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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What part of ‘zero’ doesn’t Dominion understand?

Photo courtesy os the Sierra Club.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Dominion Energy Virginia filed its 2020 Integrated Resource Plan on May 1. Instead of charting the electric utility’s pathway to zero carbon emissions, it announced its intent to hang on to all its gas plants, and even add to the number. In doing so, it revealed a company so thoroughly wedded to fracked gas that it would rather flout Virginia law and risk its own future than do the hard work of transforming itself.

The Virginia Clean Economy Act may be new, but Dominion can hardly claim to be surprised by the commonwealth’s move away from fossil fuels. Gov. Ralph Northam’s executive order last September set a statewide target of zero carbon emissions from the electric sector by 2050. “Challenge accepted,” said a Dominion spokesman at the time, and in February of this year the company claimed it was embracing a 2050 net-zero-carbon goal company-wide. A month later, passage of the Clean Economy Act moved the deadline up to 2045 for Dominion, keeping it at 2050 for utilities that lack Dominion’s head start of 30 percent nuclear power.

Dominion’s IRP, however, does not accept the challenge to get off fossil fuels. It rejects the challenge, directing a giant middle finger at the governor and the General Assembly. Dominion’s “preferred” plan keeps the utility’s existing fracked gas generating plants — currently 40 percent of its electric generation — operating through 2045. The IRP acknowledges this violates the law, so it argues against the law.

The IRP posits that if Dominion stops burning gas in Virginia, it will instead simply buy electricity from out of state, some of which will be generated by gas, and this will cost more money without reducing carbon emissions at the regional level. Better, then, to keep burning gas in Virginia.

It gets worse. The IRP actually proposes increasing the number of gas combustion turbines in Dominion’s fleet. The VCEA imposes a two-year moratorium on new fossil fuel plants, so Dominion’s timetable has these gas peaker plants coming online in 2023 and 2024. The justification is vague; the IRP cites “probable” reliability problems related to adding a lot of solar, but it offers no analysis to back this up, much less any discussion of non-gas alternatives.

Dominion’s flat-out refusal to abandon gas by 2045 poisons the rest of the document. The IRP is supposed to show a utility’s plans over a 15-year period, in this case up to 2035. And for those years, the IRP includes the elements of the VCEA that make money for Dominion: the build-out of solar, offshore wind and energy storage projects. It also includes money-saving retirements of outmoded coal, oil and biomass plants, as the VCEA requires. Heck, it even includes plans to close a coal plant the VCEA would allow to stay open in spite of its poor economic outlook (the Clover plant, half-owned by Old Dominion Electric Cooperative.)

But the IRP proposes no energy efficiency measures beyond those mandated by the VCEA between now and 2025. Dominion hates energy efficiency; it reduces demand, which is bad for business. So the company has made no effort to think deeply about how energy efficiency and other demand-side measures can support a zero-carbon grid — or, for that matter, how customer-owned solar can be made a part of the solution, rather than part of the problem.

This isn’t surprising: a plan that contemplates keeping gas plants around indefinitely looks very different, even in the first 15 years, from a plan that closes them all within 10 years after that.

A company that really accepted the challenge of creating a zero-carbon energy supply would not just get creative in its own planning; it would look beyond generating and supplying electricity, at the larger universe of solutions. It would advocate for buildings constructed to need much less energy, including for heating and cooling, to lessen the seasonal peaks in energy demand.

It would want the state to embrace strong efficiency standards. It would press its corporate and institutional customers to upgrade their facilities and operations to save energy, especially at times of peak demand. It would partner with communities to create microgrids. It would invest in innovation.

In short, it would ask “How can we achieve our fossil-free goal?” instead of asking “How can we keep burning gas?”

It’s not hard to understand why Dominion clings to gas; its parent company is fighting desperately to keep the Atlantic Coast Pipeline project alive in the face of spiraling costs (now up to $8 billion), an increasingly uphill battle at the State Corporation Commission to stick utility ratepayers with the costs of a redundant gas supply contract and a dearth of other customers anywhere along the route.

What is really hard to understand, though, is why Dominion chose to be quite so transparent in its disdain for the VCEA. Senator Jennifer McClellan and Delegate Rip Sullivan, both Democrats, who introduced the law and negotiated its terms with Dominion lobbyists and other stakeholders through many long days and nights, reacted to the IRP with entirely predictable outrage. In a statement they responded:

“The VCEA requires Virginia utilities to step up to the plate and be active leaders in carbon reduction. Dominion Energy’s IRP is tantamount to quitting the game before the first pitch is thrown. The law sets clear benchmarks for Virginia to reach 100 percent clean energy by 2045, not for utilities to plan to import carbon-polluting energy from West Virginia or Kentucky.”

Senator McClellan, it might be pointed out, could be on her way to becoming Virginia’s next governor. Most companies would hesitate to offend a leader of her stature, as well as such a prominent Democratic leader as Delegate Sullivan.

A growing number of legislators also seem interested in ending Dominion’s monopoly and bringing retail choice to Virginia. Though the bill that would have done that didn’t make it out of committee this year, the high-handed tone of the IRP will push more legislators into the anti-monopoly camp.

