With a framework for Virginia’s energy transition in place, here’s what happens next

workers installing solar panels on a roof

One expected effect of the Clean Economy Act will be a boom in solar jobs across Virginia. Photo courtesy of NREL.

With Democrats in charge, Virginia passed a suite of bills that establish a sturdy framework for a transition to renewable energy in the electric sector.

At the center of this transformation are the Clean Economy Act, HB1526/SB851, and the Clean Energy and Community Flood Preparedness Act, HB981/SB1027. Other new laws direct further planning, make it easier for customers to install solar, improve the process for siting wind and solar farms, and expand financing options for energy efficiency and renewable energy.

Gov. Ralph Northam has signed some bills already, and has until April 11 to sign the others or send them back to the General Assembly with proposed amendments. Once signed, legislation takes effect on July 1.

I assume the Governor has other things on his mind right now than asking the General Assembly to tinker further with a bill like the Clean Economy Act, though bill opponents may be using the virus pandemic to argue for delay. That would be a self-defeating move; as the economy restarts, Virginia is going to need the infusion of jobs and investment that come with the build-out of clean energy. And one of the strongest arguments in support of our energy transition, after all, is that it will save money for consumers.

So what happens after July 1? How does this all work? Let’s look at the way these major pieces of legislation will change the energy landscape in Virginia.

Virginia joins RGGI, and CO2 emissions start to fall. 

Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality has already written the regulations that call for Virginia power plants to reduce emissions by 30 percent by 2030. The mechanism for achieving this involves Virginia trading with the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a regional carbon cap and trade market.

The regulations have been on hold as the result of a budget amendment passed last year, when Republicans still ruled the General Assembly. After July 1, DEQ will be able to implement the regulations, with the commonwealth participating in carbon allowance auctions as early as the last quarter of this year or the first quarter of 2021.

In addition to joining RGGI, the Clean Energy and Community Flood Preparedness Act also allows the commonwealth to earn money from the allowance auctions. The Department of Housing and Community Development will spend 50 percent of auction proceeds on “low-income efficiency programs, including programs for eligible housing developments.”

The Department of Conservation and Recreation will get 45 percent of the auction proceeds to fund flood preparedness and climate change planning and mitigation through the Virginia Community Flood Preparedness Fund. The last 5 percent of proceeds will cover administrative costs, including those for administering the auctions.

Energy efficiency savings become mandatory, not just something to throw money at.

Two years ago, the Grid Transformation and Security Act required Dominion and Appalachian Power to propose more than a billion dollars in energy efficiency spending over 10 years, but the law didn’t say the programs had to actually be effective in lowering electricity demand.

This year that changed. For the first time, Virginia will have an energy efficiency resource standard (EERS) requiring Dominion to achieve a total of 5 percent electricity savings by 2025 (using 2019 as the baseline); APCo must achieve a total of 2 percent savings. The SCC is charged with setting new targets after 2025. At least 15 percent of the costs must go to programs benefiting low-income, elderly or disabled individuals, or veterans.

The EERS comes on top of the low-income energy efficiency spending funded by RGGI auctions.

Dominion and Appalachian Power ramp up renewables and energy storage. 

The Clean Economy Act requires Dominion to build 16,100 megawatts of onshore wind and solar energy, and APCo to build 600 megawatts. The law also contains one of the strongest energy storage mandates in the country: 2,700 MW for Dominion, 400 MW for Appalachian Power.

Beginning in 2020, Dominion and Appalachian must submit annual plans to the SCC for new wind, solar and storage resources. We’ll have a first look at Dominion’s plans just a month from now: the SCC has told the company to take account of the Clean Economy Act and other new laws when it files its 2020 Integrated Resource Plan on May 1.

The legislation provides a strangely long lead time before the utilities must request approval of specific projects: by the end of 2023 for APCo (the first 200 MW) or 2024 for Dominion (the first 3,000 MW). But the build-out then becomes rapid, and the utilities must issue requests for proposals on at least an annual basis.

In addition to the solar and land-based wind, Dominion now has the green light for up to 3,000 MW of offshore wind from the project it is developing off Virginia Beach, and which it plans to bring online beginning in 2024. All told, the Clean Economy Act proclaims up to 5,200 MW of offshore wind by 2034 to be in the public interest.

Dominion’s plans for new gas plants come to a screeching halt.

Before the 2020 legislative session, Dominion’s Integrated Resource Plan included plans for as many as 14 new gas combustion turbines to be built in pairs beginning in 2022. In December, the company announced plans to build four gas peaking units totaling nearly 1,000 MW, to come online in 2023 and 2024.

But that was then, and this is now. The Clean Economy Act prohibits the SCC from issuing a certificate of convenience and necessity for any carbon-emitting generating plant until at least January 1, 2022, when the secretaries of natural resources and commerce and trade submit a report to the General Assembly “on how to achieve 100 percent carbon-free electric energy generation by 2045 at least cost to ratepayers.”

Even with no further moratorium, Dominion will find it hard to sell the SCC on the need for new gas plants on top of all the renewable energy and energy storage mandated in the Clean Economy Act. Solar and battery storage together do the same job that a gas peaker would have done — but they are required, and the gas peaker is not. Meanwhile, the energy efficiency provisions of the act mean demand should start going down, not up.

Dominion has already signaled that it recognizes the days of new gas plants are largely over. On March 24, Dominion filed a request with the SCC to be excused from considering new fossil fuel and nuclear resources in its upcoming Integrated Resource Plan filing, arguing that “significant build-out of natural gas generation facilities is not currently viable” in light of the new legislation.

Fossil fuel and biomass plants start closing.

