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.

Dominion shareholder votes reflect growing concerns on methane, climate

Protesters lined the road leading to the Dominion shareholder meeting in Richmond. Photo credit Corrina Beall.

Protesters lined the road leading to the Dominion shareholder meeting in Richmond. Photo credit Corrina Beall.


Shareholders attending Dominion’s shareholder meeting last week once again raised questions about the utility giant’s dependence on fossil fuels in a carbon-constrained world. Guest blogger Seth Heald brings us this view from inside the meeting.

News coverage of Dominion Resources Inc.’s May 6 annual shareholders meeting focused on the demonstration held outside the company’s suburban Richmond training facility. More than 150 people had traveled from all over Virginia and beyond to wave signs and banners protesting Dominion’s planned Atlantic Coast Pipeline for fracked natural gas and its unhealthy dominance over Virginia politicians (on full display during this year’s General Assembly session). Other signs condemned Dominion’s role as a major carbon polluter and its membership in the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

But developments inside the meeting, which I attended, were newsworthy too.

Like all publicly traded corporations, Dominion holds an annual meeting where shareholders vote on significant issues and have a chance to hear from and question corporate management. Most shares are voted online or by mail, but some shareholders choose to come to the meeting in person. Over the years Dominion has encouraged its electricity customers to buy stock, so many company shareholders live in Virginia.

Only shareholders or their proxies may attend the meeting, and this year security was exceptionally tight. Attendees had to show their admission ticket and driver’s license at three separate places and then go through a metal detector before getting to the meeting. No cameras, cell phones, or recording devices were permitted.

This was my third straight Dominion shareholder meeting. Perhaps most notable this time was the large number of people who lined up to address Dominion CEO and board chairman Thomas F. Farrell II, who told shareholders the company had allotted 30 minutes for their comments and questions. In previous years half an hour was more than enough time for all shareholder comments. But this time it was immediately clear that Farrell would have to allow more time or else those at the back of the line wouldn’t be able to speak. To his credit he allowed all waiting in line a chance to speak. The whole comment process took about an hour, causing the meeting to run significantly longer than in previous years.

Under Dominion’s standard meeting procedure, Farrell stands on the stage facing the audience, and people with comments or questions must deliver them from a microphone at the back of the large room, perhaps 50 feet away from Farrell. Members of the company’s board of directors all sit together in the front row, with their backs to the audience. Several of the shareholders this year spoke against the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline, describing how it would harm their land or their region or the planet. One woman movingly described how the pipeline would ruin land that had been in her family for hundreds of years. Many shareholders in the audience turned in their seats to look at the speakers, but not the board members. They sat in the front row and looked straight ahead.

Shareholders voted on a number of resolutions that asked the board or the company to take various actions. The ballot indicated that the board opposed all resolutions that had been submitted by shareholders. Nevertheless, three climate-related shareholder resolutions improved their vote count this year over last. For the first time ever one of them—seeking a report on emissions of the potent greenhouse gas methane—got 25 percent of voting (i.e., non-abstaining) shares, up from 21 percent a year ago.

Doing almost as well were shareholder votes seeking reports on climate-change business risk (23.5% this year versus 21 percent last year) and burning wood to generate electricity (22 percent this year versus 21 percent last year).

These are far from a majority of voting shares, it’s true, but these percentages represent close to $6 billion worth of shareholder value, and the totals are impressive when one considers that many large mutual funds routinely vote against resolutions that are opposed by a company’s board.

In opening comments to the board and shareholders Farrell spoke about efforts to reduce “carbon intensity” in electric power generation. That’s a measure comparing quantity of carbon-dioxide emissions to quantity of electricity produced. Dominion representatives always like to talk about how they’re reducing carbon intensity. They rarely if ever talk about reducing the company’s total carbon emissions.

Reducing carbon intensity is a fine thing, but the trouble is that you can reduce carbon intensity modestly just about forever while still increasing total carbon-dioxide emissions. That’s particularly true if, like Dominion, you resist meaningful efforts to make energy efficiency a significant part of your generation mix. As the Washington Post’s Chris Mooney has noted, doing something about climate, even doing a lot, isn’t the same as doing enough. Dominion and its ALEC partners who reflexively attack the EPA’s climate efforts are still resisting doing much of anything significant on climate, much less doing a lot, or enough.

