You call that an energy plan?

Protesters outside the Virginia Clean Energy Summit on October 21.

Governor Glenn Youngkin issued a press release on October 3 presenting what he says is his energy plan. Accompanying the press release was 26 pages labeled “2022 Virginia Energy Plan,” but that can’t be what he’s referring to. I mean, the Virginia Code is pretty specific about what makes up an energy plan, and this isn’t it.

Under Virginia law, the energy plan must identify steps the state will take over the next 10 years consistent with the Commonwealth Clean Energy Policy’s goal of a net-zero carbon economy by 2045 “in all sectors, including the electric power, transportation, industrial, agricultural, building, and infrastructure sectors.”  Not only does Youngkin’s document not do that, it doesn’t even mention the policy it’s supposed to implement.

It’s also missing critical pieces. The plan is supposed to include a statewide inventory of greenhouse gas emissions, but it’s nowhere to be found. The inventory is the responsibility of the Department of Environmental Quality, which reports previous inventories on its website from 2005, 2010 and 2018. The one specifically required to be completed by October 1, 2022 isn’t there, nor is there any indication it’s in the works and just unfortunately delayed. Did I miss some fine print about how the requirement doesn’t apply if the governor is a Republican?

In fact, there is no discussion about climate change in Youngkin’s energy plan.  The word “climate” appears nowhere. He simply ignores the problem: a modern Nero, fiddling while the planet burns.

Instead, Youngkin’s document mostly attacks the laws Virginia has passed in recent years to implement its decarbonization goals, including the Virginia Clean Economy Act, legislation allowing the state to participate in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative and the Clean Cars law. In their place he offers a bunch of random ideas — some with merit, some without, some spinning off on tangents.

I did not really expect a conservative Republican with presidential aspirations to embrace all the recommendations for the energy plan that I laid out last month, or those from the many environmental, faith and consumer groups that support Virginia’s clean energy transition. Going further and faster down the road to decarbonization is a tall order for politicians beholden to fossil fuel interests, no matter how much it would benefit the public.

Yet Youngkin doesn’t have a lot of ammunition to use against the switch to renewable energy. With soaring coal and natural gas prices, it’s hard to keep pretending that fossil fuels are low-cost. The insistence that we need them for reliability is the only straw left to grasp at.

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And indeed, underlying Younkin’s attack on the VCEA is a misunderstanding of how grid operators manage electricity. The critique boils down to “baseload good, intermittent bad.” But baseload is not the point; meeting demand is the point. Demand fluctuates hugely by day and hour. If grid operators had nothing to work with but slow-ramping coal plants or on/off nuclear reactors and no storage, they’d have as much trouble matching demand as if they had nothing but renewable energy and no storage. Pairing low-cost wind and solar with batteries makes them dispatchable — that is, better than baseload.

That’s not to say there aren’t good reasons to invest in higher-cost resources, but “baseload” is a red herring that stinks up Youngkin’s entire argument.

To his credit — and notwithstanding his “baseload” fixation — Youngkin supports Virginia’s move into offshore wind energy even with the high cost of the Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind project and other early U.S. developments. (The plan notes that Virginia’s project will be the largest “in the Free World,” a weirdly retro way to tell us China has leapt far ahead in installing offshore wind.)

The plan also supports removing barriers to customer purchases of solar energy, including shared solar and a greater ability for renewable energy suppliers to compete with utilities for retail sales. This is all phrased as a consumer choice issue rather than an endorsement of greater utility investments in solar; regardless, these would be welcome moves.

It’s also good to see the governor’s endorsement of rate reform. Republicans have been at least as much to blame as Democrats for Dominion Energy’s success in getting laws passed that let it bilk ratepayers. It will be interesting to see if Youngkin actually pursues the reforms he touts.

Less encouraging are Youngkin’s desires to jump into hydrogen (I’m guessing not the green kind, since we hardly have an excess of renewable energy) and, worse, to deploy “the nation’s first” commercial small modular nuclear reactor (SMR) in Southwest Virginia within 10 years.

You know what will happen there, right? Ratepayers will foot the bill, and it will be very expensive.

But unlike offshore wind, SMRs aren’t proven technology; they remain firmly in the research phase. The U.S. Department of Energy is hoping for a demonstration project “this decade.” If successful, the industry believes SMRs will eventually be able to produce electricity at a price that’s only two or three times that of solar and wind energy. Which begs an obvious question: Is there a reason to build SMRs?

Nor has anyone figured out the nagging problem of what to do with the radioactive waste, including the waste piling up at today’s nuclear plants because it’s too dangerous to move and there’s no place to put it. So Youngkin’s plan also “calls for developing spent nuclear fuel recycling technologies that offer the promise of a zero-carbon emission energy system with minimal waste and a closed-loop supply chain.” Great idea! But how about focusing on that first, Governor?

That’s not where Younkin is putting his focus, though. Last week, he proposed spending $10 million on a Virginia Power Innovation Fund, with half of that earmarked for SMR research and development.  The announcement said nothing about waste.

Look, I happen to know some earnest climate advocates who believe SMRs are the silver bullet we’ve been waiting for. I follow the research with an open mind while also noting the astonishing advances in renewable energy technology announced almost daily. But the climate crisis is here and now. We can’t afford to press pause on known carbon-free technologies for 10 years in the hope that something even better will pan out.

Investing in research and development of new technologies is an important role for government, but kicking the climate can down the road isn’t an option. Rather than attacking our energy transition, Youngkin would have done more for Virginia by using his plan to build on it.

This article appeared first in the Virginia Mercury on October 18, 2022.

A tale of two realities: how individual choices could pull us back from the brink of climate chaos

A murmuration of starlings. Photo by Jeremy Bolwell via Wikimedia

It was the best of summers, it was the worst of summers. It was the summer the United Nations declared a healthy environment a universal human right, and a summer that shattered heat records across the globe. The U.S. enacted a historic climate bill not long after the Supreme Court struck down the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan. Climate scientists said there was still hope for keeping global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius, while the American West’s worst drought in 1,200 years continued for its 22nd summer.

The struggle to keep climate change from spinning out of control feels nothing short of epic, as if ordinary mortals were powerless observers to a battle between giants that will determine whether and how we survive. Yet if we weren’t collectively doing what modern humans do — burning fossil fuels, clearing land for agriculture, raising and eating billions of animals, driving on the roads we paved, making things in factories, consuming and consuming — there would be no epic struggle. We are the giants.

But being integral to the problem also makes every person integral to where we go from here.  Powerlessness is an illusion. Like a murmuration of starlings wheeling through the air in a synchronized but unchoreographed ballet, small choices by individuals cascade across society and shift its direction, unpredictably and sometimes radically.

This is why there remains a case for hope, if not actual optimism, even as climate change accelerates toward climate chaos. Humans, working individually and collectively, have removed the biggest technological barriers to stopping the rise in greenhouse gas emissions. Most of the policy and economic barriers continue to crumble too, especially when it comes to replacing fossil fuels with wind and solar. As a result, our power supply will continue to get cleaner even in states that prefer their air polluted.

Government must still do much more, and many technical challenges still need to be worked out. For the first time, though, a decarbonizing grid finally gives ordinary people a role in determining the continued habitability of our planet, through individual actions that collectively push society in a new direction.

We’ve done this before. Consider the anti-littering campaign of the 1960s that made a once-commonplace behavior unthinkable for millions of Americans. Or take the public response to the ozone hole crisis of the 1970s, when scientists discovered that the chemical aerosols emitted by spray cans were migrating up to the stratosphere and reacting with sunlight to eat away at the Earth’s protective ozone layer. While the federal government dithered, consumers acted. They abandoned aerosols in favor of pump bottles for cleaning products, roll-on deodorants and sprays reformulated to remove the chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) causing the problem. The public response led to government action, culminating in the 1987 Montreal Protocol phasing out CFCs worldwide.

