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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes:

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

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

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

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

Dominion donations to Commerce and Labor Committee members

Senate

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

*Sturtevant joined the Senate in 2016.

House Commerce and Labor Special Subcommittee on Energy

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

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

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

Compared to whom?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What does the money buy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then there’s this troubling aspect . . .

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

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

Why doesn’t anyone turn down the money?

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

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

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

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

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

Virginia legislators named to review clean energy bills

Workers install solar panels at the University of Richmond.

Workers install solar panels at the University of Richmond.

Virginia’s 2016 legislative session began with a host of worthy bills promoting energy efficiency, wind and solar, but ended with almost none of the legislation even having been considered in committee. The Republican chairmen of the Senate and House Commerce and Labor committees instead “carried over” the bulk of the bills, announcing plans for a new subcommittee to study them and make recommendations for 2017.

Members of the subcommittee have now been named. Senator Frank Wagner has tapped Senators Black, Cosgrove, Stuart and Dance to serve. This information is now on the General Assembly website. Delegate Terry Kilgore has named Delegates Ware, Hugo, Ransome, Miller and Keam.

No meeting schedule has been announced, but lobbyists for the utilities and the solar industry trade association, MDV-SEIA, have begun meeting in private to discuss potential compromises. This can’t be called a stakeholder process; the meetings are not open to the public, and they have not invited participation by environmentalists or, with one exception, anyone on the consumer side representing the interests of local government, colleges and universities, churches, eco-friendly businesses or residential customers.

(The exception is a lobbyist for Loudoun County landowner Karen Schaufeld, a newcomer to energy issues who formed a group called Powered by Facts and hired lobbyists to advocate for expanded agricultural net metering and other pro-solar reforms.)

Anything that emerges from these meetings will likely have a significant impact on the subcommittee. Yet, given the importance of this issue to the commonwealth, the subcommittee should ensure it hears from all solar stakeholders. More importantly, committee members should explicitly adopt as their measure of progress a simple test: whether the language of a bill will lead to greater private investment in solar in Virginia. Wagner and Kilgore have said they want to see the growth of solar here, and all of the legislators publicly subscribe to the values of free market competition and consumer choice. But without a guidepost, we are likely to see the utilities bully the solar industry into a “compromise” that shifts the ground a bit but continues to strangle the private market–and leaves us further than ever behind other states.

Who’s who on the committee

All of the legislators named to the study committee are Commerce and Labor committee members, but beyond that, many of these appointments are surprising, as they don’t necessarily reflect demonstrated interest in the subject. It is also disturbing that only one Democrat was named from each side. (Dance is the Senate Democrat, Keam the House Democrat. They are also the only minorities represented.) There is no reason energy efficiency and renewable energy should be partisan issues, but in the past, party affiliation has been the single most powerful predictor of votes on clean energy.

To gage how these legislators approach the issues, I took a look at the Sierra Club’s Climate and Energy Scorecard for 2014 and 2015. Scores for 2016 are not yet available. It is important to note that in the House, most renewable energy legislation has been killed by unrecorded voice votes in the Commerce and Labor subcommittee, preventing the votes from being scored. So the scorecard is only a starting point.

The Senators

Frank Wagner himself earned a D in 2015, with a voting percentage of 60%. This was up from an F in 2014. The Virginia Beach Republican is the only member on this subcommittee to have exhibited a serious interest in energy issues, having shaped many of Virginia’s current policies. Unfortunately, he is closely allied with Dominion Power, voted for tax subsidies for the coal industry, tends to doubt the reality of climate change, and has been sharply critical of the EPA Clean Power Plan. On the plus side, he believes renewable energy should play an important role and was instrumental in launching the state’s bid for offshore wind. He also genuinely welcomes input from the public at meetings he runs.

That makes his committee choices all the more peculiar. Dick Black is better known as a social crusader who lines up with the far right wing of his party, most notably in opposition to abortion, gay rights and gun limits. Most recently, he made headlines by meeting with Syrian president Bashar Assad and urging the U.S. to lift economics sanctions against the Assad regime.

Black is a climate denier of the delusional variety, insisting at an event last August that global temperatures have not risen in 17 years and that no major hurricanes have hit the American mainland in 9 years. (2014 was the hottest year on record until 2015 seized the trophy. Superstorm Sandy, the largest Atlantic hurricane on record, struck in 2012.)

The forum was an “American for Prosperity grassroots event” (sic). The “crowd of about 18 people” included former Senator Ken Cuccinelli, no slouch himself in the climate denial department. Black compared EPA employees to “Bolshevik communists.” He and Cuccinelli used the event to criticize the Clean Power Plan as “part of a government scheme to send billions in taxpayer funds to ‘wind and solar scams’ and ‘billionaire liberals.’”

He received a grade of F from the Sierra Club in both 2014 and 2015. With a voting percentage of just 14% last year, he had the worst record in the Senate on climate and energy bills. In sum, the appointment of Dick Black to this committee can’t be called an effort to seek out thoughtful voices on the issues.

