For Dominion, the answer to every problem is more gas

Dominion Energy Virginia just released its 2018 Integrated Resource Plan (IRP), and the message it conveys could not be clearer: no matter what happens, the utility plans to build more fracked gas generation.

The IRP lays out five scenarios for meeting electric demand over the next 15 years, each one responding to a different set of assumptions. Yet weirdly, no matter which assumptions you choose, Dominion’s plan involves building a little bit of solar and a lot more gas.

Dominion Energy Virginia IRP; table showing alternatives considered

Dominion’s “Alternative Plans” (from page 24 of the IRP) prove to be very short on actual alternatives.

Everywhere you see “CT” in the table, that’s another gas plant–and they show up in every “alternative.” Assume no carbon tax? Great, Dominion will build gas. What if Virginia follows through on plans to cut carbon by joining the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI)? No problem, Dominion will build gas. How about if the Feds impose a national carbon plan? Alrighty then, Dominion will build gas!

Seriously, folks, if fracked gas is always the answer, somebody isn’t asking the right question.

The question we’d like to see addressed is how the utility intends to help Virginia transition to a clean energy economy. The question Dominion seems to be answering is how to create a need for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

This isn’t a surprise; Dominion’s parent company, Dominion Energy, is the majority partner in the pipeline, and the pipeline’s approval was premised on the utility “needing” the pipeline to serve its gas plants. It’s a blatant conflict of interest that the SCC should have addressed by now, but it declined to do so. (The Sierra Club has taken the SCC to court over this dereliction of duty.)

Dominion would prefer we talk about its plans for more solar. It is true the 2018 IRP proposes more solar generation than the 2017 IRP did. Last year’s IRP revealed that solar had become the lowest-cost energy in Virginia, but it forecast only 240 MW per year. This year’s IRP shows solar increasing over the next few years to a maximum of 480 MW per year beginning in 2022 (about half of what North Carolina installed in 2016). To put that in perspective, Microsoft recently announced it was contracting for 350 MW of Virginia solar to be built in one fell swoop, to serve just its own operations.

Meanwhile, the IRP notes that Dominion’s newest combined-cycle gas plant, the 1,585 MW Greensville behemoth, will enter service next year. Running at full capacity, it would provide the equivalent amount of electricity to 13 years’ worth of planned solar construction, since the expected output of a solar farm is about 25% of its “nameplate” capacity. (To be fair, the Greensville plant will likely run at more like 75-80% capacity. But it follows three other new gas plants Dominion built this decade. Together the four plants add a total of  4,862 MW. And those are nowhere near all the gas plants Dominion operates.)

The fact that all of Dominion’s IRP scenarios look alike and rely heavily on gas seems to be intended to send a message not to the SCC but to Governor Northam. Dominion doesn’t like the carbon reduction rulemaking now underway at the Department of Environmental Quality, which aims to lower emissions from Virginia power plants by 30% between 2020 and 2030. So the IRP “assumes” Dominion will comply by purchasing dirtier power from states not subject to regulation, actually driving up both cost and carbon emissions. Meanwhile, it’s going to build gas no matter what.

Welcome to Dominion’s game of hardball, Governor Northam.

Of course, the IRP is only a planning document. The SCC may approve it but still reject a proposed facility when the utility asks for permission to build it. Market watchers will question whether Dominion will be able to justify all—or any—of the 8 proposed gas combustion turbine facilities in hearings before the SCC. Virginia has too little solar now to need combustion turbines for back-up, and by the time there is enough to challenge the capabilities of the grid, experts predict battery storage will be the better and cheaper choice.

But never mind that; for Dominion, what matters now is justifying the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

Dominion Power promises huge solar investments and a lower carbon footprint—or does it?

Dominion Virginia Power says energy from solar farms is now a low-cost option. Photo credit Kanadaurlauber.

Dominion Virginia Power released its updated Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) this week with a press release that promised thousands of megawatts (MW) of new solar power and a dramatically lower carbon footprint. In a remarkable turnabout, the Executive Summary declares, “The Company must now prepare for a future in which solar PV generation can become a major contributor to the Company’s overall energy mix.”

Alas, a closer look reveals Dominion will actually increase its carbon emissions over the period studied. Meanwhile, the solar would be built at a rate of only 240 MW per year over the 15-year period covered by the IRP, about the same amount being installed in Virginia this year. (Over 25 years, Dominion says its solar could reach 5,200 MW, which means the pace of installation would actually drop in the out years.) That should elicit yawns, not excitement.