Individual choices change history when people recognize the need to alter their behavior, but only if they have acceptable alternatives that others can copy easily. Once it becomes commonplace, the planet-friendly choice can even feel like the only morally acceptable option. Individuals and even companies want to avoid the stain of public opprobrium — the reason so many corporations today have adopted sustainability goals.

Many threats are too great to leave to voluntary action, or too hard for enough people to understand or act on individually. We needed top-down policies to decarbonize the electric sector; voluntary investments in rooftop solar alone could never do it. We will always need government agencies like the EPA and the Food and Drug Administration to regulate toxins and dangerous products. Simply trying to empower consumers can backfire, as Californians found when a right-to-know law enacted by proposition led to companies labeling pretty much everything as cancer-causing, just to be on the safe side.

But consumer choice will be a key factor in decarbonizing buildings and transportation now that renewable energy is taking over the electric grid. As people learn about the dangers of using natural gas indoors, they will opt instead for high-efficiency heat pumps and electric induction stoves, and builders will respond to changing demand by no longer connecting homes to gas lines. The new Inflation Reduction Act, with its generous rebatesfor home electrification, sped up the timeline for the demise of gas, but consumer preference will be the deciding factor.

Similarly, the IRA’s rebates for electric vehicle purchases will make consumers the killers of Big Oil. The transportation sector makes up the biggest slice of U.S. carbon emissions, and most of that is attributable to personal automobiles. Getting people out of their cars and on to bicycles or mass transit has been frustratingly hard because most of our communities were built around the automobile. The arrival of electric vehicles finally offers such an attractive alternative to the gas guzzler that it’s just a question of when, not if, the internal combustion engine goes the way of the horse-drawn buggy.

The battery technology that makes electric vehicles possible also allows every gasoline-powered tool to be electrified, including lawn mowers, weed-whackers and leaf blowers. Gasoline-powered lawn equipment is astoundingly polluting, in terms of both carbon emissions and smog-creating volatile organic compounds. It’s also so noisy that neighbors will pressure neighbors to switch to electric as the technology gets better and cheaper. California, Washington, D.C. and many localities have banned gas-powered leaf blowers, but consumer preference alone should eventually eliminate the market for them.

Consumer choice could also lower carbon emissions in sectors of the economy that are famously difficult to electrify. Within a few years you may be able to fly on a plane using biofuel or live in a building made with low-emission steel and concrete that sequesters carbon. As we’ve seen with other technologies, though, mass adoption depends on these alternatives being cheaper, better-performing or both. That will take time.

Eating a plant-based diet stands out as the individual action with the greatest climate impact, according to the climate solutions handbook Drawdown. People are beginning to catch on to the meat industry’s outsized impact on climate change, but it’s the second condition — people having alternatives they really like — that keeps the meat industry in business. Veganism is on the rise (led, of all people, by athletes), but meat consumption continues to grow too.

If some visionary thinkers are right, in a few years we will all happily be eating lab-grown meat and healthy plant-based meat substitutes because they will outcompete animal products on price, taste and convenience. Removing animals from our food supply will have cascading beneficial effects as it frees up land now used to grow animal feed for more planet-friendly uses such as carbon-sequestering forests and wildlife habitat.

For now, as anyone who has tried to stick to a diet can tell you, knowing what you ought to do is the easy part. Getting all of humanity to adopt a carbon diet is the challenge of our time. If we’re lucky and make the right choices, we may still have time to redirect the human murmuration toward a sustainable economy.

This article first appeared in the Virginia Mercury on September 8, 2022.

Buckle up, folks: this federal climate bill is going to supercharge Virginia’s energy transition

Young woman holding sign that says Climate Action Now
Photo by Alex Kambis.

On Sunday the U.S. Senate passed the historic climate legislation package hammered out between Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin. The House is expected to follow suit this week, giving President Joe Biden a huge win on one of his administration’s priorities and finally making good on his pledge to tackle climate change.

The bill is titled the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), apparently because the senators think inflation is the only thing most Americans care about right now. But whether it reduces inflation is beside the point. The IRA marks the federal government’s most significant investment in clean energy and transportation ever. Its $370 billion of climate spending will cut U.S. emissions roughly 42% below 2005 levels by 2030, only slightly less than the reductions that would have been achieved through Biden’s signature Build Back Better bill.

This is a huge piece of legislation, though, and some of the compromises Schumer was forced to make are not climate-friendly. Manchin, after all, is a coal baron representing a state so dominated by the extraction industries that it has lost sight of any other future. Climate hawks have to hold their noses (beaks?) to accept some noxious provisions, such as the bill’s requirement for new offshore drilling lease sales. No doubt that one will cheer motorists who wrongly assume the government could lower gasoline prices just by turning on a spigot, if only it wanted to.

The bill also comes with a side deal meant to ensure completion of the Mountain Valley Pipeline, which starts in Manchin’s home state. That news promptly soured many activists in Virginia on the whole package.

Hang in there, people. The pipeline deal isn’t actually part of the IRA, and Manchin knows better than anyone that a promise of some second bill to be voted on in the future is a castle in the air. Maybe he’ll get it, maybe he won’t. Meanwhile, the IRA’s incentives for renewable energy, energy storage, energy efficiency, building electrification and electric vehicles are overwhelmingly more impactful than provisions designed to increase oil and gas production. The business case for new pipelines will only get worse.

Three recurring themes stand out in the IRA. One is the attention paid to ensuring benefits flow to low- and moderate-income residents and communities impacted by fossil fuel extraction. A second is the effort to incentivize manufacturing and supply chain companies to bring operations back to the U.S., using tax credits for manufacturing and requirements for U.S.-made components. The third is job creation and training for career jobs that pay well. The combined effect is that the law will benefit former coal workers in Southwest Virginia looking for employment at least as much as Northern Virginia suburbanites jonesing for Teslas.

Every state will see clean energy investments soar if the bill becomes law, but Virginia is especially well positioned. Though we have embarrassingly little wind and solar in our energy mix today, we have huge potential for both, a strong tech sector and a well-educated workforce.

Just as important, laws passed by the General Assembly in the past few years already provide the framework for our energy transition. Among them, the Virginia Clean Economy Act and participation in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative are pushing our utilities to decarbonize, including through investments in energy efficiency, solar and offshore wind. Solar Freedom removed barriers to private investments in distributed solar, while the Grid Modernization Act authorized upgrades to the distribution grid, and the Clean Cars Act started us down the road to vehicle electrification. For all of these, the IRA’s incentives make compliance easier and less expensive for both utilities and customers.

Renewable energy tax credits with an emphasis on equity and jobs

Photo courtesy of NREL

The IRA is a big bill with a lot of fine print detailing incentives for a wide range of technologies, mostly clean but with a few clunkers. (Hydrogen made from fracked gas, anyone?) Still, the largest share of the renewable energy tax credits will go to companies involved in the wind and solar industries. The credits will remain fixed for 10 years before ramping down, finally providing the business certainty and long planning window that clean tech companies have been begging for.

The more utilities take advantage of the law to install renewable energy, the greater the benefit to electricity customers. Renewable energy helps stabilize electricity costs, dampening the impact of high fossil fuel prices. The IRA’s tax credits will lower the cost of building wind and solar, saving money for Virginia customers as our utilities meet and exceed the VCEA’s targets for solar, storage and wind. (So, yes, the Inflation Reduction Act will live up to its name when it comes to electricity prices.)

