The bill roundup continues: climate, energy transition, and other utility regulation

Young woman holding sign that says Climate Action Now

An activist at the Clean Energy Lobby Day on January 14. Photo courtesy of the Sierra Club.

If you need evidence that Virginia legislators finally recognize global warming as a crisis, you could simply look at this year’s plethora of bills addressing coastal flooding and resilience. We’ve barely begun to address the greenhouse gas pollution that drives climate change and sea level rise, but already Virginia has entered the age of adaptation.

Meanwhile, however, the need for mitigation measures is more pressing than ever. The new Democratic majority has responded with a long list of bills that address the problem in various ways: by joining the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), requiring energy efficiency and renewable energy investments, offering incentives for private investments, lowering barriers to investments, or all of the above.

In an earlier post I described two omnibus energy transition bills, the Clean Economy Act, HB1526 (Sullivan) and SB851 (McClellan), and the Green New Deal Act, HB77 (Rasoul). A second post brought together all the renewable energy bills.

Now I’m moving on to the rest of the climate policy bills, as well as other utility regulation.

Climate and energy policy

 SB94 (Favola) rewrites the Commonwealth Energy Policy to bring it in line with Virginia’s commitment to dealing with climate change. The latest draft of the bill, as it passed out of subcommittee, sets a target for net-zero greenhouse gas emissions economy wide by 2045, and in the electric sector by 2040. This section of the Code is for the most part merely advisory; nonetheless, it is interesting that Dominion Energy Virginia supported the bill in subcommittee.

Delegate Reid’s HB714 is similar to SB94 but contains added details, some of which have now been incorporated into SB94.

HB672 (Willett) establishes a policy “to prevent and minimize actions that contribute to the detrimental effects of anthropogenic climate change in the Commonwealth.” State agencies are directed to consider climate change in any actions involving state regulation or spending. Local and regional planning commissions are required to consider impacts from and causes of climate change in adapting comprehensive plans.

HB525 (Subrmanyam and Reid) require a statewide greenhouse gas inventory covering all sectors of the economy.

HB547 (Delaney) establishes the Virginia Energy and Economy Transition Council to develop plans to assist the Commonwealth in transitioning from the use of fossil fuel energy to renewable energy by 2050. The Council is to include members from labor and environmental groups.

Meanwhile, efforts are already underway to undercut the effectiveness of all this great policy work. Witness the latest strategy from Dominion, involving a pair of bills put forward by Senator Lewis. SB828 and SB817 declare that any time the Code or the Energy Policy refers to “clean” or “carbon-free” energy, it must be read to include nuclear energy. In subcommittee, Senator Lewis suddenly announced he was amending the bill to add “sustainable biomass” as well, turning the bill into a mockery of science and the English language, not to mention terrible policy.

Biomass—that is, burning wood—causes more pollution than coal, it emits more carbon than coal, and it isn’t carbon neutral in the timeframe that matters to climate. Oh, and it’s very expensive energy. Insisting that the words “clean” and “carbon-free” include biomass is like saying the color blue includes the color yellow. It just doesn’t.

No matter. Lobbyist Katharine Bond stood up to support the bill on behalf of Dominion, as did several forestry and agriculture officials. But the sneak attack caught the environmental community off guard, and biomass experts were not in the room to cry foul. The bills were approved by the subcommittee and will now go to the full Commerce and Labor Committee.

I’m generally in awe of the creativity of the evil geniuses who must sit all day in a windowless conference room at Dominion headquarters brainstorming new ways to rip off customers and undermine efforts to address climate change. So if I say this particular effort feels a bit ham-handed, I mean no disrespect. It’s early in the session; I’m sure there are more creative ploys to come.

RGGI bills (good and bad)

The Democratic takeover of the General Assembly means Virginia will finally join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), either according to the regulations written by DEQ or with a system in place that raises money from auctioning carbon allowances.

HB981 (Herring) is called the Clean Energy and Community Flood Preparedness Act. It implements the DEQ carbon regulations and directs DEQ to enter the RGGI auction market. Auction allowances are directed to funds for flood preparedness, energy efficiency and climate change planning and mitigation. We are told this is the Administration’s bill. A similar bill, HB20 (Lindsey), is not expected to move forward.

HB110 (Ware) says that if Virginia joins RGGI, DEQ must give free carbon allowances to any facility with a long-term contract predating May 17, 2017 that doesn’t allow recovery of compliance costs. Rumor has it the bill was written to benefit one particular company.

SB992 (Spruill) requires the Air Board to give free allowances for three years to any new power plant that was permitted before June 26, 2019, the effective date of the carbon trading regulations. It’s not clear why new facilities should get special treatment; it was not exactly a secret that these regulations were in the works. And the result of this law would be to encourage companies to go ahead and build anything that has a permit, which just can’t be a good result.

HB1628 (Poindexter) prohibits the state from joining RGGI or adopting any carbon dioxide cap-and-trade program without approval from the General Assembly.

Other utility regulation

“Other” makes this section sound like an afterthought, but in fact several of the most impactful bills of the session appear here.

HB1677 (Keam) replaces Virginia’s current vertically-integrated monopoly structure with one based on competition and consumer choice. Existing monopoly utilities would be required to choose between becoming sellers of energy in competition with other retail sellers, or divesting themselves of their generation portfolios and retaining ownership and operation of just the distribution system. Other features: a nonprofit independent entity to coordinate operation of the distribution system; performance-based regulation to reward distribution companies for reliable service; consumer choices of suppliers, including renewable energy suppliers; an energy efficiency standard; a low-income bill assistance program; and consumer protections and education on energy choices.

HB206 (Ware) is, I’m told, the beta version of Delegate Keam’s bill and will be pulled, and that Delegate Ware is on board with HB1677.

