It’s time for the General Assembly to side with customers, not utilities, on solar

Solar canopy over a parking lot

Solar panels on parking lots, landfills, rooftops and other sites could provide a lot of clean electricity if policy barriers are removed.

Last winter, the Virginia General Assembly passed legislation giving utilities the green light to develop 5,500 megawatts (MW) of wind and solar energy. This marks a milestone for Virginia, offering the possibility for an amount of solar equal in output to Dominion Energy’s newest gas-fired power plant in Greensville.*

Amid the general celebration of this support for utility solar and wind, few legislators noticed that the bill did nothing to help residents and businesses that want to build renewable energy for their own use. Private investment drives most of the solar market in many other states, so leaving it out of the picture means squandering an opportunity.

Customers—and the solar companies who depend on small-scale solar— hope it’s their turn this year. They’d like to see the General Assembly give customer-built solar the same level of love in 2019 that it gave utility solar in 2018.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t square with the agenda of our utilities, which want to protect their monopolies on electric generation. Over the past few years, Dominion Energy and its fellow utilities have blocked dozens of bills aimed at removing some of the policy barriers stifling the market.

Just one example: Fairfax County, like many jurisdictions across the state, owns a closed landfill. It can’t be used for most purposes, but it could hold a solar array large enough to power multiple county buildings.

Yet no fewer than four different provisions of Virginia’s net metering law keep a cost-effective project from moving forward: a 1 MW limit on commercial solar arrays; a requirement that electricity from a solar facility must be used onsite; a rule that a solar facility can’t be larger than needed to meet the site’s electric demand over the preceding year; and a prohibition on meter aggregation that keeps a customer with solar on one building from sharing it with another building.

These would all be simple legislative fixes, but for years now Dominion and the other utilities have opposed the reforms.

Other reforms are needed, too. The solar industry faces a ceiling on the total amount of solar customers can own under the net metering program; utilities killed bills that would raise the ceiling. Businesses tried to lift restrictions on third-party financing using power purchase agreements. Utilities killed the bills. Homeowners tried to get out from under the oppressive fees called standby charges that utilities impose to keep customers from putting up more than 10 kilowatts (kW) of solar panels. Utilities killed the bills.

Killing bills clearly must get tedious. So, this year, Dominion is using the occasion of a report to the General Assembly on solar energy last month to launch a propaganda campaign against the whole radical idea of customers producing their own energy supply.

The 44-page, glossy brochure boasts photographs of sunlight slanting across solar panels nestled in fields of dandelions. Much of it is devoted to touting Dominion’s own progress in installing solar. Dominion claims its 1,600 MW of solar make it a national leader, though that might have to be taken with a grain of salt given that the U.S. now has more than 58,000 MW of solar.

And of course, most of Dominion’s solar is in other states; and of the solar in Virginia, most is being built in response to demand from the state government and corporate customers. Only a few of the solar farms Dominion includes will actually serve ordinary ratepayers.

The achievements amount to even less for Dominion’s customer-sited projects. The company’s Solar Partnership Program for commercial customers built only 7.7 MW out of the 30 MW the SCC approved five years ago. The Solar Purchase Program that Dominion once hoped might replace net metering has produced a grand total of 2 MW.

And then there are the 18 schools across the commonwealth that are the lucky recipients of solar panels in Dominion’s “Solar for Students” program. Each school gets 1.2 kW worth of solar panels, or roughly enough to run an old refrigerator. (In fairness, those old refrigerators are electricity hogs. If you have one, replace it.)

If these programs demonstrate Dominion’s level of competence building rooftop solar, that seems like reason enough to open up the private market.

It’s also worth keeping in mind that the reason customers are trying so hard to remove Virginia’s policy barriers is that they don’t just want electricity, they want solar. Yet absolutely none of the solar energy from any project Dominion builds or buys, even those paid for by Virginia ratepayers, will stay in Virginia to meet our voluntary renewable portfolio standard (RPS).

If that surprises you, check out a different document Dominion filed last month, with significantly less fanfare than it gave the solar report. The other filing, Dominion’s annual report to the State Corporation Commission (SCC) on renewable energy, confirms that Dominion sells the “renewable attributes” of solar energy produced here to utilities in other states in the form of renewable energy certificates (RECs).

Then, for the Virginia RPS, Dominion buys cheaper RECs from facilities like out-of-state, century-old hydro dams, biomass (wood) burners, trash incinerators, and a large but mysterious category called “thermal” that is nowhere defined but definitely has nothing to do with solar. So other states get the bragging rights to our solar, and we get dams, trash and wood, plus a mystery ingredient.

But regardless of who gets to claim it, all solar is good solar in a world threatened by climate change. That’s my attitude, anyway, and I only wish Dominion shared it. But, returning our attention to the glossy solar brochure, we find Dominion instead doing its darnedest to undermine the idea of solar built by anyone but the lovable monopoly itself.