By 2024, the Clean Economy Act requires the closure of all Dominion or APCo-owned oil-fueled generating plants in Virginia over 500 MW and all coal units other than Dominion’s Virginia City Hybrid plant in Wise County and the Clover Station that Dominion co-owns with Old Dominion Electric Cooperative.

This mandate is less draconian than it sounds; it forces the closure of just two coal units, both at Dominion’s Chesterfield plant. Other Dominion coal plants in Virginia have already been retired or switched to using gas or biomass, and one additional coal plant in West Virginia lies beyond the reach of the legislation. Oil-fired peaking units at Yorktown and Possum Point were already slated for retirement in 2021 and 2022. APCo owns no coal or biomass plants in Virginia.

Although the exceptions might appear to swallow the rule, the truth is that coal plants are too expensive to survive much longer anyway. One indication of this is a March 24 report Dominion filed with the SCC showing its fuel generation sources for 2019: coal has now fallen to below 8 percent of generation.

By 2028, Dominion’s biomass plants must shut down, another victory for consumers. All other carbon-emitting generating units in Virginia owned by Dominion and APCo must close by 2045, including the Virginia City plant and all the gas plants.

As of 2050, no carbon allowances can be awarded to any generating units that emit carbon dioxide, including those owned by the coops and merchant generators, with an exception for units under 25 MW as well as units bigger than 25 MW (if they are owned by politically well-connected multinational paper companies with highly-paid lobbyists).

Solar on schools and other buildings becomes the new normal.

In December, Fairfax County awarded contracts for the installation of solar on up to 130 county-owned schools and other sites, one of the largest such awards in the nation. Using a financing approach called a third-party power purchase agreement (PPA), the county would get the benefits of solar without having to spend money upfront. The contracts were written to be rideable, meaning other Virginia jurisdictions could piggyback on them to achieve cost savings and lower greenhouse gas emissions.

Fairfax County’s projects, along with others across the state, hit a wall when, on Jan. 7, the SCC announced that the 50 MW program cap for PPAs in Dominion territory had been reached. But with the passage of the Clean Economy Act and Solar Freedom legislation, customers will be able to install up to 1,000 MW worth of solar PPAs in Dominion territory and 40 MW in APCo territory.

Fairfax County schools will soon join their counterparts in at least 10 other jurisdictions across the state that have already installed solar. With the PPA cap no longer a barrier, and several other barriers also removed, local governments will increasingly turn to solar to save money and shrink their carbon footprints.

Virginia agencies start working on decarbonizing the rest of the economy. 

In spite of its name, the Clean Economy Act really only tackles the electric sector, with a little spillover into home weatherization. That still leaves three-quarters of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions to be addressed in transportation, buildings, agriculture and industry. Ridding these sectors of greenhouse gas emissions requires different tools and policies.

Other legislation passed this session starts that planning process. SB94(Favola) and HB714 (Reid) establish a policy for the commonwealth to achieve net-zero emissions economy-wide by 2045 (2040 for the electric sector) and require the next Virginia Energy Plan, due in 2022, to identify actions towards achieving the goal. Depending on who the next governor is, we may see little or nothing in the way of new proposals, or we may see proposals for transportation and home electrification, deep building retrofits, net-zero homes and office buildings, carbon sequestration on farm and forest land and innovative solutions for replacing fossil fuels in industrial use.

Collateral effects will drive greenhouse gas emissions even lower.

Proposed new merchant gas plants are likely to go away. With Virginia joining RGGI and all fossil fuel generating plants required to pay for the right to spew carbon pollution, the developers of two huge new merchant gas plants proposed for Charles City County will likely take their projects to some other state, if they pursue them at all.

Neither the 1,600 MW Chickahominy Power Station and the 1,050 C4GT plant a mile away planned to sell power to Virginia utilities; their target is the regional wholesale market, which currently rewards over-building of gas plant capacity even in the absence of demand. The Chickahominy and C4GT developers sought an exemption from RGGI through legislation; the bill passed the Senate but got shot down in the House.

If the C4GT plant goes away, so too should Virginia Natural Gas’ plans for a gas pipeline and compressor stations to supply the plant, the so-called Header Improvement Project.

Other coal plants will close. Although the CEA only requires Dominion to retire two coal units at its Chesterfield Power Station, other coal plants in the state will close by the end of this decade, too. That’s because the economics are so heavily against coal these days that it was just a matter of time before their owners moved to close them.

Adding the cost of carbon allowances under RGGI will speed the process along. That includes the Clover Station, which Dominion owns in partnership with Old Dominion Electric Cooperative (ODEC), and the Virginia City Hybrid Electric plant in Wise County, Dominion’s most expensive coal plant, which should never have been built. 

The Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley Pipelines find themselves in more trouble than ever. If I had a dollar for every time a Dominion or Mountain Valley spokesperson said, “Our customers desperately need this pipeline,” I would not be worried about the stock market right now.

The fact is that no one was ever sure who those customers might be, other than affiliates of the pipeline owners themselves—and that doesn’t exactly answer the question. With Virginia now on a path away from all fossil fuels, neither pipeline has a path to profitability inside Virginia any longer, if they ever had one.

 

A version of this article originally appeared in the Virginia Mercury on March 31. 

It was a messy, chaotic General Assembly Session. It also worked out pretty well.

Solar arrays on Richmond Public Schools were some of the last projects to go forward before a statutory limit on PPAs halted similar projects across the state. Legislation this year raises the cap on PPAs. Photo credit Secure Futures.

This time last year, I didn’t have much good to say about the General Assembly session that had just concluded. This year, try as I might to be cynical and gloomy (and I do make a good effort), I see mostly blue skies. Or at worst, light gray. What follows is a brief run-down of the bills that passed.

