Southeastern electric utilities find their way to higher profits through gas pipelines and captive consumers

Charlie Strickler of Harrisonburg, Virginia, was one of a dozen activists who fasted last September in protest of FERC's role in approving natural gas pipelines, citing their contribution to climate change and harm to communities in their path. Photo by Ivy Main.

Charlie Strickler of Harrisonburg, Virginia, was one of a dozen activists who fasted last September in protest of FERC’s role in approving natural gas pipelines, citing their contribution to climate change and harm to communities in their path. Photo by Ivy Main.

Duke Energy, Southern Company, NextEra Energy and Dominion Resources—four of the largest investor-owned utilities in the U.S., all headquartered in the Southeast—have simultaneously adopted a growth strategy reliant on large volumes of fracked gas. With the nation’s energy sector turning decisively away from coal and nuclear energy, these companies are betting natural gas will be the dominant fuel for at least the next several decades. All four are investing billions of dollars in gas pipelines and other gas infrastructure to profit from the fracking boom.

Pipelines are attractive investments because they are typically allowed rates of return of around 14%, compared with the average regulated utility return allowed by public utility commissions of about 10%.

For the southeastern utilities, however, that rate of return is only part of the attraction. In a strategy that ought to concern regulators and electricity consumers, Duke, Dominion and NextEra all plan to use their regulated electric power subsidiaries to guarantee demand for the pipelines they’re building. The subsidiaries will build natural gas generating plants, paid for by electricity consumers, to be supplied with gas carried through the pipelines owned by their sister companies.

Southern is also investing in pipelines, but it currently doesn’t need new generation beyond the coal and nuclear plants it is struggling to complete—themselves object lessons in why coal and nuclear are kaput.

Southern just announced completion of its $12 billion acquisition of AGL Resources, a natural gas pipeline and distribution company. The move makes Southern Company “the nation’s second-largest combined gas and electric utility by customer base,” according to Utility Dive.

Dominion Resources was already heavily invested in the natural gas sector before it announced a $4.4 billion purchase of Questar Corp. News reports say the acquisition will bring Dominion an additional 27,500 miles of gas distribution pipelines, 3,400 miles of gas transmission pipeline and 56 billion cubic feet of working gas storage.

Duke Energy is making a $4.9 billion purchase of Piedmont Natural Gas, a natural gas transmission and distribution company. And NextEra recently spent $2.1 billion to acquire Texas-based NET Midstream through the limited partnership it formed, NextEra Partners, LLC.

Moody’s Investor Services issued a report in March criticizing Dominion, Southern and Duke for their natural gas transmission buys, saying the added financial risks offset the benefits of diversifying their businesses.

Moody’s may not have known how the utilities plan to use electricity customers as a hedge for at least two planned pipelines, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP) and Sabal Trail.

Using electricity customers to pay for pipelines

Companies owned by Duke, Southern and Dominion are partners in the 550-mile ACP, which will carry fracked gas from West Virginia through Virginia to the North Carolina coast. Duke and NextEra are partners in Sabal Trail, a 515-mile pipeline proposed to run from an existing pipeline in Alabama through Georgia to Florida, where Duke says it will fuel gas plants owned by Duke Energy Florida and Florida Power and Light, a subsidiary of NextEra.

ACP and Sabal Trail are only two of 15 new pipelines proposed on the East Coast competing to carry fracked gas flowing out of the Marcellus shale in Pennsylvania and West Virginia. So many pipelines are in development that analysts say there simply isn’t enough gas to fill them all. At the 2016 Marcellus-Utica Midstream Conference in February, attendees were warned that pipeline capacity “will be largely overbuilt by the 2016-2017 timeframe.”

But the ACP and Sabal Trail have an advantage most of the competition lacks. The utility partners all own electric power subsidiaries that use fracked gas to generate electricity. If the subsidiaries build new gas plants, these pipelines will be guaranteed a customer base. That means they can be profitable for their investors even when other pipelines struggle to find customers.

Indeed, Duke and Dominion’s electricity subsidiaries are making the kinds of investments you’d expect to see if the success of the pipelines were their top priority. Dominion Virginia Power is in the middle of a three-plant, 4,300 MW gas generation build-out. In the ACP’s application to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), Dominion Resources justifies the ACP in part by saying it will supply the newer of these plants. And the utility is just getting started with new gas generation; Dominion Virginia Power told Virginia officials last fall it expects to build another 9,000 MW of gas plants by 2040.

Meanwhile, Duke’s regulated subsidiaries, Duke Energy Carolinas and Duke Energy Progress, filed integrated resource plans in North and South Carolina that call for up to nine new natural gas generating units, totaling 8,300 MW. In February of this year, Duke received approval to build two 280 MW gas units in Asheville, NC, and sought approval for a third.

Bigger investments, greater risks

Linking pipelines to captive customers should prove a profitable arrangement for the utilities. For the customers who bear the costs and risks, it’s much more problematic. But state law gives them no say in the matter. In these southern states, the electric power subsidiaries hold legal monopolies in their designated territories. Once federal regulators approve the pipelines and state regulators approve the gas plants, the captive customers bear the loss if the bet turns sour.

