Dominion Energy’s new choices are really about limiting choices

Trees clearcut.

Dominion’s renewable energy products contain copious amounts of biomass, also known as burning trees. Photo by Calibas, Creative Commons.

An annual survey conducted by Yale and George Mason universities shows concern about climate change is surging. Seventy-three percent of Americans think climate change is happening, and 69% are at least somewhat worried about it, the highest percentages since the surveys began in 2011.

Another Yale survey found that “a large majority of registered voters (85%) – including 95% of Democrats and 71% of Republicans – support requiring utilities in their state to produce 100% of their electricity from clean, renewable sources by 2050. Nearly two in three conservative Republicans (64%) support this policy.”

Yet here in Virginia, Dominion Energy expects to reduce carbon emissions less in the future than in the past, and it has no plan to produce 100% of its electricity from clean, renewable sources by 2050. For all the talk here of solar, Virginia still had one-seventh the amount of solar installed as North Carolina at the end of 2018 and no wind energy.

Dominion has developed a few solar projects and new tariffs to serve tech companies and other large customers, but ordinary residents still lack meaningful choices. So this spring, Dominion decided to do something about that.

The wrong thing, of course.

Dominion has asked the State Corporation Commission for permission to market two quasi-environmentally-responsible products. One is for people who are willing to pay a premium for renewable energy, and don’t read labels, and the other is for people who want a bargain on renewable energy, and don’t read labels.

There may be plenty of both kinds of customers out there, but that doesn’t mean the SCC should approve either product. Indeed, while the purpose of the bargain product is to offer a choice nobody wants, the purpose of the premium product is to close off better choices.

Let’s look first at the product for bargain-hunters, a super-cheap version of the utility’s Green Power Program. Dominion is calling it “Rider REC.” A better name for it would be the “You Call This Green? Power Program.”

Rider REC consists of the dregs of the renewable energy category, the stuff that isn’t good enough for the Green Power Program. That’s a low bar already, because the Green Power Program doesn’t sell green power. It sells renewable energy certificates (RECs), the “renewable attributes” of electrons from facilities labeled renewable.

Customers who pay extra for RECs still use whatever mix of energy their utility provides. For Dominion customers, that’s fracked gas, nuclear and coal, plus a tiny percentage of oil, biomass, hydro and solar.

Buying RECs lets good-hearted people feel better about using dirty power by donating money to owners of renewable energy facilities somewhere else. The facilities might be in Virginia, or they might be clear across the country.

For example, say a utility out west builds a wind farm because wind is the cheapest way to generate power. If the state doesn’t have a renewable portfolio standard that requires the utility to use the RECs for compliance (most windy states don’t), the RECs can be sold to buyers in liberal East Coast states, lowering energy prices for the utility’s own customers.

RECs don’t even have to represent clean sources like wind. Some RECs subsidize industries that burn trees (aka biomass), black liquor (a particularly dirty waste product of paper mills) and trash.

Dominion’s Green Power Program uses RECs that meet the standards of a national certification program called Green-e. Green-e requires that facilities be no more than 15 years old and meet minimum environmental standards, such as requirements that woody biomass be sustainably grown and that generators don’t violate state and federal pollution limits.

But Virginia’s definition of renewable energy is, shall we say, more forgiving than Green-e’s. Our law does not discriminate against decades-old facilities like hydroelectric dams, or energy from trees that have been clear-cut. (Nor does it recognize that burning trees produces even more lung-damaging, asthma-inducing pollution than coal, and more climate-warming CO2 as well.) Virginia’s definition of renewable energy even includes a vague category of “thermal” energy that may be another way paper mills profit from the REC racket.

This loose definition of “renewable” creates a business opportunity for anyone unscrupulous enough to seize it. Dominion proposes to package up these otherwise unmarketable RECs from sketchy sources across the continental United States and pawn them off on unsuspecting consumers here in Virginia.

There is always money to be made by suckering well-meaning folks, but that’s not a good enough reason for the SCC to let Dominion do it. The case is PUR-2019-00081. Public comments are due by Aug. 15.

So what about the more expensive quasi-environmentally responsible product? “Rider TRG” consists of real, straight-from-the-facility electricity on the power grid serving Virginia, not RECs from out west. And while it is not dirt-cheap like Rider REC, Rider TRG would cost residential customers a premium of only about $50 per year.

Unfortunately, Virginia’s kitchen-sink definition of renewable energy means the sources still don’t have to be new or carbon-free or sustainable. It appears most of them won’t be.

Dominion’s filing indicates the program will use the energy from the Gaston hydroelectric dam built in 1963; the Roanoke Rapids hydro station built in 1955; the Altavista, Southampton and Hopewell power stations that were converted from coal to wood-burning in 2013; and several solar farms the company has already built or contracted for.

In addition, Dominion proposes to allocate to the program the portion of electricity from its Virginia City coal plant representing the percentage of wood that is burned along with the coal.

