Four things happened after I wrote last week about Power for Tomorrow’s strange advertising campaign attacking Clean Virginia: the Fredericksburg Freelance-Star ran an op-ed from Power for Tomorrow’s executive director, Gary C. Meltz, opposing deregulation in the electric sector; the Virginia Mercury ran a response to my article from Mr. Meltz; another mailer arrived from Power for Tomorrow, even more unhinged about Clean Virginia and what it calls “their Texas-style policies”; and the Roanoke Times ran an op-ed from Republican Senator David Sutterlein in favor of electricity choice.
Mr. Meltz’ Freelance-Star op-ed argues that regulated monopolies produce lower cost power for consumers than competitive markets. Instead of developing the argument, however, most of the op-ed is devoted to horror stories about Texas and Maryland.
In both states, poor regulation unquestionably led to high bills, in Texas because customers were allowed to choose “low-cost” billing options that charged them astronomical real-time power costs during the winter freeze, and in Maryland because unscrupulous power providers lured low-income customers into overpriced contracts with up-front goodies like gift cards. Power for Tomorrow would like you to think these abuses are the inevitable result of deregulated markets, but it doesn’t follow.
Coming from the opposite direction, Senator Sutterlein’s op-ed argues that Dominion has abused its political power for private gain. He cites legislation like the notorious 2015 “rate freeze” bill that allowed the company to hang on to over-earnings it would otherwise have had to refund to customers. His cure for these abuses is deregulation, allowing customers to choose other electricity providers. But again, it’s not obvious that curbing Dominion’s excessive profits requires deregulation, rather than better regulation by the General Assembly and the SCC.
Personally, I’m agnostic on this issue. I would welcome a data-driven discussion of whether carefully-designed free markets deliver more for the public than a well-regulated monopoly system coupled with a ban on campaign contributions from public utilities.
But if Power for Tomorrow is really interested in consumer protection, it’s just plain weird that its ads are so squarely focused on trying to take down Clean Virginia, an organization whose entire purpose is to secure lower costs for consumers. It’s hard not to suspect that the real point of the attack ads is to protect the high profits of Power for Tomorrow’s utility funders.
According to Mr. Meltz, those over- the-top mailers are indeed getting results for Power for Tomorrow. In his Virginia Mercury letter, Meltz says his organization’s “education campaign” has produced 4,324 letters to elected officials and 1,607 petition signatures. Meltz also says Power for Tomorrow’s funding (and spending) will become a public record when they submit paperwork to the IRS. He doesn’t say when that will be; and he isn’t telling us the answers now.
It’s campaign season in Virginia, with primary elections coming up on June 8. But in addition to all the candidate flyers arriving in mailboxes, Virginia residents have been receiving another kind of mailer with a message unrelated to the election.
Oversized, campaign-style postcards from an entity calling itself Power for Tomorrow warn, “Clean Virginia wants to end customer protections on electricity — leaving Virginians stuck with #BigBills like Texas!” Quotes from headlines about last winter’s disastrous power outage in Texas sprinkle the page to drive home the message that “It happened in Texas. Don’t let it happen in Virginia.”
The flip side of the postcard reads, “We can’t allow so-called ‘Clean Virginia’ to spend millions to influence Richmond politicians and make hardworking Virginians pay more for electricity.” The cards then urge people to join a texting campaign targeting legislators.
What’s going on here? According to the nonprofit Energy and Policy Institute, Power for Tomorrow is a utility front group that is “Virginia-based and Dominion Energy-connected.” Power for Tomorrow “opposes efforts to introduce greater competition to monopoly utilities and provides a platform for former regulators to advocate for utility interests.” Its directors and experts are mostly lawyers and lobbyists who represent utility interests. Its website claims the Texas power outage “catalyzed the launch” of the group, but Energy and Policy Institute notes that the website first launched in 2019, and only re-launched this year following the Texas debacle.
In addition to the postcard mailer, Power for Tomorrow has also run television and Facebook ads. According to Virginia Public Media, as of May 14 the organization had spent at least $220,000 on TV ads and at least another $90,000 on Facebook ads. Dominion Energy spokesperson Rayhan Daudani told Virginia Public Media that Dominion is “proud to support Power for Tomorrow and its efforts to educate people about the dangers of electric deregulation.” He also asserted Dominion’s political contributions, including those to Power for Tomorrow, were “bipartisan and transparent.”
The bipartisan part is true; Virginia Public Access Project records show Dominion gives money to both Democrats and Republicans. Doing so ensures the company has influence no matter which party holds power. Dominion’s political donations to Virginia elected leaders add up to over $3 million in just the last year and a half (making its criticism of Clean Virginia’s spending more than a little hypocritical). “Transparent” is another matter, however; neither VPAP nor any other source I could find reveals how much money Dominion has provided to Power for Tomorrow.
As for the claims about customer protections, the mailer’s message stands Clean Virginia’s purpose on its head. Clean Virginia advocates for decreasing the influence of utilities on the General Assembly and increasing regulatory oversight by the State Corporation Commission. The legislation it supported in 2021 uniformly would have returned more money to customers. The reason Clean Virginia “spends millions to influence Richmond politicians” is to counter Dominion Energy’s spending and political influence in Richmond. There would be no need for Clean Virginia if the General Assembly weren’t already under the utility’s thumb.
According to Clean Virginia’s website, the five energy reform bills the group supported in 2021 were:
HB2200, restoring SCC discretion over Dominion rate-setting and accounting practices
HB1984, allowing the SCC to set future rates to reflect the true cost of service
HB1914, giving the SCC the ability to set the time period for utilities to recover large one-time expenses, eliminating an accounting gimmick that benefited utilities at the expense of customers
HB2160, requiring utilities to return 100% of overcharges to customers, instead of being allowed to keep 30 percent
HB2049, also aimed at supporting rate reductions or refunds
All of these bills passed the House with bipartisan support but failed in the Senate, where the Commerce and Labor committee remains Dominion-friendly.
The Power for Tomorrow ads don’t try to defend Dominion’s opposition to customer-friendly legislation. Instead, they reference a broader effort by Clean Virginia and an unusual alliance of several progressive and conservative free-market groups to restructure Virginia’s utilities. Calling themselves the Virginia Energy Reform Coalition, the allies supported legislation in 2020 that would have separated the generation and transmission functions of Dominion and Appalachian Power and introduced competition in the sale of electricity.
Whether the long-term effects of this kind of energy deregulation would be good or bad for Virginia residents is a matter of furious debate, but clearly the legislation would have hurt Dominion’s profits. In any event, the bill never even got a vote last year, and was not brought back in 2021.
The Power for Tomorrow campaign deliberately muddies the water. While mentioning only the stillborn deregulation effort, its attacks on Clean Virginia are meant to undercut support for other legislation that increases utility regulation.
So what about the threat of Texas-style power outages? Where is the connection? Power for Tomorrow would like you to believe that competition leads to disaster. But the mailer is vague about how what happened in Texas might happen here, and for good reason: It won’t.
What happened in Texas was due to generating facilities (mostly natural gas) freezing up and failing to deliver electricity to the state’s isolated power grid. With too much demand and not enough supply, short-term power costs soared, and people who’d opted for electricity plans that tracked real-time prices received astronomical bills. Simple regulatory fixes could have avoided both the blackouts and the sky-high bills, but Texas politicians and grid operators shied away from imposing those requirements. Failure to regulate, not deregulation, was to blame.
When the lights go out in Virginia, by contrast, downed power lines and blown transformers are typically to blame. In other words, the problem is in the delivery, not the generation. Our electricity supply is more secure than Texas’ because Virginia is part of the larger PJM transmission grid that covers all or parts of 13 states from the East to the Midwest. Not only does PJM have a huge excess of generating capacity, but generators have to guarantee they will deliver electricity when called on, and would be penalized by failure to winterize their facilities. Those guarantees are absent in Texas.
Introducing competition to the Virginia utility market would not change any of this. Some states within PJM have deregulated utilities, others have vertically-integrated utilities like Virginia’s. The Texas blackouts were scary; they are also a red herring. Apparently the cynics at Power for Tomorrow think there is nothing wrong with a non sequitur if it gets people’s attention.
But is it getting their attention? I checked with a couple of legislators, neither of whom had received any texts or emails from constituents generated by the advertising. Either the campaign isn’t working, or Power for Tomorrow is just building out a mailing list to deploy later, perhaps in the next legislative session when regulatory reform bills come up again.
At that point we may find out whether Dominion has built an anti-reform constituency with these misleading ads, or just added fuel to the fire.
This article originally ran in the Virginia Mercury on June 2, 2021. It has been updated to correct the day of the June primary. It is June 8, not June 6.
Virginia residents who want to do right by the planet are confronted with a bewildering array of renewable energy and “green power” options. Unfortunately, few of these programs actually deliver renewable energy. People who want the gold standard — electricity from new wind and solar projects — are completely out of luck if their utility is Dominion Energy Virginia or Appalachian Power.
To understand how there can be so many options and none of them good, we first have to talk about renewable energy certificates. RECs are a topic that is way more interesting than it sounds because — well, it would have to be, wouldn’t it? RECs are how we know that some electricity can be attributed to a renewable source. If you want to know what kind of renewable energy your utility is buying, or if you yourself want to buy renewable energy, RECs matter.