Arrogance and complacency seem like dangerous traits in times like these, but that’s Dominion for you. It will rise to any challenge, as long as the challenge doesn’t require anything the company didn’t already want to do.

A version of this article appeared in the Virginia Mercury on May 14, 2020.

Want a better understanding of how this year’s legislation works? I’m presenting the ins and outs of over a dozen bills in these three webinars:

  • What to expect when you’re expecting an energy transition, May 14, 2020 (recording available here)
  • New solar opportunities for homeowners, businesses and nonprofits, May 21, 2020, 5:30 p.m., register here
  • New tools for local governments to cut carbon, May 28, 2020, 5:30 p.m., register here

With a framework for Virginia’s energy transition in place, here’s what happens next

workers installing solar panels on a roof

One expected effect of the Clean Economy Act will be a boom in solar jobs across Virginia. Photo courtesy of NREL.

With Democrats in charge, Virginia passed a suite of bills that establish a sturdy framework for a transition to renewable energy in the electric sector.

At the center of this transformation are the Clean Economy Act, HB1526/SB851, and the Clean Energy and Community Flood Preparedness Act, HB981/SB1027. Other new laws direct further planning, make it easier for customers to install solar, improve the process for siting wind and solar farms, and expand financing options for energy efficiency and renewable energy.

Gov. Ralph Northam has signed some bills already, and has until April 11 to sign the others or send them back to the General Assembly with proposed amendments. Once signed, legislation takes effect on July 1.

I assume the Governor has other things on his mind right now than asking the General Assembly to tinker further with a bill like the Clean Economy Act, though bill opponents may be using the virus pandemic to argue for delay. That would be a self-defeating move; as the economy restarts, Virginia is going to need the infusion of jobs and investment that come with the build-out of clean energy. And one of the strongest arguments in support of our energy transition, after all, is that it will save money for consumers.

So what happens after July 1? How does this all work? Let’s look at the way these major pieces of legislation will change the energy landscape in Virginia.

Virginia joins RGGI, and CO2 emissions start to fall. 

Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality has already written the regulations that call for Virginia power plants to reduce emissions by 30 percent by 2030. The mechanism for achieving this involves Virginia trading with the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a regional carbon cap and trade market.

The regulations have been on hold as the result of a budget amendment passed last year, when Republicans still ruled the General Assembly. After July 1, DEQ will be able to implement the regulations, with the commonwealth participating in carbon allowance auctions as early as the last quarter of this year or the first quarter of 2021.

In addition to joining RGGI, the Clean Energy and Community Flood Preparedness Act also allows the commonwealth to earn money from the allowance auctions. The Department of Housing and Community Development will spend 50 percent of auction proceeds on “low-income efficiency programs, including programs for eligible housing developments.”

The Department of Conservation and Recreation will get 45 percent of the auction proceeds to fund flood preparedness and climate change planning and mitigation through the Virginia Community Flood Preparedness Fund. The last 5 percent of proceeds will cover administrative costs, including those for administering the auctions.

Energy efficiency savings become mandatory, not just something to throw money at.

Two years ago, the Grid Transformation and Security Act required Dominion and Appalachian Power to propose more than a billion dollars in energy efficiency spending over 10 years, but the law didn’t say the programs had to actually be effective in lowering electricity demand.

This year that changed. For the first time, Virginia will have an energy efficiency resource standard (EERS) requiring Dominion to achieve a total of 5 percent electricity savings by 2025 (using 2019 as the baseline); APCo must achieve a total of 2 percent savings. The SCC is charged with setting new targets after 2025. At least 15 percent of the costs must go to programs benefiting low-income, elderly or disabled individuals, or veterans.

The EERS comes on top of the low-income energy efficiency spending funded by RGGI auctions.

Dominion and Appalachian Power ramp up renewables and energy storage. 

The Clean Economy Act requires Dominion to build 16,100 megawatts of onshore wind and solar energy, and APCo to build 600 megawatts. The law also contains one of the strongest energy storage mandates in the country: 2,700 MW for Dominion, 400 MW for Appalachian Power.

Beginning in 2020, Dominion and Appalachian must submit annual plans to the SCC for new wind, solar and storage resources. We’ll have a first look at Dominion’s plans just a month from now: the SCC has told the company to take account of the Clean Economy Act and other new laws when it files its 2020 Integrated Resource Plan on May 1.

The legislation provides a strangely long lead time before the utilities must request approval of specific projects: by the end of 2023 for APCo (the first 200 MW) or 2024 for Dominion (the first 3,000 MW). But the build-out then becomes rapid, and the utilities must issue requests for proposals on at least an annual basis.

In addition to the solar and land-based wind, Dominion now has the green light for up to 3,000 MW of offshore wind from the project it is developing off Virginia Beach, and which it plans to bring online beginning in 2024. All told, the Clean Economy Act proclaims up to 5,200 MW of offshore wind by 2034 to be in the public interest.

Dominion’s plans for new gas plants come to a screeching halt.

Before the 2020 legislative session, Dominion’s Integrated Resource Plan included plans for as many as 14 new gas combustion turbines to be built in pairs beginning in 2022. In December, the company announced plans to build four gas peaking units totaling nearly 1,000 MW, to come online in 2023 and 2024.

