A Candidate’s Guide to Clean Energy and the Pipelines

Anti-pipeline activists gather at an event called Hands Across the Appalachian Trail on August 19. Photo courtesy of Chris Tandy.

Recently I attended a forum where a candidate for statewide office discussed his energy policies and voiced his support for wind and solar. He embraced a goal of Virginia reaching at least 30% renewable energy by 2030, which was roundly applauded. But then he added that we couldn’t get started on it without advances in battery storage, because, he said, without storage there is no way to put surplus wind and solar on the grid.

People around the room look dumbfounded. They weren’t energy experts, but they knew that was flat-out wrong. Later he made other statements that showed he misunderstood facts about energy, climate change and the grid, hadn’t questioned what he’d been told by utility lobbyists, or just hadn’t been paying much attention.

Maybe you are a candidate yourself (or you work for one), and you don’t want to embarrass yourself by saying so, but you frankly don’t understand what was wrong with that statement about wind and solar. Or perhaps you are an activist and you’d like to help your local candidate for office bone up on some of the most important issues he or she will have to vote on while in office.

Allow me to help. Here is what you need to know about the hot-button energy issues in Virginia today. I’ll also offer my opinion about where you should stand on those issues, but that part is up to you.

Solar is coming on strong—and it is the cheapest energy in Virginia today. This astounds people who don’t keep up with energy trends, but it’s what Dominion Energy Virginia’s latest integrated resource plan (IRP) reveals. Utility-scale solar farms, 20 megawatts (MW) and up, can produce electricity at a cost that beats coal, gas and nuclear. That’s why Dominion’s IRP proposes a build-out of 240 MW of solar per year. It’s why Amazon Web Services has been building 260 MW of solar in five Virginia counties to supply its data centers. It’s why, over the past year, developers have proposed more than 1,600 MW of additional solar capacity in counties across the state. It’s also why today, solar already employs more Virginians than coal.

None of the solar under development includes battery storage. It doesn’t have to, because electricity from solar all goes into one big grid.

The grid is HUGE. If you’re from around here, you probably remember the earthquake of August 2011. It was centered in Mineral, Virginia, but did damage all the way to Washington, D.C. It also caused an immediate shutdown of Dominion’s two nuclear reactors at North Anna that lasted for more than three months. That meant 1,790 megawatts (MW) of generating capacity, enough to power 750,000 homes, suddenly went offline. Do you remember what happened to your power supply at home? You probably don’t. Why not? Because your power didn’t go out.

That’s because the North Anna nuclear plants are only two out of more than 1,300 generating units (power plants) feeding a 13-state portion of the transmission grid managed by independent operator PJM Interconnection. When one unit fails, PJM calls on others. PJM’s job is to balance all this generation to meet demand reliably at the lowest cost.

The grid has no problem with solar. While solar makes up less than 1% of its electricity supply currently, a PJM study concluded the grid could handle up to 20% solar right now, without any new battery storage. Wind and solar together could make up as much as 30% of our electricity with no significant issues. The result would be less coal, less gas, and less carbon pollution—and $15.6 billion in energy savings.

Virginia already has energy storage. You could even say we are swimming in it. Bath County, Virginia is home to the world’s largest “battery” in the form of “pumped storage.” A pair of reservoirs provide over 3,000 megawatts of hydropower generating capacity that PJM uses to balance out supply and demand.

Actual batteries are also an option today, not sometime in the future. The price has dropped by half since 2014, to the point where solar-plus-storage combinations compete with new gas peaker plants. Batteries are also being paired with solar today to form microgrids that can power emergency shelters and other critical functions during widespread outages.

If Virginia goes totally gangbusters with solar, a day will come when there is so much electricity being generated from the sun in some areas that we’d need batteries. But, sadly, we aren’t anywhere near there yet.

So, you should definitely get on board with battery storage; just don’t make the mistake of thinking we can’t ramp up renewable energy today without it.

Make renewable energy your BFF. It probably polls better than you do. Renewable energy has favorability ratings most politicians only dream about. A Gallup poll last year showed 73% of Americans prefer alternative energy to oil and gas, a number that rises to 89% among Democrats. Republicans love it, too; North Carolina-based Conservatives for Clean Energy found that 79% of registered Republicans in their state are more likely to support lawmakers who back renewable energy options.