RECs are not electricity; they aren’t even real certificates. They were conceived of as an accounting tool enabling a utility to show it is in compliance with a state mandate to include a percentage of renewable energy in its mix. A utility amasses RECs associated with its own renewable generating sources, or buys them from renewable sources it doesn’t own, and then “retires” them to show compliance with the law. Since RECs are separate from the electricity itself, they can be bought and sold independently. There is even an online marketplace for your REC shopping convenience.
RECs are also how voluntary buyers of renewable energy, like customers of Arcadia or Dominion’s Green Power Program, know they’re actually getting what they pay for —assuming they understand that what they pay for is not actually energy, and may have no relationship to the electricity powering their home or business. If you buy RECs, you are still using whatever electricity your utility provides, but you are also paying a premium on top of your regular bill.
There is no nationwide, generally accepted definition of “renewable energy,” just as there is no definition of “natural” in food labeling. In Virginia, there is a state law defining what counts as renewable, and it includes not just solar, wind and hydro, but also a range of burnable fuels like biomass and municipal solid waste that foul the air and contribute to climate change. Buyer beware!
The Virginia Clean Economy Act narrowed the list of sources that Dominion and APCo can use to meet the law’s new renewable portfolio standard, and also limited the locations of qualifying facilities. After 2025, happily, most of the RECs retired by Dominion and APCo under the VCEA will come from Virginia wind and solar facilities.
But crucially, the VCEA didn’t change the definition of renewable energy in the code. Dominion won’t be able to use RECs from its biomass plants to meet the VCEA, but it can still sell them to anyone else and label the product “renewable” without falling afoul of the law. Anyone buying a renewable energy product from Dominion had better check the list of ingredients.
It’s not just Dominion. Anyone buying RECs from Arcadia or anywhere else should take a good look at what they are getting, and ask themselves if the money they spend means new renewable energy will be added to the grid.
The answer is probably no. If the RECs come from a wind farm in Texas or Iowa, the electricity from those turbines doesn’t feed into the grid that serves Virginia, so you can’t even pretend it is powering your house. It also doesn’t mean anyone built a wind farm because of REC buyers like you. Wind energy is already the cheapest form of new energy in the central part of the U.S. People build wind farms because they are profitable, not because they can sell RECs. In fact, those wind farms are swimming in surplus RECs, because states in the center of the country don’t have renewable energy mandates to make their own utilities buy them.
For that matter, a lot of RECs come from facilities that were built before the idea of RECs even existed. Hundred-year-old hydroelectric dams can sell RECs; so can fifty-year-old paper mills that sell biomass RECs from burning wood.
With this background, let’s look at the offerings available in Virginia and see which are worth paying more for.
Dominion Energy Virginia
In theory, Dominion customers will have the ability to buy real solar energy directly from independent providers beginning as early as 2023, thanks to shared solar legislation sponsored by Sen. Scott Surovell and Del. Jay Jones and passed in 2020. The law envisions independent solar developers building solar facilities in Virginia and selling the electricity (and the RECs) to subscribers who are Dominion customers. But the SCC opened a Pandora’s box last fall by allowing Dominion to propose the rules, and in an act of classic Dominion overreach, the utility has now proposed to collect an average of $75 a month as a “minimum bill” from every customer who buys solar energy from someone else. A fee like that would end the program before it ever started.
The matter is hardly settled. The solar industry has asked for an evidentiary hearing and suggested that the minimum bill should be set at a single dollar. If all else fails, the program may go forward serving only low-income customers, whom the legislation exempts from the minimum bill.
Dominion customers can hope for the best, but any shared solar option is still at least two years away.
In the meantime, the utility’s website lists four renewable energy options: two that sell RECs, one that sells actual energy (and retires the RECs for you) and one that doesn’t exist.
• The REC-based Green Power Program has been around for a decade, and as of 2019 it had more than 31,000 subscribers. Dominion’s “product content label” projected that for 2020 the program would likely consist of 56 percent wind RECs, 34 percent biomass RECs, and 10 percent solar RECs. Facilities are advertised as being “in Virginia and the surrounding region,” but the fine print reveals sources as far away as Mississippi, Georgia, Missouri and Alabama, none of which are part of the PJM transmission grid that serves Virginia. (Side note: the biomass icon is a cow, not a tree, which is misleading but charming, unless they might be burning cows, in which case it is deeply disturbing.) With the website out of date, I contacted Dominion for current content information: solar is now up to 13 percent, but, sadly, biomass still makes up 35 percent of the mix (but now it has a leaf icon!).
• REC Select. When I say “buyer beware,” I have this offering in mind. Dominion has been authorized to go Dumpster diving to buy the cheapest RECs from around the country and from any facility that meets Virginia’s overly-expansive definition of renewable energy. The website implies that so far the company is only buying wind RECs from Oklahoma and Nebraska, an indication of just how cheap those are. But under the terms of the program, the RECs could come from 50-year-old paper mills in Ohio or hundred-year-old hydroelectric dams. No educated consumer would buy this product, and both Dominion and the SCC should be ashamed of themselves for putting it out there.
• The 100% Renewable Energy Program delivers actual energy from Virginia, and retires RECs on your behalf. That’s the good news. But only a few of the solar farms are new; the rest of the energy comes from old hydro plants and, worse, from biomass plants that are so highly polluting that they don’t qualify for Virginia’s renewable energy mandate under the VCEA. The inclusion of biomass makes the program more expensive than it would be otherwise. So why include biomass when no one wants it? Because Dominion doesn’t really care if you sign up for this program. The company only offers it to close off a provision in the law that allowed customers to buy renewable energy from competitors if their own utility doesn’t offer it.
• Dominion’s website does list one attractive program under the name “community solar.” Like the shared solar program already discussed, it would deliver actual solar energy from new facilities to be built in Virginia, while retiring the RECs on your behalf. This would pass all our tests, except that it doesn’t exist. The SCC gave Dominion the green light to offer the program more than two years ago, and we’ve heard nothing since, even though the enabling legislation appears to make it mandatoryfor both Dominion and APCo.
APCo never developed a community solar program either, and the shared solar program discussed earlier would not be available to APCO customers even if it gets off the ground. But APCo does have two renewable energy offerings.
• For its Virginia Green Pricing program, APCo put together wind and hydro from its own facilities. That means it’s actual energy and reasonably priced, at less than half a cent per kWh. But these are existing facilities that all its customers had been paying for until APCo figured out how to segment the market and make more money, and the hydro is old. (As with Dominion’s renewable energy program, the real purpose of the new product was to close off competition.)
• Even cheaper is Alternative Option-REC, the RECs for which “may come from a variety of resources but will likely be associated with energy from waste, solid waste and hydro facilities.” No biomass, anyway, but I still have trouble imagining who would pay extra for (literally) garbage.
Virginia electric coops
Some electric cooperatives offer real renewable energy to customers, and a couple have community solar programs that are quite attractive.
• Many coops also sell RECs, of mixed quality. Shenandoah Valley Electric Cooperative offers RECs generated by wind farms owned or contracted byOld Dominion Electric Cooperative, the generation cooperative that supplies power to most Virginia coops. Rappahannock Electric Cooperative, however, sells only biomass RECs.
• Bottom line: if you are a member of an electric cooperative, you may have better options than either Dominion or APCo is offering — and if you don’t, hey, you’re an owner of the coop, so make some noise!
If you like RECs, you don’t have to buy them from your own utility. The folks at Arcadia have struggled for years to offer products that put new renewable energy on the grid. In states that allow community solar, Arcadia now offers wind and solar from projects in those states. Everywhere else, they just sell RECs. The website provides no information indicating where the facilities are, meaning they could be out in the same central plains states that are awash in surplus wind RECs. Their game plan appears to be for all the nice liberals with climate guilt to throw enough money at red state RECs that eventually the day will come when demand exceeds supply and drives the price up enough to incentivize new projects. The plan sounds self-defeating to me, but in any case, buyers should keep in mind that the RECs bought before that glorious date will have incentivized precisely nothing.
Obviously, if you have a sunny roof, you can install solar onsite and net-meter. Of all the programs available today, that’s the one that will save you money instead of making you spend more.
If you don’t have a sunny roof, but you’d still like to see your money put solar onto the grid, consider contributing to a church, school or non-profit that is going solar, or to an organization that puts solar on low-income homes. Two that operate in Virginia are Give Solar, which puts solar on Habitat for Humanity houses, and GRID Alternatives, which trains workers to install solar on low-income homes here and abroad. If everyone in Virginia who is currently buying RECs were to choose this alternative instead, it would put millions of dollars to work building new solar in Virginia, and lowering the energy bills of people who most need the help.
And that might make it the best option of all.
A version of this article first appeared in the Virginia Mercury on May 21, 2021.
Dominion Energy held its annual shareholder meeting virtually on May 5. Prior to the meeting, some shareholders submitted questions to the company in hopes of getting better transparency about its thinking regarding a range of pressing questions facing both the company and society at large. In an article that ran in the Virginia Mercury the week before the meeting, I offered a list of questions I’d really like answers to as well.
I wasn’t able to attend the shareholder meeting, but I understand the questions mostly did not get answers at that time, with the exception of a non-sequitur CEO Bob Blue offered up in response to a question about third-party sales of renewable energy (read on!). The company has promised to email responses to the people who submitted questions.
2. In last year’s IRP, Dominion’s preferred scenario would have it keeping its gas plants open indefinitely, even past 2045, when the Virginia Clean Economy Act requires them to be closed. The refusal to plan for full compliance with the law almost certainly impacts the decisions Dominion is making today. Now that Bob Blue has taken over the reins of Dominion from former CEO Tom Farrell, has that changed, and can we expect Dominion to take actions consistent with a full phase-out of fossil fuels before 2045?