Any one of several scenarios would make the gas investments a bad bet. The age of plentiful shale gas could end almost as quickly as it started, as some analysts predict, or gas prices could resume their historic volatility for other reasons. The U.S. could adopt newer, tighter carbon rules to meet international climate obligations, or enact a carbon tax that increases the cost of fossil fuels. Alternatives like wind, solar and energy storage seem likely to continue their astonishing march towards domination of the electric sector. As they become increasingly competitive, much new gas infrastructure is destined to become stranded investments.

And finally, the demand for natural gas, and for the pipelines themselves, may simply not be there; Americans are using less electricity, and generating more of it themselves through rooftop solar systems. The vertically-integrated, monopoly utility model that prevails in the Southeast relies on ever-increasing sales, which means it doesn’t require much of a change in consumer behavior to turn black ink red.

So while environmentalists are enraged by the recklessness of the southeastern utilities’ natural gas strategy in an age of climate change, customers who only care about the bottom line on their utility bills have reason to be just as upset. Capitalism is supposed to ensure that corporate shareholders bear the costs as well as receive the benefits of risky bets. With the risks of their gas gamble shifted onto captive customers, the utilities won’t be punished for not choosing clean energy instead.

Bucking the trend towards renewables and efficiency

It’s worth noting that the plans of Dominion, Duke and their fellow monopoly utilities run counter to the expressed desires of their customers. Natural gas companies work to brand their product as “clean,” but polls show Americans overwhelmingly believe the U.S. should emphasize wind and solar over oil and gas production, and oppose the use of fracking to extract oil and gas. Major corporations now threaten to vote with their feet, refusing to locate where they can’t access electricity from renewable sources.

It is not a coincidence that Duke and Dominion fall near the bottom of a just-released survey conducted by Ceres that ranks major utilities by their performance on energy efficiency and renewable energy. NextEra and Southern do no better. NextEra’s electricity subsidiary, Florida Power and Light, came in dead last for renewable energy sales. Ceres says it was unable to include Southern this year because it did not respond to requests for data, but in 2014 Southern ranked 31 out of 32 on renewable energy sales.

The southeastern utilities stand in marked contrast to utilities like Berkshire Hathaway’s Mid-American, which has announced a goal of meeting 85% of its customers’ needs with wind power. Even Dominion’s Virginia rival, Appalachian Power Company, filed an integrated resource plan last year with more new wind and solar generation projected than new natural gas. Perhaps that’s because neither Appalachian Power nor its parent company, American Electric Power, own any gas pipelines.

Effects on competition and consumers trigger an antitrust complaint

Customers may be the biggest losers when utilities use their electricity subsidiaries to guarantee the success of their gas subsidiaries, but the arrangement also harms other business interests. These include pipeline operators who don’t have the same self-dealing opportunity; non-utility electricity generators who can’t sell their product to utilities because the utilities now prefer to build their own gas generation; and companies that build wind and solar projects, who find themselves boxed out.

Already one non-utility generator is crying foul: Columbia Energy LLC, an operator of a 523 MW independent combined cycle gas generating plant that wants to sell electricity to Duke Power but finds itself left out in the cold. Columbia is challenging both Duke’s application for approval of a new gas plant in Ashville and the merger of Duke with Piedmont Natural Gas, another partner in the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

The potential of the ACP to harm consumers and competition led to the filing in May of a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). The complainant, retired Department of Justice antitrust lawyer Michael Hirrel, believes the utilities’ abuse of their legitimate monopoly power violates federal antitrust laws, and he is urging the FTC to investigate.

The Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club, which opposes both the ACP and Dominion’s gas build-out, followed up with its own letter delving more deeply into the facts of Duke and Dominion’s self-dealing. (The letter and supporting documents, including Hirrel’s complaint, can be found at http://wp.vasierraclub.org/LetterInFull.pdf. Note that it’s a big file and may take time to load.) Hirrel has added both documents to the FERC file on the ACP application.

(Full disclosure: I led the team compiling the information for the Sierra Club submission. I’ve never met Mr. Hirrel and only learned about his complaint weeks after it was filed. However, I had been doing my own complaining—though evidently not to the proper authorities—about the utilities’ conflict of interest.)

But is anyone listening?

Aside from the FTC filing, opponents of the gas plants have pinned their hopes on state public utility commissions, while pipeline opponents are focused on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). Neither venue offers grounds for optimism. Virginia’s State Corporation Commission (SCC) has approved three of Dominion’s new gas plants in a row over the objections of environmental advocates, and North Carolina’s Utility Commission recently approved Duke’s new gas units in Asheville (though for now it has turned down a request for a third).

FERC poses its own challenge. Activists want FERC to review gas transmission proposals collectively instead of singly, to avoid overbuilding and the unnecessary damage to the environment and local communities that would result. This would be a departure for the agency, which traditionally reviews proposals individually, and has approved nearly every pipeline proposal that has come before it.

So far FERC has resisted arguments of this nature, as well as objections based on climate concerns. But in a possible sign that the agency recognizes times are changing, it has recently slowed the approval process for some proposed new pipelines, apparently to conduct more thorough environmental reviews.

