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

electric vehicle plugged in

Vehicle electrification gets a boost under the energy plan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

What will it take for Virginia’s largest jurisdiction to raise the bar on energy policy?

cars on a flooded roadway

Cars caught in a flash flood during Northern Virginia’s intense rainstorm on July 17. Photo courtesy of Hayfield Varsity Gymnastics, https://twitter.com/hayfieldgvgym?lang=en.

Last week, 40 drivers traveling on the George Washington Parkway had to be rescued near National Airport when a flash flood brought water up to their car doors. This week, Northern Virginia experienced a tornado, more flash flooding and road closures, more rescues and more power outages.

Extreme weather events like these are among the effects climate scientists were warning about in 2007, when Fairfax County adopted the Cool Counties Climate Stabilization Declaration. The County committed to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 20% below its 2005 baseline by 2020 and by 80% by 2050.

So how is the County doing with that? Not so good.

Last week, more than 10 years after its Cool Counties Declaration, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors finally adopted what it called an Operational Energy Strategy for its own facilities, vehicles, and other operations with specific—but astonishingly weak—targets and deadlines for action. Supervisors who voted for the plan called it  “a step forward” or “a baseline.” (Watch the video here; discussion begins at 1:29:22.)

Local activists were less kind. “It may not be fiddling while Rome burns, but it comes close,” wrote the co-founder of Faith Alliance for Climate Solutions (FACS) Scott Peterson in a Washington Post op-ed.

To their credit, Supervisors John Foust (Dranesville District) and Dan Storck (Mt. Vernon District) urged their colleagues to adopt stronger measures. “We are out of the mainstream on renewable energy,” Foust told his colleagues.

“Do we really believe this effort is proportional to the challenges or the opportunities?” asked Storck. “The waters are rising, and they are rising in the Mt. Vernon District.”

The Board’s action is yet another disappointment for Fairfax residents interested in aggressive action to combat climate change and to reduce the county’s long-term energy costs. The Sierra Club, FACS and others have tried for years to get Fairfax County to live up to the commitment it made in 2007. (In those days I was part of a citizen’s group that offered advice to the County on ways to implement energy savings. Our suggestions were ignored, and in 2009 the County disbanded our group.)

The County Board is dominated by Democrats who say they care about climate change, but even meeting the County’s obligations as a member of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (MWCOG) seems to lie beyond their ambitions. A chart prepared by the Sierra Club comparing Fairfax County’s climate and energy goals for its local operations to those of MWCOG and other local jurisdictions makes the County’s shortcomings clear. The most striking example: MWCOG says its members should meet 20% of their electricity needs with renewable energy by 2020. Fairfax County’s plan for renewable energy begins and ends with a single solar facility on one warehouse in Springfield.

Moreover, in sharp contrast to D.C., Arlington, and Montgomery County, Fairfax County has not implemented a community energy and climate action plan to address the 97% of GHG emissions contributed by the private sector.  In fact, the county has not even begun to develop such an action plan. The recommendations of a 2012 Private Sector Energy Task Force, initiated by the Board Chair, have languished.

Fairfax County’s inaction is as puzzling as it is disappointing. With a population of over 1.1 million, Fairfax is Virginia’s largest county as well as the second-richest county in the nation, after neighboring Loudoun. One in seven Virginians lives in Fairfax. We’ve got 414,000 homes and 116,000 businesses, including a strong tech sector that increasingly demands renewable energy—not least of all because it can save them money.

Nor is Fairfax held back by politics. The county has steadily grown more Democratic in elections. In 2017, Democrat Ralph Northam beat his Republican challenger by a whopping 36 points.

So what would it take to move Fairfax County from left-behind to leader? Advocates agree the County needs to make three big changes: commit to serious targets for renewable energy and energy efficiency in county operations; actively assist residents and businesses to save energy and go solar; and become an advocate for stronger state policies, including removing barriers to customer-sited solar.

A ten-point action plan might look like this:

1).  Ensure that County staff provides a thorough one-year review of the approach, cost savings, and GHG reductions under the County Operations Energy Strategy, including the consideration of options necessary to meet the goals of the MWCOG Climate and Energy Action Plan for 2017 to 2020.