That’s right, Dominion intends for renewable energy buyers to subsidize its coal plant. The idea is cynical enough to have come from the Trump administration.

Dominion knows full well that customers who want renewable energy want new wind and solar, so why is its first product for residential customers so loaded with dirty biomass and old hydro?

The answer is that Dominion doesn’t care if no one signs up for Rider TRG. The point isn’t to give customers what they want, it’s to prevent them from shopping elsewhere for better options. Like Appalachian Power before it, Dominion wants to close off the narrow opening provided by Virginia law that allows customers to shop for 100% renewable energy from other providers only if their own utility doesn’t offer it. The SCC approved APCo’s renewable energy tariff some months ago. Dominion is following APCo’s successful strategy.

Yet APCo’s product consists of hydro, wind and solar, so it is nefarious, but not actually bad. Dominion’s is nefarious and bad.

An SCC decision in 2017 confirmed customers’ right to shop for renewable energy as long as the incumbent utility doesn’t offer it. Currently at least two other providers, Direct Energy and Calpine Energy Solutions, offer renewable energy to commercial customers in Dominion territory. Yet according to documents provided by Direct Energy, Dominion is refusing to let its customers transfer to Direct Energy and Calpine, triggering competing petitions to the SCC.

Dominion no doubt hopes to resolve the dispute permanently by terminating its customers’ right to switch providers at all.

The case is PUR-2019-00094. Comments may be submitted until Nov. 14, and a public hearing will be held on Nov. 21.

 

This article first appeared in the Virginia Mercury on July 22, 2019.

2017 guide to Virginia wind and solar policy

You can tell this picture wasn’t taken in Virginia because it has wind turbines in it. But at least the solar farm will look familiar to many Virginians these days. Photo credit Dennis Schroeder, NREL.

[This is an awesome guide, isn’t it? But you don’t want to bother with it, because the 2018 update is now available here.]

After several years of writing this annual update and often finding little to cheer about, I can finally share some good news. The nationwide boom in utility-scale solar has hit Virginia full force, juiced by low panel prices, corporate and state government demand, favorable tax policy and an abundance of good sites near transmission lines. We are a long way from unleashing our full potential; a lack of incentives, utility-inspired barriers, and a legislature still in thrall to fossil fuel interests continue to hold us back. In spite of this, Virginia is now attracting hundreds of millions of dollars in solar energy investments, and today the solar industry employs more of our residents than the coal industry.

The same cannot be said for wind energy; we are alone among all neighboring states in having no operating wind farms. Distributed generation like rooftop solar also remains a weak spot, even as customer interest continues to grow.

This survey of current policy is intended to help decision-makers, industry, advocates and consumers understand where we are today, who the players are, and where we could be going in the coming year. A few disclaimers: I don’t cover everything, the opinions expressed are purely my own, and as legal advice it is worth exactly what you’re paying for it.

  1. Overview: Virginia still lags, but we’ve now got some mo’

Even last summer it was clear utility-scale solar was on a roll in the commonwealth, leading me to predict Virginia would hit 200 megawatts (MW) by the end of 2016, up from 22 MW at the end of 2015. According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, we beat that number and then some.

Maryland North Carolina W. Virginia Tennessee Virginia
Solar* 637.8 3,015.8 3.4 171.1 238.3
Wind** 191 208 686 29 0
Total 828.8 3,223.8 689.4 200.1 238.3

Installed capacity measured in megawatts (MW) at the end of 2016. One megawatt is equal to 1,000 kilowatts (kW). Note that SEIA does not provide 2016 numbers for W. Virginia; shown are 2015.

*Source: Solar Energy Industries Association **Source: American Wind Energy Association 

The big numbers, however, still lie ahead. At the May event where Governor McAuliffe announced his directive to the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) to develop a carbon limit for Virginia, he also reported that Virginia has a total of more than 1,800 MW of solar installed or under development.

Several developments are driving these numbers:

  • Once the federal investment tax credit is factored in, the levelized cost of energy from solar is now below that of coal, nuclear, and natural gas.
  • Dominion committed to 400 MW of solar as part of 2015 legislation, and now indicates in its IRP an intent to build 240 MW per year through at least 2032.
  • Governor McAuliffe committed the state to getting 8% of its electricity from solar, a total of 110 MW.
  • Corporations, led by Amazon, are using new approaches to procure renewable energy on favorable terms, including indirect and virtual PPAs; this forces utilities to cooperate or be cut out of the action.
  • Other customers have stepped up pressure on their utilities to provide renewable energy.

You can find the list of projects that have submitted permit applications on the DEQ website. The list currently does not include regulated utility-owned projects, which until this year received permits from the State Corporation Commission (SCC). Under legislation passed in 2017, however, these projects will also be governed by the DEQ permit-by-rule process.

