2017 guide to Virginia wind and solar policy

You can tell this picture wasn’t taken in Virginia because it has wind turbines in it. But at least the solar farm will look familiar to many Virginians these days. Photo credit Dennis Schroeder, NREL.

After several years of writing this annual update and often finding little to cheer about, I can finally share some good news. The nationwide boom in utility-scale solar has hit Virginia full force, juiced by low panel prices, corporate and state government demand, favorable tax policy and an abundance of good sites near transmission lines. We are a long way from unleashing our full potential; a lack of incentives, utility-inspired barriers, and a legislature still in thrall to fossil fuel interests continue to hold us back. In spite of this, Virginia is now attracting hundreds of millions of dollars in solar energy investments, and today the solar industry employs more of our residents than the coal industry.

The same cannot be said for wind energy; we are alone among all neighboring states in having no operating wind farms. Distributed generation like rooftop solar also remains a weak spot, even as customer interest continues to grow.

This survey of current policy is intended to help decision-makers, industry, advocates and consumers understand where we are today, who the players are, and where we could be going in the coming year. A few disclaimers: I don’t cover everything, the opinions expressed are purely my own, and as legal advice it is worth exactly what you’re paying for it.

  1. Overview: Virginia still lags, but we’ve now got some mo’

Even last summer it was clear utility-scale solar was on a roll in the commonwealth, leading me to predict Virginia would hit 200 megawatts (MW) by the end of 2016, up from 22 MW at the end of 2015. According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, we beat that number and then some.

Maryland North Carolina W. Virginia Tennessee Virginia
Solar* 637.8 3,015.8 3.4 171.1 238.3
Wind** 191 208 686 29 0
Total 828.8 3,223.8 689.4 200.1 238.3

Installed capacity measured in megawatts (MW) at the end of 2016. One megawatt is equal to 1,000 kilowatts (kW). Note that SEIA does not provide 2016 numbers for W. Virginia; shown are 2015.

*Source: Solar Energy Industries Association **Source: American Wind Energy Association 

The big numbers, however, still lie ahead. At the May event where Governor McAuliffe announced his directive to the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) to develop a carbon limit for Virginia, he also reported that Virginia has a total of more than 1,800 MW of solar installed or under development.

Several developments are driving these numbers:

  • Once the federal investment tax credit is factored in, the levelized cost of energy from solar is now below that of coal, nuclear, and natural gas.
  • Dominion committed to 400 MW of solar as part of 2015 legislation, and now indicates in its IRP an intent to build 240 MW per year through at least 2032.
  • Governor McAuliffe committed the state to getting 8% of its electricity from solar, a total of 110 MW.
  • Corporations, led by Amazon, are using new approaches to procure renewable energy on favorable terms, including indirect and virtual PPAs; this forces utilities to cooperate or be cut out of the action.
  • Other customers have stepped up pressure on their utilities to provide renewable energy.

You can find the list of projects that have submitted permit applications on the DEQ website. The list currently does not include regulated utility-owned projects, which until this year received permits from the State Corporation Commission (SCC). Under legislation passed in 2017, however, these projects will also be governed by the DEQ permit-by-rule process.

Industry experts caution that not all of these solar projects will get built; we may even be seeing a speculative bubble of sorts, reflecting a scramble to lock up the good sites now and worry about customers later.

You will find only one wind project on the DEQ list: Apex Clean Energy’s 75 MW Rocky Forge wind farm, which received its permit earlier this year but has not yet begun construction.

And in spite of Dominion Virginia Power having won the right to develop an estimated 2,000 MW of wind power offshore of Virginia Beach, there is still no timeline for offshore wind in Virginia. Dominion continues to include its two-turbine, 12 MW pilot project in its 2017 Integrated Resource Plan, with a projected in-service date of 2021. It does not include the larger resource as an option.

  1. Most customers still can’t buy renewable energy from Virginia utilities

Currently, the average Virginia resident can’t pick up the phone and call their utility to buy electricity generated by wind and solar farms (unless they are members of some rural electric cooperatives—see below). Worse, they can’t buy renewable energy elsewhere, either.

Virginia law is not the problem. Section 56-577(A)(6) of the Virginia code allows utilities to offer “green power” tariffs, and if they don’t, customers are supposed to be able to go elsewhere for it. Ideally, a utility would use money from voluntary green power programs to build or buy renewable energy for these customers. However, our two big investor-owned utilities, Dominion Energy Virginia (formerly Dominion Virginia Power) and Appalachian Power Company (APCo), have not done this. Instead, the utilities pay brokers to buy renewable energy certificates (RECs) on behalf of the participants. Participation by consumers is voluntary. Participants sign up and agree to be billed extra on their power bills for the service. Meanwhile, they still run their homes and businesses on regular “brown” power.

In Dominion’s case, these RECs meet a recognized national standard, and some of them originate with wind turbines, but they primarily represent power produced and consumed out of state, and thus don’t displace any fossil fuel burning in Virginia. For a fuller discussion of the Dominion Green Power Program, see What’s wrong with Dominion’s Green Power Program.

Since RECs are not energy, Dominion customers are free to buy RECs from other providers, such as Arcadia. If you’re considering this route, read this post first so you understand what you are getting. Personally, I recommend instead making monthly tax-deductible donations to GRID Alternatives to put solar on low-income homes.

Appalachian Power’s “green pricing” program is worse than Dominion’s, consisting only of RECs from an 80 MW hydroelectric dam in West Virginia. In April of 2016 APCo filed a proposal with the SCC for a true renewable energy tariff under of §56-577(A)(6) that would combine wind, solar and hydro. None of the power would come from new projects; partly as a result, the tariff will cost more. That led a hearing examiner to recommend that the SCC reject the tariff as not in the public interest. A ruling by the SCC is expected this summer or fall.

Can you go elsewhere? Since the State Corporation Commission has ruled that REC-based programs do not qualify as selling renewable energy, under the terms of §56-577(A)(6), customers are currently permitted to turn to other licensed suppliers of electric energy “to purchase electric energy provided 100 percent from renewable energy.”

That means you should be able to go elsewhere to buy wind and solar. But Virginia utilities claim that the statute’s words should be read as requiring not only that another licensed supplier provide 100% renewable energy, but that it also supply 100% of the customer’s demand, all the time. Obviously, the owner of a wind farm or solar facility cannot do that. Ergo, say the utilities, a customer cannot go elsewhere.

In August of 2016, a hearing examiner for the SCC rejected this reading in favor of the plain language of the statute. Unfortunately, the case was terminated without the commissioners themselves ruling on the issue.

In spite of the roadblocks, an independent power seller called Direct Energy announced plans last year to sell a renewable energy product to Virginia residents in Dominion’s territory. (The company described the product as a combination of wind and municipal waste biomass.) This spring the SCC confirmed Direct Energy’s right to enter the Virginia market, but also ruled that Direct Energy will have to stop signing up customers once Dominion has its own approved renewable energy tariff. As of this writing, Direct Energy has not decided whether to proceed.

Within a few weeks of the ruling, Dominion filed plans for several new 100% renewable energy tariffs for large commercial customers, and indicated it expected to offer a residential renewable energy tariff as well. Until we see the details, it is hard to know whether this should be viewed as a genuinely positive step for customers or is merely intended to scare off competitors like Direct Energy. Because Dominion’s tariff is designed to meet the company’s “100% of the time” interpretation of the statute, it will include sources like forest biomass, which counts as renewable under the Virginia code but is highly polluting and doesn’t meet many national standards for sustainability. That makes it questionable whether anyone will want to pay extra for its product. If the SCC confirms its hearing examiner’s report rejecting the similar APCo tariff, Dominion may be forced back to the drawing board. (Note to Dominion CEO Robert Blue: Bob, you have the nation’s largest pumped storage facility. Wind, solar and pumped hydro would combine beautifully. You do not need to foist biomass on customers to meet your notion of 100% renewable.)

A new solar option is in the works. For both APCo and Dominion customers, another option is on the way. Under legislation passed this year under the misleading banner of “community solar,” both utilities will contract for power from solar farms to sell to consumers. Details—including price—still have to be worked out in a rulemaking proceeding at the State Corporation Commission. The new programs explicitly do not count as ones selling “electric energy provided 100 percent from renewable energy,” though ironically, they may be the first programs from Dominion and APCo to do exactly that for residential consumers.

Some coop members do have wind and solar options. Recently I learned that there are good green power programs in place in Virginia, available to members of some rural electric cooperatives. Old Dominion Electric Cooperative (ODEC), which supplies power to member cooperatives, buys the output of three wind farms in Maryland and Pennsylvania, and has contracted for two solar farms in Virginia that are slated to come online this year. Not all coops participate; ODEC has the list of those that do on its website.

  1. Community solar

Dominion loves the name “community solar.” The reality, not so much. The solar tariff discussed in section 2 uses that name but keeps the utility in control and gives customers no ownership interest. Dominion opposed true community solar legislation this year (as in past years) that would have put consumers in the driver’s seat.

This is not the first time Dominion has used the name “community solar” for a program that isn’t. In 2015 Dominion received SCC approval for a program it billed as an offer to sell electricity from solar panels. Unfortunately it turned out the “Dominion Community Solar” program would have involved customers paying extra so Dominion could sell solar energy to other people. Reading the details, it seemed clear it would attract customers only to the extent they didn’t understand it. Fortunately the company still hasn’t launched the program, but I’ve seen no formal withdrawal.

