Dominion’s natural gas gamble looks risky for ratepayers

Opposition to Dominon's planned Atlantic Coast Pipeline has spurred protests from landowners and environmental advocates and led to more than 5,000 comments to the McAuliffe Administration opposing the pipeline. Photo courtesy of Linda Muller.

Opposition to Dominon’s planned Atlantic Coast Pipeline has spurred protests from landowners and environmental advocates and led to more than 5,000 comments to the McAuliffe Administration opposing the pipeline. Photo courtesy of Linda Muller.

Dominion Resources and its regulated subsidiary, Dominion Virginia Power, are gambling big on natural gas. But while the utility giant will be a winner if gas prices stay low over the next 20 years, the risk of losing this bet is very real—and the risk is being borne disproportionately by Virginia consumers.

Ever since the shale gas boom sent natural gas prices into a tailspin beginning in 2008, Dominion has increasingly been putting its chips into gas. Its Virginia subsidiary just completed a 1,329 megawatt (MW) natural gas plant in Warren County, began construction last year on a 1,358 MW gas plant in Brunswick County, and last month announced plans for a 1,600 MW plant in Greenville County, to be operational in 2019. Virginia ratepayers will foot the bill for construction costs, plus the cost of operating and fueling these mammoth plants for decades to come.

But while Virginians tend to think of Dominion as an electricity provider, its bigger business line is in natural gas transmission and storage. According to the Dominion website, its subsidiary Dominion Transmission, Inc. maintains 7,800 miles of pipeline in six states and operates what it says is one of the largest underground natural gas storage facilities. Another subsidiary operates 1,500 miles of pipeline in South Carolina and Georgia. The company is moving aggressively to add and upgrade compressor stations and build additional pipeline capacity in West Virginia and Pennsylvania.

It is also angling to add a massive 42-inch diameter, 550-mile gas pipeline to run from West Virginia through Virginia to the coast in North Carolina. Promising a vast new supply of cheap fracked gas for industrial users, Dominion has won the support of lawmakers like Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe while galvanizing opposition from landowners and environmentalists.

Meanwhile, Dominion has another game afoot, with plans to begin exporting liquefied natural gas from its Cove Point, Maryland facility. Upgrading the facility will cost the company $3.8 billion, and running the liquefaction facility will require 240 MW of power (using more natural gas). Natural gas is so much more expensive in foreign markets that Dominion considers the gamble worthwhile, even as it cites a U.S. Energy Information Administration study for the proposition that little or no natural gas would be exported if the U.S. price “increases much above current expectations.”

All of these ventures depend on one crucial assumption: that natural gas prices will remain low for as many years as it takes to fully recover the cost of these investments, and then some. For electric generation, moreover, gas has to be able to outcompete other fuel sources. That includes not just coal and nuclear, both of which are being abandoned in droves in the face of cheap gas, but also new sources like solar and wind, which have trended steadily downward in price over the past two decades. In some regions of the country (although not yet Virginia), wind and solar prices already outcompete natural gas.

Gas does have the advantage of dispatchability—the ability to provide power according to the peaks and valleys of demand, allowing it to fill in around variable energy sources like wind and solar. That makes gas vital for backup generation, at least until power storage technologies become cheaper. But it wouldn’t justify the large-scale shift to gas for baseload generation, as Dominion’s plans envision, unless the company is right that gas prices will stay low.

If Dominion’s assessment of the market is wrong, its shareholders will take a hit. Higher natural gas prices could make the export business fizzle, and there might not be enough customers to justify the pipeline buildout. That’s why the company is moving so quickly to build the three massive new natural gas generating plants in Virginia under the ownership of its regulated subsidiary. Dominion is protecting its bet by locking Virginia electricity customers into gas for the long term, guaranteeing itself a market not just for its natural gas generating plants but also for its pipeline business. If the shale boom becomes a bust, or if prices rise to pre-boom levels, it will be Virginia ratepayers who pay through the nose or get stuck with stranded assets.

How big the risk is depends on whom you ask. The gas industry claims supplies will be sufficient to meet demand for decades to come. The U.S. Energy Information Agency, that voracious consumer of yesterday’s news, largely agrees (though it has more recently begun tempering its enthusiasm). If the optimists are right, production from the major shale gas plays will increase 40% by 2030 over today’s production levels, enough to support the mad rush to gas by Dominion and other utilities like it, without upward pressure on prices.

But a more pessimistic view is gaining adherents. As described in the December 2014 issue of the journal Nature, a team of a dozen geoscientists, petroleum engineers and economists at the University of Texas at Austin (UTA) has been analyzing assumptions behind the industry’s rosy outlook, and concludes it is wrong. Instead, the UTA study indicates production of natural gas from the “big four” shale plays will slow significantly after 2016, peak by about 2020, and then decline, dropping 20% from current levels by 2030. If so, the amount of natural gas coming to market in the U.S. will be less than half of what the optimists expect. The upward pressure on prices will be enormous.