John Cosgrove is a solid conservative on name-brand issues like guns and abortion, though decidedly lacking Black’s flair for headlines. With a 67% score, he received a grade of D from the Sierra Club in 2015, up from an F in 2014. A review of the bills he has introduced in the last two years showed none related to climate or energy, again raising the question of why he was chosen for this particular subcommittee.

Richard Stuart’s voting record of 50% earned him an F in 2015, down from a C in 2014. However, he earned an award from the Sierra Club in 2014 for introducing a bill to regulate fracking; the bill did not pass. Senator Stuart also received “extra credit” on the 2015 scorecard for introducing the bill that established the Virginia Solar Energy Development Authority. In 2016, he also introduced one of the more ambitious renewable energy bills, working with Schaufeld’s Powered by Facts.

Roslyn Dance is the lone Democrat and only woman selected from the Senate. She has consistently voted on the side of clean energy, and was the patron of 2015 legislation raising the size limit on net-metered projects from 500 kW to 1 megawatt. This work earned her an award from the Sierra Club that year.

Dance scored 100% on both the 2014 scorecard (when she was a delegate) and the 2015 scorecard, for a grade of A+ each year. However, she came in for intense criticism in the 2016 session for abstaining on Senator Surovell’s coal ash bill, knowing it would fail in committee without her vote. The bill would have required Dominion Virginia Power to move stored coal ash out of unlined ponds along rivers for disposal in lined facilities away from water sources. Dance’s abstention was widely thought to be a favor to Dominion Power, saving the company from what might have been a nasty fight on the Senate floor.

The Delegates

Terry Kilgore, Chairman of House Commerce and Labor, represents part of rural southwest Virginia, and has close ties to Appalachian Power Company and the coal industry, both of which contribute generously to his campaigns. Bills opposed by utilities have little chance in his committee. In 2015, he earned an F on the energy and climate scorecard, with a 50% score, down from a D (63%) in 2014.

Lee Ware represents a suburban and rural area west of Richmond, stretching from the western side of Chesterfield County. He earned a C (75%) in 2014 and an F (50%) in 2015. In spite of these scores, he has shown an independent, thoughtful approach to energy legislation, and has demonstrated a serious interest in promoting energy efficiency. His bill to change how the State Corporation Commission evaluates utility efficiency programs is one of the pieces of legislation to be considered this summer.

Tim Hugo represents a suburban Northern Virginia district. He earned a D (67%) in 2014, with extra credit for introducing a bill that reclassified solar equipment as “pollution control equipment,” earning it a critical exemption from a local business property tax known as a “machinery and tools” tax. In 2015 his score dropped to an F (56%), in spite of an extra credit bump from introducing the House version of the Solar Development Authority bill.

As Majority Caucus Chair, Hugo’s poor scores reflect the leadership’s pro-coal, anti-regulation platform. He is nonetheless keenly interested in promoting solar energy, at least where he can do so without running into utility opposition. His close ties to Dominion have often meant he led the opposition to pro-solar net metering reforms, keeping them from moving out of the committee.

Margaret Ransone is the only woman named to the House subcommittee. She received an F (57%) in 2015, down from a C (71%) in 2014. She represents counties along the Northern Neck, near Richmond. She is not on the Commerce and Labor energy subcommittee, and has shown no particular interest in the subject. Her website suggests a mix of the ideological (pro-gun, anti-abortion) and the practical (high speed internet for rural areas).

Jackson Miller received an F (44%) in 2015, down from a D (63%) in 2014. His district is close to Hugo’s, covering the City of Manassas and part of Prince William County in the outer suburbs of Northern Virginia. Miller is Majority Whip for the House. He has consistently voted against expanding net metering options.

Mark Keam is the only Democrat on the House subcommittee as well as the only ethnic minority (he is Korean). He received an A+ (100%) in 2015, up from an A (88%) in 2014. He has generally supported expanded opportunities for renewable energy.

Battles over climate and coal go unresolved, but Virginians still paying more

Students rally for climate action in Alexandria, Virginia. Photo courtesy of Sierra Club.

Students rally for climate action in Alexandria, Virginia. Photo courtesy of Sierra Club.

Virginia’s 2016 legislative session ended last week with a one-day veto session, an ideological battleground where both sides fought lustily but nobody won.

Republicans could not muster the votes to overcome McAuliffe’s veto of legislation extending taxpayer handouts for coal mining companies. Nor could they overcome vetoes of HB 2 and SB 21, bills requiring that any state plan implementing the EPA’s Clean Power Plan be submitted to the General Assembly for approval.

They did, however, succeed in defending a budget item prohibiting the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) from developing a state implementation plan while a federal stay of the Clean Power Plan remains in effect. (For that they needed only a majority; overriding a veto requires a two-thirds super-majority.)

These votes won’t end the skirmishing. The tax credit for companies that mine Virginia coal doesn’t expire until the end of 2016, and Terry Kilgore, Chairman of the House Commerce and Labor Committee and a reliable ally of the coal lobby, has already promised another effort next session to extend the handouts.

