What’s not to like about biomass? Deforestation, pollution and overpriced power.

What if you could get your electricity from a fuel that destroys forests, produces more air pollution than coal, and is priced higher than alternatives?

“Wow, sign me up!” you would not say, because as a sane person you don’t like deforestation, pollution and overpriced power.

Also, because you are not Dominion Energy Virginia. Dominion burned wood at one power plant from 1994 until last year; converted three small coal plants to wood-burning in 2013; and burns wood along with coal at its Virginia City coal plant. This “biomass” energy makes up about one percent of the electricity Dominion sells to Virginia ratepayers, according to its most recent IRP.

Biomass counts as renewable under the Virginia Code, so in theory it can also be used to supply customers who are willing to pay extra for renewable energy. Lots of people want renewable energy these days. Unfortunately for Dominion, they want clean, non-polluting renewables like wind and solar. No one is clamoring for biomass.

That’s especially true because biomass costs more than wind or solar, not to mention more than fossil sources. Who’s going to buy dirty energy when they can get clean energy for less money?

We recently learned just how much more expensive biomass is when the State Corporation Commission held a hearing on Dominion’s latest effort to get a renewable energy tariff approved. Rider TRG combines wind, solar and hydro with biomass, originally including biomass burned at the Virginia City coal plant.

Pretty much everyone hates the proposed tariff, as the Virginia Mercury reported. Counties looking to buy renewable energy objected. Corporate customers said they wouldn’t buy it.

So, in a halfway step meant to mollify opponents, Dominion offered to remove the Virginia City coal plant from the list of sources, while leaving in the rest of the biomass facilities.

Here’s the interesting part: taking Virginia City out made the program more affordable. Having biomass as part of the renewable energy mix, it turns out, doesn’t save money for participants; it costs extra.

In that case, you might say (again, you being a sane person), Dominion ought to remove all the biomass from Rider TRG and save participants even more money, while making it a program people might actually want.

And indeed, the SCC staff calculated that if all the biomass were to be removed, it would reduce the cost by almost two-thirds. For average residential customers using 1,000 kilowatt-hours per month, removing biomass from Rider TRG would mean the added cost of making all their power renewable would fall from $4.21 per month to $1.78.

A no-brainer, right? Making the program both cleaner and more affordable would make it more popular and spur construction of new renewable energy facilities.

Dominion refused. Having the program be successful, you see, is not the point. As I wrote this summer, the purpose of Rider TRG isn’t to offer a product people want to buy, it’s to prevent anyone else from selling renewable energy. If the commission approves Dominion’s tariff, under state law competitors will be locked out of the Virginia market.

If the biomass turns out to be a kind of poison pill for the program, so that no one signs up, that really doesn’t matter to Dominion because, again, the whole point of Rider TRG isn’t to attract customers, it’s to kill competition.

The SCC hasn’t ruled on the program yet. Post-hearing briefs are due Dec, 20, so we can expect an order in the case early next year.

But why biomass?

At this point you may be asking yourself why Dominion chose to invest in all those biomass plants in the first place. The answer is subsidies. During its early years, Virginia’s voluntary renewable portfolio standard rewarded Dominion with tens of millions of dollars annually as a bonus for meeting the renewable energy goals set out in the law. Section 56-576 of the Virginia Code very helpfully defines renewable energy to include “biomass, sustainable or otherwise, (the definitions of which shall be liberally construed).”

Fun fact: as recently as 2008, only “sustainable biomass” qualified as renewable energy. The definition was altered in 2009, at the same time it was expanded to cover biomass burned in a coal-fired power plant such as the one Dominion had just announced it would build.

The RPS bonus money boondoggle came to an end in 2013 when public outrage reached a fever pitch. Then-Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli reached a deal on legislation to repeal the bonus money provisions of the statute. (Utilities could still recover the costs of the RPS program from ratepayers.) Left intact was everything else, including defining renewable energy as “biomass, sustainable or otherwise.”