SB842 (Petersen) seeks to achieve the same end as the House bills, but it puts the SCC in charge of writing the plan. The bill provides for all retail customers of electricity to be able to choose their supplier, and instructs the SCC to promulgate regulations for a transition to a competitive market for electricity. Existing utilities will continue to provide the distribution service. The bill also requires suppliers of electricity to obtain at least 25% of sales from renewable energy by 2025, 50% by 2030, and 100% by 2050. Renewable energy is defined to include “sustainable biomass” but not waste incineration or landfill gas.

Not ready to bust up the monopolies yet? How about at least putting the SCC back in control? The last few years have seen a steady chipping away of the SCC’s authority to regulate utility rates. HB1132 (Jones, Ware) seeks to reverse this trend and possibly get some rate relief for consumers.

SB731 (McClellan) also affects rates, in this case by addressing a utility’s rate of return. The SCC determines this rate by looking first at the average returns of peer group utilities, and then often going higher. The bill lowers the maximum level that the SCC can set above the peer group average.

And finally (but by no means least), HB167 (Ware) requires an electric utility that wants to charge customers for the cost of using a new gas pipeline to prove it can’t meet its needs otherwise, and that the new pipeline provides the lowest-cost option available to it. (Note that this cost recovery review typically happens after the fact, i.e., once a pipeline has been built and placed into service.) Last year Ware carried a similar bill that passed the House in the face of frantic opposition from Dominion Energy, before being killed in Senate Commerce and Labor.

The strange case of thermal RECs

Renewable energy advocates are hoping that 2020 will be the year Virginia finally begins to make wind and solar the centerpiece of its energy planning, rather than a grudging add-on. The General Assembly will consider at least two bills that adopt a mandatory renewable portfolio standard as well as legislation to lower carbon emissions and open the private market to greater investments in renewables.

But good intentions don’t always produce effective legislation. Sloppy drafting causes unanticipated consequences. Minor amendments offered by an opponent produce major consequences only the opponent anticipated.

For a case in point, let’s consider Virginia’s existing, voluntary RPS. Worse than useless, it has enabled all kinds of mischief by defining “renewable energy” to include things that do not contribute carbon-free renewable power to the grid

As currently written, our renewable portfolio standard never has been, and never will be, responsible for a single electron of wind or solar energy. That means that any bill that takes as its starting point the definition that currently exists in the Virginia Code, or even uses the term “renewable energy” without narrowly defining it, risks failing right out of the gate.

Part of the problem is biomass. But a much greater problem is one that has been largely overlooked, mainly because no one understands it. It’s called “thermal” energy, and it is a major piece of mischief all by itself.

Added to the statute in 2015, thermal renewable energy certificates quickly became the primary means for Dominion Energy Virginia to meet its RPS targets, after counting the energy from the utility’s own hydro and biomass facilities and those from which it buys power under contract.

The thing is, no one seems to know where thermal RECs come from. The code offers three possibilities. One is “the proportion of the thermal . . . energy from a facility that results from the co-firing of biomass.” Another is “the thermal energy output from (i) a renewable-fueled combined heat and power generation facility that is (a) constructed, or renovated and improved, after January 1, 2012, (b) located in the Commonwealth, and (c) utilized in industrial processes other than the combined heat and power generation facility.” Finally, there is a tiny (and mainly unused) category for solar hot water systems and swimming pool heating.

The second definition, added to the code in 2015, is so specific that it was clearly written with a particular industrial facility or facilities in mind. From that definition, we can determine that thermal RECs don’t represent renewable electricity added to the grid.

What no one but Dominion seems to have known was that thermal RECs would instantly become the leading category for RECs, and one that would eliminate any chance for wind or solar to ever compete for RPS dollars in Virginia.

The Virginia statute is an oddity. “Thermal” is not a recognized category in the regional registry for purchase and sale of RECs among utilities and voluntary buyers (known as PJM GATS). I also haven’t found another state RPS program that includes thermal in its definition of renewable energy, aside from solar thermal.

A year ago I asked Dominion what kind of industry supplies thermal RECs; I was promised an answer, but none came. So a week ago I asked the staff of the State Corporation Commission. They don’t know either.

Every year in November, Dominion submits a report to the SCC about its renewable energy activities, including information the law requires about a utility’s RPS program. The reports are available on the SCC website.

None of the reports include any discussion of thermal RECs, including the report submitted covering 2015, the first year these RECs were allowed. The reports don’t indicate where thermal RECs come from, what kind of industrial process produces them, or whether there might be a lot more available that could supply Dominion in the future as RPS goals increase.

However, by law Dominion has to provide other information that, read together, allows us to deduce a few bits of information about thermal RECs, and about their role in the RPS:

  • They are generated by one or more Virginia facilities.
  • The facility or facilities were placed in service this decade, confirming that we are talking about that second meaning of thermal.
  • The facilities are not owned by Dominion.

All or almost all the RECs Dominion purchases are thermal RECs. Thermal RECs make up all or nearly all the energy and RECs Dominion has banked to use in future years. (Virginia law allows a utility to hang on to a REC for up to five years after it was generated.) If these were wind and solar RECs instead of thermal RECs, the value of the banked RECs would exceed $40 million, even at the low REC prices currently prevailing in the PJM marketplace.

I compiled the information from these reports into the table below. The 2019 filing, containing information for 2018, also gives us a view into the current year. It states: “The company began 2019 with banked renewable energy and RECs of 4,252,354 MWh and expects to have a bank of approximately 4,113,477 MWh of renewable energy and RECs toward future RPS targets at year-end 2019.”

Source: Virginia State Corporation Commission. (Ivy Main)

As you can see, Dominion has enough RECs banked that, when added to generation from Dominion’s own or contracted renewable energy facilities, Dominion has no need to purchase any RECs from any source until 2022 (when it still won’t need much).

Dominion doesn’t report what it paid for thermal RECs, but they are undoubtedly cheaper than any other qualifying source. One reason: with no competitive market for thermal RECs, Dominion is almost certainly the only buyer. In antitrust parlance, the term for this is “monopsony,” a word I hope you will now want to work into your dinner table conversation.