As for the Clean Power Plan, the budget maneuver will cause headaches, as intended, but it’s merely a stall tactic. Virginia may end up submitting a clumsier plan than it otherwise would, if it has to scramble to meet the deadline once the stay is lifted. Even that isn’t certain. DEQ has already completed much of the fact-gathering portion of its work, including issuance of a report from the stakeholder group it convened to consider options. And the new fiscal year, when the prohibition kicks in, doesn’t begin until July 1. A lot of work could get done in two months.

Moreover, Republicans seem to have a losing hand here, even if they block DEQ from completing its work. If the Clean Power Plan survives attack in the courts and Virginia doesn’t submit a plan, EPA will write one for us. On the other hand, if the Clean Power Plan fails judicial scrutiny, EPA will have to rewrite it in a way that might be even worse for coal.[1]

But the Republican attacks on the Clean Power Plan have never been about protecting our ability to plan our own energy future—or for that matter, about protecting ratepayers. Recall that a year ago the General Assembly passed Dominion Power’s SB 1349, with its so-called “rate freeze,” on the theory that the Clean Power Plan will cost so much money that electric rates needed to be frozen between now and the time the plan actually kicks in, and regulators forbidden from scrutinizing utilities’ books in the meantime.

I know: that makes no sense. But don’t ask me for a better explanation; the rationale never stood up to scrutiny. And Republicans weren’t the only ones supporting this peculiar legislation. Once the original anti-Clean Power Plan elements were stripped out, plenty of Democrats got on board to prove their fealty to Dominion.

We have since learned two things about SB 1349 and one thing about the Clean Power Plan:

  • According to one State Corporation Commission judge, SB 1349 will cost Virginia ratepayers a billion dollars in overpayments to Dominion.
  • Dominion Power customers are about to see their rates go up regardless of the “freeze,” as a result of Dominion getting approval to build a new gas-fired power plant;
  • The final Clean Power Plan requires almost nothing from Virginia, and compliance might even save us money.

Now that we know all this, wouldn’t you expect to hear legislators clamoring for the repeal of the faux rate freeze?

Cock an ear. What do you hear?

Crickets.

To be sure, many Republicans who pushed for SB 1349 were more interested in the threat the Clean Power Plan posed to the coal industry. Their support for the coal tax subsidies shows Republicans have no qualms about charging taxpayers tens of millions of dollars annually to help coal companies. Perhaps when you’re in the business of giving away other people’s money, another billion dollars doesn’t seem like a stretch.

Still, if concern for the people of coal country were really at work, we might have expected success for McAuliffe’s budget amendment that put one million dollars into funding for solar projects, with priority for those in Southwest Virginia. Compared to the coal subsidies, admittedly, this isn’t much. In NoVa, a million dollars is one high-end home, green features extra. Spread around the coalfields, though, it could have powered up to a hundred homes with solar. Maybe the symbolism was too hard to take. In any case, Republicans scuttled the funding.

Rhetoric triumphed over substance in other ways this session, too. The General Assembly voted to establish a Shoreline Resiliency Fund, but failed to fund it. Clean energy bills from both sides of the aisle fizzled; with few exceptions, those that weren’t killed outright were sent to a newly-announced subcommittee conceived as a dumping ground for solar bills. No meeting schedule has yet been announced for this subcommittee.

Given the urgency of the climate crisis and the pressing need to develop our clean energy sector, this year’s stalemate feels particularly frustrating. We should all ask for our money back.


[1] Sure, there’s a third possibility: the EPA plan could be withdrawn under a President Trump. But if that’s our future, then defending the Clean Power Plan could be the least of our worries. Hoo-boy. Best not to think about it.

 

Republicans find new way to stop McAuliffe moving forward on Clean Power Plan

Must not be a Virginia Republican. Photo courtesy of Glen Besa.

Must not be a Virginia Republican. Photo courtesy of Glen Besa.

Virginia Republicans have found a new way to obstruct development of a state plan implementing the federal Clean Power Plan: take away funding for it. A line inserted by House Republicans in the state budget will prevent the Department of Environmental Quality from using any funds “to prepare or submit” a state implementation plan unless the U.S. Supreme Court’s stay of the Clean Power Plan is released.

Governor McAuliffe is fighting back, but the approach he has taken is expected to fail in the face of Republican majorities in the House and Senate. He has responded by offering an amendment to the budget item, removing “prepare or” from the Republicans’ budget amendment. The result would retain the prohibition on submitting a state plan while the Supreme Court’s stay is in effect (a harmless prohibition since EPA won’t accept them for now anyway), but allows DEQ to continue developing the state plan.

McAuliffe’s amendment accords with his support for the Clean Power Plan and his pledge to continue development of an implementation plan even while the EPA rule is in limbo. He has already vetoed Republican-backed bills that would have required DEQ to submit any implementation plan to the General Assembly for approval before sending it to the EPA. These vetoes can only be overridden by a two-thirds majority, and Republicans don’t have the numbers.