As for true community solar, only one Virginia utility offers it: a member-owned rural electric cooperative in southwestern Virginia called BARC.

  1. The miserable sham that is Virginia’s Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS)

Many renewable energy advocates focus on an RPS as a vehicle for inducing demand. In Virginia, that’s a non-starter. Virginia has only a voluntary RPS, which means utilities have the option of participating but don’t have to. And unfortunately, the statute takes a kitchen-sink approach to what counts as renewable energy, so meeting it requires no new investment and no wind or solar. The SCC also insists that utilities take a least-cost approach to meeting the RPS, which means they use RECs from trash incinerators, wood burning, and old out-of-state hydro projects built prior to World War II. If utilities build wind and solar, they are required to sell the high-value RECs from these projects and buy low-cost junky ones instead. Thus, no matter how much solar Dominion builds, the RPS operates to ensure customers will never see solar as part of their energy mix.

The targets are also modest to a fault. Although nominally promising 15% renewables by 2025, the statute sets a 2007 baseline and contains a sleight-of-hand in the definitions section by which the target is applied only to the amount of energy not produced by nuclear plants. The combined result is an effective 2025 target of about 7%.

There appears to be no appetite in the General Assembly for making the RPS mandatory, and efforts to improve the voluntary goals have repeatedly failed in the face of utility and other industry opposition. The utilities have offered no arguments why the goals should not be limited to new, high-value, in-state renewable projects, other than that it would cost more to meet them than to buy junk RECs.

But with the GA hostile to a mandatory RPS and too many parties with vested interests in keeping the kitchen-sink approach going, it is hard to imagine our RPS becoming transformed into a useful tool to incentivize wind and solar.

That doesn’t mean there is no role for legislatively-mandated wind and solar. But it would be easier to pass a bill with a simple, straightforward mandate for buying or building a certain number of megawatts than it would be to repair a hopelessly broken RPS.

  1. Customer-owned generation 

Given the lack of wind or solar options from utilities, people who want renewable energy generally have to build it themselves. Low panel prices and the federal 30% tax credit make it cost-effective for most customers. The emergence of bulk purchasing coops, sometimes also called “solarize” programs, such as those offered through nonprofits VA-SUN and LEAP, makes the process easy for homeowners and businesses and further reduces costs.

Virginia allows net energy metering at the retail rate, though with limits (see section 6). Large commercial customers should also consider the advantages of solar in reducing high demand charges.

In 2016 the GA passed legislation enabling Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) loans for commercial customers. Localities now have an option to offer low-cost financing for energy efficiency and renewable energy projects at the commercial level. Arlington County received a federal grant to develop a PACE program that is expected to launch this year and be a model for other jurisdictions. A bill to extend PACE authorization to residential customers did not get out of committee last year.

Virginia offers no cash incentives or tax credits for wind or solar. The lack of a true RPS in Virginia means Virginia utilities generally will not buy solar renewable energy certificates (SRECs) from customers. SRECs generated here can sometimes be sold to utilities in other states or to brokers who sell to voluntary purchasers.

  1. Limits on retail net metering

Section 56-594 of the Virginia code allows utility customers with wind and solar projects to net energy meter at the retail rate. System owners get credit from their utility for surplus electricity that’s fed into the grid at times of high output. That offsets the grid power they draw on when their systems are producing less than they need. Their monthly bills reflect only the net energy they draw from the grid.

Residential customers can net meter systems up to 20 kW, although standby charges will apply to those between 10 and 20 kW (see section 8). Commercial customers can net meter up to 1,000 kW (1 MW). There is an overall cap of 1% of a utility’s peak demand that can be supplied by net metered systems (as measured at their rated capacity).

If a system produces more than the customer uses in a month, the credits roll over to the next month. However, at the end of the year, the customer will be paid for any excess credits only by entering a power purchase agreement with the utility. This will likely be for a price that represents the utility’s “avoided cost” of about 4.5 cents, rather than the retail rate, which for homeowners is about 12 cents. This effectively stops most people from installing larger systems than they can use themselves.

In 2015, the definition of “eligible customer-generator” was tightened to limit system sizes to no larger than needed to meet the customers demand, based on the previous 12 months of billing history. The SCC wrote implementing regulations (see 20VAC5-315-10 et seq.) but failed to address what happens with new construction.

The limitation presents a new barrier to current customers who want to expand their solar arrays because their business is expanding or they plan to buy an electric car. Why should they have to wait twelve months? But the limitation is also stupid. If customers want to install more clean, renewable energy than they need and are willing to sell the surplus electricity for avoided cost, why would you stop them from performing this service to society?

  1. Progress on meter aggregation derailed by agricultural solar bill

Under a bill passed in 2013, owners of Virginia farms with more than one electric meter are permitted to attribute the electricity produced by a system that serves one meter (say, on a barn) to other meters on the property (e.g., the farmhouse and other outbuildings). This is referred to as “agricultural net metering.” Unfortunately, there have been complaints from installers about a lack of cooperation from utilities in actually using this provision.

Advocates had hoped that agricultural net metering would be a first step towards broader meter aggregation options, but 2017 legislation instead took agricultural customers in a new direction. Beginning this year, farmers can elect to devote up to a quarter of their acreage to solar panels, up to 1.5 MW or 150% of their own electricity demand. The electricity must be sold to the utility at its avoided cost, while the farmer must buy all its electricity from the utility at retail. A farmer who chooses to do this cannot also use agricultural net metering. Agricultural net metering will be terminated entirely in 2019 in territory served by electric cooperatives, though existing customers are grandfathered.

The change would seem to give farmers no rights they did not already have under federal law, but industry sources I trust say some farmers will indeed be able to make money this way. However, taking away the agricultural net metering option is a backward step for farmers who want to use the solar they produce and aggregate meters.

  1. Standby charges on larger home systems

The current system capacity limit for net-metered residential solar installations is 20 kW. However, for residential systems between 10 kW and 20 kW, a utility is allowed to apply to the State Corporation Commission to impose a “standby” charge on those customers. Both Dominion and APCo have approval from the SCC to impose standby charges so high that solar installers say the larger systems often don’t make economic sense.

Utilities argue that customers with solar panels don’t pay their fair share of the upkeep of the grid, shifting costs to those who don’t own solar. A range of “value of solar” studies in other states have generally found the reverse, concluding that distributed solar provides a net benefit to the grid and to society at large. A stakeholder group in Virginia completed the initial phase of a value of solar study in 2014 but got no further after the utilities pulled out of the process.

Standby charges and other net metering issues will be a major focus of attention this year as a topic in the “Rubin Group” discussion. See section 19.

  1. Homeowner associations cannot ban solar

Homeowner association (HOA) bans and restrictions on solar systems have been a problem for residential solar. In the 2014 session, the legislature nullified bans as contrary to public policy. The law contains an exception for bans that are recorded in the land deeds, but this is said to be highly unusual; most bans are simply written into HOA covenants. In April of 2015 the Virginia Attorney issued an opinion letter confirming that unrecorded HOA bans on solar are no longer legal.

Even where HOAs cannot ban solar installations, they can impose “reasonable restrictions concerning the size, place and manner of placement.” This language is undefined. The Maryland-DC-Virginia Solar Energy Industries Association has published a guide for HOAs on this topic.

  1. Third-party ownership

One of the primary drivers of solar installations in other states has been third-party ownership of the systems, including third-party power purchase agreements (PPAs), under which the customer pays only for the power produced by the system. For customers that pay no taxes, including non-profit entities like churches and colleges, this is especially important because they can’t use the 30% federal tax credit to reduce the cost of the system if they purchase it directly. Under a PPA, the system owner can take the tax credit (as well as accelerated depreciation) and pass along the savings in the form of a lower electricity price.

The Virginia Code seems to sanction this approach to financing solar facilities in its net metering provisions, specifically §56-594, which authorizes a “customer generator” to net meter, and defines an eligible customer generator as “a customer that owns and operates, or contracts with other persons to own or operate, or both, an electrical generating facility that . . . uses as its total source of fuel renewable energy. . . “ (emphasis added).

Notwithstanding this provision, in 2011, when Washington & Lee University attempted to use a PPA to finance a solar array on its campus, Dominion Virginia Power issued cease and desist letters to the university and its Staunton-based solar provider, Secure Futures LLC. Dominion claimed the arrangement violated its monopoly on power sales within its territory. Secure Futures and the university thought that even if what was really just a financing arrangement somehow fell afoul of Dominion’s monopoly, surely they were covered by the exception in §56-577(A)(6) available to customers whose own utilities do not offer 100% renewable energy. (See Section 2, above.)

Yet the threat of prolonged and costly litigation was too much. The parties turned the PPA contract into a lease, allowing the solar installation to proceed but without the advantages of a PPA.

In 2013 Dominion and the solar industry negotiated a compromise that specifically allows customers in Dominion territory to use third-party PPAs to install solar or wind projects under a pilot program capped at 50 MW. Projects must have a minimum size of 50 kW, unless the customer is a tax-exempt entity, in which case there is no minimum. Projects can be as large as 1 MW. The SCC is supposed to review the program every two years beginning in 2015 and has authority to make changes to it. I’m not aware the SCC has reviewed the program to date.