Bills that were still alive at the time of my halftime report but that don’t appear in today’s roundup are dead for the year.

Most of these bills don’t yet have the Governor’s signature. Virginia allows the Governor to propose amendments, so what you see here may not be the final word. Bills that do get signed take effect July 1.

Energy Transition

HB1526/SB851, the Clean Economy Act, is an omnibus energy bill that contains a two-year moratorium on new fossil fuel plants, mandatory carbon reductions, mandatory energy efficiency savings, mandatory construction of wind, solar and offshore wind, mandatory energy storage acquisition targets, mandatory closures of some coal and biomass plants, and a mandatory renewable portfolio standard, along with cost recovery provisions, a new program to limit utility bills of low-income earners, and some loosening of restrictions on net metering and third-party power purchase agreements.

The bill is not perfect, and the clean energy transformation it strives for is incomplete. Its provisions mostly don’t apply to electric cooperatives, and while it forces the eventual closure of Dominion’s biomass plants, it actually requires utility customers to subsidize biomass use by paper companies. Dominion is given too free a rein on spending, the energy efficiency targets are weak, and the bill focuses on utility-scale projects to the almost total exclusion of customer-sited projects.

For all that, the legislation is groundbreaking and transformational. Advocates will be back next year with refinements to the bill and proposals to fill the gaps, but putting this necessary framework in place is a huge achievement for Virginia.

SB94 (Favola) and HB714 (Reid) rewrites the Commonwealth Energy Policy to bring it in line with Virginia’s commitment to dealing with climate change, and even to challenge leaders to do more. The bill sets a target for net-zero greenhouse gas emissions economy wide by 2045, and in the electric sector by 2040. These targets are more ambitious than what is in the Clean Economy Act; not only is the electric sector decarbonization deadline earlier (and inclusive of the coops), this is the first legislation to set a target for the economy as a whole. The Commonwealth Energy Policy is advisory and tends to be ignored in practice; however, the bill also requires that the Virginia Energy Plan, developed every four years in the first year of a new governor’s term, include actions to achieve a net-zero economy by 2045 for all sectors.

HB672 (Willett) establishes a policy “to prevent and minimize actions that contribute to the detrimental effects of anthropogenic climate change in the Commonwealth.” State agencies are directed to consider climate change in any actions involving state regulation or spending. Local and regional planning commissions are required to consider impacts from and causes of climate change in adapting comprehensive plans.

RGGI

The Democratic takeover of the General Assembly means Virginia will finally join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI). HB981 (Herring) and SB1027 (Lewis), the Clean Energy and Community Flood Preparedness Act, directs DEQ to enter the RGGI auction market. Auction allowances are directed to funds for flood preparedness, energy efficiency and climate change planning and mitigation. As with the Clean Economy Act, votes for the RGGI fell along partisan lines but for one Republican senator, Jill Vogel, who voted for both.

RPS

The Clean Economy Act contains a mandatory renewable portfolio standard (RPS) requiring utilities to include in their electricity mix a percentage of renewable energy that ratchets up over time. It’s weak, especially for distributed solar, and it allows paper company biomass to qualify—an inexcusable corporate welfare provision for politically powerful WestRock and International Paper.

Customer-sited solar/net metering

Watch this space for a post dedicated to net metering, PPAs and community solar bills. Meanwhile, here’s the short version:

Solar Freedom SB710 (McClellan), HB572 (Keam) and HB1184 (Lopez) lift barriers to customer-sited renewable energy such as rooftop solar. HB1647 (Jones) contains some of the elements of Solar Freedom, but a few provisions are in conflict. Advocates have asked the Governor to sign the first three bills but not the fourth. Some Solar Freedom provisions are also in the Clean Economy Act. The new provisions lift the net metering cap to 6% for IOUs; raise the PPA cap to 1,000 MW in Dominion territory and 40 MW in APCo territory; remove standby charges below 15 kW in Dominion territory and completely for APCo; raise the residential size cap to 25 kW and the commercial project size cap to 3 MW; allow Dominion customers to install enough solar to meet 150% of the previous year’s demand (APCo stays at 100%); allow shared solar on multifamily buildings; and enable a 5 MW landfill solar project in Fairfax County to move forward. The provisions do not apply to electric cooperatives.

HOAs HB414 (Delaney) and SB504 (Petersen) clarifies the respective rights of homeowners associations (HOAs) and residents who want to install solar. The law allows HOAs to impose “reasonable restrictions,” a term some HOAs have used to restrict solar to rear-facing roofs regardless of whether these get sunshine. The bill clarifies that HOA restrictions may not increase the cost of the solar facility by more than 5%, or decrease the expected output by more than 10%.

Community solar

SB629 (Surovell) and HB1634 (Jones) creates a program for shared-solar that allows customers to purchase subscriptions in a solar facility no greater than 5 MW.

HB573 (Keam) requires that an investor-owned utility that offers a so-called “community solar” program as authorized by 2017 legislation must include facilities in low-income communities “of which the pilot program costs equal or exceed the pilot program costs of the eligible generating facility that is located outside a low-income community.”

Offshore wind

The Clean Economy Act contains detailed provisions for the buildout and acquisition of offshore wind. SB998 (Lucas), SB860 (Mason) and HB1664 (Hayes) puts the construction or purchase of at least 5,200 MW of offshore wind in the public interest and governs cost recovery for the wind farms under development by Dominion. The bills appear to have the same language that is in the Clean Economy Act.

HB234 (Mugler) establishes a Division of Offshore Wind within the Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy. Its role is to help facilitate the Hampton Roads region as a wind industry hub, coordinate the word of state agencies, develop a stakeholder engagement strategy, and basically make sure this industry gets underway.