Distributed renewable energy—think rooftop solar—is especially popular with the greenies on the left and the libertarians on the right, and pretty much everyone in between. It offers benefits that utility solar does not. The policy that makes it affordable is called net metering. It gives solar owners credit for the excess solar electricity they put on the grid in the daytime, to be applied against the power they draw from the grid at night. If you want to support your constituents’ ability to power their own homes with solar, you should protect and expand their right to net meter their electricity.

People who understand Dominion’s pipeline hate Dominion’s pipeline. The proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline would carry fracked gas 600 miles from inside West Virginia through the heart of Virginia and into North Carolina. Instead of following highways, it cuts across mountains, rivers, forests and farms, and requires land clearing 150 feet wide the whole way. Landowners along the route are furious, as are lovers of the national forests and the Appalachian Trail, people who care about water quality, people who care about climate change, and fans of caves, bats and other wildlife.

The gas it will carry is extracted from shale formations deep underground using hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a loud, dirty and dangerous practice that doesn’t poll well in Virginia. More quietly (but in many ways worse), leaking wells, pipes, and storage reservoirs are estimated to emit enough greenhouse gases to cancel out the climate advantages of burning gas over coal, and increase smog. An analysis using industry data found that building the ACP and a second controversial pipeline project, the Mountain Valley Pipeline, would more than double the carbon footprint of Virginia’s power sector.

Sea level rise is already taking a toll in Virginia with “sunny day” flooding regularly crippling low-lying areas of Hampton Roads. If you’ve pledged to address climate change, you need to understand how building gas pipelines will undermine the very efforts to reduce such threats.

Now, if you don’t want to oppose Dominion, you might be inclined to minimize all these issues, or to tell voters the destruction of all we hold dear is just the price we pay for cheap energy. I’m sure you can phrase it better than that.

Before you do, though, you should also spend a few minutes to understand why critics say the ACP will raise energy prices, not lower them. That’s because Dominion’s gas-burning electric generating plants already have long-term contracts to use another company’s pipeline, for less money. Using the ACP instead of cheaper alternatives means raising costs to consumers.

Dominion also plans to build more gas-fired power plants so it can fill the pipeline. Gas plants are built to last 30 years or more, pipelines 50 years. Locking us into gas infrastructure for decades when solar is already cheaper than gas now is a seriously bad bet.

And if you think Dominion is going to shoulder the loss of a bad bet, better think again. That’s what its captive ratepayers are for.

Another name for those people is “voters.”

Sen. Mark Warner’s tolerance of climate disinformation

image-2-2-17-at-5-45-pm

CREDIT: VIRGINIA STUDENT ENVIRONMENTAL ASSOCIATION

 

Virginia’s senior U.S. Senator Mark Warner cast a vote this week that will come back to haunt him in coming years. It will also haunt our commonwealth and nation in future decades and centuries. Warner voted to confirm President Donald Trump’s nominee, former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, to be Secretary of State.

Tillerson, sad to say, may not be the most extreme or unqualified of President Trump’s cabinet nominees. One can hope that Senator Warner will vote against some of the worst of the worst, such as climate-science denier Scott Pruitt to head the Environmental Protection Agency. Pruitt has pledged to unravel bedrock environmental protections like the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts.

But opposing one or two other Trump nominees won’t excuse Senator Warner’s vote to make Rex Tillerson Secretary of State.

Tillerson’s former company has spent millions of dollars over recent decades to promote climate-science denial, to the detriment of many millions of vulnerable people all over the world, including many here in Virginia. ExxonMobil’s climate-denial promotion has been documented in academic studies, and Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring is investigating ExxonMobil’s role in promoting climate-science disinformation.

To his credit, Virginia’s junior U.S. Senator, Tim Kaine, brought out Tillerson’s connection to climate-science denial at Tillerson’s confirmation hearing. Tillerson dodged Kaine’s questions. Following the hearing Kaine tweeted: “It’s shameful Tillerson refused to answer my questions on his company’s role in funding phony climate science.” Kaine voted against confirming Tillerson.