Appalachian Power and the electric cooperatives declined to participate in the PPA deal-making, so the legal uncertainty about PPAs continues in their territories. In June of 2015, Appalachian Power proposed an alternative to PPAs. An evidentiary hearing was held September 29, 2015. A veritable parade of witnesses testified that APCo”s program was expensive, unworkable and unnecessary, given the plain language of the statute allowing PPAs.

Almost a year later, on August 31, 2016, the hearing examiner finally issued her report, recommending that APCo’s application be rejected, both because it was a lousy program and because she, too, read the Code to allow PPAs currently, making a utility alternative unnecessary. Before the commission itself could confirm the ruling, APCo withdrew its application.

In 2017, the legislature passed a bill to allow private colleges and universities—but no one else—in APCo territory to use PPAs to install a maximum of 7 MW of renewable energy.

Meanwhile, Secure Futures has developed a third-party-ownership business model that it says works like a PPA for tax purposes but does not include the sale of electricity. This allows the company to install larger projects in more parts of Virginia (including most recently a 1.3 MW solar array to be installed at Carilion New River Valley Medical Center in Southwest Virginia, which I have to mention here because the project combines solar and sheep farming and therefore will make for cute photos). Currently Secure Futures is the only solar provider offering this option, which it calls a Customer Self-Generation Agreement.

  1. Tax exemption for third-party owned solar

In 2014 the General Assembly passed a law exempting solar generating equipment “owned or operated by a business” from state and local taxation for installations up to 20 MW. It did this by classifying solar equipment as “pollution abatement equipment.” Note that this applies only to the equipment, not to the buildings or land underlying the installation, so real estate taxes aren’t affected.

The law was a response to a problem that local “machinery and tools” taxes were mostly so high as to make third-party PPAs uneconomic in Virginia. In a state where solar was already on the margin, the tax could be a deal-breaker.

The 20 MW cap was included at the request of the Virginia Municipal League and the Virginia Association of Counties, and it seemed at the time like such a high cap as to be irrelevant. However, with solar increasingly attractive economically, Virginia’s tax exemption rapidly became a draw for solar developers, including Virginia utilities.

In 2016 Dominion proposed changing the exemption to benefit its own projects at the expense of those of independent developers. In the end, the statute was amended in a way that benefits utility-scale projects without unduly harming smaller projects. Many new projects will now be only 80% exempt, rather than entirely exempt. However, the details are complex, with different timelines and different size classes, and anyone looking to use this provision should study it carefully.

  1. Dominion-owned distributed solar

In 2011, the General Assembly passed a law allowing Dominion to build up to 30 MW of solar energy on leased property, such as roof space on a college or commercial establishment. The demonstration program was intended to help Dominion learn about grid integration. The SCC approved $80 million of spending, to be partially offset by selling the RECs (meaning the solar energy would not be used to meet Virginia’s RPS goals). The “Solar Partnership Program” resulted in several commercial-scale projects on university campuses and corporate buildings, but the program did not offer any economic advantages, and it seems to have fizzled out. The new Dominion Energy web page still mentions it, but currently the link does not lead to more information.

  1. Dominion Solar Purchase Program

The same legislation that enabled the “Solar Partnership” initiative also authorized Dominion to establish “an alternative to net metering” as part of the demonstration program. The alternative is a buy-all, sell-all deal for up to 3 MW of customer-owned solar. As approved by the SCC, the program allows owners of small solar systems on homes and businesses to sell the power and the associated RECs to Dominion at 15 cents/kWh, while buying regular grid power at retail for their own use. Dominion then sells the power to the Green Power Program at a hefty markup. It is not clear whether the program continues to be available; the links on the new Dominion Energy website don’t lead anywhere helpful.

I ripped this program from the perspective of the Green Power Program buyers, but many installers also feel it is a bad deal for customers, given the costs involved and the likelihood that the payments represent taxable income. Finally, selling the electricity may make new system owners ineligible for the 30% federal tax credit on the purchase of the system.

  1. Utility renewable energy tariffs for large customers

In May of this year, Dominion applied to the SCC for permission to offer six new voluntary schedules for customers with a peak demand of at least 1,000 kW (1 MW). The tariff would use a mix of sources that count as renewable under the Virginia Code but still pollute, including biomass—making it only sort-of green.

For large customers that want wind and solar, the options are more limited. In 2013, Dominion Power introduced a Renewable Generation Tariff to allow customers to buy renewable power from providers, with the utility acting as a go-between and collecting a monthly administrative fee. The program was poorly designed and got no takers.

In 2015, Amazon Web Services made Dominion’s RG tariff irrelevant. Amazon contracted directly with a developer for an 80 MW solar farm, avoiding Dominion’s monopoly restrictions with a plan to sell the electricity directly into the PJM (wholesale) market. Dominion Energy (the merchant affiliate of Dominion Virginia Power) then bought the project, and Dominion Virginia Power negotiated a special rate with Amazon for the power. This contract became the basis for an “experimental” tariff that Dominion now offers to customers with a peak demand of 5 MW or more, with a program cap of 200 MW.

Since that first deal, Dominion and Amazon have followed up with contracts for an additional 180 MW of solar in five Virginia counties.

Dominion used a different model for a deal with Microsoft. After the SCC turned down Dominion’s application to charge ratepayers for a 20-MW solar farm in Remington, Virginia, Dominion reached an agreement with Microsoft and the Commonwealth of Virginia under which the state will buy the output of the project, while Microsoft buys the RECs.

Dominion has also entered into a contract to sell the output of a 17 MW solar facility to the University of Virginia and the Darden School of Business.

Dominion has a strong incentive to make deals with large institutions that want a lot of renewable energy: if they don’t like what Dominion is offering, they can do an end run around the utility. Amazon has shown other companies how to use PJM rules that let anyone develop projects for the wholesale market regardless of utility monopolies, and then “attribute” the solar or wind energy to their operations in any state. With the tax exemption discussed in section 11, Virginia projects apparently now pencil out pretty well.

Some observers caution that the process is still not easy. One of the tasks the Rubin Group says it plans to take on this year is considering further changes to help large customers.

  1. Dominion continues to add utility-scale solar for its own portfolio

Even before Amazon and Microsoft showed an interest in large-scale solar projects here, Dominion had announced it wanted to develop 400 MW of solar in Virginia. In 2015, two bills promoted the construction of utility-scale solar by declaring it in the public interest for utilities to build solar energy projects of at least 1 MW, and up to an aggregate of 500 MW. The bill was amended at the solar industry’s behest to allow utilities the alternative of entering into PPAs for solar power prior to purchasing the generation facilities at a later date, an option with significant tax advantages.

Dominion got off to a rocky start when the SCC rejected the company’s plan to charge ratepayers for its first project, a 20 MW solar farm in Remington, Virginia because the company had not considered cheaper third-party alternatives. Governor McAuliffe helped save the project by working out a deal with Microsoft, as discussed above. Further projects fared better, however, and Dominion is now so enthusiastic about solar that its latest Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) calls for it to engage in a continuous build-out at a rate of 240 MW per year, all for the benefit of its regular ratepayers.

Although Dominion will be able to charge ratepayers for these projects, the SCC will probably insist that the RECs be sold—whether to utilities in other states that have RPS obligations, or to customers who want them for their own sustainability goals, or perhaps even to voluntary green power customers. If this happens, the result will be that Dominion still won’t use solar to meet the Virginia RPS, and ordinary customers will still not have solar as part of the electricity they pay for. That’s the weird world of RECs for you.

  1. Governor McAuliffe initiates program to purchase 110 MW of solar

Following a recommendation by the Governor’s Climate Change and Resiliency Commission, on December 21, 2015, Governor McAuliffe announced that the Commonwealth would commit to procuring 8% of its electricity from solar, with 75% of that built by Dominion and 25% by private developers.

The first deal that will count towards this goal is an 18 MW project at Naval Station Oceana, announced on August 2, 2016. The Commonwealth will buy the power and the RECs. (The Remington Project did not count, because as the buyer of the RECs, only Microsoft can claim the right to be buying solar power.) A 17 MW solar farm supplying the University of Virginia will also count towards the 8%, according to Deputy Secretary of Commerce and Trade Hayes Framme.

  1. Still waiting for wind

No Virginia utility is actively moving forward with a wind farm on land. Dominion Power’s website used to list 248 MW of land-based wind in Virginia as “under development,” without any noticeable progress. The current web page omits mention of these projects.

On the other hand, Appalachian Power’s most recent IRP suggests an interest in wind as a low-cost renewable resource. The bad news is that it isn’t proposing to build any new wind in Virginia.

With no utility buyers, Virginia has not been a friendly place for independent wind developers. In previous years a few wind farm proposals made it to the permitting stage before being abandoned, including in Highland County and on Poor Mountain near Roanoke.

Nonetheless, Apex Clean Energy has obtained a permit to develop a 75-MW Rocky Forge wind farm in Botetourt County. No customer has been announced, but the company believes the project can produce electricity at a competitive price, given its good location and improved turbine technology. Construction, once planned for this year, is now slated for 2018.

As for Virginia’s great offshore wind resource, little progress has been made towards harnessing it, even as the nation’s first offshore wind project began generating electricity in the waters off Rhode Island last year. Dominion won the federal auction for the right to develop about 2,000 MW of wind power off Virginia Beach in 2013, and the company has completed a Site Assessment Plan (SAP) that is awaiting approval.

