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

smokestack

Just blowing smoke. Photo credit Stiller Beobachter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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. 

For minorities and the poor, “cheap” energy comes at a high cost

Utilities and other energy companies often resist clean energy mandates and tighter environmental regulation, but they swear it’s not about their lost profits. No, it is their single-minded devotion to the public good that drives them to defend fossil fuel pollution. Only by fouling the air and water can they keep energy costs low, especially—cue the crocodile tears—for minorities and poor people. Guest blogger Kendyl Crawford weighs in with a closer look at the real effect of fossil fuels on the folks polluters say they care about.

Children from the Southeast Care Coalition make their point about the link between air quality and asthma.

Children from the Southeast Care Coalition make their point about the link between air quality and asthma.

By Kendyl Crawford

There is an old adage that goes, “When White America sneezes, Black America catches pneumonia.” It describes the way problems affecting the economy as a whole are magnified for African-Americans, whose place on the economic ladder is already tenuous. The same can be said for Latinos, recent immigrants, and members of low-income communities. And just as these Americans are the ones hardest hit by economic setbacks, so they are the ones who suffer most from an energy economy based on fossil fuels.

Worse, they are often used as pawns by fossil fuel companies who declare that poor people need cheap energy, without accounting for the true cost of that energy. And that true cost can be very high. Over half a million people in Virginia live within 3 miles of coal-fired power plants. Of this group, 52% are minorities and 34% are members of the low-income community. This doesn’t seem like much of a disparity until you realize that Virginia has a total minority population of 35% and a low-income population of 26%.

The fossil fuel industry has a long history of siting power plants strategically, avoiding upper class, white areas whose residents have the power and influence to be able to cry NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard). Communities with less political and economic power got stuck with the facilities—often along with other unwanted neighbors like highways, heavy industry, and waste dumps. In many cases, the communities were there first and then became the victims of zoning changes that gave the green light to polluting facilities. Residents ended up with higher environmental health burdens and lower home values, often with no compensating economic boost from the presence of the facility. The term for siting highly-polluting facilities in these communities now even has its own acronym: PIMBY, for “Put it In Minorities’ Back Yard.”

The 2014 NAACP Coal Blooded: Putting Profits before People report gave five Virginia power plants an F for their environmental justice performance, a grade based on how much a particular plant impacts both low-income and minority communities. The score takes into account the amount of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides air pollution; total population within a three-mile radius of a facility; median income; and the percentage of minorities that make up the population in the close vicinity.

The NAACP report also gave a failing environmental justice performance score to Virginia’s largest utility, Dominion Resources. Dominion ranked as the 6th worst performing company in the U.S. and a “worst offender” in terms of environmental justice.

It’s not just coal. The Clean Air Task Force report Gasping for Breath highlights the fact that nationwide the oil and gas industry releases 9 million tons of pollution such as methane and benzene annually. Many of these toxic pollutants have been linked to cancer and respiratory disorders as well as increasing smog. Every summer there are 2,000 visits to the emergency room for acute asthma attacks and more than 600 hospital admissions for respiratory diseases that are directly related to the ozone smog that results from oil and gas pollution.

Not surprisingly, asthma takes its greatest toll on minorities. According to the EPA, black children are about four times more likely to die from asthma than white children. They are also twice as likely to be hospitalized for asthma. From 2001 to 2009, the asthma rate for black children increased almost 50%. African Americans, with lower rates of health insurance coverage, have fewer resources to manage these added stressors.

Latino children fare similarly poorly. Higher poverty rates and lower rates of insurance coverage mean Latino children have more severe asthma attacks than non-Hispanic white children and are more likely to end up in emergency rooms.

Of course, it’s not just minorities who suffer the harmful consequences of fossil fuels. Low-income people in general have fewer choices in where to live, have less access to health care, and often have little political power. In Virginia, this includes many residents of coalfields communities, whose families may have worked in coal mines for generations and yet have little to show for it.

Climate change will only increase the burden on minorities and low-income communities. For instance, many African American communities have historically been relegated to the least-valued land in a particular city or county, and this land is often low-lying. A recent article exposed the fact that when public housing is destroyed due to sea level rise, stronger storm surges and more extreme storms, it often doesn’t get rebuilt, forcing folks to relocate permanently.

