms at the end of their useful life.

Energy Efficiency (some of which have RE components)

HB 2243 (Sullivan) creates an energy efficiency revolving fund to offer no-interest loans to local government, public schools, and public institutions of higher learning.

HB 2292 (Sullivan) and SB 1662 (Wagner), dubbed the “show your work bill,” requires the SCC to provide justification if it rejects a utility energy efficiency program.

HB 2293 (Sullivan) establishes a stakeholder process to provide input on the development of utility energy efficiency programs.

HB 2294 (Sullivan) establishes mandatory energy efficiency goals for electric and gas utilities.

HB 2295 (Sullivan) creates an energy efficiency fund and board to administer it.

HB 2332 (Keam) protects customer data collected by utilities while allowing the use of aggregated anonymous data for energy efficiency and demand-side management efforts.

SB 1111 (Marsden) requires utilities to provide rate abatements to certain customers who invest at least $10,000 in energy efficiency and, by virtue of their lower consumption, end up being pushed into a tier with higher rates.

SB 1400 (Petersen) removes the exclusion of residential buildings from the Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) program, which allows localities to provide low-interest loans for energy efficiency and renewable energy improvements on buildings.

HB 2070 (Bell, John) provides a tax deduction for energy saving products, including solar panels and Energy Star products, up to $10,000.

Energy transition and climate

HB 1635 (Rasoul, with 9 co-patrons) imposes a moratorium on fossil fuel projects, including export facilities, gas pipelines and related infrastructure, refineries and fossil fuel exploration; requires utilities to use clean energy sources for 80% of electricity sales by 2028, and 100% by 2036; and requires the Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy to develop a (really) comprehensive climate action plan, which residents are given legal standing to enforce by suit. This is being referred to as by the Off Act. (Update: HB 1635 passed Commerce and Labor on January 23 and heads to the floor of the House. Read this blogpost to understand what’s going on.)

HB 2735 (Toscano) and SB 1666 (Lewis and Spruill) is this year’s version of the Virginia Coastal Protection Act, which would have Virginia formally join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI). It dedicates money raised by auctioning carbon allowances to climate adaptation efforts, energy efficiency programs, and coalfields transition. The Governor has made this bill a priority.

HB 1686 (Reid, with 14 co-patrons) and SB 1648 (Boysko) bans new or expanded fossil fuel generating plants until Virginia has those 5,500 MW of renewable energy we were promised. This is referred to as the Renewables First Act.

HB 2611 (Poindexter) would prohibit Virginia from joining or participating in RGGI without support from two-thirds of the members of the House and Senate, making it sort of an anti-Virginia Coastal Protection Act.

HB 2501 (Rasoul) directs the Division of Energy at DMME to include a greenhouse gas emissions inventory in the Virginia Energy Plan.

HB 2645 (Rasoul, with 13 co-patrons), nicknamed the REFUND Act, prohibits electric utilities from making nonessential expenditures and requires refunds if the SCC finds they have. It also bars fuel cost recovery for more pipeline capacity than appropriate to ensure a reliable supply of gas. Other reforms in the bill would undo some of the provisions of last year’s SB 966, lower the percentage of excess earnings utilities can retain, and require the SCC to determine rates of return based on cost of service rather than peer group analysis.

HB 2747 (Kilgore) and SB 1707 (Chafin) create a Southwest Virginia Energy Research and Development Authority which will, among other things, promote renewable energy on brownfield sites, including abandoned mine sites, and support energy storage, including pumped storage hydro.

HJ 724 (Rasoul) is a resolution “Recognizing the need for a Green New Deal in Virginia which promotes a Just Transition to a clean energy economy through lifting working families.”

Other utility regulation

HB 1718 (Ware) requires an electric utility to demonstrate that any pipeline capacity contracts it enters are the lowest-cost option available, before being given approval to charge customers in a fuel factor case.

HB 1840 (Danny Marshall) allows utilities to develop transmission infrastructure at megasites in anticipation of development, charging today’s customers for the expense of attracting new customers.

