Dominion Energy’s new choices are really about limiting choices

Trees clearcut.

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

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

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

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

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

The wrong thing, of course.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Hearing examiner rules Appalachian Power’s renewable energy tariff isn’t good enough

Appalachian Power’s plan to repackage power from existing renewable energy projects in its portfolio into a new, higher-priced green option hit a bump this week when a hearing examiner for the Virginia State Corporation Commission recommended rejection of the tariff, saying it wasn’t a good deal for consumers.

Approval of the tariff would have allowed APCo to block competition from other renewable energy suppliers. Virginia law provides that if a customer’s own utility doesn’t offer a tariff for 100% renewable energy, the customer has the right to buy from any other provider.

APCo had argued its tariff met the letter of the law, and that should be the end of the SCC’s inquiry. Since it was a voluntary tariff, customers could take it or leave it. Hearing Examiner A. Ann Berkobile disagreed. Because approval of the tariff would adversely affect competition and restrict the rights of customers, she found, the tariff could only be approved if APCo proved it was “in the public interest and its rate is just, reasonable and unlikely to prejudice customers.”

In this case, she concluded, APCo failed to do so, having “made no effort to establish the reasonableness of its proposed Rider REO rate.”

She went on: “Stated somewhat differently, Rider REO has the potential to suppress or even curtail customer access to 100 percent renewable energy by precluding sales by [Competitive Service Providers] while at the same time offering an incumbent utility alternative that is simply too costly for customers to bear. The overall price of Rider REO (and associated rate) should, therefore, be considered when deciding whether to grant approval.”

Testimony in the case had established that the existing wind farms APCo proposed to use were providing power at a higher price than could be obtained from new sources, which the Hearing Examiner suggested made the proposed tariff rate unreasonable. In addition, using old sources rather than new ones would not “promote the development of renewable energy in accordance with the objectives of the Commonwealth Energy Policy set forth in §§ 67-101 and 67-102 of the Code.”

The Hearing Examiner’s report is only a recommendation to the SCC, which will have the final say. The case is PUE-2016-00051.

Ruling could affect Dominion tariff

If the SCC adopts the Hearing Examiner’s recommendation, that could also affect the SCC’s evaluation of Dominion’s proposed 100% renewable commercial tariff. Dominion’s tariff will likely use biomass as a source because of Dominion’s insistence that a 100% renewable product must use sources that together produce renewable energy 100% of the time. But while Virginia’s overbroad definition of renewable energy includes “biomass, sustainable or otherwise,” biomass often doesn’t satisfy corporate sustainability goals. As the Hearing Examiner’s opinion suggests, it’s not enough for a tariff to meet the requirement of providing 100% renewable energy if it isn’t also good enough to attract customers.

The Hearing Examiner’s emphasis on the cost to consumers is also a relevant consideration. If the SCC affirms the APCo decision, Dominion would have to justify using higher-cost biomass over much cheaper wind and solar.


Update: On September 13, 2017, the SCC rejected APCo’s proposed tariff, focusing especially on its high cost.

Moving to block competition, Dominion files its own sort-of-green energy tariff

Just a couple of the great things that count as “renewable energy” in the Virginia Code.

Dominion Virginia Power has filed for permission from the State Corporation Commission (SCC) to offer a 100% renewable energy tariff to commercial and industrial customers with peak loads of over 1,000 kilowatts. In a footnote, Dominion states that it intends to propose a similar tariff for residential customers in the future. The case is PUR-2017-0060.

Customers who want only carbon-free energy like wind and solar will likely be disappointed. Dominion intends to use a “portfolio of resources” that will include “dispatchable resources”—i.e., hydropower and stuff that can be burned. Dominion promises the sources it uses will meet Virginia’s definition of renewable. That’s not reassuring. Under Virginia law, renewable energy can include sources like landfill gas and municipal solid waste, as well as “biomass, sustainable or otherwise (the definitions of which shall be liberally construed).”

Dominion’s filing comes scarcely one month after an SCC decision confirmed the right of independent renewable energy provider Direct Energy to offer its products to Dominion customers, but only so long as Dominion lacks its own green tariff for those customers. The SCC order (explained here) made clear that under Virginia law, a competitor like Direct Energy would be blocked from taking on new customers once Dominion has an approved tariff.

Dominion’s filing looks suspiciously like an effort to cut Direct Energy off at the knees. If the upstart competitor follows through with its plans to offer Virginia residents a renewable energy option, Dominion will surely propose a residential renewable energy tariff. SCC approval of Dominion’s tariff would shut out Direct Energy, which is targeting only residential consumers for its product. Under the language of the Code, it does not appear to matter whether a competitor can offer a better product, or a better price.