The UTA team joins a growing chorus of doubters, whose studies suggest that the shale juggernaut can’t be maintained profitably. If these pessimists are correct, we should begin seeing evidence of it well before 2020. For now, there is at the least a very serious risk that cheap gas won’t last, and anyone who can’t afford to lose big would be well advised to wait it out.

IMG_0634There are other reasons Virginians should be wary of over-investment in natural gas infrastructure, both generating plants and pipelines. The need to fill pipelines will put pressure on the state to welcome fracking companies, both in the Marcellus shale in the western part of the state, and in the Taylorsville Basin in the east. Until 2010, Dominion itself owned gas drilling leases, and according to the Center for Media and Democracy, “Dominion is a member of several special interest groups that push for expanded drilling rights and limited or no regulation of fracking.”

With pollution of air and water a serious concern, and given the state’s tradition of lax regulation on industry, some localities are already looking for ways to exclude drilling companies from their borders. If we are going to have this fight, it shouldn’t be because one powerful corporation made a bad bet.

Finally, of course, there is the climate cost of natural gas. As we congratulate ourselves for leaving coal in the rear-view mirror, we need to recall that we have a long way to go to reach the carbon-free grid, and stalling out at the halfway point isn’t grounds for celebration.

Natural gas has a role to play in the transition period before wind, solar, and other carbon-free sources take over permanently, and it will remain useful as a back-up source when wind and solar aren’t producing power. But a wise energy policy today focuses on developing those renewable sources as fast as possible, reducing demand through investments in energy efficiency, and using natural gas as a backstop rather than as a primary source of power.

This approach reduces risk to the national economy if shale gas production declines, and it reduces risk to ratepayers stuck paying whatever the price of natural gas may be when demand outstrips supply.

Dominion Resources is an investor-owned corporation. As such, it is entitled to place risky bets in the hopes of making a killing for its shareholders. What it is not entitled to do is to shift the risk of losing the bet onto its captive ratepayers in Virginia.

With the odds so stacked against consumers, Virginia should refuse to play.

Thanks go to Richard Ball, PhD., Energy Chair of the Virginia Sierra Club, for his research and analysis of shale gas supplies.

Your 2015 Virginia legislative session cheat sheet, part 2: Fossil Fuels

Photo credit: Corrina Beall

Photo credit: Corrina Beall

My last post covered clean energy bills introduced into the 2015 legislative session, which began last week and ends at the end of February. Time to hustle on to the oil, gas, and coal bills.

Coal subsidies

Coal companies claim to be victims of a “war on coal,” but for nearly two decades they’ve been conducting a war on Virginia taxpayers. Virginia’s tax code offers so many preferences that a 2012 study concluded the coal industry costs Virginia more than it gives back. Among other preferences, two different subsidies in the Code have allowed coal companies to siphon off tens of millions of dollars annually from the General Fund since 1996.

The subsidies come with nominal sunset dates, currently January 1, 2017. Over nearly twenty years, no matter how fat or lean the state’s financial condition, the legislature has repeatedly passed extensions, and they are being asked to do so again this year. HB 1879 (Kilgore) and SB 741 (Carrico) would extend the giveaway out to 2022.

(According to VPAP.org, Delegate Kilgore, chairman of the Commerce and Labor Committee, gets a check for $10,000 every year from coal giant Alpha Natural Resources. Alpha also gives ten grand a year to Senator Carrico, who just happens to sit on Senate Finance, which will hear the bill. I mention these facts only in passing. It would be cynical to suggest a connection.)

Supporters of the subsidies seem to believe coal companies need the inducement to blow up our mountains and dump waste into stream valleys. And they maintain this is a good thing for the people of Southwest Virginia, who can enjoy gainful employment by participating in the destruction of their communities.

The coal companies certainly do benefit from this arrangement, but coal jobs have declined to less than 5,000 total in Virginia today, and it’s clear to everyone that Southwest Virginia needs to diversify its economy or face a future of poverty and high unemployment. The coal subsidies suck up money that could be spent on new jobs and a better-educated workforce.

The McAuliffe administration, facing a budget shortfall, has suggested cutting the subsidies way back, and has no plans to extend them. HB 2181 (Toscano) reduces the amount of the subsidies for 2015 and 2016 but does not eliminate them. It also limits the amount that can be claimed on any one tax return to $500,000 under each Code provision.

HB 1877 (Krupicka) would end the subsidies altogether a year early. His bill goes further: it would redirect the savings into a fund to provide grants to students enrolled in Virginia public colleges and universities. Half the money would be required to go to students from the Coalfields region.