Liberally construing “sustainable or otherwise” has not been good for southeastern forests. Dogwood Alliance and Southern Environmental Law Center document widespread clear-cutting, loss of forests, and replacement of mixed hardwood forests with pine plantations. As these groups and others have also pointed out, burning wood produces more pollution than coal and isn’t carbon-neutral in the time frame that matters for the climate pickle we’re in.

Dominion is not the worst offender; pride of place belongs to wood pellet manufacturer and exporter Enviva, which just received a permit to expand its Virginia facility in Southampton.

Dominion also isn’t the only Virginia utility to have invested in burning trees. Northern Virginia Electric Cooperative provides its customers with electricity from a biomass plant in South Boston. NOVEC doesn’t have an RPS to meet, so it sells renewable energy certificates to Maryland utilities. It’s a lousy deal for the Maryland residents who get higher bills and no clean energy to show for it, but meanwhile NOVEC brags about its “environmentally friendly” plant.

So now what?

There are really two questions when it comes to burning trees for fuel: one, should government give it preferential treatment; and two, should an electric utility be doing it at all?

The General Assembly will almost certainly consider legislation this year requiring utilities to increase the proportion of electricity they sell that comes from renewable energy. If biomass is allowed to qualify, the result will be less new wind and solar and less progress towards a carbon-free grid. The lesson from other states that have renewable energy mandates is simple: states that allow junk get junk. (Here’s looking at you, Maryland.)

But as we’ve seen, biomass can’t compete with other energy sources on cost if it doesn’t get subsidies. Dominion can follow NOVEC’s lead in selling RECs to Maryland or other states that haven’t wised up yet, but REC payments won’t make up the cost difference between biomass and other fuels.

Worse—or better, depending on your point of view—other states may decide not to support the biomass racket. Maybe Dominion could still sell the renewable energy certificates (RECs) to the ultra-cheap Green Power for Suckers program that the SCC approved a couple weeks back. But selling cheap RECs to chumps would net the company only—ahem—chump change.

In fact, the SCC should take a hard look at biomass when Dominion files its next Integrated Resource Plan. Requiring the utility to get out of the wood-burning business wouldn’t just clean the air and protect forests, it could be a smart way to save money for customers.

 

This article originally appeared in the Virginia Mercury on December 2, 2019. 

Green Power for Suckers program wins regulatory approval

Trees clearcut.

Don’t think of biomass as destroying forests, think of it as a way to feel good about subsidizing pollution. Photo by Calibas, Creative Commons.

Virginia’s State Corporation Commission (SCC) has approved Dominion Energy Virginia’s request to offer a new product to electric utility customers who want to buy renewable energy at a discount but lack the knowledge to understand when they are being taken for chumps.

“Rider REC” is an ultra-cheap version of the company’s Green Power Program (itself of questionable value). For less than a buck a month on their electric bills, customers will be able to buy renewable energy certificates that cost Dominion next to nothing because no one else wants them. And for good reason: these are the dregs of the renewable energy category.

You won’t find any wind or solar in Rider REC, but you might find paper mill waste, trees burned after clear-cutting, or century-old hydro dams—all officially “renewable” under the generous provisions of Virginia law. Dominion will scrounge up these old and dirty leftovers, package them up, and put a green bow on them.

“Caveat emptor,” says the SCC with a shrug. The SCC seems to think anyone dumb enough to pay extra voluntarily deserves whatever they get.

This is not the first time the SCC has shown disregard for eco-conscious consumers. Four years ago it gave Dominion the nod for a program the company was calling “community solar,” which wasn’t actually selling any solar and had nothing to do with communities. Dominion never did roll out that program, perhaps because there was no way to market it without courting accusations of consumer fraud. But it had the SCC’s blessing for it!

(In case you are confused: this was before the company’s most recent iteration of community solar, also approved, also not actually community solar, and which we are still waiting for. Dominion executives could probably do with a thesaurus.)

In response to concerns that customers wouldn’t know what they are getting, the SCC order did impose one labeling requirement. Dominion’s marketing materials must “clearly identify the source of the RECs available for purchase under Rider REC (i.e., the less expensive of PJM Tier II RECs or national Green-e eligible RECs).”