HB 2477 (Kilgore) would eliminate one of the few areas of retail choice allowed in Virginia by preventing large customers from using competitive retail suppliers of electricity, including for the purpose of procuring renewable energy, in any utility territory with less than 2% annual load growth. (I haven’t confirmed this, but that might be Dominion as well as APCo.)

HB 2503 (Rasoul) requires the State Corporation Commission to conduct a formal hearing before approving any changes to fuel procurement arrangements between affiliates of an electric utility or its parent company that will impact rate payers. This addresses the conflict of interest issue in Dominion Energy’s arrangement to commit its utility subsidiary to purchase capacity in the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

HB 2691 (O’Quinn) establishes a pilot program for electric utilities to provide broadband services in underserved areas, and raise rates for the rest of us to pay for it, proclaiming this to be in the public interest.

HB 2697 (Toscano) and SB 1583 (Sutterlein) supports competition by shortening the time period that a utility’s customer that switches to a competing supplier is barred from returning as a customer of its utility from 5 years to 90 days.

HB 2738 (Bagby) and SB 1695 (Wagner) authorizes utilities to acquire rights of way on land that the Virginia Economic Development Partnership Authority decides could attract new customers to the site, and allows utilities to recover costs from existing customers. Because, you know, having utilities seize Virginians’ land for speculative development is already going so well for folks in the path of the pipelines. Who could complain about paying higher rates to help it happen more places?

SB 1780 (Petersen) requires, among other things, that utilities must refund to customers the costs of anything the SCC deems is a nonessential expenditure, including spending on lobbying, political contributions, and compensation for employees in excess of $5 million. It directs the SCC to disallow recovery of fuel costs if a company pays more for pipeline capacity from an affiliated company than needed to ensure a reliable supply of natural gas. It requires rate reviews of Dominion and APCo in 2019 and makes those biennial instead of triennial, and provides for the SCC to conduct an audit going back to 2015. It tightens provisions governing utilities’ keeping of overearnings and provides for the allowed rate of return to be based on the cost of providing service instead of letting our utilities make what all the other monopolists make (“peer group analysis”).


This article originally appeared in the Virginia Mercury on January 17, 2019. I’ve updated it to include later-filed bills and one or two that I missed originally. 

Appalachian Power gets approval to sell 100 percent renewable energy to customers. Hold the champagne.

Photo credit Andy Beecroft via Wikimedia.

Last week the State Corporation Commission (SCC) approved a request from Appalachian Power Company (APCo) to offer its customers the option of buying electricity entirely from renewable sources. The sources will be primarily wind and hydro, with some solar to be added as it gets built. Participants will pay a premium of less than 4% over ordinary “brown” power, resulting in bill increases of $4.25 per month for a customer who uses 1,000 kW per month.

The approval gives APCo more than a new way to meet customers’ desire for renewable energy. It also triggers a provision in Virginia law that blocks competitive service providers from selling renewable energy to all but the largest of a utility’s customers once the utility itself has an approved offering. Both APCo and Dominion Energy Virginia have long sought to close off competition, but this marks the first time either has succeeded.

The SCC order goes against the recommendation of hearing examiner D. Matthias Roussy, Jr., who had advised against approval of APCo’s tariff.

The SCC had previously rejected a similar program APCo proposed in 2016, primarily due to its high cost. That program, too, would have repackaged the utility’s existing wind and hydro projects that all ratepayers currently pay for, and passed on the cost of those contracts to participants in the renewable energy program. The result was a price premium for the program of about 18%, which the SCC deemed unreasonable.

But APCo didn’t go back to the drawing board and redesign its program; it just changed the pricing. The cost to participants will now be based on the market value of renewable energy certificates (RECs) generated by facilities like the ones APCo owns.

REC prices are set by supply and demand, and an oversupply of wind RECs in the market has pushed prices way down over the past few years. Using REC prices allowed APCo to slash the cost of its renewable energy program by more than 75%.