2). Expedite the proposed Request for Proposals for Solar Purchase Power Agreements (PPA) announced on July 11th(but curiously not included in the Energy Strategy).  By late 2018, the County should finalize a PPA contract to facilitate the installation of on-site solar on county buildings.  By drafting the RFP and contract to allow the Fairfax County Public Schools and other localities to ride the contract, Fairfax County government could jumpstart solar development and jobs in Northern Virginia.

3).  Participate in a September 7 workshop at the County Government Center on budget-neutral clean energy funding alternatives (e.g., Energy Savings Performance Contracts, Solar Power Purchase Agreements, public-private partnerships).  This workshop will provide an improved understanding of the opportunities provided by these funding alternatives to support more aggressive energy and climate goals while limiting impacts on county real estate taxes. FCPS has achieved several million dollars in energy savings using ESPCs to obtain GHG reductions and can serve as a model of success.

4).  Complete its ongoing Commercial Property Assessed Clean Energy (C-PACE) initiative by enacting an ordinance necessary to support a C-PACE Program and by implementing the program by late 2019.  This action will provide critical financing to supercharge the inclusion of energy efficiency and renewable energy measures in eligible buildings, thereby supporting the County’s goals to repurpose and revitalize underutilized buildings.

5).  Develop and implement a County-wide Energy and Climate Action Plan to address GHG emissions from residents and businesses.

6).  Develop and implement an action plan to increase county resiliency in order to prepare for the impacts of climate change and help reduce the impact and costs of extreme weather events.

7).  Meet all obligations under Cool Counties and the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments Climate Plan.

8). Support county staff by increasing staffing levels for energy and climate functions and by establishing a dedicated Energy Office reporting directly to the County Executive. Without an effective organizational structure and adequate resources, implementation of key recommendations is highly uncertain and the county is unlikely to maximize energy cost savings or meet its own climate goals.

9).  Engage in strong advocacy with the General Assembly and the Governor to promote the enactment of legislation removing barriers to customer-sited solar.  This legislation has already been endorsed by the county’s Environmental Quality Advisory Committee.  Removing these barriers would allow the County to pursue the installation of a major solar array on the Lorton Landfill.

10).  Work with the Virginia Association of Counties to enlist its support for legislation to remove barriers to on-site solar.

Given its size and resources, Fairfax County can’t continue to sit back and wait for others to do the hard work. Climate change has reached us. To paraphrase Supervisor Storck, the waters are rising, and they are rising here.

 

Just in time for the 2018 legislative session, a way to actually understand Virginia energy law

The sections of the Virginia Code devoted to energy law present a nearly impenetrable thicket to anyone who isn’t a lawyer—and indeed, to most lawyers as well. Sentences sometimes go on for pages without a break, with clauses wrapped in other clauses like a set of Russian nesting dolls. Words don’t always mean what they do in ordinary English, but you won’t know that unless you find your way to separate sections containing the surprise definitions. And references to “Phase I” and “Phase II” utilities seem deliberately calculated to confuse. (For the record, they mean Dominion and APCo.)

Lawyers are said to like complicated and obscure language because it ensures their services remain in demand, but I’ve never met a fellow lawyer who actually subscribed to this cynical view. Most believe we are all better off when laws are easy to understand, both so we can comply and, when necessary, make reforms. This is especially true when the laws are like Virginia’s: packed with favors to powerful monopolies and riddled with booby-traps for consumers. It’s hard to change a law if you can’t make head or tail of it to begin with.

So the law firm GreeneHurlocker deserves applause for its new guide to the Virginia Code’s electric utility laws. The 33-page booklet pulls together the major relevant code sections and annotates them in clear and concise English with virtual sticky notes. Principles of Electric Utility Regulation in Virginia is not a textbook or even a primer, but something more like a travel guide, complete with a map and signposts directing the traveler to sites of particular interest.

In announcing the release of the guidebook, GreeneHurlocker lawyer William Reisinger said the intent was to provide a sort of “’Cliffs Notes’ for some of the complicated utility statutes. We have no agenda with this document, other than to help demystify some of these laws and provide some useful background.”