Natural gas

SB 1338 (Hanger) repeals a provision of the Code known as the Wagner Act (after Senator Frank Wagner, who introduced the legislation ten years ago). That provision allows interstate natural gas companies to enter private property without the consent of the owner in order to make “examinations, tests, hand auger borings, appraisals, and surveys.”

The Wagner Act gained notoriety last year when Dominion Power sued landowners who resisted efforts to survey their land. We think of Dominion as an electric utility, but Dominion Resources also owns a gas transmission company, and it plans to build a huge new pipeline to bring fracked gas from Ohio and West Virginia and deliver it to industrial customers and export facilities on the coast. Turns out, a lot of people don’t like strangers coming on their land without permission, especially when the point is to let the strangers decide whether they might want to seize the land for a pipeline. Well, who could have expected that?

But in case the GA doesn’t have an appetite for repealing the Wagner Act, how about making it harder to use? SB 1169 (Hanger again) amends it to add a pre-condition. Before any natural gas company can enter someone’s property without permission, the governing board of the locality must have adopted a resolution in support of the pipeline or gas works. Moreover, the resolution “shall not be adopted unless the governing body has found that locating the line or works within the city or county is consistent with its comprehensive plan, master plan, or any general development plan and that there exists a demonstrated public need for the line or works.”

HB 1475 (Ware) and SB 1163 (Saslaw) allow natural gas utilities to expand their systems to reach more retail customers. This legislation is not related to the interstate gas pipelines sought by Dominion and others. It deals with pipelines within the state that would connect customers who currently don’t have access to natural gas for heating and cooking (a more efficient use of energy than burning gas for electricity to perform the same functions).

But the gas utilities have taken a page from the Dominion playbook and overreached with their legislative language, including by declaring its plans and business goals to be “in the public interest” (the magic words that limit SCC review). We hear the bill is likely to be amended to take out the offending language.

Really a bill about energy efficiency, SB 1331 (Petersen) changes how the SCC evaluates natural gas conservation programs proposed by utilities. It instructs the SCC to determine the cost-effectiveness of a program by looking at the utility’s whole portfolio of conservation programs and not each judged separately. This should make it easier to get conservation programs approved, and it’s to the credit of the retail gas companies that they want it passed. Senator Petersen’s office informed me the bill originated with the governor’s office, which supports it.

Offshore oil drilling

Virginia doesn’t control the deep waters off our coast where oil may be lurking, and drilling is still years away, if it happens at all. But that has never stopped state lawmakers from making plans to spend the money we might earn from oil drilling, if Congress were to share some of the revenue with us. Most of us will recognize this game as, “Imagine if you won the lottery.”

Back in 2010, Governor McDonnell pushed through a bill to fund transportation projects with the imaginary money. In 2014, the law was amended to put $50 million into an emergency response fund to combat what would have to be a pretty small imaginary oil spill, with all the extra imaginary money going to the General Fund.

HB 1702 (Davis) proposes to amend the law again to take half of the imaginary General Fund money and put it into public schools. Well, who could object to that? Except for the imaginary part, of course.

Virginia’s amazing year in energy: gas rises, coal falls, and solar shines (but it’s still not okay to say “climate change”)

Virginians rally in front of U.S. EPA Headquarters in Washington, DC in support of the Clean Power Plan

Virginians rally in front of U.S. EPA Headquarters in Washington, DC in support of the Clean Power Plan

Nobody laughed a few years ago when former governor Bob McDonnell dubbed Virginia the “Energy Capital of the East Coast”; we were all too astounded by the hyperbole. And today, even “Energy Suburb” still seems like a stretch. Yet, if you measure achievement by the sheer level of activity, Virginia is making a play for importance. The year’s top energy stories show us fully engaged in the worldwide battle between fossil fuels and renewable energy. Of course, while the smart money says renewables will dominate by mid-century, Virginia seems determined to drown rather than give up its fossil fuel addiction.

Coal falls hard; observers disagree on whether it bounces or goes splat. Nationwide, 2014 was a bad year for the coal industry. Coal stocks fell precipitously; mining jobs continued to decline; and the one thing electric utilities and the public found to agree on is that no one likes coal. Even in Virginia, with its long history of mining, coal had to play defense for what may have been the first time ever. So when Governor McAuliffe released the state’s latest energy plan in October, what was otherwise a paean to “All of the Above” omitted the stanza on coal. And this month, the governor proposed a rollback of the subsidies coal companies pocket by mining Virginia coal.

Of course, coal is not going quietly; Senator Charles Carrico (himself heavily subsidized by Alpha Natural Resources) has already responded with a bill to extend the subsidies to 2022.