Industry experts caution that not all of these solar projects will get built; we may even be seeing a speculative bubble of sorts, reflecting a scramble to lock up the good sites now and worry about customers later.

You will find only one wind project on the DEQ list: Apex Clean Energy’s 75 MW Rocky Forge wind farm, which received its permit earlier this year but has not yet begun construction.

And in spite of Dominion Virginia Power having won the right to develop an estimated 2,000 MW of wind power offshore of Virginia Beach, there is still no timeline for offshore wind in Virginia. Dominion continues to include its two-turbine, 12 MW pilot project in its 2017 Integrated Resource Plan, with a projected in-service date of 2021. It does not include the larger resource as an option.

  1. Most customers still can’t buy renewable energy from Virginia utilities

Currently, the average Virginia resident can’t pick up the phone and call their utility to buy electricity generated by wind and solar farms (unless they are members of some rural electric cooperatives—see below). Worse, they can’t buy renewable energy elsewhere, either.

Virginia law is not the problem. Section 56-577(A)(6) of the Virginia code allows utilities to offer “green power” tariffs, and if they don’t, customers are supposed to be able to go elsewhere for it. Ideally, a utility would use money from voluntary green power programs to build or buy renewable energy for these customers. However, our two big investor-owned utilities, Dominion Energy Virginia (formerly Dominion Virginia Power) and Appalachian Power Company (APCo), have not done this. Instead, the 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 don’t displace any fossil fuel burning in Virginia. For a fuller discussion of the Dominion Green Power Program, see What’s wrong with Dominion’s Green Power Program.

Since RECs are not energy, Dominion customers are free to buy RECs from other providers, such as Arcadia. If you’re considering this route, read this post first so you understand what you are getting. Personally, I recommend instead making monthly tax-deductible donations to GRID Alternatives to put solar on low-income homes.

Appalachian Power’s “green pricing” program is worse than Dominion’s, consisting only of RECs from an 80 MW hydroelectric dam in West Virginia. In April of 2016 APCo filed a proposal with the SCC for a true renewable energy tariff under of §56-577(A)(6) that would combine wind, solar and hydro. None of the power would come from new projects; partly as a result, the tariff will cost more. That led a hearing examiner to recommend that the SCC reject the tariff as not in the public interest. A ruling by the SCC is expected this summer or fall.

Can you go elsewhere? Since the State Corporation Commission has ruled that REC-based programs do not qualify as selling renewable energy, under the terms of §56-577(A)(6), customers are currently permitted to turn to other licensed suppliers of electric energy “to purchase electric energy provided 100 percent from renewable energy.”

That means you should be able to go elsewhere to buy wind and solar. But Virginia utilities claim that the statute’s words should be read as requiring not only that another licensed supplier provide 100% renewable energy, but that it also supply 100% of the customer’s demand, all the time. Obviously, the owner of a wind farm or solar facility cannot do that. Ergo, say the utilities, a customer cannot go elsewhere.

In August of 2016, a hearing examiner for the SCC rejected this reading in favor of the plain language of the statute. Unfortunately, the case was terminated without the commissioners themselves ruling on the issue.

In spite of the roadblocks, an independent power seller called Direct Energy announced plans last year to sell a renewable energy product to Virginia residents in Dominion’s territory. (The company described the product as a combination of wind and municipal waste biomass.) This spring the SCC confirmed Direct Energy’s right to enter the Virginia market, but also ruled that Direct Energy will have to stop signing up customers once Dominion has its own approved renewable energy tariff. As of this writing, Direct Energy has not decided whether to proceed.

Within a few weeks of the ruling, Dominion filed plans for several new 100% renewable energy tariffs for large commercial customers, and indicated it expected to offer a residential renewable energy tariff as well. Until we see the details, it is hard to know whether this should be viewed as a genuinely positive step for customers or is merely intended to scare off competitors like Direct Energy. Because Dominion’s tariff is designed to meet the company’s “100% of the time” interpretation of the statute, it will include sources like forest biomass, which counts as renewable under the Virginia code but is highly polluting and doesn’t meet many national standards for sustainability. That makes it questionable whether anyone will want to pay extra for its product. If the SCC confirms its hearing examiner’s report rejecting the similar APCo tariff, Dominion may be forced back to the drawing board. (Note to Dominion CEO Robert Blue: Bob, you have the nation’s largest pumped storage facility. Wind, solar and pumped hydro would combine beautifully. You do not need to foist biomass on customers to meet your notion of 100% renewable.)

A new solar option is in the works. For both APCo and Dominion customers, another option is on the way. Under legislation passed this year under the misleading banner of “community solar,” both utilities will contract for power from solar farms to sell to consumers. Details—including price—still have to be worked out in a rulemaking proceeding at the State Corporation Commission. The new programs explicitly do not count as ones selling “electric energy provided 100 percent from renewable energy,” though ironically, they may be the first programs from Dominion and APCo to do exactly that for residential consumers.