By all accounts Tillerson has personal virtues. He’s an Eagle Scout who long supported and recently headed the Boy Scouts of America. He was once a good juror in a criminal case, as one of his fellow jurors recently explained in The Dallas Morning News. In many respects Tillerson is an upstanding Christian who contributes to mission work to help others.

But his former company’s longtime, immoral promotion of climate-science disinformation will harm exponentially far more people than his personal good deeds have helped.

There’s a term to explain how people like Tillerson can be good Boy Scouts, jurors, and churchgoers while also doing great harm that will cause great suffering to others. It’s called “moral disengagement.” The concept is explained in detail in a recent book by emeritus Stanford psychology professor Albert Bandura, titled Moral Disengagement: How People Do Harm and Live with Themselves. Bandura describes several mechanisms by which corporate polluters try to distance themselves from the harm they cause. They use front groups to do their dirty work with politicians. ExxonMobil and other fossil-fuel companies do that through groups like the notorious American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which promotes science misinformation to state legislators.

And Bandura notes that corporate polluters themselves promote scientific disinformation as a mechanism of moral disengagement. That is precisely what ExxonMobil has been doing for years, as Senator Kaine noted at Tillerson’s confirmation hearing. These lies and half-truths have real consequences for real people, here in Virginia and around the world.

Penn State climate scientist Michael Mann (formerly of UVA) has said that history will judge harshly those who promote climate-science denial. But, Mann added, “history will be too late.”

Senator Warner hasn’t himself promoted climate-science denial, but he just voted to make someone who has our nation’s Secretary of State.

History, and (one can hope) Virginia voters as well, will judge Mark Warner harshly for that.

Seth Heald is chair of the Sierra Club’s Virginia Chapter. He expects to receive a Master of Science degree in Energy Policy and Climate from Johns Hopkins University in May, 2017. His article on climate change and moral disengagement was published in the May-June, 2016 issue of Environment: The Journal of Sustainable Development.

Renewable energy bills begin an uncertain journey through Virginia’s general assembly

VA capital Corrina BeallThree Senate Republicans and one Democrat met on Thursday to consider the fate of many of this year’s renewable energy bills. Reported out were two bills introduced by Frank Wagner that were crafted by utilities, the solar industry trade association MDV-SEIA, and Powered by Facts (a group currently focused on farms).

Other bills were not as lucky as these two. In theory all bills get another bite at the apple in the full Senate Commerce and Labor Committee, where they are on the docket for Monday afternoon. However, expectations are that the bills voted down in subcommittee will meet the same fate in full committee.

Wagner, the chairman of the Senate committee, named himself to his subcommittee along with fellow Republicans Ben Chafin and Glen Sturtevant, and Democrat Rosalyn Dance. So it was not surprising that this hand-picked group supported his bills. More disappointing was the solid opposition to anyone else’s proposals, including ones with even better potential to improve the solar market. That opposition came not only from the Wagner, Chafin and Sturtevant, but also from MDV-SEIA.

The two Wagner bills reported out are SB 1393 (the so-called community solar program) and SB 1394 (small agricultural generators). The bills have undergone some more recent changes, which I will get to in a bit.

The committee voted down Edwards’ SB 917 (containing minor fixes to the agricultural net metering law), Edwards’ SB 918 (expanding authorized uses of third party power purchase agreements), and Wexton’s SB 1208 (a more expansive community solar bill). Following a common practice in the General Assembly, SB 1208 was “rolled into” SB 1393, which is simply a polite way of extinguishing a bill. Similarly, SB 917 was rolled into SB 1394, even though the two are only vaguely related.

Over in House Commerce and Labor, several renewable energy bills will be heard by the energy subcommittee when it meets Tuesday afternoon. These include Keam’s HB 2112, the companion to Wexton’s SB 1208, and Minchew’s HB 2303, the companion to Wagner’s SB 1394. (The text of some House bills has not yet been updated to conform to changes in the Senate bills, but this seems likely to happen.)

Two new bills on third-party power purchase agreements have been added since my initial roundup. Chairman Kilgore introduced HB 2390, a bill that would, for a narrow class of privileged customers, extend to Appalachian Power territory the PPA pilot program currently running in Dominion territory. The pilot program specifically allows certain third-party power purchase agreements while forbidding all others. In Dominion territory the program is capped at 50 MW; the bill would place a 10 MW cap on the APCo program.