3. The energy transition will require construction of tens of thousands of megawatts of solar on hundreds of thousands of acres of land across Virginia. However, community resistance to utility-scale solar farms in Virginia is growing, in large part because they look more like industrial uses than like agricultural uses. As a result, some projects are not being permitted, a costly waste of the company’s time and resources. It’s possible to combine solar with traditional agricultural uses like animal grazing, or to install native plants to support pollinators and provide wildlife habitat, both of which would increase community acceptance. Dominion installs pollinator plantings along some of its transmission line rights-of-way, so the company has experience in this area. Will Dominion begin doing this at its solar projects? If not, what is Dominion doing to “sweeten the pot” for local communities in order to secure permits?
4. Dominion offers residential customers the option of a renewable energy product that includes biomass energy, a source that is not carbon-free and produces more air pollution than coal. The inclusion of biomass also makes the tariff more expensive than it would be without biomass. In contrast to this unattractive option, two years ago Dominion received SCC approval to sell solar to residential customers via a “community solar” product. This would have appealed to far more customers, but Dominion never followed through. Why not?
5. With no solar option available, residents who don’t own a house with a sunny roof are currently shut out of the solar market in Dominion’s Virginia territory. In 2019 and 2020 the General Assembly considered legislation that would have allowed customers to buy renewable energy from third party providers. The bill passed the House each year but failed in a Senate committee due to Dominion’s opposition. If Dominion isn’t interested in selling solar to its customers today, why not let them buy it from others?
Mr. Blue reportedly answered this question at the meeting by exclaiming, “Because deregulated markets don’t work, they fail! Look at Texas!”
I can, with difficulty, draw a line from the question to Blue’s answer, but it is not a straight one. Nor is it an honest one, since the causes of the Texas debacle don’t apply here (beyond a similar overreliance on natural gas).
Here is the answer that is most probably true: “We threw together our so-called renewable energy offering for the sole purpose of blocking out competitors, and the SCC stupidly let us get away with it. If we cared about climate change, we would offer a clean renewable energy product people actually want, but we only care about profit. That requires us to keep our customers locked in, but nothing says we have to make them happy.”
But because hope springs eternal, I’ll also add an answer that I would much prefer Mr. Blue to give: “Under my new leadership, we are taking climate science seriously and will develop the renewable energy options our customers want. My goal is to offer a solar tariff so good that none of our customers will want to look elsewhere, and the question will become moot.”
6. According to Dominion’s 2020 IRP, data centers make up 12 percent of Dominion’s load in Virginia, a number that has been increasing by 20 percent per year. Data center operators say they want renewable energy but have trouble getting it from Dominion. The biggest tech companies negotiate deals for solar, but smaller customers have fewer attractive options. What is Dominion doing to ensure that data centers have access to solar energy at attractive market rates?
Notice how the answers to the previous question apply here. Dominion has a huge opportunity to lead on climate, requiring only that the company actually care.
7. A year ago Dominion canceled the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, losing the almost $3 billion already spent on the project but saving the additional $5 billion-plus it would have cost to complete the project. About the same time, Dominion sold off its entire gas transmission business, indicating it had come to see pipelines as poor investments. This makes sense since the company already gets all the gas it needs through existing pipelines, and going forward, climate policies and the increasing competitiveness of renewable energy and battery storage mean gas use will decline. But then the company contracted for 12.5% of the shipping capacity of the Mountain Valley Pipeline through its subsidiary Public Service Company of North Carolina, at a cost of at least $50 million per year. How can the company justify this investment? Is there an exit clause in the contract, or will shareholders suffer in the event the company is not allowed to pass this cost on to ratepayers?
8. Dominion is currently pursuing relicensing of its two aging nuclear reactors at North Anna, which are already beyond their 40-year design life. According to the 2020 IRP, Dominion plans to run the North Anna reactors, as well as its two reactors in Surry County, at least through 2045, the period covered by the IRP. Nuclear is a carbon-free resource, but so are wind and solar, and nuclear plants in other states are closing because they are no longer economically competitive. What will it cost Dominion to refurbish these nuclear plants to keep them in operation safely so far beyond their design life? And what will it cost the company if, in spite of refurbishing, one or more of the reactors can’t pass a safety inspection, or even suffers a major failure?
9. Millions of customers in Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina are at risk from hurricanes and other weather events that can knock out power for many days at a time. Today, onsite solar-plus-storage can keep critical facilities operating and allow community centers and schools to serve local residents who have lost power, ensuring they have a place to store medicines that need refrigeration and to charge cellphones, motorized wheelchairs and other devices. If Dominion were to supply the batteries for these facilities, the company could access them for grid storage and services when they are not needed as backup power. In addition to offering a new profit center, it would relieve some of the pressure on line crews who work to restore power after a storm. When will Dominion offer this lifesaving service to its customers?
10. Electric vehicle charging will increase demand for electricity in Virginia, and it also offers an opportunity for the company to deploy vehicle-to-grid technology, making use of the batteries in buses and private vehicles to help balance the grid. Virginia’s General Assembly rejected legislation that would have allowed Dominion to own and control the batteries in school buses in Virginia, but it passed a bill to help local school districts buy electric buses. Will Dominion now support the ability of the school districts to buy electric school buses and own the batteries themselves, and work with them to implement a vehicle-to-grid program?
Virginia’s General Assembly made history in 2020 by becoming the first state in the South to pass a law requiring the full decarbonization of its electric sector. The Virginia Clean Economy Act requires our two largest utilities, Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power, to close all Virginia carbon-emitting power plants by 2045. As of 2050, the state will not issue carbon allowances to any other power plants in the commonwealth, including those owned by electric cooperatives and independent generators.
Less than a year later, President Joe Biden wants to move up the date for a carbon-free electric grid nationwide to 2035. Biden is also targeting a net-zero carbon economy by 2050. On that, Virginia is actually more ambitious, at least on paper, since the Commonwealth Energy Policy sets a goal for a net-zero economy by 2045.
But the electric sector has to come first, mainly because it’s the linchpin for reductions in the rest of the economy. Clean electricity allows for clean transportation when cars, trucks and buses are electrified, and for clean buildings when gas heating and gas appliances are replaced with electric. It’s harder to zero out emissions from industry and agriculture; we do need more time to develop cost-effective solutions for those.
The good news is the U.S. is already halfway to zero, according to a new report from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory that compared CO2 emissions from the power sector today to projections 15 years ago. But a lot of that achievement came from replacing coal with fracked gas, with energy efficiency and renewables making up the rest. From here on in, efficiency and carbon-free sources have to carry the whole load.
What would it take for Virginia to achieve a carbon-free grid just 14 years from now, half the time allowed by the VCEA? Questions fall roughly into three categories: cost, feasibility and reliability. All three will be easier to overcome if the whole country is working together towards a single goal, especially if the federal government does more than just point the way. But there’s a strong case for optimism regardless.
Cost is the biggest concern in the minds of most people, but it shouldn’t be. It’s been three years since solar became the cheapest form of new power generation in Virginia, and prices continue to drop. The International Energy Administration declared last year that falling prices mean solar is “becoming the new king of the world’s electricity markets,” poised to become the primary source of new electricity generation worldwide by 2030. (Did you read about the solar project in Saudi Arabia that will deliver solar at barely over a penny per kilowatt-hour?)
Wind has been the cheapest form of generation for years in many states, and its price is still falling. Of course, for Virginia the big wind opportunity lies offshore. Offshore wind technology is still in its infancy in the U.S., making it relatively expensive, but its price trajectory is also steeply downward. Once the industry scales up and American manufacturing, supply chain and workforce replace European imports, prices will fall further — though it may never match solar on price.
The only expensive part of an all-renewables scenario right now is the challenge of keeping supply in sync with demand. But as with wind and solar, the cost of battery storage technologies has been falling.
Meanwhile, what happens to our existing fossil fuel plants? Closing coal plants was already the right move for consumers. Virginia’s few remaining coal plants don’t run much and are money sinks. Dominion’s newest coal plant, for example, has a 10-year net present value of negative $472 million. Shuttering coal plants will save money today as well as speeding us along the path to zero carbon.
By contrast, we have a lot of gas plants that currently make money, so our utilities are even more loath to plan for their demise. Dominion spent most of the last decade building out a huge fleet of natural gas combined-cycle plants on the theory that fracking would make gas a cheap fuel forever. The theory ignored the growing competitiveness of wind and solar that was evident even early on in the building spree. This isn’t just hindsight talking; in 2013 I wrote that Dominion’s newly-approved 1,358-megawatt Brunswick County Power Station was destined to become a giant concrete paperweight as clean energy displaced fossil fuels. Yet a few years later Dominion added to its paperweight collection with the even larger Greensville County Power Station.
In both cases the equally short-sighted State Corporation Commission approved these investments, so bad luck, ratepayers: we are stuck paying off the capital costs whether the plants run or not. That does not mean we have to operate them; projections show that by 2030 it will be cheaper to turn gas plants into solar panel factories while we run our grid on wind and sunlight.
A rapid transition to a carbon-free grid poses logistical challenges. We need enough suitable land to hold all that solar. (Agrivoltaics will help.) The federal government needs to identify new areas of the ocean for offshore wind turbines. We also need solutions to seasonal fluctuations in demand. We need new transmission lines. We need enough lithium for batteries, steel for turbines, silicon for solar and a trained workforce, stat!