We had originally been told the federal government’s timeline would lead to wind turbines being built off Virginia Beach around 2020. Now, however, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management says Dominion has five years from approval of the SAP to submit its construction and operations plan, after which we’ll have to wait for review and approval. Presumably the project will also require an environmental impact statement. So the whole process would be quite slow even if Dominion were committed to moving forward expeditiously.

But in fact, it seems increasingly clear that Dominion is just going through the motions and has little interest in seeing the project through. Its 2017 Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) does not even include offshore wind in any of its scenarios for the next 15 years, except for the 12 MW that would be produced by the two test turbines of its VOWTAP project.

Yes, so what about VOWTAP? Dominion had been part of a Department of Energy-funded team to try out new technology, with two pilot turbines due to be installed in 2017. After a second round of bids to build the project still came in higher than expected, Dominion told DOE last spring it could not commit to construction even by 2020, upon which DOE pulled funding. Dominion executives have not declared the project dead, however, and while there has been no public discussion of reviving it, the 2017 IRP suggests an in-service date of 2021.

[Update: on July 10, 2017, Dominion announced it had signed a memorandum of understanding with Denmark-based DONG Energy, one of the largest offshore wind developers in Europe, to complete the two pilot turbines. According to a Dominion press release, the MOU also gives DONG “the exclusive rights to discuss a strategic partnership with Dominion Energy about developing the commercial site based on successful deployment of the initial test turbines.”]

  1. The EPA Clean Power Plan is (probably) dead; long live the McAuliffe clean energy plan!

The Trump administration’s pullback on the Paris accord and the Clean Power Plan are depressing evidence that the Koch brothers have more influence on government than the American people do. Yet the practical effect in Virginia is small. The Clean Power Plan’s targets for Virginia were modest to a fault, and the state could have written an implementation plan that complied with the federal law while still allowing construction of an unlimited number of new gas-burning plants, sending total carbon emissions soaring.

Governor McAuliffe’s recent Executive Directive 11, on the other hand, ties emissions reductions from Virginia power plants to those in other states that have committed to reducing carbon emissions, leaving somewhat less room for mischief in implementation. There are still plenty of pitfalls ahead, and some Republican leaders have vowed to prevent it from ever taking effect. But any constraints on greenhouse gas emissions would serve to increase the value of emissions-free sources like wind and solar. The DEQ web page will show public participation opportunities.

  1. Solar initiatives underway ahead of the 2018 Session

The legislative initiatives that passed in 2017 dealt primarily with utility-scale solar. Since then, the solar industry has announced plans to focus more on removing barriers to distributed generation, a decided challenge given the utilities’ determination to curtail net metering.

The utilities and the solar industry have reconvened solar policy discussions via the Rubin Group, named for its moderator, Mark Rubin. Steering committee members this year include the electric cooperatives, Dominion, APCo, the solar industry trade group MDV-SEIA, the farm advocate Powered by Facts, the environmental group Southern Environmental Law Center, and the Virginia Manufacturer’s Association. The Rubin Group held a meeting on June 19 to get input from other stakeholders, and a follow-up email announced plans for the following subgroups:

  • Large Customer  (Convener: Katharine Bond, Dominion Energy, with Advanced Energy Economy, Ceres, and World Wildlife Fund as Key Participants)
  • Large Developer/Utility-Scale Solar (Convener: Francis Hodsoll, SolUnesco & MDV-SEIA Board Member)
  • Net Metering (Co-Conveners: Sam Brumberg, Virginia’s Electric Cooperatives & Scott Thomasson, Vote Solar & MDV-SEIA Board Member)
  • Land Use (Convener: Karen Schaufeld, Powered by Facts)
  • Community Solar Implementation for Dominion Energy (Conveners: Katharine Bond & Nate Frost, Dominion Energy)

The Rubin Group will accept comments at RubinGroup2017@gmail.com. [Update: Although this was the email address given out at the public meeting, we have learned it goes to Sam Brumberg, attorney for the electric cooperatives, who says he checks it only a few times per month. He recommends contacting Mark Rubin directly at rubin.mark3@gmail.com.]

A separate initiative is the Virginia Distributed Solar Alliance, which includes solar companies, environmental groups, consumers and solar advocates, but not utilities. As its name suggests, it focuses on removing barriers to smaller-scale, customer-sited projects, defending net metering and educating the public about the added benefits distributed solar bring to the grid and the community. The VA-DSA recently launched its website and is welcoming members.

 

 

Does Dominion buy votes? Sure, but not the way you think.

By Djembayz – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=26128831

Observers, critics, and even legislators agree that utility giant Dominion Resources is the single most powerful force in the Virginia General Assembly. It gets the legislation passed that it wants, and it almost always succeeds in killing bills it doesn’t like. Media stories point out one reason for this huge influence: the company gives more money to political campaigns than does any other individual or corporation.

But it’s more complicated than that. Dominion distributes its largesse among Republicans and Democrats alike according to rank and power, not according to party affiliation, and not according to how they vote. Legislators stay on the gravy train even when they occasionally vote against Dominion’s interests. (No lawmaker consistently votes against Dominion’s interests. That would be weird. It is, after all, a utility.)

In the General Assembly, the most money goes to members of the Senate and House Commerce and Labor Committees, which hear most of the bills affecting energy policy. But Dominion also donates to the campaigns of nearly every incumbent lawmaker, regardless of committee assignment. It does not, however, donate to their challengers. Only to the victors go the spoils.

So today let’s look at some of the lucky recipients of Dominion’s money. This information comes from the Virginia Public Access Project, vpap.org, supplemented by information available on the General Assembly website. 

Legislators whose campaigns have received more than $50,000 from Dominion (lifetime)

Recipient Party District number and region Total $ from Dominion 2014-2015 election cycle
Sen. Saslaw D 35  NoVa (Fairfax/Falls Church) 298,008 57,500
Del. Kilgore R 1    Southwest 162,000 35,000
Sen. Deeds D 25   Piedmont 109,700 1,500
Sen. Norment R 3    Middle Peninsula/Tidewater 107,740 21,500
Del. Cox* R 66   Central 90,799 29,099
Sen. Wagner R 7    Tidewater 79,735 26,885
Del. Plum** D 36   NoVa 78,750 4,000
Del. Hugo R 40  NoVa 54,400 11,000
Sen. Obenshain R 26  Shenandoah Valley 51,000 5,000

Notes:

  • Lifetime totals may include more than one campaign committee. Creigh Deeds collected money for Delegate, Senate, AG and Governor’s races, which explains how he racked up this much in donations; he was also formerly a member of Commerce and Labor, but by 2014 he’d been removed from the committee.
  • I chose 2014-2015 as a single election cycle comparison because both House and Senate seats were up that year.
  • *Cox is not on Commerce and Labor but is House Majority Leader, a position that propelled him into the ranks of top Dominion recipients.
  • **Plum is a former member of House Commerce and Labor and currently a member of the Commission on Electric Utility Regulation. (Other Commission members include Delegates Kilgore, Hugo, Miller, Villanueva and James; and Senators Norment, Lucas, Saslaw and Wagner.)

Saslaw, Kilgore, Norment, Wagner, Hugo and Obenshain all sit on the Commerce and Labor committees that hear most of the bills affecting Dominion’s business dealings. Wagner chairs Senate C&L and runs it as his personal fiefdom; Saslaw did the same when Democrats held the Senate. He will be Chairman again if control switches back. In addition to sitting on Senate C&L, Norment is the Senate Majority Leader.

Kilgore chairs House C&L, and like Wagner, he controls not just the docket but usually the outcome of votes. Hugo is House Majority Caucus Chairman in addition to being a member of C&L.

These powerful men (they are all men, and all white) get the biggest donations, but anyone with a seat on the committee can expect to collect donations from Dominion.

Dominion donations to Commerce and Labor Committee members

Senate

Senator Party District number and region Total $ from Dominion 2014-2015 election cycle
Wagner (Chair) R 7  Tidewater 81,985 26,885
Saslaw (former Chair, Minority Leader) D 35  NoVa (Fairfax/Falls Church) 298,008 57,500
Norment R 3    Middle Peninsula to Tidewater 107,740 21,500
Newman R 23 Roanoke area 20,500 3,000
Obenshain R 26  Shenandoah Valley 51,000 5,000
Stuart R 28  Fredericksburg area 20,750 6,000
Stanley R 20  Southside 19,500 9,000
Cosgrove R 14  Tidewater 7,000 2,000
Chafin R 38  Southwest 10,500 6,500
Dance D 16  Central 25,692 9,000
Lucas D 18  Tidewater 31,950 5,200
McDougle R 4    Central 47,250 10,000
Black R 13  NoVa (outer suburbs) 9,750 1,000
Sturtevant* R 10  Central 4,000
Spruill D 5    Tidewater 35,419 4,200

*Sturtevant joined the Senate in 2016.