Monopsony power includes the power to set the price of a product, because the seller has no one else to sell to. In the case of thermal RECs, we don’t know who the seller is, but clearly its primary business is not the production of thermal RECs for sale. In fact, the money it gets for these RECs likely represents a windfall, and it is happy to get anything that covers its administrative cost in documenting its use of thermal energy.

On the other hand, Dominion doesn’t have to be overly stingy, since Virginia law allows the utility to pass on to ratepayers the cost of purchasing RECs for the RPS. One can imagine Dominion CEO Thomas Farrell having a nice dinner with the CEO of the corporation owning the industrial facility that uses the thermal energy, and together deciding what Virginia consumers will pay for these RECs. As long as it is less than the cost of other RECs available to Dominion, who will complain?

Whatever the price is, a monopsony price of thermal RECs will be less than the price of wind and solar RECs in Virginia, because wind and solar have a competitive market and buyers who are willing to pay more.

For years, critics have complained that the voluntary RPS is a failure for every purpose except greenwashing. But with no appetite for reform in the General Assembly, it’s been easy to ignore how the definition of renewable energy was expanding like a slime mold escaping its petri dish.

This year, though, the reformers are on the move. One or more bills requiring utility investments in renewable energy seem likely to gain traction. Advocates will be keeping their fingers crossed—and reading the definitions.

 

This article was originally published in the Virginia Mercury on January 7, 2020.

 

Release of secret NRECA governance report supports Virginia electric co-op reform groups’ efforts to restore democracy at their utilities

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An energy watchdog group’s release last week of a formerly secret 2018 report from the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA) reveals that NRECA’s governance task force supports reforms that Virginia electric co-op boards are fiercely resisting. The two key reforms, sought at Rappahannock Electric Cooperative (REC) by the Repower REC reform campaign, would help to ensure fair board elections and more transparent governance. Electric co-ops are owned by their customers, who in fact are not called “customers,” but rather “member-owners.” The heretofore secret NRECA governance report was disclosed last week by the Energy and Policy Institute.

Arlington, Va.-based NRECA is the powerful group that lobbies for some 900 rural electric co-ops across the country, and also provides training to board members of those co-ops. In the past 15 years serious governance problems came to light at a number of electric co-ops—some rising to the level of outright scandal, as documented in a 2008 congressional hearing. While some rural electric co-ops implemented reforms in response to the scandals, others have resisted. At some co-ops, board positions are tantamount to sinecures, with well-paid board members staying on for many decades or life, their positions sometimes handed down to friends, relatives, or other insiders. Democratic control is sometimes more an appearance than reality.

Two member-owner groups are currently seeking reforms at rural electric co-ops at opposite ends of the commonwealth. PVEC Member Voices seeks reforms at Powell Valley Electric Co-op, in far Southwest Virginia, while the Repower REC campaign (of which I am a co-founder) seeks changes at REC, which stretches from West Virginia almost to the Chesapeake Bay. With 139,000 member owners, Fredericksburg-based REC is one of the largest electric co-ops in the nation, and the third largest electric utility in Virginia.

Repower REC has urged REC’s board to fix the co-op’s unfair blank proxy election practice, which allows REC’s board, rather than co-op members, to determine board-election outcomes. This is not an academic or theoretical issue at REC—board-controlled blank proxies change actual election outcomes.

Three times in the past four years the board’s control of several thousand blank proxies altered election results, allowing a board-favored candidate to prevail over the candidate who received the most direct member-owner votes. Just last August, Dr. John Manzari—a  board candidate seeking reforms of REC’s governance, rooftop solar, and broadband policies—received the majority of votes cast directly by member-owners.

But Manzari still lost the election because the board cast more than 2,000 blank proxy votes for his opponent–the incumbent. Although nothing in REC bylaws requires or specifically authorizes the practice, REC’s board treats blank “member-undesignated” proxies as delegating the member-owner’s vote to the board to cast as it sees fit.

Disturbingly, many of these blank proxies are solicited and collected by REC employees at the co-op’s offices when members come in to pay a bill in cash or resolve a payment issue. REC employees talk up the valuable prizes co-op members can have a chance to win by just signing the form, say that it’s okay to leave the form blank, and insist that the form be returned on the spot to the REC employee, rather than mailed directly to the independent election administrator, as announced election procedures require.

This REC vote-solicitation and collection practice, which prevents members from informing themselves about candidates and encourages signed but otherwise blank proxies, is the primary way incumbent REC board members game the system to allow their favored candidates (usually themselves) to stay on in their well-paid positions for decades. (REC board members in recent years have been paid around $30,000 to $48,950. Each director’s total pay depends on how many official REC meetings or events he or she attends.)

In 2017 NRECA publicly announced a 20-member task force appointed to examine governance issues at electric co-ops, and noted the importance of ensuring democratic member control. Two of the task force members were leaders at Virginia co-ops: John Hewa, a vice president at REC, and Brenda Hicks Johnson, a director at Southside Electric Co-op. NRECA’s Governance Task Force completed its work and issued a report in early 2018.

Despite the public announcement of the task force, NRECA kept its report secret, available only to senior co-op managers and co-op board members. The report was thus not available (until EPI published it last week) to the tens of millions of U.S. rural electric co-op member-owners most directly harmed by undemocratic co-op practices and poor governance at their co-ops.

NRECA’s Governance Task Force, we now know, recommended against board-election practices that give large numbers of proxy votes to incumbent boards, allowing them to control board-election outcomes. The task force reasoned that giving boards large numbers of blank proxies “may give the perception that the board controls or improperly influences director elections.” At REC that’s not just a perception—it’s the reality. REC’s board effectively controls every board election and has done so for at least a decade, and likely longer.

