Nuking clean energy: how nuclear power makes wind and solar harder

Dominion Resources CEO Tom Farrell is famously bullish on nuclear energy as a clean solution in a carbon-constrained economy, but he’s got it wrong. Nuclear is a barrier to a clean-energy future, not a piece of it. That’s only partly because new nuclear is so expensive that there’s little room left in a utility budget to build wind and solar. A more fundamental problem is that when nuclear is part of the energy mix, high levels of wind and solar become harder to achieve.

To understand why, consider the typical demand curve for electricity in the Mid-Atlantic, including Virginia. Demand can be almost twice as high at 5 p.m. as it is at 5 a.m., especially on a hot summer day with air conditioners running.

Average hourly load over a one-week period in January, April and July 2009. Credit B. Posner.

Average hourly load over a one-week period in January, April and July 2009. Credit B. Posner.

The supply of electricity delivered by the grid at any moment has to exactly match the demand: no more and no less. More than any other kind of generating plant, though, the standard nuclear reactor is inflexible in its output. It generates the same amount of electricity day in and day out. This means nuclear can’t be used to supply more than the minimum demand level, known as baseload. In the absence of energy storage, other fuel sources that can be ramped up or down as needed have to fill in above baseload.

Wind and solar have the opposite problem: instead of producing the same amount of electricity 24/7, their output varies with the weather and time of day. If you build a lot of wind turbines and want to use all the electricity they generate (much of it at night), some of it will compete to supply the baseload. Although solar panels produce during daylight when demand is higher, if you build enough solar you will eventually have to cut back on your baseload sources, too.

With enough energy storage, of course, baseload generating sources can be made flexible, and wind and solar made firm. Storage adds to cost and environmental footprint, though, so it is not a panacea. That said, Virginia is lucky enough to have one of the largest pumped storage facilities in the country, located in Bath County. Currently Dominion uses its 1,800 MW share of the facility as a relatively low-cost way to meet some peak demand with baseload sources like coal and nuclear, but it could as easily be used to store electricity from wind and solar, at the same added cost.

Without a lot of storage, it’s much harder to keep wind and solar from competing with nuclear or other baseload sources. You could curtail production of your wind turbines or solar panels, but since these have no fuel cost, you’d be throwing away free energy. Once you’ve built wind farms and solar projects, it makes no sense not to use all the electricity they can produce.

But if nuclear hogs the baseload, by definition there will be times when there is no load left for other sources to meet. Those times will often be at night, when wind turbines produce the most electricity.

The problem of nuclear competing with wind and solar has gotten little or no attention in the U.S., where renewables still make up only a small fraction of most states’ energy mixes. However, at an October 27 workshop about Germany’s experience with large-scale integration of renewable energy into the grid, sponsored by the American Council on Renewable Energy, Patrick Graichen of the German firm Agora Energiewende pointed to this problem in explaining why his organization is not sorry the country is closing nuclear plants at the same time it pursues ambitious renewable energy targets. Nuclear, he said, just makes it harder.

How big a problem is this likely to be in the U.S.? Certainly there is not enough nuclear in the PJM Interconnection grid as a whole to hog all the baseload in the region, and PJM has concluded it can already integrate up to 30% renewable energy without affecting reliability. But the interplay of nuclear and renewables is already shaping utility strategies. Dominion Virginia Power is on a campaign to build out enough generation in Virginia to eliminate its imports of electricity from out of state. And in Virginia, nuclear makes up nearly 40% of Dominion’s generation portfolio.

Now Dominion wants to add a third nuclear reactor at its North Anna site, to bring the number of its reactors in Virginia to five. If the company also succeeds in extending the life of its existing reactors, the combination would leave precious little room for any other energy resource that produces power when demand is low.

That affects coal, which is primarily a baseload resource. It would also impact combined-cycle natural gas plants, which are more flexible than coal or nuclear but still run most efficiently as baseload. But the greatest impact is on our potential for renewables.

This desire to keep high levels of nuclear in its mix explains Dominion’s lack of interest in land-based wind power, which produces mostly at night and therefore competes with nuclear as a baseload source. Dominion’s latest Integrated Resource Plan pretty much dismisses wind, assigning it a low value and a strangely high price tag in an effort to make it look like an unappealing option.