For utility-scale projects like solar farms and offshore wind, obtaining the maximum tax credit requires that a steadily increasing percentage of the equipment used be American made. Credits available to manufacturers are intended to draw the supply chain back to the U.S. and will help those parts be cost-competitive. New prevailing wage and apprenticeship program requirements favor union labor and middle-class incomes for careers in green energy.

While large renewable energy facilities will contribute most to decarbonizing the grid, the most generous incentives in the IRA are reserved for distributed generation facilities under 1,000 kilowatts AC (1,300 kW DC), a category that includes most rooftop solar. For these projects, the investment tax credit will return to 30% for the next 10 years, with adders available if the facility is located on a brownfield or in an “energy community” (10%), uses domestic content (10%) or serves low-income residents (10-20%). The credits can be combined, making it entirely possible for a solar project on low-income housing in Virginia’s coalfields, built using American-made equipment, to qualify for tax credits of up to 70% of the cost.

Not only that, but taxpayers will be allowed to sell the credits, so people with no tax liability can still take advantage of the discounts. This feature will make solar affordable for homeowners who don’t owe enough in federal taxes to use the tax credits themselves. It will also make it possible for installers to discount the upfront cost of a solar array by the amount of the tax credit so customers don’t have to wait months for a tax refund.

A final feature is that the tax credits will now also be available as direct payments to tax-exempt entities like local governments, schools and churches. Direct pay will have the biggest impact in states that don’t allow third-party power purchase agreements (PPAs), but it’s a great option anywhere.

The “adder” for brownfields will be of interest to many Virginia localities that want to find ways to safely use closed landfills and old industrial sites, while Virginia’s government has already identified brownfields as a great opportunity for solar.

But the biggest market opportunities would seem to be for solar on low-income housing and in areas impacted by fossil fuel extraction. Carrie Hearne, associate director for renewable energy and energy efficiency at Virginia’s Department of Energy, said the many federal funding programs laid out in the IRA “would provide great opportunities for energy infrastructure investments in communities that are most in need, and in turn, help to lower energy bills. These federal funds could also contribute to the commonwealth’s goal of competitive rates, reliable and responsible delivery of energy alongside rural economic development.”

To understand how the solar industry sees these opportunities, I called the leaders of three solar companies that develop onsite solar in low-income areas and in the coalfields: Dan Conant of West Virginia-based Solar Holler, Tony Smith of Staunton-based Secure Futures and Ruth Amundsen of Norfolk Solar. Not surprisingly, they all predicted stunning growth in both distributed solar and jobs as a result of the IRA.

Solar has made fewer inroads in Southwest Virginia than in other parts of the state, which Conant sees as an opportunity. One of the few unionized solar companies in the area, and the only one I know of focused exclusively on Appalachia, Solar Holler has been expanding into Southwest Virginia and hiring workers at a steady clip. (Disclosure: I own a tiny stake in Solar Holler.)

The company already uses American-made components, so Conant said coalfields residents will be able to take advantage of two of the adders to install solar on their homes and businesses at half price, with low-income residents paying even less. The IRA’s manufacturing tax credits for American solar companies will further reduce the cost of the projects.

Conant was especially excited about the IRA’s impact on jobs in Appalachia. He expects to ramp up hiring significantly once the IRA becomes law. It took no prodding from me for him to add, “I truly believe this bill will let us get to 100% clean energy in 15 years.”

Secure Futures also has projects underway in Southwest Virginia as well as elsewhere across the state. The company uses third-party PPAs to allow tax-exempt customers like schools and nonprofits to go solar with no money down, paying just for the electricity produced by the panels. Although the IRA allows these customers to get the tax benefits without a PPA, Secure Futures president Tony Smith said tax-exempt entities will still do better using PPAs to take advantage of accelerated depreciation.

Smith said the IRA will make an already strong solar market in Virginia even stronger, as the higher tax credits will push down prices and the transferability of the credits will make it easier to attract more investors to solar. At the same time, a provision of the VCEA requiring Dominion Energy Virginia to acquire renewable energy certificates (RECs) from distributed generation facilities has created a strong market for these certificates, helping to finance projects and making solar even more affordable for institutional customers that sell their solar RECs.

On the other side of the commonwealth, Norfolk Solar also installs solar in low-income communities, offering PPAs to both commercial customers and low-income residents in economically distressed areas that qualify for special tax treatment as Qualified Opportunity Zones. (Under Virginia law, residential PPAs are available only to low-income customers.) Amundsen pointed out that the 10-year time horizon of the tax credits is an added benefit of the IRA to both her customers and potential investors because it allows for long-range planning and multi-year projects.

Energy storage will stand on its own

The VCEA established one of the most ambitious goals for energy storage development in the nation. But current federal law offers tax credits for energy storage only when it is part of a renewable energy project. The limitation has led to the proliferation of solar-plus-batteries projects around the country. It’s an ideal combination because it allows solar energy to be used when it is needed, unshackled from the time of day that it’s produced.

But uncoupling storage from renewable energy projects is a more efficient way to manage the grid, said Steve Donches, a Loudoun County attorney who represents battery storage companies and recently served on the Virginia Energy Storage Task Force.

“In many instances, the best location for storage supporting the grid is not where the renewables are located but rather near grid chokepoints or inside load pockets,” he said. “Moreover, site selection flexibility can often be important from a zoning permitting perspective. The new approach allows developers to be more nimble and locate where it is most useful and cost efficient.”

Recognizing this, the IRA provides a tax credit of up to 30% for energy storage whether or not it is part of a renewable energy facility.

This will make grid storage less expensive and easier for our utilities to install, and it will also benefit customers who want to put batteries in their buildings for back-up power. Amundsen noted that her customers sometimes can’t afford to include a battery at the time they install solar; the IRA will let them take the tax credit for storage even if they buy the battery later. This is especially important, she said, for resilience in low-income neighborhoods, where adding a battery to a solar-powered church or community center allows it to “island” during a power outage and provide a refuge for neighbors.

Homeowners will see huge benefits from building electrification

A cleaner electricity grid makes it possible to decarbonize other sectors of the economy by substituting electricity for fossil fuels in transportation and buildings; hence the climate advocates’ mantra “Electrify everything.” Yet while new electric appliances have become more energy efficient and attractive to consumers than the ones they replace, the switch comes with a price tag.

Under the new law, price will no longer be a barrier. The IRA offers rebates to residents to upgrade their homes with new electric technology such as heat pumps for heating and cooling (up to $8,000), electric induction stoves ($840), heat pump water heaters ($1,750) and upgrades to home electrical systems to support all the new load ($4,000). The rebates phase out for higher-income earners. Lower-income families replacing old and inefficient appliances will see the greatest energy savings as well as the highest rebates.

The federal rebates are a fantastic complement to existing Virginia programs for low-income energy efficiency upgrades. A major attraction of Virginia’s participation in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative is the hundreds of millions of dollars it raises for low-income efficiency programs such as those devoted to upgrading multifamily housing like apartment buildings. Coordinating the state programs with the new federal rebates should be an urgent priority to ensure the broadest possible benefits to low-income Virginians.

Meanwhile, gas utilities had better start planning for the end of their business. There is no longer any reason to expand and upgrade gas distribution pipelines, because from here on in their customer base will be shrinking, not growing, resulting in stranded assets.

Electric vehicles aren’t just for the rich any more

Santeri Viinamäki, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

The IRA provides a $7,500 EV tax credit for new vehicles, including those made by manufacturers like Tesla and Toyota that had reached volume caps in previous law. Restrictions apply, including income limits, vehicle price caps and supply chain sourcing rules. The act also now adds a credit of up to $4,000 for used vehicles, making ownership possible for more people at all income levels.