But that was then, and this is now. The Clean Economy Act prohibits the SCC from issuing a certificate of convenience and necessity for any carbon-emitting generating plant until at least January 1, 2022, when the secretaries of natural resources and commerce and trade submit a report to the General Assembly “on how to achieve 100 percent carbon-free electric energy generation by 2045 at least cost to ratepayers.”

Even with no further moratorium, Dominion will find it hard to sell the SCC on the need for new gas plants on top of all the renewable energy and energy storage mandated in the Clean Economy Act. Solar and battery storage together do the same job that a gas peaker would have done — but they are required, and the gas peaker is not. Meanwhile, the energy efficiency provisions of the act mean demand should start going down, not up.

Dominion has already signaled that it recognizes the days of new gas plants are largely over. On March 24, Dominion filed a request with the SCC to be excused from considering new fossil fuel and nuclear resources in its upcoming Integrated Resource Plan filing, arguing that “significant build-out of natural gas generation facilities is not currently viable” in light of the new legislation.

Fossil fuel and biomass plants start closing.

By 2024, the Clean Economy Act requires the closure of all Dominion or APCo-owned oil-fueled generating plants in Virginia over 500 MW and all coal units other than Dominion’s Virginia City Hybrid plant in Wise County and the Clover Station that Dominion co-owns with Old Dominion Electric Cooperative.

This mandate is less draconian than it sounds; it forces the closure of just two coal units, both at Dominion’s Chesterfield plant. Other Dominion coal plants in Virginia have already been retired or switched to using gas or biomass, and one additional coal plant in West Virginia lies beyond the reach of the legislation. Oil-fired peaking units at Yorktown and Possum Point were already slated for retirement in 2021 and 2022. APCo owns no coal or biomass plants in Virginia.

Although the exceptions might appear to swallow the rule, the truth is that coal plants are too expensive to survive much longer anyway. One indication of this is a March 24 report Dominion filed with the SCC showing its fuel generation sources for 2019: coal has now fallen to below 8 percent of generation.

By 2028, Dominion’s biomass plants must shut down, another victory for consumers. All other carbon-emitting generating units in Virginia owned by Dominion and APCo must close by 2045, including the Virginia City plant and all the gas plants.

As of 2050, no carbon allowances can be awarded to any generating units that emit carbon dioxide, including those owned by the coops and merchant generators, with an exception for units under 25 MW as well as units bigger than 25 MW (if they are owned by politically well-connected multinational paper companies with highly-paid lobbyists).

Solar on schools and other buildings becomes the new normal.

In December, Fairfax County awarded contracts for the installation of solar on up to 130 county-owned schools and other sites, one of the largest such awards in the nation. Using a financing approach called a third-party power purchase agreement (PPA), the county would get the benefits of solar without having to spend money upfront. The contracts were written to be rideable, meaning other Virginia jurisdictions could piggyback on them to achieve cost savings and lower greenhouse gas emissions.

Fairfax County’s projects, along with others across the state, hit a wall when, on Jan. 7, the SCC announced that the 50 MW program cap for PPAs in Dominion territory had been reached. But with the passage of the Clean Economy Act and Solar Freedom legislation, customers will be able to install up to 1,000 MW worth of solar PPAs in Dominion territory and 40 MW in APCo territory.

Fairfax County schools will soon join their counterparts in at least 10 other jurisdictions across the state that have already installed solar. With the PPA cap no longer a barrier, and several other barriers also removed, local governments will increasingly turn to solar to save money and shrink their carbon footprints.

Virginia agencies start working on decarbonizing the rest of the economy. 

In spite of its name, the Clean Economy Act really only tackles the electric sector, with a little spillover into home weatherization. That still leaves three-quarters of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions to be addressed in transportation, buildings, agriculture and industry. Ridding these sectors of greenhouse gas emissions requires different tools and policies.

Other legislation passed this session starts that planning process. SB94(Favola) and HB714 (Reid) establish a policy for the commonwealth to achieve net-zero emissions economy-wide by 2045 (2040 for the electric sector) and require the next Virginia Energy Plan, due in 2022, to identify actions towards achieving the goal. Depending on who the next governor is, we may see little or nothing in the way of new proposals, or we may see proposals for transportation and home electrification, deep building retrofits, net-zero homes and office buildings, carbon sequestration on farm and forest land and innovative solutions for replacing fossil fuels in industrial use.

Collateral effects will drive greenhouse gas emissions even lower.

Proposed new merchant gas plants are likely to go away. With Virginia joining RGGI and all fossil fuel generating plants required to pay for the right to spew carbon pollution, the developers of two huge new merchant gas plants proposed for Charles City County will likely take their projects to some other state, if they pursue them at all.

Neither the 1,600 MW Chickahominy Power Station and the 1,050 C4GT plant a mile away planned to sell power to Virginia utilities; their target is the regional wholesale market, which currently rewards over-building of gas plant capacity even in the absence of demand. The Chickahominy and C4GT developers sought an exemption from RGGI through legislation; the bill passed the Senate but got shot down in the House.