There is no sign yet that the public utility commissions and FERC are communicating with each other or with the FTC. That leaves anti-pipeline groups and environmental activists in a difficult position. They can make a strong case the utilities are taking unfair advantage of captive ratepayers for a purpose that harms both the environment and the public. But is anyone listening?

Complaint: utilities’ role in Atlantic Coast Pipeline violates antitrust laws

pipelinemadnessDominion Resources’ plan to use the captive ratepayers of its electricity subsidiary to guarantee a customer base for its Atlantic Coast Pipeline venture has caused critics—including me—to complain that the scheme presents a clear conflict of interest. According to a complaint filed with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), it’s also a violation of federal antitrust laws.

Lawyer Michael Hirrel, who retired last year from the Antitrust Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, has asked the FTC to investigate “whether ACP’s project constitutes a prohibited monopolization by Dominion, Duke and Piedmont, under Section 2 of the Sherman Act, and an unfair method of competition, under Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act.”

Dominion Virginia Power is currently engaged in an aggressive build-out of natural gas generating plants, with three new units representing 4,300 megawatts of generating capacity, coming online between 2014 and 2019. The company’s latest integrated resource plan and presentations to stakeholders reveal plans for over 9,000 megawatts more. By comparison, the company has promised a mere 400 megawatts of solar.

Where there are gas plants, there must be gas, and this massive build-out means a guaranteed stream of income for the lucky owners of gas transmission pipelines. The fact that one such pipeline is partly owned by Dominion Virginia Power’s parent corporation is clearly a conflict of interest. Because Dominion holds a monopoly on electricity sales, its customers will be stuck paying for gas—and guaranteeing a revenue stream for pipeline owners—for decades to come.

This is a bad deal for customers and the climate, but according to Hirrel, it is also anticompetitive and warps the normal decision-making of the companies involved.

(In addition to Dominion Resources, the other owners of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline are Duke Energy, Piedmont Natural Gas and AGL Resources. AGL is being acquired by Southern Company, meaning three of the four partners own electricity subsidiaries that are regulated monopolies that can stick ratepayers with the cost of paying for gas. As for the fourth partner, Piedmont is a regulated monopoly distributor of natural gas. Just to make things even more cozy, Piedmont is being acquired by Duke.)

Hirrel’s complaint notes: “If Dominion, Duke and Piedmont were to acquire their gas and its transportation, plus electricity generation, in competitive markets, they would, the Commission must suppose, engage in a very different decision making process. But that process will be rendered moot when they acquire and transport their own natural gas, and generate their own electricity. They will distribute the electricity and gas to their own monopoly retail customers, who have no alternative. Those customers must pay the costs of Dominion, Duke and Piedmont’s decisions, whether the costs were efficiently assumed or not.”

Hirrel also points out that in a truly competitive market, Dominion and Duke might not pursue a natural gas strategy at all, because of the economic risks involved. They might, for example, consider whether investments in wind and solar would be more economical and avoid the potential for stranded investments.

“But in the present universe,” he concludes, “the one in which Dominion, Duke and Piedmont propose to become the monopoly suppliers of the inputs for their own monopoly customers, they need not engage in any such economically efficient decision making process. If they make bad decisions, they will not suffer. The costs of those bad decisions will be borne by the monopoly customers of their retail electricity and natural gas distribution systems.”

I called Mr. Hirrel to ask what action he expects the FTC to take. He says the Commission typically takes anywhere from two weeks to two months to determine whether to open an investigation when it receives a complaint like this. If it chooses to investigate, it may also ask the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to delay its approval process for the ACP pending conclusion of the FTC investigation.

Hirrel copied FERC on his complaint, making it a public document within the ACP docket (CP15-554).

Update: on June 23, the Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club submitted a letter to the FTC providing further information supporting the antitrust complaint. The letter and supporting documents can be found at http://wp.vasierraclub.org/LetterInFull.pdf.

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. 

Why does Dominion Power support EPA’s Clean Power Plan?

DominionLogoWhen utility giant Dominion Resources Inc. filed a brief in support of the federal Clean Power Plan last week, a lot of people were caught off guard. Hadn’t Dominion CEO Tom Farrell said as recently as January that it would cost consumers billions of dollars? Why, then, is the utility perfectly okay with it now?

Well, first, because the mere threat of the plan has already cost Virginia consumers a cool billion, but it’s all going straight into Dominion’s pockets. What’s not to like? Otherwise, as applied to the Commonwealth, the Clean Power Plan itself is a creampuff that could even save money for ratepayers. Farrell’s claim that it will cost billions, made at a Virginia Chamber of Commerce-sponsored conference, seems to have been a case either of pandering to his conservative audience, or of wishful thinking. (Looking at you, North Anna 3!)

And second, Dominion’s amicus brief indicates its satisfaction with the way it thinks Virginia will implement the Clean Power Plan. Dominion has been lobbying the Department of Environmental Quality to adopt a state implementation plan allowing for unlimited construction of new natural gas plants (and perhaps that new nuclear plant), which happens to be Dominion’s business plan.