Virginia is committed to vehicle electrification through its adoption of clean cars legislation in 2021 and a 2022 law requiring state agencies to buy electric light-duty vehicles whenever the total cost of ownership is less than it would be for a vehicle with an internal combustion engines. But further speeding up the transition to EVs will create ripple effects requiring careful planning. Electricity demand will increase and do so unevenly, requiring load management programs and upgrades to parts of the distribution grid.

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Charging all these vehicles will also be an issue. Many would-be EV customers lack the ability to charge at home, either because they don’t own the space where they park or because their homes aren’t wired for easy installation of a charger. The problem is especially acute for people who rent apartments in buildings that lack charging stations.

No matter how generous the credits, people won’t buy EVs if they can’t charge them. Virginia must require multifamily buildings to include enough charging stations for all the residents who want them, ensure public charging stations are plentiful and convenient in low-income neighborhoods and improve its residential housing code to ensure new homes are wired to facilitate installation of chargers.

For best results, lean in

Photo credit iid.com

Virginia law requires each new governor to produce an energy plan in October of the first year in office, so Virginia’s Department of Energy is currently in the process of writing a plan that will have Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s stamp on it. The plan must be one that “identifies actions over a 10-year period consistent with the goal of the Commonwealth Clean Energy Policy set forth in § 45.2-1706.1 to achieve, no later than 2045, a net-zero carbon energy economy for all sectors, including the electricity, transportation, building, agricultural, and industrial sectors.”

Governor Youngkin hasn’t shown much enthusiasm for Virginia’s energy transition to date, having tried to gut the VCEA and repeal RGGI. Yet with the IRA making so many incentives available for clean energy and electric vehicles, leaning in to the energy transition now will allow the commonwealth to reap huge rewards in the form of economic development, job growth, cleaner air and lower energy bills.

The opportunities for Virginia are enormous; the governor should make the most of them.

This article originally ran in the Virginia Mercury on August 9, 2022.

Dear readers: Many of you know that although I write independently of any organization, I also volunteer for the Sierra Club and serve on its legislative committee. The Sierra Club’s Virginia Chapter urgently needs funds to support its legislative and political work towards a clean energy transition. So this summer I’m passing the hat and asking you to make a donation to our “Ten Wild Weekends” fundraising campaign. Thanks!

Getting gas out of buildings is critical for climate action, but the recipe isn’t easy

I grew up with brothers, so I knew from an early age that the surest way to make friends with guys was to feed them homemade cookies. I took this strategy with me to college, commandeering the tiny kitchenette tucked into the hallway of my coed dorm. The aroma of chocolate chip cookies hot out of the oven reliably drew a crowd.

One fan was so enthusiastic that he wanted to learn to make cookies himself. So the next time, he showed up at the start of the process. He watched me combine sugar and butter, eggs and flour.

Instead of being appreciative, he was appalled. It had never occurred to him that anything as terrific as a cookie could be made of stuff so unhealthy. It’s not that he thought they were created from sunshine and elf magic; he just hadn’t thought about it at all. He left before the cookies even came out of the oven.

I felt so bad about it, I ate the whole batch.

Cookies are practically health food compared to other things we consume without really understanding the dangers. 

It’s not just food. Plastic packaging, chemical additives, PFASphthalates and numerous other chemicals enter our homes and bodies without our conscious acquiescence, causing havoc for ourselves, our children and the rest of life on earth. It’s hard to know the risks, harder still to avoid them. So maybe you carry reusable bags and water bottles, buy organic if you can, and otherwise, try not to think too hard about it.

Where ignorance is bliss—or at any rate, a state of mind sufficient to keep you from a complete mental breakdown — you could be excused for feeling ‘tis folly to be wise. Why not just eat the cookies?

Well, because sometimes reading the ingredients can make a difference. Public pressure has been the major driver of government action on climate, particularly in decarbonizing the electric sector. People saw the recipe for their power supply and recoiled at all that fossil fuel. Short of installing solar panels on their rooftops, individuals in most states have little control over their source of electricity. It was a collective outcry that led to nearly half of all states setting carbon-free electricity targets. 

It seems odd, then, that we have not seen the same outcry when it comes to fossil fuel use in buildings, including natural gas in homes. As our electricity gets cleaner, buildings must become all-electric on the way to a fully decarbonized energy economy.  

Turns out, that’s a tall order. About 48 percent of American homes use natural gas for heating, and many also have gas appliances like stoves and hot water heaters. Starting in 2019, a few cities started banning new gas connections in an effort to speed the transition to all-electric homes. But in response, the gas industry persuaded legislatures in 20 states to prohibit localities from enacting such bans. (An industry effort to “ban the bans” in Virginia failed mainly because no localities have tried to go that route.)

For now at least, the industry seems to have public sentiment on its side. Natural gas is truly the chocolate-chip cookie of fossil fuels: it heats the air reliably, chefs love it and it’s lower in calories—I mean, carbon—than coal. Even the name sounds benign. What can be wrong with something “natural?” 

Disillusionment sets in only when you read the recipe. (“First, frack one well…”) Understanding the harmfulness of the ingredients is the key to getting people to insist on all-electric homes and businesses. The primary component of natural gas is methane, a greenhouse gas far more potent than CO2. Methane leaking from wellheads, pipelines, compressor stations and storage facilities contributes alarmingly to climate change. Older cities are riddled with leaking distribution pipelines running through neighborhoods, especially those housing low-income and non-White residents. Occasionally, they explode. 

Those beloved gas stoves leak methane even when turned off, and burning gas in buildings causes high levels of indoor air pollution. Cooking with gas releases respiratory irritants, including nitrogen dioxide, ultrafine particulate matter (PM 2.5), carbon monoxide and formaldehyde. The effect is particularly harmful to children, with studies showing children living in homes with gas stoves are 42 percent more likely to suffer from symptoms of asthma.

It used to be that gas outperformed electricity in buildings, but no longer. Recent advances in technology mean electric heat pumps provide heating and air conditioning efficiently and effectively even in very cold climates. Every gas appliance has an electric counterpart. Even for cooking, gas has met its match in electric induction stoves, which have been winning over chefs nationwide. In a few years, we will wonder why we ever allowed open flames in our kitchens.  

Cost and convenience also favor all-electric buildings. An electric heat pump instead of both a gas burner and electric air conditioning means only one system to maintain and one utility bill instead of two. 

The question isn’t why homeowners would give up gas, but why builders still include it. Clearly, no one is reading the recipe.

With so much gas infrastructure already in place, and so little public awareness of the dangers, getting the gas out of buildings will be a slow process. In Virginia, gas companies continue to propose pipeline projects that would actually increase supply, in the hopes of locking in new customers. This is, to use the technical term, nuts. Those pipelines will have to be abandoned within a couple of decades, not “just” because the climate crisis demands it, but because consumers won’t keep buying.

Certainly, it will take time for most people to grasp how harmful methane is and how superior the alternative is. Once consumers begin insisting on all-electric buildings, however, gas utilities will enter a death spiral as they are forced to raise prices for remaining customers, who will then switch to electricity, too. 

At that point, electrification of the building sector will be complete, and we will begin to close the (cook)book on gas.

This article originally appeared in the Virginia Mercury on July 7, 2022.

Dear readers: Many of you know that although I write independently of any organization, I also volunteer for the Sierra Club and serve on its legislative committee. The Sierra Club’s Virginia Chapter urgently needs funds to support its legislative and political work towards a clean energy transition. So this summer I’m passing the hat and asking you to make a donation to our “Ten Wild Weekends” fundraising campaign. Thanks!

You call that democracy? How Virginia’s electric co-ops fail their member-owners.