The report offers up a poll that concludes: “Solar power is the most popular energy source of all those tested in this polling (Nuclear, Wind, Solar, Natural Gas, and Coal).” But then it goes on to suggest customers don’t understand solar, don’t want to spend much money on it, and don’t really value it very highly after all.

For example, the report follows news of solar’s 82% positive rating with this caveat: “However, when asked to choose what is most important to them regarding their own electricity provider . . .customers chose as follows: dependability and reliability 53%; affordability 28%; investing in renewable energy 16%.”

The poll apparently didn’t give respondents the option of choosing solar andreliability andaffordability. Pollsters must not have told folks that customers in other states enjoy all three at once, or that solar actually has a positive effect on grid reliability and customer savings.

If the question had been, “How biased is this poll?” I bet they could have scored 100%.

After delivering a few more similarly manipulated polling results, the report goes on to discuss the results of last summer’s solar stakeholder process. Readers may recall that Dominion hired consultant Meridian Institute to convene a series of meetings to get feedback on renewable energy policy questions. Hundreds of Virginians took the trouble to attend in person or by phone to share their expertise and opinions.

The result, presented in an 18-page appendix to Dominion’s report, is impressive only for how completely inane it is.

Here, for example, is how Meridian opens its summary of stakeholder feedback:

Most stakeholders who expressed a general opinion about the expansion of renewable energy in Virginia indicated that they support such expansion. Others indicated that their support for renewable energy was dependent on a variety of factors. Some stakeholders did not express a general opinion about the expansion of renewable energy in Virginia.

I am sorry to say it goes on like that for pages.

If you persist in reading the Meridian summary, the most you will get out of it is what we all knew going into it: utilities disagree with customers and the solar industry about whether existing restrictions on customer solar are good or bad.

Except, the report does not even say that. It only says the “participants” in the solar stakeholder process disagreed on these questions. Putting it that way leaves open the possibility that some customer, somewhere, in one of those meetings, might have taken the utilities’ side.

If so, the customer’s name was Tooth Fairy.

I have little doubt Dominion provided a copy of its pretty solar report to every legislator in Richmond, and is already using it in its fight against expanding the rights of customers in Virginia to go solar. Dominion will point to its report as proof that customers are too stupid and too conflicted to be allowed to make their own decisions. Ergo, Dominion should control all solar in Virginia, on rooftops as well as elsewhere.

Legislators should indeed read the report. And then after they’ve had a good laugh, they should tell Dominion no.

——————

*That equivalence is because Dominion projects its 1,588 MW Greensville plant will run at 80% of its full capacity. Solar farms, generating only during daylight hours, achieve capacity factors in the range of 25%, while rooftop solar comes in a little less.


This post originally appeared in the Virginia Mercury on December 7, 2018.

Amazon will need even more energy in Virginia. Will they make it clean?

Entrance to Crystal City Metro Station in Arlington, Virginia

Crystal City in Arlington will be the heart of Amazon’s new Virginia headquarters. Renewable energy options on site are limited. Photo credit Woogers via Wikimedia Commons.

Amazon Web Services jump-started the utility solar industry in Virginia in 2015, when it announced plans for its first solar farm in Accomack County. Three years later, Amazon remains the biggest purchaser of solar in the commonwealth, allowing it to offset some of the enormous amount of energy used by its data centers.

Yet the company’s energy footprint in Virginia far exceeds the energy output of its solar projects. The addition of a new headquarters in Arlington will further increase its need for electricity, and will attract new residents who will also use electricity. All this demand poses a problem for the company and the climate: Dominion Virginia Power will burn more coal and fracked gas to meet Amazon’s energy need, unless Amazon acts to ensure the power comes from renewable sources.

Like many big tech companies, Amazon has adopted aggressive sustainability goals, including a “long-term commitment to achieve 100% renewable energy usage” for its data centers. But the details of its commitment are fuzzy, and the qualifier “long-term” makes the commitment meaningless.

Earth to Jeff Bezos: in the “long term” climate change will put HQ2 under water.

If Amazon still wants a habitable planet to compete in, it should consider the entire energy footprint of its operations, and make sure it is meeting these needs 24/7 with clean, renewable energy. Solar should be a big part of the plan, but so should land-based wind and offshore wind, which complement solar by providing power in the evening and at night. An investment in battery storage would round out the package nicely.

Virginia officials made a perfunctory mention of renewable energy availability to Amazon in the state’s bid package (see page 184). This was accompanied by a quote from Bob Blue of Dominion Energy, promising to sell the company renewable energy. (Be pleased, Mr. Bezos; that’s not a promise he’s made to the rest of us.)

Arlington County has reportedly discussed with Amazon how to make its new campus as environmentally-friendly as possible. Arlington is considering making a commitment to 100 percent renewable energy by 2035, so it has a real incentive to ensure that newcomers are part of the solution, not part of the problem.