What affects the climate is the total amount of carbon dioxide (and other greenhouse gases, like methane) in the atmosphere. At some point—and climate science tells us we’re well past that point—you can’t claim to be serious about climate change unless you’re willing to talk about (and commit to) reducing total carbon emissions, not just carbon intensity.

That was the subject of a shareholder question from Lindsay Mendoza of Mercy Investment Services, Inc., which manages assets of The Sisters of Mercy, the 180-year-old Catholic order renowned for its work in social justice, health care, and education. Mendoza asked Farrell when Dominion would begin to reduce total carbon-dioxide emissions, as opposed to carbon intensity. Farrell quickly responded: “That’s a good question.” (An overused cliché, no doubt, but Farrell seemed sincere in saying it, and he did not give that response to any other shareholder.) He went on at some length to discuss the company’s activities, but he didn’t specify a year, or decade, or even a century in which Dominion’s total carbon-dioxide emissions might actually begin to decline. That’s particularly disappointing in light of Dominion’s ranking, based on emissions reported to the EPA, as Virginia’s top carbon polluter.

Shareholders can try to press Farrell for a more specific answer at next May’s annual meeting. But in the meantime, asking Dominion and its board when the company will begin to reduce the company’s total carbon-dioxide emissions is a “good question” that Virginia’s governor, legislators, and the State Corporation Commission (Dominion Power’s state regulator) ought to be asking.

Besides being a Dominion shareholder, Seth Heald is Vice Chair of the Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club and a student in the MS in Energy Policy and Climate program at Johns Hopkins University.

Dominion’s natural gas gamble looks risky for ratepayers

Opposition to Dominon's planned Atlantic Coast Pipeline has spurred protests from landowners and environmental advocates and led to more than 5,000 comments to the McAuliffe Administration opposing the pipeline. Photo courtesy of Linda Muller.

Opposition to Dominon’s planned Atlantic Coast Pipeline has spurred protests from landowners and environmental advocates and led to more than 5,000 comments to the McAuliffe Administration opposing the pipeline. Photo courtesy of Linda Muller.

Dominion Resources and its regulated subsidiary, Dominion Virginia Power, are gambling big on natural gas. But while the utility giant will be a winner if gas prices stay low over the next 20 years, the risk of losing this bet is very real—and the risk is being borne disproportionately by Virginia consumers.

Ever since the shale gas boom sent natural gas prices into a tailspin beginning in 2008, Dominion has increasingly been putting its chips into gas. Its Virginia subsidiary just completed a 1,329 megawatt (MW) natural gas plant in Warren County, began construction last year on a 1,358 MW gas plant in Brunswick County, and last month announced plans for a 1,600 MW plant in Greenville County, to be operational in 2019. Virginia ratepayers will foot the bill for construction costs, plus the cost of operating and fueling these mammoth plants for decades to come.

But while Virginians tend to think of Dominion as an electricity provider, its bigger business line is in natural gas transmission and storage. According to the Dominion website, its subsidiary Dominion Transmission, Inc. maintains 7,800 miles of pipeline in six states and operates what it says is one of the largest underground natural gas storage facilities. Another subsidiary operates 1,500 miles of pipeline in South Carolina and Georgia. The company is moving aggressively to add and upgrade compressor stations and build additional pipeline capacity in West Virginia and Pennsylvania.

It is also angling to add a massive 42-inch diameter, 550-mile gas pipeline to run from West Virginia through Virginia to the coast in North Carolina. Promising a vast new supply of cheap fracked gas for industrial users, Dominion has won the support of lawmakers like Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe while galvanizing opposition from landowners and environmentalists.

Meanwhile, Dominion has another game afoot, with plans to begin exporting liquefied natural gas from its Cove Point, Maryland facility. Upgrading the facility will cost the company $3.8 billion, and running the liquefaction facility will require 240 MW of power (using more natural gas). Natural gas is so much more expensive in foreign markets that Dominion considers the gamble worthwhile, even as it cites a U.S. Energy Information Administration study for the proposition that little or no natural gas would be exported if the U.S. price “increases much above current expectations.”

All of these ventures depend on one crucial assumption: that natural gas prices will remain low for as many years as it takes to fully recover the cost of these investments, and then some. For electric generation, moreover, gas has to be able to outcompete other fuel sources. That includes not just coal and nuclear, both of which are being abandoned in droves in the face of cheap gas, but also new sources like solar and wind, which have trended steadily downward in price over the past two decades. In some regions of the country (although not yet Virginia), wind and solar prices already outcompete natural gas.