But the budget amendment is doomed to fail. A governor’s budget amendment can be defeated by a simple majority vote. House Republicans are expected to vote in lock step to reject the amendment when the General Assembly reconvenes April 20.

Environmental groups had expected the governor to use a line-item veto to strip out the offending language. Doing so would have meant the Republicans couldn’t muster a two-thirds majority to overcome the veto. We’re told McAuliffe changed his approach on the advice of attorneys who felt a line-item veto invited a constitutional challenge. The result, though, is a loss for the Governor.

Worse, it means Virginia will lose time in crafting a plan to diversify and de-carbonize our electricity grid. As a coastal state on the front lines of sea level rise, Virginia has more to lose than almost any other state from our fossil fuel addiction. And for Virginia, compliance with the Clean Power Plan is so easy that it’s hard to listen to Republicans fuss without picturing tempests in teapots.

Obviously, Republican opposition to a plan to cut carbon is neither more nor less than an act of spite aimed at President Obama. But what have they gained with this maneuver? At most it’s a “win” for an old energy model built on obsolete coal plants owned by bankrupt corporations that have laid off thousands of workers and cut the benefits of retired miners while lavishing campaign cash on legislators and paying millions of dollars in executive bonuses. That’s not the kind of win you put on campaign posters.

The Sierra Club and other climate activists plan to call out the House Republican leadership for their budget maneuver with a rally at the Capitol at 10 a.m. on April 20, during the veto session. The event, fittingly, is called “Turn Up the Heat in the House.”

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.

 

 

 

 

North Anna 3 would raise rates for Dominion Virginia Power customers by 25%

Some see a nuclear power plant cooling tower. Others see a rat-hole. Hang onto your wallet. Photo credit Wollenkratzer/Wikimedia Commons.

Some see a nuclear power plant cooling tower. Others see a rat-hole. Hang onto your wallet. Photo credit Wollenkratzer/Wikimedia Commons.

Dominion Virginia Power’s latest Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) includes construction of a third nuclear reactor at North Anna, just as previous IRPs have done every year since 2008. What’s new this year is that we finally have a price tag. Scott Norwood, a witness for the Attorney General’s Office of Consumer Counsel, says Dominion’s $19 billion forecast will mean an average rate increase of approximately 25.7% over current Virginia retail residential rates.

The 2015 IRP shows cost estimates for the new nuclear plant have spiraled upwards. Norwood notes that the forecasted capital cost is currently 55% higher than in 2011. This capital cost is not only ten times the cost of new natural gas generation, it is also higher than Dominion’s solar energy option—which happens also to be its least-cost option for complying with EPA’s Clean Power Plan.

Indeed, the NA3 price tag makes it far more expensive even than the other nuclear plants currently under construction in Tennessee, Georgia and South Carolina. All three are behind schedule and over budget, which hardly inspires confidence in the industry’s ability to contain costs anywhere.

In his testimony to the State Corporation Commission, Norwood argues that North Anna 3’s high price tag means it is not reasonable to keep it in the IRP. Section 56-599 of the Virginia Code requires the Commission to make a determination whether the IRP is “reasonable” and in the public interest.

Including nuclear in an IRP doesn’t commit Dominion to building a reactor or the SCC to approving it, so the SCC has not previously chosen to weigh in. Nor have elected leaders yet responded to the rising cost numbers.

Legislators may be tempted to ignore North Anna 3 until Dominion secures an operating license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (anticipated in 2017) and applies to the SCC for a Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity (with a decision likely in 2018).

Yet delaying the conversation is expensive. Dominion is already spending hundreds of millions of dollars annually on North Anna 3 development—and one way or another, Dominion expects customers to bear the cost.

In 2014 the company successfully lobbied for legislation shifting the costs it had incurred through 2013 onto its ratepayers, a move that sopped up Dominion’s overearnings and prevented a rate cut.

But those costs were chicken feed compared to what’s coming. By the end of 2018, Dominion will have spent close to $2 billion dollars on North Anna 3. The company can afford to front the money, in part because of 2015 legislation “freezing” rates until 2020 and allowing the company to keep what could amount to hundreds of millions of dollars more in excess earnings.

NAr costsIf the SCC waits until 2018 to consider the merits of North Anna 3 and then denies Dominion permission to move forward, the company will argue for the right to bill ratepayers for all that money it threw down the rat-hole. The SCC might not prove sympathetic, but General Assembly members maintain a strong record of doing anything Dominion wants.

Still, allowing Dominion to soak customers for $2 billion would be a welcome outcome compared to the alternative. Worse would be for the SCC to approve the plant—or more likely, for legislators to take it out of the hands of the SCC and simply vote to let Dominion proceed. Dominion has begun spinning a tale about North Anna 3 being needed for energy security, resource diversity, and compliance with new environmental rules. All of these are wrong, but they play into narratives that resonate with many lawmakers.