Given today’s building technology, there is no reason the National Landing campus should not set a new standard for energy-efficient design. Ideally that will include on-site solar as well. Local officials also want to see enough improvements to transit, pedestrian and biking routes to keep 25,000 new commuters from spewing air pollution while they sit in traffic.

Even if Amazon and Arlington do everything right, though, the campus will need to purchase electricity from off-site generation—and there is still the matter of those power-hungry data centers.

Amazon can take Bob Blue up on his offer and let Dominion supply the company with all the renewable energy it needs. Caveat emptor, though: Dominion’s idea of renewable energy includes resources of dubious value to the climate, like the burning of trash and woody biomass.

And, thanks largely to Dominion’s clout in the General Assembly, Virginia has many barriers to on-site solar, which limit customers’ ability to supply their own renewable energy. We also boast a renewable portfolio standard that works approximately opposite to that of every other state, by ensuring wind and solar will never be part of our resource mix.

Come to think of it, we could really use Amazon’s negotiating chops with our legislators.

In any case, with or without Dominion’s help, Amazon will find plenty of opportunities to procure wind as well as more solar in Virginia. Apex Clean Energy’s Rocky Forge wind farm near Roanoke is already permitted and ready for construction as soon as a customer shows up. Apex now has two additional wind farms in development in southwest Virginia—a nice way to support areas of the state outside of Northern Virginia.

Offshore wind is another opportunity to deliver energy at scale while supporting jobs in the Hampton Roads region. Although offshore wind is poised to become a huge industry in the U.S. within the next ten years, right now only the northeastern states are moving forward with offshore wind farms in the near term. Amazon could make it happen here, too.

Dominion Energy has secured approval for two test turbines off the Virginia coast, but the utility has been slow-walking plans to develop hundreds more turbines in the commercial lease area it owns the rights to. In part that’s because Dominion doesn’t see how to get the State Corporation Commission (SCC) to approve the cost to ratepayers.

That wouldn’t be an issue if Amazon were the buyer, but nor is Amazon limited to Dominion as a supplier of offshore wind. Amazon could let Dominion and its developer, Ørsted, compete against Avangrid, the developer that holds the lease on the Kitty Hawk offshore wind area just over the border in North Carolina. The power from both areas has to come to shore at the same point in Virginia Beach, where a high-voltage transmission line is available. Avangrid has already announced that it is speeding up its development work in hopes of appealing to Virginia customers.

It will take several years for Amazon to build out HQ2, but given how much electricity the company already uses in Virginia, there is no reason to wait on making new investments in renewable energy. Virginians, and the planet, will thank you.

This post first appeared in the Virginia Mercury on November 26, 2018. 

SCC rips into Dominion’s offshore wind pilot, approves it anyway

Photo credit: Phil Holman

The Virginia State Corporation Commission (SCC) approved Dominion Energy Virginia’s proposed Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind (CVOW) project on Friday, but not happily. A press releasefrom the SCC complains about the project’s “excessive costs” and the way it is structured to make customers, rather than the developer, shoulder risks:

The offshore wind project consists of two wind turbines to be built by Dominion that would begin operating in December 2020. In its factual findings, the Commission determined that the company’s proposal puts “essentially all” of the risk of the project, including cost overruns, production and performance failures, on Dominion’s customers. Currently, the estimated cost of the project is at least $300 million, excluding financing costs.

The Commission found that the offshore wind project was not the result of a competitive bidding process to purchase power from third-party developers of offshore wind. Doing so would likely have put all or some of the risks on developers as has been done with other offshore wind projects along the East Coast of the United States. The Commission also found that any “economic benefits specific to [the project] are speculative, whereas the risks and excessive costs are definite and will be borne by Dominion’s customers.”

In spite of these harsh words, the SCC goes on to conclude that the language of the giant energy bill passed by the General Assembly last winter, SB 966, leaves regulators no choice but to approve CVOW:

The Commission concluded that the offshore wind project “would not be deemed prudent [under this Commission’s] long history of utility regulation or under any common application of the term.” However, the Commission ruled, as a matter of law, that recent amendments to Virginia laws that mandate that such a project be found to be “in the public interest” make it clear that certain factual findings must be subordinated to the clear legislative intent expressed in the laws governing the petition.

Obviously, the SCC has a point about the high cost of CVOW. Even Dominion agreed that if you just want 12 megawatts (MW) of power, you can get it a lot more cheaply than $300 million. The SCC’s Final Orderis even harsher on this topic. Moreover, the SCC doesn’t see any future for offshore wind as a matter of pure economics.

Nor is it all that reassuring that Dominion has said the price tag won’t have any impact on rates. What Dominion means is that we ratepayers have already paid for it, and as we aren’t going to get our money back anyway, we may as well enjoy seeing it put to use in building an offshore wind industry.

That’s where Dominion is (sort of) right, and the SCC (sort of) wrong. CVOW is the first step in the Northam administration’s plan to build an offshore wind industry in Virginia and install at least 2,000 MW of offshore wind turbines in the coming decade, a goal shared by many members of the General Assembly.