EPA opens a door to a cleaner future, and Republicans try to brick it up. Speaking of hard times for coal, in June the EPA unveiled its proposal to lower carbon emissions from existing power plants 30% nationwide by 2030. Instead of targeting plants one-by-one, EPA proposed a systemic approach, offering a suite of options for states to reach their individualized targets.

The proposal drew widespread support from the public, but Virginia’s 38% reduction target set off howls of protest from defenders of the status quo. The staff of the State Corporation Commission claimed the rule was illegal and would cost ratepayers $6 billion. Republicans convened a special meeting of the House and Senate Energy and Commerce Committees, where they tried out a number of arguments, not all of which proved ready for prime time. The rule, they said, threatens Virginia with a loss of business to more favored states like—and I am not making this up—West Virginia. Also, Virginia should have received more credit for lowering its carbon emissions by building nuclear plants back in the 1970s when no one was thinking about carbon emissions.

Meanwhile, the Southern Environmental Law Center analyzed the rule and concluded that actually, compliance will not be hard. Virginia is already 80% of the way there, and achieving the rest will produce a burst of clean-energy jobs coupled with savings for consumers through energy efficiency.

Undaunted, Republicans have already introduced a thumb-your-nose-at-EPA bill developed by the fossil fuel champions at the American Legislative Exchange Council.

The “solarize” movement takes Virginia by storm. For the last few years, solar energy has been exploding in popularity across the U.S., but Virginia always seemed to be missing the party. So it surprised even advocates this year when pent-up consumer demand manifested itself in the blossoming of local solar buying cooperatives and other bulk-purchase arrangements. “Solarize Blacksburg” made its debut in March, going on to sign up hundreds of homeowners for solar installations. It was followed in quick succession by the launch of similar programs in Richmond, Charlottesville, Harrisonburg, Northern Virginia, Halifax, Floyd, and Hampton Roads.

The main reason for the solarize programs’ success was the steep decline in the cost of solar energy. 2014 saw the cost of residential installations in Virginia fall to record low prices, making the investment worthwhile to a broad swath of homeowners for the first time.

Utilities say maybe to solar, but only for themselves. Virginia still boasts no utility-scale solar, but utilities elsewhere signed long-term power purchase contracts for solar energy at prices that were sometimes below that of natural gas: under 6.5 cents/kilowatt-hour in Georgia, and under 5 cents in Texas. Compare that to the estimated 9.3 cents/kWh cost of power from Dominion Virginia Power’s newest and most up-to-date coal plant, the Virginia City Hybrid Energy Plant, and you’ll understand why Dominion has suddenly taken an interest in solar projects. Sadly, it’s own foray into rooftop solar so far stands as an example of what not to do, and a testament to why the private market should be allowed to compete.

Yet Virginia utilities continued their hostility to customer-owned solar. Dominion put the kibosh on a bill that would have expanded access to solar energy through community net-metering, while Appalachian Power matched Dominion’s earlier success in imposing punitive standby charges on owners of larger residential systems.

Fracking, pipelines, and gas plants, oh my! Renewable energy may be the future, but the present belongs to cheap natural gas. Yes, the fracking process is dirty, noisy and polluting, and yes, methane leakage around gas wells is exacerbating climate change. But did we mention gas is cheap?

2014 saw proposals to drill gas wells east of I-95, while the Virginia government began updating its regulations to govern fracking. Dominion Power started construction on a second new gas power plant, and talked up its plans for a third. The utility giant, a major player in the gas transmission business, also got approval to turn its liquefied natural gas import terminal in Cove Point, Maryland, into an export terminal. With visions of customers dancing in its head, it also announced plans for a major new pipeline to bring fracked gas from West Virginia through Virginia and into North Carolina—one of three proposed pipelines that would cut through the Virginia countryside and across natural treasures like the Appalachian Trail. The pipeline created an instant protest movement but gained the wholehearted approval of Governor McAuliffe.

Flooding in Hampton Roads becomes the new normal; it’s still not okay to ask what’s causing it. A cooler-than-normal year for the eastern United States gulled many landlubbers into believing that global warming was taking a breather, but meanwhile the ocean continued its inexorable rise along Virginia’s vulnerable coastline. It’s one thing to shrug off the occasional storm, said residents; it’s harder to ignore seawater that cuts off your parking lot at every high tide. 2014 will go down as the year everyone finally agreed we have a problem—even in the General Assembly, which passed legislation to develop a response to the “recurrent flooding.” But while the bill recognized that the problem will just get worse, it avoided noting why.

The public gets it, though. The Richmond Times-Dispatch reports that climate change was the number one topic of interest to writers of letters to the editor in 2014. And loud cheers greeted Governor McAuliffe’s announcement that he would reestablish the state’s commission on climate change, which Bob McDonnell had disbanded. As one environmental leader quipped, “People in Tidewater are tired of driving through tidal water.”