NRECA’s governance report also addresses a second Repower REC position. Repower REC has urged REC to open its board meetings for co-op member-owners to observe, as many electric co-ops around the country (but only one in Virginia) do. This is the only way member-owners can monitor the performance of individual board members, which of course is essential to casting informed votes in board elections. NRECA’s governance task force recommended this reform too, saying that opening co-op board meetings for co-op member-owners to observe could “facilitate transparency and openness, and strengthen the democratic nature of cooperatives.”

PVEC Voices also seeks open board meetings. At the reform group’s urging, PVEC’s board meetings were recently opened for co-op members to observe. PVEC Voices seeks to ensure this reform sticks by enshrining it in the co-op’s bylaws, but the co-op’s board took steps to keep the reform measure from coming to a member vote.

REC’s board and management have fiercely resisted efforts to change these two undemocratic practices (board control of election outcomes and secret board meetings) and refused to engage as a board in dialogue with Repower REC representatives about these issues. The board even refused to allow REC member-owners to vote on whether to reform the disputed election and board-meeting practices. That has led to litigation in the SCC and courts about the rights of Virginia co-op members to vote on such democratic reforms. The SCC earlier this year said it was not interested in resolving what it called an “internal management” issue, so the litigation moved to the courts and is now pending in the Spotsylvania County Circuit Court.

The NRECA governance report was available to all electric co-op board members and managers, so it’s reasonable to assume all REC board members and senior management have seen it and been aware of its recommendations since early 2018. REC did not disclose in the SCC proceeding that the reforms REC’s board opposes were recommended by the NRECA task force. REC was not under any legal obligation to do so, but the co-op’s claims to the SCC that the proposed reforms would somehow severely damage the co-op now ring especially hollow in light of what we have learned about the NRECA governance report.

The REC board’s absolute refusal to consider or discuss these issues in a dialogue with Repower REC is unjustifiable. Even more disturbing, REC’s board accused Repower REC’s co-founders of lacking “good faith” for even proposing the two democratic reforms. The board’s accusation was leveled in a letter sent several months after the 2018 NRECA governance report came out and was available to REC’s board.

It’s unclear why REC’s board has so strongly resisted common-sense, democratic reforms that would bring the co-op in line with best governance practices. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that board members don’t want to compete on a level playing field in fair elections and don’t want their constituents to know what board members are doing.

We hear a lot about “energy democracy” these days. Virginia’s electric co-ops receive favorable tax and regulatory treatment based on the assumption that the co-ops are democratically controlled. The commonwealth’s regulators and law-enforcement agencies should be aware that democratic control cannot be assumed, but must instead be verified. Virginia legislators should also examine NRECA’s governance report and how the commonwealth’s electric co-ops sometimes fail to live up to their democratic principles. If Virginia’s electric co-ops persist in blocking basic democratic reforms, the General Assembly should enact measures to ensure that co-op democracy is a reality, not just a slogan.

Seth Heald is a member-owner of REC and a co-founder of the Repower REC Campaign. He is a retired U.S. Justice Department lawyer and also has a master of science degree in energy policy and climate.

 

 

What’s not to like about biomass? Deforestation, pollution and overpriced power.

What if you could get your electricity from a fuel that destroys forests, produces more air pollution than coal, and is priced higher than alternatives?

“Wow, sign me up!” you would not say, because as a sane person you don’t like deforestation, pollution and overpriced power.

Also, because you are not Dominion Energy Virginia. Dominion burned wood at one power plant from 1994 until last year; converted three small coal plants to wood-burning in 2013; and burns wood along with coal at its Virginia City coal plant. This “biomass” energy makes up about one percent of the electricity Dominion sells to Virginia ratepayers, according to its most recent IRP.

Biomass counts as renewable under the Virginia Code, so in theory it can also be used to supply customers who are willing to pay extra for renewable energy. Lots of people want renewable energy these days. Unfortunately for Dominion, they want clean, non-polluting renewables like wind and solar. No one is clamoring for biomass.

That’s especially true because biomass costs more than wind or solar, not to mention more than fossil sources. Who’s going to buy dirty energy when they can get clean energy for less money?

We recently learned just how much more expensive biomass is when the State Corporation Commission held a hearing on Dominion’s latest effort to get a renewable energy tariff approved. Rider TRG combines wind, solar and hydro with biomass, originally including biomass burned at the Virginia City coal plant.

Pretty much everyone hates the proposed tariff, as the Virginia Mercury reported. Counties looking to buy renewable energy objected. Corporate customers said they wouldn’t buy it.

So, in a halfway step meant to mollify opponents, Dominion offered to remove the Virginia City coal plant from the list of sources, while leaving in the rest of the biomass facilities.

Here’s the interesting part: taking Virginia City out made the program more affordable. Having biomass as part of the renewable energy mix, it turns out, doesn’t save money for participants; it costs extra.

In that case, you might say (again, you being a sane person), Dominion ought to remove all the biomass from Rider TRG and save participants even more money, while making it a program people might actually want.

And indeed, the SCC staff calculated that if all the biomass were to be removed, it would reduce the cost by almost two-thirds. For average residential customers using 1,000 kilowatt-hours per month, removing biomass from Rider TRG would mean the added cost of making all their power renewable would fall from $4.21 per month to $1.78.

A no-brainer, right? Making the program both cleaner and more affordable would make it more popular and spur construction of new renewable energy facilities.

Dominion refused. Having the program be successful, you see, is not the point. As I wrote this summer, the purpose of Rider TRG isn’t to offer a product people want to buy, it’s to prevent anyone else from selling renewable energy. If the commission approves Dominion’s tariff, under state law competitors will be locked out of the Virginia market.

If the biomass turns out to be a kind of poison pill for the program, so that no one signs up, that really doesn’t matter to Dominion because, again, the whole point of Rider TRG isn’t to attract customers, it’s to kill competition.

The SCC hasn’t ruled on the program yet. Post-hearing briefs are due Dec, 20, so we can expect an order in the case early next year.

But why biomass?