If the C4GT plant goes away, so too should Virginia Natural Gas’ plans for a gas pipeline and compressor stations to supply the plant, the so-called Header Improvement Project.

Other coal plants will close. Although the CEA only requires Dominion to retire two coal units at its Chesterfield Power Station, other coal plants in the state will close by the end of this decade, too. That’s because the economics are so heavily against coal these days that it was just a matter of time before their owners moved to close them.

Adding the cost of carbon allowances under RGGI will speed the process along. That includes the Clover Station, which Dominion owns in partnership with Old Dominion Electric Cooperative (ODEC), and the Virginia City Hybrid Electric plant in Wise County, Dominion’s most expensive coal plant, which should never have been built. 

The Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley Pipelines find themselves in more trouble than ever. If I had a dollar for every time a Dominion or Mountain Valley spokesperson said, “Our customers desperately need this pipeline,” I would not be worried about the stock market right now.

The fact is that no one was ever sure who those customers might be, other than affiliates of the pipeline owners themselves—and that doesn’t exactly answer the question. With Virginia now on a path away from all fossil fuels, neither pipeline has a path to profitability inside Virginia any longer, if they ever had one.

 

A version of this article originally appeared in the Virginia Mercury on March 31. 

The Wise County coal plant should never have been built. Why fight to keep it open?

smokestack

Just blowing smoke. Photo credit Stiller Beobachter

The Virginia Clean Economy Act continues to bump along towards the finish line, losing pieces of itself but picking up new and different features as it makes its tortuous way.

Most recently, and disconcertingly, Republicans representing southwest Virginia persuaded the Senate to remove a key provision requiring the closure of the Virginia City coal plant in Wise County by 2030, unless it reduces its carbon emissions by 83% through the carbon capture technology it was designed for. The change would undermine the carefully-negotiated pathway to a zero-carbon electric sector.

On Tuesday the House rejected the Senate version of the bill that would have allowed the plant to continue operating until 2050. The Senate will have the final say, but it can only save the coal plant by killing the legislation altogether.

It’s understandable that senators want to please everyone, or at least everyone with a lobbying presence at the General Assembly building. Yet the case for keeping the coal plant running is built on a lie — indeed, on a history of lies.

Coal champions call the Wise County facility “the cleanest coal plant in the country,” a claim that, at best, misses the devastating environmental and human impacts of coal mining itself. More to the point right now, the claim ignores the fact that the facility emits millions of tons of CO2 every year, the very reason it needs to be retired by 2030 in order for the Clean Economy Act to deliver on its carbon-cutting mission.

And while coalfield Republicans emphasize the coal plant’s economic benefits to the region, the fact is that the plant never made sense economically and should never have been built. Trying to keep it running will simply burden ratepayers further.

In 2007, when it sought permission from the State Corporation Commission to build the plant, Dominion projected the cost of the electricity it would generate at $93 per megawatt-hour. Yes, that’s high. Even 13 years later, wind, solar and combined cycle gas still come in at under $40.

Worse, Dominion based its cost on a projection that the plant would run at 90 percent of its full capacity. It never did. The plant is running at only 24 percent today. If Dominion had accurately represented that the capacity percentage would not exceed the mid-60s and would plummet into the 20s a mere seven years after it entered service, the cost projection would have been a good deal higher.

The SCC only granted Dominion permission to build the plant for a reason that will sound familiar to anyone following the debate over the Clean Economy Act: The General Assembly passed a law proclaiming construction of a coal plant in southwest Virginia “in the public interest,” removing the SCC’s authority to make that determination.

Yes, the General Assembly’s habit of bossing the SCC around with these magic words goes back quite a ways.

Legislators weren’t the only ones championing the coal plant back in 2007. In her book Climate of Capitulation, retired University of Virginia professor and former State Air Pollution Control Board member Vivian Thomson describes how then-Gov. Tim Kaine put enormous pressure on the Air Board to approve the air permit for the facility. Not incidentally, Dominion’s chief lobbyist, Bill Murray, worked for Kaine during these years, before he made his way through the revolving door.

Dominion has sometimes suggested that it pursued the coal plant only as a favor to legislators. I asked Thomson about that in a phone call. She responded that on the contrary, the plant is a prime example of how Virginia Democrats and Republicans alike have capitulated to Dominion’s interests over the years.

Perhaps Dominion was angling for some pot-sweetening through a show of reluctance. The General Assembly obliged, of course, promising Dominion a higher rate of return than usual. And indeed, the SCC eventually granted Dominion an enhanced rate of return of 12.12%.

The SCC’s approval of the plant outraged consumers and environmentalists alike. Attorney Cale Jaffe, who represented environmental groups in the SCC proceeding, says it was a bad decision even in the years before Virginia committed to reduce climate pollution.

“All of the concerns and risks associated with the project in 2006-2007 were fully debated and apparent to everyone,” he told me. “The fact that we would be moving to a low-carbon economy made building a coal plant and locking yourself in for decades a risky strategy. The carbon emissions should have led people to look at other options for generating electricity that don’t emit 5.3 million tons of carbon every year.”

