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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Direct Energy wins right to sell renewable energy in Virginia, but there’s a catch

Direct Energy may have just won a Pyrrhic victory in its bid to sell renewable energy to Virginia residents. The State Corporation Commission ruled last week that the company can market 100% renewable electricity to Virginia customers of Dominion Virginia Power and Appalachian Power, but only as long as the utilities aren’t offering it themselves. Once they do, Direct Energy can continue to serve existing customers but won’t be able to sign up new ones.

The ruling makes it harder for Direct Energy to enter the residential market in Virginia. On the other hand, Direct Energy appears to have won a round on a second issue involving sales to large (over 5 megawatts in demand) commercial and industrial customers. The SCC ruled that these customers don’t have to give five years’ notice before they can switch back to their utility from a renewable energy provider like Direct Energy, as they would have to do if they were not buying renewable energy.

This is a significant win for Direct Energy’s ability to offer renewable energy to large customers, since Dominion’s position on the five-year notice requirement could scare off customers worried about being left without a supplier if Direct Energy were to leave the market. However, that part of the SCC’s order is under review in response to a motion for reconsideration filed by Dominion on Tuesday, so I won’t address that further here.

Direct Energy is a Delaware-based company currently licensed to sell natural gas in Virginia as a competitive service provider. Last August the company filed a petition for declaratory judgment (PUE-2016-00094) asking the SCC to clarify its rights under Virginia law to sell renewable energy to customers of Dominion Virginia Power. The SCC brought in Dominion and Appalachian Power, and Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) intervened on behalf of environmental groups Appalachian Voices and Chesapeake Climate Action Network.

Section 56-577 (A)(5) of the Virginia Code explicitly allows sellers of 100% renewable energy into the territories of the state’s monopoly utilities if those utilities themselves aren’t offering renewable energy to their customers. Currently, neither Dominion nor Appalachian Power offer a tariff for renewable energy. That means the door is wide open for anyone else to do so.

But that open door is merely a tease, as the Commission’s order just confirmed. All Dominion or APCo has to do is jump in with its own product, and the door shuts in the face of the interloper. Once the SCC approves a utility’s program, Direct Energy can continue selling to any customers it has already signed up, but it won’t be able to sign up any new customers.

It can take months or years of marketing for a third-party supplier to build up enough of a customer base to make the whole effort worthwhile, so the SCC’s ruling makes the Virginia residential market much less attractive.

Direct Energy and the environmental groups had argued that once a competitive service provider got approval to sell 100% renewable electricity in Virginia, it ought to be able to continue signing up new customers, even once the SCC had approved a competing product from the incumbent utility. As the company explained in its Petition:

It would be illogical for the Virginia General Assembly to prohibit Direct Energy or any competitive service provider from continuing to market and serve additional customers once Dominion Virginia Power begins to offer a 100% renewable energy tariff. No retail business can survive if it cannot do business with new customers. This is certainly true in the retail energy market, in which customers move on and off a system with regularity, reacting to price signals and relocating in and out of utility service territories. Consequently, it is most reasonable to interpret Virginia Code § 56-577 (A) (5) (b) to allow Direct Energy to continue to serve additional customers to the class of customers to which it is marketing at the time that the Commission approves a Dominion Virginia Power 100% renewable energy tariff.

Unfortunately for Direct Energy, the Code was written to protect Virginia utilities from competition to the greatest extent possible consistent with also making them look good. What is logical and reasonable to anyone running a business doesn’t enter into it; nor, for that matter, does the best interest of the buying public.

The SCC’s order is a win for Dominion and APCo, but a loss for customers who have waited ten years for their utilities to offer them renewable energy. Both Dominion and APCo offer what they call “green power” but are simply sales of renewable energy certificates as an add-on to regular “brown” power.* Even if the utilities now gin up a their own renewable energy product, consumers would be better off having choices.

After all, the Virginia Code doesn’t say a utility program has to be better or cheaper than the one offered by a competitive service provider like Direct Energy. Indeed, some consumers have already expressed concern Dominion might close the door on Direct Energy with a product that meets the Virginia Code’s broad definition of renewable energy but is distinctly inferior.