If you can get everything you want and still look like a green, progressive company, why wouldn’t you support the Clean Power Plan?

The only risk here is that it makes Virginia Republicans look like idiots. Their number one priority this legislative session was stopping the Clean Power Plan, largely on the grounds of cost. They ignored the hard numbers showing the plan essentially gives Virginia a pass, and instead relied on propaganda from fossil fuel-backed organizations like Americans for Prosperity and, crucially, the word of Dominion Power lobbyists.

Sure, it wasn’t just Republicans; a lot of Virginia Democrats swallowed Dominion’s argument during the 2015 legislative session that the Clean Power Plan would be so expensive for consumers that the General Assembly had to pass a bill—the notorious SB 1349—freezing electricity rates through the end of the decade so they would not skyrocket.

SB 1349 suspended the ability of regulators at the State Corporation Commission to review Dominion’s earnings. One outraged commissioner, Judge Dimitri, calculated that the effect of this “rate freeze” would be to allow Dominion to pocket as much as a billion dollars in excess earnings, money that ratepayers would otherwise have received in refunds or credits.

Nor has SB 1349 even prevented rates from going up, since the State Corporation Commission’s approval of Dominion’s latest mammoth gas plant[1] will tack on 75 cents to the average customer’s monthly bill.

Environmental groups had opposed the gas plant, arguing approval is premature since we don’t know what Virginia’s Clean Power Plan will look like, and that Dominion hadn’t properly considered other options.

It gets worse. Building more of its own gas plants allows Dominion to terminate contracts to buy power from other generators. In theory, this should represent an offsetting savings for consumers. But as Judge Dimitri explained in a concurrence, SB 1349 means Dominion doesn’t have to subtract this savings from the bill it hands those ratepayers.[2]

As Sierra Club Virginia Chapter Director Glen Besa noted, “The State Corporation Commission decision today proves that there really is no electricity rate freeze. The SCC just allowed Dominion to raise our electricity rates and increase carbon pollution for a power plant we don’t need.”

Now, let’s have a look at what is actually in Dominion’s Clean Power Plan brief. In part, it is a defense of EPA’s holistic approach to regulating generation and a rejection of the conservative claim that the agency should not be allowed to regulate “outside the fence line” of individual plants. Adopting the conservative view, argues Dominion, could lead to widespread, expensive coal plant closures.

But mostly, Dominion likes the Clean Power Plan because the company feels well positioned to take advantage of it. The brief makes this argument with classic corporate understatement:

Dominion believes that, if key compliance flexibilities are maintained in the Rule, states adopt reasonable implementation plans, and government permitting and regulatory authorities efficiently process permit applications and perform regulatory oversight required to facilitate the timely development of needed gas pipeline and electric transmission infrastructure, then compliance is feasible for power plants subject to the Rule.

What Dominion means by “reasonable implementation plans” requires no guesswork. Virginia clean energy advocates want a mass-based state implementation plan that includes new sources, so power plant CO2 emissions from Virginia don’t actually increase under the Clean Power Plan. You or I might think that reasonable, given the climate crisis and EPA’s carbon-cutting goals. But that’s not what Dominion means by “reasonable.”

Dominion’s business plan, calling for over 9,000 megawatts of new natural gas generation, would increase CO2 emissions by 60%. To Dominion, a 60% increase in CO2 must therefore be reasonable. Anything that hinders Dominion’s plans is not reasonable. QED.

“Needed gas pipeline . . . infrastructure” is no puzzle either. Dominion wants approval of its massive Atlantic Coast Pipeline. That pipeline, and more, will be needed to feed the gaping maws of all those gas plants. Conversely, Dominion, having gone big into the natural gas transmission business, needs to build gas generating plants to ensure demand for its pipelines.

Dominion is not the only electric utility betting big on natural gas. Southern Company and Duke Energy have also recently spent billions to acquire natural gas transmission and distribution companies. Moody’s is criticizing these moves because of the debt incurred. From a climate perspective, though, the bigger problem is that this commitment to natural gas comes right at the time when scientists and regulators are sounding the alarm about methane leakage.

There is surely some irony that Dominion, while defending the EPA’s plan to address climate change, is doing its level best to increase the greenhouse gas emissions that drive it.

Indeed, anyone reading Dominion’s brief and looking for an indication that Dominion supports the Clean Power Plan because it believes the utility sector needs to respond to the climate crisis would be sadly disappointed.

On the other hand, the brief positively sings the praises of “market-based measures” for producing the lowest possible costs. This is a little hard to take, coming from a monopoly that uses its political and economic clout to keep out competition and reap excessive profits through legislation like SB 1349, and which intends to use its captive ratepayers to hedge the risks of its big move into natural gas transmission.


[1] SCC case PUE-2015-00075 Final Order, March 29, 2016.

[2] Commissioner Dimitri, in a concurring opinion:

“I would find that SB 1349 cannot impact the Commission’s authority in this matter because it violates the plain language of Article IX, Section 2, of the Constitution of Virginia, for the reasons set forth in my separate opinion in Case No. PUE-2015-00027.