Atmospheric warming will also lead to more health issues related to air pollution, which tends to increase with higher temperatures. But heat itself will take a toll, too, especially for those in substandard housing or who can’t afford air conditioning.

Most at risk will be those who work outdoors, among them construction workers, landscapers and farmworkers. Again, these are disproportionately minorities. Latinos make up about 48% of farm workers and almost 30% of construction workers in the U.S. As noted in the report Nuestro Futuro: Climate Change and U.S. Latinos, Latinos are already three times more likely to die from heat-related causes on the job than non-Hispanic whites. Climate change is expected to increase temperatures further. Hispanic communities are also generally located in areas of cities that are the hottest due to lack of vegetation and green spaces and the use of heat-trapping building materials.

These health impacts will be compounded by high poverty levels and low rates of health insurance. A Hispanic who is employed has less of a chance of having health insurance than a non-Hispanic person. When conditions like cardiovascular disease or diabetes are not treated and controlled, they can trigger visits to the emergency room after being exposed to extreme heat. Not to mention, language barriers can make it harder to obtain care.

Recent immigrants may also face greater difficulties following severe weather events, which are expected to increase in both frequency and intensity. Depending on their immigration status, disaster assistance may be hard to obtain or even completely unavailable.

So when utilities and fossil fuel companies urge our political leaders to keep energy costs low for the poor folks, we should recognize that what they really want is to keep profits high for themselves. They aren’t doing their customers any favors.

Kendyl Crawford is a Program Conservation Manager with the Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club.

 

Virginia legislative session wraps up with action on solar, coal ash, and pumped storage

Next year I'm bringing him to lobby with me. Photo credit: Sierra Club

Next year I’m bringing him to lobby with me. Photo credit: Sierra Club

The Virginia General Assembly wraps up its 2017 session on Saturday, February 25. As usual, the results are a mixed bag for energy. On the plus side is the promise of a new solar purchase option for customers. On the downside, utility opposition to energy efficiency and distributed generation meant a lot of worthwhile initiatives never made it out of subcommittee.

Putting it into perspective, it could have been worse. For clean energy advocates in Virginia, that’s what we call a success!

Governor Terry McAuliffe has already acted on some of the bills that passed and will have until March 27 to act on the remaining bills. Under Virginia law, the governor can sign, veto, or amend the bills for legislators’ consideration.

“Rubin Group” bills move renewable energy forward—and back.

Negotiations between utilities, the solar industry trade association MDV-SEIA, and the group Powered by Facts produced three pieces of legislation that appear likely to become law (and all of which I’ve discussed previously). The most significant of these “Rubin Group” bills (named for facilitator Mark Rubin) is SB 1393 (Wagner), the so-called “community solar” bill, which is designed to launch a utility-controlled and administered solar option for customers. The utilities will contract for the output of solar facilities to be built in Virginia and will sell the electricity to subscribers under programs to be approved by the State Corporation Commission. Critical details such as the price of the offering will be determined during a proceeding before the State Corporation Commission.

This was the only one of the Rubin Group bills that had participation from members of the environmental community (Southern Environmental Law Center and Virginia League of Conservation Voters), and it received widespread (though not unanimous) support from advocates.

Broader legislation that would have enabled true community solar programs did not move forward. SB 1208 (Wexton) and HB 2112 (Keam and Villanueva), modeled on programs in other states, had the backing of the Distributed Solar Collaborative, a stakeholder group composed of everyone but utilities. In the Senate, Wexton’s bill was “rolled into” Wagner’s bill, but only her name, not the provisions of her bill, carried over.

SB 1395 (Wagner), a second Rubin Group bill, increases from 100 MW to 150 MW the size of solar or wind projects eligible to use the state’s Permit by Rule process, which is overseen by the Department of Environmental Quality. The legislation also allows utilities to use the PBR process for their projects instead of seeking a permit from the SCC, if the projects are not being built to serve their regulated ratepayers.

The third Rubin Group bill establishes a buy-all, sell-all program for agricultural generators of renewable energy. Although supported by MDV-SEIA as part of the package deal, passage of SB 1394 (Wagner) and HB 2303 (Minchew) should be considered a loss for solar. The program replaces existing agricultural net metering rules for members of rural cooperatives and could lead these coops to reach their 1% net metering cap prematurely, blocking other customers from being able to use net metering. And while negotiators say the program should be economically beneficial to participants, it appears to offer generators no options they don’t already have under existing federal PURPA law.