At this point you may be asking yourself why Dominion chose to invest in all those biomass plants in the first place. The answer is subsidies. During its early years, Virginia’s voluntary renewable portfolio standard rewarded Dominion with tens of millions of dollars annually as a bonus for meeting the renewable energy goals set out in the law. Section 56-576 of the Virginia Code very helpfully defines renewable energy to include “biomass, sustainable or otherwise, (the definitions of which shall be liberally construed).”

Fun fact: as recently as 2008, only “sustainable biomass” qualified as renewable energy. The definition was altered in 2009, at the same time it was expanded to cover biomass burned in a coal-fired power plant such as the one Dominion had just announced it would build.

The RPS bonus money boondoggle came to an end in 2013 when public outrage reached a fever pitch. Then-Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli reached a deal on legislation to repeal the bonus money provisions of the statute. (Utilities could still recover the costs of the RPS program from ratepayers.) Left intact was everything else, including defining renewable energy as “biomass, sustainable or otherwise.”

Liberally construing “sustainable or otherwise” has not been good for southeastern forests. Dogwood Alliance and Southern Environmental Law Center document widespread clear-cutting, loss of forests, and replacement of mixed hardwood forests with pine plantations. As these groups and others have also pointed out, burning wood produces more pollution than coal and isn’t carbon-neutral in the time frame that matters for the climate pickle we’re in.

Dominion is not the worst offender; pride of place belongs to wood pellet manufacturer and exporter Enviva, which just received a permit to expand its Virginia facility in Southampton.

Dominion also isn’t the only Virginia utility to have invested in burning trees. Northern Virginia Electric Cooperative provides its customers with electricity from a biomass plant in South Boston. NOVEC doesn’t have an RPS to meet, so it sells renewable energy certificates to Maryland utilities. It’s a lousy deal for the Maryland residents who get higher bills and no clean energy to show for it, but meanwhile NOVEC brags about its “environmentally friendly” plant.

So now what?

There are really two questions when it comes to burning trees for fuel: one, should government give it preferential treatment; and two, should an electric utility be doing it at all?

The General Assembly will almost certainly consider legislation this year requiring utilities to increase the proportion of electricity they sell that comes from renewable energy. If biomass is allowed to qualify, the result will be less new wind and solar and less progress towards a carbon-free grid. The lesson from other states that have renewable energy mandates is simple: states that allow junk get junk. (Here’s looking at you, Maryland.)

But as we’ve seen, biomass can’t compete with other energy sources on cost if it doesn’t get subsidies. Dominion can follow NOVEC’s lead in selling RECs to Maryland or other states that haven’t wised up yet, but REC payments won’t make up the cost difference between biomass and other fuels.

Worse—or better, depending on your point of view—other states may decide not to support the biomass racket. Maybe Dominion could still sell the renewable energy certificates (RECs) to the ultra-cheap Green Power for Suckers program that the SCC approved a couple weeks back. But selling cheap RECs to chumps would net the company only—ahem—chump change.

In fact, the SCC should take a hard look at biomass when Dominion files its next Integrated Resource Plan. Requiring the utility to get out of the wood-burning business wouldn’t just clean the air and protect forests, it could be a smart way to save money for customers.

 

This article originally appeared in the Virginia Mercury on December 2, 2019. 

Governor Northam’s Executive Order, Dominion Energy’s about-face on offshore wind: is Virginia off to the clean energy races?

Man at podium

Arlington County Board Chair Christian Dorsey speaking to clean energy supporters on September 21, following the Board’s adoption of its new Community Energy Plan. Arlington’s plan would produce a carbon-free grid 15 years earlier than Governor Northam’s plan, while also tackling CO2 emissions from transportation and buildings.

A single week in September brought an unprecedented cascade of clean energy announcements in Virginia. On Tuesday, September 24, Governor Northam issued an Executive Order aimed at achieving 30 percent renewable energy by 2030 and 100 percent carbon-free energy by 2050, and with near-term state procurement targets.

On Thursday, Dominion Energy announced it would fully build out Virginia’s offshore wind energy area by 2026, in line with one of the goals in the Governor’s order.

Then, Saturday morning, the Democratic Party of Virginia unanimously passed resolutions endorsing the Virginia Green New Deal and a goal of net zero carbon emissions for the energy sector by 2050.

Saturday afternoon, Arlington became the first county in Virginia to commit to 100 percent renewable electricity by 2035, and economy-wide carbon neutrality by 2050.

So is Virginia off to the clean energy races? Well, let’s take a closer look at that Executive Order.

The governor’s order sounds great, but how real are its targets?

Executive Order 43, “Expanding access to clean energy and growing the clean energy jobs of the future,” directs the Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy (DMME) and other state agencies to “develop a plan of action to produce 30 percent of Virginia’s electricity from renewable energy sources by 2030 and one hundred percent of Virginia’s electricity from carbon-free sources by 2050.”

The difference between “renewable energy” and “carbon-free” sources is intentional. The latter term is a nod to nuclear energy, which provides about a quarter of Virginia’s electricity today. Keeping Dominion’s four nuclear reactors in service past 2050 may not prove feasible, economical or wise, but the utility wants to keep that option open.

The order also doesn’t define “renewable energy.” It talks about wind and solar, but it doesn’t specifically exclude carbon-intensive and highly-polluting sources like biomass and trash incinerators, which state code treats as renewable. Dominion currently meets Virginia’s voluntary renewable energy goals with a mix of old hydro and dirty renewables, much of it from out of state. Dominion will want to keep these subsidies flowing, especially for its expensive biomass plants, which would undermine the carbon-fighting intent of the order.

Finally, there is the question whether all of the renewable energy has to be produced in Virginia. Old Dominion Electric Cooperative, which supplies electricity to most of the member-owned cooperatives in the state, buys wind energy from outside Virginia. Surely that should count. But what if a Virginia utility just buys renewable energy certificates indicating that someone, somewhere, produced renewable energy, even if it was consumed in, say, Ohio? Those had better not count, or we’ll end up subsidizing states that haven’t committed to climate action.