“Indeed, the instant case further illustrates how SB 1349 fixes base rates as discussed in that separate opinion. The evidence in this case shows that Dominion plans to allow certain NUG contracts, currently providing power to customers, to expire while base rates are frozen by SB 1349. The capacity costs associated with these contracts, however, are currently included in those base rates. Thus, as explained by Consumer Counsel, this means that “the Company’s base rates will remain inflated” because Dominion (i) will no longer be paying these NUG capacity costs, but (ii) will continue to recover such costs from its customers since base rates are frozen under SB 1349. Based on Dominion’s cost estimates, between now and the end of 2019, it will have recovered over $243 million from its customers for NUG capacity costs that the Company no longer incurs. While other costs and revenues are likely to change up and down during this period and would not be reflected in base rate changes precluded by SB 1349, these NUG costs are known, major cost reductions that will not be passed along to customers.” [Footnotes omitted.]

 

 

McAuliffe’s stark choice on the Clean Power Plan: serve Virginia, or Dominion Power

Photo by Josh Lopez, courtesy of the Sierra Club.

Photo by Josh Lopez, courtesy of the Sierra Club.

After the Supreme Court issued a stay of the EPA’s Clean Power Plan pending its review by the D.C. Circuit, many Republican governors halted compliance efforts in their states, while most Democratic governors opted to continue. Among these was Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe, who plans to unveil a draft state implementation plan this fall.

Deciding to move forward on President Obama’s signature climate effort was an easy call. Polls show strong support for reducing carbon pollution, and the Governor wants to prove himself a team player who supports his president and his party. McAuliffe often reiterates his conviction that climate change is already producing extreme weather and increasingly severe coastal flooding in Virginia, making government action urgent.

Governor McAuliffe has another choice before him now: he can craft a compliance plan that moves Virginia firmly in the direction of clean energy and lower carbon emissions, or he can adopt one that allows unbridled growth in new power generation from natural gas. The latter could still meet the letter of the law, but it would hugely increase greenhouse gas emissions from Virginia power plants.

McAuliffe has this choice because EPA’s rules come in two parts: the Clean Power Plan addresses existing power plants under one section of the Clean Air Act, while new power plants are addressed under another section of that law. As a result of the statutory structure and EPA’s rules, states can choose to cover both under one set of rules with a total cap on utilities’ CO2 emissions, or they can address new and existing sources separately.

If a state chooses to cover both under a single cap, new generation can be added up to the cap or go beyond if the utility buys emission allowances from another utility. But if a state treats new and existing sources separately, then new sources can grow without limit as long as each new unit meets a unit-specific standard. Of course, building more fossil-fueled power plants of any type will increase carbon emissions, at a time when the U.S. desperately needs to cut back.

The carbon reduction target EPA set for Virginia under the Clean Power Plan is extremely modest. EPA’s numbers show Virginia can meet the target for existing sources simply by not increasing emissions. If the state also includes new power plants under the cap, however, it creates a real incentive to invest in clean energy.

But there’s a problem. Dominion Resources, the Richmond-based parent company of Dominion Virginia Power, is heavily invested in the natural gas sector, primarily transmission and storage. That has led Dominion to lobby for an implementation plan that covers only existing power plants.

Excluding new sources would leave the company free to build as many new natural gas-burning power plants in the state as it wants, locking in years of increased carbon pollution, and further boosting demand for fracked gas and pipeline capacity. Dominion’s plans call for more than 9,500 megawatts of new gas generation in Virginia, equivalent in carbon impact to building eight average-sized coal plants in the state.

McAuliffe can do what Dominion wants, or he can do the right thing for the climate. He can’t do both.

The stakes are high on both sides. McAuliffe has made job creation his number one priority, and he lures new industry to the state with the promise of lower-than-average electricity rates. Dominion says supporting its natural gas plans is the way to deliver on that promise. Whether that is true or not doesn’t count in this calculus; with state law limiting governors to a single term, McAuliffe is focused on the present.

But adopting a plan that allows unlimited increases in greenhouse gas emissions would run contrary to Virginia’s long-term interests. Not only is the state on the front lines of sea level rise, it needs predictable, affordable electricity prices for decades to come. And nothing can provide that better than renewable power and increased energy efficiency.

Neither Dominion nor anyone else can guarantee the price of natural gas over the life of a new power plant. Questions of price and supply bedevil even the best analysts and make forecasting risky. Moreover, the growing awareness of the climate impacts of methane from leaking wells and pipelines is already producing calls for tighter regulation of natural gas. A carbon tax or cap-and-trade legislation would also make all fossil fuels more expensive relative to carbon-free renewables.

While the cost of using natural gas can only go up, the costs of wind, solar and battery storage are expected to continue their astonishing declines. Advances in energy efficiency promise huge savings for states that pursue programs to help customers cut their energy use.

From a bill-payer’s perspective, then, investments in clean energy make more sense than building gas plants, even without taking federal regulations into consideration. Recent analyses show Virginia can cap carbon pollution from new power plants and still save money for electricity customers.