The PPA pilot program has allowed customers like Albermarle County Public Schools and the University of Richmond to install solar cost-effectively, and APCo customers have been itching to join it.

But Kilgore’s bill contains a limitation that is really pretty offensive. Unlike the pilot project in Dominion territory, where participants may include any non-profit of any size, as well as commercial customers with facilities of over 50 kW, Kilgore’s bill would allow only private colleges and universities to compete for the 10 MW in APCo territory. No public colleges, no churches, no community centers or town buildings. For a guy with a folksy demeanor, Kilgore seems to be one heck of an elitist.

A better PPA bill is Toscano’s HB 1800, stating that nonresidential and agricultural customers have the right to contract with other people to own and operate renewable energy facilities on the customer’s premises. Although a hearing examiner recently agreed with the solar industry and environmentalists that this right already exists in the Virginia Code, utilities have blocked on-site PPAs. Toscano’s bill would put an end to this harassment, while giving up on residential consumer PPAs. (The concession sounds bad but isn’t; residential customers can use leases to achieve the same result that PPAs afford.)

Other House bills. Also up in the House subcommittee on Tuesday will be the three worthy energy efficiency bills from Delegate Sullivan. In addition, Villanueva’s Alternative Energy and Coastal Protection Act is back for a third year as HB 2018. It would provide money for renewables and efficiency as well as badly-needed funds to help communities adapt to consequences of climate change such as sea level rise.

Now, about those Wagner bill changes:

Following revisions, “community” solar still looks like a winner, except for the community part. SB 1393 met with support from all corners of the room at the Senate subcommittee meeting on Thursday. Everyone, it seems, wants more solar options for consumers and is excited that the utilities seem willing to move forward to meet this growing demand.

Just don’t expect community solar. As now drafted, utilities control every aspect of the program. Although third-party developers would build the solar projects, the utilities can choose to buy the electricity through a PPA or buy and own the project themselves. Also, the project size limit of 2 MW, which has a community-scale feel to it, does not apply if a utility is simply designating 2 MW of a larger project to this program. In effect, if the utility contracts for a number of large projects across the state (which Dominion is indeed doing), it can simply designate parts of each as “community solar,” and fill the program that way.

That doesn’t make it a bad bill, just not a community solar bill. And while it looks like a tariff for the sale of renewable energy to participating customers, the bill continues to state that it is not a tariff for the supply of 100% renewable electricity—language that supposedly dodges the fight about under what circumstances third parties can legally sell renewable energy in Virginia.

Even with changes, agricultural RE bill’s possible benefits for some come at a cost to others. SB 1394 was reported unanimously from the Senate subcommittee Thursday, but drew opposition from both the Sierra Club and the solar consumer group VA-SUN. The current language of the bill contains improvements over the original (discussed here), but however well intentioned, it remains a bad bill.

The legislation establishes a pilot program that allows farmers to use a portion of their land for solar and enter a buy-all, sell-all contract with the utility. They will buy their power at retail and sell at a price that might not be much more than wholesale, so whether the program pencils out for farmers is uncertain. But that’s not my beef with it.

The problem is that this program is offered as a replacement to an entirely different program, one that allows farms to attribute the power output of a single solar array or wind turbine to all the various meters on the farm under the net metering statute. That’s a valuable option for farmers who want to meet their electric needs with renewable energy. Removing this option is a backwards step for wineries, breweries, organic farms, and any other farmer for whom solar power is an important part of their branding and marketing. (Consider that this bill applies to wind as well as solar; a small farmer would likely have only one wind turbine to serve the whole farm. You can’t put a little wind turbine on every building with an electric meter.)

The date at which agricultural generators can no longer opt to use the agricultural net metering provisions has been moved to 2019 (from 2018 in the original draft legislation), and the termination of the net metering option now applies only to coop members, not customers of Dominion and APCo. Existing agricultural net metering customers can continue to use the net metering provisions for 25 years, up from 20. These are all incremental improvements but don’t change the fundamental problem that the legislation trades away the rights of some customers in an effort to help others.