Federal coordination will be key to solving many of these challenges, but we can also reduce land acquisition and transmission barriers if we don’t insist on replacing large, utility-owned fossil fuel power plants only with large, utility-owned wind and solar farms. Virginians will benefit far more if we prioritize solar and storage on rooftops, parking lots, brownfields, closed landfills and rights-of-way. That’s not just about space, but about assigning value to benefits like storm resilience, emergency preparedness and local jobs.
For the same reason, we should insist on building homes better. Houses that are well insulated need less heat in the winter and air conditioning in the summer, reducing the problem of seasonal swings in energy demand. (They are also healthier and more comfortable.)
A rapid transition to a carbon-free grid is a climate imperative, but it’s still a tall order for a utility or a regulator whose job it is to keep the lights on. Batteries, energy efficiency and demand response programs can do only so much. Planners will also have to factor in the likelihood that by 2035, many vehicles will be electric, and electricity will replace gas appliances in new buildings and retrofits. Balancing supply and demand 24/7 with just today’s tools would not be an easy job.
And, fortunately, they will not be working with today’s tools. The pace of change in energy and computer technology over the past 14 years will be matched or exceeded by the pace of the next 14. Green hydrogen gets all the press, but hundreds of other innovations will also combine to make a zero-carbon energy supply feasible and reliable — and, not incidentally, far better for people and the planet than what we have now.
In fact, we are witnessing the launch of a new era in energy, what Tony Seba’s RethinkX Project calls “the fastest, deepest, most profound disruption of the energy sector in over a century,” driven by low-cost solar, wind and battery storage (SWB).
The Project’s report Rethinking Energy 2020-2030 puts it this way: “The SWB disruption of energy will closely parallel the digital disruption of information technology. Just as computers and the Internet slashed the marginal cost of information and opened the door to hundreds of new business models that collectively have had a transformative impact upon the global economy, so too will SWB slash the marginal cost of electricity and create a plethora of opportunities for innovation and entrepreneurship. What happened in the world of bits is now poised to happen in the world of electrons.”
So, a carbon-free grid by 2035? Bring it on, President Biden. Virginia is ready.
One of the most exciting areas of energy technology today is storage. With wind and solar now the leading sources of new energy capacity in the U.S., maximizing their potential in the future depends on the development of storage solutions with different durations and applications.
We tend to think first of batteries, a form of chemical storage, but energy can also be stored thermally (for example, in molten salt at concentrating solar facilities) or using gravity (think of hydroelectric dams and pumped storage). Compressed-air storage, flywheels, and hydrogen fuel cells all offer promise.
Other new technologies are a little more cutting edge, one might even say niche. Take, for example, an interesting gravity-based system designed by Dr. April Iocus, a professor of theoretical engineering and self-described tinkerer. Dr. Iocus turned her entire house itself into an energy storage system.
Solar panels cover the roof of the modest Cape Cod. During the day, energy from the panels powers a hydraulic system to lift the house off its foundation. As the sun sets, the house gradually settles back down, sending enough power through a generator to keep the HVAC, lighting and appliances all humming along without a hitch.
“Gravity is a free resource,” Iocus points out. “Like wind and solar, it’s available everywhere and won’t run out. It’s also really strong, so it’s ideal for holding energy and then releasing it again. It takes a tremendous amount of energy to lift a house even a little way off the ground, so even on cloudy days the system holds a lot of stored energy.”
Home gravity storage has a number of advantages over other storage methods. Energy is stored on site so it requires no transmission lines, and there are no toxic chemicals or fire hazards, as there are with batteries. Batteries also have a limited useful life, whereas a gravity-powered system can be expected to last as long as the house does.
Iocus concedes that the design of GravityHouse™ did pose other challenges. Indoor plumbing was one. Currently the house connects to city water and sewer only at night, when the building comes to rest on its foundation. During the day, holding tanks serve the family’s needs. Although this works perfectly well, Iocus says, “It drives the housing code people crazy. I’m working on a solution involving coiled pipes. Picture giant springs, and you get the idea. I’m ready to install them as soon as I work the kinks out, literally.”
Ingress and egress posed another problem initially. On a clear, sunny day in June, the house may rise as much as 12 feet off the ground by late afternoon. The solution: purpose-built staircases by the front and back doors offer landings every couple of feet. From the right landing it is just a modest step up or down to reach the level of the door.
Iocus also recounts one near-catastrophe. The hydraulic system was not designed with a stop at the top. One June day a solar flare increased the surplus electricity coming out of the solar panels so much that it lifted the house clear off the hoist. The house hovered in the air a full minute while Iocus frantically cranked the air conditioning to maximum output. Gradually, the house settled back onto the hoist—fortunately, without even a millimeter shift in position.
“I was just lucky. If there had been even a breath of wind, or if I had so much as sneezed, well. . . .” Iocus has since installed a stop to make sure the same thing can’t happen again.
Following the success of GravityHouse™, Iocus is turning her attention to other projects. She is particularly excited about potential new uses for the enormous natural gas transmission pipelines that stand to be abandoned as Americans stop using fossil fuels. Iocus says larger-diameter pipelines could be repurposed for human transportation.
“We’ve got pipeline infrastructure and compressor stations already in place all over the country,” she notes. “And a 42-inch pipeline is big enough for a human to sit comfortably in a transport pod. It’s an obvious solution.”
Iocus is currently in talks with Elon Musk to secure financing.
This article originally appeared in the Virginia Mercury on April 1, 2021. Happy April Fool’s Day!
Before the start of the 2021 legislative session, I highlighted three areas where Virginia needed to make significant progress to support its climate agenda: transportation electrification, improving the energy efficiency of buildings and giving consumers greater access to renewable energy.
The General Assembly delivered on one-and-a-half out of three. If we add bonus points for smaller successes, maybe we can call it a total of two. The transportation category truly outperformed expectations, but building efficiency underperformed and renewable energy access didn’t perform at all.
In the transportation sector, the General Assembly passed the Clean Car Standards requiring manufacturers to deliver more electric vehicles to Virginia dealers (HB1965); approved a statewide study of transit equity (HJ542); approved (but so far has not funded) an electric vehicle rebate program (HB1979); directed the SCC to report on ways to electrify transportation (HB2282); and established a school bus electrification fund (also empty for now)(HB2118).
Together these bills address two of the most significant ways we can reduce emissions from the transportation sector: supporting the move away from the internal combustion engine to electric vehicles and improving mass transit options.
The House rejected a second school bus electrification bill that, as originally drafted, would have allowed Dominion Energy Virginia to own, control and profit handsomely from the batteries in as many as 1,250 new electric school buses. Adding non-polluting school buses across Virginia and testing the value of vehicle-to-grid technology would have been exciting, but Dominion couldn’t help taking a good idea and trying to make it into another bloated profit center. Given the odor of Dominion boondoggle, the question isn’t why the House rejected the bill, but why the Senate was willing to swallow it.
Still, it’s clear electric school buses are an idea whose time has come, and vehicle-to-grid technology could have real benefits for ratepayers. Dominion is already testing the technology with school bus batteries in a smaller pilot program, so we can expect to see more on this topic next year. Meanwhile, advocates hope to see funding emerge to implement HB2118, possibly from the federal stimulus bill now under consideration in Congress.
Improving the energy efficiency of new homes should have been an equally popular idea with legislators. Virginia will be spending hundreds of millions of dollars retrofitting existing homes in the years to come, so it makes sense to ensure that new houses don’t immediately join the queue of homes needing upgrades to be climate-ready. Unfortunately, beefing up the energy efficiency provisions of Virginia’s residential building code (HB2227) proved a hard sell in the face of entrenched opposition from the homebuilders’ lobby and surprising resistance from even some Democratic legislators.
The legislation originally would have mandated adoption of the latest national energy efficiency code provisions, but it was amended to leave it up to the discretion of the code-writing board whether to require new homes to achieve this higher level of efficiency. They already had that authority; however, the board will now have to consider factors that favor stricter standards, like the long-term cost of ownership. For that reason I’m counting this bill as half a win. Whether or not the board decides to take the hint, improving efficiency in new homes is a topic we will see a lot more of in the future — and next time it is likely to come with more urgency and added features.
Energy efficiency bills did better when they addressed only government bodies. Legislation that passed now favors energy-efficient and water-efficient products in public procurement, and requires EV charging and energy/carbon tracking capability for new public buildings.
Unfortunately, 2021 was another bad year for my third priority, giving consumers the right to buy renewable energy from competitive suppliers. The House supported the “right to shop” bill (HB2048), but Senate Commerce and Labor once again proved itself a bulwark of defense for the monopoly utility model against the interests of residents and corporate customers alike. Killing the bill does nothing to lessen the demand from consumers. If Dominion does not move soon to offer better renewable energy options itself, we can expect to see this legislation return.
Senate Commerce and Labor further cemented its reputation as Dominion’s best friend by dispatching the full suite of utility reform bills that had won bipartisan support in the House. Only three senators on the 15-member committee consistently voted in favor of the reforms, ensuring that none of them got to the Senate floor.
Various other bills advanced the energy transition in smaller, focused bites. But perhaps the best news is that nothing this year marked a retreat from the commitment the General Assembly and the governor made last year to move Virginia toward a cleaner and more equitable energy supply.
Below is a brief round-up of the climate and energy bills that passed this year, including the ones mentioned above. The governor will still have to sign the bills before they become law, but we are not expecting any surprises.
Renewable energy and storage
• HB1925 (Kilgore) establishes, but does not fund, the Virginia Brownfield and Coal Mine Renewable Energy Grant Fund and Program.