On the one hand, this is a false calculation, since the value of RECs has little to do with the actual cost of developing and operating a project. On the other hand, the SCC liked the result: a lower cost to participants.

Some customers agreed. A number of APCo’s customers offered support for the program at the SCC. For them, this marks the first opportunity they will have to buy energy from specific wind and solar projects (okay, and a lot of decades-old hydro, too). Currently their only option is buying RECs to offset the dirty power they use, so they are willing to accept a price premium based on REC values.

Other customers were less impressed. Wal-Mart Stores opposed the program because the company prefers to save money by buying renewable energy, not spend more on it. As summarized by the Hearing Examiner, Wal-Mart felt the APCo tariff would be okay as a REC offering, but a real renewable energy tariff ought to “permit the customer to realize the benefits and risks of taking service from renewable energy sources”—i.e., offer at least the potential of saving money for the customer.

Wal-Mart has a point. Given the plunging costs of building and operating new renewable energy projects in recent years, a utility could, in theory, offer a renewable energy tariff at below the cost of brown power. Wind and solar increasingly outcompete even existing coal plants, and APCo is still heavily reliant on coal.

But APCo isn’t going to do any such thing. If its customers can buy renewable energy at a discount, who would want to buy power from fossil fuels?

So APCo had to make sure its program costs more. Tying it to REC prices means it always will, because RECs are always an additional cost.

Just as importantly, APCo has to make sure no other seller of electricity can be allowed to compete with a better or cheaper product. That’s where section § 56-577 A 5 of the Virginia Code comes to the aid of our monopoly utilities. Now that APCo has an approved tariff for a 100% renewable energy tariff, no competitive supplier can come on to its turf with a product that’s better, or simply different. (The Code contains an exception for very large customers.)

Concern about this squelching of competition drove most of the opposition to APCo’s tariff at the SCC, from both competitive suppliers like Collegiate Clean Energy and environmental advocates like the Southern Environmental Law Center, as well as a number of customers. For them, the SCC Order approving APCo’s program represents a loss for consumer choice that will inevitably lead to less renewable energy development.

Separately, Dominion Energy Virginia filed for approval of its own renewable energy tariff, following the Commission’s rejection of the company’s initial proposal last year (correctly in my view). Last month a hearing examiner recommended Dominion’s new tariff be approved, though with changes that would make it significantly cheaper than what Dominion wants. Dominion’s proposal as filed would have cost the average customer an extra $20 per month.

But on January 9, two days after the SCC approved APCo’s tariff, Dominion filed a request to withdraw its application. The request states that the company intends to file a new application “consistent with the principles outlined” in the APCo order.

Although Dominion’s request doesn’t specify which principles it has in mind, they likely include the SCC’s determination that a renewable energy tariff need only match demand on a monthly basis, not the hourly basis Dominion used. According to the hearing examiner’s report, Dominion’s insistence on hourly matching was a significant factor in the program’s high cost.

Dominion’s withdrawal of its renewable energy tariff grants a temporary reprieve to competitive service providers like Direct Energy, which wants to offer renewable energy to Dominion customers. But if Dominion re-files with a program that meets SCC approval, the window of opportunity for competition in the electric sector in Virginia will close permanently in both major utility territories, absent a change in the law.

Anticipating this, Direct Energy sought legislation in the 2018 session that would have ensured the ability of competitors to offer renewable energy even after the SCC approved a utility’s own tariff. Neither the House bill (from Delegate Michael Mullin, D-Newport News) nor the Senate bill (from Senator David Sutterlein, R-Roanoke) made it out of the Commerce and Labor committee. Delegate Mullin is trying again this year; his bill is HB 2117.

Cliona Robb, a lawyer with the law firm of Christian & Barton who represents Direct Energy, says her client hopes for a better outcome in the General Assembly this year.

With the SCC’s order approving APCo’s program, harm to competition is no longer hypothetical. If legislators are serious about renewable energy development in Virginia, keeping the door open to competition has to be a key priority.