For the moment, Direct Energy is not backing down. The company has set up a web page to gauge the interest of residential consumers while it deliberates its next move. Ron Cerniglia, Director of Corporate and Regulatory Affairs for the Mid-Atlantic Region, told me he thinks the timing of Dominion’s filing is “curious,” given that “Dominion has had ten years to file a renewable energy tariff and hasn’t. We’re concerned about the implications of limiting choice for consumers. We don’t know if the move will actually offer a choice consumers want, or if it is just closing doors on others.”

Indeed, ten years have passed since Virginia enacted its current utility law, which includes the right of a customer to “purchase electric energy provided 100 percent from renewable energy” from another supplier if its own utility isn’t offering it. During most of that time, Dominion has sold Renewable Energy Certificates to customers under its “Green Power Program,” but it has never offered residential customers an opportunity to buy actual renewable energy. (See “Is a Green Power program worth your money?”)

This is slated to change as the utility works with the solar industry on implementing a new solar option under legislation passed this year. However, the new law specifies that the solar option will not count as a tariff for “electric energy provided 100 percent from renewable energy,” so it does not block competitive offerings like Direct Energy’s.

Dominion was agreeable to excluding the solar program because it interprets the Code’s reference to “electric energy provided 100% from renewable electricity” to mean the electricity must come from renewables 100% of the time, an interpretation almost no one else shares.

This seems to be the reason Dominion intends to include carbon-emitting sources into its renewable energy offering, even though it’s safe to say there are no customers clamoring to get their electricity from garbage or the clear-cutting of forests. It also means the new tariff will likely be priced higher than one that included only solar, because electricity from biomass is more expensive today than harvesting the sun. (No word from Dominion on why it doesn’t just assign a portion of its pumped storage capacity to serve an all-wind-and-solar product.)

But if customers want only wind and solar, they are also likely to be disappointed in Direct Energy’s product. Cerniglia says his company includes baseload sources like “cleaner biomass” in its renewable energy product to provide 24/7 power. He estimated that the initial mixture would consist of “50% to 60% municipal waste biomass (Pennsylvania and Virginia sourced) and 40% to 50% wind (Pennsylvania sourced) . . . We are also committing to not utilize virgin wood / clear cut wood biomass in our product mix at any time.”

Direct Energy also has not determined the pricing of its product yet, but Cerniglia said it would be “equal to or lower than what Dominion Virginia Power residential customers pay for ‘brown’ power.”

Perhaps most importantly, he noted, “The benefit of a competitive market is that customers can leave us at any time. They’re not captive.”

 

Update: On June 21, a Hearing Examiner for the SCC recommended rejection of a similar application for a renewable energy tariff filed last year by Appalachian Power. See my discussion here for how this may affect Dominion’s application. 

Virginia legislators look to tax breaks and barrier-busting to boost renewable energy

Let's get these projects moo-ving. Photo credit NREL

Let’s get these projects moo-ving. Photo credit NREL

The orchestrated mayhem of the Virginia General Assembly session is well underway. Thirteen days are gone and only twenty-one days remain until what’s known as “Crossover,” after which any bill that hasn’t passed its own chamber is effectively dead. This year Crossover falls on February 16. After that, each chamber considers only bills already passed by the other.

By that measure, yours truly is one lazy blogger, because I’m only just getting to the renewable energy bills. On the other hand, bills were still being filed until Friday, and some bills are undergoing revisions before they are heard in committee. These are moving targets; advocates beware.

Removing barriers to investment 

Readers of this blog know that Virginia law is riddled with barriers that restrain the market for wind and solar in Virginia. This year several bills take aim at the policies holding us back.

HB 1286 (Randy Minchew, R-Leesburg, in Commerce and Labor) is barrier-busting legislation developed by the solar industry in consultation with the wind industry and solar advocates. It clarifies that renewable energy companies that sell to retail customers under power purchase agreements (PPAs) are not public utilities and don’t have to meet the statutory requirements for public utilities and suppliers. Customers can use third-party PPAs to purchase renewable energy electricity generated by facilities located on the customer’s property, everywhere in the state. The bill also lifts the one percent cap on net metering programs relative to total utility sales, and authorizes community net metering programs. It also expands the concept of “agricultural net metering” to cover other customers who want to attribute electricity from one facility to multiple meters on the customer’s property.

In addition, the bill amends the Commonwealth’s energy policy by adding the goals of encouraging private sector distributed renewable energy, increasing security of the electricity grid by supporting distributed renewable energy projects, and augmenting the exercise of private property rights by landowners desiring to generate their own energy from renewable energy sources on their lands. None of this language by itself forces action, but the State Corporation Commission takes note of energy policy in its decision-making.

