A revised generation plan leaves Dominion’s case for its pipeline in shambles

In December of last year, regulators at the State Corporation Commission (SCC) took the unprecedented step of rejecting Dominion Energy Virginia’s Integrated Resource Plan (IRP). Among other reasons, the SCC said the utility had over-inflated projections of how much electricity its customers would use in the future.

On March 8, Dominion came back with a revised plan. And sure enough, when it plugged in the more realistic demand projections used by independent grid operator PJM, and accounted for some energy efficiency savings, the number of new gas plants it planned for dropped in half. Instead of 8-13 new gas combustion turbines, the revised plan listed only 4-7 of these small “peaker” units.

Yet there is a good chance Dominion is still overinflating its demand numbers.  Although the re-filed IRP is short and vague, it appears Dominion isn’t figuring in the full amount of the energy efficiency programs it must develop under legislation passed last year.

SB 966 required Dominion to propose $870 million in energy efficiency and demand-response programs designed to reduce energy use and the need for new generation. But Dominion has proposed just $118 million in its separate demand-side management filing (case PUR-2018-00168).

Moreover, the company has concocted a theory whereby it can satisfy that $870 million requirement by spending just 40 or 50 percent of it and pocketing the rest. In its DSM case Dominion argues that since the Virginia Code allows a utility to recover lost revenue resulting from energy efficiency savings, it can simply reduce the required spending by the amount of lost revenue it anticipates.

It’s a great theory, and suffers only from being wrong. (Oh, and also from infuriating legislators, energy efficiency advocates, and pretty much everyone else who was involved in crafting SB 966.)

It also indicates that Dominion’s demand figures in the IRP are based on plans to spend just a fraction of the $870 million in energy efficiency, achieving much less demand reduction than backers of the law envisioned.

If the SCC decides Dominion can’t withhold hundreds of millions of dollars in efficiency spending, that additional spending will have to be factored into demand projections. Thus the IRP’s demand projection can only go down—and with it, the number of gas plants that might be “needed.”

And yet even the resulting number is likely too high. Several of Dominion’s large corporate customers have been trying to leave its fond embrace to seek better renewable energy offerings elsewhere. (The SCC recently rejected Walmart’s effort to defect.) If they were allowed to leave, how much would that further reduce the need for new generation?

For that matter, those customers and many others, including many of the tech companies responsible for what demand growth there is, say they want renewable energy, not fossil fuels. Dominion claims the renewable generation will have to be backed by gas peaker plants, but energy storage would serve the same purpose and further reduce the need for gas. The SCC will rule on that question when—and if—Dominion ever requests permission to build one of those peakers. It is possible the utility will never build another gas plant.

That’s bad news for Dominion Energy’s other line of business, gas transmission and storage. With demand for new gas generation falling off a cliff, Dominion’s ability to rely on its customer base as an anchor client for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline becomes increasingly doubtful.

Dominion may actually have conceded as much in its re-filed IRP. In response to the SCC’s order that Dominion include pipeline costs in its modeling of the costs of gas generation, Dominion merely stated, without discussion, that it is using the tariff of the pipeline owned by the ACP’s competitor Transco, which supplies gas to Dominion’s existing plants.

This statement continues a pattern of Dominion avoiding any mention of the ACP in SCC proceedings, lest it invite hard questions. But Dominion can’t have it both ways. If it will use Transco, it doesn’t need the ACP. If it plans to use the much more expensive ACP and just isn’t saying so, it has lowballed the cost of gas generation and is misleading the SCC.

This is unfair to customers, and it may backfire on Dominion. The ACP received its federal permit on the strength of contracts with affiliate utilities, but Dominion hasn’t yet asked the SCC to approve the deal. Leaving the ACP out of the discussion in the IRP year after year makes it harder to win approval. When and if the company finally asks the SCC for permission to (over)charge ratepayers for its contract with the ACP, it will not have built any kind of a case for a public need or benefit.

This is not just a risk that Dominion Energy chose to take, it is a risk of the company’s own creation. It defied the Sierra Club’s efforts to have the SCC review the ACP contract early on, knowing it would face vigorous opposition from critics. But since then, its chances for approval have only gotten worse. Back then, the pipeline cost estimate came in at $3 billion less than it is today, Dominion Virginia Power was halfway through a massive buildout of combined-cycle gas plants, and the IRP included several more big, new, gas-hungry combined-cycle plants.

Now the ACP’s cost has climbed above $7 billion and may go as high as $7.75 billion, excluding financing costs, CEO Tom Farrell told investors last month in an earnings call. Meanwhile, the IRP includes an ever-shrinking number of gas plants, to be served by a different pipeline.

One investment management company told clients in January the spiraling price tag may make the ACP uncompetitive with existing pipelines. And Farrell faced a host of cost-related questions in his call with investors.