Virginia’s thirteen electric cooperatives were exempted from most provisions of the 2020 Virginia Clean Economy Act, which caps carbon pollution from power plants and requires investor-owned utilities to meet renewable-energy and energy-efficiency targets. In lobbying for the VCEA exemption, cooperatives no doubt touted their claimed status as member-owned and democratically governed. In theory that means co-op members can direct their co-ops to adopt programs friendly to consumers and the environment. But events last month showed again that some of the commonwealth’s electric co-ops are not as democratic as they claim. 

Summer is annual-meeting time for electric co-ops. Like all consumer cooperatives, electric co-ops are owned by their customers (called “member-owners”). Democratic control of the cooperative is one of seven “cooperative principles” that all electric cooperatives claim to adhere to. The key to genuine democratic control is board-of-director elections, which happen at each co-op’s annual meeting, where member-owners vote for board candidates. 

Two examples from Virginia electric co-op annual meetings last month demonstrate ways large and small in which incumbent co-op boards game the election process to help their favored board candidates. The most egregious case occurred at Rappahannock Electric Cooperative (REC), which serves rural and suburban Virginians in 22 counties. In a five-way race in REC’s August board election there was a clear winner among co-op member-owners who selected a candidate. Hanover County businessman Roddy Mitchell got more than twice as many member-owner votes as any of the four other candidates. You might call that a landslide win.

But through REC’s needlessly arcane and confusing proxy-voting process, REC’s board was able to allocate some 6,000 additional votes to the board-favored candidate, thereby swinging the election win to him. That board-favored candidate came in fourth out of five when looking at votes that member-owners cast for candidates.

When a board controls 40 to 60 percent or more of all votes, as REC’s board generally does, the board effectively controls the election outcome and “democracy” is an empty label.  

REC’s board controls huge numbers of votes each year because proxy ballots left blank are deemed by REC’s board as a delegation of the member-owner’s vote to the incumbent board to decide whom to cast them for. Moreover, REC offers those who send in a proxy, even a blank one, a chance to win cash prizes. That encourages member-owners to submit blank proxies, even if they have no interest in the election or makeup of the board. REC election tally forms going back over a decade show that every year REC’s incumbent board controls enough proxies to control election outcomes. For at least the past twelve years no candidate has won a race without getting the board-controlled votes. 

So the way to win an REC board election is to please incumbent board members, not to get the most votes from member-owners. That isn’t fair and it isn’t democratic. It leads to board groupthink, insulates boards from the concerns of member-owners, and discourages well-informed, knowledgeable co-op members from running for board.

A National Rural Electric Cooperative Association governance task force report recommended against using board-controlled proxies to swing election results. But REC’s board continues to ignore that recommendation years after it was made.  

Meanwhile, neighboring Shenandoah Valley Electric Cooperative’s (SVEC) board changed the co-op’s bylaws at a closed board meeting in June to help out an incumbent board member facing a strong challenge from another candidate in the August election. The board added a bylaw provision saying that in the case of a tie between an incumbent and non-incumbent candidate the incumbent would be deemed the winner of a one-year board term! 

As if that isn’t bad enough, REC board chair Chris Shipe said publicly a few weeks ago that SVEC’s board is considering changing its (fair) direct election process next year to a proxy system like REC’s. If SVEC follows through on that, then its board, like REC’s, will be able to determine election outcomes. That would make SVEC’s new tie-vote bylaw unnecessary. There are no ties when incumbent board members control election outcomes. 

SVEC’s board would then be fully insulated from member-owner concerns. That would greatly help incumbent board members, who recently approved major fixed-monthly-charge increases that disproportionately affect the co-op’s low-income member-owners and those who’ve invested in rooftop solar or energy efficiency.

There is currently no government oversight of Virginia electric co-op elections, and no law to ensure fair board-election procedures, prohibit abusive proxy practices, or prohibit using board-imposed bylaw changes to favor incumbents. This is important because electric cooperatives are essential service providers that operate as monopolies. Monopoly utilities seldom act in the best interest of their customers unless subjected to meaningful scrutiny, accountability, and independent oversight. Such oversight is lacking when entrenched co-op boards have ironclad control of board-election outcomes. It’s time for the General Assembly to step in and ensure basic, fair election practices to give Virginia electric cooperative member-owners a true say in the governance of the utilities they own.

Seth Heald is a retired U.S. Justice Department lawyer and has a master of science degree in energy policy and climate. He is a member-owner of Rappahannock Electric Cooperative and co-founder of Repower REC, a campaign to bring genuine democracy to Virginia’s electric co-ops. More information at RepowerREC.com

Questions Dominion didn’t answer at its shareholder meeting

Dominion Energy headquarters, Richmond, VA

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. 

Here are my questions:

1. We learned in Dominion’s Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) case last year that the Virginia City Hybrid Energy Center, the coal plant it owns in Wise County, has a 10-year net present value of negative $472 million. Why isn’t Dominion retiring it immediately to save money and reduce the number of emission allowances it has to buy now that Virginia has joined the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative?

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? 

Yeah, I’m not perfect either. Pass the Clean Economy Act.

People gathered with signs supporting climate action

Grassroots activists gather at the steps of the Virginia Capital on January 14. Photo courtesy Sierra Club.

When it was first introduced, and before the utilities and special interests got their grubby little paws on it, the Clean Economy Act was an ambitious and far-reaching overhaul of Virginia energy policy that turned a little timid when it came to particulars.

Sausage-making ensued.

The bill that emerged from the grinder inevitably allows Dominion Energy to profit more than it should. (Welcome to Virginia, newcomers.) The energy efficiency provisions, which I thought weak, became even weaker, then became stronger, then ended up somewhere in the middle depending on whether you were looking at the House or Senate version. The renewable portfolio standard, complicated to begin with, is now convoluted to the point of farce — and to the extent I understand it, I’m not laughing.

Yet the bill still does what climate advocates set out to do: It creates a sturdy framework for a transition to 100% carbon-free electricity by 2045 (the House bill) or 2050 (the Senate bill).

It’s worth taking a moment to marvel at the very idea of a strong energy transition bill passing in a state that still subsidizes coal mining. Even a year ago, this would not have been possible. That we have come this far is a tribute not just to the Democrats who are making good on their pledge to tackle climate, but to the thousands of grassroots activists who worked to elect them and then stayed on the job to hold them to their promises.

The Clean Economy Act works by tackling the problem from multiple directions in a belt-and-suspenders approach:

• The legislation puts an immediate two-year moratorium on any new carbon-emitting plants. The concept came straight from the grassroots-led Green New Deal, and it creates space for the other provisions to kick in.

• It requires DEQ to implement regulations cutting carbon emissions through participation in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. RGGI uses market incentives to cut carbon emissions from power plants 30 percent by 2030. The Department of Environmental Quality will auction carbon allowances to power plant owners and use the auction money primarily for coastal resilience projects and energy efficiency projects for low-income residents. The Department of Housing and Community Development will be in charge of this efficiency spending, not Dominion.

• The Clean Economy Act takes RGGI out further, ensuring that Virginia reaches zero emissions by 2045 (House bill) or 2050 (Senate bill).

• It requires the closure of most coal plants in Virginia by the end of 2024. The newest of these, the Virginia City Hybrid coal plant, must close by the end of 2030 unless it achieves 83 percent emission reductions through carbon capture and storage, the technology it was allegedly designed for. Biomass plants have to close by the end of 2028.

• In place of fossil fuels, utilities have to build or buy thousands of megawatts of solar, on-shore wind, offshore wind and energy storage. Yearly solicitations for wind and solar will ensure sustained job creation employing thousands of workers. Thirty-five percent of all this must be competitively procured from third-party developers, a requirement that lowers costs and makes it harder for utilities to overcharge for the projects they build themselves.