Northam says CVOW will lead to the commercial projects. Dominion says maybe, maybe not (“It’s too soon to have that conversation,” in the words of Dominion’s Katharine Bond). At any rate, it sure won’t happen without CVOW first.

Critics have said it’s silly to insist on a pilot project when other states are going forward with full-scale wind farms. That’s not entirely fair. As the first project in federal waters, the first in the Mid-Atlantic, and the first to be located 27 miles out to sea, CVOW’s two turbines will have much to teach the industry about offshore wind installation and performance in this part of the world. The whole U.S. offshore wind industry stands to benefit.

And also, Dominion has us over a barrel. Dominion holds the lease for the 2,000 MW; nobody else can come in and build it. So if Northam wants an offshore wind industry with thousands of new jobs, he has to do it Dominion’s way or not at all.

Clearly the SCC would choose not to do it at all. But then, the SCC has never shown any understanding of the climate crisis and the pressing need for Virginia to respond by developing as much wind and solar as possible, as rapidly as possible.

In the long term, we have to build out much more than 2,000 MW of offshore wind. As we do, and as costs decline in response to increasing economies of scale and technological improvements, the price tag of one pilot project will shrink in proportion to the billions of dollars flowing into the offshore wind industry and decarbonizing our electricity supply.

If it’s Dominion’s way or the highway, we have to do it Dominion’s way—for now—and then make sure it gets done.

No doubt the SCC would disagree. Yet to its credit, on Friday the SCC also approved Dominion’s purchase of power from a proposed 80-megawatt solar facility dubbed the “Water Strider” project. Unlike the offshore wind project, the solar project met the Commission’s prudency test because it involves a purchase from a private developer and followed a competitive bidding process. This resulted in a price to customers that the SCC felt is “in line with market rates.”

Though the Water Strider project looks like a clear winner for ratepayers, its approval wasn’t a foregone conclusion either. After a long history of approving one fossil fuel project after another, the SCC has belatedly begun to question Dominion’s projections about its need for more generation, at precisely the time when the new generation happens to be solar and wind.

For now, the SCC believes it must bow to the will of the General Assembly. For these two projects, that’s a good thing, but ratepayers will be in trouble if the SCC declines to assert its oversight authority in other filings under SB 966. Dominion wants to spend billions of dollars over the coming years on smart meters, software, burying power lines and other grid projects. Customers still need the SCC to make sure we get our money’s worth.

This article originally appeared in the Virginia Mercury

There’s a lot to like in Northam’s energy plan, but missed opportunities abound

electric vehicle plugged in

Vehicle electrification gets a boost under the energy plan.

There is a lot to like in the Northam Administration’s new Virginia Energy Plan, starting with what is not in it. The plan doesn’t throw so much as a bone to the coal industry, and the only plug for fracked gas comes in the discussion of alternatives to petroleum in transportation.

The 2018 Energy Plan is all about energy efficiency, solar, onshore wind, offshore wind, clean transportation, and reducing carbon emissions. That’s a refreshing break from the “all of the above” trope that got us into the climate pickle we’re in today. Welcome to the 21stcentury, Virginia.

But speaking of climate, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) just released a special report that makes it clear we need “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society” to keep warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius. That’s only half again the amount of warming that has already brought us melting glaciers, a navigable Arctic Ocean, larger and more destructive hurricanes, and here in Virginia, the swampiest summer in memory. The fact that things are guaranteed to get worse before they get better (if they get better) is not a happy thought.

Perhaps no Virginia politician today has the courage to rise to the challenge the IPCC describes. Certainly, Governor Northam shows no signs of transforming into a rapid-change kind of leader. But as we celebrate the proposals in his Energy Plan that would begin moving us away from our fossil fuel past, we also have to recognize that none of them go nearly far enough, and missed opportunities abound.

Let’s start with the high points, though. One of the plan’s strongest sections champions offshore wind energy. It calls for 2,000 megawatts (MW) of offshore wind by 2028, fulfilling the potential of the area of ocean 27 miles off Virginia Beach that the federal government leased to Dominion Energy. In the short term, the Plan pledges support for Dominion’s 12-MW pilot project slated for completion in 2020.

Other East Coast states like Massachusetts and New York have adopted more ambitious timelines for commercial-scale projects, but the economics of offshore wind favor the Northeast over the Southeast, and they aren’t saddled with a powerful gas-bloated monopoly utility.  For Virginia, a full build-out by 2028 would be a strong showing, and better by far than Dominion has actually committed to.

Another strong point is the Administration’s commitment to electric vehicles. The transportation sector is responsible for more carbon emissions even than the electric sector, and vehicle electrification is one key response.