Dominion shows more interest in solar as a daytime source that fills in some of the demand curve above baseload. But given Dominion’s commitment to nuclear, its appetite for Virginia solar is likely to be limited. Already it insists that every bit of solar must be backed up with new natural gas combustion turbines, which are highly flexible but less efficient, more expensive and more polluting than combined-cycle gas, and add both cost and fuel-price risk.

Dominion’s seeming insistence that solar must be paired with gas to turn it into something akin to a baseload source is plainly absurd. It seems to be an effort to increase the cost of solar, part of an attempt to improve the company’s prospects of getting the North Anna 3 nuclear reactor approved in the face of its dismal economics.

Good resource planning would consider all existing and potential sources together, including using the existing pumped storage capacity in the way that makes most sense. We already know that North Anna 3 would be breathtakingly expensive. Evaluating it in the full context of other supply options will show it is even worse than Dominion acknowledges.

Dominion’s campaign to isolate Virginia’s power supply from the larger PJM grid also does a disservice to ratepayers. Keeping generation local benefits grid security when the generation is small-scale and distributed, but not when it’s a huge nuclear reactor sited on a fault line right next to two others. Otherwise, there is nothing wrong with importing power from other states. These are not hostile foreign nations. Pennsylvania is not going to cut us off if we don’t release their political prisoners.

In truth, it seems to be Tom Farrell’s plan to secure Dominion’s profitability for decades to come by walling off Virginia into a corporate fiefdom and controlling the means of production within it, like some retrograde Soviet republic. Utility customers, on the other hand, benefit much more from having our grid interconnected with PJM and the thousands of other power sources that help balance load and ensure reliability. One can only hope that Dominion’s regulators at the State Corporation Commission will see that.

Over the course of the next couple of decades, Virginia, like the rest of the U.S.—and indeed, the rest of the world—has to transition to an electricity supply that is almost entirely emissions-free. Very little planning has gone into making this happen, but several studies have shown it can be done. The Solutions Project offers a broad-brush look at how Virginia can combine onshore wind, offshore wind, solar and small amounts of other sources to reach a 100% clean energy future. Other researchers have done the same for PJM as a whole.

No doubt this will be a long and challenging journey, but the path we start out on should be the one most likely to get us to our goal. Nuclear seems likely to prove a stumbling block along the way, and an expensive one at that. Certainly, we shouldn’t make the problem worse.


Update: A number of commenters from the pro-nuclear camp have argued that nuclear is, or could be, more flexible than I’ve made it out to be. A new article in Utility Dive addresses this issue, concluding it is possible, but not easy, to make nuclear plants more load-following. France and Germany have succeeded to some degree, but U.S. nuclear plants pose greater challenges. “It can be done, but ‘the issue is that nuclear power plants weren’t designed to do that in the United States,’ said Jim Riley, senior technical advisor for nuclear operations at the Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry group that develops policy on issues related to nuclear energy.”

According to the article, some U.S. utilities are looking to tackle the challenge rather than retire their nuclear plants. These are nuclear plant owners that have to bid power into the wholesale market, where a nuclear plant, with its fixed operating costs, can’t compete with low-cost natural gas and renewable energy, especially at night. But of course, if you run a high-cost plant for fewer hours of the day, the average cost per kilowatt-hour increases.

Dominion doesn’t have to bid its nuclear into a wholesale market, so it has no incentive to try to run its plants flexibly. And given the astoundingly high cost of North Anna 3, curtailing its operation, and increasing the cost per kilowatt-hour produced, would be out of the question.

Dominion admits cost of North Anna 3 will top $19 billion

photo by Peter Burke/Wikimedia

A nuclear plant in Pennsylvania. Photo by Peter Burke/Wikimedia

Dominion Virginia Power is projecting that the capital cost of a third nuclear reactor at its North Anna facility will total over $19 billion, according to filings in its 2015 biennial review before the State Corporation Commission (PUE-2015-00027).

This works out to over $13,000 per installed kilowatt, according to the testimony of Scott Norwood, an energy consultant hired by the Attorney General’s Department of Consumer Counsel to analyze Dominion’s earnings evaluations. He notes that this capital cost is “approximately ten times the capital cost of the Company’s new Brunswick combined cycle unit,” which will burn natural gas.

As a result of this high capital cost, the “total delivered cost of power from NA3 is more than $190 per MWh in 2028.” That translates into 19 cents per kilowatt-hour.