There is another problem. Projects developed under the buy-all, sell-all program would count against the 1% cap on the total amount of electricity produced by net metering in a utility’s service territory. This is wrong as a matter of principle (if they aren’t net metering, it shouldn’t count against a net metering limit) and also because a few large farmers using the buy-all, sell-all program would max out the 1% and leave nothing for homeowners or other coop customers.

From the coops point of view, that’s not a bug, that’s a feature; killing net metering is precisely their goal. That’s why the buy-all, sell-all program is not being offered as an option, which would be fine, but as a replacement, which is not.

I asked Dana Sleeper, Director of MDV-SEIA, why her organization was supporting the bill. She responded:

We felt that with the changes made in committee, it was more additive (creating options) then limiting. We had some models made in order to confirm that the proposed legislation would be a viable path for businesses to pursue, and my intent is to make those models publicly available so they may be helpful to those interested in pursuing the AgGEN option, should the bill pass. 

As for why MDV-SEIA opposed other pro-solar bills like Wexton’s and Edwards’, she answered:

MDV-SEIA was a participant in the Rubin stakeholder group process over the course of many months and, along with the other stakeholders, agreed to support a slate of bills that moved the needle on solar issues in VA. As part of the group, we included professional lobbyists in order to ensure that political perspective was built in. One of the recommendations from the lobbyists was to draw clear lines around those bills coming out of our stakeholder process versus those put forward by other groups, as it would cause confusion among legislators who have a lot on their plates during a short session. 

For that reason, any bills that were seen by legislators as being duplicative were folded into the Rubin group bills. That’s not to say we don’t see the merit of them, it’s simply that there were many concerns about those proposals which were addressed by the Rubin bills. Our lobbyist, when asked, noted that while we appreciated the thought and effort put into the legislation, we recommended folding them into our bill. There were some bills that did not cover the same topics as those discussed in the working group (for example, the tax credit bill), and we supported them wholeheartedly. 

Lobby efforts underway. MDV-SEIA is inviting supporters to its second Clean Energy Lobby Day on Tuesday; register here.

Separately, Secure Futures LLC and other solar industry members are also encouraging advocates of distributed generation to attend the House subcommittee meeting on Tuesday. They urge support for HB 1800 and HB 2112, and opposition to HB 2303 and HB 2390. (Opposition to HB 2303 puts them at odds with MDV-SEIA on the agricultural solar issue.)

Dominion’s Own Model Shows that 15,000 MW of Solar Would Save Virginia Customers $1.5 Billion

powerhouse_six_1_megawatt_solar_array_ettp_oak_ridge_2016_courtesy-doeDominion Virginia Power has begun making good on its commitment to install 400 megawatts of solar in Virginia, a goal we have been cheering. Dominion argues its projects make economic sense. That leads us to wonder: if 400 MW makes economic sense, would more be even better? As guest blogger Will Driscoll reveals, we don’t need to speculate; Dominion ran the numbers. They just didn’t like the answer. 

By Will Driscoll 

Dominion Virginia Power modeled a resource plan with 15,000 megawatts of solar power, which it calculated would save Virginia customers $1.5 billion compared to a plan that includes a $19 billion nuclear reactor.  Yet when the company submitted its menu of resource options to regulators at the State Corporation Commission as part of its 2016 Integrated Resource Plan (IRP), it included the North Anna 3 nuclear plant while omitting the high-solar option.

The high-solar option only became public when attorneys Will Cleveland and Peter Stein of the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC), representing an environmental coalition, asked the right questions during the discovery phase of the IRP proceedings.

Utilities in 33 states must periodically file an IRP.  The IRP is intended to define the least-cost set of resources that can meet forecasted electricity demand plus a reserve margin, while also meeting the state’s policy goals on renewables and efficiency.  Utilities use computer models to develop an IRP.

Dominion’s utility planning model generated the 15,000-megawatt solar option when the utility set no constraint on the amount of solar that could be added.