But Farrell downplayed the risk when it came to a question from Deutsche Bank about the need for SCC approval. Managing Director Jonathan Arnold asked, “On ACP, when you guys are talking about customers, does that include the anchor utility customers, your affiliate customers? Does whatever you’re going to negotiate with them need to be approved by the state regulatory bodies?”

Farrell’s answer sounds nonchalant. “In Virginia, it’s like any other part of our fuel clause. It will be part of the fuel clause case in 2021 or 2022 along with all the other ins and outs of our fuel clause.”

Oh, Mr. Farrell, it is not going to be that easy.

An earlier version of this article first appeared in the Virginia Mercury on March 20, 2019.

Growth in data centers overpowers Virginia’s renewable energy gains

 

Greenpeace rebranded National Landing, the future home to Amazon’s HQ2, with a human-sized Alexa, lamppost signs and street posters highlighting the company’s stalled progress towards its commitment to power its cloud with 100% renewable energy. Photo credit Greenpeace.

 

More than 100 massive data centers, over 10 million square feet of building space, dot the Northern Virginia landscape around Dulles Airport in what is known as “Data Center Alley.”

And the industry is growing fast.

Local governments welcome the contribution to their tax revenue, but these data centers come with a dark downside: they are energy hogs, and the fossil fuel energy they consume is driving climate change.

A new report from Greenpeace called Clicking Clean Virginia: The Dirty Energy Powering Data Center Alley describes the magnitude of the problem:

“Not including government data centers, we estimate the potential electricity demand of both existing data centers and those under development in Virginia to be approaching 4.5 gigawatts, or roughly the same power output as nine large (500-megawatt) coal power plants.”

As these data center operations continue to grow, they are providing the excuse for utilities, primarily Dominion Energy Virginia, to build new fracked-gas infrastructure, including gas generating plants and the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

Many of these same tech companies have publicly committed to using renewable energy, and in some cases they have invested heavily in solar and wind power in other states. With the exception of Apple, however, all these data center operators are falling far short in meeting their Virginia energy demand with renewables. Intentionally or not, that makes them complicit in Dominion’s fossil-fuel expansion.

One tech company in particular stands out in the report, due to the sheer size of its operations. Greenpeace calculates that Amazon Web Services, the largest provider of cloud hosting services in the world, has a larger energy load than the next four largest companies combined.

For a while, it looked like AWS would provide leadership commensurate with its size. In 2015, AWS helped break open the solar market in Virginia with an 80-megawatt solar farm. A year later it added another 180 megawatts of solar here, as well as a wind farm in North Carolina in Dominion territory.

Then the investments stopped, while the data center growth continued.

Today, Greenpeace estimates that AWS uses close to 1,700 megawatts for its Virginia data centers. Adjusted for their capacity factors, the renewable energy projects total just 132 megawatts, or less a tenth of the energy the data centers use.

The capacity factor of an energy facility reflects how much energy it actually produces, as opposed to its “nameplate” capacity. A solar facility produces only in daylight, but a data center consumes energy 24/7. To match all of its energy demand with solar energy, AWS would need more than 7,000 megawatts of solar—at least 15 times the amount in all of Virginia today.

For a company whose website promises a commitment to 100 percent renewable energy, that’s a major fail.

The Greenpeace report shows Amazon is not alone in data center operators that are dragging their feet on clean energy. It is simply, by far, the largest. The next three biggest data center operators—Cloud HQ, Digital Reality, and QTS—have no renewable energy at all in Virginia.

Better-known names like Microsoft and Facebook also operate Virginia data centers. Although both have invested in Virginia solar farms, they also fall well short of meeting their energy needs with renewables.

The tech giants are not entirely to blame in all this. As the Greenpeace report details, many of them have asked the General Assembly and the State Corporation Commission for more and better options for purchasing renewable energy. Their requests have largely been ignored.

Virginia’s monopoly system makes it hard for the companies to buy clean electricity from other providers. Our number one monopoly, Dominion Energy, claims to be working hard to meet the large customers’ demand for renewable energy, but its extensive investments in gas infrastructure pose a clear conflict of interest.

Surely, though, if anyone can stand up to Dominion on its home turf, it should be Amazon — which, of course, plans to make Virginia its home turf as well.

And AWS does have options, including more solar as well as land-based wind from the Rocky Forge wind farm and offshore wind from Virginia or North Carolina.

The fact that Amazon doesn’t even seem to be trying should be of great concern to Virginians. As Greenpeace puts it, “AWS’ decision to continue its rapid expansion in Virginia without any additional supply of renewable energy is a powerful endorsement of the energy pathway Dominion has chosen, including the building of the ACP, and a clear signal that its commitment to 100 percent renewable energy will not serve as a meaningful basis for deciding how its data center are powered.”