The solar numbers pale in comparison to the more than 4,600 MW of new natural gas combined-cycle plants Dominion has been building just in this decade. (Remember that solar farms generate electricity at about 20-25% of “nameplate” capacity on average, while combined-cycle gas plants nationally average 50-60%, and can achieve 70% or higher.*) And even come 2032, the new solar will make up only a tiny fraction of a generation portfolio that consists almost entirely of coal, gas and nuclear.

I’ll be interested to see the numbers analyzed, but my guess is that all the renewable energy Dominion proposes to build over the next 15 years represents no more than 5-10% of its total electric generation. That’s too little, too late, in a state that can do so much better.

So the more things change, the more Dominion stays the same. Behind the hype being offered to the press stands a utility that is still committed to fossil fuels and nuclear power.

Virginia utilities file IRPs with the State Corporation Commission (SCC) every year. The plans are supposed to reflect the utilities’ best sense of how they will meet consumers’ needs for electricity while complying with state and federal laws and policies. This involves some guesswork about the direction of future regulations, including regulations of CO2 emissions.

In spite of President Trump’s determination to roll back climate protections while he is in office, Dominion’s IRP assumes an eventual price on carbon. Most utilities nationwide are doing the same thing. But given the uncertainties, Dominion has chosen (as it did last year) to model different scenarios instead of committing to a single plan.

Even the low-cost plan that wouldn’t comply with the EPA Clean Power Plan contains just as much solar as the other plans, reflecting the company’s assessment (on page 3) that solar is now “cost-competitive with other more traditional forms of generation, such as combined-cycle natural gas.”

Yet the carbon reductions Dominion promises in its press release appear to be something of a sleight-of-hand. For one thing, Dominion has chosen to compare its CO2 output in 2032 to its output in 2007, not 2017. CO2 emissions were markedly higher in 2007 than now, with the shale gas boom and the rise of renewables leading to massive coal retirements in the interim.

Moreover, a careful reading of the press release reveals the reductions Dominion promises are per-capita, not overall. A chart on page 115 of Dominion’s IRP shows every one of the scenarios Dominion studied will actually increase the company’s total CO2 emissions between now and 2042.

That reality exasperates climate activists. Glen Besa, former Director of the Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club, comments, “The only impression you could have reading Dominion’s release was that it was making dramatic reductions in carbon pollution, which obviously is not the case.”

CO2 emissions would not increase if Dominion were simply shutting down coal and building more solar. But all of the alternative scenarios Dominion models for its IRP contain more gas plants: at least another 1,374 MW of gas combustion turbines in all plans, and 1,591 MW of combined cycle gas in some scenarios. Combustion turbines are more flexible than combined-cycle plants and so are better for meeting spikes in demand and integrating renewable energy like solar, but while they run less often, they are typically higher-polluting. Many utilities are using demand response or installing battery storage instead; Dominion appears to prefer gas.

All this gas means higher CO2 output. Not incidentally, burning more gas also means more business for Dominion’s parent corporation, Dominion Resources (soon to be known as Dominion Energy), which is heavily invested in gas transmission. And crucially, Dominion Energy needs more gas power plants to justify building the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. So building more gas plants serves the interests of Dominion’s affiliates, not its customers.

The problem with building new gas plants is that it lowers carbon only so far compared to coal, and then you’re stuck at that level for the life of the gas plants, unless you’re willing to abandon them early. That’s why any utility that’s serious about protecting ratepayers from stranded costs has to invest in wind, solar, energy efficiency and storage, not natural gas.

Speaking of wind, the IRP includes the 12 MW pilot project known as VOWTAP in all of the plans, even though Dominion lost millions of dollars in federal funding when it would not commit to building the two test turbines by 2020, three years past the original deadline. But none of the scenarios studied include any land-based wind, and none include a build-out of the federal offshore wind energy area Dominion bought the rights to, which could support at least 2,000 MW of offshore wind power. This is a strange omission given that Dominion continues to include a scenario in which it would build the world’s most expensive nuclear reactor, known as North Anna 3.

Polls consistently show overwhelming public support for renewable energy. Yet right now, ordinary Virginia ratepayers have no access to renewable energy unless they put solar on their own rooftop. Corporations like Amazon Web Services and Microsoft account for the bulk of the solar energy being installed in Virginia, with most of the remaining going to the military, state government, universities, and schools.