Some coop members do have wind and solar options. Recently I learned that there are good green power programs in place in Virginia, available to members of some rural electric cooperatives. Old Dominion Electric Cooperative (ODEC), which supplies power to member cooperatives, buys the output of three wind farms in Maryland and Pennsylvania, and has contracted for two solar farms in Virginia that are slated to come online this year. Not all coops participate; ODEC has the list of those that do on its website.

  1. Community solar

Dominion loves the name “community solar.” The reality, not so much. The solar tariff discussed in section 2 uses that name but keeps the utility in control and gives customers no ownership interest. Dominion opposed true community solar legislation this year (as in past years) that would have put consumers in the driver’s seat.

This is not the first time Dominion has used the name “community solar” for a program that isn’t. In 2015 Dominion received SCC approval for a program it billed as an offer to sell electricity from solar panels. Unfortunately it turned out the “Dominion Community Solar” program would have involved customers paying extra so Dominion could sell solar energy to other people. Reading the details, it seemed clear it would attract customers only to the extent they didn’t understand it. Fortunately the company still hasn’t launched the program, but I’ve seen no formal withdrawal.

As for true community solar, only one Virginia utility offers it: a member-owned rural electric cooperative in southwestern Virginia called BARC.

  1. The miserable sham that is Virginia’s Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS)

Many renewable energy advocates focus on an RPS as a vehicle for inducing demand. In Virginia, that’s a non-starter. Virginia has only a voluntary RPS, which means utilities have the option of participating but don’t have to. And unfortunately, 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 SCC also insists that utilities take a least-cost approach to meeting the RPS, which means they use RECs from trash incinerators, wood burning, and old out-of-state hydro projects built prior to World War II. If utilities build wind and solar, they are required to sell the high-value RECs from these projects and buy low-cost junky ones instead. Thus, no matter how much solar Dominion builds, the RPS operates to ensure customers will never see solar as part of their energy mix.

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 the amount of energy not produced by nuclear plants. The combined result is an effective 2025 target of about 7%.

There appears to be no appetite in the General Assembly for making the RPS mandatory, and efforts to improve the voluntary goals have repeatedly failed in the face of utility and other industry 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 would 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.

  1. Customer-owned generation 

Given the lack of wind or solar options from utilities, people who want renewable energy generally have to build it themselves. Low panel prices and the federal 30% tax credit make it cost-effective for most customers. The emergence of bulk purchasing coops, sometimes also called “solarize” programs, such as those offered through nonprofits VA-SUN and LEAP, makes the process easy for homeowners and businesses and further reduces costs.

Virginia allows net energy metering at the retail rate, though with limits (see section 6). Large commercial customers should also consider the advantages of solar in reducing high demand charges.

In 2016 the GA passed legislation enabling Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) loans for commercial customers. Localities now have an option to offer low-cost financing for energy efficiency and renewable energy projects at the commercial level. Arlington County received a federal grant to develop a PACE program that is expected to launch this year and be a model for other jurisdictions. A bill to extend PACE authorization to residential customers did not get out of committee last year.

Virginia offers no cash incentives or tax credits for wind or solar. 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 or to brokers who sell to voluntary purchasers.

  1. Limits on retail net metering

Section 56-594 of the Virginia code allows utility customers with wind and solar projects to net energy meter at the retail rate. 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.

Residential customers can net meter systems up to 20 kW, although standby charges will apply to those between 10 and 20 kW (see section 8). Commercial customers can net meter up to 1,000 kW (1 MW). There is an overall cap of 1% of a utility’s peak demand that can be supplied by net metered systems (as measured at their rated capacity).

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 about 12 cents. This effectively stops most people from installing larger systems than they can use themselves.

In 2015, the definition of “eligible customer-generator” was tightened 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 wrote implementing regulations (see 20VAC5-315-10 et seq.) but failed to address what happens with new construction.

The limitation presents a new barrier to current customers who want to expand their solar arrays because their business is expanding or they plan to buy an electric car. Why should they have to wait twelve months? But the limitation is also stupid. If customers want to install more clean, renewable energy than they need and are willing to sell the surplus electricity for avoided cost, why would you stop them from performing this service to society?

  1. Progress on meter aggregation derailed by agricultural solar bill

Under a bill 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 (e.g., the farmhouse and other outbuildings). This is referred to as “agricultural net metering.” Unfortunately, there have been complaints from installers about a lack of cooperation from utilities in actually using this provision.

Advocates had hoped that agricultural net metering would be a first step towards broader meter aggregation options, but 2017 legislation instead took agricultural customers in a new direction. Beginning this year, farmers can elect to devote up to a quarter of their acreage to solar panels, up to 1.5 MW or 150% of their own electricity demand. The electricity must be sold to the utility at its avoided cost, while the farmer must buy all its electricity from the utility at retail. A farmer who chooses to do this cannot also use agricultural net metering. Agricultural net metering will be terminated entirely in 2019 in territory served by electric cooperatives, though existing customers are grandfathered.