SB 140 (John Edwards, D-Roanoke, in Commerce and Labor) attacks the standby charges that have been so controversial. It increases the size of electrical generating facilities operated by residential or agricultural net energy metering customers that are subject to a monthly standby charge from those with a capacity of 10 kilowatts to those with a capacity of 20 kilowatts. Since residential solar facilities that are net-metered are already limited to 20 kW, this would effectively repeal standby charges for residential net metering.

SB 139 (John Edwards, D-Roanoke, in Commerce and Labor) makes a small change to the existing agricultural net metering option.

SB 148 (John Edwards, D-Roanoke, in Commerce and Labor) replaces the pilot program enacted in 2013 that authorized a limited pilot program for third-party PPAs. generation facilities. The bill requires the State Corporation Commission to establish third-party power purchase agreement programs for each electric utility. The existing pilot program applies only to Dominion Virginia Power and sets the maximum size of a renewable generation facility at one megawatt; the programs authorized by SB 148 apply to all electric utilities and do not set limits on the size of facilities.

Although SB 148 is similar to HB 1286 in attempting to ensure the legality of third-party PPAs, solar advocates prefer HB 1286. Giving the State Corporation Commission authority here should not be necessary and might lead to higher costs and more regulations.

Community energy/solar gardens

It’s darned hard to buy renewable energy in Virginia if you are among the approximately 75% of residents who can’t put solar panels on your own roof or build a wind turbine out on the back forty. That’s an enormous untapped market.

SB 1286, above, contains a provision authorizing community energy programs In addition, HB 1285 (Randy Minchew, R-Leesburg, in Commerce and Labor) is a stand-alone bill that authorizes (but does not require) investor-owned utilities and coops to establish community energy programs.

HB 618 (Paul Krizek, D-Alexandria, referred to Commerce and Labor) would require the State Corporation Commission to adopt rules for “community solar gardens” that would let customers subscribe to a portion of the output of a solar facility located elsewhere in their area. The solar electricity and the renewable energy credits (RECs) would be sold to the local utility, which would then credit the subscribers on their utility bills.

But whereas customers who have solar panels one their own roof get credited at full retail value and own the associated renewable energy credits, HB 618 allows the SCC to devise rules that could result in a much worse deal for solar garden subscribers, including allowing the utility to impose a “reasonable charge” to cover ill-defined costs.

That’s an unfortunate invitation to the utilities to pile on fees. Unless the utilities involved really want to make the program work for their customers, it’s hard to imagine this turning out well. We would not expect to see viable programs in Dominion or APCo territory if this passes. On the other hand, some municipal utilities have been more responsive to the interests of their customers, so it could work for them.

Tax credits and exemptions

An important tax bill to watch this year is HB 1305 (Jackson Miller, R-Manassas, referred to Finance), which changes the state and local tax treatment of solar and wind energy facilities. It exempts utility solar and wind from taxation, but lowers from 20 MW to 1 MW the size of other solar projects that are exempt from local machinery and tools tax (a kind of personal property tax; securing that exemption was a major win for the solar industry in 2014). The bill replaces the hard-won 100% exemption with an 80% exemption. The change is very nice for utilities (Virginia is always very nice to utilities), but it makes the economics worse for third-party owned facilities in the 1 MW to 20 MW range—exactly the ones the state should be trying to attract.

SB 743 (Frank Wagner, R-Virginia Beach, referred to Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources) helps solar projects below 5 MW qualify for the above-mentioned tax exemption passed in 2014. The bill makes the Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy the agency that certifies solar projects as “pollution control equipment and facilities,” eligible for exemption from state and local taxation. This exemption from state sales tax and local machinery and tools taxes is one of the few perks Virginia can offer commercial-scale solar developers here, where margins on projects are very thin compared with projects in North Carolina or Maryland with stronger incentives.

Tax credits are also on the agenda this year. Tax credits fell into disfavor in Virginia following an audit that revealed that many tax credits aren’t achieving their objectives (see: tax subsidies for coal mining). Senate Finance Committee members resolved to end them just about the same time the solar industry came asking for one themselves two years ago, with unhappy results for solar. But tax credits are legislative candy, and there’s no telling how long the diet will last. Hopeful persons may as well put out their own plate of chocolates. If the diet is off, then the main problem with this year’s bills, from the point of view of the Republicans who make up the majority of our legislature, is simply that they come from Democrats.

HB 480 (Rip Sullivan, D-Arlington, referred to Finance) establishes a 35% tax credit for renewable energy property, to be claimed over 5 years, with a $5 million program cap. The credit would apply not just to wind and solar but also some biomass, combined heat and power, geothermal and hydro systems.