Even better would have been a commitment to smart growth strategies to help Virginians get out of their cars. Overlooking this opportunity is a costly mistake, and not just from a climate standpoint. Today’s popular neighborhoods are the ones that are walkable and bikeable, not the ones centered on automobiles. If we want to create thriving communities that attract young workers, we need to put smart growth front and center in urban planning—and stop making suburban sprawl the cheap option for developers.

Speaking of developers, how about beefing up our substandard residential building code? Lowering energy costs and preparing for hotter summers requires better construction standards. Houses can be built today that produce as much energy as they consume, saving money over the life of a mortgage and making homes more comfortable. The only reason Virginia and other states don’t require all new homes to be built this way is that the powerful home builders’ lobby sees higher standards as a threat to profits.

The Energy Plan mentions that updated building codes were among the recommendations in the Virginia Energy Efficiency Roadmap that was developed with funding from the U.S. Department of Energy and published last spring. I hope the only reason the Energy Plan doesn’t include them among its recommendations is that the Administration is already quietly taking action.

Meanwhile, it is not reassuring to see that the section of the plan devoted to attaining Virginia’s ten percent energy efficiency goal simply describes how our utilities will be proposing more efficiency programs as a result of this year’s SB 966 (the “grid mod” bill).

States that are serious about energy efficiency don’t leave it up to companies whose profits depend on a lack of efficiency. They take the job away from the sellers of electricity and give it to people more motivated. So if the Governor’s plan is merely to leave it up to Dominion and APCo without changing their incentives, we should abandon all hope right now.

Indeed, it is strange how often the Energy Plan finishes an in-depth discussion of an issue with a shallow recommendation, and frequently one that has the distinct odor of having been vetted by Dominion.

That observation leads us straight to grid modernization. The plan opens with a very fine discussion of grid modernization, one that shows the Administration understands both the problem and the solution. It opens by declaring, “Virginia needs a coordinated distribution system planning process.” And it notes, “One important rationale for a focus on grid modernization is that the transitions in our electricity system include a shift away from large, centralized power stations to more distributed energy resources.”

Well, exactly! Moreover: “The grid transformation improvements that the Commonwealth is contemplating include a significant focus on the distribution system, but our current resource planning process (Integrated Resource Plan or IRP) does not fully evaluate the integration of these resources. One overarching focus of this Energy Plan is the development of a comprehensive analysis of distributed energy resources.”

But just when you feel sure that the plan is about to announce the administration is setting up an independent process for comprehensive grid modernization, the discussion comes to a screeching halt. The plan offers just one recommendation, which starts out well but then takes a sudden turn down a dead-end road:

To ensure that utility investments align with long-term policy objectives and market shifts, Virginia should reform its regulatory process to include distribution system level planning in Virginia’s ongoing Integrated Resource Planning requirement.

Seriously? We need regulatory reform, but we will let the utilities handle it through their IRPs? Sorry, who let Dominion write that into the plan?

It’s possible the Administration is punting here because it doesn’t want to antagonize the State Corporation Commission (SCC). The SCC pretty much hated the grid mod bill and resented the legislation’s attack on the Commission’s oversight authority. And rightly so, but let’s face it, the SCC hasn’t shown any interest in “reforming the regulatory process.”

The Energy Plan’s failure to take up this challenge is all the more discouraging in light of a just-released report from the non-profit Grid Lab that evaluates Dominion’s spending proposal under SB 966 and finds it sorely lacking. The report clearly lays out how to do grid modernization right. It’s disheartening to see the Administration on board with doing it wrong.

Dominion’s influence also hobbles the recommendations on rooftop solar and net metering. This section begins by recognizing that “Net metering is one of the primary policy drivers for the installation of distributed solar resources from residential, small business, and agricultural stakeholders.” Then it describes some of the barriers that currently restrain the market: standby charges, system size caps, the rule that prevents customers from installing more solar than necessary to meet past (but not future) demand.

But its recommendations are limited to raising the 1% aggregate cap on net metering to 5% and making third-party power purchase agreements legal statewide. These are necessary reforms, and if the Administration can achieve them, Virginia will see a lot more solar development. But why not recommend doing away with all the unnecessary policy barriers and really open up the market? The answer, surely, is that Dominion wouldn’t stand for it.

Refusing to challenge these barriers (and others—the list is a long one) is especially regrettable given that the plan goes on to recommend Dominion develop distributed generation on customer property. Dominion has tried this before through its Solar Partnership Program, and mostly proved it can’t compete with private developers. If it wants to try again, that’s great. We love competition! But you have to suspect that competition is not what this particular monopoly has in mind.

The need to expand opportunities for private investment in solar is all the more pressing in light of the slow pace of utility investment. Legislators have been congratulating themselves on declaring 5,000 megawatts (MW) of solar and wind in the public interest, and the Energy Plan calls for Dominion to develop 500 MW of solar annually. I suspect our leaders don’t realize how little that is. After ten years, 5,000 MW of solar, at a projected capacity factor of 25%, would produce less electricity than the 1,588-MW gas plant Dominion is currently building in Greensville, operating at a projected 80% capacity.