The high-solar plan would actually save Virginians much more than $1.5 billion, according to an expert witness in the IRP hearing, former Texas Public Utility Commissioner Karl Rabago.  The projected $1.5 billion in savings would be after Dominion’s projected $5.8 billion of solar integration costs (i.e., any costs needed to adapt the grid for a high level of solar).  Yet the $5.8 billion value “is at least 54 to 84 percent higher than the PJM high and low [integration cost] numbers that [Dominion] cites,” Rabago said.  Thus, “the overall savings … [with] a more reasonable approach to the integration costs would be much higher than $1.5 billion.” (PJM is a regional transmission organization that coordinates the movement of electricity through Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, the District of Columbia, and parts of seven other states.)

To those who have followed the low and still-falling costs of utility-scale solar, it may not be surprising that solar, including any integration costs, would cost less than the proposed North Anna 3 nuclear reactor.  But to learn that Dominion’s own utility planning model presented that result to Dominion is a revelation.

To justify discarding the high-solar option, Dominion executive Robert Thomas said that “15,000 megawatts of solar… was a lot of land.” Yet data from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory show that this amount of solar would need only 0.4 percent of Virginia’s land area (i.e., 15000 MW times 7.9 acres per MW, divided by 27.376 million acres of land).  Mr. Thomas also said that the high-solar option “could create reliability issues,” yet high-renewables utilities in Iowa, South Dakota, California and Europe are highly reliable, thanks to accurate day-ahead weather forecasting and sophisticated utility “unit commitment” models that are also available to Dominion.

The State Corporation Commission, in its final order regarding Dominion’s IRP, did not mention the high-solar option.  The SCC approved the IRP as submitted, noting that “approval of an IRP does not in any way create the slightest presumption that resource options contained in the approved IRP will be approved in a future certificate of public convenience and necessity (“CPCN”), rate adjustment clause (“RAC”), fuel factor, or other type of proceeding governed by different statutes.”

SELC attorney Will Cleveland called on Dominion and the SCC to do better next time: “Citing ‘feasibility concerns,’ Dominion rejected and buried the high solar resource plan without any legitimate analysis of whether the plan was in fact feasible. Virginia ratepayers deserve the lowest-cost, cleanest energy available, and it is increasingly clear that means more solar, not more fossil fuels or nuclear. In the future, Dominion should not be allowed to dismiss the cheaper, cleaner resource plan without a full analysis.”

The environmental coalition represented by SELC consisted of Appalachian Voices, Chesapeake Climate Action Network, and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Will Driscoll is a writer and analyst.  Previously he conducted environmental analyses for EPA, as a project manager for ICF Consulting.  His publications include the book Nonproliferation Primer (MIT Press).

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.

 

Only the good die young: A mid-way review of Virginia climate and energy bills

Photo credit: Corrina Beall

Photo credit: Corrina Beall

Virginia’s 2016 legislative session is only half over, but it’s already clear that the General Assembly is no more capable of dealing with climate change and a rapidly-evolving energy sector than it ever was. Republicans are stuck in denial, Democrats are divided between those who get it and those who don’t, and for most legislators in both parties, the default vote is whatever Dominion Power wants.

Republican attacks on EPA climate regulations sail through both houses, while popular RGGI legislation dies in committee.

Practically the first bills filed this session call for Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality to submit for legislative approval any plan to comply with the EPA’s Clean Power Plan. Anxious to safeguard Virginia’s heritage of carbon pollution against the twin threats of clean energy and a more stable climate, the Republican leadership rammed through HB 2 and SB 21 on party-line votes. Governor McAuliffe has promised vetoes.

Eager as it was to defeat Obama’s approach to climate disruption, the Party of No supported no solutions of its own, even when proposed by one of its own. Virginia Beach Republican Ron Villanueva couldn’t even get a vote in subcommittee for his Virginia Alternative Energy and Coastal Protection Act, which would have had Virginia join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI). It was the only legislation introduced this year that would have lowered greenhouse gas emissions and raised money to deal with climate change. The Democratic-led Senate version also failed to move out of committee, on a party-line vote.

Republicans scoff at climate change, but they are beginning to worry about its effects. Bills have moved forward to work on coastal “resiliency” efforts and to continue studying sea level rise (referred to as “recurrent flooding,” as though it were a phenomenon unto itself and suggesting no particular reason it might get worse). The Senate passed SB 282, creating the Virginia Shoreline Resiliency Fund, and SJ 58, extending the work of the Joint Subcommittee to study recurrent flooding. The House passed HJ 84, a companion to SJ 58, and HB 903, establishing a Commonwealth Center for Recurrent Flooding Resiliency.