By comparison, in 2014 the average wholesale price of electricity in the PJM region (which includes Virginia) was 5.3 cents per kWh. Dominion currently sells electricity to its customers at retail for between 5.5 and 11 cents/kWh.

In other words, NA3 is ridiculously expensive.

Dominion had kept its cost projections for NA3 secret until this rate case forced the disclosure. Previously, executives had acknowledged only that the cost would be “far north of 10 billion.”

This cost revelation may point to the real reason Dominion pushed so hard for SB 1349, the 2015 legislation that insulates the company from rate reviews until 2022.

As Norwood testifies, “DVP forecasts a dramatic increase in NA3 development costs over the next five years, during which there will be no biennial reviews.”

These costs are dramatic. A table included in Norwood’s testimony shows Dominion expects to have spent $4.7 billion on NA3 development by the end of 2020. By the time the SCC is allowed to review this spending, more than one-quarter of the total cost will have been spent, and Dominion will be looking to ratepayers to cover the bills.

With perfect deadpan, meanwhile, Dominion executives told legislators this year that SB 1349 was necessary to protect ratepayers from higher costs to be imposed by compliance with the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan.

This isn’t the first time legislators have been snookered in the cause of NA3. Recall that in 2014 Dominion succeeded in lobbying for a law that allowed it to shift 70% of already-spent NA3 development costs onto ratepayers, some $323 million. The effect was to soak up the company’s over-earnings so it would not have to rebate millions of dollars to customers.

This year’s snookering was more comprehensive. Given that Dominion has continued to over-earn, those who opposed SB 1349 assumed it was this year’s version of the 2014 maneuver, designed to protect over-earnings this year and for years to come. Now it appears the real purpose of SB 1349 was to allow Dominion to spend freely on NA3 development costs in amounts that it knew would be unacceptable to state regulators, not to mention the public.

That Dominion thought it could do so in secret is especially reprehensible. Lawmakers and the Governor should be outraged by this deception, whether they voted for SB 1349 or not.

The Attorney General’s office is now trying to force Dominion to justify NA3 to regulators before it racks up billions in sunk costs. Norwood recommends that the SCC “initiate a proceeding to address the prudence of DVP’s planned future investments for development of NA3. This proceeding would allow the Company to present its case regarding the need for and cost effectiveness of NA3, including the value of the proposed project from a fuel diversity perspective and as a means to comply with any final version of the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed Clean Power Plan and other potential future environmental regulations.”

Your 2015 Virginia legislative session cheat sheet, part one: Clean energy bills

photo credit: Amadeus

photo credit: Amadeus

I’m starting my review of 2015 energy legislation with a look at bills dealing with renewable energy and energy efficiency. Most of these bills will be heard in the committees on Commerce and Labor, though bills that cost money (tax credits and grants) usually go to Finance.

Bills referred to Senate Commerce and Labor are heard by the full committee, which meets on Monday afternoons. It consists of 14 members: 11 Republicans and 3 Democrats. They form a tough lineup; none of these senators received better than a “C” on the Sierra Club’s Climate and Energy Scorecard.

The House bills are typically assigned to the 13-member Special Subcommittee on Energy (10 Republicans and 3 Democrats, no fixed schedule). Bills that do not meet the approval of Dominion Power can expect a quick death here on an unrecorded voice vote, never to be heard from again. But on the plus side, the meetings are often quite lively, like old-fashioned hangings.

Net metering bills

Net metering is the policy that allows owners of solar (or other renewable) energy systems to be credited for the excess power they feed back into the grid when the systems produce a surplus; the owners use the credits when their systems aren’t supplying power and they need to draw electricity from the grid. Virginia law restricts who can use net metering, and how much. Expanding net metering is a major goal of renewable energy advocates, who argue it offers a free market approach to growth—give customers the freedom to build solar projects, get the utility out of the way, and solar will thrive.