Perhaps Dominion will even tell buyers what those things mean, though the SCC doesn’t seem to be saying it has to. In the interests of clarity, Dominion could explain that “PJM Tier II RECs” translates to “some stuff we found behind the refrigerator and think might still be edible.” But it probably won’t.

That’s because, just as with the old community solar thing, the problem is that if buyers understand what’s in it, they won’t be buyers.

 

This article was originally published in the Virginia Mercury on November 8, 2019. 

Dominion gets the nod to sell solar energy to us regular folks

alternative energy building clouds energy

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The State Corporation Commission (SCC) has approved Dominion Energy Virginia’s so-called Community Solar pilot program, under which the utility will offer its residential and commercial customers the output of solar farms to be built by independent solar developers here in Virginia.

Customers will have the option to meet either all or part of their electric demand with solar. The added cost of the program, at least initially, will be 2.01 cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh). For a customer who uses an average of 1,000 kWh monthly and wants to use only solar, that would add up to a premium of $20.10 per month.

Customers who want to meet just a portion of their total demand with solar will have the option of subscribing to “blocks” consisting of 100 kWh, up to a maximum of 5 blocks for residential customers or 10 blocks for non-residential customers.

The premium cost of the program may surprise customers who have heard that large-scale solar is now one of the cheapest sources of energy in Virginia. But according to Will Cleveland, a staff attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center who helped to develop the program, cost was not the only consideration in choosing which solar facilities to include in the program.

Facilities were selected to be smaller and distributed around the state, in keeping with the “community” concept, which meant they sometimes came with higher prices. Program costs also include Dominion’s costs of administration and marketing. Cleveland says he consulted experts who advised him these numbers were reasonable.

In addition to selling the electrical output of the solar facilities to customers, Dominion will retire the associated renewable energy certificates (RECs). The RECs represent the legal proof that the energy comes from solar, an important factor for commercial customers that wish to represent they use renewable energy in their business. “Retiring” the RECs guarantees that Dominion isn’t also selling them elsewhere.

The program is a result of legislation passed by the General Assembly in 2017 that authorized a three-year pilot program in Dominion’s territory for up to 40 megawatts (MW) of solar capacity. The legislation also authorized Appalachian Power to develop up to 10 MW for a similar program. To date, Appalachian Power has not submitted a proposal.

Although the program is called “community solar,” customers will not own shares in the solar facilities, and the facilities do not have to be located in the same communities as the customers. Virginia law does not permit the kind of community solar in which customers share in the ownership and output of solar facilities.

Calling Dominion’s program “community solar” is bound to confuse people, and it’s hard not to believe that was a calculated move on the utility’s part. Yet Dominion’s solar offering is a major step forward for the company, and for customers who aren’t able to put solar panels on their own rooftops.

And while it is somewhat more expensive than the company’s Green Power Program, it should prove much more attractive with people who understand the difference between the programs.

Subscribers to the Green Power Program don’t get electricity from renewable energy; Dominion sells them regular “brown” power, then tacks on an added charge to match the dirty energy with renewable energy certificates (RECs). Most of the RECs come from existing wind projects in other states, where wind is already the cheapest power source. By contrast, the solar program provides solar energy (and the RECs) from new Virginia solar farms, ones that would not get built otherwise.

Dominion is expected to begin signing up subscribers for its solar program later this fall, with the program getting underway once the solar projects come online next year. For those of us without the sunny roofs needed to put up our own solar panels, this promises to be—for now—the next best option.

A version of this article first appeared in the Virginia Mercury, a new (and if I do say so, quite excellent) independent online news source dedicated to covering Virginia issues that matter. 

Moving to block competition, Dominion files its own sort-of-green energy tariff

Just a couple of the great things that count as “renewable energy” in the Virginia Code.

Dominion Virginia Power has filed for permission from the State Corporation Commission (SCC) to offer a 100% renewable energy tariff to commercial and industrial customers with peak loads of over 1,000 kilowatts. In a footnote, Dominion states that it intends to propose a similar tariff for residential customers in the future. The case is PUR-2017-0060.