House Commerce and Labor Special Subcommittee on Energy

Delegate Party District number, region Total $ from Dominion 2014-2015 cycle
Kilgore (Chair) R 1    Southwest 162,000 (top) 35,000
Byron R 22  Southwest 24,500 4,000
Ware, L. R 65  Central 26,800 4,000
Hugo R 40  NoVa 54,400 11,000
Marshall, D.W. R 14  Southside 20,250 5,000
Cline R 24  West (Lexington area) 13,750 3,000
Miller, J R 50  NoVa (western suburbs) 29,000 7,500
Loupassi R 68  Central 20,000 5,000
Habeeb R 8    Southwest 12,500 5,000
Villanueva R 21  Tidewater 11,000 3,500
Tyler D 75  Southside 17,000 4,000
Keam D 35  NoVa 8,750 2,750
Lindsey D 90  Tidewater 3,300 2,300

Other House Commerce and Labor members (not on energy subcommittee)

Delegate Party District number, region Total $ from Dominion 2014-2015 cycle
Bell, Robert B. R 58  Piedmont 14,500 3,500
Farrell* R 56  Central 0 0
O’Quinn R 5    Southwest 6,500 3,000
Yancey R 94  Tidewater 10,000 3,500
Ransone R 99  Northern Neck 8,500 2,500
Ward, J D 92  Tidewater 23,500 5,000
Filler-Corn D 41  NoVa 10,500 3,000
Kory D 38  NoVa 6,250 1,000
Bagby D 74  Central 2,000 1,000
  • Names appear in the order they are listed on the General Assembly website for each committee. In the Senate, this reflects seniority; in the House, Republicans come first, and then seniority.
  • *Peter Farrell is the son of Thomas Farrell, II, CEO of Dominion Resources. He gets no cash from Dominion and abstains on votes that directly affect the utility. Those who worry that the family relationship might keep him off the gravy train will be relieved to know his dear old dad gives his campaign $10,000 a year, and more than a dozen other top Dominion executives also pitch in hundreds or thousands of dollars apiece annually to make sure he stays on the public payroll.

Compared to whom?

One problem with singling out Dominion is that it is only the biggest and most conspicuous player of the influence game. It has plenty of company. Appalachian Power Company (APCo) also donates generously to legislators in leadership positions and those on C&L. And our utilities are not exceptions. Richmond is awash in corporate cash.

So let’s look at Appalachian Power Company’s top dozen Senate and House recipients in 2014-2015. We can compare these amounts to what these guys (all men again) received from Dominion and Altria, another large Virginia company that isn’t in the utility business. And just for fun, I’ve added columns showing donations from the solar industry trade group MDV-SEIA and the environmental group Sierra Club.

Recipient Party APCo Dominion Altria MDV-SEIA** Sierra Club***
Sen. Saslaw D 20,000 57,500 27,500 1,000 0
Sen. McDougle R 15,000 10,000 26,500 0 0
Sen. Wagner R 12,500 26,885 10,500 2,500 0
Sen. Norment R 12,500 21,500 35,000 2,500 0
Del. Hugo R 10,000 11,000 2,500 500 0
Del. Cox R 10,000 29,099 0 0 0
Del. Kilgore R 7,500 35,000 2,000 0 0
Del. Miller R 6,500 7,500 2,000 0 0
Sen. Alexander* D 4,500 5,000 1,500 0 0
Del. Habeeb R 4,000 5,000 500 0 0
Sen. Obenshain R 2,500 5,000 1,000 0 0
Sen. Stanley R 3,600 9,000 6,000 0 0
  • *Kenny Alexander was a member of Senate Commerce and Labor in 2014 and 2015.
  • **MDV-SEIA donated to only five candidates in the 2014-2015 election cycle. In addition to the contributions shown, the association gave $2,500 to Delegate Villanueva.
  • ***Sierra Club-Va. Chapter made a total of $33,410 in campaign contributions during the 2014-2015 election cycle, but very few of its recipients sit on Commerce & Labor. Of those who do, Delegate Villanueva received the largest donation, $200. Sierra Club Legislative Director Corrina Beall notes that “most of Sierra Club’s donations are in-kind donations rather than cash donations. Our contributions are made in staff time spent communicating with our members and supporters about candidates who we have endorsed.”

What do you get if you’re not a big shot or on C&L?

Dominion gives to almost everyone; after all, bills that pass committee still have to go to the floor. I chose half a dozen lesser-known delegates at random to compare to the Commerce and Labor committee members. All have been in the General Assembly for at least six years.

Here’s what they got for the 2014-2015 legislative cycle. I threw in APCo and Altria for comparison.

$ From Dominion $ From APCo $ from Altria
Anderson, R (R) 2,000 275 1,000
Edmunds, J   (R) 1,500 0 1,000
Knight, B (R) 3,500 1,275 1,000
McQuinn, D (D) 3,750 1,500 500
Watts, V (D) 2,000 500 1,000
Helsel, G (R)* 0 0 1,000
  • *Helsel received $2,500 from Dominion in 2011-2012 but nothing since, and has never received money from APCo.

So the little people did about as well as the C&L members who aren’t on the energy subcommittee, but less well than the subcommittee members.

What does the money buy?

Legislators swear they don’t allow the money to influence their votes. And yet it seems obvious that donors expect that very thing. There’s a clear gap between what the donors think their money buys, and what legislators think they give in return. You might call this the “credibility gap.” And yet as I’ve observed before, if a few thousand bucks is enough to buy a vote, then the real scandal isn’t that legislators can be bought, but that they can be bought so cheaply. Obviously, there is more to it.

Defenders of unlimited campaign contributions like to think donors give money to candidates whose views they share, or to lawmakers who have done a good job in office and need the money to win election and continue doing a fabulous job. That seems to describe Sierra Club’s approach, but it certainly doesn’t describe Dominion’s. Dominion gives money to everyone, and almost none of the recipients need the money to stay in office.

According to VPAP, more than 50% of Virginia legislators ran unopposed during the last election. Only 10% of members had races that could be described as anything close to competitive (defined as a margin of less than 10%). Even if you totally approve of the job these legislators are doing, you don’t need to give them money to make sure they keep their seats. The only purpose of contributions to these members is to buy influence by helping them build power.

House Commerce and Labor Chairman Terry Kilgore, for example, has not had an opponent since 2007, when he took 72% of the vote. Yet since 2008, he has collected $135,500 from Dominion, among almost $2 million in contributions from all sources.

What does he do with all that money? VPAP shows that during the 2014-2015 season he spent some $80,000 on staff and political consultants, $50,000 on legal and accounting, $35,000 on fundraising (hello?), $23,000 on something called “Community Goodwill,” $22,000 on mail, printing and postage, $12,000 on “Legislative Session,” $11,000 on travel and meals, $28,000 on advertising, signage, and phone calls, and another $15,000 or so on other campaign-related things. All this for a part-time legislator running unopposed.

But the biggest expense Kilgore reported was not for his campaign, but for the campaigns of fellow Republicans. Donations to other candidates and party committees in 2014 and 2015 added up to about $174,000. Dominion’s money indirectly helps candidates who might have competitive campaigns; directly, it helps Kilgore build power and influence for himself.

We could do a similar analysis on the Democratic side with Senator Saslaw, who draws at least token opposition in every election but has never won by less than a 17-point margin. He still collected over a million dollars in campaign contributions in 2014-2015, and spent all but a fraction of it on donations to party committees and other candidates.

In both cases, and for all the other top recipients of Dominion’s cash, the campaign donations have nothing to do with candidates getting elected, and everything to do with securing the loyalty of legislative power brokers who, by doling out money themselves, can deliver the votes on Dominion-backed bills when needed. Rank-and-file legislators don’t vote for a Dominion bill because they got a $1,000 donation. They vote for a bill when their party leader tells them to, especially when that leader can remind them he’s helped direct tens of thousands of dollars to their campaigns.

And then there’s this troubling aspect . . .

I’d be remiss not to mention one other peculiarity of Virginia election law, which is that candidates are not prohibited from using campaign money for personal expenses. The Washington Post ran a series of outraged editorials about this a few years ago that is worth looking up (I wrote about it here). This same practice cost now-Vice President Mike Pence an election way back in 1990, when records showed Pence used campaign donations to pay his mortgage and other personal expenses. But here in Virginia, the Post’s revelations about Delegate Hugo paying his cell phone bills with campaign money produced neither repercussions nor changes in the law.

Some legislators introduce legislation every year to ban the use of campaign cash for private gain; every year it fails in an unrecorded subcommittee vote. See, e.g., Delegate Marcus Simon’s HB 1446 this year.

Why doesn’t anyone turn down the money?

It’s pretty hard to find legislators who don’t take Dominion’s money. The vast majority who do includes Senator Chap Petersen, who made news this year first by calling for a repeal of the 2015 boondoggle that will net Dominion a billion-dollar windfall at customer expense, and when that bill failed (in Senate Commerce & Labor, ahem), by calling for a ban on campaign contributions from public service corporations like Dominion. Petersen received $2,500 from Dominion in the 2014-2015 cycle, and another $1,000 in 2016. Of course, that was before the 2017 session brouhaha.

One legislator who has sworn off Dominion’s money is Delegate Rip Sullivan, an Arlington Democrat known for his bills to improve Virginia’s dismal achievements on energy efficiency—bills that Dominion opposes when they come before Commerce and Labor. (The only efficiency bill that passed this year is one from Senator Dance that merely requires tracking of energy efficiency progress. Sullivan’s identical House bill was killed in the House energy subcommittee.)

I asked Sullivan why he doesn’t take Dominion’s money. I liked his answer so much that I’ll give him the last word:

“I have very publicly made clear from the day I announced for the HOD that I would not take any money from Dominion. I have been equally clear that a major part of my agenda in RVA relates to climate and renewable energy–as you know, I’ve introduced numerous bills on renewable energy tax credits, community solar, energy efficiency, etc. . . .