• HB1994 (Murphy) expands the definition of small agriculture generators to include certain small manufacturing businesses such as breweries, distilleries and wineries for the purposes of the law allowing these businesses to aggregate meters and sell renewable energy to a utility.
• HB2006 (Heretick) and SB1201 (Petersen) change the definition of an “electric supplier” to include the operator of a storage facility of at least 25 MW, exempting them from state and local taxation but allowing a revenue share assessment.
• HB2034 (Hurst) clarifies that the program allowing third-party power purchase agreements (PPAs) applies to nonjurisdictional customers (i.e., local government and schools) as well as jurisdictional customers (most other customers) of Appalachian Power and Kentucky Utilities.
• HB2148 (Willett) provides for energy storage facilities below 150 MW to be subject to the DEQ permit by rule process as “small renewable energy projects.” This is a priority bill for renewable energy industry associations.
• HB2201 (Jones) and SB1207 (Barker) expands provisions related to siting agreements for solar projects located in an opportunity zone to include energy storage projects; however, according to existing language, the provision only takes effect if the GA also passes legislation authorizing localities to adopt an ordinance providing for the tax treatment of energy storage projects. This is another renewable energy industry bill.
• HB2269 (Heretick) provides for increases in the revenue share localities can require for solar projects based on changes in the Consumer Price Index.
• SB1258 (Marsden) requires the State Water Control Board to administer a Virginia Erosion and Sediment Control Program (VESCP) on behalf of any locality that notifies the Department of Environmental Quality that it has chosen not to administer a VESCP for any solar photovoltaic (electric energy) project with a rated electrical generation capacity exceeding five megawatts. The provisions become effective only if the program is funded..
• SB1295 (DeSteph) requires utilities to use Virginia-made or U.S.-made products in constructing renewable energy and storage facilities “if available.” As amended, the products must be “reasonably available and competitively priced.”
Energy efficiency and buildings
• HB1811 (Helmer) adds a preference for energy efficient and water-efficient products in public procurement.
• HB1859 (Guy) amends last year’s legislation on Commercial Property Assessed Clean Energy (C-PACE) loans to allow these loans to be extended to projects completed in the previous 2 years; it also expressly excludes residential buildings of less than 5 units and residential condominiums.
• HB2001 (Helmer) requires state and local government buildings to be constructed or renovated to include electric vehicle charging infrastructure and the capability of tracking energy efficiency and carbon emissions. Local governments are authorized to adopt even more stringent requirements. It now has an amendment delaying its effectiveness to 2023 for localities with populations under 100,000.
• HB2227 (Kory) originally required the Board of Housing and Community Development to adopt amendments to the Uniform Statewide Building Code within one year of publication of a new version of the International Code Council’s International Energy Conservation Code (IECC) to address changes related to energy efficiency and conservation. The bill would have required the Board to adopt building code standards that are at least as stringent as those contained in the new version of the IECC.
• HB1919 (Kory) authorizes a locality to establish a green bank to finance clean energy investments.
• HB1834 (Subramanyam) and SB1247 (Deeds) originally required owners of carbon-emitting power plants to conduct a study at least every 18 months to determine whether the facility should be retired; and to give notice of any decision to retire a facility to state and local leaders within 14 days. Both bills were amended so that the retirement analysis is now just a part of the integrated resource planning process of investor-owned utilities, currently every three years, leaving out other plant owners like cooperatives.
• HB1899 (Hudson) and SB1252 (McPike) sunset the coal tax credits as ofJan. 1, 2022.
• SB1265 (Deeds) makes it easier for DEQ to inspect and issue stop-work orders during gas pipeline construction.
• SB1311 (McClellan) requires pipeline applicants to submit detailed erosion and sediment control plans and stormwater management plans to DEQ.
• HB2330 (Kory) is the legislation the SCC asked for to provide guidance on the Percentage of Income Payment Program under the Virginia Clean Economy Act.
• SB1282 (Morrissey) directs DEQ to conduct a statewide greenhouse gas inventory, to be updated and published every four years.
• SB1284 (Favola) changes the name of the Commonwealth Energy Policy to the Commonwealth Clean Energy Policy, and streamlines the language without making major changes to the policies set out last year in Favola’s successful SB94. That bill overhauled the CEP, which until then had been a jumble of competing priorities, and established new targets for Virginia to achieve 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2040 and net-zero carbon economy-wide by 2045.
• SB1374 (Lewis) sets up a Carbon Sequestration Task Force to consider methods of increasing carbon sequestration in the natural environment, establish benchmarks and identify carbon markets.
EVs and Transportation energy
• HB1850 (Reid) increases the roadway weight limit for electric and natural gas-fueled trucks to accommodate the extra weight of batteries or natural gas fuel systems.
• HB1965 (Bagby) is the Clean Car Standards bill, which would require manufacturers to deliver more electric vehicles to Virginia dealers beginning in 2025.
• HB1979 (Reid) creates a rebate program for new and used electric vehicles; however, the GA provided no funding.
• HB2118 (Keam) establishes an Electric Vehicle Grant Fund and Program to assist school boards in replacing diesel buses with electric, installing charging infrastructure, and developing workforce education to support the electric buses. It currently has no funding.
• HB2282 (Sullivan) directs the SCC to develop and report on policy proposals to accelerate transportation electrification in the Commonwealth. The bill also limits how utilities get reimbursed for investments in transportation electrification: they must recover costs through normal rates for generation and distribution, and not through rate adjustment clauses or customer credit reinvestment offsets.
• HJ542 (McQuinn) requests a statewide study of transit equity and modernization.
• SB1223 (Boysko) adds a requirement to the Virginia Energy Plan to include an analysis of electric vehicle charging infrastructure and other infrastructure needed to support the 2045 net-zero carbon target in the transportation sector.
It is never fun to see our fellow Americans suffer, whether it’s from pandemic diseases or weather disasters. Our hearts go out to the residents of Texas who suffered without electricity and heat for days, some of them also without safe drinking water, and a few of them even dying from exposure, fires or carbon monoxide poisoning as they tried to keep warm.
On the other hand, picking apart the preposterous excuses from Texas leaders seeking to avoid responsibility for the fully preventable power outages and the misery that accompanied them—well, that’s another matter. And it’s made so much easier by those leaders’ insistence on trying to score political points instead of admitting that at least some of the blame rests on their shoulders.
Take Governor Greg Abbott, who went on Fox News to blame liberals for the debacle. Ignoring his state’s failure to plan for climate change and invest in power grid winterization, he told talk show host Sean Hannity the problem was actually the portion of the state’s electricity supply that comes from wind and solar. “This shows how the Green New Deal would be a deadly deal for the United States of America. Our wind and our solar got shut down, and they were collectively more than 10 percent of our power grid, and that thrust Texas into a situation where it was lacking power on a statewide basis.”
No one in Abbott’s echo chamber pointed out that a) solar actually did just fine, b) states like Iowa and South Dakota, with much worse winter weather, rely much more heavily on wind power than Texas does, yet there are no stories about their turbines seizing up and their grids collapsing, and c) if a shortage of ten percent shuts your grid down, you have way more problems than you can blame on the Green New Deal. In fact, the biggest factor in the grid failure was some 28,000 megawatts of coal, nuclear and gas power that went offline, as the Electric Reliability Council of Texas reported.
And then there was Ted Cruz. I’m not referring to the farce of his skipping out on the post-storm misery to fly to Cancun, then pinning it on his daughters before high-tailing it home to make a show of handing out relief supplies. That incident just reminds us that no matter how deep our divisions, Americans can always find unity in our collective loathing of Ted Cruz.
No, in this case I want to point to a pair of tweets from Cruz, almost exactly two years apart. February 13, 2019: “Success of TX energy is no accident: it was built over many years on principles of free enterprise & low regulation w more jobs & opportunities as the constant goal. We work to export this recipe for success t more & more states so that all Americans enjoy the same prosperity.”
And here he is on February 22 of this year, reacting to news that free enterprise and low regulation had produced $5,000 electric bills for some customers in the aftermath of the storm: “This is WRONG. No power company should get a windfall because of a natural disaster, and Texans shouldn’t get hammered by ridiculous rate increases for last week’s energy debacle. State and local regulators should act swiftly to prevent this injustice.”
Luckily for us, lots of other people have been more interested in understanding what happened and preventing it from happening again than in trying to duck blame and score political points. The real story, it turns out, is simple at its core: “low regulation” meant the Texas grid and power providers did not adequately prepare for winter storms that climate change is making worse than they used to be. And because the Texas grid is cut off from the rest of the country (a feature, not a bug, to cowboy politicians), when the crisis hit there was no way to import power from other states that were better prepared.
Let’s take a closer look at what went wrong, how it could have been avoided, and what lessons it offers for the rest of us.
The setup: an isolated grid with “free enterprise and low regulation”
The grid that serves Texas is uniquely isolated, which also gives it a unique vulnerability. The Electric Reliability Council of Texas serves most of the state, and no other states. Texans are proud of that (or were before this month), because it means there is no role for federal regulators like FERC. It also means that when power ran out, ERCOT couldn’t just import it from parts of the country with a surplus. Of course, states near Texas also suffered in the storm, so there may not have been a lot of surplus power to be had. It is worth noting, though, that the border city of El Paso fared better than the rest of Texas because it is not part of ERCOT but part of a larger regional transmission organization (RTO) serving several southwestern states.