Environmental groups say their number one energy priority this year is to ensure Virginia adopts a Clean Power Plan that includes both existing and new sources, and they are counting on Governor McAuliffe to deliver. Their message is simple: if McAuliffe wants to be on the climate team, Virginia’s compliance plan must reduce CO2 emissions, not let them grow.

Nuking clean energy: how nuclear power makes wind and solar harder

Dominion Resources CEO Tom Farrell is famously bullish on nuclear energy as a clean solution in a carbon-constrained economy, but he’s got it wrong. Nuclear is a barrier to a clean-energy future, not a piece of it. That’s only partly because new nuclear is so expensive that there’s little room left in a utility budget to build wind and solar. A more fundamental problem is that when nuclear is part of the energy mix, high levels of wind and solar become harder to achieve.

To understand why, consider the typical demand curve for electricity in the Mid-Atlantic, including Virginia. Demand can be almost twice as high at 5 p.m. as it is at 5 a.m., especially on a hot summer day with air conditioners running.

Average hourly load over a one-week period in January, April and July 2009. Credit B. Posner.

Average hourly load over a one-week period in January, April and July 2009. Credit B. Posner.

The supply of electricity delivered by the grid at any moment has to exactly match the demand: no more and no less. More than any other kind of generating plant, though, the standard nuclear reactor is inflexible in its output. It generates the same amount of electricity day in and day out. This means nuclear can’t be used to supply more than the minimum demand level, known as baseload. In the absence of energy storage, other fuel sources that can be ramped up or down as needed have to fill in above baseload.

Wind and solar have the opposite problem: instead of producing the same amount of electricity 24/7, their output varies with the weather and time of day. If you build a lot of wind turbines and want to use all the electricity they generate (much of it at night), some of it will compete to supply the baseload. Although solar panels produce during daylight when demand is higher, if you build enough solar you will eventually have to cut back on your baseload sources, too.

With enough energy storage, of course, baseload generating sources can be made flexible, and wind and solar made firm. Storage adds to cost and environmental footprint, though, so it is not a panacea. That said, Virginia is lucky enough to have one of the largest pumped storage facilities in the country, located in Bath County. Currently Dominion uses its 1,800 MW share of the facility as a relatively low-cost way to meet some peak demand with baseload sources like coal and nuclear, but it could as easily be used to store electricity from wind and solar, at the same added cost.

Without a lot of storage, it’s much harder to keep wind and solar from competing with nuclear or other baseload sources. You could curtail production of your wind turbines or solar panels, but since these have no fuel cost, you’d be throwing away free energy. Once you’ve built wind farms and solar projects, it makes no sense not to use all the electricity they can produce.

But if nuclear hogs the baseload, by definition there will be times when there is no load left for other sources to meet. Those times will often be at night, when wind turbines produce the most electricity.

The problem of nuclear competing with wind and solar has gotten little or no attention in the U.S., where renewables still make up only a small fraction of most states’ energy mixes. However, at an October 27 workshop about Germany’s experience with large-scale integration of renewable energy into the grid, sponsored by the American Council on Renewable Energy, Patrick Graichen of the German firm Agora Energiewende pointed to this problem in explaining why his organization is not sorry the country is closing nuclear plants at the same time it pursues ambitious renewable energy targets. Nuclear, he said, just makes it harder.

How big a problem is this likely to be in the U.S.? Certainly there is not enough nuclear in the PJM Interconnection grid as a whole to hog all the baseload in the region, and PJM has concluded it can already integrate up to 30% renewable energy without affecting reliability. But the interplay of nuclear and renewables is already shaping utility strategies. Dominion Virginia Power is on a campaign to build out enough generation in Virginia to eliminate its imports of electricity from out of state. And in Virginia, nuclear makes up nearly 40% of Dominion’s generation portfolio.

Now Dominion wants to add a third nuclear reactor at its North Anna site, to bring the number of its reactors in Virginia to five. If the company also succeeds in extending the life of its existing reactors, the combination would leave precious little room for any other energy resource that produces power when demand is low.

That affects coal, which is primarily a baseload resource. It would also impact combined-cycle natural gas plants, which are more flexible than coal or nuclear but still run most efficiently as baseload. But the greatest impact is on our potential for renewables.

This desire to keep high levels of nuclear in its mix explains Dominion’s lack of interest in land-based wind power, which produces mostly at night and therefore competes with nuclear as a baseload source. Dominion’s latest Integrated Resource Plan pretty much dismisses wind, assigning it a low value and a strangely high price tag in an effort to make it look like an unappealing option.

Dominion shows more interest in solar as a daytime source that fills in some of the demand curve above baseload. But given Dominion’s commitment to nuclear, its appetite for Virginia solar is likely to be limited. Already it insists that every bit of solar must be backed up with new natural gas combustion turbines, which are highly flexible but less efficient, more expensive and more polluting than combined-cycle gas, and add both cost and fuel-price risk.

Dominion’s seeming insistence that solar must be paired with gas to turn it into something akin to a baseload source is plainly absurd. It seems to be an effort to increase the cost of solar, part of an attempt to improve the company’s prospects of getting the North Anna 3 nuclear reactor approved in the face of its dismal economics.