Offshore wind capacities are in the range of 40-45%, so 2,000 MW of offshore wind will produce the amount of electricity equivalent to one of Dominion’s other gas plants. It won’t quite match the 1,358-MW Brunswick Power Station, or even the 1,329-MW Warren County Power Station, but Dominion also has several smaller gas plants.

But at this point you get the picture. If all the solar and wind Virginia plans to build over ten years adds up to two gas plants, Virginia is not building enough solar and wind.

That gets us back to climate. The Administration can claim credit for following through on developing regulations to reduce carbon emissions from power plants by 30% by 2030, using the cap-and-trade program of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) of the northeastern states. If successful, that still leaves us with 70% of the carbon emissions in 2030, when we need to be well on our way to zero. And for that, we don’t have a plan.

Of course, Ralph Northam has been Governor for only nine months. He has some solid people in place, but right now he has to work with a legislature controlled by Republicans and dominated by Dominion allies in both parties, not to mention an SCC that’s still way too fond of fossil fuels. Another blue wave in the 2019 election could sweep in enough new people to change the calculus on what is possible. In that case, we may yet see the kind of leadership we need.

 

This article first appeared in the Virginia Mercury on October 15, 2018.

After the grid mod bill, the SCC wants to know how much authority it still has over utility spending

offshore wind turbines

Offshore wind turbines, Copenhagen, Denmark. Dominion Energy has asked the SCC for permission to proceed with building two wind turbines off the Virginia coast as a test project. Photo by Ivy Main.

It’s no secret the State Corporation Commission didn’t like this year’s big energy bill, the Grid Transformation and Security Act. SCC staff testified against SB 966 in committee, and their objections played a major role in amendments removing the “double dip” provision that would have let Dominion Energy Virginia double its earnings on infrastructure projects. Since passage of the bill, the SCC has raised questions about the constitutionality of the law’s provisions favoring in-state renewable energy, and its staff has issued broadsides about the costs of the legislation.

Now the SCC is mulling the question of how much authority it still has to reject Dominion’s proposals for spending under the bill. Dominion has filed for approval of a solar power purchase agreement (case number PUR-2018-00135) and two offshore wind test turbines it plans to erect in federal waters 24 nautical miles out from Virginia Beach (PUR-2018-00121). The utility has also requested permission to spend a billion dollars on grid upgrades and smart meters (PUR-2018-00100).

In an order issued September 12, the SCC asked participants in the solar and offshore wind cases to brief them on legal issues arising from the legislation. The SCC has focused in on two new sections of the Virginia Code. One is the language making it “in the public interest” for a utility to buy, build, or purchase the output of up to 5,000 megawatts (MW) of Virginia-based wind or solar by January 1, 2024. The SCC noted that subsection A of the provision says such a facility “is in the public interest, and the Commission shall so find if required to make a finding regarding whether such construction or purchase is in the public interest.”

The other new Code section gives a utility the right to petition the SCC at any time for a “prudency determination” for construction or purchase of a solar or wind project located in Virginia or off its coast, or for the purchase of the output of such a project if developed by someone else.

Together these sections give Dominion a good deal of latitude, but they don’t actually force the SCC to approve a project it thinks is a bad deal for ratepayers. In other words, wind and solar may be in the public interest, but that doesn’t mean every wind and solar project has to be approved.

The SCC asked for briefs on seven questions:

  • What are the specific elements that the utility must prove for the Commission to determine that the project is prudent under Subsection F?
  • Is the “prudency determination” in Subsection F different from the “public interest” findings mandated by Subsections A or E?
  • Do the public interest findings mandated by either Subsections A or E supersede a determination under Subsection F that a project is not prudent? If not, then what is the legal effect of either of the mandated public interest findings?
  • If the construction (or purchase or leasing) is statutorily deemed in the public interest, is there any basis upon which the Commission could determine that such action is not prudent? If so, identify such basis or bases.
  • In determining whether the project is prudent, can the Commission consider whether the project’s: (a) capacity or energy are needed; and (b) costs to customers are unreasonable or excessive in relation to capacity or energy available from other sources?
  • Do the statutorily-mandated public interest findings under either Subsections A or E override a factual finding that the project’s: (a) capacity or energy are not needed for the utility to serve its customers; and/or (b) costs to customers are unreasonable or excessive in relation to capacity or energy available from other sources, including but not limited to sources of a type similar to the proposed project?
  • Does the utility need a certificate of public convenience and necessity, or any other statutory approval from the Commission, before constructing the proposed projects?

Even if the Commission decides it has latitude in deciding which wind and solar projects to approve, that doesn’t necessarily spell disaster for the two projects at issue. The SCC could still decide they meet the standard for prudency and approve them.

Oral argument on the issues is scheduled for October 4.

Should approval of smart meters depend on how the meters will be used?