The change would seem to give farmers no rights they did not already have under federal law, but industry sources I trust say some farmers will indeed be able to make money this way. However, taking away the agricultural net metering option is a backward step for farmers who want to use the solar they produce and aggregate meters.

  1. Standby charges on larger home systems

The current system capacity limit for net-metered residential solar installations is 20 kW. 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. Both Dominion and APCo have approval from the SCC to impose standby charges so high that solar installers say the larger systems often don’t make economic sense.

Utilities argue that customers with solar panels don’t pay their fair share of the upkeep of the grid, shifting costs to those who don’t own solar. A range of “value of solar” studies in other states have generally found the reverse, concluding that distributed solar provides a net benefit to the grid and to society at large. A stakeholder group in Virginia completed the initial phase of a value of solar study in 2014 but got no further after the utilities pulled out of the process.

Standby charges and other net metering issues will be a major focus of attention this year as a topic in the “Rubin Group” discussion. See section 19.

  1. Homeowner associations cannot ban solar

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.

  1. Third-party ownership

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 (as well as accelerated depreciation) and pass along the savings in the form of a lower electricity price.

The Virginia Code seems to sanction this approach to financing solar facilities in its net metering provisions, specifically §56-594, which authorizes a “customer generator” to net meter, and defines an eligible customer generator as “a customer that owns and operates, or contracts with other persons to own or operate, or both, an electrical generating facility that . . . uses as its total source of fuel renewable energy. . . “ (emphasis added).

Notwithstanding this provision, 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. 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 in §56-577(A)(6) available to customers whose own utilities do not offer 100% renewable energy. (See Section 2, above.)

Yet the threat of prolonged and costly litigation was too much. The parties turned the PPA contract into a lease, allowing the solar installation to proceed but without the advantages of a PPA.

(Note that PPAs are sometimes referred to as “leases,” but they are distinct legally. Leasing solar equipment is like renting a generator; both provide power but don’t involve the sale of the electricity itself. I have never heard of a utility objecting to a true lease.)

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. I’m not aware the SCC has reviewed the program to date.

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 2015, Appalachian Power proposed an alternative to PPAs. An evidentiary hearing was held September 29, 2015. A veritable parade of witnesses testified that APCo”s program was expensive, unworkable and unnecessary, given the plain language of the statute allowing PPAs.

Almost a year later, on August 31, 2016, the hearing examiner finally issued her report, recommending that APCo’s application be rejected, both because it was a lousy program and because she, too, read the Code to allow PPAs currently, making a utility alternative unnecessary. Before the commission itself could confirm the ruling, APCo withdrew its application.

In 2017, the legislature passed a bill to allow private colleges and universities—but no one else—in APCo territory to use PPAs to install a maximum of 7 MW of renewable energy.

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. This allows the company to install larger projects in more parts of Virginia (including most recently a 1.3 MW solar array to be installed at Carilion New River Valley Medical Center in Southwest Virginia, which I have to mention here because the project combines solar and sheep farming and therefore will make for cute photos). Currently Secure Futures is the only solar provider offering this option, which it calls a Customer Self-Generation Agreement.

  1. Tax exemption for third-party owned solar

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. It did this by classifying 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 increasingly attractive economically, Virginia’s tax exemption rapidly became a draw for solar developers, including Virginia utilities.

In 2016 Dominion proposed changing the exemption to benefit its own projects at the expense of those of independent developers. In the end, the statute was amended in a way that benefits utility-scale projects without unduly harming smaller projects. Many new projects will now be only 80% exempt, rather than entirely exempt. However, the details are complex, with different timelines and different size classes, and anyone looking to use this provision should study it carefully.

  1. Dominion-owned distributed solar

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 demonstration program was intended to help Dominion learn about grid integration. 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 “Solar Partnership Program” resulted in several commercial-scale projects on university campuses and corporate buildings, but the program did not offer any economic advantages, and it seems to have fizzled out. The new Dominion Energy web page still mentions it, but currently the link does not lead to more information.

  1. Dominion Solar Purchase Program

The same legislation that enabled the “Solar Partnership” initiative also authorized Dominion to establish “an alternative to net metering” as part of the demonstration program. The alternative is 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 a hefty markup. It is not clear whether the program continues to be available; the links on the new Dominion Energy website don’t lead anywhere helpful.

I ripped this program from the perspective of the Green Power Program buyers, but many installers also feel it is a bad deal for customers, given the costs involved and the likelihood that the payments represent taxable income. Finally, selling the electricity may make new system owners ineligible for the 30% federal tax credit on the purchase of the system.