“My worry is that Dominion will offer a “100% renewable” program that is biomass, hydro and other things that aren’t really zero carbon, but still slide by,” says Ruth Amundsen, a solar advocate in Norfolk. “And then Direct Energy would be out.”


*Legislation passed this year will allow customers to buy electricity generated from solar facilities from their utilities. The program is styled “community solar,” but it looks like it would satisfy the statutory definition of a sale of electricity generated from 100% renewable energy. However, a provision of the bill, added at the behest of SELC, states that it will not be considered such a product.

Why, you might ask, would Dominion agree to a provision that says their solar option isn’t a tariff for 100% renewable energy, especially with the Direct Energy petition outstanding? I have an answer, but first a word of caution: you are now getting deep in the weeds. Carry tick repellant.

Recall that the fight over third party power-purchase agreements (PPAs) involves two provisions of the Virginia code, including § 56-577 (A) (5)—the one we’re talking about here. Companies that want to help customers install on-site solar facilities by using PPAs have argued that this section clearly permits customers to buy solar electricity from third party suppliers when their utility doesn’t offer a renewable energy tariff. No green tariff, no bar to a PPA.

But the utilities argue that this kind of electricity sale doesn’t meet the statutory requirement, because although a solar facility is 100% renewable, it does not serve 100% of the customer’s load. A strange reading, yes; and wrong, too, according to an SCC hearing examiner who looked at the question back when APCo put together its own renewable energy product. APCo decided to withdraw its product rather than risk the SCC confirming the hearing examiner’s reading. That action meant the utilities could keep their reading of the statute as a live threat against any company that wants to offer a PPA under terms that don’t meet the terms of the pilot program Dominion negotiated a few years ago.

Apparently, preserving that argument mattered more to Dominion than chasing off would-be competitors like Direct Energy. The gamble will have paid off if Direct Energy drops its Virginia effort in light of the SCC’s ruling last week.

 

Update, April 7. Ron Cerniglia, Director of Corporate & Regulatory Affairs for Direct Energy, provided the company’s view of the SCC’s ruling for us. His note reads:

In its ruling on Direct Energy’s Petition for Declaratory Judgment, the State Corporation Commission (SCC) agreed with Direct Energy on two of the three major points on which Direct Energy sought clarification.  The SCC did not agree that a retailer could continue to provide 100% renewable service to residential and small (<5 MW) individual customers, including new customers, after the utility (e.g., APCo or Virginia Electric and Power Company) receives approval of their own 100% renewable tariff.  However, residential customers and individualized non-residential customers who sign-up with a retailer do not immediately return to utility service when and if a utility receives approval of their 100% renewable tariff.  Instead, the customer remains with the retailer for the term of the customer agreement.  
The SCC agreed with Direct Energy that a retailer may continue to offer 100% renewable service to large customers (>5 MW) or to customers aggregating to >5 MW even if such sales are no longer permitted because the utility  is offering its own 100% renewable tariff.  The SCC also agreed with Direct Energy that if a retailer is providing 100% renewable service to a large customer that several  conditions and limitation  do not apply.  That includes the requirement of  that 5 year advance notice must be given before a retailer’s customer can return to the utility for service.  It is on this last point that Dominion has filed a Petition for Reconsideration.  This week, the SCC granted Dominion’s petition without ruling up or down on its substance. 
We do not believe that Dominion has raised any issue that the SCC has not already considered. We are very appreciative of the SSC’s actions to date and are hopeful that it will make short work of the petition, and quickly enter another Order denying Dominion the relief it is requesting.  Direct Energy is excited to open up the Virginia market to competition with a 100% renewable product. Once the uncertainty has been addressed, we believe that Virginians will have the choice to choose a renewable power supply solution.
Update May 12. On April 26, the SCC issued an Order on Reconsideration confirming its earlier ruling that the five year advance notice requirement did not apply to large customers (over 5 MW) who return to the utility following cancellation of a renewable energy supply contract with a competitive service provider.
On May 9, 2017 Dominion filed with the SCC its own plan for a renewable energy tariff for large users.  (PUR-2017-00060.) The filing notes that Dominion intends to follow this with a residential green tariff.