Meanwhile, the vast sums required for a new reactor would siphon money away from much more cost-effective strategies that can deliver carbon pollution reductions far sooner, including investments in solar and energy efficiency. That makes it critical for the SCC to put an end to the North Anna 3 rat-hole this year.

The Commission will hold a hearing on Dominion’s IRP on October 20. The case is PUE-2015-00035.

Virginia wind and solar policy, 2015 update

where are the renewables 1

[Note: Although this is a terrific article, it is now a bit dated.  You can find the 2017 update to the Virginia Wind and Solar Policy Guide here.]

The past year has seen a lot of activity on wind and solar in the Old Dominion, and yet Virginia lags further than ever behind neighboring states in installations to date. Why? And more importantly, what can we do about it?

I’ll try to answer these questions as briefly as possible in this third annual update of Virginia renewable energy law and policy. But yes, this is a long post. If you’re the kind of person who only reads executive summaries or prefers the elevator pitch to the full Ted Talk, let me try this:

Virginia’s utility model is built on monopoly control and large, centralized generating systems, and this model does not serve 21st century needs and technologies. The free market solution is to open Virginia’s electricity market to competition and lower the barriers to customer-sited wind and solar generation.

Virginia is further than ever behind

2015 wind and solar table copy

Virginia still has no utility scale wind or solar projects and very little in the way of customer-owned and other distributed generation. The 2015 legislative session improved prospects for solar at the utility scale, but utility interest in wind remains low. Meanwhile, barriers to the rapid adoption of customer-owned generation remain firmly in place.

Virginia utilities won’t sell wind or solar to customers (and they won’t let anyone else do it either)

With one very narrow exception for commercial customers, Virginia residents can’t pick up the phone and call their utility to buy electricity generated by wind and solar farms. Worse, they can’t even buy renewable energy elsewhere.

This wasn’t supposed to happen. Section 56-577(A)(6) of the Virginia code allows utilities to offer “green power” programs, and if they don’t, customers are supposed to be able to go elsewhere for it. (See the section on third-party-owned systems for what happened when one customer tried to go elsewhere.)

Ideally, a utility would use money from voluntary green power programs to build or buy renewable energy for these customers. However, Virginia utilities have not done this, except in very tiny amounts. Instead, utilities pay brokers to buy renewable energy certificates (RECs) on behalf of the participants. Participation by consumers is voluntary. Participants sign up and agree to be billed extra on their power bills for the service. Meanwhile, they still run their homes and businesses on regular “brown” power.

In Dominion’s case, these RECs meet a recognized national standard, and some of them originate with wind turbines, but they primarily represent power produced and consumed out of state, and thus have no effect on the power mix in Virginia. For a fuller discussion of the Dominion Green Power Program, see What’s wrong with Dominion’s Green Power Program.

In the case of Appalachian Power, the RECs come from an 80 MW hydroelectric dam in West Virginia. No wind, and no solar.

The State Corporation Commission ruled that REC-based programs like these do not qualify as selling renewable energy, so under the terms of §56-577(A)(6), customers are permitted to turn to other licensed suppliers of electric energy “to purchase electric energy provided 100 percent from renewable energy.” Unfortunately (and in this English major’s opinion, wrongly), Virginia utilities claim that the statute’s words mean that not only must another licensed supplier provide 100% renewable energy, it must also supply 100% of the customer’s demand. Obviously, the owner of a wind farm or solar facility cannot do that; the customer will need to draw from the grid part of the time. Ergo, say the utilities, a customer cannot go elsewhere. Checkmate!

The SCC may rule on this interpretation some day, but there is still another problem with the statute: under its terms, customers are allowed to turn to other electric suppliers only if their own utility doesn’t offer a qualifying program. So if the SCC sides with the English majors on this one, Dominion could (and surely would) gin up a variation of its Green Power Program consisting of true renewable energy. It would still not have to offer Virginia-based wind and solar—crappy biomass and old hydro would do, so long as it was actual energy “bundled” with the RECs. Nor would it have to offer a competitive price.

Really, the statute doesn’t ask much. It’s astonishing the utilities haven’t taken steps already to close that loophole. But surely they’re ready, and that’s enough to scare off any would-be competitors.

Earlier this year Dominion seemed poised to offer customers a program to sell electricity from solar panels, which would have qualified. Notwithstanding its name, however, the “Dominion Community Solar” program is not an offer to sell electricity generated from solar energy, and seems likely to attract customers only to the extent they are deceived into believing it is something it is not.

For customers to have real energy choice in Virginia, the GA has to change the terms of §56-577(A)(6). Let people buy wind and solar from any willing seller, whether it be their utilities or the private market. Utilities will benefit by customers taking on their job of lowering Virginia’s carbon emissions. Virginians will benefit from cleaner air, new clean energy jobs, and a stronger grid.