Good resource planning would consider all existing and potential sources together, including using the existing pumped storage capacity in the way that makes most sense. We already know that North Anna 3 would be breathtakingly expensive. Evaluating it in the full context of other supply options will show it is even worse than Dominion acknowledges.

Dominion’s campaign to isolate Virginia’s power supply from the larger PJM grid also does a disservice to ratepayers. Keeping generation local benefits grid security when the generation is small-scale and distributed, but not when it’s a huge nuclear reactor sited on a fault line right next to two others. Otherwise, there is nothing wrong with importing power from other states. These are not hostile foreign nations. Pennsylvania is not going to cut us off if we don’t release their political prisoners.

In truth, it seems to be Tom Farrell’s plan to secure Dominion’s profitability for decades to come by walling off Virginia into a corporate fiefdom and controlling the means of production within it, like some retrograde Soviet republic. Utility customers, on the other hand, benefit much more from having our grid interconnected with PJM and the thousands of other power sources that help balance load and ensure reliability. One can only hope that Dominion’s regulators at the State Corporation Commission will see that.

Over the course of the next couple of decades, Virginia, like the rest of the U.S.—and indeed, the rest of the world—has to transition to an electricity supply that is almost entirely emissions-free. Very little planning has gone into making this happen, but several studies have shown it can be done. The Solutions Project offers a broad-brush look at how Virginia can combine onshore wind, offshore wind, solar and small amounts of other sources to reach a 100% clean energy future. Other researchers have done the same for PJM as a whole.

No doubt this will be a long and challenging journey, but the path we start out on should be the one most likely to get us to our goal. Nuclear seems likely to prove a stumbling block along the way, and an expensive one at that. Certainly, we shouldn’t make the problem worse.


Update: A number of commenters from the pro-nuclear camp have argued that nuclear is, or could be, more flexible than I’ve made it out to be. A new article in Utility Dive addresses this issue, concluding it is possible, but not easy, to make nuclear plants more load-following. France and Germany have succeeded to some degree, but U.S. nuclear plants pose greater challenges. “It can be done, but ‘the issue is that nuclear power plants weren’t designed to do that in the United States,’ said Jim Riley, senior technical advisor for nuclear operations at the Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry group that develops policy on issues related to nuclear energy.”

According to the article, some U.S. utilities are looking to tackle the challenge rather than retire their nuclear plants. These are nuclear plant owners that have to bid power into the wholesale market, where a nuclear plant, with its fixed operating costs, can’t compete with low-cost natural gas and renewable energy, especially at night. But of course, if you run a high-cost plant for fewer hours of the day, the average cost per kilowatt-hour increases.

Dominion doesn’t have to bid its nuclear into a wholesale market, so it has no incentive to try to run its plants flexibly. And given the astoundingly high cost of North Anna 3, curtailing its operation, and increasing the cost per kilowatt-hour produced, would be out of the question.

For Virginia, EPA’s Clean Power Plan more like a powderpuff

Photo credit: Corrina Beall

Photo credit: Corrina Beall

On August 3 the EPA released the final version of its Clean Power Plan, the Obama Administration’s effort to lower carbon pollution from existing power plants. It’s a big, complex rule—in large measure because it gives states so many options for compliance—but a few things are immediately clear. One, it’s just as well I never got around to reading the fine print of the proposed plan, because the final rule is practically a do-over. Two, this do-over goes so easy on Virginia that the Republican hissy fit about the proposed rule was (and is) a total waste of time. And three, Dominion Virginia Power’s little “rate freeze” gamble, rushed through the General Assembly this year, is set to pay off big for the company.

The proposed rule was never as tough for Virginia to meet as opponents asserted. Their claims of billions of dollars in added costs had little basis in fact—indeed, a recent University of Virginia analysis found numerous errors in the Virginia Tech cost study that many detractors relied on. But the proposed rule had enough of a bite that it would have been a major driver of new policies and investments. By contrast, the final rule is so soft on Virginia that it will likely take a back seat to customer demand and market forces in shaping our energy future.

This is welcome news to some, like Governor Terry McAuliffe, who pushed EPA to go easier on Virginia and is trumpeting the results as a good outcome. It’s a disappointment, though, to those who are worried about climate change and who believe Virginia is well positioned to make much steeper cuts in carbon pollution than the new rule requires.

Look at EPA’s table below and you will see how easy our path is. The Clean Power Plan allows states to choose whether to measure carbon emissions by rate or by mass. Using rate, EPA’s analysis of the business-as-usual case projects Virginia would arrive at an emissions rate of 959 pounds of carbon dioxide (CO2) per megawatt-hour by 2020 without the Clean Power Plan. With the Plan in place, that number will have to drop to 934. That’s a difference of only 3%, an easy target to meet just by adding enough emissions-free wind and solar to the existing fuel mix.

VA goals under CPP

Alternatively, the state can choose to measure CO2 emissions by mass (total short tons of CO2 emitted). Using that approach, EPA says all Virginia has to do is ensure CO2 emissions are no higher in 2030 than they were in 2012. Indeed, the 2030 goal is higher than what EPA expects Virginia to accomplish under business as usual without the plan!