Amazon has already fired back at the Greenpeace report. In a statement, it asserts that “Greenpeace’s estimates overstate both AWS’ current and projected energy usage.”

However, the statement did not offer a different estimate. It also points to its investments in Virginia renewable energy (the same ones described in the report) and concludes, “AWS remains firmly committed to achieving 100 percent renewable energy across our global network, achieving 50 percent renewable energy in 2018. We have a lot of exciting initiatives planned for 2019 as we work towards our goal and are nowhere near done.”

Well, that’s nice.

But meanwhile, those data centers are using electricity generated from burning fossil fuels, driving climate change, and providing an excuse for new fracked gas infrastructure. Given the rapid pace of data center construction in Virginia, it’s going to take a lot of exciting initiatives from AWS — and all the other data center operators — to make any kind of meaningful impact.

SCC cracks open the door on Dominion’s Atlantic Coast Pipeline costs

map showing VA and NC route of Atlantic Coast Pipeline

Costs to build the Atlantic Coast Pipeline are pegged at $7 billion. Partner Dominion Energy plans to charge captive electricity customers for the cost, regardless of whether the pipeline is needed. Image via the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

Dominion Energy Virginia employees were briefing a stakeholder group on the company’s Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) last Friday morning when text messages started popping up on phones all over the room: the State Corporation Commission had just rejected the IRP and ordered a do-over.

Awkward.

The SCC has never rejected a Dominion IRP before, mostly because the plan doesn’t have a binding effect. It is simply a way for Dominion to show regulators how it might meet the needs of customers over a 15-year period. If the company actually wants to build new generation or implement new programs, it still has to get permission through a separate proceeding.

But the IRP is important in establishing the context for new generation or programs. The SCC’s order on Friday shows commissioners think the company has presented a picture so distorted as to be unreliable.

The SCC order gives Dominion 90 days to correct a list of items it says the company got wrong, from unrealistically high demand forecasts to overly-optimistic assumptions about solar energy.

The order also instructs Dominion to look at an option the company ruled out: building yet another big combined-cycle gas plant. The SCC says it doesn’t necessarily want Dominion to build such a plant, only that the company ought to construct a true least-cost scenario to compare all other options against, and a least-cost option might include more baseload gas.

Then, buried down in footnote 14, the SCC added this:

The record reflects that the Company did not include fuel transportation costs in the modeled costs of certain natural gas generation facilities. Tr. 610. For purposes of the corrected 2018 IRP, the Company should include a reasonable estimate of fuel transportation costs, including interruptible transportation, if applicable, associated with all natural gas generation facilities in addition to the fuel commodity costs.

Wait a moment. Did the SCC just ask Dominion about the cost to ratepayers of its Atlantic Coast Pipeline?

Or does it just want to see different kinds of natural gas facilities modeled on an apples-to-apples basis, which Dominion failed to do? Even if it is the latter, can the SCC really open the door on transportation costs at all without letting the $7 billion elephant into the room?

If that happens, Dominion will find this the most expensive footnote in company history.

Dominion says the footnote is absolutely not about the ACP, and the company is shocked that anyone might think that. In a statement quoted in Energy News Network, the company lambasted environmental groups for perceiving a link between fuel transportation costs and a pipeline that provides fuel transportation:

“Instead of supporting Dominion Energy and policymaker’s (sic) push for carbon-free generation, [the Sierra Club and SELC] are distorting the SCC’s official order to pander to their donor base without regard for the truth,” the statement said.

This begs the question of how Dominion plans to comply with the order without mentioning its parent company’s pipeline. The company’s hysterical attack on its environmental critics seems designed to beat back expectations for the ACP’s cost to ratepayers becoming an issue in the IRP.

Footnote or no footnote, the SCC really should look at those pipeline costs

Admittedly, dropping a bombshell in a footnote would be only slightly more surprising than the SCC taking up the pipeline question at all right now. Pipeline critics have been trying in vain for two years to get the SCC to examine the contract between various Dominion subsidiaries obligating Virginia customers to pay for 20 percent of the ACP’s capacity. This blatant self-dealing is central to the pipeline’s profitability.

The SCC has previously refused to question the deal, and the Virginia Supreme Court refused to force the Commission to do it. The SCC maintained at the time that it could wait for the pipeline to be built before it decides whether it is fair to charge ratepayers for it. But it doesn’t have to wait; the Supreme Court says the SCC can take up the question any time.

And it should, because the SCC’s very silence encourages Dominion to think it will get away with charging customers for a hefty portion of the $7 billion pipeline. It is long past time for Dominion to present its evidence on the ACP.