This year’s initiatives include:

  • SB 833 and SB 764 (Edwards—apparently identical bills), HB 1950 (McClellan), and HB 1912 (Lopez) raise the maximum size of a commercial project eligible for net metering, from 500 kilowatts (kW) currently to 2 megawatts (MW). This is a much-needed expansion of the net metering program if Virginia is going to make real headway with solar. We are told Edwards plans to conform his legislation to HB 1622, below.
  • HB 1622 (Sullivan) raises the maximum size of a commercial project to 1 MW, and the maximum size of a residential system from the current 20 kW to a whopping 40 kW. But note that it does nothing to limit the standby charges utilities can charge for residential projects over 10 kW. Given that these charges are so punitive as to kill the projects, raising the cap wouldn’t create new market opportunities unless it is accompanied by a limit on the amount of standby charges that utilities can tack on.
  • HB 1911 (Lopez) amends the language allowing utilities to impose standby charges on residential and agricultural customers with systems over 10 kW to add the requirement that the State Corporation Commission conduct a “value of solar” analysis prior to approving the charges. Most solar advocates would rather see the legislature repeal the standby charge provision altogether, given how the utilities have abused it. Barring that, legislators should set a dollar limit of no more than five or ten bucks a month. But in the absence of any such reforms, it does make sense to at least require the SCC to do this more substantive analysis, ideally building on the framework developed over the summer by the Solar Stakeholder Group.
  • HB 1636 (Minchew) establishes “community net metering” as well as increasing the commercial project cap to 2 MW. This bill is a high priority for the solar industry and the environmental community. It provides the solution for owners with shaded roofs, renters and others who can’t install solar themselves by letting them subscribe to a community generation facility in their own or a neighboring county. Other forms of renewable energy are also allowed, so residents in windy areas could go in on a small wind turbine that wouldn’t make sense for a single household.
  • HB 1729 (Sullivan) creates “solar gardens” consisting of community organizations with 10 or more subscribers. The generation facility can be as large as 2 MW. The bill seems intended to accomplish much the same purpose as Minchew’s bill, although it is limited to solar. However, it allows the utility to impose “a reasonable charge as determined by the [State Corporation Commission] to cover the utility’s costs of delivering to the subscriber’s premises the electricity generated by the community solar garden, integrating the solar generation with the utility’s system, and administering the community solar garden’s contracts and net metering credits.” Boy, we’ve seen that movie before. Given what we’ve seen the SCC do with standby charges, the bill should be amended to put a cap on the amount of that “reasonable charge” so legislators know they aren’t writing a blank check.
  • SB 350 (Edwards) authorizes programs for local governments to use net metering for municipal buildings, using renewable energy projects up to 5 MW. It also allows a form of community net metering targeted to condominiums, apartment buildings, homeowner associations, etc., with a renewable energy facility located on land owned by the association. These customers would be exempt from standby charges.

Third-party power purchase agreements (PPAs)

HB 1925 (Lopez) and SB 1160 (Edwards) replace the current PPA program in Dominion territory with one that applies to both Dominion and APCo territories. It increases the project cap from the current 500 kW to 1 MW, and raises the overall program size to 100 MW from (50 MW). As with the current program, projects under 50 kW aren’t eligible unless the customer is a tax-exempt organization.

Utility-scale solar

HB 2219 (Yost) declares it to be in the public interest for Dominion Virginia Power or Appalachian Power to build up to 500 MW of solar power—a truly welcome objective—and authorizes the utilities to apply to the SCC for a certificate of public convenience and necessity for individual facilities of at least 20 MW in size, regardless of whether the facility is located in the utility’s own service territory.

“In the public interest” are the magic words that push the SCC to approve something it might not otherwise. Both utility giants have shown an interest in building and owning utility-scale solar, even as they have taught the SCC to believe that solar owned by anyone else burdens the grid. The magic words let them escape the corner they backed themselves into. That would be necessary here, given that our SCC wrongly believes the public interest requires the lowest cost energy regardless of the consequences to public health, the environment, national security, and the economy.

The solar industry has two concerns about HB 2219: the effect on ratepayers, since Dominion’s previous solar efforts have cost well above market rates; and the effect on the Virginia solar industry—or rather, the lack of an effect, since Dominion has hired only out-of-state companies. Virginia ratepayers could save money and the state could build more solar if legislation simply required the utilities to buy 500 MW of solar, and let the market decide who builds it. But of course, that’s now how things work in Virginia.

I also think it is unfortunate that the bill allows utilities to build solar plants that are not in the utilities’ own service territories, and that it does not require them to use Virginia contractors. Surely there would be more support for a bill promising projects that support local economies with jobs and tax revenues, and that requires the hiring of local installers. These seem like small enough things to ask.