Gas does have the advantage of dispatchability—the ability to provide power according to the peaks and valleys of demand, allowing it to fill in around variable energy sources like wind and solar. That makes gas vital for backup generation, at least until power storage technologies become cheaper. But it wouldn’t justify the large-scale shift to gas for baseload generation, as Dominion’s plans envision, unless the company is right that gas prices will stay low.

If Dominion’s assessment of the market is wrong, its shareholders will take a hit. Higher natural gas prices could make the export business fizzle, and there might not be enough customers to justify the pipeline buildout. That’s why the company is moving so quickly to build the three massive new natural gas generating plants in Virginia under the ownership of its regulated subsidiary. Dominion is protecting its bet by locking Virginia electricity customers into gas for the long term, guaranteeing itself a market not just for its natural gas generating plants but also for its pipeline business. If the shale boom becomes a bust, or if prices rise to pre-boom levels, it will be Virginia ratepayers who pay through the nose or get stuck with stranded assets.

How big the risk is depends on whom you ask. The gas industry claims supplies will be sufficient to meet demand for decades to come. The U.S. Energy Information Agency, that voracious consumer of yesterday’s news, largely agrees (though it has more recently begun tempering its enthusiasm). If the optimists are right, production from the major shale gas plays will increase 40% by 2030 over today’s production levels, enough to support the mad rush to gas by Dominion and other utilities like it, without upward pressure on prices.

But a more pessimistic view is gaining adherents. As described in the December 2014 issue of the journal Nature, a team of a dozen geoscientists, petroleum engineers and economists at the University of Texas at Austin (UTA) has been analyzing assumptions behind the industry’s rosy outlook, and concludes it is wrong. Instead, the UTA study indicates production of natural gas from the “big four” shale plays will slow significantly after 2016, peak by about 2020, and then decline, dropping 20% from current levels by 2030. If so, the amount of natural gas coming to market in the U.S. will be less than half of what the optimists expect. The upward pressure on prices will be enormous.

The UTA team joins a growing chorus of doubters, whose studies suggest that the shale juggernaut can’t be maintained profitably. If these pessimists are correct, we should begin seeing evidence of it well before 2020. For now, there is at the least a very serious risk that cheap gas won’t last, and anyone who can’t afford to lose big would be well advised to wait it out.

IMG_0634There are other reasons Virginians should be wary of over-investment in natural gas infrastructure, both generating plants and pipelines. The need to fill pipelines will put pressure on the state to welcome fracking companies, both in the Marcellus shale in the western part of the state, and in the Taylorsville Basin in the east. Until 2010, Dominion itself owned gas drilling leases, and according to the Center for Media and Democracy, “Dominion is a member of several special interest groups that push for expanded drilling rights and limited or no regulation of fracking.”

With pollution of air and water a serious concern, and given the state’s tradition of lax regulation on industry, some localities are already looking for ways to exclude drilling companies from their borders. If we are going to have this fight, it shouldn’t be because one powerful corporation made a bad bet.

Finally, of course, there is the climate cost of natural gas. As we congratulate ourselves for leaving coal in the rear-view mirror, we need to recall that we have a long way to go to reach the carbon-free grid, and stalling out at the halfway point isn’t grounds for celebration.

Natural gas has a role to play in the transition period before wind, solar, and other carbon-free sources take over permanently, and it will remain useful as a back-up source when wind and solar aren’t producing power. But a wise energy policy today focuses on developing those renewable sources as fast as possible, reducing demand through investments in energy efficiency, and using natural gas as a backstop rather than as a primary source of power.

This approach reduces risk to the national economy if shale gas production declines, and it reduces risk to ratepayers stuck paying whatever the price of natural gas may be when demand outstrips supply.

Dominion Resources is an investor-owned corporation. As such, it is entitled to place risky bets in the hopes of making a killing for its shareholders. What it is not entitled to do is to shift the risk of losing the bet onto its captive ratepayers in Virginia.

With the odds so stacked against consumers, Virginia should refuse to play.

Thanks go to Richard Ball, PhD., Energy Chair of the Virginia Sierra Club, for his research and analysis of shale gas supplies.