As the SCC’s IRP order found, “the load forecasts contained in the Company’s past IRPs have been consistently overstated” and the SCC “has considerable doubt regarding the reasonableness of the Company’s load forecasts.” These questionable load forecasts, of course, underpin Dominion’s case for the ACP.

William Penniman, an energy lawyer who served as an expert witness for the Sierra Club in Dominion’s 2017 IRP case, testified that, based on publicly-available ACP filings, the contract with the ACP could cost utility customers in Virginia over $200 million of fixed charges annuallyfor 20 years—over $4 billion over the 20-year life of the contract, whether or not it ships any gas at all. He also showed that, even if more gas were needed, other pipeline options were much cheaper than Dominion’s affiliate deals.

And, given that Dominion already has contracts with another pipeline company to serve the utility’s existing gas plants, the money paid for capacity in the ACP will be entirely wasted—unless, of course, Dominion builds a bunch of new gas plants or drops lower-priced transportation arrangements in favor of its costly affiliate deals.

The pipeline came up again in the 2018 IRP. Gregory Lander, a witness for the Southern Environmental Law Center pointed out that Dominion’s IRP merely embeds the costs of the ACP into its generation scenarios without quantifying or justifying them.

“In essence,” Lander testified, “the IRP asks the Commission to accept that the Atlantic Coast Pipeline is built and that ratepayers should pay for it without ever explaining to the Commission what those costs are and why they are justified in a least-cost planning exercise.”

Rather than challenging the expert testimony, Dominion sought to exclude it, hoping to keep all mention of the ACP out of the case. In another footnote in its IRP order, however, the SCC specifically admitted Lander’s testimony, without finding facts.

Dominion would prefer the SCC to consider the ACP a “sunk cost.” Dominion’s theory goes like this: Since the contract obligates the utility to pay reservation charges for roughly half of the ACP’s capacity regardless of actual usage, that expense shouldn’t be factored into the cost of building any new gas plant. Instead, it argues, the SCC only needs to consider the cost of paying for the fuel itself.

That’s like buying a Ferrari and then saying the only expense of owning it is the gasoline. (And meanwhile, the trusty station wagon is running just fine.)

If the SCC is finally interested in the ACP’s cost to ratepayers, Dominion’s IRP do-over will have to be just the first step in a more thorough analysis of what Dominion’s self-dealing will cost Virginia consumers. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that will not go well for Dominion.

But what’s up with the SCC and gas?

Footnote 14 is not the only oddity in the SCC’s order. On the one hand, the SCC rightly says a fair accounting of a gas plant’s cost necessarily includes all the cost of transporting the fuel. On the other hand, even before it sees the transportation costs, the SCC seems to assume that a new baseload gas plant would be the economic thing to build, were it not for pesky carbon regulations and the General Assembly’s measures to promote renewable energy.

A major theme of the SCC’s order is the commission’s desire to force lawmakers to confront their own profligacy in passing the giant 2018 energy bill that the SCC opposed. SB 966 allows Dominion to redirect billions of dollars in over-earnings away from ratepayer refunds to massive spending on grid projects like undergrounding wires, with only limited regulatory oversight. The SCC thinks this is going to be bad for customers, and it wants legislators to appreciate just how bad.

That’s understandable, but it doesn’t excuse the SCC’s insistence on regarding gas as a low-cost option. Even Dominion knows better.

Dominion just announced the opening of its latest huge new combined-cycle plant in Virginia. The Greensville station joins a glut of new gas plants fed by Appalachia’s fracking industry. The oversupply is so bad that our regional grid already has almost 30% more power supply than it needs to meet peak demand—and grid operator PJM doesn’t expect this situation to change any time soon.

Most of the other new gas plants in PJM are funded by private equity. If they go bust, utility customers won’t be the ones to suffer. But Virginia’s regulated monopoly system means customers are precisely the ones who suffer when a utility’s bet on gas goes sour.

So Dominion’s IRP instead envisions a steady build-out of smaller gas plants it hopes to justify as complements to new solar farms. The idea is that these combustion turbines, often called “peaker” plants, will provide electricity to fill in around the variable output of solar panels.

Yet peakers are idle most of the time, making them questionable investments as well. Other states achieve the same reliability results at lower cost using demand response and battery storage.

The Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) issued a report in May of this year comparing new gas generating plants—both combined-cycle and peakers—to well-designed clean energy generation portfolios. In almost every case, renewable energy, storage and demand response already beat gas on cost, even without considering environmental benefits.

And moreover, the trends favor clean energy, as RMI’s press release stresses: “More dramatically, the new-build costs of clean energy portfolios are falling quickly, and likely to beat just the operating costs of efficient gas-fired power plants within the next two decades.”

So in telling Dominion to present a gas-heavy scenario as low-cost, the SCC is asking the impossible. Whether the Commissioners know it or not, Dominion isn’t the only one here presenting a distorted picture.