HB 2237 (Yancey) allows Dominion or APCo to recover the costs of building or buying a solar facility in the state of Virginia of at least 5 MW, plus an enhanced rate of return on equity, through a rate adjustment clause. It also states that construction or purchase of such a facility, and the planning and development activities for solar energy facilities, are in the public interest. (The magic words again.)

This bill doesn’t require anything or make huge changes. It simply treats solar the way the Code currently treats other forms of generation, with the exception that the “in the public interest” language was previously used only to endorse a coal plant (what became the Virginia City Hybrid Energy Plant in Wise County). And note that this bill requires that the facility be in Virginia, and opens up the possibility of our utilities buying the facility rather than constructing it themselves, which could open the door to competition. This seems like a good way to proceed.

Grants and tax credits

HB 1728 (Sullivan) establishes a tax credit for renewable energy. Great idea, but last year the Senate Finance Committee made it clear they would not pass a new tax credit, so I assume this is a non-starter.

Last year’s renewable energy tax credit bill was amended to create a grant program instead. It passed both houses, but without funding and with the requirement that it be passed again this year. It is back this year as HB 1650 (Villanueva). (It has been assigned to House Committee on Agriculture, Chesapeake and Natural Resources and is on the docket for 8:30 a.m. Wednesday, January 21. Odd: it ought to be in Finance.) The grant would equal 35% of the costs of a renewable energy facility, including not just wind and solar, but also things like biomass, waste, landfill gas, and municipal waste incinerators. Facilities paid for by utility ratepayers are not eligible, and the grant total is capped at $10 million per year. Prospects for the program aren’t great given the state’s tight budget situation, but the bill is a high priority for the solar industry.

Another tax-related bill is HB 1297 (Rasoul), which authorizes localities to charge a lower tax on renewable projects than on other kinds of “machinery and tools.” Last year, you may recall, the solar industry was successful in getting passage of a bill that exempted solar equipment entirely from local machinery and tools taxes. Proponents are trying to ensure that Delegate Rasoul’s well-intentioned bill doesn’t reverse last year’s victory on solar.

Bills specific to energy efficiency

HB 1730 (Sullivan) establishes energy efficiency goals for electric and natural gas utilities. The good news: the goals are mandatory. The bad news: the goals are modest to a fault: a total of 2% energy savings by 2030 for electricity and 1% for natural gas.

HB 1345 (Carr) extends the sales tax holiday for Energy Star and WaterSense products to include all Energy Star light bulbs; currently only compact fluorescent light bulbs are eligible.

PACE bills

PACE (Property Assessed Clean Energy) is a way to finance energy efficiency, renewable energy and water conservation upgrades to commercial and non-profit-owned buildings. Local governments sponsor the financing for improvements and collect payments via property tax bills. Since the energy savings more than pay for the increased assessments, PACE programs have been hugely successful in other states.

Last year a bill that would have let localities extend “service districts” to cover clean energy (PACE by another name) failed in the face of opposition from the banking industry. This year’s bills are also not labeled PACE bills, but they achieve the same end. Apparently the parties have worked out the problems, a hopeful sign that a multi-year effort will finally meet with success.

SB 801 (Watkins) and HB 1446 (Danny Marshall) are companion bills that would authorize local governments to work with third parties to offer loans for clean energy and water efficiency improvements, creating “voluntary special assessment liens” against the property getting the improvements. The Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy would develop underwriting guidelines for local loans to finance the work. HB 1665 (Minchew) is similar, and we are told it will be conformed to HB 1446.

Virginia Solar Energy Development Authority

HB 1725 (Bulova) and SB 1099 (Stuart) establish the Virginia Solar Energy Development Authority to “facilitate, coordinate, and support the development of the solar energy industry and solar-powered electric energy facilities in the Commonwealth.” This implements a proposal in the 2014 Virginia Energy Plan and is not expected to be controversial.

Virginia SREC registry

HB 2075 (Toscano) requires the SCC to establish a registry for solar renewable energy certificates (SRECs). It would not suddenly make Virginia SRECs valuable, but it would put the administrative framework in place to support a voluntary SREC market, or even a real one if Virginia were to adopt legislation requiring utilities to buy solar power.