Virginia’s legislative session ends. How did we do?

Photo credit: Corrina Beall

The General Assembly made a mad dash to the end of the 2015 legislative session last week. House Republicans were in a hurry to finish up a day early, even if bills suffered as a result, in the peculiar belief that prioritizing speed over quality would demonstrate their competence.

Apparently they thought that would play to the anti-government crowd. And I guess it does; if you weren’t anti-government before they pulled a stunt like that, you probably are now.

Being in a rush had to be their excuse for that ethics bill they pushed through in the final hours. I can finally understand why Senator Dick Saslaw says, “You can’t legislate ethics.” What he means is that the Virginia General Assembly can’t legislate ethics. Most of the rest of us would have no problem doing it. Our legislators, however, are just too fond of living well on the tab of corporate lobbyists.

So the new bill drops the gift limit from $250 to $100—but then removes the aggregate cap, allowing for an unlimited number of $99 gifts. Gifts that go over the limit but that are donated to charity now don’t count, providing a nice way for a legislator to buy popularity at no expense to himself.

A report from the group ProgressVA analyzes the bill’s effect and concludes that some 70% of lobbyists’ 2014 giving would still be legal under the new law, while opening up some brand-new loopholes. Among the most egregious is that lobbyists and their clients will now be able to pay for legislators to fly around the state for official meetings without the travel having to be disclosed, much less reimbursed. This means legislators from southwest Virginia can expect even more face time with coal lobbyists, but now on corporate jets—and their constituents will never know about it.

Addressing (or not) the issue of extravagant vacations paid for by companies with business before the legislature, the bill imposes a requirement that there be “a reasonable relationship between the purpose of the travel and the official duties of the requester.” That means junkets to France paid for by Virginia Uranium are still okay. So is letting corporate America pay for you to attend meetings of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), where lobbyists can teach you how to hobble environmental regulators and suppress voting.

If you can’t figure out a way to meet the reasonable relationship test (and I’m embarrassed for you if you have so little imagination), you can still accept a fun travel adventure as long as Virginia’s toothless ethics council approves it—or simply doesn’t act within five days of your request.

And of course, this so-called ethics reform makes no attempt to address the biggest obstacles to honest government in Virginia: the flood of corporate money into campaign chests and the ability of legislators to use campaign money for personal expenses. Even if Governor McAuliffe fixes the serious flaws in the ethics bill, nothing in it will stop companies like Dominion Resources from continuing to use cash to corrupt the democratic process.

Which brings us to energy legislation. The Associated Press summed up the situation very nicely: “Virginia’s 2015 legislative session was a good one for energy giant Dominion Resources Inc., the state’s most politically influential company. Legislation it wanted passed, passed. Bills it didn’t like did not.”

Chief among the legislation Dominion wanted was Senator Wagner’s SB 1349, which spares Dominion from having to refund excess profits for the next five years. Pretty much every newspaper in the state editorialized against it, so I’ll spare you a rehash of its failings.

Sadly, Governor McAuliffe signed the bill without amendments. He told reporters, “It was clear to Dominion that at the end of the day a veto would have been devastating for them.” If so, that’s a lot of leverage the Administration squandered.

And really, Governor, “devastating”? But since you fell for that, can I interest you in a bridge in Brooklyn?

SB 1349 does contain some welcome language calling solar energy projects of at least 1 MW in size, and up to an aggregate of 500 MW, “in the public interest,” a phrase that will help utilities when they seek approval for these projects at the State Corporation Commission. But nothing actually requires the utilities to build these projects, and the 1 MW size minimum has been carefully crafted to be above the limit for net-metered solar projects. Dominion wrote the bill for itself, not for ordinary people who want to go solar on their own.

The solar language was not originally part of SB 1349; it was imported from another Dominion bill, Delegate Yancey’s HB 2237, as a way to get buy-in from the solar industry and Democrats.

As for customer-owned solar, this was another bad year. The only concession won from Dominion was an increase in the size cap for net-metered projects from 500 kW to 1 MW, a compromise from the initial proposal of 2 MW.

Wherever else solar advocates faced utility opposition, they lost. That includes bills on community net metering, solar gardens, RPS improvements, expanded 3d party PPA availability, and a higher hurdle for standby charges. Also going down to early defeat was the renewable energy grant program that had been celebrated last year as a near-triumph (it only lacked passage again this year, plus—oh yeah—funding).