It’s remarkable that even today, with coal plants closing across the country and mining companies going bankrupt, legislators from southwest Virginia still can’t bring themselves to break with the industry that has polluted their land and water and shattered their communities. The Sierra Club and its allies tried for years to persuade the General Assembly to redirect millions of dollars annually in coal subsidies, urging that the money could have underwritten thousands of new jobs in a more diverse economy. Legislators kept throwing taxpayer money at coal companies anyway, always with the full support of Dominion.

Now, when it comes to the Clean Economy Act, Dominion wants to have it both ways. During negotiations, the company agreed to the coal plant closures as part of a deal that gave it cost recovery for offshore wind, energy efficiency targets significantly lower than what advocates originally sought, and numerous other concessions. But it turns out company lobbyists were simultaneously working to undermine the compromise bill by encouraging southwest Virginia legislators to push for coal industry protections.

Senators should have none of it. They’ve promised Virginians a bill that responds to the climate crisis by putting the commonwealth on its way to a clean energy future. Today, it’s time to deliver.

 

This article originally appeared in the Virginia Mercury on March 5, 2020. 

Update: on March 5, the House passed the Clean Economy Act; on March 6, the Senate did also, sending the bill to the Governor’s desk. The final version of the bill does not require closure of the Wise County coal plant until 2045.

It’s halftime at the GA, and do we ever have a show!

battle scene

Tense negotiations over the Clean Economy Act. (Aniello Falcone, Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Welcome to “Crossover,” the day on which the Virginia House and Senate have to finish the work on their bills and send them over to the other chamber. This is sudden death time; if a bill didn’t get across the finish line in time, it is dead for the year.

In past years, henceforth to be known as “the bad old days,” almost nothing good even got out of committee, much less reached Crossover. Clean energy advocates could pretty much plan vacations for the second half of February.

This year the Democrats are on a tear, especially in the House. Yes, a lot of good bills have been heavily watered down. This is still the Old Dominion, with the emphasis on Dominion. And it is definitely too early to break out the champagne, because the action isn’t over for the bills still in play. But overall, 2020 is shaping up to be a watershed year for clean energy.

BILLS STILL ALIVE

Energy Transition

HB1526/SB851, the Clean Economy Act, has been the subject of intense and continuous negotiation. First there were a bunch of amendments that weakened it; then there were a bunch that strengthened it. It’s been a wild ride, and we may still see more changes during the second half of Session. But it’s alive! (HB1526 passed the House 52-47; Democrats Rasoul and Carter voted no. SB851 passed the Senate on a party-line vote of 21-19.)

SB94 (Favola) rewrites the Commonwealth Energy Policy to bring it in line with Virginia’s commitment to dealing with climate change. The bill 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 supported the bill. (Passed the Senate 21-18, on party lines.)

Delegate Reid’s HB714 is similar to SB94 but contains added details, some of which have now been incorporated into SB94. (Passed the House 55-45 with a substitute.)

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. (Passed the House 55-44 with a substitute.)

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. (Passed the House 54-45.)

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) and SB1027 (Lewis) 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), was incorporated into HB981. (HB981 passed the House 53-46. SB1027 passed the Senate 22-18.)

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. Essentially it gives special treatment to two planned gas generation plants that aren’t needed and therefore have sketchy economics unless they get this giveaway. Clean energy advocates will be looking to kill this one in the House. (Passed the Senate 27-13. A number of Democrats who should know better voted for the bill.)

RPS

The Clean Economy Act contains a renewable portfolio standard (RPS) requiring utilities to include in their electricity mix a percentage of renewable energy that ratchets up over time. In addition, HB1451 (Sullivan) is a stand-alone RPS bill that also includes an energy storage mandate. It appears to be identical to the RPS and storage provisions of the CEA (of which Sullivan is also the patron). (Passed the House 52-47.)

Customer-sited solar/net metering

Solar Freedom SB710 (McClellan) and HB572 (Keam) lifts barriers to customer-sited renewable energy such as rooftop solar. The changes include lifting the caps on PPAs and net metering, and eliminating standby charges. Nearly identical versions were filed by Delegates Lopez (HB1184) (rolled into HB572) and Simon (HB912) (ditto). SB532 (Edwards), a stand-alone bill to make PPAs legal, was rolled into SB710. (SB710 passed the Senate 22-18 with a substitute that is much more limited than the original bill. HB572 passed the House with just a minor substitute 67-31. HB1647 (Jones) is a Solar Freedom bill that also includes community solar. (Passed the House 55-45.) Several provisions of Solar Freedom also appear in the Clean Economy Act.

HOAs HB414 (Delaney) and SB504 (Petersen) clarifies the respective rights of homeowners associations (HOAs) and residents who want to install solar. The law allows HOAs to impose “reasonable restrictions,” a term some HOAs have used to restrict solar to rear-facing roofs regardless of whether these get sunshine. The bill clarifies that HOA restrictions may not increase the cost of the solar facility by more than 5%, or decrease the expected output by more than 10%. (HB414 passed the House 95-4. SB504 passed the Senate 40-0.)

Community solar

HB1647 (Jones) (see above) includes community solar in a bill that otherwise looks like Solar Freedom.