  1. Utility renewable energy tariffs for large customers

In May of this year, Dominion applied to the SCC for permission to offer six new voluntary schedules for customers with a peak demand of at least 1,000 kW (1 MW). The tariff would use a mix of sources that count as renewable under the Virginia Code but still pollute, including biomass—making it only sort-of green.

For large customers that want wind and solar, the options are more limited. In 2013, Dominion Power introduced a Renewable Generation Tariff to allow customers to buy renewable power from providers, with the utility acting as a go-between and collecting a monthly administrative fee. The program was poorly designed and got no takers.

In 2015, Amazon Web Services made Dominion’s RG tariff irrelevant. Amazon contracted directly with a developer for an 80 MW solar farm, avoiding Dominion’s monopoly restrictions with a plan to sell the electricity directly into the PJM (wholesale) market. Dominion Energy (the merchant affiliate of Dominion Virginia Power) then bought the project, and Dominion Virginia Power negotiated a special rate with Amazon for the power. This contract became the basis for an “experimental” tariff that Dominion now offers to customers with a peak demand of 5 MW or more, with a program cap of 200 MW.

Since that first deal, Dominion and Amazon have followed up with contracts for an additional 180 MW of solar in five Virginia counties.

Dominion used a different model for a deal with Microsoft. After the SCC turned down Dominion’s application to charge ratepayers for a 20-MW solar farm in Remington, Virginia, Dominion reached an agreement with Microsoft and the Commonwealth of Virginia under which the state will buy the output of the project, while Microsoft buys the RECs.

Dominion has also entered into a contract to sell the output of a 17 MW solar facility to the University of Virginia and the Darden School of Business.

Dominion has a strong incentive to make deals with large institutions that want a lot of renewable energy: if they don’t like what Dominion is offering, they can do an end run around the utility. Amazon has shown other companies how to use PJM rules that let anyone develop projects for the wholesale market regardless of utility monopolies, and then “attribute” the solar or wind energy to their operations in any state. With the tax exemption discussed in section 11, Virginia projects apparently now pencil out pretty well.

Some observers caution that the process is still not easy. One of the tasks the Rubin Group says it plans to take on this year is considering further changes to help large customers.

  1. Dominion continues to add utility-scale solar for its own portfolio

Even before Amazon and Microsoft showed an interest in large-scale solar projects here, Dominion had announced it wanted to develop 400 MW of solar in Virginia. In 2015, 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. The bill was amended at the solar industry’s behest 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 got off to a rocky start when the SCC rejected the company’s plan to charge ratepayers for its first project, a 20 MW solar farm in Remington, Virginia because the company had not considered cheaper third-party alternatives. Governor McAuliffe helped save the project by working out a deal with Microsoft, as discussed above. Further projects fared better, however, and Dominion is now so enthusiastic about solar that its latest Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) calls for it to engage in a continuous build-out at a rate of 240 MW per year, all for the benefit of its regular ratepayers.

Although Dominion will be able to charge ratepayers for these projects, the SCC will probably insist that the RECs be sold—whether to utilities in other states that have RPS obligations, or to customers who want them for their own sustainability goals, or perhaps even to voluntary green power customers. If this happens, the result will be that Dominion still won’t use solar to meet the Virginia RPS, and ordinary customers will still not have solar as part of the electricity they pay for. That’s the weird world of RECs for you.

  1. Governor McAuliffe initiates program to purchase 110 MW of solar

Following a recommendation by the Governor’s Climate Change and Resiliency Commission, on December 21, 2015, Governor McAuliffe announced that the Commonwealth would commit to procuring 8% of its electricity from solar, with 75% of that built by Dominion and 25% by private developers.

The first deal that will count towards this goal is an 18 MW project at Naval Station Oceana, announced on August 2, 2016. The Commonwealth will buy the power and the RECs. (The Remington Project did not count, because as the buyer of the RECs, only Microsoft can claim the right to be buying solar power.) A 17 MW solar farm supplying the University of Virginia will also count towards the 8%, according to Deputy Secretary of Commerce and Trade Hayes Framme.

  1. Still waiting for wind

No Virginia utility is actively moving forward with a wind farm on land. Dominion Power’s website used to list 248 MW of land-based wind in Virginia as “under development,” without any noticeable progress. The current web page omits mention of these projects.

On the other hand, Appalachian Power’s most recent IRP suggests an interest in wind as a low-cost renewable resource. The bad news is that it isn’t proposing to build any new wind in Virginia.

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.

Nonetheless, Apex Clean Energy has obtained a permit to develop a 75-MW Rocky Forge wind farm in Botetourt County. No customer has been announced, but the company believes the project can produce electricity at a competitive price, given its good location and improved turbine technology. Construction, once planned for this year, is now slated for 2018.