This post originally appeared as a column in the Virginia Mercury on December 14, 2018.

If anyone will stand up to Dominion for its conflicts of interest on the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, it won’t be Virginia’s high court

 

Residents of areas being impacted by gas pipelines make their feelings clear. But is anyone in Virginia government listening?

This post originally appeared as commentary in the Virginia Mercury, Virginia’s new non-profit, online news source. 

Many Virginia leaders seem to have the notion that if our environment is being polluted and ordinary people are having their land destroyed, that must be good for business. And as a corollary, if a business wants to pollute the environment and destroy private land, that must be good for Virginia.

So maybe it shouldn’t surprise anyone that on August 9 the Virginia Supreme Court joined the Governor, the State Corporation Commission (SCC), the Department of Environmental Quality and most of the General Assembly in refusing to question the sweetheart deal under which Dominion Energy Virginia committed its captive ratepayers to purchasing billions of dollars of fracked gas shipping capacity on the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, of which Dominion itself is the largest shareholder.

The Supreme Court had the opportunity to hold Dominion accountable courtesy of Section 56-77(A) of the Virginia Code, known as the Affiliates Act. The section requires public utilities to get prior approval from the SCC for any “contract or arrangement” with an affiliated company. The SCC had refused the Sierra Club’s petition to enforce the provision, saying it could review the deal when the pipeline is operational and Dominion tries to charge its customers for the use of it—i.e., afterthe damage is done. The Sierra Club took the SCC to court, arguing that the statute requires the SCC to examine whether the deal is in the public interest beforethe contract for pipeline capacity could be considered valid.

On its face, the Affiliates Act is clear. It requires public utilities to submit “contracts or arrangements” with affiliated companies to the SCC for approval before they take effect. You would think this would include any arrangement under which Dominion Energy Virginia buys capacity in its parent company’s pipeline. The Affiliates Act says the SCC should have held a hearing to examine whether the contract was in the public interest. Indeed, the SCC’s own staff of lawyers have taken this very position.

But the Court allowed a dodge. You see, Dominion Energy Virginia didn’t contract directly with the ACP. It has a very general ongoing contract with another Dominion affiliate called Virginia Power Services Energy Corporation (VPSE) that buys natural gas and pipeline capacity for the utility, acting as its purchasing agent. It was VPSE, not the utility itself, that signed the contract with the ACP.

The fact that a third affiliate acts an intermediary shouldn’t matter, logically or legally—affiliated companies are members of one big happy family—but the Court seized on this arrangement to create a clever loophole. It concluded that the SCC had approved the general inter-affiliate agreement between the utility and its sister company VPSE years ago—before the pipeline was proposed, before VPSE had signed purchasing contracts with the ACP, and before the Sierra Club or any other members of the public would have had a reason to object. No matter, said the Court; having approved the contract between the utility and its purchasing agent years ago, the SCC retained continuing oversight authority over any and all deals the purchasing agent might make on behalf of the utility in the future.

Let that sink in for a minute. According to the Court, the SCC effectively approved the contract with ACP before it even existed. What that means is,

the public, including all of us who buy electricity from Dominion and will be handed the bill for the pipeline capacity, have no ability to challenge the deal before the pipeline is up and running.

Recall that the only reason Dominion Energy and its partners got permission from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to build the pipeline was the fact that the companies showed they had contracts for almost all the pipeline capacity. According to FERC, this proved that there was public need for the ACP. The fact that the contracts happened to be with the partners’ own corporate affiliates didn’t faze FERC any more than it fazed the SCC.

Earlier this month FERC denied a request that it reconsider its approval. Ironically this was a favor to the ACP’s challengers because it finally allowed them to appeal the matter to federal court. One of the issues that will likely be raised in that appeal is the wrongheadedness of approving a pipeline when the need for it relies heavily on inter-affiliate contracts that may or may not demonstrate actual demand from customers.

This is a question not just for Virginia and Dominion, but for the many gas pipelines under development in the U.S. Affiliate contracts can make it appear there is more demand for pipelines than there really is. Approving unneeded pipelines, in turn, means unnecessary environmental destruction, wasted resources, and (what our leaders rarely appreciate) higher energy prices.

In the year since the Sierra Club first petitioned the SCC to take action under the Affiliates Act, the case for regulatory scrutiny has only grown stronger. Dominion Energy says it has abandoned plans to build new combined-cycle gas plants, recognizing the growing dominance of wind and solar. That throws into question the economic case for sinking billions of dollars into new gas transmission, even as construction on the Atlantic Coast Pipeline is underway.