SB629 (Surovell) creates a program for “solar gardens.” (Substitute passed the Senate 39-0.)

HB1634 (Jones) requires utilities to establish shared-solar programs that allows customers to purchase subscriptions in a solar facility no greater than 5 MW. (Amended with a substitute; it now looks a lot like SB629. Passed the House 99-0.)

HB573 (Keam) affects the utility-controlled and operated “community solar” programs required by 2017 legislation. The bill requires that “an investor-owned utility shall not select an eligible generating facility that is located outside a low-income community for dedication to its pilot program unless the investor-owned utility contemporaneously selects for dedication to its pilot program one or more eligible generating facilities that are located within a low-income community and of which the pilot program costs equal or exceed the pilot program costs of the eligible generating facility that is located outside a low-income community.” (Passed the House 90-8.)

Offshore wind

The CEA contains detailed provisions for the buildout and acquisition of offshore wind. HB234 (Mugler) directs the Secretary of Commerce and Trade to develop an offshore wind master plan. (Passed House unanimously with substitute.)

SB860 (Mason) and HB1664 (Hayes) puts the construction or purchase of at least 5,200 MW of offshore wind in the public interest. (SB860 passed the Senate 22-18. HB1664 amended to incorporate HB1607, but with less gold-plating than the other bill. HB1664 passed the House 65-34.)

HB1607 (Lindsey) and SB998 (Lucas) allows Dominion to recover the costs of building offshore wind farms as long as it has a plan for the facilities to be in place before January 1, 2028 and that it has used reasonable efforts to competitively source the majority of services and equipment. All utility customers in Virginia, regardless of which utility serves them, will participate in paying for this through a non-bypassable charge. Surely this bill came straight from Dominion. (HB1607 amended to incorporate HB1664; only 1664 moves forward. SB998 passed the Senate 40-0.)

Nuclear and biomass

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 bills to add “sustainable biomass” as well. After an uproar and a crash course on biomass, both bills eventually went back to being only about nuclear. (Both bills passed the Senate unanimously.) Unfortunately, some biomass from paper companies did creep into the Clean Economy Act in spite of the best efforts of clean energy advocates.

Energy Efficiency

HB1526/SB851, the Clean Economy Act, contains a mandatory energy efficiency resource standard (EERS) and contains other provisions for spending on low-income EE programs. HB981 (the RGGI bill) specifies that a portion of the funds raised by auctioning carbon allowances will fund efficiency programs.

There are also a few standalone efficiency bills. HB1450 (Sullivan) and SB354 (Bell) appear to be the same as the efficiency provisions of the CEA, though the standalone applies only to Dominion and APCo. (HB1450 passed House 75-24,picking up a respectable number of Republicans. SB354 stricken at request of patron in C&L.)

HB1576 (Kilgore) doesn’t set new efficiency targets, but it makes it harder for large customers to avoid paying for utility efficiency programs. In the past, customers with over 500 kW of demand were exempt; this bill allows only customers with more than 1 MW of demand to opt out, and only if the customer demonstrates that it has implemented its own energy efficiency measures. (Passed the House, 99-0.)

HB575 (Keam) beefs up the stakeholder process that Dominion and APCo engage in for the development of energy efficiency programs. (Passed the House 99-0 and referred to Senate C&L.)

SB963 (Surovell) establishes the Commonwealth Efficient and Resilient Buildings Board to advise the Governor and state agencies about ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and increase resiliency. Every agency is required to designate and energy manager responsible for improving energy efficiency and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. (Passed the Senate 40-0.)

SB628 (Surovell) requires the residential property disclosure statement provided by the Real Estate Board to include advice that purchasers should obtain a residential building energy analysis as well as a home inspection prior to settlement. (Passed the Senate 26-14.)

Energy storage

HB1183 (Lopez) requires the SCC to establish a task force on bulk energy storage resources. (Passed the House 91-9 with a substitute.)

SB 632 (Surovell) creates a storage target of 1,000 MW and states that this is in the public interest.  Senator Surovell says this bill originated with the Governor’s office. (Passed the Senate 20-19 with a substitute.)

Siting, permitting, and other issues with utility-scale renewable energy

HB1327 (Austin) allows localities to impose property taxes on generating equipment of electric suppliers utilizing wind turbines at a rate that exceeds the locality’s real estate tax rate by up to $0.20 per $100 of assessed value. Under current law, the tax may exceed the real estate rate but cannot exceed the general personal property tax rate in the locality. Wind developer Apex Clean Energy helped develop the bill and supports it. (Passed the House 81-12, now goes to Senate Finance.)

HB656 (Heretick) and SB875 (Marsden) allow local governments to incorporate into their zoning ordinances national best practices standards for solar PV and batteries. (Both bills passed their chambers unanimously with substitute language.)

HB1131 (Jones) and SB762 (Barker) authorize localities to assess a revenue share of up to $0.55 per megawatt-hour on solar PV projects, in exchange for which an existing tax exemption is expanded. (HB1131 Passed the House 54-42 with a substitute. SB762 passed Senate 40-0.)