What will DMME’s plan look like?

In describing what should be in the action plan, Northam’s order largely recites existing goals and works in progress, but it also directs DMME and the other agencies to consider going beyond existing law and policy to achieve specific outcomes:

  • Ensure that utilities meet their existing commitments to solar and onshore wind energy development, including recommending legislation to reduce barriers to achieving these goals. These goals include 500 MW of utility-owned or controlled distributed wind and solar. Customer-owned solar is not mentioned.
  • Make recommendations to ensure the Virginia offshore wind energy area is fully developed with as much as 2,500 MW of offshore wind by 2026.
  • Make recommendations for increased utility investments in energy efficiency, beyond those provided for by the passage of SB 966 in 2018, the Grid Modernization Act.
  • Include integration of storage technologies into the grid and pairing them with renewable generation, including distributed energy resources like rooftop solar.
  • Provide for environmental justice and equity in the planning, including “measures that provide communities of color and low- and moderate-income communities access to clean energy and a reduction in their energy burdens.”

Can the administration do all that?

Nothing in this part of the order has any immediate legal effect; it just kicks off a planning process with a deadline of July 1, 2020. Achieving some of the goals will require new legislation, which would have to wait for the 2021 legislative session.

That doesn’t mean the governor will sit on his hands until then – delay is the enemy of progress — but it could have the effect of slowing momentum for major climate legislation in 2020.

Cynics, if you know any, might even suggest that undercutting more aggressive Green New Deal-type legislation is one reason for the order.

A second part of Northam’s order, however, will have immediate effect, limited but impressive. It establishes a new target for state procurement of solar and wind energy of 30 percent of electricity by 2022, up from an 8 percent goal set by former Governor Terry McAuliffe. This provision will require the Commonwealth to negotiate amendments to the contract by which it buys electricity for state-owned facilities and universities from Dominion. The order also calls for at least 10 MW annually of power purchase agreements (PPAs) for on-site solar at state facilities, and requires agencies to consider distributed solar as part of all new construction.

State facilities will also be subject to new energy savings requirements to reduce state consumption of electricity by 10 percent by 2022, measured against a 2006 baseline, using energy performance contracting.

These provisions do for the state government what the action plan is intended to do for Virginia as a whole, but 8 years faster and without potential loopholes.

Thirty percent by 2030? Gee, where have we heard that before?

Just this spring, Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality finalized regulations aimed at lowering carbon emissions from Virginia power plants by 30 percent by 2030. These numbers look so similar to Northam’s goal of 30 percent renewable energy by 2030 that it’s reasonable to ask what the order achieves that the carbon rule doesn’t. (This assumes the carbon regulations take effect; Republicans used a budgetary maneuver to stall implementation by at least a year.)

The answer goes back to the reason Dominion opposed the carbon rule. Dominion maintains—wrongly, says DEQ and others—that requiring lower in-state carbon emissions will force it to reduce the output of its coal and gas plants in Virginia and buy more power from out of state. That, says Dominion, would be bad for ratepayers.

As the company’s August update of its Integrated Resource Plan showed, Dominion would much prefer a rule requiring it to build more stuff of its own. As it turns out, that would be even more expensive for ratepayers, but definitely better for Dominion’s profitability.

So legislation to achieve Governor Northam’s renewable energy goals would take the pain out of the carbon regulations for Dominion. Whether it might also lower carbon emissions beyond DEQ’s 30 percent target remains to be seen.

The 2050 carbon-free goal, on the other hand, goes beyond anything on the books yet. Dominion’s corporate goal is 80 percent carbon-free by 2050, and it has no roadmap to achieve even that.

Is there anything in the order about pipelines?

No. In fact, there is no mention of any fossil fuel infrastructure, though shuttering coal and gas plants is the main way you cut carbon from the electricity supply.

That doesn’t mean Northam’s order leaves the Mountain Valley and Atlantic Coast pipelines in the clear. If Dominion joins Duke Energy in its pledge to go to zero carbon by 2050, the use of fracked gas to generate electricity in Virginia and the Carolinas has to go down, not up, over the coming decades (Duke’s own weird logic notwithstanding). As word gets around that Virginia is ditching fossil fuels, pipeline investors must be thinking about pulling out and cutting their losses.

What about Dominion’s offshore wind announcement?

I saved the best for last. For offshore wind advocates like me, Dominion’s announcement was the really big news of the week: it’s the Fourth of July, Christmas and New Years all at once. Offshore wind is Virginia’s largest long-term renewable energy resource opportunity, and we can’t fully decarbonize without it.

Dominion has taken a go-slow approach to offshore wind ever since winning the right to develop the federal lease area in 2013. Until this year, it refused to commit to anything more than a pilot project. The two, 6-MW turbines are currently under construction and will be installed next summer.

Then in March, Dominion CEO Tom Farrell told investors his company planned to build one commercial offshore wind farm, of unspecified size, to be operational in 2024. In its Aug. 28 resource plan update filed with the state regulators, Dominion Energy Virginia included for the first time an 880-MW wind farm, pushed back to 2025.

A mere three weeks later, the plan has changed to three wind farms, a total of 220 turbines with a capacity of 2,600 MW, with the start date moved up again to 2024, and all of them in service by 2026, exactly Northam’s target (except his was 2,500 MW).

Certainly the case for developing the full lease area has been improving at a rapid clip. Costs are falling dramatically, and it appears Dominion expects to maximize production by using massive 12 MW turbines, which did not even exist until this year.

But if the situation has changed that dramatically from August to September, all I can say is, I can’t wait to see what October brings.

Maybe it will bring answers to questions like who will build these wind farms, who will pay for them, and how Dominion expects to meet this accelerated timeline. As Sarah Vogelsong reports, several northeastern states have wind farms slated for development in the early-to-mid-2020s, too. Industry members are already worried about bottlenecks in everything from the supply chain to installation vessels, workforce training and the regulatory approval process.