This article first appeared in the Virginia Mercury on January 10, 2019.

Update: Senator Sutterlein has also filed a bill this year that would continue to allow competition even once a utility has an approved green tariff. The Senate bill is SB 1584.

SCC rips into Dominion’s offshore wind pilot, approves it anyway

Photo credit: Phil Holman

The Virginia State Corporation Commission (SCC) approved Dominion Energy Virginia’s proposed Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind (CVOW) project on Friday, but not happily. A press releasefrom the SCC complains about the project’s “excessive costs” and the way it is structured to make customers, rather than the developer, shoulder risks:

The offshore wind project consists of two wind turbines to be built by Dominion that would begin operating in December 2020. In its factual findings, the Commission determined that the company’s proposal puts “essentially all” of the risk of the project, including cost overruns, production and performance failures, on Dominion’s customers. Currently, the estimated cost of the project is at least $300 million, excluding financing costs.

The Commission found that the offshore wind project was not the result of a competitive bidding process to purchase power from third-party developers of offshore wind. Doing so would likely have put all or some of the risks on developers as has been done with other offshore wind projects along the East Coast of the United States. The Commission also found that any “economic benefits specific to [the project] are speculative, whereas the risks and excessive costs are definite and will be borne by Dominion’s customers.”

In spite of these harsh words, the SCC goes on to conclude that the language of the giant energy bill passed by the General Assembly last winter, SB 966, leaves regulators no choice but to approve CVOW:

The Commission concluded that the offshore wind project “would not be deemed prudent [under this Commission’s] long history of utility regulation or under any common application of the term.” However, the Commission ruled, as a matter of law, that 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.

Obviously, the SCC has a point about the high cost of CVOW. Even Dominion agreed that if you just want 12 megawatts (MW) of power, you can get it a lot more cheaply than $300 million. The SCC’s Final Orderis even harsher on this topic. Moreover, the SCC doesn’t see any future for offshore wind as a matter of pure economics.

Nor is it all that reassuring that Dominion has said the price tag won’t have any impact on rates. What Dominion means is that we ratepayers have already paid for it, and as we aren’t going to get our money back anyway, we may as well enjoy seeing it put to use in building an offshore wind industry.

That’s where Dominion is (sort of) right, and the SCC (sort of) wrong. CVOW is the first step in the Northam administration’s plan to build an offshore wind industry in Virginia and install at least 2,000 MW of offshore wind turbines in the coming decade, a goal shared by many members of the General Assembly.

Northam says CVOW will lead to the commercial projects. Dominion says maybe, maybe not (“It’s too soon to have that conversation,” in the words of Dominion’s Katharine Bond). At any rate, it sure won’t happen without CVOW first.

Critics have said it’s silly to insist on a pilot project when other states are going forward with full-scale wind farms. That’s not entirely fair. As the first project in federal waters, the first in the Mid-Atlantic, and the first to be located 27 miles out to sea, CVOW’s two turbines will have much to teach the industry about offshore wind installation and performance in this part of the world. The whole U.S. offshore wind industry stands to benefit.

And also, Dominion has us over a barrel. Dominion holds the lease for the 2,000 MW; nobody else can come in and build it. So if Northam wants an offshore wind industry with thousands of new jobs, he has to do it Dominion’s way or not at all.

Clearly the SCC would choose not to do it at all. But then, the SCC has never shown any understanding of the climate crisis and the pressing need for Virginia to respond by developing as much wind and solar as possible, as rapidly as possible.

In the long term, we have to build out much more than 2,000 MW of offshore wind. As we do, and as costs decline in response to increasing economies of scale and technological improvements, the price tag of one pilot project will shrink in proportion to the billions of dollars flowing into the offshore wind industry and decarbonizing our electricity supply.

If it’s Dominion’s way or the highway, we have to do it Dominion’s way—for now—and then make sure it gets done.