In other words, we can achieve our assigned goals just by using energy a bit more efficiently and meeting any increase in electric demand with renewable energy. Lucky for us, this happens to be exactly what customers are asking for—especially the companies that are driving the growth in demand, including data centers and hi-tech companies. Companies like Apple, Google and Amazon are committed to running on wind and solar.

And given that leaders from both parties in Virginia support energy efficiency and want to see our utilities add wind and solar to their portfolios, compliance with the Clean Power Plan is a no-brainer. Heck, if the utilities aren’t interested in deploying renewables, the private sector will be glad to do it. The legislature could just loosen up the utilities’ monopoly protections, open up the solar and wind sectors to fair competition, and let private renewable companies and big utilities have at it in an open market.

But wait, there’s more: remember all the bellyaching from legislators about how West Virginia and Kentucky had it so much easier than we did under the proposed rule? No longer.* Not only does the final rule make it harder for them than for us, but it also proposes a system for buying and selling clean energy credits known as Emission Rate Credits, opening the possibility of a tidy little profit opportunity. If Virginia ramps up renewable energy production beyond what we need for compliance, as we can easily do, there might be some eager buyers just over the border.

Of course, anyone truly concerned about climate change has to hope our neighbors will proudly surpass their carbon reduction goals and even set tougher ones for themselves. Even if they don’t, we hope Virginia will set aggressive climate goals for itself, foregoing the opportunity to profit from selling credits. But it’s nice to know that if we don’t achieve these heights of virtue, there is money to be made.

For the moment, Virginia Republicans are still bashing the EPA as though the Clean Power Plan were anything but an opportunity. One has to wonder whether they’ve even read the new, final plan. In an op-ed published August 8, Delegates Israel O’Quinn and Scott Taylor claim the Clean Power Plan will have “severe” effects on Virginia’s economy, citing the highly questionable claims of conservative State Corporation Commission staff, made months ago about the proposed plan.

No doubt the delegates wrote their piece before the final rule came out, and didn’t want to consign it to the dustbin just because the rule turned out to be a creampuff. That must also be why Virginia Republican leaders joined the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity at a rally at the University of Richmond on Monday evening to lambaste the EPA. There, they launched a bill that would require General Assembly approval of any state implementation plan (an approval which, they assure us, will not be forthcoming). Republicans don’t intend to give up their talking points just because it turns out their hysteria was misplaced. Anti-regulatory zealotry is impervious to reality.

They’re not the only ones who don’t want to admit the final rule will be cheap to meet, and could even save customers money. Dominion lobbyists spent the whole of the 2015 legislative session ginning up fears that the Clean Power Plan would cause skyrocketing electricity bills unless legislators passed a law (SB 1349) freezing rates and limiting regulatory review. The lobbyists’ pitch was that the legislation would keep Dominion from passing along compliance costs to ratepayers. The immediate effect, however, was to protect the utility’s excess earnings, avoiding rebates and rate reductions for customers.

The upshot is that for the second year in a row, and for several years to come, the General Assembly will allow Dominion to overcharge consumers. Recall that in 2014, the utility won the ability to charge ratepayers for 70% of the hundreds of millions of dollars it had spent so far on a new nuclear plant that may never get approval (especially now that we’ve seen the price tag). The maneuver soaked up enough of the company’s excess earnings to avoid a refund.

A consultant for the Attorney General’s Office of Consumer Counsel has analyzed the effects of the 2014 and 2015 bills and concluded that last year’s nuclear boondoggle cost ratepayers $188.4 million that would otherwise have been refunded, while the 2015 bill allows Dominion to avoid reducing rates as it would otherwise be required to do. (See SCC Case PUE2015-00027 OAG Smith Testimony, available through the State Corporation Commission website.)

As a result, concludes the analyst, Dominion will rack up excess earnings. “Looking forward, projected revenues for the 2016 rate year will exceed the Company’s cost, including a fair rate of return, by approximately $229.4 million.” But, he adds, “because of Virginia law, the Company’s base rates cannot be adjusted downwards prospectively in the current case.” That’s just 2016. SB 1349 shields Dominion’s earnings from review through the end of the decade and prevents rate adjustments until 2022.

During the fight over SB 1349, a lot of people voiced skepticism that the Clean Power Plan would cause utility bills to rise by very much, if at all. But no one expected Dominion’s tactic to pay off so quickly. With compliance so easily attainable, Dominion’s excuse for SB 1349 has crumbled, but the payoff is just beginning.**


*There is a delicious irony here. Under pressure to produce a rule that will withstand legal attacks from coal states, EPA changed the approach to be more even-handed and thus more defensible—but with the result that it is now much harder for coal states to comply.

**Dominion’s maneuvers may be bad for customers, but they have been very good for shareholders. Dominion Resources just reported second-quarter earnings of $413 million, more than twice as much as the same period last year. SB 1349’s patron, Senator Frank Wagner, did pretty well, too. Since January of this year, Wagner has collected $6,000 in campaign contributions from Dominion and another $23,000 in contributions from several of its top executives—including CEO Tom Farrell, who can easily afford it out of his $17.3 million compensation.