They’ve succeeded. Those who are used to rummaging around the online version of the Code in search of the right section to answer a particular question will find the guidebook a huge timesaver. For others who don’t even know where to begin with the Code, it offers a way in.

Perhaps most importantly, for legislators and other leaders used to relying on lobbyists to tell them what is in the Code, the guidebook will make it easier for them to do their own research.

When I first saw the guidebook, I had a momentary fear (which was also a momentary hope) that it would put my own annual “Guide to wind and solar policy” out of business as a source for policy information. As it turns out, though, the two take very different approaches and are useful for different purposes.

So you may find a use for both, but in any case you will certainly want GreeneHurlocker’s guide.

Show up and be counted

Just in case you own neither a television nor a mailbox, don’t read a newspaper, only use your computer to watch videos of a Japanese cat with a thing for boxes, and never answer a telephone call from an unfamiliar number because it might be Rachel from Cardholder Services . . .

Tomorrow is Election Day in Virginia. Judging from the ads, politicians think you are most interested in which candidate has a hidden agenda of coddling violent gang members, or which one will dramatically lower our taxes simply by cutting the waste that every one of his predecessors somehow missed.

But I’d like to put in a plug for choosing candidates who support people over corporations, the public good over special interests, the environment over polluters, and the free market over monopoly. And if the candidates you’re choosing between don’t do any of those things as well as they should, vote anyway, because only by voting do you have the right to hold elected officials accountable.

The Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club has endorsed candidates at the state and local level whose background and responses to questionnaires and interviews show they are most likely to support the environment in office. The endorsements are made by the chapter’s Political Committee and the volunteer Executive Committee, in consultation with members most knowledgeable about the issues and the candidates. As a non-partisan organization, the Sierra Club can and does endorse Republicans as well as Democrats, but the Republican vow of ignorance on climate change tends to make it hard to find ones the Club can endorse. (The standout exception is Republican Delegate Randy Minchew of Leesburg.)

A group called Activate Virginia has also compiled a handy list of candidates who have pledged not to take contributions from the likes of Dominion Energy, which has used its remarkable influence to enrich itself at the expense of consumers and lull even otherwise savvy leaders into supporting the expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure.

Personally, I find it pretty easy to know who to vote for. No serious candidate still denies that the planet is warming or that humans are causing it. (Regrettably, we have a lot of un-serious candidates.) Governor McAuliffe finally put in motion a proposed rulemaking that would lower carbon emissions from power plants. Ralph Northam has pledged to see it through if he is elected Governor. Ed Gillespie has pledged to kill it. Northam gets my vote.

New fracked gas pipelines will raise energy prices and commit Virginia to decades more of rising greenhouse gas emissions, while crowding out cleaner and cheaper renewable energies like wind and solar. Candidate for Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax opposes the pipelines, while Jill Vogel repeats the mindless “all of the above” pablum so popular with politicians who aren’t troubled by the difference between a mountaintop dotted with wind turbines and one blown up for its coal. Fairfax gets my vote.

Attorney General Mark Herring has been a champion for the environment and consumers in court and before the State Corporation Commission. His challenger John Adams has a cool name. Herring gets my vote.

For minorities and the poor, “cheap” energy comes at a high cost

Utilities and other energy companies often resist clean energy mandates and tighter environmental regulation, but they swear it’s not about their lost profits. No, it is their single-minded devotion to the public good that drives them to defend fossil fuel pollution. Only by fouling the air and water can they keep energy costs low, especially—cue the crocodile tears—for minorities and poor people. Guest blogger Kendyl Crawford weighs in with a closer look at the real effect of fossil fuels on the folks polluters say they care about.

Children from the Southeast Care Coalition make their point about the link between air quality and asthma.

Children from the Southeast Care Coalition make their point about the link between air quality and asthma.

By Kendyl Crawford

There is an old adage that goes, “When White America sneezes, Black America catches pneumonia.” It describes the way problems affecting the economy as a whole are magnified for African-Americans, whose place on the economic ladder is already tenuous. The same can be said for Latinos, recent immigrants, and members of low-income communities. And just as these Americans are the ones hardest hit by economic setbacks, so they are the ones who suffer most from an energy economy based on fossil fuels.