Another feature of ERCOT is the low regulation that Ted Cruz celebrated. ERCOT keeps it simple for power generators. They get paid for the power they produce. Other RTOs have what is called a “capacity market” to reward generating plants just for being available to run when called on, and they penalize participants who fail to perform. ERCOT does neither. With a reserve capacity of only about ten percent and no way to guarantee generators would be available when needed, ERCOT had set itself up for trouble.
If generators had faced penalties for nonperformance, they could have—and almost certainly would have—spent the money needed to prepare their facilities for colder-than-usual weather. Winterization is a normal cost of doing business for a power provider in a northern state, but Texas winters are usually warm enough not to require it. If you won’t be penalized for not winterizing, you have little incentive to do it when you’re competing on cost with other power sellers.
ERCOT was vulnerable for another reason. Demand for power in Texas is usually higher in summer, with air conditioners running, than it is in the state’s typically mild winters, so ERCOT plans for that. But in cold weather, gas-fired power plants face competition for fuel, when some of the gas supply goes for heating buildings. This month, when gas wells and pipelines also froze up, there simply wasn’t enough fuel to go around. ERCOT’s overreliance on gas proved to be a liability much greater than the smaller amount of renewable energy on the grid.
The last important feature of the Texas system is retail competition. Electricity customers in ERCOT can choose among dozens of power providers. Some providers keep rates constant; others offer a variable rate that just passes through the wholesale cost of power, with only a small monthly fee added. When wholesale rates are low, the consumer saves money on a plan like that. But regulators didn’t insist on any safeguard to protect customers against the possibility of wholesale prices spiking to astronomical levels due to a power shortage. That’s exactly what happened in the aftermath of this month’s storm.
That $5,000 power bill Cruz criticized? That’s unfettered free-market supply-and-demand at work. It’s a feature, not a bug. If you don’t like that feature, Senator Cruz, maybe low regulation isn’t for you. Helping consumers avoid power bills in the thousands of dollars would have been easy, but it would have required a little bit of regulation.
The storm; or how nature takes no interest in political posturing
Well before this storm hit, ERCOT was fully aware of the vulnerabilities of its particular brand of laissez-faire operations. Ten years ago, in the wake of another winter storm, Texas operators were warned of the dire consequences that could ensue if they did not require generators to winterize operations.
But, they didn’t, and this chart from the U.S. Energy Information Agency shows what happened to generation as a result. Before the storm, you can see natural gas and coal plants running less when high winds produce plenty of cheaper wind power, then cranking up when wind speeds drop. As the week goes on, power supply from natural gas plants increases to meet higher demand from colder weather, while other generation holds steady. Then suddenly you see every category of energy resource except solar drop in output, as critical components of some generating units freeze up and the units fall offline, while fuel supplies also dwindle. Some wind generation falls off, but so does coal, nuclear, and—especially—natural gas, just as they are all needed most.
The storm was, to be sure, one of the worst winter storms ERCOT had ever faced. And the situation could have been worse. If operators had not proactively cut power to customers, demand in excess of supply would have damaged grid infrastructure so severely that large swaths of the population would have been without power for weeks or months. (Let us now praise faceless bureaucrats, for they just saved Texas.)
So it was bad, and could have been worse. Why didn’t Texas prepare for it, even after being warned? I have one theory. People who cling to simplistic notions that global warming “should” produce only warmer winters have a tiresome habit of pointing to cold weather as evidence that climate change isn’t real, but I think they also take secret comfort in the idea that if the planet is warming, extreme cold weather events will become less common, with less need to prepare for them. If your political philosophy requires you to see regulation as an evil, your own willful misunderstanding of climate science might provide all the excuse you’re looking for not to act.
Could it happen here?
Bad weather can happen anywhere, and it’s always safer not to gloat. That said, several features distinguish ERCOT from PJM, and Texas from Virginia. As noted before, PJM has a capacity market that rewards even otherwise-uneconomic generators for hanging around being ready to produce at short notice, and those generators are penalized if they don’t perform when needed. As a result, we are much less likely to see the kind of power shortage and price spikes that Texans experienced. (Not that PJM is without flaws. Its capacity market unnecessarily discriminates against wind and solar, its policies are making the integration of renewable energy harder than it ought to be, and it has incentivized such an oversupply of gas generation that consumers are paying higher prices for the inefficiency. But that’s another story.)
Virginia also features monopoly power companies rather than retail choice. There is plenty of disagreement as to whether that is good or bad for consumers. The monopoly model requires strong regulation to ensure captive consumers aren’t being overcharged, and are being offered the products they want—like renewable energy. Critics (and I’m among them) have argued that Virginia isn’t doing enough on this front.
On the other hand, the retail choice model depends on consumers being well informed, and also requires regulators to scrutinize the tactics of power providers and punish the ones who take advantage of unwary consumers. So, ironically, a deregulated electricity market requires strong regulation to protect participants. Strong regulation could have prevented Texas providers from offering residential customers a tariff based on wholesale prices, with risks that residents couldn’t easily understand or mitigate against.
Texas was also more vulnerable to disruption because power generators were not required to winterize their plants or penalized for not doing so. Sure, a winterized plant would have turned a hefty profit in this storm, but in a more average winter, the extra cost would not have paid off. The option not to winterize isn’t a good one in PJM. As a result, when the power does go out in PJM, the problem is inevitably in the delivery infrastructure, not the generation.
Virginia’s system of vertically-integrated utilities means our utilities own their electric generation as well as the power lines. They can charge customers for building and maintaining those generating facilities, so they have less incentive to skimp on weatherization. That increases the reliability of those facilities. But even if several power plants in Virginia were to fail all at once, we could still draw power from more than 1,200 facilities across PJM, or even from the larger Eastern Interconnection. By design, Texas does not have that option.
One distinction between ERCOT and PJM that doesn’t make a difference, in spite of Governor Abbott’s claims, is the greater percentage of wind in ERCOT than in PJM. Wind actually makes up 23% of generation in ERCOT, more than perhaps Abbott wanted to admit, given that most of it came online under his watch. In PJM, wind makes up only about 3%. If Abbott were correct that wind turbines can’t handle winter weather, that would be a reason for more northern grids like PJM to avoid wind. But of course, Abbott’s claim is political wishful thinking divorced from reality. Wind turbines operate just fine in the much colder winters of Iowa, the Dakotas, Canada—heck, even in the frigid and stormy North Sea, where offshore wind ramps up production in winter.
As for solar, you could see from the chart that it was not affected by the cold weather. Texas residents who were lucky enough to have both rooftop solar and batteries spent the aftermath of the storm bragging about never losing power. That’s a compelling argument not just for more solar in the generation mix, but for more distributed generation in particular, including solar microgrids and resilience hubs to help communities weather future storms.
In the wake of this month’s storm, the independent Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) analyzed what went wrong and issued recommendations for Texas grid operators. Among the unsurprising recommendations: ERCOT should do better planning for resource adequacy and increase its interconnections to other power systems so it does not have to go it alone.
I would add one more recommendation: keep your ideology out of it. You can’t deliver reliable power that is also reasonably priced without robust regulation. If leaders refuse to learn from this winter, they’ll simply set up Mother Nature for another opportunity to mess with Texas.
A version of this article appeared in the Virginia Mercury on February 25, 2021.
Don’t let the long list fool you. While the majority of the bills we’ve been following have either passed both chambers or seem well on their way to doing so, some of the most impactful bills are now dead, and others have been amended into meekness.
The entire category of Utility Reform got emptied out into the dumpster in Senate Commerce and Labor, which also killed Jeff Bourne’s “right to shop” bill that would have opened up the renewable energy market. They are all now found under “Dead and Buried” at the end.
Kaye Kory’s building code bill that would have ensured the Virginia residential code meet the minimum requirements of the national energy efficiency model code has been amended to require that the national code merely be considered. An additional sentence saying essentially “we really mean it” only partially redeems the amendment.
On the other hand, the Clean Cars Standard is alive and well, showing that ambitious bills can succeed when a large enough coalition pushes hard enough (and when Dominion will benefit from higher electricity sales). Even a few Republicans voiced support, though they would not go on record to vote for it. But the EV rebate bill may be in some peril, and it was supposed to be the carrot that brought auto dealers on board.
As for school buses, stay tuned.
Renewable energy and storage
HB1925 (Kilgore) establishes, but does not fund, the Virginia Brownfield and Coal Mine Renewable Energy Grant Fund and Program. Passed both the House and Senate unanimously and now goes to the Governor.
HB1994 (Murphy) and HB2215 (Runion) expands the definition of small agriculture generators to include certain small manufacturing businesses such as breweries, distilleries and wineries for the purposes of the law allowing these businesses to aggregate meters and sell renewable energy to a utility. HB2215 was incorporated into HB1994, which passed the House 93-6 (nay votes from Brewer, Campbell, R.R., Gilbert, LaRock, Poindexter, and Wright) and the Senate 39-0. The bills now go to the Governor.
HB2006 (Heretick) and SB1201 (Petersen) change the definition of an “electric supplier” to include the operator of a storage facility of at least 25 MW, exempting them from state and local taxation but allowing a revenue share assessment. This is a priority bill for renewable energy industry associations. HB2006 passed the House 88-11-1 and Senate 37-1-1 (Amanda Chase was the nay vote). SB1201 passed the Senate 38-0-1 (must have slipped by Chase) and House 91-6-1 (nay votes from Batten, Cole, M.L., Freitas, LaRock, Webert, and Wright. The bills now go to the Governor.