Virginia’s Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) is a miserable sham

Many advocates focus on an RPS as a vehicle for inducing demand. In Virginia, that’s a mistake. Virginia has only a voluntary RPS, which means utilities have the option of participating but don’t have to. On the other hand, it costs them nothing to do it, because any costs they incur in meeting the goals can be charged to ratepayers. Until a few years ago, utilities even got to collect bonus money as a reward for virtue, until it became clear that there was nothing very virtuous going on.

Merely making our RPS mandatory rather than voluntary would do nothing for wind and solar in Virginia without a complete overhaul. Most important, the statute takes a kitchen-sink approach to what counts as renewable energy, so meeting it requires no new investment and no wind or solar.

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

The RPS is as impotent in practice as it is in theory. In the case of Dominion Virginia Power, the RPS has been met largely with old hydro projects built prior to World War II, trash incinerators, and wood burning, plus a small amount of landfill gas and—a Virginia peculiarity—RECs representing R&D rather than electric generation.

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

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

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

Customer-owned generation: for most, the only game in town

Given the lack of wind or solar options from utilities, people who want renewable energy generally have to build it themselves. A federal 30% tax credit makes it cost-effective for those with cash or access to low-cost financing. The credit is available until the end of 2016 (when it falls to 10% for commercial but goes away entirely for residential).

This year the GA passed 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. That would make it the year’s most helpful piece of legislation from the standpoint of customer-owned generation.

Now that some barriers to residential PACE have been removed at the federal level, we hope the legislature will extend the law to let localities offer PACE loan programs to homeowners in the near future.

Virginia offers no cash incentives or tax credits for wind or solar. The Virginia legislature passed a bill in 2014 that would offer an incentive, initially as a tax credit and then as a grant program, but it did not receive funding, and the same bill, reintroduced in 2015, died in a subcommittee. North Carolina’s tax credit for solar is widely credited with making that state a solar leader, and it could have the same effect here. With solar panel prices continuing their breathtaking descent, utility and commercial-scale solar probably won’t need that kind of help for long, so a modest program of three-to-five years duration would suffice to catalyze the market. Residential solar would benefit from longer-lasting support.

The lack of a true RPS in Virginia means Virginia utilities generally will not buy solar renewable energy certificates (SRECs) from customers. SRECs generated here can sometimes be sold to utilities in other states (as of now only Pennsylvania) or to brokers who sell to voluntary purchasers.

Limits to net metering hamper growth

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

If a system produces more than the customer uses in a month, the credits roll over to the next month. However, at the end of the year, the customer will be paid for any excess credits only by entering a power purchase agreement with the utility. This will likely be for a price that represents the utility’s “avoided cost” of about 4.5 cents, rather than the retail rate, which for homeowners is closer to 11 cents. Given the current cost of installing solar, this effectively stops people from installing larger systems than they can use themselves.

Legislation passed in 2015 makes it less likely that new solar owners will have any surplus. At Dominion’s insistence, the definition of “eligible customer-generator” was amended to limit system sizes to no larger than needed to meet the customers demand, based on the previous 12 months of billing history. The SCC is currently writing regulations that should address issues of new construction as well as questions arising from other new language in the law.

This limitation is crazy, no? If customers want to install more clean, renewable energy than they need and sell the surplus electricity into the grid at the wholesale power price, why would you stop them from performing this service to society? And what were Dominion lobbyists thinking, since it is clearly in their company’s interest to buy peak power at a cut-rate price? We can only speculate that the primal fear of customers with solar must be stronger even than the smell of money.

Virginia law also does not allow system owners to share the electricity with other consumers through community net metering or solar gardens. Several bills that would have permitted this were introduced in the 2013 and 2014 sessions but defeated due to utility opposition. Community net metering remains one of the solar industry’s highest priorities as a way to open the market to people who can’t own solar facilities themselves. It would also spur the market for community wind.

In August of this year, Dominion received permission from the SCC to begin a program the company is calling “Dominion Community Solar.” Reading the fine print, however, makes it apparent that participants will not actually buy solar power. They will pay a significant premium on their electric bills to fund construction of a solar installation, but the electricity generated will be sold to other people rather than credited to the participants.

Under a bill introduced by Delegate Randy Minchew (R-Leesburg) and passed in 2013, owners of Virginia farms with more than one electric meter are permitted to attribute the electricity produced by a system that serves one meter (say, on a barn) to other meters on the property (the farmhouse and other outbuildings). This is referred to as “agricultural net metering.” The law took effect July 1, 2014 for investor-owned utilities (Dominion and Appalachian Power) and July 1, 2015 for the cooperatives.

Standby charges hobble the market for larger home systems and electric cars

Dominion Power and Appalachian Power are at the forefront of a national pushback against policies like net metering that facilitate customer-owned generation.

The current system capacity limit for net-metered solar installations is 1 MW for commercial, 20 kW for residential. However, for residential systems between 10 kW and 20 kW, a utility is allowed to apply to the State Corporation Commission to impose a “standby” charge on those customers.