Cross-cutting approaches to clean energy

A few bills would have a more sweeping effect on energy efficiency and renewable energy. HB 2155 (Sickles) is billed as an “Energy Diversity Plan.” It was supposed to be a “grand bargain” between utilities and the clean energy industries, with the McAuliffe administration participating as well, but we understand there are outstanding issues that make the bill’s future uncertain.

The big idea is to put all non-emitting energy sources into one category: primarily wind, solar, hydro and nuclear, but also adding in combined heat and power, demand response and energy efficiency. The bill creates a timeline that requires utilities to ramp up use of new, non-emitting sources gradually, beginning with 0.25% of retail sales in 2016 and ramping up to 35% in 2030.

The bill has the support of clean energy industries, but the idea of treating nuclear as a benign source of power on an even footing with efficiency and renewables concerns the environmental community.

I’ll write more about this bill if it looks like it has legs.

HB 1913 (Lopez) is the only bill of the bunch that directly targets Virginia’s Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS). Maybe that shouldn’t be a surprise. Our RPS is a poor, sickly thing that most people have left for dead. To his credit, Lopez keeps trying. His bill keeps the RPS voluntary but beefs up the provisions to make the program meaningful, if a utility chooses to participate. Instead of mostly buying renewable energy certificates from things like old, out of state hydro dams, the bill would ensure that actual, real-world renewable projects get built. You know, what an RPS is supposed to do.

In addition, the bill folds into the RPS the state’s existing goal of 10% energy efficiency gains by 2022. Utilities have done very little toward meeting this goal. Putting it into the voluntary RPS might be the prod needed to get more efficiency programs underway.

Or it might cause a utility to drop out. Either way, the result would be better than what we have now, where Virginia pretends to have an RPS, and utilities pretend to care.

Update: Another net metering bill has been filed. SB 1395 (Dance) raises the commercial net metering cap from 500 kW to 2 MW.

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.

Where ethics and utility profits intersect, a stain spreads across the “Virginia Way”

Dominion buildingThe Virginia General Assembly has punted on ethics reform, preparing to pass watered-down legislation that does very nearly nothing. At the same time, legislators are about to pass a law that will cost Dominion Power’s customers more than half a billion dollars as a down payment on a nuclear plant that hasn’t been approved and isn’t likely to be built.

These are not separate issues.

Virginia has had an ethics problem since long before Bob McDonnell met Jonnie Williams. As many people have noted, the real scandal is how hard it is to break our ethics laws. So long as you fill out a form disclosing the gift, it’s legal for politicians to accept anything of value from anyone, to use for any purpose. By this standard, McDonnell’s biggest failure was one of imagination.

The legislation that appears likely to come out of the General Assembly merely puts a $250 cap on the price tag of any one gift, with no limit on the number of lesser gifts and no limit on the value of so-called “intangible” gifts like all-expense-paid vacations. The mocking of this bill has already begun.

Conveniently, the bill deals with a tiny side stream of tainted cash compared to the river of money flowing from corporations and ladled out by lobbyists. Corporations don’t usually give out Rolexes and golf clubs. Instead, they give campaign contributions. Here again, Virginia law places no limits on the amount of money a politician can take from any donor. Five thousand or seventy-five thousand, as long as your campaign reports the gift, you can put it in your wallet.

And here’s the interesting part: you don’t have to spend the money on your campaign. If gerrymandering has delivered you a safe district, you can use your war chest to help out another member of your party—or you can buy groceries with it. The distinction between campaign money and personal money is merely rhetorical. A spokeswoman for the State Board of Elections was quoted in the Washington Post saying, “If they wanted to use the money to send their kids to college, they could probably do that.”

In an eye-popping editorial, the Post ripped into one Virginia delegate who charged his campaign more than $30,000 in travel and meals, and another $9600 in cellphone charges, in the course of just 18 months.

As with taking the money, the only rule in spending campaign funds is that you file timely paperwork showing what you spent it on; the reports are not even audited. The theory originally may have been that the threat of public disclosure would keep a gentleman from taking money from unsavory persons. If you took it anyway, the voters would learn of it and throw you out. How quaintly respectful of the energy and capabilities of voters! How pre-gerrymandering.

And how pre-corporation. The smartest companies today spread the wealth around: more to the legislators in charge of the important committees, less where they just need floor votes. The largesse is bipartisan, making everyone happy but the voters. Certainly, a legislator who accepts thousands of dollars from a lobbyist would be churlish to criticize the company writing the check.