The GA did pass one of the Governor’s solar priorities, establishing the Virginia Solar Energy Development Authority (HB 2267 and others). The Authority is explicitly tasked with helping utilities find financing for solar projects; there is no similar language about supporting customer-owned solar. The Authority is supposed to identify barriers to solar, but isn’t given any tools to remove them. So we shall see.

Bills that did not require Dominion’s approval did better. Chief among these was legislation enabling Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) loans for commercial customers. This should help bring low-cost financing to energy efficiency and renewable energy projects at the commercial level.

And while Dominion’s sole concession to energy efficiency this year was agreeing to a “pilot program” of unspecified size as part of the SB1349 deal, natural gas utilities sought and won legislation (SB 1331) that makes it easier to win regulatory approval for energy efficiency programs that could benefit lots of customers. The difference is that natural gas companies have “decoupled” profits from sales, so it’s in their interest to help customers use energy more wisely. Dominion and Appalachian Power, by contrast, have a profit model that requires ever-increasing sales, making efficiency bad for business.

While legislators repeatedly shot down any solar bills that might be characterized as subsidies, they dropped their free market principles when it came to subsidies for coal mining. Unless the governor vetoes HB 1879, Virginia taxpayers will continue to pay tens of millions of dollars annually to prop up an uncompetitive industry with a long legacy of poisoning our air, land and water. Anyone who is ever tempted to believe a Virginia Republican’s claim to legislate based on his conservative principles and not merely on politics should check how they voted on this bill. (Here are the House votes, and here are the Senate votes.)

The limited progress made this year towards greening our energy supply does not bode well for compliance with the EPA’s Clean Power Plan. The only legislation that would have moved Virginia decisively towards compliance, by having us join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, died in committee. On the other hand, a number of bills that would have hindered compliance also died. True, SB 1349 makes the process harder by adding a hurdle to the closure of coal plants. Republicans also pushed through a bill that requires the Department of Environmental Quality to waste time and money studying whether the federal carbon reduction rules have health benefits beyond those gained by regulating conventional pollutants.

But overall, the session ended in a draw on climate issues. On the one hand, that’s bad, given that 2014 was the hottest year on record globally.* On the other hand, this is Virginia. Merely not regressing counts as progress here.

———————–

*I know, 2014 was not hot in eastern North America, and 2015 has started out with one of those winters that make people say they could use a little global warming. Nature has a keen sense of irony. But while you were shivering, the rising sea ate a little more of our shoreline.

 

 

 

Virginia’s amazing year in energy: gas rises, coal falls, and solar shines (but it’s still not okay to say “climate change”)

Virginians rally in front of U.S. EPA Headquarters in Washington, DC in support of the Clean Power Plan

Virginians rally in front of U.S. EPA Headquarters in Washington, DC in support of the Clean Power Plan

Nobody laughed a few years ago when former governor Bob McDonnell dubbed Virginia the “Energy Capital of the East Coast”; we were all too astounded by the hyperbole. And today, even “Energy Suburb” still seems like a stretch. Yet, if you measure achievement by the sheer level of activity, Virginia is making a play for importance. The year’s top energy stories show us fully engaged in the worldwide battle between fossil fuels and renewable energy. Of course, while the smart money says renewables will dominate by mid-century, Virginia seems determined to drown rather than give up its fossil fuel addiction.

Coal falls hard; observers disagree on whether it bounces or goes splat. Nationwide, 2014 was a bad year for the coal industry. Coal stocks fell precipitously; mining jobs continued to decline; and the one thing electric utilities and the public found to agree on is that no one likes coal. Even in Virginia, with its long history of mining, coal had to play defense for what may have been the first time ever. So when Governor McAuliffe released the state’s latest energy plan in October, what was otherwise a paean to “All of the Above” omitted the stanza on coal. And this month, the governor proposed a rollback of the subsidies coal companies pocket by mining Virginia coal.

Of course, coal is not going quietly; Senator Charles Carrico (himself heavily subsidized by Alpha Natural Resources) has already responded with a bill to extend the subsidies to 2022.