No doubt the SCC would disagree. Yet to its credit, on Friday the SCC also approved Dominion’s purchase of power from a proposed 80-megawatt solar facility dubbed the “Water Strider” project. Unlike the offshore wind project, the solar project met the Commission’s prudency test because it involves a purchase from a private developer and followed a competitive bidding process. This resulted in a price to customers that the SCC felt is “in line with market rates.”

Though the Water Strider project looks like a clear winner for ratepayers, its approval wasn’t a foregone conclusion either. After a long history of approving one fossil fuel project after another, the SCC has belatedly begun to question Dominion’s projections about its need for more generation, at precisely the time when the new generation happens to be solar and wind.

For now, the SCC believes it must bow to the will of the General Assembly. For these two projects, that’s a good thing, but ratepayers will be in trouble if the SCC declines to assert its oversight authority in other filings under SB 966. Dominion wants to spend billions of dollars over the coming years on smart meters, software, burying power lines and other grid projects. Customers still need the SCC to make sure we get our money’s worth.

This article originally appeared in the Virginia Mercury

After the grid mod bill, the SCC wants to know how much authority it still has over utility spending

offshore wind turbines

Offshore wind turbines, Copenhagen, Denmark. Dominion Energy has asked the SCC for permission to proceed with building two wind turbines off the Virginia coast as a test project. Photo by Ivy Main.

It’s no secret the State Corporation Commission didn’t like this year’s big energy bill, the Grid Transformation and Security Act. SCC staff testified against SB 966 in committee, and their objections played a major role in amendments removing the “double dip” provision that would have let Dominion Energy Virginia double its earnings on infrastructure projects. Since passage of the bill, the SCC has raised questions about the constitutionality of the law’s provisions favoring in-state renewable energy, and its staff has issued broadsides about the costs of the legislation.

Now the SCC is mulling the question of how much authority it still has to reject Dominion’s proposals for spending under the bill. Dominion has filed for approval of a solar power purchase agreement (case number PUR-2018-00135) and two offshore wind test turbines it plans to erect in federal waters 24 nautical miles out from Virginia Beach (PUR-2018-00121). The utility has also requested permission to spend a billion dollars on grid upgrades and smart meters (PUR-2018-00100).

In an order issued September 12, the SCC asked participants in the solar and offshore wind cases to brief them on legal issues arising from the legislation. The SCC has focused in on two new sections of the Virginia Code. One is the language making it “in the public interest” for a utility to buy, build, or purchase the output of up to 5,000 megawatts (MW) of Virginia-based wind or solar by January 1, 2024. The SCC noted that subsection A of the provision says such a facility “is in the public interest, and the Commission shall so find if required to make a finding regarding whether such construction or purchase is in the public interest.”

The other new Code section gives a utility the right to petition the SCC at any time for a “prudency determination” for construction or purchase of a solar or wind project located in Virginia or off its coast, or for the purchase of the output of such a project if developed by someone else.

Together these sections give Dominion a good deal of latitude, but they don’t actually force the SCC to approve a project it thinks is a bad deal for ratepayers. In other words, wind and solar may be in the public interest, but that doesn’t mean every wind and solar project has to be approved.

The SCC asked for briefs on seven questions:

  • What are the specific elements that the utility must prove for the Commission to determine that the project is prudent under Subsection F?
  • Is the “prudency determination” in Subsection F different from the “public interest” findings mandated by Subsections A or E?
  • Do the public interest findings mandated by either Subsections A or E supersede a determination under Subsection F that a project is not prudent? If not, then what is the legal effect of either of the mandated public interest findings?
  • If the construction (or purchase or leasing) is statutorily deemed in the public interest, is there any basis upon which the Commission could determine that such action is not prudent? If so, identify such basis or bases.
  • In determining whether the project is prudent, can the Commission consider whether the project’s: (a) capacity or energy are needed; and (b) costs to customers are unreasonable or excessive in relation to capacity or energy available from other sources?
  • Do the statutorily-mandated public interest findings under either Subsections A or E override a factual finding that the project’s: (a) capacity or energy are not needed for the utility to serve its customers; and/or (b) costs to customers are unreasonable or excessive in relation to capacity or energy available from other sources, including but not limited to sources of a type similar to the proposed project?
  • Does the utility need a certificate of public convenience and necessity, or any other statutory approval from the Commission, before constructing the proposed projects?