• The storage requirement in particular is notable because batteries compete directly with gas combustion turbines to serve peak demand. The more storage a utility builds, the weaker its case for building new gas peakers becomes.

• For the first time, Virginia utilities will have to achieve energy efficiency savings, not just throw money at the problem. Under the stronger House bill, Dominion must achieve 5 percent cumulative energy savings by 2025. Appalachian Power must achieve 2 percent. Starting in 2026, the SCC will set efficiency goals every three years. Achieving savings ought to be easy; a new ranking of progress on efficiency puts Dominion at 50th out of 52 utilities. Low-hanging fruit, anyone? The Clean Economy Act also calls for 15 percent of efficiency spending to be allocated for programs benefiting low-income, elderly, disabled individuals and veterans.

• Also for the first time, the legislation requires the State Corporation Commission to consider the “social cost of carbon.” That puts one more thumb on the scales weighing against fossil fuels.

• If by January of 2028 we are still not on track, the House bill empowers the secretaries of natural resources and commerce and trade to put a second moratorium on new fossil fuel facilities.

One other element of the bill is worth mentioning, given the questions about how much all these new projects and programs will cost. The legislation creates a “percentage of income payment program” for low-income ratepayers to cap electricity costs at 6 percent of household income, or 10 percent if they use electric heat. The program includes provisions for home energy audits and retrofits.

As I said at the outset, the bill is not without its flaws. The cost of offshore wind energy is “capped” in the bill at 1.6 times the cost of energy from a gas peaker plant, though I’m told negotiations continue and the adder may be reduced. Regardless of the number, this makes as much sense as capping the cost of apples at some number above the cost of Cheetos. Why are we comparing a carbon-free source of energy that is getting cheaper every year with one of the dirtiest and most expensive fossil fuel sources? On behalf of the offshore wind industry: Please, I’m insulted.

Virginia will be a leader on offshore wind, but we are not the first, and we know the price of electricity from the other U.S. projects already under contract. Prices are already well below gas peaker plant levels. The CEA ought to cap the cost of the Virginia project at 10 or 20 percent above the lowest-priced comparable offshore wind project, which would allow plenty of room for differences in wind speeds, distance from shore and other variables.

On second thought, as a point of pride, Dominion should reject any adder at all, and insist on capping its costs below those of all the northeastern projects. Have some confidence in yourselves, people!

My other complaint is that the Clean Economy Act’s nearly incomprehensible renewable portfolio standard fails to deliver. Yes, other provisions of the bill require the utilities to build a lot of wind and solar. But nothing requires them to use the renewable energy certificates (RECs) associated with those facilities for the RPS.

If I totally lost you with those acronyms, it’s okay. Just know that RECs are the bragging rights associated with renewable energy, and they can be bought and sold separately from the electricity itself. If Dominion builds a solar farm in Virginia and sells the RECs to Microsoft or the good people of New Jersey, those folks have bought the right to claim the renewable energy regardless of whether they actually get their electrons straight from the solar farm. Virginia would be left with a solar farm, but legally, no solar energy.

RECs also fetch different prices according to the kind of renewable energy they represent and how many are on the market. Everyone wants solar, so solar RECs cost more. RECs from hundred-year-old hydroelectric projects are not in demand, so they are cheap.

As written now, the Clean Economy Act sets up an RPS that doesn’t require any wind or solar RECs at all (excepting a miniscule carve-out for small wind and solar that can also be met with “anaerobic digestion resources,” possibly a reference to pig manure).

The RPS can be met with RECs from several sources less desirable than solar, and therefore cheaper. These include old hydro dams, Virginia-based waste-to-energy and landfill methane facilities and biomass burned by paper companies WestRock and International Paper. As a result, utilities will buy RECs from those sources to meet the requirements.

Only once utilities run out of cheaper RECs from eligible sources will they be forced to apply RECs from any of the wind and solar they are building. Until that time, Dominion and APCo will sell the RECs from the new solar farms to the highest bidder, while Virginia customers shell out potentially hundreds of millions of dollars for RECs no one really wants.

That’s not fair to the Virginians who are paying for the wind and solar projects to be built and who have a right to expect wind and solar will be a part of their energy supply as a result. Legislators can correct this with a very simple requirement that RECs from the new facilities mandated by the law be applied to the RPS.

And, while I am telling legislators what to do, they ought to remove the eligibility of paper company biomass. This provision seems to have been added to the bill (in obscure, coded language) simply because WestRock has talented lobbyists and the political power to demand a cut of the action. But do we ratepayers want to buy their RECs? No, we do not.

WestRock is doubtless unhappy about losing the nice stream of unearned income it’s been getting from selling thermal RECs to Dominion under Virginia’s voluntary RPS. But there is no good reason for electricity customers to subsidize a Fortune 500 corporation whose CEO earned $18 million last year and whose Covington mill, according to EPA data, spews out more toxic air emissions than any other facility in Virginia including Dominion’s Chesterfield coal plant. That’s not clean energy.

Fortunately (I guess), the RPS is not the heart and soul of the Clean Economy Act. For the next several years, its slow ramp-up makes it barely even relevant, and it is the next several years that matter most in our response to the climate crisis.

Joining RGGI, cutting emissions, implementing energy efficiency, building renewable energy and storage, closing coal and biomass plants: those are the mechanisms of the Clean Economy Act that will drive Virginia’s transition to 100% clean energy.

And so, having offered my helpful suggestions to improve the nutritional content of this sausage, I will add just one more thing:

Pass the bill.

This column originally ran in the Virginia Mercury on February 24, 2020. That afternoon, the Senate Commerce and Labor committee conformed the House version of the bill to the weaker Senate version and passed it out of committee. House Labor and Commerce meets today and is expected to conform the Senate bill to the stronger House language. Assuming both chambers pass the bills without further amendments, the bills will then go to a conference committee (three senators, three delegates) to resolve the differences, and the resulting language will go to the Governor. 

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

Young woman holding sign that says Climate Action Now

An activist at the Clean Energy Lobby Day on January 14. Photo by Alex Kambis.

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

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

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

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

Climate and energy policy

 SB94 (Favola) rewrites the Commonwealth Energy Policy to bring it in line with Virginia’s commitment to dealing with climate change. The latest draft of the bill, as it passed out of subcommittee, sets a target for net-zero greenhouse gas emissions economy wide by 2045, and in the electric sector by 2040. This section of the Code is for the most part merely advisory; nonetheless, it is interesting that Dominion Energy Virginia supported the bill in subcommittee. [Update: the bill, with further amendments, passed out of Commerce & Labor on January 20 and now goes to the Senate floor.]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RGGI bills (good and bad)

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

HB981 (Herring) and SB1027 (Lewis) is called the Clean Energy and Community Flood Preparedness Act. It implements the DEQ carbon regulations and directs DEQ to enter the RGGI auction market. Auction allowances are directed to funds for flood preparedness, energy efficiency and climate change planning and mitigation. We are told this is the Administration’s bill. A similar bill, HB20 (Lindsey), is not expected to move forward.

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

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

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

Other utility regulation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dominion’s plans to tackle global warming are mostly hot air

Graph compares CO2 reductions by Dominion Energy and Xcel

Dominion (blue line) starts out with lower total CO2 emissions than the larger Xcel (red line), but after switching out old coal for new fracked gas, Dominion’s carbon-cutting slows to a crawl, while Xcel’s keeps going.

My readers will be shocked, shocked to learn that contrary to Dominion Energy’s propaganda, the company plans to cut carbon emissions by only about 1% per year between now and 2030, a slower pace than it has achieved in the past.