The SCC is also mulling over its authority in the grid modernization docket. One day after it asked lawyers in the solar and offshore wind cases to weigh in on the meaning of prudency, it issued a similar order asking for input on what the new law means by “reasonable and prudent” in judging spending under the grid modernization provisions. (Yes, the grid mod section of the law insists that spending be “reasonable” in addition to “prudent,” begging the question of whether spending can be prudent but not reasonable. Perhaps thankfully, the SCC order does not pursue it.)

The SCC’s questions to the lawyers show an interest in one especially important point: Dominion wants to spend hundreds of millions of dollars of customer money on smart meters, without using them smartly. Smart meters enable time-of-use rates and customer control over energy use, and make it easier to incorporate distributed generation like rooftop solar. None of these are in Dominion’s plan. Is it reasonable and prudent for Dominion to install the meters anyway, just because they are one of the categories of spending that the law allows?

Or as the SCC put it:

If the evidence demonstrates that advanced metering infrastructure enables time-of- use (also known as real-time) rates and that such (and potentially other) rate designs advance the stated purposes of the statute, i.e., they accommodate or facilitate the integration of customer-owned renewable electric generation resources and/or promote energy efficiency and conservation, may the Commission consider the inclusion or absence of such rate designs in determining whether a plan and its projected costs are reasonable and prudent?

Reading the tea leaves at the SCC: Staff comments on Dominion’s IRP

The SCC’s question about smart meters surely indicates how the commissioners feel about the matter: they’d like to reject spending on smart meters, at least until Dominion is ready to use them smartly. If the SCC concludes it has the authority to reject this part of Dominion’s proposal as not “reasonable and prudent,” it seems likely to do so.

It is harder to know where the SCC might land on the solar and offshore wind spending. The SCC’s staff, at least, are skeptical of Dominion’s plans to build lots of new solar generation. In response to Dominion’s 2018 Integrated Resource Plan (IRP), Commission staff questioned whether Dominion was going to need any new electric generation at all, given the flattening out of demand. But if it does, according to the testimony of Associate Deputy Director Gregory Abbott, Dominion ought to consider a new combined-cycle (baseload) gas plant, not solar. (Combined-cycle gas was the one generating source Dominion almost completely ruled out.)

Abbott criticized Dominion’s presentation of the case for solar, though he took note of the technology’s dramatic cost declines. Instead of seeing that as a reason to invest, however, he suggested it would be better to wait for further cost declines, or at least leave the construction of solar to third-party developers who can provide solar power more cheaply than the utility can. Remarkably, he also suggested Dominion offer rebates to customers who install solar, urging that Dominion’s spending under the grid transformation law “is designed specifically to handle these [distributed energy resources].”

Abbott also seemed supportive of Dominion’s venture into offshore wind. The only offshore wind energy in the IRP is the 12 MW demonstration project known as CVOW, but as Abbott noted, “the Company indicated that it will pursue a much larger roll-out of utility-scale offshore wind, beginning in 2024, if the demonstration project shows it to be economic.”

This suggests staff are inclined to support Dominion’s spending on the CVOW project, but for Abbott, it was one more reason Dominion should not invest in solar. He concluded, “If the demonstration project proves that utility-scale offshore wind is economic compared to solar, then it may make sense to get the results of the CVOW demonstration project before deploying a large amount of solar.”

This post originally appeared in the Virginia Mercury on September 24.

Does the SCC finally see the light on customer-owned solar?

two men installing solar panels on a roof

Photo credit NREL.

Almost four years ago, Virginia’s State Corporation Commission (SCC) approved a request from Appalachian Power to impose “standby charges” on grid-connected homeowners who installed solar arrays between 10 and 20 kilowatts (kW). The approval came not long after the SCC had given the same authority to Dominion Power (now Dominion Energy Virginia).

The standby charges, dubbed a “tax on the sun,” effectively shut down the market for these larger home systems. Since then, Virginia utilities have made no bones about their desire to dismantle the rest of the Virginia law that has enabled the growth of the private solar market.

The law permits solar owners to “net meter,” giving them credit at the retail rate for the electricity they feed onto the grid on sunny days, and letting them use that credit when they draw electricity from the grid at other times.

Utilities say net metering customers don’t pay their fair share of grid costs. Solar advocates say the subsidy runs the other way: both the utility and society at large benefit when more customers install solar. Independent studies find the “value of solar” to be above the retail rate; utility-funded studies find much lower values. In Virginia, the debate continues to rage, but in 2014, at least, the SCC came down squarely on the utility’s side.

Fast forward to 2018. This year the General Assembly passed a law called the Grid Transformation and Security Act that, among other things, envisions an electric grid of the future that incorporates distributed generation like rooftop solar. And suddenly the staff of the SCC sees customer-owned solar in a new light.

Members of the Commission staff filed testimony last month in response to Dominion’s 2018 Integrated Resource Plan, which proposes large amounts of utility-built and owned solar. Associate Deputy Director Gregory Abbott devoted much of his testimony to bashing Dominion’s solar plans.