HB657 (Heretick) and SB893 (Marsden) exempt solar facilities of 150 MW or less from the requirement that they be reviewed for substantial accord with local comprehensive plans. (HB657 passed the House with a substitute, 59-41. SB893 was passed by indefinitely—killed—in Local Government.)

HB1434 (Jones) and SB763 (Barker) reduces the existing 80% machinery and tools tax exemption for large solar projects. (HB1434 passed the House 57-41. SB763 passed the Senate 40-0.) 

SB870 (Marsden) authorizes local planning commissions to include certain regulations and provisions for conditional zoning for solar projects over 5 MW. (Passed Senate 40-0 with a substitute.)

HB1675 (Hodges) requires anyone wanting to locate a renewable energy or storage facility in an opportunity zone to execute a siting agreement with the locality. (Passed House 89-7.)

Grants, tax deductions, tax credits and other financing

HB654 (Guy) authorizes DMME to sponsor a statewide financing program for commercial solar, energy efficiency and stormwater investments. The effect would be to boost the availability of Commercial Property Assessed Clean Energy (C-PACE) in areas of the state where the locality has not developed a program of its own. (Passed House 75-23. Assigned to Senate Committee on Local Government.)

SB754 (Marsden) authorizes utilities to establish on-bill financing of energy efficiency, electrification, renewable energy, EV charging, energy storage and backup generators. (Passed Senate 40-0 with a substitute.)

HB1656 (O’Quinn) authorizes Dominion and APCo to design incentives for low-income people, the elderly, and disable persons to install energy efficiency and renewable energy, to be paid for by a rate adjustment clause. (Passed the House 95-4.)

HB1707 (Aird) makes changes to the Clean Energy Advisory Board, which is (already) authorized to administer public grant funding. (Passed the House 65-33 with a substitute. Referred to Senate Ag.)

SB634 (Surovell) establishes the Energy Efficiency Subsidy Program to fund grants to subsidize residential “efficiency” measures, interestingly defined as solar PV, solar thermal or geothermal heat pumps. It also creates a subsidy program for electric vehicles. (Passed the Senate 32-7. Senator Surovell has requested a budget amendment of $1 million for the fund. )

SB1039 (Vogel) allows a real property tax exemption for solar energy equipment to be applied retroactively if the taxpayer gets DEQ certification within a year. (Passed the Senate 40-0.)

SB542 (Edwards) repeals the sunset date on crowdfunding provisions and provides fixes for certain existing obstacles to this financing approach. (Passed the Senate 40-0.)

Customer rights to shop for renewable energy

HB868 (Bourne) and SB376 (Suetterlein and Bell) allows customers to buy 100% renewable energy from any licensed supplier, regardless of whether their own utility has its own approved tariff. (HB868 passd the House 55-44. But note that its Senate companion SB376 was passed by indefinitely in C&L.)

HB 889 (Mullin) and SB 379 (McPike), the Clean Energy Choice Act, is broader than HB868. The legislation allows all customers to buy 100% renewable energy from any licensed supplier regardless of whether their utility has its own approved tariff. In addition, large customers (over 5 MW of demand) of IOUs also gain the ability to aggregate their demand from various sites in order to switch to a competitive supplier that offers a greater percentage of renewable energy than the utility is required to supply under any RPS, even if it is not 100% renewable. Large customers in IOU territory who buy from competing suppliers must give three years’ notice before returning to their utility, down from the current five years. The SCC is directed to update its consumer protection regulations. (HB889 passed the House 56-44. But its Senate companion SB379 passed by indefinitely in C&L.)

Other utility regulation

HB528 (Subramanyam) requires the SCC to decide when utilities should retire fossil fuel generation. (Passed the House 55-44.)

HB1132 (Jones, Ware) put the SCC back in control of regulating utility rates. (Passed the House 77-23.)

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. (Passed the Senate 38-1.)

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. (Passed the House unanimously with a substitute. It will now go to Senate C&L, where it may still have trouble from a Dominion-friendly committee.)

DEAD FOR THE YEAR

Green New Deal HB77 (Rasoul) sets out an ambitious energy transition plan and includes a fossil fuel moratorium. (Sent from Labor and Commerce to Appropriations, where it was not brought up. This is a polite way of killing a bill without anyone having to vote on it).

Undercutting RGGI 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. (Left in Labor and Commerce.)

Clean energy standard Instead of an RPS, SB876 (Marsden) proposed a “clean energy standard” that made room for some coal and gas with carbon capture. (Recognizing a number of problems with this approach, Senator Marsden rolled his bill into SB851; that’s GA-speak for killing a bill while still giving the patron points for trying).

Greenhouse gas inventory HB525 (Subrmanyam and Reid) require a statewide greenhouse gas inventory covering all sectors of the economy. (Laid on the table in a subcommittee, which also means it was killed.)

Brownfields HB1306 (Kory) directs the Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy to adopt regulations allowing appropriate brownfields and lands reclaimed after mining to be developed as sites for renewable energy storage projects. (Stricken from docket in House Ag.) HB1133 (Jones) makes it in the public interest for utilities to build or purchase, or buy the output of, wind or solar facilities located on previously developed sites. (Continued to 2021, yet another polite way of killing a bill, though it leaves them not technically dead. So should we call them the undead? Let’s hope the concept is resurrected next year, anyway.)