Nuclear

SB828 (Lewis) defines “clean” and “carbon-free” energy to include nuclear energy for purposes of the Code. SB817 (Lewis) declares that nuclear energy is considered a clean energy source for purposes of the Commonwealth Energy Policy.

HB1303 (Hurst) and SB549 (Newman) direct DMME to develop a strategic plan for the role of nuclear energy in moving toward renewable and carbon-free energy.

Energy Efficiency

HB1526/SB851, the Clean Economy Act, contains a mandatory energy efficiency resource standard (EERS) and other provisions for spending on low-income EE programs. HB1450 (Sullivan) appears to be the same as the efficiency provisions of the Clean Economy Act. A sentence added late in the process provides that the bill won’t take effect until passed again in 2021. Presumably the passage of the Clean Economy Act makes this bill moot.

HB981 (the RGGI bill) specifies that a portion of the funds raised by auctioning carbon allowances will fund efficiency programs.

HB1576 (Kilgore) makes it harder for large customers to avoid paying for utility efficiency programs. In the past, customers with over 500 kW of demand were exempt; this bill allows only customers with more than 1 MW of demand to opt out, and only if the customer demonstrates that it has implemented its own energy efficiency measures.

HB575 (Keam) beefs up the stakeholder process that Dominion and APCo engage in for the development of energy efficiency programs.

SB963 (Surovell) establishes the Commonwealth Efficient and Resilient Buildings Board to advise the Governor and state agencies about ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and increase resiliency. Every agency is required to designate and energy manager responsible for improving energy efficiency and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

SB628 (Surovell) requires the residential property disclosure statement provided by the Real Estate Board on its website to include advice that purchasers should obtain a residential building energy analysis as well as a home inspection prior to settlement.

Energy storage

The Clean Economy Act requires that by 2035, Appalachian Power will construct 400 MW of energy storage and Dominion 2,700 MW. None of the projects can exceed 500 MW, except for one project of up to 800 MW for Dominion (a possible reference to the pumped storage project Dominion is reportedly considering). Projects must meet competitive procurement requirements, and at least 35% of projects must be developed by third-party developers.

SB632 (Surovell) has a fair amount of overlap with the Clean Economy Act, but the details are different, and it will be interesting to see what the Governor does about that. SB632 makes it in the public interest to develop 2,700 MW of energy storage located in Virginia by 2030. At least 65% must take the form of a “purchase by a public utility of energy storage facilities owned by persons other than a public utility or the capacity from such facilities.” Up to 25% of facilities do not have to satisfy price competitiveness criteria “if the selection of the energy storage facilities materially advances non-price criteria, including favoring geographic distribution of generating facilities, areas of higher employment, or regional economic development.” Utility Integrated Resource Plans must include the use of energy storage and must include “a long-term plan to integrate new energy storage facilities into existing generation and distribution assets to assist with grid transformation.”

SB632 also fixes a problem introduced a couple of years ago, when the ownership or operation of storage facilities was added to the definition of a utility in one chapter of the Code (§56.265.1), though not in others. With the fix, a public utility may own or operate storage, but so can third parties without them thereby becoming utilities.

HB1183 (Lopez) requires the SCC to establish a task force on bulk energy storage resources.

Siting, permitting, and other issues with utility-scale renewable energy 

HB1327 (Austin) allows localities to impose property taxes on generating equipment of electric suppliers utilizing wind turbines at a rate that exceeds the locality’s real estate tax rate by up to $0.20 per $100 of assessed value. Under current law, the tax may exceed the real estate rate but cannot exceed the general personal property tax rate in the locality.

HB656 (Heretick) and SB875 (Marsden) allow (but do not require) local governments to incorporate into their zoning ordinances national best practices standards for solar PV and batteries.

HB1131 (Jones) and SB762 (Barker) authorize localities to assess a revenue share of up to $1,400 per megawatt on solar PV projects, in exchange for which an existing tax exemption is expanded.

HB657 (Heretick) exempts solar facilities of 150 MW or less from the requirement that they be reviewed for substantial accord with local comprehensive plans, if the locality waives the requirement.

HB1434 (Jones) and SB763 (Barker) provides a step-down of the existing 80% machinery and tools tax exemption for large solar projects, and eliminates it after 2030 for projects over 5 MW.

SB870 (Marsden) authorizes local planning commissions to grant special exceptions for solar PV projects in their zoning ordinances and include certain regulations and provisions for conditional zoning for solar projects.

HB1675 (Hodges) requires anyone wanting to locate a renewable energy or storage facility in an opportunity zone to execute a siting agreement with the locality.

Grants, tax deductions, tax credits and other financing

HB654 (Guy) authorizes DMME to sponsor a statewide financing program for commercial solar, energy efficiency and stormwater investments. The effect would be to boost the availability of Commercial Property Assessed Clean Energy (C-PACE) in areas of the state where the locality has not developed a program of its own.

SB754 (Marsden) authorizes electric cooperatives to establish on-bill financing programs for energy efficiency and renewable energy.

HB1656 (O’Quinn) authorizes Dominion and APCo to design incentives for low-income people, the elderly, and disable persons to install energy efficiency and renewable energy, to be paid for by a rate adjustment clause.

HB1707 (Aird) makes changes to the Clean Energy Advisory Board, which is (already) authorized to administer public grant funding.

SB1039 (Vogel) allows a real property tax exemption for solar energy equipment to be applied retroactively if the taxpayer gets DEQ certification within a year.

SB542 (Edwards) repeals the sunset date on crowdfunding provisions and provides fixes for certain existing obstacles to this financing approach.