Seizing the opportunity, Dominion won the right to impose a standby charge of up to about $60 per month on these larger systems, eviscerating the market for them just as electric cars were increasing interest in larger systems. (SCC case PUE- 2011-00088.) Legislative efforts to roll back the standby charges were unsuccessful, and more recently, Appalachian Power instituted even more extreme standby charges. (PUE-2014-00026.)

The standby charges supposedly represent the extra costs to the grid for transmission and distribution. In the summer of 2013, in a filing with the SCC (PUE-2012-00064, Virginia Electric and Power Company’s Net Metering Generation Impacts Report), Dominion claimed it could also justify standby charges for its generation costs, and indicated it expected to seek them after a year of operating its Solar Purchase Program (see discussion below). As far as I can tell, it hasn’t carried out this threat yet, and it would likely need legislation to do so.

A bit of good news for residential solar: homeowner association bans on solar are largely a thing of the past

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

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

Third-party ownership of renewable energy facilities could open the market, but Virginia utilities won’t step aside

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

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

Yet the threat of prolonged and costly litigation was too much. The parties scuttled the PPA contract, though the solar installation was able to proceed using a different financial arrangement.

After a long and very public fight in the legislature and the press, in 2013 Dominion and the solar industry negotiated a compromise that specifically allows customers in Dominion territory to use third-party PPAs to install solar or wind projects under a pilot program capped at 50 MW. Projects must have a minimum size of 50 kW, unless the customer is a tax-exempt entity, in which case there is no minimum. Projects can be as large as 1 MW. The SCC is supposed to review the program every two years beginning in 2015 and has authority to make changes to it.

Appalachian Power and the electric cooperatives declined to participate in the PPA deal-making, so the legal uncertainty about PPAs continues in their territories. In June of this year, Appalachian Power proposed an alternative to PPAs that does not offer anything like a viable solution. The matter is before the SCC. The case is No. PUE-2015-00040. An evidentiary hearing is scheduled for September 29, 2015.

Meanwhile, Secure Futures has developed a third-party-ownership business model that it says works like a PPA for tax purposes but does not include the sale of electricity, and therefore should not trigger a challenge from Appalachian Power or other utilities. Currently Secure Futures is the only solar provider offering this option, which it calls a Customer Self-Generation Agreement.

Tax exemption for third-party owned solar may prove a market driver

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

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

The 20 MW cap was included at the request of the Virginia Municipal League and the Virginia Association of Counties, and it seemed at the time like such a high cap as to be irrelevant. However, with solar now becoming increasingly attractive economically, Virginia’s tax exemption is turning out to be a draw for solar developers. We are told Amazon’s 80 MW solar farm will proceed in four stages, indicating a desire to work around the cap—and suggesting that the tax exemption may have been a factor in the choice of Virginia as the project’s location.

Dominion “Solar Partnership” Program suggests distributed solar might be better left to the private sector

In 2011, the General Assembly passed a law allowing Dominion to build up to 30 MW of solar energy on leased property, such as roof space on a college or commercial establishment. The SCC approved $80 million of spending, to be partially offset by selling the RECs (meaning the solar energy would not be used to meet Virginia’s RPS goals). The program has resulted in several commercial-scale projects on university campuses and corporate buildings. Unfortunately, it has also been plagued by delays and over-spending.

The program was supposed to proceed in two phases, with 10 MW in place by the end of 2013, and another 20 MW by December 31, 2015. However, the program got off to a very slow start. In August of 2014 the company acknowledged it was behind schedule and would likely not achieve more than 13 or 14 MW of the 30 MW authorized before it ran out of money. On May 7, 2015 Dominion filed a notice with the SCC that it needed to extend the phase 2 end date to December 31, 2016, and confirmed that it would install less than 20 MW altogether.

Dominion’s Solar Purchase Program: bad for sellers, bad for buyers, and not popular with anyone

The same legislation that enabled the Community Solar initiative also allowed Dominion to establish “an alternative to net metering” as part of the demonstration program. The alternative turned out to be a buy-all, sell-all deal for up to 3 MW of customer-owned solar. As approved by the SCC, the program allows owners of small solar systems on homes and businesses to sell the power and the associated RECs to Dominion at 15 cents/kWh, while buying regular grid power at retail for their own use. Dominion then sells the power to the Green Power Program at an enormous markup.

I’ve ripped this program from the perspective of the Green Power Program buyers, but the program is also a bad deal for most sellers. Some installers who have looked at it say it’s not worth the hassle given the costs involved and the likelihood that the payments represent taxable income to the homeowner. There is also a possibility that selling the electricity may make homeowners ineligible for the 30% federal tax credit on the purchase of their system. Sellers beware.

And then there’s the problem that selling the solar power means you aren’t powering your home or business with solar—which is the whole point of installing it, right?

Dominion’s Renewable Generation tariff for large users of energy finds no takers; Amazon votes with its feet

Currently renewable energy projects are subject to a size limit of 1 MW. These limitations constrain universities, corporations, data centers, and other large users of energy that might want to run on wind or solar. On top of this, the utilities’ interpretation of Virginia law prohibits a developer from building a wind farm or a solar array and selling the power directly to users under a power purchase agreement.