“I have also made clear that I understand the reality that to make progress on these issues in the GA I will need to interact and hopefully work with Dominion. And I have tried to establish and maintain relationships there to hopefully facilitate dialogue, understanding and hopefully progress on environmental issues. But I never want there to be any question about where–or with whom–I stand on these issues, and I don’t want anyone questioning my motives or actions with any suggestion about getting money from Dominion. And, of course, I want Dominion to understand that I am not beholden to them in any way. Frankly, it’s just cleaner (pardon the pun) to not take Dominion money, and shame on me if I can’t find somewhere else anyway to raise the thousand bucks they’d give me.”

Dominion Power defends its billion-dollar handout from ratepayers; squashes dissent; asks for more.

DominionLogoA Senate committee quickly killed SB 1095, a bill introduced by Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax) that could have brought an early end to a five-year prohibition on regulators’ ability to review Dominion Virginia Power’s earnings and to order refunds where warranted. The prohibition, passed two years ago as part of 2015’s SB 1349 (Frank Wagner, R-Virginia Beach), will mean as much as a billion dollars in extra cash to the utility—money that would otherwise be returned to customers.

After losing the vote on SB 1095 in Senate Commerce and Labor, Petersen introduced SB 1593, a bill that would have prohibited campaign contributions from public service corporations like Dominion Power. He was forced to withdraw the bill when Senate leaders complained he had filed it late.

Score two for Dominion. But in case you thought the utility giant might choose to lie low for a while, consider another of this year’s bills: HB 2291 (Terry Kilgore, R-Gate City). The legislation allows Dominion to seek approval to charge customers for billions of dollars in nuclear power plant upgrades. Kilgore has collected $162,000 in campaign contributions from Dominion’s parent company over the years, even though he represents an area of the state that is not served by Dominion Virginia Power (meaning it won’t be his constituents paying for his bill). Astoundingly, the bill passed the House of Delegates with only two dissenting votes (cast by Mark Keam, D-Vienna, and Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke).

Obviously, there is a pattern here. It actually began at least as far back as 2014, when another Kilgore-sponsored bill passed allowing Dominion to shift onto its customers several hundred million dollars of nuclear development costs that otherwise would not have been recovered for many years, if ever. The legislation inspired much criticism, but little action.

Taken together, these legislative giveaways add up to enormous sums of money. The 2015 legislation involved as much as a billion dollars in customer payments that exceed the profit margin allowed by the State Corporation Commission, according to an estimate offered by one commissioner. In the absence of SB 1349, Dominion would likely have had to issue refunds, lower rates, or both.

At the time, Dominion claimed that the EPA’s proposed Clean Power Plan would impose huge costs on ratepayers unless the General Assembly acted to stop base rates from rising. Legislators weren’t told the real effect of SB 1349 would be to keep base rates from falling. And meanwhile, customers’ utility bills could continue to rise because base rates make up only a portion of monthly bills.

Petersen’s bill this year took notice of the fact that the Clean Power Plan is now highly unlikely to take effect. SB 1095 would have reinstated the SCC’s authority to review rates if and when the Clean Power Plan was deemed truly dead. This misses the mark only in being way too generous to Dominion. As the SCC has pointed out, the review freeze period will be over before the Clean Power Plan is slated to take effect, so SB 1349 could not possibly protect ratepayers from compliance costs anyway.

SB 1349 is currently being challenged in court as an unconstitutional abrogation of the SCC’s power. Two former Attorneys General, Republican Ken Cuccinelli and Democrat Andy Miller, have weighed in on the side of consumers. The current Attorney General, Democrat Mark Herring, was harshly critical of the bill when it was before the General Assembly, but now says he is obligated to defend the law.

SB 1349 passed the General Assembly two years ago amid great confusion about what was in the bill and what it all meant. Legislators padded it out with modest solar-energy and energy-efficiency provisions to make it palatable to skeptical Democrats and ensure it would be signed by Governor McAuliffe.

But this year, legislators have no such excuse. They cannot have missed the torrent of criticism the law inspired, or the point that Dominion won’t spend a dime of its ill-gotten gain on compliance with the Clean Power Plan. It is hard to see the 9-2 vote in Commerce and Labor to kill Petersen’s SB 1095 as anything but a blatant, bipartisan gift to Dominion. (The dissenting votes came from Republicans Dick Black and Stephan Newman.)

Dominion’s corrosive effect on Virginia politics is one of the main threads of a book published last year called Virginia Politics & Government in a New Century: The Price of Power. Author Jeff Thomas outlines a whole host of ways in which Virginia politics have become mired in corruption. SB 1349 is Exhibit A.

Now the unearned largesse for Dominion—and the ignominious end to Senator Petersen’s effort to rein in Dominion’s influence—have become an issue in this year’s governor’s race. Republicans Denver Riggleman and Corey Stewart and Democrat Tom Perriello are all taking aim at the connection between Dominion’s campaign spending and the billion-dollar boondoggle it received from SB 1349. If Kilgore’s HB 2291 passes the Senate this month, they will have another example on which to build their case that Dominion’s campaign donations have corrupted Virginia’s legislative process.

Legislators themselves publicly reject the idea of a causal relationship between the steady stream of campaign cash and their votes in favor of the bills, while privately acknowledging the sway Dominion holds over the General Assembly. Indeed, the comfortable fiction that campaign donations don’t affect a politician’s votes is such an insult to voters’ intelligence that the wonder is why it took so many years to become a campaign issue.

Given Wagner and Kilgore’s leadership roles in the Republican-controlled House and Senate, the issue might not seem like obvious fodder for the Republican primary campaign. Of course, Wagner is also running for governor on the Republican ticket, so the assaults of challengers Riggleman and Stewart might simply be tactics designed to undermine the competition. If voters respond, though, we can expect to hear a lot more discussion of government corruption.

In today’s chaotic political environment, Democrats who don’t speak out could find themselves under fire, too. Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam, the other Democrat running for Governor, has accepted over $97,000 from Dominion since 2008, according to VPAP.org, and so far seems not to have joined the chorus of voices criticizing Dominion’s influence.

The anti-corporate sentiments that fueled Bernie Sanders’ campaign have only intensified with Donald Trump’s embrace of bankers and oil barons. Democratic voters today are less likely than ever to forgive leaders of their own party for cozying up to big corporations. If either Democratic candidate for governor cedes the issue of clean government to the other—or to Republicans—this might be the election in which it matters.

McAuliffe’s bright new energy plan still has that rotten-egg smell

Students protesting the new state motto.

Students protesting the new state motto.

Earlier this week, Virginia Secretary of Commerce and Trade Todd Haymore published an op-ed in the Roanoke Times boasting of the Commonwealth’s achievements on energy. It was a sad reminder that Virginia has trouble moving beyond “all of the above,” a phrase that seems to have become the state motto. But then on Wednesday, the McAuliffe Administration released a cheerful new version of the Virginia Energy Plan that reads like an extended love poem to solar power.

Haymore’s column more accurately reflects this Administration’s approach to energy: a lot of fracked gas, tricked out with bright snippets of solar. But I much prefer the Energy Plan. The entire first third of it is given over to trumpeting Virginia’s progress on developing solar energy. Though the amount of solar installed to date is still tiny, Virginia solar has terrific momentum, and McAuliffe can rightly claim a share of the credit.

The Plan also touches briefly on onshore wind (thanks to a single project from Apex Clean Energy), offshore wind power (nothing to see here, folks, move along), and an array of modest-yet-promising energy efficiency initiatives.

But the Energy Plan has its darker moments, too. If McAuliffe is in love with solar, he is still married to fossil fuels. The Plan continues to promote fracked gas infrastructure like Dominion’s Atlantic Coast pipeline, and insists that flooding the Commonwealth with natural gas is the key to economic prosperity.

Natural gas sneaks into other parts of the Energy Plan as well. The section on alternative fuel vehicles shows a preference for natural gas-fueled vehicles over electric vehicles, bucking the nationwide trend toward EVs. It’s another discouraging indication of just how powerful utility giant Dominion Resources has become in Virginia. Though we think of it as an electric utility, Dominion is a much bigger player in the gas world. You can run an EV on solar, but a natural gas vehicle commits you to fracking.

Locking us into natural gas in all parts of our lives serves Dominion’s purposes very well. But for Virginia, it means considerable pain down the road. With the world finally committed to tackling global warming, our failure to cut carbon now will mean deeper cuts forced on us later.

The Energy Plan does contain a short discussion of the need to fight climate change, but it fails to acknowledge the tension between embracing gas and cutting carbon. The Plan assures us that “Regardless of the outcome of litigation involving the [EPA’s Clean Power Plan], the Governor will work to identify a path toward further reducing Virginia’s carbon emissions and shifting to greater utilization of clean energy to power the Commonwealth economy.” But no hints follow as to how McAuliffe expects to accomplish this while expanding the use of a carbon-emitting resource like natural gas.

We’ve already seen that McAuliffe is capable of holding two contradictory thoughts in his head at the same time. The Governor frequently asserts that climate change is an urgent problem, then in the same breath brags that he persuaded EPA to soften Virginia’s targets under the Clean Power Plan to make compliance easier. He repeats this claim in the Energy Plan, and seems to expect applause.

Knowledgeable observers say EPA softened some initial state targets and tightened others to make the final Clean Power Plan more legally defensible. Regardless, for a man who believes in climate change, McAuliffe’s boast is exasperating. It’s like announcing you pulled off a bank heist when the evidence points to an inside job. Well-wishers can only cringe.