That is to say, we’re coming to the party pretty late to expect good seats. But hey, it’s going to be a great party, and I’m glad we won’t miss it.

This article originally appeared in the Virginia Mercury on September 27, 2019.

Ignoring state climate rules, Dominion decides what carbon regulations should look like

woman in dinosaur costume holding sign reading clean energy now

Four out of five dinosaurs agree. The fifth, that would be Dominion. Photo courtesy of Sierra Club Virginia Chapter.

For several years now, Dominion Energy Virginia has factored into its plans an assumption that electricity from carbon-emitting power plants will eventually include a cost reflecting CO2’s role as the primary driver of global warming. Dominion says it has even integrated this into its corporate goals, targeting an 80 percent reduction in CO2 emissions by 2050.

That promise may be more propaganda than corporate lodestar, but in any case the utility’s Integrated Resource Plans regularly point to the probability of future carbon regulations as a reason to build new renewable energy facilities and close old coal plants.

Planning for constraints on CO2 emissions proved wise this spring when Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality finalized a state carbon cap-and-trade program. The DEQ regulations call for Virginia power plant owners to trade carbon allowances with those in the member states of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI). A Republican budget maneuver has delayed implementation of the new rules, but once they take effect they are expected to hasten the retirement of expensive old coal plants and support investments in new renewable energy projects.

But it’s not the DEQ regulations that Dominion is planning around. The utility’s 2019 update to its 2018 IRP, filed with the State Corporation Commission on Aug. 29, treats the DEQ regulations as hypothetical. Instead, it posits some unspecified future federal carbon regulations that, apparently, it would like much better.

The update describes three alternative scenarios, down from five in the 2018 IRP. The first is a “base case” that assumes no carbon emission constraints. The second assumes the state carbon limits take effect as well as some future federal regulations, and the third assumes federal (but not state) limits. However, the cover letter makes it clear that only the third scenario actually describes what Dominion intends to do. As it happens, that is the most expensive— and most profitable —plan.

The primary feature of the base case is that it keeps some old coal units running that will be closed in the other scenarios. According to Dominion, this makes it the least-cost approach to meeting electricity demand. Whether that’s true is a matter of dispute; these units hardly run at all any more, and experts for environmental organizations in the IRP hearing testified that retiring them will save money for customers.

It suits Dominion’s political strategy, however, to pretend that coal remains a low-cost option. This fiction makes coalfield legislators happy, and it allows Dominion to blame rising electricity rates on environmental regulations instead of on its own profligate spending and excess profits.

But Dominion Energy made a big bet on fracked gas, not coal. It won’t fight to keep outdated coal plants online and spewing out CO2 if it’s cheaper to close them. Gas plants are another matter. Dominion Energy’s massive investments in gas transmission and storage make the company keen to keep Virginia gas plants running full-tilt, and to build as much new gas generation as possible.

For that reason, Dominion hates the DEQ regulations. It warns the regional cap and trade plan will result in power from outside the state replacing electricity from Dominion’s combined-cycle gas plants, which provide baseload power. Dominion argues this will lead to higher, rather than lower, carbon emissions as well as higher consumer costs.

DEQ and others disagree on both counts, though the SCC takes Dominion’s view. So although Dominion labels its second scenario RGGI-compliant, it treats the DEQ regulations as hypothetical, as if Gov. Ralph Northam might change his mind any day now and order them scrapped.

Instead, Dominion offers its third scenario, positing only unspecified and (with Trump as president) truly hypothetical future federal carbon regulations. In Dominion’s fantasy, a federal plan will be strong enough to support Dominion building profitable new renewable energy and storage projects, but not so strong that it can’t also build a bunch of new gas plants.

Ergo, that’s what Dominion is shooting for. The cover letter accompanying the IRP update makes it clear that Dominion is already pursuing projects that appear only in the third plan. These include a 300 MW pumped hydro storage project that will take a decade to develop and cost upwards of $1.5 billion (if indeed it pans out), and an 852 MW offshore wind project slated for 2025, a year later than what Dominion told investors in March.

The third scenario also includes more than 3,000 MW of solar between now and the end of 2034, but that’s actually a whole lot less solar than under the RGGI scenario. Even the base case has more solar. Go figure.

Still missing is the rest of the 2,000 MW of offshore wind that the Virginia lease area can support. Also still missing are thousands more megawatts of wind and solar that Virginia would need if, instead of a gas-friendly plan, the federal government were to enact regulations actually sufficient to the climate crisis.

Dominion has not even modeled that possibility. The update’s third scenario still includes 10 new fracked-gas combustion turbines, a total of 2,425 MW, with two units coming online every year from 2022 through 2026.

Maybe the Dominion executive team thinks it knows more than the rest of us do about the federal climate plan we’ll see once Donald Trump is sent packing in 2020. More likely, Dominion is simply using its IRP carbon assumptions to bolster its case for more spending and higher profits.

In which case, the more things get updated, the more they stay the same.

 

This article originally appeared in the Virginia Mercury on September 13, 2019.

Dominion Energy’s new choices are really about limiting choices

Trees clearcut.

Dominion’s renewable energy products contain copious amounts of biomass, also known as burning trees. Photo by Calibas, Creative Commons.

An annual survey conducted by Yale and George Mason universities shows concern about climate change is surging. Seventy-three percent of Americans think climate change is happening, and 69% are at least somewhat worried about it, the highest percentages since the surveys began in 2011.

Another Yale survey found that “a large majority of registered voters (85%) – including 95% of Democrats and 71% of Republicans – support requiring utilities in their state to produce 100% of their electricity from clean, renewable sources by 2050. Nearly two in three conservative Republicans (64%) support this policy.”

Yet here in Virginia, Dominion Energy expects to reduce carbon emissions less in the future than in the past, and it has no plan to produce 100% of its electricity from clean, renewable sources by 2050. For all the talk here of solar, Virginia still had one-seventh the amount of solar installed as North Carolina at the end of 2018 and no wind energy.