Worse, they are often used as pawns by fossil fuel companies who declare that poor people need cheap energy, without accounting for the true cost of that energy. And that true cost can be very high. Over half a million people in Virginia live within 3 miles of coal-fired power plants. Of this group, 52% are minorities and 34% are members of the low-income community. This doesn’t seem like much of a disparity until you realize that Virginia has a total minority population of 35% and a low-income population of 26%.

The fossil fuel industry has a long history of siting power plants strategically, avoiding upper class, white areas whose residents have the power and influence to be able to cry NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard). Communities with less political and economic power got stuck with the facilities—often along with other unwanted neighbors like highways, heavy industry, and waste dumps. In many cases, the communities were there first and then became the victims of zoning changes that gave the green light to polluting facilities. Residents ended up with higher environmental health burdens and lower home values, often with no compensating economic boost from the presence of the facility. The term for siting highly-polluting facilities in these communities now even has its own acronym: PIMBY, for “Put it In Minorities’ Back Yard.”

The 2014 NAACP Coal Blooded: Putting Profits before People report gave five Virginia power plants an F for their environmental justice performance, a grade based on how much a particular plant impacts both low-income and minority communities. The score takes into account the amount of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides air pollution; total population within a three-mile radius of a facility; median income; and the percentage of minorities that make up the population in the close vicinity.

The NAACP report also gave a failing environmental justice performance score to Virginia’s largest utility, Dominion Resources. Dominion ranked as the 6th worst performing company in the U.S. and a “worst offender” in terms of environmental justice.

It’s not just coal. The Clean Air Task Force report Gasping for Breath highlights the fact that nationwide the oil and gas industry releases 9 million tons of pollution such as methane and benzene annually. Many of these toxic pollutants have been linked to cancer and respiratory disorders as well as increasing smog. Every summer there are 2,000 visits to the emergency room for acute asthma attacks and more than 600 hospital admissions for respiratory diseases that are directly related to the ozone smog that results from oil and gas pollution.

Not surprisingly, asthma takes its greatest toll on minorities. According to the EPA, black children are about four times more likely to die from asthma than white children. They are also twice as likely to be hospitalized for asthma. From 2001 to 2009, the asthma rate for black children increased almost 50%. African Americans, with lower rates of health insurance coverage, have fewer resources to manage these added stressors.

Latino children fare similarly poorly. Higher poverty rates and lower rates of insurance coverage mean Latino children have more severe asthma attacks than non-Hispanic white children and are more likely to end up in emergency rooms.

Of course, it’s not just minorities who suffer the harmful consequences of fossil fuels. Low-income people in general have fewer choices in where to live, have less access to health care, and often have little political power. In Virginia, this includes many residents of coalfields communities, whose families may have worked in coal mines for generations and yet have little to show for it.

Climate change will only increase the burden on minorities and low-income communities. For instance, many African American communities have historically been relegated to the least-valued land in a particular city or county, and this land is often low-lying. A recent article exposed the fact that when public housing is destroyed due to sea level rise, stronger storm surges and more extreme storms, it often doesn’t get rebuilt, forcing folks to relocate permanently.

Atmospheric warming will also lead to more health issues related to air pollution, which tends to increase with higher temperatures. But heat itself will take a toll, too, especially for those in substandard housing or who can’t afford air conditioning.

Most at risk will be those who work outdoors, among them construction workers, landscapers and farmworkers. Again, these are disproportionately minorities. Latinos make up about 48% of farm workers and almost 30% of construction workers in the U.S. As noted in the report Nuestro Futuro: Climate Change and U.S. Latinos, Latinos are already three times more likely to die from heat-related causes on the job than non-Hispanic whites. Climate change is expected to increase temperatures further. Hispanic communities are also generally located in areas of cities that are the hottest due to lack of vegetation and green spaces and the use of heat-trapping building materials.