Even if the Commission decides it has latitude in deciding which wind and solar projects to approve, that doesn’t necessarily spell disaster for the two projects at issue. The SCC could still decide they meet the standard for prudency and approve them.

Oral argument on the issues is scheduled for October 4.

Should approval of smart meters depend on how the meters will be used?

The SCC is also mulling over its authority in the grid modernization docket. One day after it asked lawyers in the solar and offshore wind cases to weigh in on the meaning of prudency, it issued a similar order asking for input on what the new law means by “reasonable and prudent” in judging spending under the grid modernization provisions. (Yes, the grid mod section of the law insists that spending be “reasonable” in addition to “prudent,” begging the question of whether spending can be prudent but not reasonable. Perhaps thankfully, the SCC order does not pursue it.)

The SCC’s questions to the lawyers show an interest in one especially important point: Dominion wants to spend hundreds of millions of dollars of customer money on smart meters, without using them smartly. Smart meters enable time-of-use rates and customer control over energy use, and make it easier to incorporate distributed generation like rooftop solar. None of these are in Dominion’s plan. Is it reasonable and prudent for Dominion to install the meters anyway, just because they are one of the categories of spending that the law allows?

Or as the SCC put it:

If the evidence demonstrates that advanced metering infrastructure enables time-of- use (also known as real-time) rates and that such (and potentially other) rate designs advance the stated purposes of the statute, i.e., they accommodate or facilitate the integration of customer-owned renewable electric generation resources and/or promote energy efficiency and conservation, may the Commission consider the inclusion or absence of such rate designs in determining whether a plan and its projected costs are reasonable and prudent?

Reading the tea leaves at the SCC: Staff comments on Dominion’s IRP

The SCC’s question about smart meters surely indicates how the commissioners feel about the matter: they’d like to reject spending on smart meters, at least until Dominion is ready to use them smartly. If the SCC concludes it has the authority to reject this part of Dominion’s proposal as not “reasonable and prudent,” it seems likely to do so.

It is harder to know where the SCC might land on the solar and offshore wind spending. The SCC’s staff, at least, are skeptical of Dominion’s plans to build lots of new solar generation. In response to Dominion’s 2018 Integrated Resource Plan (IRP), Commission staff questioned whether Dominion was going to need any new electric generation at all, given the flattening out of demand. But if it does, according to the testimony of Associate Deputy Director Gregory Abbott, Dominion ought to consider a new combined-cycle (baseload) gas plant, not solar. (Combined-cycle gas was the one generating source Dominion almost completely ruled out.)

Abbott criticized Dominion’s presentation of the case for solar, though he took note of the technology’s dramatic cost declines. Instead of seeing that as a reason to invest, however, he suggested it would be better to wait for further cost declines, or at least leave the construction of solar to third-party developers who can provide solar power more cheaply than the utility can. Remarkably, he also suggested Dominion offer rebates to customers who install solar, urging that Dominion’s spending under the grid transformation law “is designed specifically to handle these [distributed energy resources].”

Abbott also seemed supportive of Dominion’s venture into offshore wind. The only offshore wind energy in the IRP is the 12 MW demonstration project known as CVOW, but as Abbott noted, “the Company indicated that it will pursue a much larger roll-out of utility-scale offshore wind, beginning in 2024, if the demonstration project shows it to be economic.”

This suggests staff are inclined to support Dominion’s spending on the CVOW project, but for Abbott, it was one more reason Dominion should not invest in solar. He concluded, “If the demonstration project proves that utility-scale offshore wind is economic compared to solar, then it may make sense to get the results of the CVOW demonstration project before deploying a large amount of solar.”

This post originally appeared in the Virginia Mercury on September 24.

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.