Customer rights to shop for renewable energy

HB868 (Bourne) allows customers to buy 100% renewable energy from any licensed supplier, regardless of whether their own utility has its own approved tariff. The Senate killed a companion bill, and Commerce and Labor passed HB868 only with an amendment that requires the bill to be reenacted in 2021. (Credit Edwards, Deeds, Ebbin and Bell for not going along with the amendment.) After Senate passage the bill went to conference, and the House conferees caved. So technically the bill passed, but it has no effect. Interesting note: 41 House Republicans still voted against it in the end.

HB 889 (Mullin) was originally broader than HB868, but after the Senate got through with it, the bill is now a pilot program for the benefit of just those large corporations that, as of February 25, 2019, had filed applications seeking to aggregate their load in order to leave Dominion and buy renewable energy elsewhere. The pilot program is capped at 200 MW, and the SCC will review it in 2022.

Other utility regulation

HB528 (Subramanyam) requires the SCC to determine the amortization period for recovery of costs due to the early retirement of generating facilities owned or operated by investor-owned utilities. In the absence of this legislation, Dominion would have been allowed to use excess earnings for immediate payoffs of the costs of early fossil fuel plant closures; this puts the SCC back in charge of the schedule. The fact that this bill passed is nothing short of miraculous. House Republicans voted against it en masse, and it made it through Senate Commerce and Labor over the objections of Dominion’s best friends from both parties (though most came around for the floor vote when it was clear it would pass).

SB731 (McClellan) affects a utility’s rate of return. The SCC determines this rate by looking first at the average returns of peer group utilities, and then often going higher. The bill lowers the maximum level that the SCC can set above the peer group average. Note that although this bill is recorded as having passed both chambers, it looks like there were amendments that do not appear on the Legislative Information Service website.

HB167 (Ware) requires an electric utility that wants to charge customers for the cost of using a new gas pipeline to prove it can’t meet its needs otherwise, and that the new pipeline provides the lowest-cost option available to it. (Note that this cost recovery review typically happens after the fact, i.e., once a pipeline has been built and placed into service.) Ware acceded to some amendments that Dominion wanted, and eventually Dominion told legislators the company was not opposed to the bill. Hence it passed both chambers unanimously. Notwithstanding Dominion’s happy talk, this bill makes cost recovery for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline much, much more difficult, one more indication that Dominion may be preparing to fold up shop on this project.

[Updated March 17 to correct an error–I had included a bill as having passed that in fact died in the House. Bummer.]

Yeah, I’m not perfect either. Pass the Clean Economy Act.

People gathered with signs supporting climate action

Grassroots activists gather at the steps of the Virginia Capital on January 14. Photo courtesy Sierra Club.

When it was first introduced, and before the utilities and special interests got their grubby little paws on it, the Clean Economy Act was an ambitious and far-reaching overhaul of Virginia energy policy that turned a little timid when it came to particulars.

Sausage-making ensued.

The bill that emerged from the grinder inevitably allows Dominion Energy to profit more than it should. (Welcome to Virginia, newcomers.) The energy efficiency provisions, which I thought weak, became even weaker, then became stronger, then ended up somewhere in the middle depending on whether you were looking at the House or Senate version. The renewable portfolio standard, complicated to begin with, is now convoluted to the point of farce — and to the extent I understand it, I’m not laughing.

Yet the bill still does what climate advocates set out to do: It creates a sturdy framework for a transition to 100% carbon-free electricity by 2045 (the House bill) or 2050 (the Senate bill).

It’s worth taking a moment to marvel at the very idea of a strong energy transition bill passing in a state that still subsidizes coal mining. Even a year ago, this would not have been possible. That we have come this far is a tribute not just to the Democrats who are making good on their pledge to tackle climate, but to the thousands of grassroots activists who worked to elect them and then stayed on the job to hold them to their promises.

The Clean Economy Act works by tackling the problem from multiple directions in a belt-and-suspenders approach:

• The legislation puts an immediate two-year moratorium on any new carbon-emitting plants. The concept came straight from the grassroots-led Green New Deal, and it creates space for the other provisions to kick in.

• It requires DEQ to implement regulations cutting carbon emissions through participation in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. RGGI uses market incentives to cut carbon emissions from power plants 30 percent by 2030. The Department of Environmental Quality will auction carbon allowances to power plant owners and use the auction money primarily for coastal resilience projects and energy efficiency projects for low-income residents. The Department of Housing and Community Development will be in charge of this efficiency spending, not Dominion.

• The Clean Economy Act takes RGGI out further, ensuring that Virginia reaches zero emissions by 2045 (House bill) or 2050 (Senate bill).

• It requires the closure of most coal plants in Virginia by the end of 2024. The newest of these, the Virginia City Hybrid coal plant, must close by the end of 2030 unless it achieves 83 percent emission reductions through carbon capture and storage, the technology it was allegedly designed for. Biomass plants have to close by the end of 2028.

• In place of fossil fuels, utilities have to build or buy thousands of megawatts of solar, on-shore wind, offshore wind and energy storage. Yearly solicitations for wind and solar will ensure sustained job creation employing thousands of workers. Thirty-five percent of all this must be competitively procured from third-party developers, a requirement that lowers costs and makes it harder for utilities to overcharge for the projects they build themselves.

• The storage requirement in particular is notable because batteries compete directly with gas combustion turbines to serve peak demand. The more storage a utility builds, the weaker its case for building new gas peakers becomes.

• For the first time, Virginia utilities will have to achieve energy efficiency savings, not just throw money at the problem. Under the stronger House bill, Dominion must achieve 5 percent cumulative energy savings by 2025. Appalachian Power must achieve 2 percent. Starting in 2026, the SCC will set efficiency goals every three years. Achieving savings ought to be easy; a new ranking of progress on efficiency puts Dominion at 50th out of 52 utilities. Low-hanging fruit, anyone? The Clean Economy Act also calls for 15 percent of efficiency spending to be allocated for programs benefiting low-income, elderly, disabled individuals and veterans.