According to an analysis of Dominion’s own data by the Energy and Policy Institute, “the company reduced its carbon emissions at an average rate of 4% per year from 2005 to 2017, mostly by retiring coal plants in the later years of that period. That reduction rate plummets to 1% per year between now and 2030 under Dominion’s new goal.”

“The company’s reduction pace would increase again between 2030 and 2050 in order to meet its later goal [of 80% carbon reduction from 2005 to 2050], though only to about 2.8%, still lower than its pace from 2005 to 2017.”

Fracked gas investments are both the reason Dominion has brought carbon emissions down as much as it has, and the reason it can’t keep up the pace. Closing expensive, old coal plants is an easy way to cut carbon and save money at the same time. Replace the output of a coal plant with the same output from a gas plant, and you’ve slashed carbon emissions almost in half overnight.

But it’s not such a great trick if it requires you to build a new gas plant with a useful life of 30 years. That makes it much harder to decarbonize further by replacing gas with carbon-free renewables.

This is exactly Dominion Energy Virginia’s problem. A comparison of the utility’s 2013 and 2018 integrated resource plans shows coal fell from 22% of the total energy mix to 18%, while natural gas jumped from 17% to 32%, displacing purchased energy as well as coal.

The company achieved this feat with three new, huge combined-cycle gas plants it brought online just in the past five years: Warren (1,370 MW) in 2014, Brunswick (1,358 MW) in 2016, and Greensville (1,588 MW) in 2018. Together these plants increased Dominion’s natural gas generating capacity by more than 50%.

Not only did Dominion stick utility ratepayers with these big new gas plants, its parent company promised investors the utility will burn enough gas to justify spending $7 billion-plus on the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. Decarbonizing violates the business plan.

Dominion is in good company — by which I mean bad company — in making bold claims about carbon cuts that prove inadequate on closer inspection. According to the Energy and Policy Institute, the other southeastern monopoly utilities, Duke, Southern, and NextEra, are all using the same playbook.

Other utilities have avoided the gas trap. National leaders like Minneapolis-based Xcel, Consumers Energy in Michigan, and NIPSCO in Indiana are replacing coal with renewables and leapfrogging over new gas. That puts them in a position to deliver on their promises of rapid emissions cuts.

The Energy and Policy Institute analysis pointedly contrasts Xcel with Dominion:

Xcel Energy is one of the country’s largest electric utilities, with operations in eight states, primarily Colorado and Minnesota. Xcel pledged in December 2018 to reduce its carbon emissions 80 percent by 2030 from 2005 levels, and to fully decarbonize by 2050. Xcel’s new goal is an upgrade of a previous one to cut carbon emissions 60 percent by 2030. It says it plans to lean heavily on renewable energy and batteries will save its customers money. In a detailed report released in March, Xcel says its goals fall within the range compatible with Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change scenarios that achieve either a 2°C or 1.5°C target.

Graphing Xcel’s trajectory vs. Dominion’s is telling: the companies’ decarbonization pathways tracked one another closely from 2005 until 2017. At that point, Xcel’s trajectory starts turning sharply downward, while Dominion’s flattens out.

Another contrast you’ll notice between Xcel and Dominion: Dominion has no plans to get to zero emissions, ever. It’s hard not to conclude that the company’s leaders are simply putting the best climate face on a gas strategy that hasn’t changed.

Eventually, though, the falling costs of wind and solar and the public’s demand for climate action will force Dominion to follow Xcel and others into deep decarbonization.

It may not be the business plan, but it is the future.

This post was originally published in the Virginia Mercury on July 15, 2019. 

 

As Virginia prepares to join carbon-trading states, arguments erupt over the price of admission

photo courtesy of the Sierra Club

Virginia won’t enter the nine-state carbon emissions trading program known as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative until 2020 under regulations being finalized by the state, but debate about how much it might cost utility ratepayers is already heating up.

Estimates range from little or no cost — or even a cost savings — to as high as $12 per month for the average household, depending on who is doing the calculations and the assumptions they make.

An Associated Press article reports that State Corporation Commission staff testified before a legislative committee that joining RGGI via the Virginia Coastal Protection Act, SB 1666 and HB 2735, would cost Virginia households an added $7-12 per month. The Northam administration disputed the SCC figure, saying the true cost would be about a dollar per month.

Republicans killed the bill in both the Senate and House committees that day.

A few days later, the anti-RGGI bill, HB 2611 (Poindexter), sailed through the House on a party-line vote. It would prevent Virginia from participating in RGGI or any other carbon-reduction regimen. If it also passes the Senate in coming weeks, it faces certain veto by the governor.

So is joining RGGI an inexpensive way to incentivize utilities to save energy and lower carbon emissions, or will it pile costs onto customers?

RGGI, for those of you who need a quick brush-up on your carbon policies, is a cooperative, market-based effort that has been running in New England and the Mid-Atlantic states as far south as Maryland for the past decade.

It works by auctioning carbon pollution allowances to major emitters, gradually ratcheting down the number of allowances made available each year to incentivize conservation and the use of lower-carbon fuels. States use the money they raise to fund energy efficiency, community solar, weatherization and other programs, often focusing especially on low-income residents.

First things first: RGGI works.

According to a 2018 report by Analysis Group, the RGGI region has met its targets, and benefited economically as well:

“Over three years (2015-2017), the RGGI program led to $1.4 billion (net present value) of net positive economic activity in the nine-state region,” the report says. “Each RGGI state’s electricity consumers and local economy also experienced net benefits from the RGGI program. When spread across the region’s population, these economic impacts amount to nearly $34 in net positive value added per capita.”

Virginia’s carbon reduction plan, now in the final stages of drafting at DEQ, will have Virginia participate in the RGGI auctions but not raise money from auctioning allowances.

Beginning in 2020, RGGI will add Virginia carbon emissions (28 million tons, the baseline DEQ has chosen) to the total for the existing members (56 million tons), and our utilities will bid for and trade allowances with the utilities in the other nine states.

But unlike the existing RGGI states, under DEQ’s plan Virginia will distribute its share of carbon allowances to our utilities at no cost, based on their previous year’s electricity sales. Utilities will sell the allowances into the RGGI auction bucket and buy back as many as they need. Initially, at least, the effect on ratepayers should be pretty much a wash.

Chris Bast, chief deputy at the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality said DEQ’s modeling program estimated rates would increase about 1 percent as a result of the new regulations. That’s a much lower figure than the $7 per month the SCC estimated the program would cost even with free allowances.

State Corporation Commission spokesman Ken Schrad said the DEQ “has understated the price of carbon emissions and understated Dominion’s cost of money for future capital investments (borrowed from lenders or invested by shareholders).”

“DEQ modeled Dominion as if it was a deregulated utility in a competitive market,” Schrad said. “Dominion’s fossil fuel generating units must be paid for in rates regardless of whether they are generating electricity under its vertically integrated structure.”

Bast takes issue with this. “I don’t know where the SCC got its numbers,” Bast told me. “Many folks, including the DEQ, have done extensive modeling to determine the environmental and economic impacts of the rule. That modeling is part of the public record and is part of the extensive public process that has gone into crafting this regulation. The SCC’s analysis is an outlier by several orders of magnitude – nearly 600%. The SCC has not provided any comment about ratepayer impact during any of our regulatory proceedings.

“We’re simply asking the SCC to show their work. But, to date, they have refused to provide us with the analysis that supports their conclusions.”

Bast says DEQ has not modeled what the program would cost if utilities had to pay for allowances, as contemplated under the Coastal Protection Act. Paying for allowances, according to the SCC, could drive costs up by an additional $5 per month.

This is a moot point, for now, since the Coastal Protection Act did not pass. But advocates believe that auctioning allowances offers an opportunity to raise funds to invest in energy efficiency and climate programs, so the idea remains on everyone’s radar for next year.