As I’ve discussed before, there is a strange disconnect when a gas pipeline developer like Dominion recognizes the end of the road for baseload gas plants. Yet its subsidiary utility, Dominion Energy Virginia, just filed an Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) that calls for a string of new gas combustion turbines, sometimes referred to as “peaker plants.”

This begs the question: Does the utility have a good reason to build more gas plants instead of joining the national trend towards using renewables-plus-battery storage to address peak demand? Or is it proposing the new gas plants because its parent company needs the utility to burn as much gas as possible to support an otherwise unneeded pipeline?

Even apart from its authority under the Affiliates Act, the SCC could investigate this question in the IRP proceeding this fall. At some point the commissioners will have to confront the fact that more natural gas, and more pipeline infrastructure, are a bad deal for Virginia consumers.

Dominion won’t build new baseload gas plants. So why is it still building the Atlantic Coast Pipeline?

gas pipeline protesters standing in front of solar panels

The message from several Virginians was clear at the opening of a new solar farm in Troy, Virginia last month. Protesters want Governor Ralph Northam to speak out against the ACP and the Mountain Valley Pipeline, both under development in Virginia.

Utility giant Dominion Energy and gas turbine maker General Electric reportedly agree on a startling fact: there is no market for new baseload gas plants.

As recently as two years ago, Dominion’s utility subsidiary in Virginia had as much as 8,000 megawatts (MW) of new combined cycle gas plants on the drawing board. Combined cycle plants, designed to run most of the time, have become the dominant source of power generation in Virginia.

This year, new combined cycle plants are noticeably absent from Dominion Energy Virginia’s Integrated Resource Plan. Proposed instead are a series of smaller, peak-serving combustion turbines. Although the utility is proposing a bunch of them, they will have to compete with increasingly-competitive storage options for regulatory approval.

It’s not just Virginia. According to the Forbesarticle linked above, Dominion Energy has no plans to build any more combined cycle plants anywhere, due to competition from wind and solar.

Other utilities are also losing interest in combined cycle gas pants, as GE has learned to its chagrin. GE is cutting 12,000 jobs in its GE Power unit, says Forbes.

A new study from the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) shows why utilities are smart to avoid building new gas plants. RMI says that as early as 2026, cost declines for wind and solar will make it more expensive to operate natural gas infrastructure than to abandon it and replace it with new wind and solar facilities. When that happens, gas plant owners will be left with stranded assets.

Even in today’s market, RMI concludes gas is a risky investment:

RMI examined four case studies of proposed gas plants from utilities across the US. These cases included two combined-cycle gas turbine (CCGT) power plants, planned for high-capacity factor operation, and two combustion turbine power plants, planned for peak-hour operation. These power plants are proposed for a wide variety of regions with different resource availability, resource costs, climate- and weather-driven demand needs, and customer bases.

In all four cases, RMI found clean energy portfolios to be cost-competitive with proposed gas-fired generation, while meeting all required grid services and supporting system-level reliability. In three of the four cases, optimized, region-specific clean energy portfolios cost 8–60 percent less than the proposed gas plant, based on industry-standard cost forecasts and without subsidies. In only one case was the clean energy portfolio’s cost slightly higher than the proposed gas plant. However, further analysis revealed that modest carbon pricing (i.e., < $8/ton) or feasible community-scale solar cost reductions would easily reverse the result. Similarly, two more years of anticipated renewable and storage cost reductions would also eliminate the difference in cost between the clean energy portfolio and the gas plant.

All this is very bad news for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. The ACP received approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) last year on the strength of supply contracts with the utility subsidiaries of Dominion Energy and Duke Energy, Dominion’s major partner in the pipeline. If these utilities don’t actually need the gas, the whole basis for FERC’s approval of the pipeline collapses.

No wonder Dominion Energy wants to extend its reach into South Carolina. Plans for new nuclear plants in the state recently imploded, potentially leaving a supply gap that new gas plants could fill.

And no wonder Dominion Energy Virginia continues to propose gas combustion turbines and ignore energy storage in spite of its cost declines. Dominion is scrambling to save the ACP.

How did Dominion get it so wrong? Recall that Dominion and its partners announced plans for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline in early September of 2014; the rationale for the pipeline would have relied on industry forecasts from 2013 and before. At that time, the gas industry was giddy about fracked gas displacing coal. While critics (including me) said new baseload gas plants would be giant concrete paperweights before they’d reached the end of their useful life, most utilities were drinking the fracked gas Kool-Aid.

In the intervening years, coal has certainly continued its exit (Donald Trump’s half-baked rescue plans notwithstanding), but solar and wind have become the cheapest source of electricity in the U.S., according to federal statistics. The cost of electricity from utility-scale solar farms has dropped by half since 2013, and by last year Dominion had identified solar as the cheapest source of new electricity in Virginia.