• Also for the first time, the legislation requires the State Corporation Commission to consider the “social cost of carbon.” That puts one more thumb on the scales weighing against fossil fuels.

• If by January of 2028 we are still not on track, the House bill empowers the secretaries of natural resources and commerce and trade to put a second moratorium on new fossil fuel facilities.

One other element of the bill is worth mentioning, given the questions about how much all these new projects and programs will cost. The legislation creates a “percentage of income payment program” for low-income ratepayers to cap electricity costs at 6 percent of household income, or 10 percent if they use electric heat. The program includes provisions for home energy audits and retrofits.

As I said at the outset, the bill is not without its flaws. The cost of offshore wind energy is “capped” in the bill at 1.6 times the cost of energy from a gas peaker plant, though I’m told negotiations continue and the adder may be reduced. Regardless of the number, this makes as much sense as capping the cost of apples at some number above the cost of Cheetos. Why are we comparing a carbon-free source of energy that is getting cheaper every year with one of the dirtiest and most expensive fossil fuel sources? On behalf of the offshore wind industry: Please, I’m insulted.

Virginia will be a leader on offshore wind, but we are not the first, and we know the price of electricity from the other U.S. projects already under contract. Prices are already well below gas peaker plant levels. The CEA ought to cap the cost of the Virginia project at 10 or 20 percent above the lowest-priced comparable offshore wind project, which would allow plenty of room for differences in wind speeds, distance from shore and other variables.

On second thought, as a point of pride, Dominion should reject any adder at all, and insist on capping its costs below those of all the northeastern projects. Have some confidence in yourselves, people!

My other complaint is that the Clean Economy Act’s nearly incomprehensible renewable portfolio standard fails to deliver. Yes, other provisions of the bill require the utilities to build a lot of wind and solar. But nothing requires them to use the renewable energy certificates (RECs) associated with those facilities for the RPS.

If I totally lost you with those acronyms, it’s okay. Just know that RECs are the bragging rights associated with renewable energy, and they can be bought and sold separately from the electricity itself. If Dominion builds a solar farm in Virginia and sells the RECs to Microsoft or the good people of New Jersey, those folks have bought the right to claim the renewable energy regardless of whether they actually get their electrons straight from the solar farm. Virginia would be left with a solar farm, but legally, no solar energy.

RECs also fetch different prices according to the kind of renewable energy they represent and how many are on the market. Everyone wants solar, so solar RECs cost more. RECs from hundred-year-old hydroelectric projects are not in demand, so they are cheap.

As written now, the Clean Economy Act sets up an RPS that doesn’t require any wind or solar RECs at all (excepting a miniscule carve-out for small wind and solar that can also be met with “anaerobic digestion resources,” possibly a reference to pig manure).

The RPS can be met with RECs from several sources less desirable than solar, and therefore cheaper. These include old hydro dams, Virginia-based waste-to-energy and landfill methane facilities and biomass burned by paper companies WestRock and International Paper. As a result, utilities will buy RECs from those sources to meet the requirements.

Only once utilities run out of cheaper RECs from eligible sources will they be forced to apply RECs from any of the wind and solar they are building. Until that time, Dominion and APCo will sell the RECs from the new solar farms to the highest bidder, while Virginia customers shell out potentially hundreds of millions of dollars for RECs no one really wants.

That’s not fair to the Virginians who are paying for the wind and solar projects to be built and who have a right to expect wind and solar will be a part of their energy supply as a result. Legislators can correct this with a very simple requirement that RECs from the new facilities mandated by the law be applied to the RPS.

And, while I am telling legislators what to do, they ought to remove the eligibility of paper company biomass. This provision seems to have been added to the bill (in obscure, coded language) simply because WestRock has talented lobbyists and the political power to demand a cut of the action. But do we ratepayers want to buy their RECs? No, we do not.

WestRock is doubtless unhappy about losing the nice stream of unearned income it’s been getting from selling thermal RECs to Dominion under Virginia’s voluntary RPS. But there is no good reason for electricity customers to subsidize a Fortune 500 corporation whose CEO earned $18 million last year and whose Covington mill, according to EPA data, spews out more toxic air emissions than any other facility in Virginia including Dominion’s Chesterfield coal plant. That’s not clean energy.

Fortunately (I guess), the RPS is not the heart and soul of the Clean Economy Act. For the next several years, its slow ramp-up makes it barely even relevant, and it is the next several years that matter most in our response to the climate crisis.

Joining RGGI, cutting emissions, implementing energy efficiency, building renewable energy and storage, closing coal and biomass plants: those are the mechanisms of the Clean Economy Act that will drive Virginia’s transition to 100% clean energy.

And so, having offered my helpful suggestions to improve the nutritional content of this sausage, I will add just one more thing:

Pass the bill.

This column originally ran in the Virginia Mercury on February 24, 2020. That afternoon, the Senate Commerce and Labor committee conformed the House version of the bill to the weaker Senate version and passed it out of committee. House Labor and Commerce meets today and is expected to conform the Senate bill to the stronger House language. Assuming both chambers pass the bills without further amendments, the bills will then go to a conference committee (three senators, three delegates) to resolve the differences, and the resulting language will go to the Governor. 

Renewable energy bills to watch

People gathered with signs supporting climate action

Grassroots activists gather at the steps of the Virginia Capital on January 14. Photo courtesy Sierra Club.