Public corruption: in Virginia, it’s not just for politicians. Everyone can agree that it was a really bad year for the Virginia Way, that gentlemanly notion that persons of good character don’t need no stinkin’ ethics laws. But we also saw plenty to prove the adage that the real scandal is what’s legal. As we learned, Virginia law allows unlimited corporate contributions to campaigns, and puts no limits on what campaigns can spend money on. So if some legislators act more like corporate employees than servants of the public, well, that’s how the system was set up to work.

But the system only works when corporations get their money’s worth from the politicians, and that quid pro quo usually comes at the public’s expense. For example, take Dominion Power’s North Anna 3 shenanigans (please). In an exceptionally bold exploitation of the Virginia Way, Dominion Power secured passage of legislation allowing it to bill customers for hundreds of millions of dollars it had spent towards a new nuclear plant that it is unlikely to build. (And the irony is that ratepayers will still be better off throwing the money down that rathole than they will be if Dominion does manage to build it.)

So as we look ahead to 2015’s energy battles, anyone wondering who the winners and losers will be needs only one piece of guidance: in Virginia, just follow the money.

McAuliffe’s Energy Plan has a little something for (almost) everyone

On October 1, the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy released the McAuliffe administration’s rewrite of the Virginia Energy Plan. Tomorrow, on October 14, Governor McAuliffe is scheduled to speak about the plan at an “executive briefing” to be held at the Science Museum of Virginia in Richmond. Will he talk most about fossil fuels, or clean energy? Chances are, we’ll hear a lot about both.

Like the versions written by previous governors, McAuliffe’s plan boasts of an “all of the above” approach. But don’t let that put you off. In spite of major lapses of the drill-baby-drill variety, this plan has more about solar energy, offshore wind, and energy efficiency, and less about coal, than we are used to seeing from a Virginia governor.

Keep in mind that although the Virginia Code requires an energy plan rewrite every four years, the plan does not have the force of law. It is intended to lay out principles, to be the governor’s platform and a basis for action, not the action itself. This is why they tend to look like such a hodge-podge: it’s just so easy to promise every constituency what it wants. The fights come in the General Assembly, when the various interests look for follow-through.

Here’s my take on some of the major recommendations: IMG_3954

Renewable energy. Advocates and energy libertarians will like the barrier-busting approach called for in the Energy Plan, including raising the cap on customer-owned solar and other renewables from the current 1% of a utility’s peak load to 3%; allowing neighborhoods and office parks to develop and share renewable energy projects; allowing third-party power purchase agreements (PPAs) statewide and doubling both the size of projects allowed and the overall program limit; and increasing the size limits on both residential (to 40 kW) and commercial (to 1 MW) net metered projects, with standby charges allowed only for projects over 20 kW (up from the current 10 kW for residential, but seemingly now to be applied to all systems).

It also proposes a program that would allow utilities to build off-site solar facilities on behalf of subscribers and provide on-bill financing to pay for it. This sounds rather like a true green power program, but here the customers would pay to build and own the project instead of simply buying electricity from renewable energy projects.

Elsewhere in the recommendations, the plan calls for “flexible financing mechanisms” that would support both energy projects and energy efficiency.

In case unleashing the power of customers doesn’t do enough for solar, the plan also calls for the establishment of a Virginia Solar Energy Development Authority tasked with the development of 15 megawatts (MW) of solar energy at state and local government facilities by June 30, 2017, and another 15 MW of private sector solar by the same date. Though extremely modest by the standards of Maryland and North Carolina, these goals, if met, would about triple Virginia’s current total. I do like the fact that these are near-term goals designed to boost the industry quickly. But let’s face it: these drops don’t even wet the bucket. We need gigawatts of solar over the next few decades, so let’s set some serious long-term goals for this Authority, and give it the tools to achieve them.

Finally, the plan reiterates the governor’s enthusiasm for building offshore wind, using lots of exciting words (“full,” “swift,” “with vigor”), but neglecting how to make it happen. Offshore wind is this governor’s Big Idea. I’d have expected more of a plan.

And while we’re in “I’d have expected more” territory, you have to wonder whatever happened to the mandatory Renewable Portfolio Standard that McAuliffe championed when running for office. Maybe our RPS is too hopeless even for a hopeless optimist.