Dominion has developed a few solar projects and new tariffs to serve tech companies and other large customers, but ordinary residents still lack meaningful choices. So this spring, Dominion decided to do something about that.

The wrong thing, of course.

Dominion has asked the State Corporation Commission for permission to market two quasi-environmentally-responsible products. One is for people who are willing to pay a premium for renewable energy, and don’t read labels, and the other is for people who want a bargain on renewable energy, and don’t read labels.

There may be plenty of both kinds of customers out there, but that doesn’t mean the SCC should approve either product. Indeed, while the purpose of the bargain product is to offer a choice nobody wants, the purpose of the premium product is to close off better choices.

Let’s look first at the product for bargain-hunters, a super-cheap version of the utility’s Green Power Program. Dominion is calling it “Rider REC.” A better name for it would be the “You Call This Green? Power Program.”

Rider REC consists of the dregs of the renewable energy category, the stuff that isn’t good enough for the Green Power Program. That’s a low bar already, because the Green Power Program doesn’t sell green power. It sells renewable energy certificates (RECs), the “renewable attributes” of electrons from facilities labeled renewable.

Customers who pay extra for RECs still use whatever mix of energy their utility provides. For Dominion customers, that’s fracked gas, nuclear and coal, plus a tiny percentage of oil, biomass, hydro and solar.

Buying RECs lets good-hearted people feel better about using dirty power by donating money to owners of renewable energy facilities somewhere else. The facilities might be in Virginia, or they might be clear across the country.

For example, say a utility out west builds a wind farm because wind is the cheapest way to generate power. If the state doesn’t have a renewable portfolio standard that requires the utility to use the RECs for compliance (most windy states don’t), the RECs can be sold to buyers in liberal East Coast states, lowering energy prices for the utility’s own customers.

RECs don’t even have to represent clean sources like wind. Some RECs subsidize industries that burn trees (aka biomass), black liquor (a particularly dirty waste product of paper mills) and trash.

Dominion’s Green Power Program uses RECs that meet the standards of a national certification program called Green-e. Green-e requires that facilities be no more than 15 years old and meet minimum environmental standards, such as requirements that woody biomass be sustainably grown and that generators don’t violate state and federal pollution limits.

But Virginia’s definition of renewable energy is, shall we say, more forgiving than Green-e’s. Our law does not discriminate against decades-old facilities like hydroelectric dams, or energy from trees that have been clear-cut. (Nor does it recognize that burning trees produces even more lung-damaging, asthma-inducing pollution than coal, and more climate-warming CO2 as well.) Virginia’s definition of renewable energy even includes a vague category of “thermal” energy that may be another way paper mills profit from the REC racket.

This loose definition of “renewable” creates a business opportunity for anyone unscrupulous enough to seize it. Dominion proposes to package up these otherwise unmarketable RECs from sketchy sources across the continental United States and pawn them off on unsuspecting consumers here in Virginia.

There is always money to be made by suckering well-meaning folks, but that’s not a good enough reason for the SCC to let Dominion do it. The case is PUR-2019-00081. Public comments are due by Aug. 15.

So what about the more expensive quasi-environmentally responsible product? “Rider TRG” consists of real, straight-from-the-facility electricity on the power grid serving Virginia, not RECs from out west. And while it is not dirt-cheap like Rider REC, Rider TRG would cost residential customers a premium of only about $50 per year.

Unfortunately, Virginia’s kitchen-sink definition of renewable energy means the sources still don’t have to be new or carbon-free or sustainable. It appears most of them won’t be.

Dominion’s filing indicates the program will use the energy from the Gaston hydroelectric dam built in 1963; the Roanoke Rapids hydro station built in 1955; the Altavista, Southampton and Hopewell power stations that were converted from coal to wood-burning in 2013; and several solar farms the company has already built or contracted for.

In addition, Dominion proposes to allocate to the program the portion of electricity from its Virginia City coal plant representing the percentage of wood that is burned along with the coal.

That’s right, Dominion intends for renewable energy buyers to subsidize its coal plant. The idea is cynical enough to have come from the Trump administration.

Dominion knows full well that customers who want renewable energy want new wind and solar, so why is its first product for residential customers so loaded with dirty biomass and old hydro?

The answer is that Dominion doesn’t care if no one signs up for Rider TRG. The point isn’t to give customers what they want, it’s to prevent them from shopping elsewhere for better options. Like Appalachian Power before it, Dominion wants to close off the narrow opening provided by Virginia law that allows customers to shop for 100% renewable energy from other providers only if their own utility doesn’t offer it. The SCC approved APCo’s renewable energy tariff some months ago. Dominion is following APCo’s successful strategy.

Yet APCo’s product consists of hydro, wind and solar, so it is nefarious, but not actually bad. Dominion’s is nefarious and bad.

An SCC decision in 2017 confirmed customers’ right to shop for renewable energy as long as the incumbent utility doesn’t offer it. Currently at least two other providers, Direct Energy and Calpine Energy Solutions, offer renewable energy to commercial customers in Dominion territory. Yet according to documents provided by Direct Energy, Dominion is refusing to let its customers transfer to Direct Energy and Calpine, triggering competing petitions to the SCC.

Dominion no doubt hopes to resolve the dispute permanently by terminating its customers’ right to switch providers at all.

The case is PUR-2019-00094. Comments may be submitted until Nov. 14, and a public hearing will be held on Nov. 21.

 

This article first appeared in the Virginia Mercury on July 22, 2019.

 

UPDATE November 5: The SCC approved Dominion’s Rider REC, the Green Power For Suckers program, on October 31, disregarding the recommendation of SCC staff to deny it. It hasn’t yet ruled on Rider TRG. However, the SCC staff has pointed out that if Dominion left the controversial biomass elements out of the program, it would cost less than half as much.