HB2034 (Hurst) clarifies that the program allowing third-party power purchase agreements (PPAs) applies to nonjurisdictional customers (i.e., local government and schools) as well as jurisdictional customers (most other customers). Passed the House 99-0 and Senate 39-0. Senate companion billSB1420 (Edwards) also passed Senate and House unanimously, so this is another done deal. It now goes to the Governor.
HB2148 (Willett) provides for energy storage facilities below 150 MW to be subject to the DEQ permit by rule process as “small renewable energy projects.” This is a priority bill for renewable energy industry associations. Passed the House 89-9, reported from Senate Ag. but then referred to Finance for reasons no one can understand.If it doesn’t get hung up there it is likely to pass the full Senate.
HB2201 (Jones) and SB1207 (Barker) expands provisions related to siting agreements for solar projects located in an opportunity zone to include energy storage projects; however, according to existing language, the provision only takes effect if the GA also passes legislation authorizing localities to adopt an ordinance providing for the tax treatment of energy storage projects. (Why doesn’t the bill just go ahead and include that authorization? Don’t ask me.) This is another renewable energy industry bill. HB2201 passed the House 71-29 and Senate 34-3-1 (Chase, DeSteph and Reeves were the only holdouts). SB1207passed the Senate 37-0 and is on its way to the House floor. Another done deal.
HB2269 (Heretick) provides for increases in the revenue share localities can require for solar projects based on changes in the Consumer Price Index. Passed the House 91-8, passed the Senate 37-1-1 (the sole nay vote came from, yes, Amanda Chase). It now goes to the Governor.
SB1258 (Marsden) requires the State Water Control Board to administer a Virginia Erosion and Sediment Control Program (VESCP) on behalf of any locality that notifies the Department of Environmental Quality that it has chosen not to administer a VESCP for any solar photovoltaic (electric energy) project with a rated electrical generation capacity exceeding five megawatts. The provisions become effective only if the program is funded; Marsden has submitted a budget amendment. This is also a priority bill for renewable energy industry associations. Passed the Senate 39-0, still bouncing around House committees but with no opposition.
SB1295 (DeSteph) requires utilities to use Virginia-made or US-made products in constructing renewable energy and storage facilities “if available.” After much criticism it was amended to read that the products must be “reasonably available and competitively priced,” after which the now-happily-pointless bill passed the Senate 37-0-2 and has gone on to be reported from House Commerce and Labor unanimously.
Energy efficiency and buildings
HB1811 (Helmer) adds a preference for energy efficient products in public procurement. Passed the House 55-44 along party lines. Passed the Senate 25-14 but with amendments limiting it to state agencies and softening the language—because, you know, why force localities to save taxpayer money if they would rather waste it? The House then rejected the amendments; the Senate has requested the bill be sent to a conference committee.
HB1859 (Guy) amends last year’s legislation on Commercial Property Assessed Clean Energy (C-PACE) loans to allow these loans to be extended to projects completed in the previous 2 years; it also expressly excludes residential buildings of less than 5 units and residential condominiums. Passed House 61-38; passed Senate 26-12-1. It now goes to the Governor.
HB2001 (Helmer) requires state and local government buildings to be constructed or renovated to include electric vehicle charging infrastructure and the capability of tracking energy efficiency and carbon emissions. Local governments are authorized to adopt even more stringent requirements. Passed the House 53-45; reported from Senate General Laws with an amendment delaying its effectiveness to 2023 for localities with populations under 100,000; referred to Finance.
HB2227 (Kory) and SB1224 (Boysko) originally required the Board of Housing and Community Development to adopt amendments to the Uniform Statewide Building Code within one year of publication of a new version of the International Code Council’s International Energy Conservation Code (IECC) to address changes related to energy efficiency and conservation. The bill would have required the Board to adopt Building Code standards that are at least as stringent as those contained in the new version of the IECC. It turns out the homebuilders who oppose higher efficiency standards have more clout with committee chairs David Bulova in the House and George Barker in the Senate than consumer and environmental advocates do. The Senate bill never even got a hearing in committee. After much negotiation, the amended House bill now merely requires the Housing Board to “consider” adopting amendments “at least as stringent as those contained” in the latest IECC, and must “assess the public health, safety, and welfare benefits” involved, “including potential energy savings and air quality benefits over time compared to the cost of initial construction.” Republicans still wouldn’t vote for it, so it passed the House only on a party-line vote of 55-45. In the Senate, it passed General Laws 8-4 but was then sucked over to Finance on the pretense that it would cost money. Once again, this is either incompetence on someone’s part or a deliberate effort to gum up the process of legislating. I’ll just note that a great many bills incorrectly hauled into Finance are ones opposed by that committee’s senior Republican, Tommy Norment.
HB1919 (Kory) authorizes a locality to establish a green bank to finance clean energy investments. Fairfax County has requested this authority. Passed the House 55-43 on another party-line vote. Passed the Senate with a substitute 25-13. The substitute does not appear to me to hurt the bill, but the House will have to agree to it, or go to conference.
HB1834 (Subramanyam) and SB1247 (Deeds) originally required owners of carbon-emitting power plants to conduct a study at least every 18 months to determine whether the facility should be retired; and to give notice of any decision to retire a facility to state and local leaders within 14 days. Both bills were amended so that the retirement analysis is now just a part of the integrated resource planning process of investor-owned utilities, currently every 3 years, leaving out other plant owners like ODEC. With further amendments, both bills have passed both chambers unanimously and will go to the Governor.
HB1899 (Hudson) and SB1252 (McPike) sunset the coal tax credits, because it is absolutely crazy that Virginia continues to subsidize coal mining while we’ve committed to close coal plants. Amended to give the coal companies one more year of subsidies before the program ends January 1, 2022. HB1899 passed the House 54-45 and the Senate 21-17 (Republican Hanger voting with Democrats); SB1252 passed the Senate 22-17 and House 55-45.It now goes to the Governor.
SB1265 (Deeds) makes it easier for DEQ to inspect and issue stop-work orders during gas pipeline construction. An amendment slightly weakened the bill before it passed the Senate 38-0. It has reported from House Ag. and should now be before the full House.
SB1311 (McClellan) originally required DEQ to revise erosion and sediment control plans or stormwater management plans when a stop work order has been issued for violations related to pipeline construction. The bill has been amended significantly and the stop-work language removed. It does require pipeline applicants to submit detailed erosion and sediment control plans, and expands the applicability of the requirement to areas with slopes with a grade above 10 percent, a number that is currently 15 percent. Passed the Senate 20-17. In House subcommittee it picked up a new substitute and that was reported out of committee. If that passes the full House it will need to go back to the Senate. I’m told negotiations on the language continue.
HB2330 (Kory) is the legislation the SCC asked for to provide guidance on the Percentage of Income Payment Program under the Virginia Clean Economy Act. This turned out to be harder than one would have thought for a bill that was just supposed to help implement a section of a previous year’s bill.With some amendments it passed the House 54-46, the usual party-line split except that Democrat Sam Rasoul joined the Rs. It passed the Senate 20-19 but only with a substitute saying it won’t take effect unless passed again next year. That’s the equivalent of voting it down, except that in this case it gives the bill a chance to go to a conference committee to work out the remaining concerns.
SB1282 (Morrissey) directs DEQ to conduct a statewide greenhouse gas inventory, to be updated and published every four years. Passed the Senate 22-16. (It picked up one Republican vote: Jill Vogel.) It has reported from House Ag. 13-8 on a party-line vote and now goes to the floor.
SB1284 (Favola) changes the name of the Commonwealth Energy Policy to the Commonwealth Clean Energy Policy, and streamlines the language without making major changes to the policies set out last year in Favola’s successful SB94. That bill overhauled the CEP, which until then had been a jumble of competing priorities, and established new targets for Virginia to achieve 100% carbon-free electricity by 2040 and net-zero carbon economy-wide by 2045. This year’s bill shows the Northam Administration is now fully on board, and the result is a policy statement that is more concise and coherent. Amendments make the bill slightly more friendly to biomass and natural gas than the introduced bill had been, but it remains an improvement on existing law. Senator Norment, who opposed last year’s bill as well as this year’s, tried to run out the clock on it by getting it referred to Finance after it was reported from Commerce and Labor, but Finance promptly reported it. It passed the Senate 21-18 (party line) and the House 55-45.
SB1374 (Lewis) would set up a Carbon Sequestration Task Force to consider methods of increasing carbon sequestration in the natural environment, establish benchmarks, and identify carbon markets. Passed the Senate 38-0 and the House 79-20 with a couple of very minor amendments that the Senate agreed to, so this now goes to the Governor.
The reform category was well-populated at halftime, but that was then, and this is two weeks later. In the interim, Senate Commerce and Labor met—first the subcommittee, whose five members expressed great concern about harm to Dominion Energy’s profits and none about ratepayers getting fleeced, then the full committee, which wasn’t much better. All the bills in this committee can now be found in our graveyard section at the end.
EVs and Transportation energy
HB1850 (Reid) increases the roadway weight limit for electric and natural gas-fueled trucks to accommodate the extra weight of batteries or natural gas fuel systems. It picked up minor amendments along the way and easily passed the House and Senate with no dissenting votes (until Delegate Cole voted nay at the end, possibly a recording error). The bill goes now to the Governor.
HB1965 (Bagby) is the Clean Car Standard bill, which would require manufacturers to deliver more electric vehicles to Virginia dealers beginning in 2025. To get agreement from the dealers, this bill was “packaged” with HB1979 (rebates for EVs), which dealers wanted to ensure the customers would be there. Passed the House 55-44. Senator Newman made a last-ditch effort to kill the bill through amendments on the Senate floor, which were rejected. Passed the Senate 21-15, with a few Republicans not voting.