Energy Efficiency. Reducing energy consumption and saving money for consumers and government are no-brainer concepts that have led to ratepayers in many other states paying lower electricity bills than we do, even in the face of higher rates. Everyone can get behind energy efficiency, with the exception of utilities that make money selling more electricity. (Oh, wait—those would be our utilities.) The Energy Plan calls for establishing a Virginia Board on Energy Efficiency, tasked with getting us to the state’s goal of 10% savings two years ahead of schedule. But glaringly absent is any mention of the role of building codes. Recall that Governor McDonnell bowed to the home builders and allowed a weakened version of the residential building code to take effect. So far Governor McAuliffe hasn’t reversed that decision. If he is serious about energy efficiency, this is an obvious, easy step. Where is it?

Fracking_Site_in_Warren_Center,_PA_04

Natural Gas. Did I say offshore wind was the governor’s Big Idea? Well, now he’s got a bigger one: that 500-mile long natural gas pipeline Dominion wants to build from West Virginia through the middle of Virginia and down to North Carolina. Governor McAuliffe gets starry-eyed talking about fracked gas powering a new industrial age in Virginia. So it’s not surprising that the Energy Plan includes support for gas pipelines among other infrastructure projects. As for fracking itself, though, the recommendations have nothing to say. A curious omission, surely? And while we are on the subject of natural gas, this plan is a real testament to the lobbying prowess of the folks pushing for natural gas vehicles. Given how little appetite the public has shown for this niche market, it’s remarkable to see more than a page of recommendations for subsidies and mandates. Some of these would apply to electric vehicles as well. But if we really want to reduce energy use in transportation, shouldn’t we give people more alternatives to vehicles? It’s too bad sidewalks, bicycles and mass transit (however fueled) get no mention in the plan.

Photo credit Ed Brown, Wikimedia Commons.

Coal. Coal has fallen on hard times, indeed, when even Virginia’s energy plan makes no recommendations involving it. Oh, there’s a whole section about creating export markets for coal technology, as in, helping people who currently sell equipment to American coal companies find a living in other ways. These might be Chinese coal mining companies; but then again, they might be companies that mine metals in Eastern Europe, or build tunnels, or do something totally different. The Energy Plan seems to be saying that coal may be on its way out, but there’s no reason it should drag the whole supply chain down with it. Good thinking.

Nuclear. If you think the coal industry has taken a beating these past few years, consider nuclear. Nationwide, the few new projects that haven’t been canceled are behind schedule and over budget, going forward at all only thanks to the liberality of Uncle Sam and the gullibility of state lawmakers. But there it is in the Energy Plan: we’re going to be “a national and global leader in nuclear energy.” Watch your wallets, people. Dominion already raided them for $300 million worth of development costs for a third plant at North Anna. That was just a down payment.

Photo: U.S. Coast Guard

Photo: U.S. Coast Guard

Offshore drilling. As with nuclear, favoring offshore oil drilling seems to be some kind of perverse obsession for many Virginia politicians. Sure enough, the energy plan says we should “fully support” it. As for the downside potential for a massive spill of crude oil fouling beaches, ruining fishing grounds, destroying the coastal tourism economy, and killing vast numbers of marine animals, the plan says we must be prepared “to provide a timely and comprehensive response.” I bet Louisiana was at least equally prepared.

Why we can’t just shut up and eat our cookies (or embrace natural gas)

Fracking site, Marcellus Shale. Photo courtesy of U.S. Geologic Survey.

Fracking site, Marcellus Shale. Photo courtesy of U.S. Geologic Survey.

I grew up with brothers, so I knew from an early age that the easiest way to make friends with guys was to feed them chocolate chip cookies. I took this strategy with me to college, commandeering the tiny kitchen in our coed dorm. The aroma wafting down the hallways reliably drew a crowd.

One fan was so enthusiastic that he wanted to learn to make cookies himself. So the next time, he showed up at the start of the process. He watched me combine sugar and butter, eggs and white flour.

Instead of being enthusiastic, he was appalled. It had never occurred to him that anything as terrific as a cookie could be made of stuff so unhealthy. It’s not that he thought they were created from sunshine and elf magic; he just hadn’t thought about it at all. He left before the cookies even came out of the oven.

I felt so bad about it, I ate the whole batch.

But I can empathize with that guy when I’m told that as an environmentalist, I should love natural gas. Natural gas is the chocolate chip cookie of fossil fuels. At the point of consumption, everybody loves it. It’s cheap, there’s gobs of it, and it burns cleaner than coal, with only half the carbon dioxide emissions. Disillusionment sets in only when you look at the recipe. (“First, frack one well. . .”)

I realize we have only ourselves to blame. For years, environmentalists talked about gas as a “bridge fuel” that could carry us from a fossil fuel past to a future powered by renewable energy. No one would tarry on that bridge, we figured, because gas was expensive. We’d hurry along to the promised land of wind and solar.