As for Virginia’s great offshore wind resource, little progress has been made towards harnessing it, even as the nation’s first offshore wind project began generating electricity in the waters off Rhode Island last year. Dominion won the federal auction for the right to develop about 2,000 MW of wind power off Virginia Beach in 2013, and the company has completed a Site Assessment Plan (SAP) that is awaiting approval.

We had originally been told the federal government’s timeline would lead to wind turbines being built off Virginia Beach around 2020. Now, however, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management says Dominion has five years from approval of the SAP to submit its construction and operations plan, after which we’ll have to wait for review and approval. Presumably the project will also require an environmental impact statement. So the whole process would be quite slow even if Dominion were committed to moving forward expeditiously.

But in fact, it seems increasingly clear that Dominion is just going through the motions and has little interest in seeing the project through. Its 2017 Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) does not even include offshore wind in any of its scenarios for the next 15 years, except for the 12 MW that would be produced by the two test turbines of its VOWTAP project.

Yes, so what about VOWTAP? Dominion had been part of a Department of Energy-funded team to try out new technology, with two pilot turbines due to be installed in 2017. After a second round of bids to build the project still came in higher than expected, Dominion told DOE last spring it could not commit to construction even by 2020, upon which DOE pulled funding. Dominion executives have not declared the project dead, however, and while there has been no public discussion of reviving it, the 2017 IRP suggests an in-service date of 2021.

[Update: on July 10, 2017, Dominion announced it had signed a memorandum of understanding with Denmark-based DONG Energy, one of the largest offshore wind developers in Europe, to complete the two pilot turbines. According to a Dominion press release, the MOU also gives DONG “the exclusive rights to discuss a strategic partnership with Dominion Energy about developing the commercial site based on successful deployment of the initial test turbines.”]

  1. The EPA Clean Power Plan is (probably) dead; long live the McAuliffe clean energy plan!

The Trump administration’s pullback on the Paris accord and the Clean Power Plan are depressing evidence that the Koch brothers have more influence on government than the American people do. Yet the practical effect in Virginia is small. The Clean Power Plan’s targets for Virginia were modest to a fault, and the state could have written an implementation plan that complied with the federal law while still allowing construction of an unlimited number of new gas-burning plants, sending total carbon emissions soaring.

Governor McAuliffe’s recent Executive Directive 11, on the other hand, ties emissions reductions from Virginia power plants to those in other states that have committed to reducing carbon emissions, leaving somewhat less room for mischief in implementation. There are still plenty of pitfalls ahead, and some Republican leaders have vowed to prevent it from ever taking effect. But any constraints on greenhouse gas emissions would serve to increase the value of emissions-free sources like wind and solar. The DEQ web page will show public participation opportunities.

  1. Solar initiatives underway ahead of the 2018 Session

The legislative initiatives that passed in 2017 dealt primarily with utility-scale solar. Since then, the solar industry has announced plans to focus more on removing barriers to distributed generation, a decided challenge given the utilities’ determination to curtail net metering.

The utilities and the solar industry have reconvened solar policy discussions via the Rubin Group, named for its moderator, Mark Rubin. Steering committee members this year include the electric cooperatives, Dominion, APCo, the solar industry trade group MDV-SEIA, the farm advocate Powered by Facts, the environmental group Southern Environmental Law Center, and the Virginia Manufacturer’s Association. The Rubin Group held a meeting on June 19 to get input from other stakeholders, and a follow-up email announced plans for the following subgroups:

  • Large Customer  (Convener: Katharine Bond, Dominion Energy, with Advanced Energy Economy, Ceres, and World Wildlife Fund as Key Participants)
  • Large Developer/Utility-Scale Solar (Convener: Francis Hodsoll, SolUnesco & MDV-SEIA Board Member)
  • Net Metering (Co-Conveners: Sam Brumberg, Virginia’s Electric Cooperatives & Scott Thomasson, Vote Solar & MDV-SEIA Board Member)
  • Land Use (Convener: Karen Schaufeld, Powered by Facts)
  • Community Solar Implementation for Dominion Energy (Conveners: Katharine Bond & Nate Frost, Dominion Energy)

The Rubin Group will accept comments at RubinGroup2017@gmail.com. [Update: Although this was the email address given out at the public meeting, we have learned it goes to Sam Brumberg, attorney for the electric cooperatives, who says he checks it only a few times per month. He recommends contacting Mark Rubin directly at rubin.mark3@gmail.com.]

A separate initiative is the Virginia Distributed Solar Alliance, which includes solar companies, environmental groups, consumers and solar advocates, but not utilities. As its name suggests, it focuses on removing barriers to smaller-scale, customer-sited projects, defending net metering and educating the public about the added benefits distributed solar bring to the grid and the community. The VA-DSA recently launched its website and is welcoming members.

 

 

Is a Green Power program worth your money?

Photo credit: Neep at the English Language Wikipedia.

Photo credit: Neep at the English Language Wikipedia, via Wikimedia Commons.