HB1979 (Reid) creates a rebate program for new and used electric vehicles. Passed the House 55-45. Senate Finance amended it to require it to be reenacted next year, and that substitute bill passed the Senate 21-17. The different House and Senate versions will go to conference, where advocates hope to get the reenactment clause stricken; if not, the bill is dead.
HB2118 (Keam) establishes an Electric Vehicle Grant Fund and Program to assist school boards in replacing diesel buses with electric, installing charging infrastructure, and developing workforce education to support the electric buses. It seems to be an empty fund.Passed the House 55-44-1. In the Senate, the bill reported from Finance but ran into trouble on the floor. Reportedly Senator Lucas did away with the bill by “rolling it into” her SB1380 in spite of their dissimilarities. This is not yet reflected in LIS, and the floor vote is being delayed from day to day.
HB2282 (Sullivan) directs the SCC to develop and report on policy proposals to accelerate transportation electrification in the Commonwealth. The bill also limits how utilities get reimbursed for investments in transportation electrification: they must recover costs through normal rates for generation and distribution, and not through rate adjustment clauses or customer credit reinvestment offsets. Passed the House 76-23, passed the Senate 38-1 (yes, that was Chase dissenting again). Now goes to the Governor.
HJ542 (McQuinn) requests a statewide study of transit equity and modernization. Passed the House 77-19. Senate Finance amended it to change who is to do the study, then agreed to it by a voice vote.
SB1223 (Boysko) adds a requirement to the Virginia Energy Plan to include an analysis of electric vehicle charging infrastructure and other infrastructure needed to support the 2045 net-zero carbon target in the transportation sector. Passed the Senate 22-15, passed the House 57-42; now off to the Governor.
SB1380 (Lucas) authorizes electric utilities to partner with school districts on electric school buses. The utility (read: Dominion) can own the batteries and the charging infrastructure, earning its usual rate of return from ratepayers, and use the batteries for grid services and peak shaving. Passed the Senate 33-4. The House amended the bill to make it better but then voted it down anyway by a vote of 34-53. After that, the House agreed to reconsider the vote and pass it by for the day. . . and the next day, too. Lucas seems to expect to change minds by her power move to eliminate competition from the Keam bill.
SB1453 (Edwards) revises Titles 45.1 and 67 of the Virginia Code. “The bill organizes the laws in a more logical manner, removes obsolete and duplicative provisions, and improves the structure and clarity of statutes pertaining to” mining and energy. The bill is a recommendation of the Virginia Code Commission. Passed the Senate 39-0 and the House 100-0. Goes next to Governor.
DEAD AND BURIED
In numerical order, House bills first
HB1914 (Helmer) changes “shall” to “may” in a number of places, giving the SCC discretion over when to count utility costs against revenues. HB1835 (Subramanyam) was incorporated into this bill. Passed the House 60-39. I had hopes this one might survive in the Senate due to its elegant simplicity, but no. Killed in C&L 8-7, with Saslaw, Lucas, Barker, Lewis and Mason joining Republicans Norment, Newman and Obenshain to PBI (pass by indefinitely). The 7 senators who voted not to kill were Spruill, Edwards, Deeds, Marsden, Ebbin, Surovell and Bell.
HB1934 (Simon) requires local approval for construction of any gas pipeline over 12 inches in diameter in a residential subdivision. Killed in committee.
HB1937 (Rasoul) was this year’s version of the Green New Deal Act. But like last year, it never even got a hearing, in part because it rocked too many boats, and in part because it was a lousy bill.
HB1984 (Hudson) gives the SCC added discretion to determine a utility’s fair rate of return and to order rate increases or decreases accordingly. Passed the House 64-35, killed in Senate C&L 11-4. Only Democrats Edwards, Deeds, Ebbin and Bell voted against the motion to PBI.
HB2048 (Bourne) restores the right of customers to buy renewable energy from any supplier even once their own utility offers a renewable energy purchase option. In addition, third party suppliers of renewable energy are required to offer a discounted renewable energy product to low-income customers, saving them at least 10% off the cost of regular utility service. Passed the House 67-32, killed in Senate Commerce and Labor due to the obsequiousness of the committee members.
HB2049 (Bourne) would prevent utilities from using overearnings for new projects instead of issuing refunds. Passed the House 56-44, killed in Senate Commerce and Labor 11-4. Senator Spruill, ordinarily a secure vote for Dominion, joined Deeds, Ebbin and Bell in dissent.
HB2067 (Webert) lowers from 150 MW to 50 MW the maximum size of a solar facility that can use the Permit by Rule process. Tabled in House committee.
HB2160 (Tran) gives the SCC greater authority to determine when a utility has overearned and gives the Commission greater discretion in determining whether to raise or lower rates and order refunds. It also requires 100% of overearnings to be credited to customers’ bills, instead of 70%, as is the case today. Passed the House 62-38, killed in Senate Commerce and Labor 12-3.
HB2200 (Jones) makes a number of changes to SCC rate review proceedings, including setting a fair rate of return, requiring 100% of overearnings to be credited to customers’ bills, and eliminating the $50 million limit on refunds to Dominion customers in the next rate review proceeding. HB2057 (Ware) was incorporated into this bill, and it passed the House 63-37. Killed in Senate Commerce and Labor. This time Republican Steve Newman joined Deeds, Ebbin and Bell in dissent, though Newman had voted to kill the similar SB1292.
HB2265 (Freitas) would repeal provisions of the VCEA phasing out carbon emissions from power plants, repeal the restrictions on SCC approval of new carbon-emitting facilities, and nix the provisions declaring wind, solar, offshore wind and energy storage to be in the public interest; however it also would declare that planning and development of new nuclear generation is in the public interest. Killed in subcommittee.
HB2281 (Ware) would exempt certain companies that use a lot of energy from paying for their share of the costs of Virginia’s energy transition under the VCEA, driving up costs for all other ratepayers. Killed in subcommittee.
HB2292 (Cole) was labeled the fossil fuel moratorium bill but included many other parts of the Green New Deal as well. It suffered the same fate, and for the same reasons.
SB1292 (McClellan) was the only utility reform bill to begin in the Senate instead of the friendlier House. It would require 100% of utility overearnings to be credited to customers’ bills, instead of 70%, as is the case today. Killed in Senate Commerce and Labor 11-3, with Deeds, Mason and Bell the dissenters.
SB1463 (Cosgrove) would create a loophole to let HOAs to ban solar once again. It turned out even the HOA lobby didn’t like the bill. It was stricken by the patron in committee.
Transportation electrification is the focus of several bills moving through the General Assembly this winter. Environmental advocates support legislation providing rebates for purchases of electric vehicles and making EVs more readily available, both of which will help develop a market for electric cars. But buses present an even stronger case for electrification because they serve more people of all income levels, and are mostly diesel now. Switching to electric buses, especially school buses, would save money on fuel and improve air quality, especially for children riding them.
Yet the only electric school bus bill that would have much immediate impact is so deeply flawed and counterproductive that the environmental community is largely united in opposition. SB1380 has passed the Senate and reached the House floor, where it is now encountering headwinds. That opposition contrasts with the broad support offered for HB2118 (Keam), now in Senate Finance, which establishes a public funding mechanism for electric school buses, but unfortunately so far no funds have been appropriated.
I asked Gary Greenwood, the EV Issues Chair for the Sierra Club’s legislative committee, to explain the problems with SB1380 and what amendments it would need to have before Sierra Club could support it. Below is Gary’s response.
Last week, the House Labor and Commerce committee approved a bill that allows Dominion to deploy an unproven technology, electric school bus batteries used to support the electric grid, and collect the costs from ratepayers. The bill, SB1380 (Lucas), specifies that these school buses connected to the grid are in the public interest, and therefore ratepayers must pay for them, including the guaranteed profit for the utility. Also of concern is that the bill does not ensure that the buses will always be available when the schools need them for transporting kids.
While vehicle-to-grid technology is not new, it has never been deployed at this scale to support a utility’s electric grid. SB1380 will allow Dominion to charge ratepayers hundreds of millions of dollars for this unproven technology, without a thorough SCC evaluation.
Yes, the environmental community wants to reduce and ultimately eliminate greenhouse gas emissions. And switching from diesel school buses zero-emission electric school buses is an important part of this effort. We also know that electric school buses will be much healthier for the children that ride them. “Do it for the kids” is a great sentiment, but a poor excuse to declare unproven technology in the public interest. Note that Mothers Out Front, a champion of electric school buses in Virginia, also spoke against this bill.
The environmental community supports battery storage as a key part of the transition to renewable energy, and adding battery storage to the grid is needed for utilities to meet VCEA’s storage targets of 250MW by 2025 and 1200MW by 2030. However, the vehicle-to-grid technology that enables electric buses to support the electrical grid has not been implemented at this scale. Dominion has begun a pilot program, but it is in its infancy.
We don’t believe that the General Assembly should declare the deployment of this technology in the public interest. Rather, an analysis evaluating the benefits and reliability of using school bus batteries to support the grid should be presented in an SCC filing, comparing the costs of bus batteries to dedicated batteries for grid support.
We do need to convert our school bus fleets to electric buses. SB1380 could move us in the right direction if it is amended to guarantee that the buses are always available for transporting students, and to allow for unfettered SCC oversight of costs.