Customers who want only carbon-free energy like wind and solar will likely be disappointed. Dominion intends to use a “portfolio of resources” that will include “dispatchable resources”—i.e., hydropower and stuff that can be burned. Dominion promises the sources it uses will meet Virginia’s definition of renewable. That’s not reassuring. Under Virginia law, renewable energy can include sources like landfill gas and municipal solid waste, as well as “biomass, sustainable or otherwise (the definitions of which shall be liberally construed).”

Dominion’s filing comes scarcely one month after an SCC decision confirmed the right of independent renewable energy provider Direct Energy to offer its products to Dominion customers, but only so long as Dominion lacks its own green tariff for those customers. The SCC order (explained here) made clear that under Virginia law, a competitor like Direct Energy would be blocked from taking on new customers once Dominion has an approved tariff.

Dominion’s filing looks suspiciously like an effort to cut Direct Energy off at the knees. If the upstart competitor follows through with its plans to offer Virginia residents a renewable energy option, Dominion will surely propose a residential renewable energy tariff. SCC approval of Dominion’s tariff would shut out Direct Energy, which is targeting only residential consumers for its product. Under the language of the Code, it does not appear to matter whether a competitor can offer a better product, or a better price.

For the moment, Direct Energy is not backing down. The company has set up a web page to gauge the interest of residential consumers while it deliberates its next move. Ron Cerniglia, Director of Corporate and Regulatory Affairs for the Mid-Atlantic Region, told me he thinks the timing of Dominion’s filing is “curious,” given that “Dominion has had ten years to file a renewable energy tariff and hasn’t. We’re concerned about the implications of limiting choice for consumers. We don’t know if the move will actually offer a choice consumers want, or if it is just closing doors on others.”

Indeed, ten years have passed since Virginia enacted its current utility law, which includes the right of a customer to “purchase electric energy provided 100 percent from renewable energy” from another supplier if its own utility isn’t offering it. During most of that time, Dominion has sold Renewable Energy Certificates to customers under its “Green Power Program,” but it has never offered residential customers an opportunity to buy actual renewable energy. (See “Is a Green Power program worth your money?”)

This is slated to change as the utility works with the solar industry on implementing a new solar option under legislation passed this year. However, the new law specifies that the solar option will not count as a tariff for “electric energy provided 100 percent from renewable energy,” so it does not block competitive offerings like Direct Energy’s.

Dominion was agreeable to excluding the solar program because it interprets the Code’s reference to “electric energy provided 100% from renewable electricity” to mean the electricity must come from renewables 100% of the time, an interpretation almost no one else shares.

This seems to be the reason Dominion intends to include carbon-emitting sources into its renewable energy offering, even though it’s safe to say there are no customers clamoring to get their electricity from garbage or the clear-cutting of forests. It also means the new tariff will likely be priced higher than one that included only solar, because electricity from biomass is more expensive today than harvesting the sun. (No word from Dominion on why it doesn’t just assign a portion of its pumped storage capacity to serve an all-wind-and-solar product.)

But if customers want only wind and solar, they are also likely to be disappointed in Direct Energy’s product. Cerniglia says his company includes baseload sources like “cleaner biomass” in its renewable energy product to provide 24/7 power. He estimated that the initial mixture would consist of “50% to 60% municipal waste biomass (Pennsylvania and Virginia sourced) and 40% to 50% wind (Pennsylvania sourced) . . . We are also committing to not utilize virgin wood / clear cut wood biomass in our product mix at any time.”

Direct Energy also has not determined the pricing of its product yet, but Cerniglia said it would be “equal to or lower than what Dominion Virginia Power residential customers pay for ‘brown’ power.”

Perhaps most importantly, he noted, “The benefit of a competitive market is that customers can leave us at any time. They’re not captive.”

 

Update: On June 21, a Hearing Examiner for the SCC recommended rejection of a similar application for a renewable energy tariff filed last year by Appalachian Power. See my discussion here for how this may affect Dominion’s application. 