Yesterday’s post launched my annual roundup of energy and climate bills with a comparison of the two major energy transition bills filed to date, HB1526/SB851, the Clean Economy Act, and HB77, the Green New Deal Act. Today I’m covering other renewable energy bills. You will be glad to see I am addressing each only briefly, given the large number of them. Bills can still be filed as late as tomorrow evening, and there is often some lag in the Legislative Information System, which posts the bills, their summaries, their committee assignments, and what happens to them. I will add to this list once I’ve seen the rest, so check back for updates.

Most of these bills will be heard in Senate Commerce and Labor, or now in the House, Labor and Commerce, committees. Both House and Senate have established energy subcommittees. In the Senate, the subcommittee is advisory and does not have the power to kill a bill outright. The House subcommittee used to be a killing field for good bills. Hopefully this year will be different.

Bills with monetary implications typically must go to Finance or Appropriations.

As always, the action will be fast and furious, and it is already underway. Blink and you will miss it.

RPS

Both HB1526/SB851, the Clean Economy Act, and HB77, the Green New Deal Act, contain a renewable portfolio standard (RPS) requiring utilities to include in their electricity mix a percentage of renewable energy that ratchets up over time. In addition, HB1451 (Sullivan) is a stand-alone RPS bill that also includes an energy storage mandate. It applies only to IOUs but otherwise appears to be identical to the RPS and storage provisions of the CEA (of which Sullivan is also the patron).

Instead of an RPS, SB876 (Marsden) establishes a “clean energy standard” applicable to both IOUs and coops. A “clean energy resource” is defined as “any technology used to generate electricity without emitting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere,” including “(i) electric generation facilities that are powered by nuclear, solar, wind, falling water, wave motion, tides, or geothermal power; (ii) a natural gas-fired generation facility with 80 percent carbon capture; or (iii) a coal-fired generation facility with 90 percent carbon capture.” Aside from the contradiction in terms inherent in this definition, the clean energy standard also suffers from a delay in its starting point to 2030, when it begins at 30%–or about where Dominion is today with its nuclear plants. Considering only offshore wind and solar development already underway, the CES would not be a meaningful spur to new renewable energy for at least another 15 years. A couple of strong points, however: the bill also requires the closure of all coal-fired generation facilities by 2030, and requires workforce transition and community assistance plans. [Update: we’re told Senator Marsden agrees with the criticisms of this bill and does not intend to present it, at least without significant amendment.]

SB842 (Petersen) provides for all retail customers of electricity to be able to choose their supplier, and instructs the SCC to promulgate regulations for a transition to a competitive market for electricity. Existing utilities will continue to provide the distribution service. The bill also requires suppliers of electricity to obtain at least 25% of sales from renewable energy by 2025, 50% by 2030, and 100% by 2050. Renewable energy is defined to include “sustainable biomass” but not waste incineration or landfill gas.

Customer-sited solar

Solar Freedom” is back this year for another attempt to lift barriers to customer-sited renewable energy, including rooftop solar. The primary vehicles are SB710 (McClellan) and HB572 (Keam), with nearly identical versions from Lopez (HB1184) and Simon (HB912). It contains 8 provisions:

  1. Raising from 1% to 10% the cap on the total amount of solar that can be net metered in a utility territory, ensuring small-scale solar continues to grow.
  2. Making third-party financing using power purchase agreements (PPAs) legal for all customers of IOUs, removing current cap. The SCC reports the program in Dominion’s territory is now filled, putting in jeopardy Fairfax County’s ambitious solar plans. In Southwest Virginia in APCo territory, the program is even smaller and narrower, and several projects have been unable to move forward.
  3. Allowing local government entities to install solar facilities of up to 5 MW on government-owned property and use the electricity for schools or other government-owned buildings located on nearby property, even if not contiguous. This would allow Fairfax County to move forward with a planned solar facility on a closed landfill; localities with closed landfills across the state could similarly benefit.
  4. Allowing all customers to attribute output from a single solar array to multiple meters on the same or adjacent property of the same customer.
  5. Allowing the owner of a multi-family residential building to install a solar facility on the building or surrounding property and sell the electricity to tenants. This is considered especially valuable for lower-income residents, who tend to be renters.
  6. Removing the restriction on customers installing a net-metered solar facility larger than required to meet their previous 12 months’ demand. Many customers have expressed interest in installing larger facilities to serve planned home additions or purchases of electric vehicles.
  7. Raising the size cap for net metered non-residential solar facilities from 1 MW to 3 MW, a priority for commercial customers.
  8. Removing standby charges on residential facilities sized between 10-20 kW. Current charges are so onerous that few customers build solar arrays this size, hurting this market segment.

Other PPA and net metering bills

HB1647 (Jones) is similar to Solar Freedom but includes community solar and leaves out meter aggregation.

Five of the eight provisions of Solar Freedom also appear in the Clean Economy Act, omitting only numbers 3,4 and 5. SB532 (Edwards) is a stand-alone bill to make PPAs legal, using an approach similar to that of Solar Freedom and the CEA. HB1067 (Kory) deals with a specific situation where a customer has solar on one side of property divided by a public right-of-way, with the electric meter to be served by the solar array on the other side. The legislation declares the solar array to be located on the customer’s premises. (Item 4 of Solar Freedom would also solve the problem.)

Resilience hubs

HB959 (Bourne) directs DMME to establish a pilot program for resilience hubs. These are defined as a simple combination of solar panels and battery storage capable of powering a publicly-accessible building in emergency situations or severe weather events, primarily to serve vulnerable communities.