In 2013, Dominion Power rolled out a Renewable Generation Tariff (PUE-2012-00142) to allow customers to buy larger amounts of renewable power from providers, with the utility acting as a go-between and collecting a monthly administrative fee.

From the start the program appeared flawed, cumbersome and bureaucratic, and as far as we know there have been no takers. Amazon Web Services chose to contract directly with a developer for the 80 MW solar farm it announced this year (avoiding Dominion’s monopoly restrictions by selling the electricity directly into the PJM market).

2015 marks Dominion’s foray into utility-scale solar

Late in 2014, Dominion signaled an interest in building utility-scale solar in Virginia. In 2015, at the utility’s behest, two bills promoted the construction of utility-scale solar by declaring it in the public interest for utilities to build solar energy projects of at least 1 MW, and up to an aggregate of 500 MW. At the solar industry’s urging, the bill was amended to allow utilities the alternative of entering into PPAs for solar power prior to purchasing the generation facilities at a later date, an option with significant tax advantages.

Dominion’s first solar project is expected to be a 20 MW solar farm in Remington, Virginia. The proposal is before the SCC (PUE-2015-00006). Dominion proposes to build and operate the facility itself, which will earn it a return on investment but give up tax advantages that would save money for ratepayers.

On July 17, Dominion issued a Request for Proposals for third party bidders to develop up to 20 MW of additional projects. The RFP came with an absurdly short deadline, surely limiting the number of good responses, but developers are nonetheless hopeful the results will be strong enough to convince Dominion to follow it with a larger request.

2015 will be another year without a wind farm, but there is hope

No Virginia utility is actively moving forward with a wind farm on land. For the past few years, Dominion Power’s website has listed 248 MW of land-based wind in Virginia as under development, without any noticeable progress. There has been a lot of press about the current standoff in Tazewell County, where supervisors are blocking Dominion’s proposed wind farm. Yet Dominion’s advocacy for its project feels perfunctory. The company has signaled it prefers solar, and its 2015 IRP dismisses wind as too costly. On the other hand, Appalachian Power’s IRP suggests an interest in wind as a low-cost renewable resource that could help it meet the Clean Power Plan.

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

As of 2015, however, Apex Clean Energy is in the development stages for a wind farm of up to 80 MW in Botetourt County. No customer has been announced, but the company believes the project can produce electricity at a competitive price.

As for Virginia’s great offshore wind resource, the perception that offshore wind energy will be costly continues to hold back progress. In 2013 Dominion won the federal auction for the right to develop about 2000 MW of offshore wind power, and the lease terms call for the company to file construction plans within five years. The federal government’s timeline leads to wind turbines being built off Virginia Beach around 2020. As I’ve discussed elsewhere, Dominion is something less than committed to seeing the process through. This puts advocates in the legislature and in the business and environmental communities in the odd position of being keener on a development than the developer is.

Meanwhile, however, Dominion is part of a Department of Energy-funded team designing a pilot project of two 6-MW offshore wind test turbines, originally scheduled for installation in 2017. This year Dominion declared it was taking a “step back” when the sole bid for the contract came in way too high. Stakeholders have been meeting this summer to help chart a path forward.

Will a Solar Development Authority help?

One of the MacAuliffe Administration’s initiatives this year was a bill to establish the Virginia Solar Development Authority. 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. The Authority has not been given funding. And members have not been named yet. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking on that December 31, 2016 expiration of the 30% federal tax credit.

The Clean Power Plan: better to switch than fight

On August 3, 2015, EPA issued the final rule known as the Clean Power Plan. Under the rule, states with existing fossil-fuel generating plants must develop plans to reduce total carbon pollution from power plants. In Virginia, the task will fall to the Department of Environmental Quality.

While Virginia’s goals under the plan are modest, the rule means the state, utilities and the SCC must for the first time take carbon emissions into account in their planning. The EPA has signaled a strong interest in seeing wind and solar deployed as solutions.

Some legislators have succumbed to partisan pressure to attack the Clean Power Plan, using talking points provided by fossil fuel front groups. Not only does this do a disservice to Virginians already suffering the effects of climate change, it’s bad economic policy. EPA’s analysis shows Virginia is already on track to meet or come close to our Clean Power Plan goals. Wasting time fighting the plan, or mandating that utilities keep outdated coal plants open, makes far less sense than using the plan as a catalyst to begin an efficient and cost-effective energy transition.

The transition need not even happen fast, as EPA’s numbers suggest that all we need to do is keep our total carbon emissions from increasing over time. Energy efficiency has a huge role to play in achieving this, but so would a requirement that utilities meet any increases in electrical demand with wind and solar. Freeing up the private market will go a long way towards achieving that goal. And of course, when customers install solar “behind the meter,” it keeps electric demand from growing.

The Department of Environmental Quality will be holding “listening sessions” this fall to take public comment prior to developing a state implementation plan under the rule.