The governor has until March 27 to act on these bills.

Appalachian Power PPAs for private colleges only

Under HB 2390 (Kilgore), the existing pilot program that allows some third-party power purchase agreements (PPAs) in Dominion Power territory will be extended to Appalachian Power territory, but only for the private colleges and universities who could afford to hire a lobbyist to negotiate the special favor, and only up to a 7 MW program cap. APCo is expected to use passage of the bill to assert that PPAs for all other customers are now illegal. The governor has not indicated whether he will sign the bill.

Intellectual property

SB 1226 (Edwards, D-Roanoke) allows solar developers to keep confidential certain proprietary information that would otherwise be subject to disclosure under the state’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). It resolves a problem that has held up a solar project on the Berglund Center, a public building in Roanoke.

Storage, pumped or otherwise

HB 1760 (Kilgore) and SB 1418 (Chafin) allow Dominion Power to seek rate recovery for a scheme to use abandoned coal mines for pumped storage facilities. If you think this sounds weird and possibly dangerous, you are not alone. Usually the idea is to keep water out of coal mines to avoid the leaching of toxic chemicals into groundwater. Apparently no one has ever used coal mines for pumped storage before, and neither the company that would construct the project, nor the sites under consideration, nor the technology to be used, have been revealed.

SB 1258 (Ebbin) adds storage to the mandate of the Virginia Solar Energy Development Authority.

Dominion’s nuclear costs, and the politics of the “rate freeze”

HB 2291 (Kilgore) allows Dominion to charge ratepayers for the costs of upgrading its nuclear facilities. Because the charges will appear as a rider on top of base rates, consumers would not be protected by the “rate freeze” Dominion pushed through in 2015’s SB 1349.

That 2015 legislation, of course, was supposedly designed to shield customers from the impact of the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, a ruse that has been since laid bare. Instead, it will allow Dominion to keep an estimated billion dollars of customers’ money it would otherwise have had to refund or forego. This year, with the CPP on death row under Trump, Senator Chap Petersen introduced SB 1095, which would repeal the rate freeze. His bill was promptly killed in committee, but continues to gain support everywhere outside the General Assembly. Governor McAuliffe belatedly announced his support for Petersen’s bill, but did not use his authority to resurrect it.

Petersen is encouraging the Governor to offer an amendment to Kilgore’s HB 2291 that would repeal the rate freeze, an option allowed by Virginia’s legislative procedure since both provisions affect the same provision of the Code.

Dominion, of course, says the CPP isn’t actually dead and buried just yet, and Republicans seem to fear its resurrection. HB 1974 (O’Quinn) requires the Department of Environmental Quality to submit any Clean Power Plan implementation plan to the General Assembly for approval, so they can stab it with their steely knives.  The governor is expected to veto the bill.

State’s failures on energy efficiency will now be tracked

SB 990 (Dance) requires the Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy to track and report on the state’s progress towards meeting its energy efficiency goals. Or in Virginia’s case, its lack of progress.

HB 1712 (Minchew) expands the provisions of state law that allow public entities to use energy performance-based contracting.

That’s it for energy efficiency legislation this year. Several good bills were offered but killed off in the House Energy Subcommittee, notably HB 1703 (Sullivan), which would have required electric utilities to meet efficiency goals, and HB 1636 (Sullivan again), which would have changed how the SCC evaluates energy efficiency programs. Delegate Sullivan, by the way, introduced a companion bill to SB 990, but his was killed in that same House subcommittee, all on the same day.

Coal ash legislation watered down but passes

SB1398 (Surovell) will require Dominion Power to monitor pollution and study options for the closure of its coal ash impoundments, including removal of the ash to secure, lined landfills. Unfortunately amendments in the House will allow Dominion to proceed with capping the waste in unlined pits while it completes the study. As one editorial put it, “Why not do it right the first time?” The editorial—along with a lot of people who have to live near the coal ash dumps—would like to see the governor offer amendments to the bill, but we’ve heard nothing from the governor’s office on that yet.