The problem for Dominion Energy is that the ACP is the only big trick it has now, after the failure of its own ambitions for new nuclear. Dominion doubled down on natural gas in 2016 when it paid 4.4 billion dollars for natural gas distribution company Questar, paying a 23% premium on the deal. It can’t back down from gas now. Either it has to spend 6 billion dollars (and rising) on this new pipeline, or admit its entire growth plan was based on a serious mistake.

Abandoning the ACP could make Dominion’s stock price tumble, giving it something else in common with GE. But as the saying goes, if you find yourself in a hole, you should really stop digging. In this case, literally.

For Dominion, the answer to every problem is more gas

Dominion Energy Virginia just released its 2018 Integrated Resource Plan (IRP), and the message it conveys could not be clearer: no matter what happens, the utility plans to build more fracked gas generation.

The IRP lays out five scenarios for meeting electric demand over the next 15 years, each one responding to a different set of assumptions. Yet weirdly, no matter which assumptions you choose, Dominion’s plan involves building a little bit of solar and a lot more gas.

Dominion Energy Virginia IRP; table showing alternatives considered

Dominion’s “Alternative Plans” (from page 24 of the IRP) prove to be very short on actual alternatives.

Everywhere you see “CT” in the table, that’s another gas plant–and they show up in every “alternative.” Assume no carbon tax? Great, Dominion will build gas. What if Virginia follows through on plans to cut carbon by joining the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI)? No problem, Dominion will build gas. How about if the Feds impose a national carbon plan? Alrighty then, Dominion will build gas!

Seriously, folks, if fracked gas is always the answer, somebody isn’t asking the right question.

The question we’d like to see addressed is how the utility intends to help Virginia transition to a clean energy economy. The question Dominion seems to be answering is how to create a need for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

This isn’t a surprise; Dominion’s parent company, Dominion Energy, is the majority partner in the pipeline, and the pipeline’s approval was premised on the utility “needing” the pipeline to serve its gas plants. It’s a blatant conflict of interest that the SCC should have addressed by now, but it declined to do so. (The Sierra Club has taken the SCC to court over this dereliction of duty.)

Dominion would prefer we talk about its plans for more solar. It is true the 2018 IRP proposes more solar generation than the 2017 IRP did. Last year’s IRP revealed that solar had become the lowest-cost energy in Virginia, but it forecast only 240 MW per year. This year’s IRP shows solar increasing over the next few years to a maximum of 480 MW per year beginning in 2022 (about half of what North Carolina installed in 2016). To put that in perspective, Microsoft recently announced it was contracting for 350 MW of Virginia solar to be built in one fell swoop, to serve just its own operations.

Meanwhile, the IRP notes that Dominion’s newest combined-cycle gas plant, the 1,585 MW Greensville behemoth, will enter service next year. Running at full capacity, it would provide the equivalent amount of electricity to 13 years’ worth of planned solar construction, since the expected output of a solar farm is about 25% of its “nameplate” capacity. (To be fair, the Greensville plant will likely run at more like 75-80% capacity. But it follows three other new gas plants Dominion built this decade. Together the four plants add a total of  4,862 MW. And those are nowhere near all the gas plants Dominion operates.)

The fact that all of Dominion’s IRP scenarios look alike and rely heavily on gas seems to be intended to send a message not to the SCC but to Governor Northam. Dominion doesn’t like the carbon reduction rulemaking now underway at the Department of Environmental Quality, which aims to lower emissions from Virginia power plants by 30% between 2020 and 2030. So the IRP “assumes” Dominion will comply by purchasing dirtier power from states not subject to regulation, actually driving up both cost and carbon emissions. Meanwhile, it’s going to build gas no matter what.

Welcome to Dominion’s game of hardball, Governor Northam.

Of course, the IRP is only a planning document. The SCC may approve it but still reject a proposed facility when the utility asks for permission to build it. Market watchers will question whether Dominion will be able to justify all—or any—of the 8 proposed gas combustion turbine facilities in hearings before the SCC. Virginia has too little solar now to need combustion turbines for back-up, and by the time there is enough to challenge the capabilities of the grid, experts predict battery storage will be the better and cheaper choice.

But never mind that; for Dominion, what matters now is justifying the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

Sierra Club takes State Corporation Commission to court over failure to review Atlantic Coast Pipeline deal

Photo credit Chesapeake Climate Action Network

Sierra Club is asking the Supreme Court of Virginia to require the State Corporation Commission (SCC) to review a key deal for shipping capacity on the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. The SCC has thus far declined to exercise its oversight authority over this arrangement, despite a Sierra Club petition filed last May urging that Virginia’s Affiliates Act requires the Commission’s review in this case. In Sierra Club’s appeal filed yesterday by attorneys with Appalachian Mountain Advocates, the law firm representing it in court, the Club argues that the SCC was wrong to reject its petition and seeks an order reversing the SCC’s decision.