EPA opens a door to a cleaner future, and Republicans try to brick it up. Speaking of hard times for coal, in June the EPA unveiled its proposal to lower carbon emissions from existing power plants 30% nationwide by 2030. Instead of targeting plants one-by-one, EPA proposed a systemic approach, offering a suite of options for states to reach their individualized targets.

The proposal drew widespread support from the public, but Virginia’s 38% reduction target set off howls of protest from defenders of the status quo. The staff of the State Corporation Commission claimed the rule was illegal and would cost ratepayers $6 billion. Republicans convened a special meeting of the House and Senate Energy and Commerce Committees, where they tried out a number of arguments, not all of which proved ready for prime time. The rule, they said, threatens Virginia with a loss of business to more favored states like—and I am not making this up—West Virginia. Also, Virginia should have received more credit for lowering its carbon emissions by building nuclear plants back in the 1970s when no one was thinking about carbon emissions.

Meanwhile, the Southern Environmental Law Center analyzed the rule and concluded that actually, compliance will not be hard. Virginia is already 80% of the way there, and achieving the rest will produce a burst of clean-energy jobs coupled with savings for consumers through energy efficiency.

Undaunted, Republicans have already introduced a thumb-your-nose-at-EPA bill developed by the fossil fuel champions at the American Legislative Exchange Council.

The “solarize” movement takes Virginia by storm. For the last few years, solar energy has been exploding in popularity across the U.S., but Virginia always seemed to be missing the party. So it surprised even advocates this year when pent-up consumer demand manifested itself in the blossoming of local solar buying cooperatives and other bulk-purchase arrangements. “Solarize Blacksburg” made its debut in March, going on to sign up hundreds of homeowners for solar installations. It was followed in quick succession by the launch of similar programs in Richmond, Charlottesville, Harrisonburg, Northern Virginia, Halifax, Floyd, and Hampton Roads.

The main reason for the solarize programs’ success was the steep decline in the cost of solar energy. 2014 saw the cost of residential installations in Virginia fall to record low prices, making the investment worthwhile to a broad swath of homeowners for the first time.

Utilities say maybe to solar, but only for themselves. Virginia still boasts no utility-scale solar, but utilities elsewhere signed long-term power purchase contracts for solar energy at prices that were sometimes below that of natural gas: under 6.5 cents/kilowatt-hour in Georgia, and under 5 cents in Texas. Compare that to the estimated 9.3 cents/kWh cost of power from Dominion Virginia Power’s newest and most up-to-date coal plant, the Virginia City Hybrid Energy Plant, and you’ll understand why Dominion has suddenly taken an interest in solar projects. Sadly, it’s own foray into rooftop solar so far stands as an example of what not to do, and a testament to why the private market should be allowed to compete.

Yet Virginia utilities continued their hostility to customer-owned solar. Dominion put the kibosh on a bill that would have expanded access to solar energy through community net-metering, while Appalachian Power matched Dominion’s earlier success in imposing punitive standby charges on owners of larger residential systems.

Fracking, pipelines, and gas plants, oh my! Renewable energy may be the future, but the present belongs to cheap natural gas. Yes, the fracking process is dirty, noisy and polluting, and yes, methane leakage around gas wells is exacerbating climate change. But did we mention gas is cheap?

2014 saw proposals to drill gas wells east of I-95, while the Virginia government began updating its regulations to govern fracking. Dominion Power started construction on a second new gas power plant, and talked up its plans for a third. The utility giant, a major player in the gas transmission business, also got approval to turn its liquefied natural gas import terminal in Cove Point, Maryland, into an export terminal. With visions of customers dancing in its head, it also announced plans for a major new pipeline to bring fracked gas from West Virginia through Virginia and into North Carolina—one of three proposed pipelines that would cut through the Virginia countryside and across natural treasures like the Appalachian Trail. The pipeline created an instant protest movement but gained the wholehearted approval of Governor McAuliffe.

Flooding in Hampton Roads becomes the new normal; it’s still not okay to ask what’s causing it. A cooler-than-normal year for the eastern United States gulled many landlubbers into believing that global warming was taking a breather, but meanwhile the ocean continued its inexorable rise along Virginia’s vulnerable coastline. It’s one thing to shrug off the occasional storm, said residents; it’s harder to ignore seawater that cuts off your parking lot at every high tide. 2014 will go down as the year everyone finally agreed we have a problem—even in the General Assembly, which passed legislation to develop a response to the “recurrent flooding.” But while the bill recognized that the problem will just get worse, it avoided noting why.