Republicans keep trying to throw taxpayer money down a rathole; Governor vetoes

Governor McAuliffe has already vetoed HB 2198 (Kilgore), which would reinstate the coal employment and production incentive tax credit and extend the allowance of the coalfield employment enhancement tax credit. SB 1470 (Chafin) is identical to HB 2198 and so likely faces a veto as well.

While U.S. leaders were worrying about coal jobs, clean energy snatched the lead: even Virginia now has more people working in solar than coal.

 

va-electric-sector-jobs

Jobs in electric generation do not include fuel jobs, so for example, the coal jobs in the two charts have to be added together to get total employment. Wind and solar, of course, have no fuel costs. Charts come from DOE.

Jobs in electric generation do not include fuel jobs, so for example, the coal jobs in the two charts have to be added together to get total employment. Wind and solar, of course, don’t need employees to produce their “fuel.” Charts come from DOE.

A new report from the U.S. Department of Energy takes stock of energy employment in the U.S. and comes up with fresh evidence of the rapid transformation of our nation’s electricity supply: more people today work in the solar and wind industries than in natural gas extraction and coal mining.

According to the January 2017 U.S. Energy and Employment Report, 373,807 Americans now work in solar electric power generation, while 101,738 people work in wind. By comparison, a total of 362,118 people work in the natural gas sector, including both fuel supply and generating plants.

Total coal employment stands at 160,119. And while renewable power employment grew by double digits last year—25% for solar, 32% for wind—total job numbers actually declined across the fossil fuel sectors, where machines now do most of the work.

If generating electricity employs a lot of people, not generating it employs even more. The number of Americans working in energy efficiency rose to almost 2.2 million, an increase of 133,000 jobs over the year before.

Those are nationwide figures, but the report helpfully breaks down the numbers by state. For Virginia, 2016 was a watershed year. In spite of the fact that our solar industry is still in its infancy and we have no operating wind farms yet, more Virginians now work in renewable energy than in the state’s storied coal industry. A mere 2,647 Virginians continue to work in coal mining, compared to 4,338 in solar energy and 1,260 in wind.

Dwarfing all of these numbers is the statistic for employment in energy efficiency in Virginia: 75,552.

Battles over climate and coal go unresolved, but Virginians still paying more

Students rally for climate action in Alexandria, Virginia. Photo courtesy of Sierra Club.

Students rally for climate action in Alexandria, Virginia. Photo courtesy of Sierra Club.

Virginia’s 2016 legislative session ended last week with a one-day veto session, an ideological battleground where both sides fought lustily but nobody won.

Republicans could not muster the votes to overcome McAuliffe’s veto of legislation extending taxpayer handouts for coal mining companies. Nor could they overcome vetoes of HB 2 and SB 21, bills requiring that any state plan implementing the EPA’s Clean Power Plan be submitted to the General Assembly for approval.

They did, however, succeed in defending a budget item prohibiting the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) from developing a state implementation plan while a federal stay of the Clean Power Plan remains in effect. (For that they needed only a majority; overriding a veto requires a two-thirds super-majority.)

These votes won’t end the skirmishing. The tax credit for companies that mine Virginia coal doesn’t expire until the end of 2016, and Terry Kilgore, Chairman of the House Commerce and Labor Committee and a reliable ally of the coal lobby, has already promised another effort next session to extend the handouts.

As for the Clean Power Plan, the budget maneuver will cause headaches, as intended, but it’s merely a stall tactic. Virginia may end up submitting a clumsier plan than it otherwise would, if it has to scramble to meet the deadline once the stay is lifted. Even that isn’t certain. DEQ has already completed much of the fact-gathering portion of its work, including issuance of a report from the stakeholder group it convened to consider options. And the new fiscal year, when the prohibition kicks in, doesn’t begin until July 1. A lot of work could get done in two months.

Moreover, Republicans seem to have a losing hand here, even if they block DEQ from completing its work. If the Clean Power Plan survives attack in the courts and Virginia doesn’t submit a plan, EPA will write one for us. On the other hand, if the Clean Power Plan fails judicial scrutiny, EPA will have to rewrite it in a way that might be even worse for coal.[1]

But the Republican attacks on the Clean Power Plan have never been about protecting our ability to plan our own energy future—or for that matter, about protecting ratepayers. Recall that a year ago the General Assembly passed Dominion Power’s SB 1349, with its so-called “rate freeze,” on the theory that the Clean Power Plan will cost so much money that electric rates needed to be frozen between now and the time the plan actually kicks in, and regulators forbidden from scrutinizing utilities’ books in the meantime.