McAuliffe has a little more than a year left in the single term Virginia allows its governors. Here’s hoping he uses it to commit the Commonwealth more firmly to the solar energy he so loves, along with the other essentials of the 21st century energy economy: wind power, battery storage, and energy efficiency. That should make it easier to break with natural gas. Sure, fracked gas looks cheap today, but cheap is not the stuff of legacies.


*On a purely tangential note, Haymore’s column isn’t helped by the editing habits of the Roanoke Times. Like many newspapers these days, the Roanoke Times seems to believe its readers can’t handle full paragraphs. It presents almost all of the Secretary’s short sentences as separate paragraphs, as though insisting that each one should be mulled over individually. The result puts me in mind of the slips of paper inside Chinese fortune cookies, if the fortunes had been written by guys working for energy companies. (That is not, frankly, something I would like to see.)

Virginia, meet Paris. Things will never be the same.

By Tristan Nitot - standblog.org, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41689

By Tristan Nitot – standblog.org, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41689

After Republicans in Virginia’s General Assembly shut down the McAuliffe administration’s work on implementing the EPA Clean Power Plan last winter, Governor McAuliffe decided on an end run. He issued Executive Order 57, directing administration officials to recommend ways to reduce carbon pollution from the state’s power plants. The workgroup led by Secretary of Natural Resources Molly Ward is holding meetings this fall to gather information and advice.

This puts Ward in something of a pickle. Meeting the climate challenge requires Virginia to commit to a future with less fossil fuel, while McAuliffe is championing Dominion Power’s plans to radically expand fossil fuel investments in the Commonwealth.

Last week the European Union joined the United States, China, India, Canada, Mexico and dozens of other countries in ratifying the Paris climate accord, putting it over the threshold needed for it to take effect. The goal of the accord is to limit the increase in world temperatures to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius, 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, a level beyond which climate effects are projected to be catastrophic. Given mounting concerns that 2 degrees isn’t sufficiently protective, the 197 signatory nations also agreed to a stretch goal of 1.5 degrees Celsius.

The U.S. is the world’s second highest emitter of CO2 after China, and our average emissions per person are two-and-a-half times that of the Chinese. No other country has contributed more to the problem. American leadership was key to bringing other countries on board, and it will be key to implementing solutions.

A few niggling details remain, like how we are actually going to do this. The EPA’s Clean Power Plan is a first step, but its scope is narrow. It addresses only carbon emissions from electric generating plants in use as of 2012, not new sources (though states can choose to do that). It doesn’t address emissions outside the electric sector. It also doesn’t address methane emissions from natural gas infrastructure, a climate threat that seriously undercuts the climate benefit of utilities switching from coal to gas. Its goal of reducing electric-sector carbon pollution by 30% by 2030 is nowhere near what’s needed.

To meet its Paris commitment, the U.S. will have to dramatically reduce fossil fuel use in everything from electricity and heating to manufacturing and transportation. The good news is that the technologies to do this exist, and they are getting better and cheaper by the day. The bad news is that even an all-hands-on-deck approach would need time to work, and there are still way too many hands sitting idle in their bunks below deck.

Future federal regulation that goes well beyond the Clean Power Plan is inevitable. Through whatever means—a carbon tax, removal of fossil fuel subsidies, new incentives, or simple mandates—renewable energy has to take over the power sector, with fossil fuels limited to a supporting role before being phased out altogether. Building codes must be dramatically strengthened to minimize energy consumption, and transportation must be electrified so vehicles run on wind and solar, not gasoline or diesel. And all this has to happen starting now.

With the U.S. committed to this path, it makes no sense for any state to pursue a fossil fuel-heavy strategy simply because federal mandates aren’t in place yet. The ratification of the Paris accord means all new fossil fuel investments—drilling machinery, fracking wells, pipelines, generating plants—must be evaluated against the likelihood that they will have to be abandoned well before the end of their useful life.

In Virginia this includes proposed new fracked-gas transmission pipelines; a new natural gas generating station that Dominion Power just received approval to build; as much as 9,000 megawatts more of natural gas generating plants that Dominion wants to build; and at least two new natural gas generating plants proposed by other developers, who would use the new gas pipelines to supply them. Altogether, these projects represent tens of billions of dollars in investments in infrastructure that would have to be shut down and left to decay within a decade or two.

All this could happen without violating the Clean Power Plan, if Virginia takes advantage of a loophole allowing it to exclude new gas plants from its implementation plan. Dominion’s gas plants alone would increase carbon emissions from Virginia by as much as 83%. That won’t get us to Paris.

It seems obvious that these investments would be better channeled into carbon-free renewable energy and reducing energy use through efficiency and building improvements. These are the “no regrets” investments that make sense for human health and economic development reasons anyway. With the Paris accord, the decision has gone from no-regrets to no-brainer.

But Dominion clearly thinks a pipelines-and-gas-plants approach will make more money for its shareholders. Dominion is betting that regulators will allow it to bill customers for the costs of new fossil fuel infrastructure even if it turns out that using it means paying a high carbon tax, or not using it at all. Dominion counts on the prevalence of climate doubt and magical thinking within the Virginia legislature and the staff of the SCC to muffle the wake-up call from Paris.

This is a deeply irresponsible and immoral calculus.

To date, Governor McAuliffe has backed Dominion at every turn. With only a year and a half left in his term, the “jobs governor” wants to lure businesses to Virginia quickly with the promise of cheap natural gas. It’s a strategy that might backfire in the short run, as savvy businesses go to states better preparing for life after Paris. Surely, it will backfire in the long run, when Virginia is left paying off unwanted fossil fuel infrastructure. The Paris accord marks a good point for McAuliffe to change his allegiance.

Indeed, after Paris, nothing will ever be the same. The days of natural gas as a bridge fuel are rapidly ending, and the U.S. has committed itself to breaking from its fossil fuel past. Executive Order 57 offers Virginia an opportunity to map out a carbon-free strategy. Time is short. Allons-y!

Sierra Club scorecard plumbs divisions among Virginia legislators

SC ScorecardBy and large, Virginia Republicans are still locked in a fossil fuel echo chamber, where “all of the above” and “war on coal” guide their votes. Virginia Democrats mostly acknowledge the damage climate change is doing to the commonwealth and around the planet and support a course correction. And regardless of ideology, large majorities from both parties vote for whatever Dominion Power wants.

These are the major takeaways from this year’s legislative session and the 2016 Climate and Energy Scorecard, just released by the Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club. Constituents and clean energy advocates will want to look at not just the raw grades of individual legislators, but also the discussion provided in the report, to understand the dynamics of our General Assembly.

Twenty-eight Democrats earned perfect scores. All but a handful of Republicans earned failing grades. Sierra Club gave extra credit to legislators who introduced bills that advanced clean energy. This included several Republicans highlighted in the scorecard, but their bad votes on other bills dragged down their overall scores.

This is really a shame, since some Republicans have worked hard to advance clean energy legislation. Leesburg Delegate Randy Minchew comes to mind here for his dogged efforts on behalf of distributed solar energy, something you might not guess from his overall grade of D.

Often, it seems, reform-minded Republicans go along with their party’s more retrograde positions where they are pressured to do so by their party leaders, or where the votes are so lopsided that there is nothing to gain from breaking with the majority.

If party leaders have an outsize influence on voting, so too does Dominion Power. In fact, if you want to know who the true champions of the people are, don’t look at party affiliation. Look for the few legislators who will stand up to the most powerful political force in Richmond.

That assumes you can find votes to examine. In the introduction to the Sierra Club scorecard, Legislative Chair Susan Stillman noted with frustration this year’s paucity of recorded votes available to score:

The challenges of producing a fair and even scorecard are growing, as are the opportunities for Virginia citizens to have a clear and accurate picture of their elected representative’s voting record. Transparency in the General Assembly sunk to a new low this year: 95% of the bills defeated in the House of Delegates were done so on an unrecorded vote or no vote at all. This is not business-as-usual: just over a decade ago, nearly every bill that passed through the House received a recorded vote.

An ongoing problem, both for scorecard referees and for clean energy advocates, is that most bills that would advance the cause of renewable energy and energy efficiency never make it out of committee; in the House, the bills are heard in a tiny subcommittee. Not only do votes go unrecorded, but this approach deprives most of our elected representatives of the opportunity to vote on some of the most important energy policy issues facing Virginia.

And then there was this year, in which even the subcommittee members never got a chance to vote. A dozen or so of the most promising clean energy bills were never heard at all, but were sent to a newly-formed interim study subcommittee, ostensibly for the purpose of giving these bills the benefit of greater deliberation. The effect was to kill them quietly for the year.

As Stillman notes, all these unrecorded votes make it hard to know where the vast majority of legislators stand:

Without a recorded vote, the public is deprived of the full measure of his or her elected official’s voting history. And the problem of unrecorded votes is growing worse. This year’s unprecedented rate of unrecorded votes in the House is up from 76% in 2015—a 25% jump in one year. Virginia legislators are killing more bills than ever without accountability for their actions. This practice is wrong, and it’s dangerous for our democracy.

Stillman gives a shout-out to the founding members of the new, bipartisan Transparency Caucus for its efforts to make all votes public and ensure every bill gets a hearing.

These would be modest reforms, but welcome. If sunlight is the best disinfectant, there’s a big, dirty House (and Senate) in Richmond that need cleaning.