So 3,200 MW over 15 years won’t even begin to satisfy consumer demand. North Carolina installed almost 1,000 MW last year; I’d like to see Dominion set that as an annual target, bringing it up to the 15,000 MW over 15 years it modeled for last year’s IRP (before hiding the encouraging results from pubic view). Round out the solar with other cost-effective clean energy options, and we will see the kind of carbon reductions that don’t have to be fudged in a press release.


*On page 88 of the IRP, Dominion provides it own capacity factor forecasts: solar 25%, combined cycle gas 70%, gas combustion turbines 10%, nuclear 96%, onshore wind 42%, offshore wind 42%. The chart does not include a number for coal.

Dominion ditches plans for onshore wind in Virginia, but grows bullish on solar

Not for you, Virginia.

Not for you, Virginia.

Well, now it’s semi-official: in spite of what it has been telling customers for years, Dominion Power is not going to build onshore wind in Virginia. Speaking at an Edison Electric Institute conference in Dallas on November 13, Dominion Resources Executive Vice President and CFO Mark Gettrick spelled it out:

“When the wind business first got started, a decade, a decade and a half ago, we built two wind projects early on [Mt. Storm, in West Virginia, and Fowler Ridge, in Indiana], and we elected not to build any more. We steered away from wind. We do not think wind would ever be a good resource on land, in Virginia anyway, and so we elected not to pursue incremental wind projects.”

Someone should probably let the rest of the company in on the secret. Dominion’s website still insists the company has three Virginia onshore wind projects in development, and it included 247 megawatts’ worth in its latest Integrated Resource Plan (IRP). But the plan reflects the company’s cooling enthusiasm for wind energy, with the projects now slated for 2022-2024.

This is disappointing news, but it certainly isn’t a surprise. Dominion proposed its Virginia wind farms back before fracking caused natural gas prices to nosedive, undercutting the economic case for wind. At that point, Virginia’s lack of a real RPS meant Dominion had no incentive to build higher-priced generation, and every reason to believe the State Corporation Commission would reject a wind project, as it did similar proposals from Appalachian Power.

But though it is abandoning wind, the company is enthusiastic about solar. Gettrick said Dominion sees “gas and solar” as the way to comply with the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, which will require states to lower their carbon emissions from electric generating plants. Gettrick said:

“We see a growing need in Virginia to install solar for native load compliance with carbon. So that’s what we’re doing . . . So watch where we go with solar. We like the technology, the cost continues to drop, and we see it as a cornerstone for future development in Virginia.”

Advocates may wonder, why solar and not wind? Wind would seem to be cheaper, after all, and a single utility-scale turbine provides more power than hundreds of home solar systems.

The IRP offers part of the answer. For a utility, not all power is equal. Dominion has plenty of power for times when demand is low; the challenge is filling in the peaks and valleys of demand above that minimum level. Dominion needs the most power on summer days when solar produces well but wind does not.

The other part of the answer is price. This will surprise people who have seen the rock-bottom prices of wind power in places like Iowa and Texas, where wind outcompetes even natural gas. But it’s cheap to build wind among cornfields or on open rangeland, where access is easy. It’s more expensive to do it in the eastern mountains, where narrow, winding roads pose logistical challenges. The result is that wind power in the Southeast will cost about double what it costs in the Plains, according to the most recent Lazard analysis.

By contrast, Lazard calculates that utility scale solar power costs only about 20% more in the Southeast than it does in the dry, sunny Southwest, where utility-scale solar has reached grid parity. So while the best wind prices are well below the best solar prices nationwide, solar may be cheaper than wind in Virginia.

Lazard’s analyses are based on actual projects, but it also makes some predictions about where prices are headed. It projects unsubsidized utility-scale solar prices of six cents per kilowatt-hour by 2017, confirming predictions of widespread grid parity made by other analysts like Citibank and Deutsche Bank.

If you’re concerned about meeting EPA carbon emissions rules, or just concerned about the environment, period–or you want a reliable and stable-priced resource to hedge gas–solar makes very good sense.

Given these price trends, Dominion’s enthusiasm is entirely understandable. But surely it has some explaining to do, after years of trashing solar to legislators and the SCC. It has gone so far as to slap standby charges on customers who generate their own solar power. And as we’ve seen, its own forays into rooftop solar can’t be counted a success.

But perhaps we could all let bygones be bygones. If Dominion would focus its efforts on utility-scale solar while allowing the removal of barriers constraining the private market for commercial and residential solar, all of us would be winners.