I know: that makes no sense. But don’t ask me for a better explanation; the rationale never stood up to scrutiny. And Republicans weren’t the only ones supporting this peculiar legislation. Once the original anti-Clean Power Plan elements were stripped out, plenty of Democrats got on board to prove their fealty to Dominion.

We have since learned two things about SB 1349 and one thing about the Clean Power Plan:

  • According to one State Corporation Commission judge, SB 1349 will cost Virginia ratepayers a billion dollars in overpayments to Dominion.
  • Dominion Power customers are about to see their rates go up regardless of the “freeze,” as a result of Dominion getting approval to build a new gas-fired power plant;
  • The final Clean Power Plan requires almost nothing from Virginia, and compliance might even save us money.

Now that we know all this, wouldn’t you expect to hear legislators clamoring for the repeal of the faux rate freeze?

Cock an ear. What do you hear?

Crickets.

To be sure, many Republicans who pushed for SB 1349 were more interested in the threat the Clean Power Plan posed to the coal industry. Their support for the coal tax subsidies shows Republicans have no qualms about charging taxpayers tens of millions of dollars annually to help coal companies. Perhaps when you’re in the business of giving away other people’s money, another billion dollars doesn’t seem like a stretch.

Still, if concern for the people of coal country were really at work, we might have expected success for McAuliffe’s budget amendment that put one million dollars into funding for solar projects, with priority for those in Southwest Virginia. Compared to the coal subsidies, admittedly, this isn’t much. In NoVa, a million dollars is one high-end home, green features extra. Spread around the coalfields, though, it could have powered up to a hundred homes with solar. Maybe the symbolism was too hard to take. In any case, Republicans scuttled the funding.

Rhetoric triumphed over substance in other ways this session, too. The General Assembly voted to establish a Shoreline Resiliency Fund, but failed to fund it. Clean energy bills from both sides of the aisle fizzled; with few exceptions, those that weren’t killed outright were sent to a newly-announced subcommittee conceived as a dumping ground for solar bills. No meeting schedule has yet been announced for this subcommittee.

Given the urgency of the climate crisis and the pressing need to develop our clean energy sector, this year’s stalemate feels particularly frustrating. We should all ask for our money back.


[1] Sure, there’s a third possibility: the EPA plan could be withdrawn under a President Trump. But if that’s our future, then defending the Clean Power Plan could be the least of our worries. Hoo-boy. Best not to think about it.

 

Only the good die young: A mid-way review of Virginia climate and energy bills

Photo credit: Corrina Beall

Photo credit: Corrina Beall

Virginia’s 2016 legislative session is only half over, but it’s already clear that the General Assembly is no more capable of dealing with climate change and a rapidly-evolving energy sector than it ever was. Republicans are stuck in denial, Democrats are divided between those who get it and those who don’t, and for most legislators in both parties, the default vote is whatever Dominion Power wants.

Republican attacks on EPA climate regulations sail through both houses, while popular RGGI legislation dies in committee.

Practically the first bills filed this session call for Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality to submit for legislative approval any plan to comply with the EPA’s Clean Power Plan. Anxious to safeguard Virginia’s heritage of carbon pollution against the twin threats of clean energy and a more stable climate, the Republican leadership rammed through HB 2 and SB 21 on party-line votes. Governor McAuliffe has promised vetoes.

Eager as it was to defeat Obama’s approach to climate disruption, the Party of No supported no solutions of its own, even when proposed by one of its own. Virginia Beach Republican Ron Villanueva couldn’t even get a vote in subcommittee for his Virginia Alternative Energy and Coastal Protection Act, which would have had Virginia join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI). It was the only legislation introduced this year that would have lowered greenhouse gas emissions and raised money to deal with climate change. The Democratic-led Senate version also failed to move out of committee, on a party-line vote.

Republicans scoff at climate change, but they are beginning to worry about its effects. Bills have moved forward to work on coastal “resiliency” efforts and to continue studying sea level rise (referred to as “recurrent flooding,” as though it were a phenomenon unto itself and suggesting no particular reason it might get worse). The Senate passed SB 282, creating the Virginia Shoreline Resiliency Fund, and SJ 58, extending the work of the Joint Subcommittee to study recurrent flooding. The House passed HJ 84, a companion to SJ 58, and HB 903, establishing a Commonwealth Center for Recurrent Flooding Resiliency.