Inside the minds of Dominion’s leaders, vacant space where climate thinking should be

Climate activists protest outside Dominion Resources' May shareholder meeting in Columbia, SC. Photo credit Ian Ware, Chesapeake Climate Action Network.

Climate activists protest outside Dominion Resources’ May shareholder meeting in Columbia, SC. Photo credit Ian Ware, Chesapeake Climate Action Network.

At Dominion Resources’ annual May meeting, shareholders presented five resolutions designed to improve the company’s assessment of its opportunities and vulnerabilities on climate, renewable energy and nuclear power. The company’s Board opposed the resolutions and fought vigorously to keep them off the shareholder ballot. (All five failed.) Guest blogger Seth Heald attended the meeting and sent this report back.

Two senior Dominion Resources executives—Bob Blue and Thomas F. Farrell, II—gave speeches on consecutive days earlier this month. I’ll report here on what they said, but even more telling is what they failed to say. Neither man mentioned a critical topic for their company and our world: climate change.

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s short story Silver Blaze, Sherlock Holmes solves the kidnapping of a racehorse by focusing on what didn’t happen. A dog didn’t bark in the night when the crime was committed, suggesting that the perpetrator was friendly with the dog. As The New Yorker’s Maria Konnikova, author of How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes, describes Holmes’s insight: “pay attention to what isn’t there, not just what is. Absence is just as important and just as telling as presence.”

Here’s the context of the two Dominion speeches. Bob Blue, president of Dominion Resources’ Dominion Virginia Power (DVP) subsidiary, was the luncheon speaker on May 10 before several hundred people in Richmond at the Virginia Chamber of Commerce conference on “Energy, Sustainability & Resiliency.” Tom Farrell, Dominion Resources’ board chairman, president, and CEO, spoke the following day in Columbia, SC, addressing a small audience—many of them Dominion employees and board members—at Dominion Resources’ 107th annual shareholders meeting. (Dominion always draws smaller audiences, and smaller climate protests, when it holds its shareholder meeting away from its Richmond headquarters.) As best I can tell, Bob Blue and I were the only two people present at both events. I took detailed notes.

DVP is Virginia’s largest electric utility. Thanks to its fossil-fuel-fired power plants it’s also the commonwealth’s number one emitter of climate-disrupting carbon dioxide. It’s hard for serious people to think about “energy, sustainability, and resiliency” these days without thinking about how climate change is and will be affecting us and our children. The past year has certainly been filled with near-constant reminders of climate change for anyone paying attention. These include Pope Francis’s encyclical, record warm global-average temperatures, the Paris international climate accord, severe droughts, and severe floods.

So it seems reasonable to expect Blue might have expressed some thoughts on how the climate crisis will be affecting his company and the electric-power industry in the coming decades. It was, after all, a conference on energy, sustainability, and resiliency.

Blue said at the outset that “natural gas is the new default fuel” for electric-power generation. He mentioned his company’s new gas-fired power plants and said, “We expect the big things we build to last 50 years or more.” He alluded to the hits Dominion has taken recently on its environmental record by saying the company had done a lot of things well, “but our weakness is our inability to communicate in simple terms about complex matters.” (Translation: We’re doing everything just right, but folks don’t realize it because they can’t understand complex matters.)

If climate change is a subject Blue has given any thought to lately, he neglected to mention it. To be fair, he did briefly mention the EPA Clean Power Plan, saying he thinks it would cost Virginia between $5 billion and $13 billion. But then he claimed it was too complex and boring to go into in detail. And he also talked a bit about solar and wind power, but there was no reference at all to the underlying climate problem that is the primary reason we need to transition from fossil fuels.

What’s more, Blue brought up solar and wind mostly to justify DVP’s go-slow approach in deploying them. Speaking a few days after the Kentucky Derby, in what he called “Triple Crown season,” Blue said that with solar and wind power, “The earliest horse out of the gate doesn’t always win.” That’s true in horse racing (although sometimes the first horse out does win), but it’s a poor analogy to use when addressing climate change, where greater CO2 emissions today necessitate much sharper reductions later. Thinking about climate change means recognizing the need for early action.

Come to think of it, the horse-out-of-the-gate analogy is more apt for building gas-fired power plants than it is for deploying clean energy. There’s no need to rush to build multiple fossil-fuel plants when we know we have to kick our fossil-fuel habit. In fact, there’s a high likelihood that a rush to build huge new fossil-fuel infrastructure now will leave ratepayers on the hook later, paying for power plants that have to be shut down early for us to reach our future carbon-emission targets. Yet Dominion has certainly been moving with great speed lately to get gas-fired power plants built. There is a sense of urgency at Dominion, but it’s about building more fossil-fuel infrastructure, not addressing climate change.

By not mentioning or acknowledging climate change Blue accomplished at least two objectives that he must think serve his company’s short-term interests. First, he avoided offending the many Republicans in the room, including some state legislators, whose party still cannot bring itself to acknowledge the climate threat. Blue’s climate silence is understandable in that regard, although it hardly reflects moral courage or true business leadership. Problems ignored as unpleasant or “controversial” tend to get worse, not better.

Second, by not mentioning climate change Blue could avoid having to explain how Dominion’s business plan will affect the climate, or Virginia’s ability to transition from fossil fuels to carbon-free energy in time to help our country avoid catastrophic climate impacts. Stated another way, ignoring climate change allowed Blue to ignore the need to compare his company’s greenhouse-gas-emissions trajectory with what the science tells us must be done to retain a recognizable climate.

Climate silence is a topic of considerable interest to scholars these days. In fact, on the day after Blue’s speech The Washington Post ran an article describing a recent study of climate silence by two Penn State researchers. In his new book Moral Disengagement, renowned Stanford psychologist Albert Bandura explains, “If one ignores … the evidence of the harmful results of one’s conduct, one has few reasons to activate self-censure or any need to change behavioral practices.”

This may help to explain Blue’s silence. When your business model doesn’t square with your conscience, you may prefer not to activate your conscience.

Bandura’s insights also illuminate the lacuna where climate thinking should be in the mind of the Dominion Resources CEO. Farrell’s speech to shareholders in Columbia a day after Blue’s talk was preceded by a short video intended to show Dominion’s good works in South Carolina. I’ve attended the last four Dominion shareholder meetings (two in Richmond, one in Cleveland, and this one in Columbia). The videos about the company’s local charitable and civic involvement are a staple at each meeting, and they’re always well-produced, moving, and interesting.

This year’s video highlighted contributions (financial, in-kind, and services) that Dominion and its employees made to the Red Cross and others in South Carolina last fall, when the state suffered from catastrophic flooding. A news clip in the video from the time of the floods showed an emotional Governor Nikki Haley saying, “This is the heaviest flooding we’ve ever seen.” Another person could be heard saying, “Eastover [SC] lost everything.” Columbia’s mayor said the floods “changed our lives.” A number of scenes of devastation were shown.

Dominion’s employees clearly did great work in helping a stricken region recover, and the company’s donations to the Red Cross are certainly admirable. But there was a sad irony in employing that tragic event to highlight Dominion’s many good works. Did any of the assembled Dominion executives or board members think about climate change as the video rolled? Did they think about the wisdom of their company’s plans to build massive new fossil-fuel infrastructure? Certainly Farrell did not mention climate in his prepared remarks following the video.

When company executives rarely talk publicly about climate change it’s easier for them and their audiences and employees not to think about it. Executives’ public silence on the issue also makes it easier for the legislators with whom executives regularly interact not to think about climate. And if you don’t think about a problem much, you’re unlikely to gain a sense of urgency about having to address it. That’s Albert Bandura’s moral-disengagement theory in a nutshell.

Dominion’s public silence on climate is complemented by its support for the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which promotes climate-change disinformation to state legislators. That further promotes inaction on climate. A corporation’s use of front groups to do the corporation’s dirty work behind the scenes is another example of moral disengagement, according to Bandura.

Farrell started his talk by listing what he said are Dominion’s four core values: “safety, ethics, excellence, and one Dominion.” There’s a large and growing body of scholarly research on climate-change ethics, including a number of recent excellent books on the topic suitable for lay readers. But Farrell’s discussion of ethics had no references to the climate. A shareholder resolution on the Dominion proxy ballot this year called on the company to have at least one board member with environmental expertise. Such expertise might include familiarity with the field of climate ethics. But Dominion’s board recommended a “no” vote on the resolution, and it was defeated.

Farrell claimed that Dominion is a leader in environmental stewardship. “We’re a leader, but people don’t recognize it.” He discussed the company’s major expansion in the natural-gas transmission business in recent years, and said the Marcellus shale-gas formation in the East “will provide gas for the balance of this century at least.” He noted the company’s pending acquisition of Utah-based gas company Questar, which will allow the company to expand its gas business across the West.

Farrell took questions from shareholders after his talk. I asked him for his thoughts about climate change, after noting that we’d been through a year of record global temperatures, floods, and the Paris climate accord. He said he didn’t want to talk about the Paris agreement. “I’ll leave that to President Obama and Secretary Kerry. That’s above my pay grade.” Farrell’s pay package last year topped $20 million.

 

Seth Heald is a student in the Johns Hopkins University Master of Science in Energy Policy and Climate program. His article on climate communication and moral disengagement is published in the May-June 2016 issue of the journal Environment, Science and Policy for Sustainable Development. He serves as volunteer chair of the Sierra Club’s Virginia Chapter.