What’s wrong with Dominion’s Green Power Program

Better than Green Power: installing a solar system yourself. Photo credit: NREL

Better than Green Power: installing a solar system yourself. Photo credit: NREL

Renewable energy advocates in Virginia were astonished to learn a few weeks ago that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has given Dominion Virginia Power an award for its Green Power Program.

Dominion’s program is not, to put it mildly, a good one. Half of the money its customers contribute is siphoned off for overhead and “education.” The rest goes to buy renewable energy certificates from out of state. Over the years Dominion has collected millions of dollars in these voluntary contributions without building a single wind or solar facility to supply the program. Surely the only green award this merits is one for greenwashing.

So I called the EPA to find out what criteria they use in determining who gets an award. It turns out the agency only measures the growth of a green power program, and Dominion has signed up more customers than other utility programs have.

I had to laugh. Customers of utilities in most other states have real options to buy wind and solar. If you can buy wind energy from an alternative supplier or participate in a community solar project, or if your utility is aggressively incorporating renewables into its power supply, you don’t need a green power program.

But Dominion has never built more than token amounts of renewable energy, and it continues to use its monopoly position to erect barriers to competition from others. The utility has signed up 19,000 Green Power participants only because it has effectively denied its Virginia customers any meaningful way of participating in the renewable energy market.

News of this award will surely lure more people in. Yet even if every one of Dominion’s customers signed up for the program, it wouldn’t shrink Virginia’s carbon footprint. Instead, Dominion’s latest integrated resource plan reveals plans for more fossil fuel generation and increasing greenhouse gas emissions over the next fifteen years.

And it’s worse than that. As of this year, Dominion is actually using the Green Power Program to bankroll an attack on renewable energy—one the State Corporation Commission shamefully endorsed when it approved the company’s 3-megawatt “solar purchase program.”

In this charade, Dominion buys solar power from homeowners and businesses to resell to the Green Power Program. The deal nets sellers a few cents over the retail price of electricity, but costs the Green Power Program almost three times as much. This overcharging of the Green Power Program would be bad enough. But the more insidious problem lies in Dominion’s justification for the high charge. It claims that rooftop solar energy is no more valuable than power from fossil fuels that it can buy at wholesale.

Dominion’s position flies in the face of recent studies demonstrating the benefits of solar energy to the grid, including generating power where demand is, providing power during peak hours when energy is most expensive, avoiding the need for transmission upgrades, eliminating line losses, and reducing the need for new generation.

It also runs counter to trends in states like Georgia, where Georgia Power has put a higher–than-retail value on the solar distributed generation it plans to buy, and says that paying the extra won’t put upward pressure on rates.

This makes it especially difficult to understand why Virginia’s State Corporation Commission approved Dominion’s Green Power rip-off. And predictably, Dominion has followed up its win with a deeply flawed study it plans to use as a basis for a new round of standby charges on customers who net meter. (The case is PUE-2012-00064, available on the SCC web site.)

So what is a dedicated renewable energy advocate to do?

There are options. If you are determined to buy RECs, you don’t have to go through Dominion. Buy from another source. But better yet, install solar yourself if you can. The price of solar panels has dropped so precipitously over the past few years (down 60% since the start of 2011) that you may find it worth taking out a home equity loan.

If you don’t have a sunny roof yourself or can’t afford the whole upfront cost, you can work with your school, community center or place of worship to install solar panels in your neighborhood. Interest in solar is very high among Virginia faith congregations, driving large turnouts for presentations on the topic given by Sierra Club and others in cooperation with the solar industry.

Or you can take the money you were spending on Dominion’s program and give it to a charity that will use it to install renewable energy here in Virginia; this may even get you a tax deduction. Low-income housing providers like Richmond’s Better Housing Coalition now put solar panels on many of their facilities, and will accept donations specifically for that purpose.

The Virginia Center for Wind Energy at James Madison University accepts donations to its Wind for Schools program, which helps public schools across the commonwealth install wind turbines for educational purposes.

A new non-profit, Three Birds Foundation, is working to put solar on public schools that serve low-income children in Virginia and elsewhere.

All these charities are committed to doing what Dominion, apparently, doesn’t want to do: install solar and wind energy in Virginia.