Bold energy efficiency measures die. Not-so-bold measures don’t do well either.

Virginia appears set to continue its woeful record on energy efficiency. Between the opposition of electric utilities and their regulators at the State Corporation Commission, bills that would have set the stage for cost-effective reductions in energy use got killed off early or watered down to nothing.

Among the latter were the fairly modest bills pushed by the Governor. They passed only when reduced to a provision for the SCC to evaluate how to measure the subject. Weirdly, even that found opposition from conservative members of the Senate and House.

The only bill to move forward more or less intact was Delegate Sullivan’s HB 1174, which requires state agencies to report on how badly the state is doing in meeting its efficiency goal. So we may not make progress, but at least we’ll have to acknowledge our failures. (Roughly the same group of conservatives didn’t think we should even go that far.)

Renewable energy bills won’t move forward this year, except the one Dominion wants.

As previously reported, the Republican chairmen of the House and Senate Commerce and Labor committees decided not to decide when it came to much-needed renewable energy reforms. Every bill to create new market opportunities for wind and solar was “carried over to 2017,” i.e., referred to a not-yet-existent subcommittee composed of unnamed people tasked with meeting at a not-yet-scheduled time, in order to do “something.”

“We do need to get moving on these solar bills faster than we have been going,” said House C&L Chairman Terry Kilgore, in explaining why his committee was not getting moving on any solar bills.

On the other hand, over in House Finance, Dominion Virginia Power’s bill to lower the taxes it pays for renewable energy property fared better. In exchange for an 80% tax exclusion for its own utility projects, Dominion offered up reductions in the tax savings currently afforded to the smaller projects being developed by independent solar companies. In an amusing sideshow, Republican leaders tried to use their support for this legislation to strong-arm liberal Democrats into supporting a bill extending coal subsidies, on the theory that passing one bill that benefits Dominion warrants passing another bill that benefits Dominion.

Given the lack of progress in opening the wind and solar markets, there is more than a little irony in the fact that legislation moved forward in both the House and Senate requiring utilities to direct customers to an SCC website with information about options for purchasing renewable energy. (Which leads to the question: if visitors to such a site encounter an error message, is it still an error?)

Coal subsidies remain everyone’s favorite waste of money.

Once again, the House and Senate passed bills extending corporate welfare for companies whose business model involves blowing up mountains and poisoning streams. Over the years legislators have spent more than half a billion dollars of taxpayer money on these giveaways, knowing full well it was money down a rat-hole. Community activists have pleaded with lawmakers to put the cash towards diversifying the coalfields economy instead, but there has never been a serious effort to redirect the subsidies to help mine workers instead of corporate executives and the utilities that buy coal.

This year the corporate handout went forward in the face of reports that one of the biggest recipients plans to pay multi-million-dollar bonuses to its executives while laying off miners and looking for ways to dodge its obligations to workers. Add to this the news that the same company owes two coalfields counties $2.4 million in unpaid taxes for last year, and you have to wonder what fairy tales legislators are hearing from lobbyists that makes them put aside common sense.

It’s not just Republicans who voted for these subsidies (though there is no excuse for them, either). Some Democrats did so, too. Governor McAuliffe has said he would veto these bills, which means senators like David Marsden, Jennifer Wexton, John Edwards and Chap Petersen will have a chance to redeem themselves by voting against an override.

Many thanks to Senators Howell, Ebbin, Favola, Locke, McEachin, McPike and Surovell for seeing through the propaganda of the coal lobby and voting no.

Dominion defeats legislation protecting the public from coal ash contamination

Senator Scott Surovell’s SB 537 would have required toxic coal ash to be disposed of in lined landfills rather than left in leaking, unlined pits and simply covered over. The bill failed in committee in spite of support from one Republican (Stanley), after Democratic Senator Roslyn Dance caved to pressure from Dominion and abstained. One might have expected more backbone from a legislator with coal ash contamination in her own district. (Nothing excuses the Republicans who voted against the public health on this, either. Last I heard, Republican babies are as vulnerable to water pollution as Democratic babies.)