SB 142 (John Edwards, D-Roanoke, referred to Finance) and HB 1050 (Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, referred to Finance) establish a tax credit of up to 30% for solar thermal systems used for water heating or space heating and cooling. Solar PV systems are not included in the bill.

State funding through carbon cap and trade

SB 571 (Donald McEachin, D-Richmond, referred to Agriculture, Conservation and Natuaral Resources) and HB 351 (Villanueva, R-Virginia Beach, referred to Commerce and Labor) would require the Governor to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), the cap-and-trade program that has successfully ratcheted down carbon emissions in the northeastern states. Funds generated by auction allowances would fund sea level rise adaptation in coastal areas, economic transition efforts for southwest Virginia, energy efficiency for low-income families, and distributed renewable energy programs.

Financing

HB 941 (David Toscano, D-Charlottesville, referred to Counties, Cities and Towns) expands the authorization for Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) programs to include residential and condominium projects. This would allow localities to offer low-interest financing to homeowners for both energy efficiency and renewable energy investments.

Utility cost recovery

HB 1220 (David Yancey, R-Newport News, referred to Commerce and Labor) is billed as a technical fix for language added to the Code last year that encourages utilities to invest in solar. The bill clarifies that a utility that purchases a solar facility is allowed cost recovery on the same favorable terms it would get by building the facility itself.

Energy storage

Energy storage is emerging as the hot new energy technology area, about where solar was five years ago. Interest in it has been driven by recent price declines as well as the success of wind and solar and the growing awareness that these carbon-free sources are likely to make up a significant portion of our electricity supply in coming years. So while the use of storage is by no means limited to renewable energy applications, I include it here because it will interest those who follow wind and solar policy.

HB 452 (Patrick Hope, D-Arlington, in Commerce and Labor) and SB 403 (Ebbin, D-Alexandria, in Commerce and Labor) create the Virginia Energy Storage Consortium to promote research, development, commercialization, manufacturing and deployment of energy storage. It’s a great idea.

HB 1137 (David Toscano, D-Charlottesville, in Commerce and Labor) directs the State Corporation Commission to develop a program to enable commercial and industrial customers to sell battery storage services to the grid. If you’ve heard of the concept known as “vehicle-to-grid” (using electric cars to put power back on the grid as well as drawing from it), you’ll understand what this is about. It would allow these and other “energy balancing devices” to provide value to the grid in the form of spinning reserves, frequency regulation, distribution system support, reactive power, demand response, or other electric grid services. It’s an idea whose time has come.

Biomass

Wind and solar have several less popular relatives with more tenuous claims on the renewable energy family name. Virginia’s definition of “renewable” embraces them all, regardless of merit. It treats biomass to a special place of honor, including even the burning of trees that haven’t been harvested sustainably, and regardless of how much pollution gets spewed into the atmosphere.

SB 647 (Barbara Favola, D-Arlington, in Commerce and Labor) and HB 973 (Alfonso Lopez, D-Arlington, in Commerce and Labor) would change that to require that electricity from new biomass plants, to qualify as renewable energy, would have to meet a minimum efficiency level. Burning wood from trees would generally meet that standard only when it produces both electricity and heat (or, through the magic of science, cooling).

Consumer choice

HB 444 (Manoli Loupassi, R-Richmond, in Commerce and Labor) and SB 745 (Frank Wagner, R-Virginia Beach, in Commerce and Labor) would expand the current requirement that utilities inform ratepayers about their options for purchasing renewable energy.

Which might lead you to ask, “what options?” since for most of us here in Virginia they are sadly lacking. But maybe this year’s session will start to change that.

A note about House Commerce and Labor: Bills noted above that have been assigned to the House Committee on Commerce and Labor have all been assigned to its Subcommittee on Energy. This powerful subcommittee typically meets only once or twice before Crossover. I’m told it will meet on the afternoon of Tuesday, February 9, likely continuing well into the evening due to the number of bills assigned.

February 9 is also Clean Energy Lobby Day, when members of the renewable energy and energy efficiency industries descend on Richmond to educate legislators about the need for sound reforms. This year the solar industry trade association MDV-SEIA is organizing the lobby day, which is free to participants. The organization has also created a petition to support third-party financing of solar in Virginia.


UPDATE:

Senator McEachin files bill for mandatory RPS. SB 761 Donald McEachin (D-Richmond) would make Virginia’s pathetic, voluntary RPS into a mandatory RPS that would rank as one of the best in the country. It would require utilities to meet an increasing percentage of electricity sales from solar, onshore wind, offshore wind, and energy efficiency, reaching 25% of base year sales by 2025 (and deleting the current, obnoxious slight-of-hand that leaves nuclear out of the equation, but keeping a base year of 2007). By 2017, half of it would have to come from sources located within Virginia.