Local action HB413 (Delaney) authorizes a locality to include in its subdivision ordinance rules establishing minimum standards of energy efficiency and “maintaining access” to renewable energy. (Left in Cities, Counties and Towns.)

Retail choice SB842 (Petersen) 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. (Continued to 2021.)

Resilience hubs HB959 (Bourne) directs DMME to establish a pilot program for resilience hubs. These are defined as a simple combination of solar panels and battery storage capable of powering a publicly-accessible building in emergency situations or severe weather events, primarily to serve vulnerable communities. (Continued to 2021.)

Net metering HB1067 (Kory) deals with a specific situation where a customer has solar on one side of property divided by a public right-of-way, with the electric meter to be served by the solar array on the other side. The legislation declares the solar array to be located on the customer’s premises. (Item 4 of Solar Freedom would also solve the problem.) (Continued to 2021.)

Utility restructuring

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. (This was politely continued to 2021 in Labor and Commerce with no debate. The patrons were complimented for “starting a conversation.”)

HB206 (Ware) was, I’m told, the beta version of Delegate Keam’s HB1677. (Incorporated into HB1677, which was continued to 2021.)

SB842 (Petersen) seeks to achieve the same end as HB1677 and HB206, 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. (Continued to 2021.)

Anti-renewable energy bills

HB205 (Campbell) adds unnecessary burdens to the siting of wind farms and eliminates the ability of wind and solar developers to use the DEQ permit-by-rule process for projects above 100 megawatts. (Laid on the table in subcommittee.)  HB1171 (Poindexter) is a make-work bill requiring an annual report of the acreage of utility scale solar development, as well as the acreage of public or private conservation easements. (Continued to 2021.) HB1636 (Campbell) prohibits the construction of any building or “structure” taller than 50 feet on a “vulnerable mountain ridge.” You can tell the bill is aimed at wind turbines because it exempts radio, TV, and telephone towers and equipment for transmission of communications and electricity. (Laid on the table in subcommittee. FWIW, we’re told it was aimed at hotels, not wind. Yeah, sure . . .) HB1628 (Poindexter) prohibits the state from joining RGGI or adopting any carbon dioxide cap-and-trade program without approval from the General Assembly. (Passed by indefinitely in subcommittee. Yep, another way to kill a bill.)

Financing

HB461 (Sullivan) establishes a tax credit of 35%, up to $15,000, for purchases of renewable energy property. It is available only to the end-user (e.g., a resident or business who installs solar or a geothermal heat pump). Unfortunately, loose drafting would have also made the credit available for wood-burning stoves and other non-clean energy applications. (Died in a Finance subcommittee on a 5-5 vote.)

HB633 (Willett) establishes a tax deduction up to $10,000 for the purchase of solar panels or Energy Star products. (Stricken from docket in a Finance subcommittee.)

HB947 (Webert) expands the authority of localities to grant tax incentives to businesses located in green development zones that invest in “green technologies,” even if they are not themselves “green development businesses.” Green technologies are defined as “any materials, components, equipment, or practices that are used by a business to reduce negative impacts on the environment, including enhancing the energy efficiency of a building, using harvested rainwater or recycled water, or installing solar energy systems.” (Continued to 2021.)

SB1061 (Petersen) allows residential customers to qualify for local government Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) financing programs for renewable energy and energy efficiency improvements; currently the availability of this financing tool is restricted to commercial customers. (Continued to 2021.)

HB754 (Kilgore) establishes the Virginia Brownfield and Coal Mine Renewable Energy Grant Fund, which will support wind, solar or geothermal projects sited on formerly mined lands or brownfields. (Left in Appropriations.)

[Updated February 12 to include late votes and fix a random meaningless line, and later to correct various other screw-ups that people have kindly brought to my attention.]

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 by Alex Kambis.

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. [Update: the bill, with further amendments, passed out of Commerce & Labor on January 20 and now goes to the Senate floor.]

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 bills to add “sustainable biomass” as well, turning the bills 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.

[Update 1/22: Both bills passed out of subcommittee, but in full committee, Lewis appears to have presented the unamended SB817, with no biomass language. It sailed through and now goes to the Senate floor. Lewis then presented additional amendments to SB828 to limit biomass to “sustainable residual” biomass, but then asked to have his bill passed by for the day instead of having it voted on. The amendments are not yet available on the LIS.]

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) and SB1027 (Lewis) 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.

HB528 (Subramanyam) requires the SCC to decide when utilities should retire fossil fuel generation.

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.

[Update: Several astute readers pointed me to information indicating that the source of the thermal RECs is WestRock, a Georgia-based multinational paper company that burns wood and black liquor (a toxic byproduct of the pulping process) as a power source. WestRock is the single biggest emitter of air toxics in Virginia, with its facility in Covington topping the ranks as the Commonwealth’s number one air polluter, ahead of even Dominion’s biggest and dirtiest coal plant. So when you are sorting through junk mail or have a cardboard box delivered, take time to savor the moment. Maybe you didn’t actually help make that paper, but you probably contributed your small mite to WestRock CEO Steven Voorhees’ $18 million compensation package.]

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.