How RGGI works:

Under the Coastal Protection Act, auction proceeds would go into the state’s coffers to fund energy efficiency and resiliency programs that benefit the public. Utilities would be able to recover the costs of buying allowances from their customers, so there would be more impact on rates than there would be if allowances are free.

The Coastal Protection Act takes an extra step and actually requires investor-owned utilities to build wind and solar to achieve at least 50 percent of the required emissions reduction. If that amount were to exceed what they planned to build anyway, it would mean more costs paid for by customers—though maybe not a lot, if it speeds up the retirement of old fossil fuel plants that ought to close anyway.

RGGI reduces carbon emissions over time by gradually decreasing the number of auction allowances available in the region year after year. As the carbon cap tightens, either allowances become more expensive, or utilities reduce emissions, or both.

So far the RGGI states have succeeded in reducing emissions without higher allowance prices. They have done this in large part by closing coal plants and investing in energy efficiency and renewable energy, including programs paid for by auctioning the carbon emissions allowances.

Most RGGI states also have mandates for efficiency and renewable energy, which Virginia lacks. (In spite of the hoopla around it, last year’s “grid mod” bill did not require utilities to achieve any specific efficiency or renewable energy outcomes.) The combined effect of all these actions is that the prices paid for auction allowances in RGGI have stayed low.

According to the Analysis Group, consumers in RGGI states have benefited:

“On the one hand, the inclusion of the cost of CO2 allowances in wholesale prices tends to increase wholesale electricity prices in the RGGI region at the beginning of the 2015-2017 period,” the report says.

“But these near-term impacts are more than offset during these years and beyond, because the states invest a substantial amount of the RGGI auction proceeds on energy efficiency programs that reduce overall electricity consumption and on renewable energy projects that reduce the use of higher-priced power plants. Consumers gain because their overall electricity bills go down.

“Since RGGI’s commencement in 2009, energy and dollar savings resulting from all states’ investments in energy efficiency and renewable energy has more than offset the wholesale market price increases associated with inclusion of allowance costs in market bids.”

Virginia is as well-positioned as any of the RGGI states to meet the carbon-reduction goals.

Utilities can reduce energy demand through energy efficiency, resulting in less need for carbon-emitting fuel to be burned. They can also replace coal-fired generation with power from gas (with about half the CO2 of coal) or renewables (zero C02 for wind, water and solar; biomass has CO2 emissions as high as coal, but decision-makers pretend it’s carbon neutral).

Our nuclear plants, which provide a big chunk of Virginia’s electricity, are already operating at full capacity, and that’s not expected to change.

Intuitively, the solutions wouldn’t be expected to cost very much. Some of Virginia’s coal plants aren’t running very much these days anyway, putting them precariously close to the point where it is cheaper to close them than keep paying to have them available. As for alternatives, Dominion says solar is the cheapest form of new energy.

And energy efficiency is, famously, the lowest-cost energy resource, and vastly underutilized in Virginia.

In fact, projections have Dominion coming in under the RGGI cap for at least several years, putting our utilities in the happy (for them) position of possibly making money in the auctions.

But that doesn’t quite settle the matter.

There is one other consideration that could affect rates: Virginia utilities participate in the regional transmission organization known as PJM, which runs the wholesale power market. Anything that makes Virginia power more expensive makes it less attractive to the market.

That is surely part of the SCC staff’s concern.

To understand this dynamic, I consulted economist Bill Shobe, a professor at the Center for Economic and Policy Studies at the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University of Virginia, who studies carbon markets.

Shobe said that if Virginia utilities get CO2 allowances for free based on their previous year’s electricity generation, as the DEQ plan calls for, there should be no impact on their power plants’ competitiveness in PJM. The cost to customers would be little or nothing.

But if a coal or gas plant has to add the cost of CO2 allowances to its price of power, as happens in other RGGI states, power plants from non-RGGI states that don’t have to charge for CO2 will have a price advantage.

Shobe said if a Virginia utility adds the cost of CO2 allowances to the price of power from its own fossil fuel plants, those plants won’t run as much. Even the utility itself might buy cheaper wholesale power rather than run its own plants. Worse, the imported power could be higher in CO2 than the Virginia power it displaces, a problem known as “leakage.”

Dominion Energy Virginia’s 2018 Integrated Resource Plan, a document that forecasts how the utility will meet electric demand, predicted that if Virginia joined RGGI, its four big gas plants would run only an average of 64 percent of the time in 2025, compared to 79 percent in a scenario with no carbon constraints.

Dominion also claimed the cheaper imported power would come with such a higher carbon footprint than the power it was replacing that the whole deal would be counterproductive as a CO2 reduction strategy.

Skeptics should note that Dominion didn’t report the assumptions behind the modeling. Even its consultant, ICF, included a disclaimer that it was using the information Dominion gave it but “makes no assurances as to the accuracy of any such information or any conclusions based thereon.”

It’s also not clear that Dominion recognized any difference between getting free allowances and having to pay for them.

Shobe explained that Dominion’s modeling program didn’t account for DEQ’s use of “output-based allocation”— that is, distributing carbon allowances for free based on a utility’s generation in the previous year. This approach, said Shobe, incentivizes the utility to keep generating as much zero- or low-carbon electricity as it can so it will get as many allowances the next year as possible, and it will use its allowances to keep its own power competitive with imports.

The modeling that ICF did for Dominion, say Shobe, “treats all allowances as if they are sold at auction. Period. They don’t even attempt to model free allowances much less output-based allocation.”

With free allowances, customer costs should be minimal.

What if we auction the allowances?

Shobe said auctioning allowances instead of distributing them for free would make the power from Virginia’s fossil fuel plants less competitive in the PJM market. Yet customers will still have to pay for the capital cost of these huge gas plants that the SCC itself foolishly allowed Dominion to build, even if the power they generate is less competitive in PJM.

(“Foolishly” is obviously my term for it. The SCC not only doesn’t admit it did anything wrong, it rejected Dominion’s IRP in part because the company didn’t propose building yet another giant gas plant.)

The SCC’s high-end estimate seems to be based on this concern, but its numbers are much higher than even Dominion’s.

Dominion’s IRP estimated that joining RGGI would “cost Virginia customers about $530 million over the period 2020 to 2030,” or $53 million per year. The IRP says the impact would be about $3.50-$5 per month for residential customers, depending on the approach taken.

Even that estimate has to be taken with a bucket of salt. As the SCC staff noted at the time, Dominion overestimated the costs of joining RGGI by using overly high demand projections and failing to assume any decrease in demand from the hundreds of millions of dollars in efficiency programs the utility is required to design.

Obviously, those programs will also lower carbon emissions, helping Virginia meet the RGGI targets—as will building the solar energy envisioned by the grid mod bill.

So how the SCC staff has now come up with cost estimates even higher than Dominion’s is a head-scratcher. Nothing in the Coastal Protection Act appears to add costs beyond what Dominion knew about for its IRP.

This debate is surely not over.

We hope DEQ and the SCC will come together on a shared set of facts and assumptions, but meanwhile it is worth noting two points.

One is that even Dominion agrees some sort of carbon regulation at the federal level is likely eventually, even if it doesn’t happen under President Donald Trump’s administration.

Starting to shrink our carbon footprint now instead of later is going to save us money, even apart from its climate and health benefits.

The other is that the RGGI approach brings proven economic benefits to customers. As the Analysis Group report showed, customers in RGGI states actually saw lower bills in spite of higher rates because of the investments in energy efficiency.

If that happens in Virginia, joining RGGI will actually put more money in the pockets of customers.

 

A version of this article first appeared in the Virginia Mercury on February 6, 2019.