Bold energy efficiency measures die. Not-so-bold measures don’t do well either.

Virginia appears set to continue its woeful record on energy efficiency. Between the opposition of electric utilities and their regulators at the State Corporation Commission, bills that would have set the stage for cost-effective reductions in energy use got killed off early or watered down to nothing.

Among the latter were the fairly modest bills pushed by the Governor. They passed only when reduced to a provision for the SCC to evaluate how to measure the subject. Weirdly, even that found opposition from conservative members of the Senate and House.

The only bill to move forward more or less intact was Delegate Sullivan’s HB 1174, which requires state agencies to report on how badly the state is doing in meeting its efficiency goal. So we may not make progress, but at least we’ll have to acknowledge our failures. (Roughly the same group of conservatives didn’t think we should even go that far.)

Renewable energy bills won’t move forward this year, except the one Dominion wants.

As previously reported, the Republican chairmen of the House and Senate Commerce and Labor committees decided not to decide when it came to much-needed renewable energy reforms. Every bill to create new market opportunities for wind and solar was “carried over to 2017,” i.e., referred to a not-yet-existent subcommittee composed of unnamed people tasked with meeting at a not-yet-scheduled time, in order to do “something.”

“We do need to get moving on these solar bills faster than we have been going,” said House C&L Chairman Terry Kilgore, in explaining why his committee was not getting moving on any solar bills.

On the other hand, over in House Finance, Dominion Virginia Power’s bill to lower the taxes it pays for renewable energy property fared better. In exchange for an 80% tax exclusion for its own utility projects, Dominion offered up reductions in the tax savings currently afforded to the smaller projects being developed by independent solar companies. In an amusing sideshow, Republican leaders tried to use their support for this legislation to strong-arm liberal Democrats into supporting a bill extending coal subsidies, on the theory that passing one bill that benefits Dominion warrants passing another bill that benefits Dominion.

Given the lack of progress in opening the wind and solar markets, there is more than a little irony in the fact that legislation moved forward in both the House and Senate requiring utilities to direct customers to an SCC website with information about options for purchasing renewable energy. (Which leads to the question: if visitors to such a site encounter an error message, is it still an error?)

Coal subsidies remain everyone’s favorite waste of money.

Once again, the House and Senate passed bills extending corporate welfare for companies whose business model involves blowing up mountains and poisoning streams. Over the years legislators have spent more than half a billion dollars of taxpayer money on these giveaways, knowing full well it was money down a rat-hole. Community activists have pleaded with lawmakers to put the cash towards diversifying the coalfields economy instead, but there has never been a serious effort to redirect the subsidies to help mine workers instead of corporate executives and the utilities that buy coal.

This year the corporate handout went forward in the face of reports that one of the biggest recipients plans to pay multi-million-dollar bonuses to its executives while laying off miners and looking for ways to dodge its obligations to workers. Add to this the news that the same company owes two coalfields counties $2.4 million in unpaid taxes for last year, and you have to wonder what fairy tales legislators are hearing from lobbyists that makes them put aside common sense.

It’s not just Republicans who voted for these subsidies (though there is no excuse for them, either). Some Democrats did so, too. Governor McAuliffe has said he would veto these bills, which means senators like David Marsden, Jennifer Wexton, John Edwards and Chap Petersen will have a chance to redeem themselves by voting against an override.

Many thanks to Senators Howell, Ebbin, Favola, Locke, McEachin, McPike and Surovell for seeing through the propaganda of the coal lobby and voting no.

Dominion defeats legislation protecting the public from coal ash contamination

Senator Scott Surovell’s SB 537 would have required toxic coal ash to be disposed of in lined landfills rather than left in leaking, unlined pits and simply covered over. The bill failed in committee in spite of support from one Republican (Stanley), after Democratic Senator Roslyn Dance caved to pressure from Dominion and abstained. One might have expected more backbone from a legislator with coal ash contamination in her own district. (Nothing excuses the Republicans who voted against the public health on this, either. Last I heard, Republican babies are as vulnerable to water pollution as Democratic babies.)