The public gets it, though. The Richmond Times-Dispatch reports that climate change was the number one topic of interest to writers of letters to the editor in 2014. And loud cheers greeted Governor McAuliffe’s announcement that he would reestablish the state’s commission on climate change, which Bob McDonnell had disbanded. As one environmental leader quipped, “People in Tidewater are tired of driving through tidal water.”

Public corruption: in Virginia, it’s not just for politicians. Everyone can agree that it was a really bad year for the Virginia Way, that gentlemanly notion that persons of good character don’t need no stinkin’ ethics laws. But we also saw plenty to prove the adage that the real scandal is what’s legal. As we learned, Virginia law allows unlimited corporate contributions to campaigns, and puts no limits on what campaigns can spend money on. So if some legislators act more like corporate employees than servants of the public, well, that’s how the system was set up to work.

But the system only works when corporations get their money’s worth from the politicians, and that quid pro quo usually comes at the public’s expense. For example, take Dominion Power’s North Anna 3 shenanigans (please). In an exceptionally bold exploitation of the Virginia Way, Dominion Power secured passage of legislation allowing it to bill customers for hundreds of millions of dollars it had spent towards a new nuclear plant that it is unlikely to build. (And the irony is that ratepayers will still be better off throwing the money down that rathole than they will be if Dominion does manage to build it.)

So as we look ahead to 2015’s energy battles, anyone wondering who the winners and losers will be needs only one piece of guidance: in Virginia, just follow the money.

Dominion ditches plans for onshore wind in Virginia, but grows bullish on solar

Not for you, Virginia.

Not for you, Virginia.

Well, now it’s semi-official: in spite of what it has been telling customers for years, Dominion Power is not going to build onshore wind in Virginia. Speaking at an Edison Electric Institute conference in Dallas on November 13, Dominion Resources Executive Vice President and CFO Mark Gettrick spelled it out:

“When the wind business first got started, a decade, a decade and a half ago, we built two wind projects early on [Mt. Storm, in West Virginia, and Fowler Ridge, in Indiana], and we elected not to build any more. We steered away from wind. We do not think wind would ever be a good resource on land, in Virginia anyway, and so we elected not to pursue incremental wind projects.”

Someone should probably let the rest of the company in on the secret. Dominion’s website still insists the company has three Virginia onshore wind projects in development, and it included 247 megawatts’ worth in its latest Integrated Resource Plan (IRP). But the plan reflects the company’s cooling enthusiasm for wind energy, with the projects now slated for 2022-2024.

This is disappointing news, but it certainly isn’t a surprise. Dominion proposed its Virginia wind farms back before fracking caused natural gas prices to nosedive, undercutting the economic case for wind. At that point, Virginia’s lack of a real RPS meant Dominion had no incentive to build higher-priced generation, and every reason to believe the State Corporation Commission would reject a wind project, as it did similar proposals from Appalachian Power.

But though it is abandoning wind, the company is enthusiastic about solar. Gettrick said Dominion sees “gas and solar” as the way to comply with the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, which will require states to lower their carbon emissions from electric generating plants. Gettrick said:

“We see a growing need in Virginia to install solar for native load compliance with carbon. So that’s what we’re doing . . . So watch where we go with solar. We like the technology, the cost continues to drop, and we see it as a cornerstone for future development in Virginia.”

Advocates may wonder, why solar and not wind? Wind would seem to be cheaper, after all, and a single utility-scale turbine provides more power than hundreds of home solar systems.

The IRP offers part of the answer. For a utility, not all power is equal. Dominion has plenty of power for times when demand is low; the challenge is filling in the peaks and valleys of demand above that minimum level. Dominion needs the most power on summer days when solar produces well but wind does not.

The other part of the answer is price. This will surprise people who have seen the rock-bottom prices of wind power in places like Iowa and Texas, where wind outcompetes even natural gas. But it’s cheap to build wind among cornfields or on open rangeland, where access is easy. It’s more expensive to do it in the eastern mountains, where narrow, winding roads pose logistical challenges. The result is that wind power in the Southeast will cost about double what it costs in the Plains, according to the most recent Lazard analysis.