So what do you call someone who pays for his meals out of the check he gets from a company?

How about, “an employee”?

Environmental groups and good-government advocates have long decried the influence of corporate money in Virginia politics. In their 2012 report, Dirty Money, Dirty Power, the Sierra Club, Appalachian Voices, and Chesapeake Climate Action Network documented the rising tide of utility and coal company contributions to Virginia politicians, coinciding with a series of votes enriching these special interests.

Dominion Power has consistently led the “dirty money” pack. As the single largest donor of campaign funds aside from the Republican and Democratic parties themselves, its influence in Richmond is widely acknowledged, even taken for granted.  Most legislators will not bother to introduce a bill that Dominion opposes, even if they like it themselves. Critics joke that the General Assembly is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Dominion Resources.

According to Dirty Money, Dirty Power, Dominion’s contributions to elected officials totaled $5.2 million from 2004 to 2011. The Virginia Public Access Project shows another $1.4 million in 2012 and 2013. The contributions overall somewhat favor Republicans, but often the contributions are so even-handed as to be comical, like the $20,000 each to Mark Herring and Mark Obenshain in the Attorney General’s race last fall. These contributions are not about supporting a preferred candidate; they are about buying influence.

Note that much of the donations don’t go directly to General Assembly members but to the parties’ PACs, which then dole out the money. This gives Dominion extra influence with party leaders—again, on both sides.

The result has been spectacularly successful for Dominion, which rarely fails to get its way. Bills it opposes die in subcommittee (witness this year’s bills to expand net metering). Bills it wants succeed.

That brings us to this year’s money bills. As you may have read here or in Virginia papers, Dominion has been “over-earning,” collecting more money from ratepayers than allowed by law. In the ordinary course of things, this would result in both a rebate to customers and a resetting of rates going forward to produce less revenue for the utility.

For Dominion, the solution is a bill that lets the company charge ratepayers for expenses it isn’t entitled to pass along under current law. (Indeed, in a nice touch, the bill actually requires Dominion to pass along these expenses.) Presto: it’s no longer earning too much, owes no rebate, and doesn’t have to cut rates.

In return, the ratepayers get the satisfaction of assuming the sunk costs of a new nuclear reactor that will probably never be built, plus whatever more money the utility spends on it going forward. I believe the technical parlance for this is “blank check.”

“But we must have nuclear,” our legislators murmur as they sign our names on the check. Um, why? Nuclear energy today can’t compete economically. Just last year Duke Energy gave up on two nuclear plants it had been building, after billing ratepayers close to a billion dollars in construction costs. (BloombergBusinessweek headlined its article on the subject, “Duke Kills Florida Nuclear Project, Keeps Customers’ Money.”)

Dominion itself understands the wretched economics of nuclear perfectly well; its parent company, Dominion Resources, just closed an existing nuclear plant in Kewaunee, Wisconsin, because it couldn’t produce power cheaply enough to attract customers. And that’s from a plant that’s paid for; energy from new plants is now more expensive than natural gas, wind, and even some solar.

Memo to Democrats: when the cheaper alternative is renewable energy, no self-respecting progressive signs on to nuclear.

The steadily falling price of wind energy, and more recently, solar energy, helps explain why nuclear is on its way out nationwide. The only nuclear plants under construction in the U.S. today are over budget and reliant on billions of dollars in federal loan guarantees.

Memo to Republicans: no self-respecting, Solyndra-bashing conservative signs on to nuclear.

The State Corporation Commission also understands the economic picture, and it has been skeptical of Dominion’s nuclear ambitions. On top of that, there are serious concerns whether a third reactor at North Anna could even get a license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in the wake of the earthquake that shut the existing units for four months in 2011. (For a good short history of the North Anna reactors, including the fine Dominion paid in 1975 for hiding the existence of the fault line, see this article in the local Fluvanna Review.)

So there’s a pretty good chance that Virginia ratepayers will find themselves following in the path of Duke Energy’s customers, with many hundreds of millions of dollars thrown down a rathole and nothing to show for it.

The elected officials voting for this boondoggle, on the other hand, will have plenty to show for it, unfettered by rules of ethics.