These health impacts will be compounded by high poverty levels and low rates of health insurance. A Hispanic who is employed has less of a chance of having health insurance than a non-Hispanic person. When conditions like cardiovascular disease or diabetes are not treated and controlled, they can trigger visits to the emergency room after being exposed to extreme heat. Not to mention, language barriers can make it harder to obtain care.

Recent immigrants may also face greater difficulties following severe weather events, which are expected to increase in both frequency and intensity. Depending on their immigration status, disaster assistance may be hard to obtain or even completely unavailable.

So when utilities and fossil fuel companies urge our political leaders to keep energy costs low for the poor folks, we should recognize that what they really want is to keep profits high for themselves. They aren’t doing their customers any favors.

Kendyl Crawford is a Program Conservation Manager with the Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club.

 

Basic change in utility business and regulation is inevitable: Advanced energy is coming to all utilities, like it or not.

Photo credit: Sierra Club

Photo credit: Sierra Club

Occasionally I ask other people to write for this blog, not merely because I am lazy, but also because energy policy is such a broad topic that I sometimes overlook new developments and perspectives. This week guest blogger Jane Twitmyer takes a step back from the battle over our energy future to point out that the battlefield itself is shifting under our feet—a fact which, if ignored, could cost utility customers dearly.  –I.M.

A favorite utility narrative holds that the federal Clean Power Plan is the reason we must upgrade our electric utility system and reduce emissions from fossil fuels. Without it, we could continue to run our big coal and gas plants and leave unchanged the transmission grid that has served us so well. But the truth is, the EPA as ‘bully’ is a myth. A new report from the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) concludes “significant changes are occurring” in the way we generate and use electricity regardless of whether or not the Clean Power Plan, still under court challenge, is implemented. One change: NERC has tripled the amount of new renewable energy generation it predicts for next year.

NERC is just catching up with analysts and investment banks, who have been documenting the changes for several years. The Rocky Mountain Institute warns that grid-connected, solar-plus-battery-storage systems “will be economic within the next 10-15 years for many customers in many parts of the country,” undercutting utility sales and turning electricity markets “upside down.”

Investment analysts agree. CitiGroup predicts utilities could suffer a “50%+ decline in their addressable market.” Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla, just made an offer to buy SolarCity because he believes on-site generation will eventually supply a third of our total electricity, and will be accompanied by huge amounts of battery storage like Tesla’s Powerpack.

Musk believes electric cars will increase demand for electricity, but other analysts see energy efficiency lowering demand. Efficient buildings are given a central place in the new energy mix in the NERC report.

Using less energy, or increasing our energy intensity, will reduce demand significantly without creating the economic disaster we have been warned will occur. Minnesota found the state’s efficiency program returned $4 for every $1 invested, helping to create almost $6 billion in new economic output. One of Warren Buffet’s utilities expects to reduce demand enough to close a couple of old coal plants and still not need any new generation until 2028. The utility is financing those retrofits for its customers’ buildings.

E-Lab, a group at the Rocky Mountain Institute that works with all industry stakeholders to chart our electricity systems, also sees changes in grid management systems making delivery of electricity more efficient. Pilot projects using new technology with grid-regulating software and designed with a variety of regulatory changes and financing models are being tested all around the country.

Each kilowatt-hour supplied by a rooftop solar panel, stored in an on-site battery, or saved by an efficient building, means one less kilowatt-hour utilities must generate. This inevitable reduction in central grid demand is why the future isn’t just about switching resources, like burning gas instead of coal, or even building solar and wind farms. The future is about a re-imagined system that allows and encourages you and me and our local mall to make our own electricity on-site, feeding some of what we make into storage and some onto the grid, and allowing us to draw on the grid when we need to.

We have the technology to create the new system, and regardless of any new EPA rules, this is the right time to replace the old technology. In 2010, 70% of our coal plants and all of our nuclear facilities were more than 30 years old. Recently SNL Energy identified 21,357 MW of coal, gas and nuclear generation “at risk” of early closure through 2020, plants that are inefficient and no longer economic to run.