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP) is being developed by a partnership called Atlantic Coast Pipeline LLC, whose largest shareholder – Dominion Energy – is parent company of the public utility Virginia Electric and Power Company, now operating as Dominion Energy Virginia (having changed its name earlier this year from Dominion Virginia Power). Under the arrangement noted above, Dominion Energy Virginia must, through one of its subsidiaries, purchase pipeline capacity on the ACP for a period of 20 years, with Atlantic Coast Pipeline LLC— the utility’s own corporate affiliate—bringing in tens or even hundreds millions of dollars per year in revenue. What’s more, Dominion is nearly certain to request that Virginia’s ratepayers ultimately foot the bill for this arrangement.

The utility’s deal with Atlantic Coast Pipeline LLC underpins Dominion Energy’s claim that the ACP has enough customers to justify its construction. Without that arrangement, Dominion and its partners would likely have had trouble getting approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to build the pipeline.

Under the Virginia Affiliates Act, public utilities like Dominion Energy Virginia are required to submit their “contracts or arrangements” with affiliated companies to the SCC for approval before they can take effect, something the utility failed to do. But on September 19, the SCC rejected Sierra Club’s petition for an order holding that Dominion must comply with the Act and requiring a formal proceeding to determine whether the ACP deal is in the public interest.

Sierra Club and other critics contend that this arrangement is a loser for ratepayers because Dominion Energy Virginia already has all the pipeline capacity it needs: several years ago, it purchased 20 years’ worth of capacity from Transcontinental to service the same power plants that it now claims must receive gas—at a much higher shipping rate—from the ACP. As a result, the utility’s arrangement with Atlantic Coast Pipeline LLC will very likely increase, not decrease, electricity prices in Virginia. It is hard to imagine that if the SCC were to examine the facts of the deal, as the Affiliates Act requires it do, it would find that this expensive and redundant arrangement is actually in the public interest.

“We have grave concerns that Dominion’s deal for shipping capacity on the ACP will only serve to benefit the company’s bottom line, not the needs of the public,” says Andres Restrepo, a Sierra Club lawyer involved in the matter. “Luckily, the Affiliates Act is crystal clear: arrangements like Dominion’s must be reviewed and approved by the SCC before they can take effect. That’s why we’re confident that the Supreme Court will rule in our favor and require Dominion and its subsidiaries to comply with this critical review requirement.”

According to Restrepo, the Supreme Court will likely solicit briefing on the appeal and hold oral arguments during the first half of 2018. If Sierra Club is successful, Dominion would then have to file its agreement under the Affiliates Act, and the SCC would have to open a case docket and hold a hearing to consider whether the deal is in the public interest.

A ruling by the SCC rejecting Dominion’s plan could have significant ramifications. Namely, it would undermine the basis on which FERC approved construction of the ACP this fall. FERC approval for new pipeline rests on a showing that the pipeline is “needed,” and the Commission has recently found that such need exists where the project proponent has customer contracts for most or all of the pipeline’s capacity. Without valid contracts, this basis for a need determination vanishes.

Sierra Club and other pipeline opponents have asked FERC to reconsider its approval of the ACP, based in part on the question of whether Dominion and its partners have properly shown need. A decision by the SCC rejecting Dominion Energy Virginia’s deal with Atlantic Coast Pipeline LLC could prompt FERC to reconsider its prior approval.

An SCC ruling could also impact the ACP’s construction timetable and even its economic rationale. How will investors feel about spending $5 billion to build a pipeline through Virginia when most of its Virginia customer base has disappeared?

But first, the SCC must actually review the deal. In its September order rejecting Sierra Club’s petition, the SCC essentially said that it didn’t need to make a determination now; it could wait until Dominion comes to it asking to charge ratepayers for the ACP deal in future proceedings. But the Affiliates Act requires review and approval of inter-affiliate agreements before they take effect. Furthermore, any later proceedings to determine rate impacts would happen only after the pipeline had been built and become operational.

Yes, that’s nuts. Dominion seems to be willing to construct the pipeline now and gamble on SCC’s approval of cost reimbursement further down the road, but the rest of us—Virginia’s ratepayers—shouldn’t be forced into such a gamble. Virginians, who have to suffer the environmental destruction the ACP will cause in addition to likely impacts to their electric rates, deserve to have their needs considered now, just as the law requires, and not later, as Dominion would prefer.

The fact is simple: contrary to its ruling in September, the SCC must review Dominion Energy Virginia’s deal for ACP shipping capacity now to determine whether it is in the public interest. The Affiliates Act requires no less. Here’s hoping Virginia’s Supreme Court holds the SCC to its obligations and mandates a formal review process. After all, better late than never.