Nuclear power: lessons from Japan (and Murphy)

Dominion Virginia Power said Monday that it intends to move forward with plans for a third reactor at its North Anna Power Station as the international nuclear energy industry reels from the disaster at the Dai-ichi nuclear plant in Japan.—WSLS10, March 15, 2011

The operator of Japan’s tsunami-hit nuclear power plant sounded the alarm on the gravity of the deepening crisis of containment at the coastal site on Friday, saying that there are more than 200,000 tons of radioactive water in makeshift tanks vulnerable to leaks, with no reliable way to check on them or anywhere to transfer the water. –The New York Times, August 23, 2013

A friend asked me recently whether I thought the ongoing disaster at the Fukishima nuclear plant in Japan would have repercussions here in Virginia, where Dominion Power operates four nuclear reactors at two plants and wants to build another. I feel pretty sure the answer is no. Economics will kill Dominion’s nuclear dream, but not risk. We just don’t think that way.

We think like this: Fukishima was taken out by a tsunami. There are no tsunamis in central Virginia. Ergo, there is no risk to Virginia’s nuclear plants from a tsunami, so Japan’s sudden revulsion against nuclear power shouldn’t put us off our feed half a world away.

So why did countries like Germany, which also has no tsunamis, freak out and swear off nuclear for good?

They drew an entirely different lesson: Japan is a smart, technologically-advanced nation. Japan did not anticipate the disaster that destroyed Fukishima. Ergo, unanticipated disasters happen even in smart, technologically-advanced nations.

Or put another way: Murphy’s Law also applies to nuclear plants. We ignore Murphy at our peril.

But ignore him we do. We had our own brush with nuclear disaster two years ago, when a rare, magnitude 5.8 earthquake shook central Virginia and led to a months-long shutdown of the two North Anna nuclear reactors. No one expected an earthquake of this strength there, least of all the plants’ designers. Fortunately, the reactors survived intact, but I don’t know of anyone who wants to repeat the experiment. Presumably Dominion intends the “next” North Anna reactor to be designed to withstand stronger earthquakes. Do you feel better about nuclear now, or worse?

Murphy’s Law operates with ferocity across the energy sector. An industry expert told me the BP oil spill in the Gulf happened in spite of four different safeguards in place on the drilling rig, each of which should have stopped the blowout from happening. And that spill was not an isolated incident; only the year before, a similar blowout off the coast of Australia created a 2,300 square mile oil slick—about the size of Delaware. U.S. papers largely ignored it. Spills are so common in oil drilling that they rarely warrant a headline. Yet somehow those who support offshore oil drilling off the coast of Virginia feel sure it won’t happen here.

Or take mountaintop removal coal mining (please). Right now powerful explosives are blasting away the tops of mountains in southwest Virginia and across Appalachia. The rubble is being dumped into stream valleys, while huge machines scrape off the thin seams of coal. Federal law provides that no streams should be harmed, and the mountains should afterwards be restored—requirements so fanciful that neither mining companies nor state officials take them seriously. So it’s not surprising that streams and rivers are polluted, species disappear, building foundations crack, and residents die young. That’s not the plan going wrong, it’s the plan.

In the past most Americans participated in an unspoken agreement to ignore the risks involved in producing energy, because we had no intention of stopping what we were doing. If it’s a choice between risky energy and no energy, we will go with risky every time. Denying the risks is a coping mechanism that lets us sleep at night. Not incidentally, this is also the strategy used by fossil fuel interests to keep the public from demanding action on climate change.

But the widespread availability of cleaner alternatives gives us energy options we didn’t feel we had before. Increases in energy efficiency and tumbling prices for wind and solar mean we can afford to look more honestly at the damage we do and the risks we run by powering our 21st century economy with 20th century fuels.

I like to think the Virginia legislature’s decision to maintain the ban on uranium mining—for now—shows that our ability to ignore risks has its limits. Mining anything hazardous is inherently risky in a climate like Virginia’s, where rainfall continually recharges the water table. Put nasty stuff between the rain and the water table, and you will find contamination downstream. The idea that water can be kept out of millions of tons of radioactive mine tailings for thousands of years strains credulity. The idea that this might be accomplished by a mining company whose sole purpose is to make money shatters credulity altogether.

The fact that a good many of Virginia’s politicians lined up on the side of the mining company anyway is not necessarily evidence of their capacity for ignoring risk. More likely, it simply demonstrates how extreme is the corrupting power of money in Virginia politics. Unfortunately, that shows no signs of changing.