Most people who install renewable energy systems on their property do so at least partly to save money on their electricity bill. Yet more than 30,000 Virginians have shown they will pay more on their electricity bills for a product labeled as green energy, with no hope of ever recovering their investment. These are the participants in Dominion Virginia Power’s voluntary Green Power Program. The size and growth rate of this program don’t mean it’s a good option (it’s not), but it does demonstrate the huge consumer appetite for wind and solar in a state that offers little of it.

In the last couple of years, other companies have created their own renewable energy products to compete with Dominion’s and other utility programs. They typically offer 100% wind power (Arcadia Power and Groundswell) or a mix of wind and other renewables (e.g., 3Degrees, which is Dominion’s broker, but which also sells RECs directly). The companies often partner with environmental groups that help recruit residential customers in return for a donation. Recently the Sierra Club announced it had entered into a partnership with Arcadia.

I’ve been skeptical of the value of voluntary REC products offered to Virginia consumers. I’d rather see people install their own solar; or if they can’t do that, to contribute directly to a solar installation on a local church, school or low-income housing unit, or use their influence as alumni donors to goad their alma maters into installing renewable energy on campus. But with the numbers of green power participants growing, and my own favorite environmental group now promoting one of them, it seems like a good time to revisit the question: is it worth spending your money on a green power program?

Arcadia and other programs share certain elements with Dominion’s Green Power Program: you continue to buy the same conventional “brown” power you always have, but in addition you are billed a premium that goes to buy renewable energy certificates (RECs), as well as pay the broker. The RECs represent renewable energy generated—and used—somewhere else, often not in the same state or even the same region.

In other states, green power programs often sell RECs “bundled” with the underlying power. But in Virginia, only your own utility will sell you power, and for reasons I can’t fathom, our utilities don’t offer renewable energy. So the best you can do is buy RECs.

Buying RECs is supposed to give you a claim to the renewable energy they represent. Obviously, that’s a stretch if you live in Virginia and the RECs you buy come from a wind farm in Indiana, or if you’re buying RECs from solar panels installed on someone else’s roof. Participating in a green power program can require a certain suspension of disbelief.

At best, buying RECs through a green power program supports a market for renewable energy. Ideally, the money would incentivize new projects, but it doesn’t always work that way. A developer can’t count income from RECs when it looks for project financing unless it has a long-term contract with a buyer for the RECs; so for new projects to go forward without such long-term contracts, they have to make financial sense without the RECs. In that case, the REC sales are simply a nice addition to the bottom line.

Arcadia says it hopes to grow to a point where it can contract with a wind developer for the RECs from a new wind farm, but meanwhile it buys RECs from existing projects.

This is not a problem in states that have good Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS). Those laws create REC markets that support new renewable energy development within their borders (and occasionally from other states). RECs in RPS states command higher prices in long-term contracts.*

As it happens, though, the best wind is often in conservative western or Midwestern states that lack RPS laws or have weak goals. So these green power programs can be seen as a way for good-hearted liberals to send money to red states. Admittedly, that may not be quite what they intended.

Even if they know all this, some people sign up for these programs anyway—either to send a message to their utility that they want cleaner electricity and are willing to pay for it, or for the psychological value of offsetting their fossil fuel consumption. For these people, there are reasons to prefer the Arcadia or Groundswell program to Dominion’s:

  • Arcadia uses 100% wind power. Dominion uses a mix of resources, including 29% biomass. The web site is not clear about what this means; it references landfill gas and agricultural biogas, neither of which are usually considered biomass. Environmentalists have concerns about using biomass (specially grown crops or, more commonly, wood from trees) for a number of reasons that include pollution and sustainability issues.
  • Dominion’s program costs subscribers 1.3 cents/kWh. At least in past years, approximately half of the money collected was spent on overhead and promotion. Arcadia’s program costs subscribers 1.2 cents/kWh. I have been unable to determine how much of that goes for program costs.
  • When you sign up for Arcadia, the company takes over your billing from Dominion. You receive bills directly from Arcadia. That sends a signal to Dominion that its customers want renewable energy, but don’t want to participate in Dominion’s greenwashing.

Of course, these programs only exist because our utilities have been so slow to incorporate wind and solar into Virginia’s energy mix. The solution is to let consumers buy wind and solar directly from producers anywhere in the state—a choice that is forbidden to them now—and ultimately, to create a 21st century energy economy based on sustainable and renewable energy.

The climate crisis makes that an urgent priority for everyone. We won’t achieve it if we merely rely only on volunteers.

______________________________

*An interesting question is what will happen to the voluntary REC market when the Clean Power Plan kicks in. Electricity from new renewable energy projects will acquire a higher value when coal-heavy states have to start buying Emission Rate Credits (ERCs). The EPA stresses that ERCs are not the same as RECs, but most of us would say that if one buyer holds the ERC and another the REC from the same unit of energy, something has gone very wrong.

 

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.