But that was before hydrofracking and horizontal drilling hit the scene. Fracking opened up vast swaths of once-quiet forest and farmland to the constant grinding of truck traffic heading to drilling rigs that operate all day and night, poisoning the air with diesel fumes and sometimes spilling toxic drilling fluids onto fields and into streams. It was before studies documented well failures that let toxic chemicals and methane seep back up along the well borings and into aquifers, contaminating drinking water.

And it was before scientists sounded the alarm on “fugitive” methane emissions from wellheads: gas that escapes into the air unintentionally, sometimes at levels so high as to cancel out the climate advantage of burning natural gas instead of coal.

But just as environmentalists were thinking, “Whoa, natural gas turns out to be a bridge to nowhere,” electric utilities were embracing fracked gas in a big way. Fracking has made gas so cheap that giving up coal is no sacrifice. It’s so cheap they see no reason to get off the bridge and embrace renewable energy. At one conference I attended, a gas company executive gushed, “Natural gas is no longer a bridge fuel. It’s a destination fuel!”

All I could think was, “In that case, the destination must be Cleveland.” Which was surely unfair to Cleveland.

Just to be clear: environmentalists are not opposed to gas because we are spoil-sports, or purists, or hold stock in solar companies. The problem with natural gas is that it isn’t made by Keebler elves, but extracted through a nasty process that is harming the planet in ways both local and global.

If the best anyone can say about natural gas is that it’s not as bad as coal, then lingering on the bridge makes no sense. And anything we do that keeps us here—opening up Virginia to fracking, or building a huge new pipeline to bring fracked gas from other states—is both foolish and dangerous. Foolish, because embracing cheap gas distracts us from the serious business of building wind and solar and using energy more efficiently; and dangerous, because the planet will not stop warming while we play shell games with carbon.

 

 

 

Dominion’s giant concrete paperweight

Fracking_Site_in_Warren_Center,_PA_04

A natural gas fracking site in Warren Center, PA. Photo credit: Ostroff Law

The State Corporation Commission has approved Dominion Virginia Power’s proposal for a new gas-fired power plant in Brunswick County, rejecting arguments from the Sierra Club and others that ratepayers would be better served by a combination of low-cost energy efficiency and price-stable renewable energy.

The decision in the case (PUE-2012-00128) reflects the same discouraging themes we have seen from our regulators before: a tendency to believe everything Dominion tells them, coupled with an absolute refusal to acknowledge the climate crisis bearing down upon us and the changes in the energy market that make fossil fuels increasingly risky.

As the SCC put it in its order, “The relevant statutes… do not require the Commission to find any particular level of environmental benefit, or an absence of environmental harm, as a precondition to approval.” (Note to legislators: How about fixing that?)

The SCC’s state of denial is not just about the future. Since at least the 1980s, Dominion has consistently overestimated future demand growth.

A little skepticism might be in order when Dominion projects the same level of demand growth that keeps not materializing.

But the SCC is not skeptical. Its order declares Dominion’s load forecasts “reasonable.”

Evidently one can be both reasonable and wrong. Demonstrating this in real time, only a few days after the SCC issued its order in early August, Dominion CEO Tom Farrell had to explain to shareholders why electricity demand has not grown this year in line with company predictions.

Amnesia was also in evidence at the public hearing on the case, where proponents of the gas plant – everyone from Dominion employees to the SCC staff – kept insisting on the environmental advantages of natural gas.

But congratulating each other that at least it wasn’t a coal plant seemed odd to those of us who recall the fanfare surrounding the opening of Dominion’s newest Virginia coal plant, all of one year ago.

My, how quickly things change. No one is proposing to build coal plants any more. Now that natural gas costs half what coal does, people have suddenly noticed that burning dirty black rocks to make electricity is a terrible idea. “Look at all that pollution!” they say in wonderment. “How last century!”

Hydraulic_Fracturing_Marcellus_Shale USGS

A natural gas fracking operation in the Marcellus Shale. Photo credit: U.S. Geologic Survey

But in this century, natural gas is already wearing out its welcome – and not just among unhappy landowners who say fracking has spoiled their drinking water. Scientists measuring methane escaping from extraction wells warn that high levels of “fugitive emissions” may make natural gas a major contributor to climate change.

The SCC takes no notice of climate change, but it ought to consider that others do, presenting a financial risk for any fossil fuel plant. A national plan to reduce carbon emissions could make gas very expensive.

Yet building the Brunswick plant commits Dominion ratepayers to paying whatever the market price is for natural gas for the next three decades. Worse, it’s effectively a baseload plant, designed to burn gas 24/7; it can’t ramp up and down quickly to supply power when needed on a short-term basis, such as to fill in around the power supplied by wind and solar.

Analysts predict wind and solar will increasingly become the first choice for new generation, as these renewables get steadily cheaper and offer long-term price stability as well as environmental benefits.