 

Facing utility opposition, Virginia legislators punt on renewable energy bills

Expanding solar financing to include third-party ownership would allow more houses and farms to host solar arrays. Photo credit Dirk Franke via Wikimedia Commons.

Expanding solar financing to include third-party ownership would allow more houses and farms to host solar arrays. Photo credit Dirk Franke via Wikimedia Commons.

Most Virginia legislators say they want more renewable energy. They listen to their constituents, they understand the economic opportunities, they support consumer choice, and they think it’s important to diversify our energy supply, even if they aren’t against fossil fuels. But when it comes to voting, only one voice counts with them, and that’s Dominion’s.

And so Dominion Virginia Power once again succeeded in blocking legislation that would have opened the market for wind and solar to greater private investment through third-party power purchase agreements (PPAs), community solar programs, removal of standby charges and the lifting of size caps. (I described most of these bills in a previous post.)

Rather than capitulate publicly, however, the chairs of the Senate and House Commerce and Labor Committees, Senator Frank Wagner and Delegate Terry Kilgore, determined to “carry over” to next year the bulk of the renewable energy bills, assigning them to a new subcommittee to be named later, and which will consider the bills sometime later in the year.

If you are a pessimist, you will notice this means that none of the bills even got a hearing in committee, and all are effectively dead for the year, with no legislators you can hold accountable. You will also have doubts about the likelihood of this subcommittee delivering results favorable to solar and wind advocates, given that Mssrs. Wagner and Kilgore are not known for standing tall against utility interests.

If you are an optimist, however (and what choice do you have?), you will respond with hope that this subcommittee will browbeat the utilities into accepting at least some legislative reforms in the service of the public good. You will point out that legislators’ unwillingness to simply kill bills at the utilities’ behest is progress in itself, driven by an outpouring of constituent support for renewable energy and backed by new lobbying firepower.

In past years, Dominion never gave more than it got, and routinely killed off legislation. And this year, Dominion’s approach to the most important piece of legislation—Delegate Randy Minchew’s HB 1286—followed the utility’s standard operating procedure. Over many weeks Dominion lobbyists met with members of the industry coalition and persuaded them to strip away parts of the legislation—first one provision, then another, all in the name of “compromise.” Eventually the bill was reduced to a single paragraph recognizing the legality of third-party PPAs, with all sides in agreement.

Then two days before the subcommittee hearing on the bill, Dominion reneged and produced substitute language that eliminated authority for all but a narrow subset of PPAs, while suddenly slapping new standby charges on small commercial customers who install renewable energy systems, a provision entirely separate from the PPA issue.

The standby charges were a known poison pill. In 2012 Dominion convinced the solar industry to accept the idea of standby charges in exchange for raising the size limit on residential solar systems from 10 to 20 kW. The industry assumed the charges would be modest at worst, given the value of distributed solar to the grid. But Dominion then persuaded the State Corporation Commission to approve charges so high as to kill the market for the larger systems. Appalachian Power followed suit.

Dominion would dearly love to institute standby charges on more customers, so this year the company is ransacking renewable energy bills looking for opportunities. I’m told that after Delegate Minchew elected to have HB 1286 carried over rather than accede to the standby charge language, Dominion lobbyists went to Senator Richard Stuart and tried to use another pro-renewables bill as the vehicle for standby charges.*

This obnoxious tactic smacks of desperation, and must be as irritating to legislators as it is to renewable energy advocates. We should not be surprised to see it a point of contention later this year when the subcommittee meets. Standby charges may be bogus, but utilities see them as their best tool to prevent the spread of customer-owned generation that threatens utility profits.


*That bill is SB 779, a latecomer filed at the request of Loudoun County farmer and philanthropist Karen Schaufeld. Her new group, Powered by Facts, initiated several pro-solar bills separate from those of the solar industry. Although Stuart’s bill as written includes sweeping reforms for farmers who want to sell excess renewable energy, we hear it was suffering the same death-by-a-thousand-amendments even before the standby charge issue came up. For now, however, the legislative information website continues to show the bill with its original language. It will likely be heard on Monday if it is heard at all; we expect to see it bounced to the new subcommittee.