By contrast, Lazard calculates that utility scale solar power costs only about 20% more in the Southeast than it does in the dry, sunny Southwest, where utility-scale solar has reached grid parity. So while the best wind prices are well below the best solar prices nationwide, solar may be cheaper than wind in Virginia.

Lazard’s analyses are based on actual projects, but it also makes some predictions about where prices are headed. It projects unsubsidized utility-scale solar prices of six cents per kilowatt-hour by 2017, confirming predictions of widespread grid parity made by other analysts like Citibank and Deutsche Bank.

If you’re concerned about meeting EPA carbon emissions rules, or just concerned about the environment, period–or you want a reliable and stable-priced resource to hedge gas–solar makes very good sense.

Given these price trends, Dominion’s enthusiasm is entirely understandable. But surely it has some explaining to do, after years of trashing solar to legislators and the SCC. It has gone so far as to slap standby charges on customers who generate their own solar power. And as we’ve seen, its own forays into rooftop solar can’t be counted a success.

But perhaps we could all let bygones be bygones. If Dominion would focus its efforts on utility-scale solar while allowing the removal of barriers constraining the private market for commercial and residential solar, all of us would be winners.

Dominion’s ties to ALEC, McDonnell’s conviction, all part of one corrupt package

Group Dominion quit ALEc image 2

Protesters gather outside the Crystal City headquarters of ALEC

A crowd of protesters gathered at the Arlington headquarters of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) on September 4 to demand that Dominion Resources, the parent of public utility monopoly Dominion Virginia Power, drop its membership in the right wing “bill mill.”

On the very same day, a jury convicted ex-Governor Bob McDonnell and his wife on federal corruption charges, setting off a new round of debate about Virginia’s lax ethics laws.

The two news items sound like different topics, but in fact they are both about the corruption undermining our democratic system. The McDonnell trial, with its focus on swank vacations, golf clubs, designer clothes and other neat stuff, actually missed the bigger breach of public trust that goes on every day. This takes the form of unlimited corporate campaign contributions and gifts to members of both parties, and the influence over legislation purchased by this largesse.

Dominion Power has spent decades and many millions of dollars building its influence in Richmond this way, to the point where most legislators don’t bother pursuing a bill if the utility signals its opposition. That’s why Virginia has not followed so many other states in requiring its utilities to invest in energy efficiency, wind and solar. Economic arguments, jobs, electricity rates—all these are talked about in committee, and all are irrelevant to the fate of a bill. The only relevant question for legislators is, “What does Dominion think?”

What Dominion thinks, though, is not about what’s good for its customers, but what’s good for its own bottom line. And this is where ALEC comes in. Dominion Virginia Power’s president, Bob Blue, sits on an ALEC committee with representatives from the climate-denial group Heartland Institute, the Koch-funded anti-environment group Americans for Prosperity, and that most oxymoronic of lobby shops, the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity. Their purpose is to craft model state bills that protect fossil fuel profits and attack all efforts to regulate carbon emissions.

Dominion provides a straight shot from ALEC’s back-room bill-brokering to Virginia’s statute books, trampling environmental protections along the way and giving the lie to Dominion’s façade of environmental responsibility. No wonder so many of last week’s protesters were Dominion customers who objected to the utility using the money it charges them for electricity to pay its ALEC dues.

We see the result every year in the General Assembly, as bills drafted by ALEC pop up all over the place without attribution. In addition to attacking clean energy, ALEC bills oppose worker protections and minimum wage initiatives, promote stand-your-ground bills like the one at issue in the Trayvon Martin case, and of course, undermine the kinds of clean-government efforts that would reduce the influence of corporations—like campaign finance reform.

And because the voters are the only people who could prove more powerful than corporations—and the only ones who might ultimately cut off the corporate cash flow—ALEC works to undermine voting rights as well.

In the wake of the McDonnells’ convictions, Virginia legislators are once again mumbling about tightening up the rules on gifts. The discussion is half-hearted; the pay for their work is paltry and the hours are long, so they aren’t anxious to give up the perks.

But it’s too late for half-measures. Elected officials are going to have to subject themselves to a ban on gifts, and the prohibition should extend to ballgame tickets, golf getaways and sit-down dinners. The loophole that currently allows campaign funds to be used for personal use must also be closed to avoid an end-run around the gift ban.

But until we turn off the corporate cash spigot, our democracy will still have special interests, not voters, calling too many shots.