Here in Virginia, our utilities don’t seem to be getting the message. Dominion Virginia Power has chosen to put most of its new investment dollars into large-scale natural gas plants, not renewable energy. Five or six years ago natural gas was believed to be the ‘transition’ fuel that could take us from coal to renewables-based electricity. We now understand that methane, released when extracting and distributing gas, is 86 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than CO2 while it is in the atmosphere. In addition, methane emissions have been both underreported and inaccurately measured, raising concerns that the climate impact of natural gas may be far greater than originally thought. New methane rules are being developed that should give us a better picture of actual emission levels, but it is already clear that if natural gas is a bridge fuel, the bridge must be a short one.

With analysts predicting the transition to renewable energy will happen sooner rather than later, investing heavily in new gas plants carries a significant economic risk as well as a climate risk. Investors like UBS Bank believe too many large plants will be “structural losers,” assets whose use is diminished before they are paid for. Going forward, we will still need to use some measure of natural gas, but natural gas can no longer be labeled the ‘transition’ fuel.

Our utility systems are at a crossroad. One road requires our utilities, our regulators and our legislators to re-imagine our electricity system, rethinking the old monopoly rate regulations that reward centralized fossil fuel generation. This reimagined system will require a grid that is no longer the rigid one-directional distributer of electricity, but rather one that finds value in resources that generate and store electricity where it is used. If we fail to take that road, the alternative path will lead to ‘grid defection’: customers choosing to leave the grid and provide their own electricity by installing solar with batteries and retrofitting their buildings to use less. One thing is certain: a top down, monopolistic, state-regulated system is NOT the future.

As NERC concluded, changes to the energy mix, and to the level of demand, are happening with or without the Clean Power Plan. They are happening because it is time to rebuild our aging energy infrastructure. They are happening because the technology is now available to create an energy system that protects our air and our water as well as our atmosphere. And the changes are happening because a rebuilt system, designed as an interactive network, not a one directional, top-down grid, will actually be a cheaper system. It will be a system that is more reliable and more resilient, as well as more secure from storms and attack. That rebuilt system will serve Virginia’s electricity customers better without risk to our air, our water or our climate.

Jane Twitmyer is a renewable energy consultant and advocate.

 

Virginia’s energy future is up for discussion this Wednesday in Arlington

Visitors tour the solar installation on the roof of Wakefield HS in Arlington. Photo credit Phil Duncan

Visitors tour the solar installation on the roof of Wakefield HS in Arlington. Photo credit Phil Duncan

Those of you in Northern Virginia might be interested in attending a screening of the film “The Future of Energy” at the Arlington Cinema and Drafthouse on Wednesday, May 25 at 7:30 p.m. I will be leading a discussion of energy issues and the future of renewable energy in Virginia following the movie.

“The Future of Energy: Lateral Power to the People” is billed as “a positive film about the renewable energy revolution,” and “the people and communities leading the way towards a renewable energy future.” You can watch the trailer on the website of the Arlington Cinema and Drafthouse.

Arlingtonians for a Clean Environment (ACE) is hosting the screening. Tickets are $10, or $5 for students at the door. Doors open at 6:30, which is a good time to arrive if you want to order dinner and drinks and talk to some of the local environmental leaders who are attending.

ACE and the Sierra Club have teamed up on a campaign called “Ready for 100,” with a goal of leading Arlington and the city of Alexandria towards a goal of 100% renewable energy for the electric sector by 2035. ACE’s director, Elenor Hodges, and Dean Amel, Chair of the Mount Vernon Group of the Sierra Club, will be on hand to provide more information about the “Ready for 100” campaign. Arlington Energy Manager John Morrill will also be there to answer questions.

ACE is also working with VA-SUN on a new solar bulk-purchasing cooperative for Northern Virginia residents and businesses called the Potomac Solar Co-op and will have information available about it on Wednesday. An information session for the co-op is planned for June 8.

Arlington is already recognized for its leadership on clean energy, with groundbreaking projects like a net-zero-energy elementary school. But getting to 100% will take a truly determined, collective effort on the part of homeowners, businesses and local government. We will also likely need to see reforms to state policies and laws that currently present barriers to renewable energy. These state barriers affect all Virginians, so while Wednesday’s focus will be on Arlington, the discussion will be relevant to everyone who wants to see a clean energy future in Virginia.