Indeed, wind turbines beat out natural gas plants as the largest source of new generating capacity nationwide last year. Companies are designing natural gas turbines now that integrate with renewable energy, allowing utilities to hedge their bets on gas.

Well before the end of its 36-year life, a 24/7 baseload plant like Brunswick may be reduced to a giant concrete paperweight.

It would seem wise to hold off on building this gas plant, and we could. Investments in energy efficiency would more than meet the demand the Brunswick plant is supposed to serve, at a lower cost.

The SCC brushed aside this argument, pointing out that it consistently swats down good energy efficiency proposals – and intends to continue doing it.

So Virginia ratepayers, prepare yourselves: You’ve already been stuck with one of the last coal plants to be built in America. Now get ready for 30 years of paying for a natural gas plant. As for your dreams of wind and solar, keep dreaming.

Originally published in the Hampton Roads Virginian-Pilot on August 29, 2013. 

Virginia doesn’t need another gas plant

On April 24, Virginia’s State Corporation Commission (SCC) will consider a proposal from Dominion Virginia Power to build a new natural gas-fueled generating plant, the second of three it wants to add to its holdings. Its first plant, now under construction in Warren County, generated little opposition because it will replace old coal boilers that Dominion needs to retire.

But the latest proposal for a plant in Brunswick has come in for fierce criticism, and for good reason: we don’t need another gas plant. Dominion has exaggerated the growth in demand that it says justifies the plant, and the company could more cheaply meet its actual needs with energy efficiency and renewable energy.

Moreover, the world is changing, and the energy model of big utilities running big baseload power plants is becoming outdated. If Dominion builds another of these, Virginia could end up stuck with a giant concrete paperweight.  The SCC owes it to customers not to let this happen.

Every year Dominion tells regulators it expects demand to increase by 1.5% to 2% per year indefinitely, but its actual energy sales have been essentially flat since 2006. Sure, the recent recession threw everyone a curveball, but Dominion’s tendency to overstate future demand goes back decades. The company seems not to have anticipated widespread changes like more efficient appliances and better building codes that let consumers use less electricity even while we’re buying more gadgets.

With a little effort, we could save even more energy. Virginia ranks in the bottom half of states for energy efficiency, and Dominion is not on track to meet even the modest efficiency goals of the Virginia Energy Plan. Some of the fault for this lies with the SCC itself, which has often rejected energy efficiency programs. But nor has Dominion tried very hard. Even their rate structure is designed to encourage energy use. Greater efficiency would mean lower electricity sales, and who wants that? Not a company that makes its money building plants and selling electricity.

And this is a shame, because the cheapest energy is the energy that isn’t used. Virginians use 20% more electricity per person as our neighbors in Maryland, so we have a lot of low-hanging fruit we should pick before we build another power plant.

Even if we needed more power, though, building another baseload natural gas plant is a bad plan. A “baseload” plant is one designed to run continuously, unlike a “peaker” plant that fills in when needed. The price of natural gas fluctuates wildly, so building a baseload plant means committing customers to paying whatever the going rate happens to be, all day, every day, for the 30-year life of a gas plant. With about a third of Dominion’s power mix already coming from natural gas, surely adding more baseload gas is a reckless gamble when alternatives are available. Even Dominion CEO Tom Farrell has warned against an over-reliance on natural gas for this very reason.

It used to be that alternatives to fossil fuels weren’t much available, so a 30-year gamble was normal, and regulators didn’t trouble themselves by asking what the world would be like in 20 years. Wind and solar have changed that. When you build a wind farm or a solar facility, you know exactly what you will be paying for energy 20 years down the road, because your “fuel” is free. Building wind or solar is like locking in a fixed-rate mortgage instead of gambling on an adjustable rate mortgage with a low teaser rate. With that as an option, why should Virginians commit themselves to 30 years of buying gas at whatever the market decides is the price?

With prices dropping rapidly, wind and solar are today’s fastest growing energy technologies, and wind is second only to gas as a source of new electric generation. Of course, Virginia can’t boast a single wind farm today, and the smattering of solar across the state totals less than 1% of what New Jersey has. But even here, time and economics are on the side of renewable energy. Citigroup recently issued a report projecting that renewable energy will reach grid parity across the U.S. within the next few years and will gradually relegate all other fuels to back-up status.

This makes it an even worse idea for Dominion to invest in a plant that cannot easily adjust its output when the wind picks up or the sun comes out. Other options exist. Gas turbines are now being designed to integrate with renewable energy, combining high efficiency with the ability to ramp up and down quickly. Companies like General Electric are making big bets that this is the future of gas turbines.

Dominion, meanwhile, seems to be looking at the future as if we were back in the 20th century, and without even taking advantage of hindsight. Its plan is a bad deal for its customers, and the State Corporation Commission should reject it.