But just when a reader might have concluded that Abbott hates solar, he pivoted to the suggestion that Dominion should consider offering rebates for customers who install their own rooftop solar:

Given that the Company is developing a Grid Transformation Plan that is designed specifically to integrate customer-level DERs [distributed energy resources], and given the Company’s peak load forecast, Staff believes the Company should explore developing a rebate program to incent customer-owned rooftop solar systems. Staff believes that it is logical to incent these DERs particularly since the Company’s Grid Transformation Plan pursuant to the GTSA is designed specifically to handle these DERs. Staff also notes that such a program could be considered to be a peak shaving program and eligible for cost recovery through Rider CIA. To the extent that the program passed the economic tests, it may obviate the need for some of the more expensive capacity resources as described in the Company’s proposed build plan. Such a program would be more environmentally benign as it would take advantage of
existing brownfield sites rather than the greenfield sites required for utility-scale
 solar.

These are, of course, precisely the arguments made by advocates for distributed solar.

The support from SCC staff comes at an opportune moment, as the Northam Administration considers making distributed solar a centerpiece of its new Energy Plan. It could also complicate Dominion’s efforts to limit and penalize customer investments in solar. Last year Dominion’s opposition doomed a raft of bills intended to make it easier for customers to use Virginia’s net metering law. When solar advocates try again in the 2019 session, having the support of the SCC could change the minds of legislators who, until now, have been happy to accept Dominion’s arguments.

All this assumes the SCC commissioners agree with their staff on the value of customer-owned solar to the grid. If they do, it could signal a new day in Virginia for customer-owned solar.

This article originally appeared in the Virginia Mercury, the new, non-profit on-line news source founded by Robert Zullo, formerly a reporter for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. 

Dominion gets the nod to sell solar energy to us regular folks

alternative energy building clouds energy

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The State Corporation Commission (SCC) has approved Dominion Energy Virginia’s so-called Community Solar pilot program, under which the utility will offer its residential and commercial customers the output of solar farms to be built by independent solar developers here in Virginia.

Customers will have the option to meet either all or part of their electric demand with solar. The added cost of the program, at least initially, will be 2.01 cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh). For a customer who uses an average of 1,000 kWh monthly and wants to use only solar, that would add up to a premium of $20.10 per month.

Customers who want to meet just a portion of their total demand with solar will have the option of subscribing to “blocks” consisting of 100 kWh, up to a maximum of 5 blocks for residential customers or 10 blocks for non-residential customers.

The premium cost of the program may surprise customers who have heard that large-scale solar is now one of the cheapest sources of energy in Virginia. But according to Will Cleveland, a staff attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center who helped to develop the program, cost was not the only consideration in choosing which solar facilities to include in the program.

Facilities were selected to be smaller and distributed around the state, in keeping with the “community” concept, which meant they sometimes came with higher prices. Program costs also include Dominion’s costs of administration and marketing. Cleveland says he consulted experts who advised him these numbers were reasonable.

In addition to selling the electrical output of the solar facilities to customers, Dominion will retire the associated renewable energy certificates (RECs). The RECs represent the legal proof that the energy comes from solar, an important factor for commercial customers that wish to represent they use renewable energy in their business. “Retiring” the RECs guarantees that Dominion isn’t also selling them elsewhere.

The program is a result of legislation passed by the General Assembly in 2017 that authorized a three-year pilot program in Dominion’s territory for up to 40 megawatts (MW) of solar capacity. The legislation also authorized Appalachian Power to develop up to 10 MW for a similar program. To date, Appalachian Power has not submitted a proposal.

Although the program is called “community solar,” customers will not own shares in the solar facilities, and the facilities do not have to be located in the same communities as the customers. Virginia law does not permit the kind of community solar in which customers share in the ownership and output of solar facilities.

Calling Dominion’s program “community solar” is bound to confuse people, and it’s hard not to believe that was a calculated move on the utility’s part. Yet Dominion’s solar offering is a major step forward for the company, and for customers who aren’t able to put solar panels on their own rooftops.

And while it is somewhat more expensive than the company’s Green Power Program, it should prove much more attractive with people who understand the difference between the programs.

Subscribers to the Green Power Program don’t get electricity from renewable energy; Dominion sells them regular “brown” power, then tacks on an added charge to match the dirty energy with renewable energy certificates (RECs). Most of the RECs come from existing wind projects in other states, where wind is already the cheapest power source. By contrast, the solar program provides solar energy (and the RECs) from new Virginia solar farms, ones that would not get built otherwise.

Dominion is expected to begin signing up subscribers for its solar program later this fall, with the program getting underway once the solar projects come online next year. For those of us without the sunny roofs needed to put up our own solar panels, this promises to be—for now—the next best option.

A version of this article first appeared in the Virginia Mercury, a new (and if I do say so, quite excellent) independent online news source dedicated to covering Virginia issues that matter.