HOAs

HB414 (Delaney) and SB504 (Petersen) clarifies the respective rights of homeowners associations (HOAs) and residents who want to install solar. The law allows HOAs to impose “reasonable restrictions,” a term some HOAs have used to restrict solar to rear-facing roofs regardless of whether these get sunshine. The bill clarifies that HOA restrictions may not add more than $1,000 to the cost of solar facility, or decrease the expected output by more than 10%.

Community solar.

Three years ago legislation passed to allow utilities to set up so-called community solar programs. A couple of coops followed through, notably one from Central Virginia Electric Cooperative. Dominion received SCC approval to launch a small program back in 2018, but still hasn’t done so. That leaves a large base of potential customers—people without sunny roofs, apartment dwellers, or anyone who can’t afford to install solar—with no options.

The Clean Economy Act has detailed provisions for community solar, supported by the trade organization Community Solar Access. An alternative as a stand-alone bill is SB629 (Surovell). It creates an opportunity for subscribers in the territory of investor-owned utilities to buy from small (under 2 MW) “solar gardens” developed by third-party owners. Utilities would credit purchasers at the retail rate minus the utility’s costs. Preference would be given to solar gardens with low-income subscribers.

HB573 (Keam) does not establish a new program. It affects the utility-controlled and operated “community solar” programs required by 2017 legislation (and still not rolled out yet, though I assume the facilities have been selected). The bill requires that “an investor-owned utility shall not select an eligible generating facility that is located outside a low-income community for dedication to its pilot program unless the investor-owned utility contemporaneously selects for dedication to its pilot program one or more eligible generating facilities that are located within a low-income community and of which the pilot program costs equal or exceed the pilot program costs of the eligible generating facility that is located outside a low-income community.” I read this to mean utilities must select more expensive sites and develop more expensive programs in low-income areas than elsewhere, which seems . . . odd.

HB1634 (Jones) requires utilities to establish shared-solar programs that allows customers to purchase subscriptions in a solar facility no greater than 5 MW. (For what it’s worth, the GA passed a similar law in 2017, and we are still waiting for Dominion’s program.)

Resolving local disputes over utility-scale projects

Developers of utility-scale solar and wind sometimes face pushback at the local level. Opposition can come from residents who worry about viewsheds or who have been subjected to anti-renewables propaganda, and from local officials who want to collect tax revenue above the local real estate tax rate. Industry organizations and counties have worked to come up with a number of bills to resolve the concerns, though in some cases the counties have split on whether to support them.

HB1327 (Austin) allows localities to impose property taxes on generating equipment of electric suppliers utilizing wind turbines at a rate that exceeds the locality’s real estate tax rate by up to $0.20 per $100 of assessed value. Under current law, the tax may exceed the real estate rate but cannot exceed the general personal property tax rate in the locality. Wind developer Apex Clean Energy helped develop the bill and supports it.

Bills supported by the solar industry organization MDV-SEIA include:

  • HB656 (Heretick) and SB875 (Marsden) allow local governments to incorporate into their zoning ordinances national best practices standards for solar PV and batteries.
  • HB1131 (Jones) and SB762 (Barker) authorize localities to assess a revenue share of up to $0.55 per megawatt-hour on solar PV projects, in exchange for which an existing tax exemption is expanded.
  • HB657 (Heretick) and SB893 (Marsden) exempt solar facilities of 150 MW or less from the requirement that they be reviewed for substantial accord with local comprehensive plans.
  • HB1434 (Jones) reduces the existing 80% machinery and tools tax exemption for large solar projects.
  • SB870 (Marsden) authorizes local planning commissions to include certain regulations and provisions for conditional zoning for solar projects over 5 MW.

Other RE siting bills

HB1133 (Jones) makes it in the public interest for utilities to build or purchase, or buy the output of, wind or solar facilities located on previously developed sites.

HB1675 (Hodges) requires anyone wanting to locate a renewable energy or storage facility in an opportunity zone to execute a siting agreement with the locality.

A few bills appear designed to make wind and solar projects harder to site, or are intended to rile up sentiment against solar: HB205 (Campbell) adds unnecessary burdens to the siting of wind farms and eliminates the ability of wind and solar developers to use the DEQ permit-by-rule process for projects above 100 megawatts. HB1171 (Poindexter) is a make-work bill requiring an annual report of the acreage of utility scale solar development, as well as the acreage of public or private conservation easements. HB1636 (Campbell) prohibits the construction of any building or “structure” taller than 50 feet on a “vulnerable mountain ridge.” You can tell the bill is aimed at wind turbines because it exempts radio, TV, and telephone towers and equipment for transmission of communications and electricity.

Grants, tax deductions, tax credits and other financing

HB754 (Kilgore) establishes the Virginia Brownfield and Coal Mine Renewable Energy Grant Fund, which will support wind, solar or geothermal projects sited on formerly mined lands or brownfields. (See also Jones’ HB1133, which makes it in the public interest for utilities to build or purchase, or buy the output of, wind or solar facilities located on previously developed sites. And see Kory’s HB1306, which directs DMME to adopt regulations allowing brownfields and lands reclaimed after mining to be developed as sites for renewable energy storage projects.)

HB461 (Sullivan) establishes a tax credit of 35%, up to $15,000, for purchases of renewable energy property. It is available only to the end-user (e.g., a resident or business who installs solar or a geothermal heat pump).

HB633 (Willett) establishes a tax deduction up to $10,000 for the purchase of solar panels or Energy Star products.

HB654 (Guy) authorizes DMME to sponsor a statewide financing program for commercial solar, energy efficiency and stormwater investments. The effect would be to boost the availability of Commercial Property Assessed Clean Energy (C-PACE) in areas of the state where the locality has not developed a program of its own.

HB947 (Webert) expands the authority of localities to grant tax incentives to businesses located in green development zones that invest in “green technologies,” even if they are not themselves “green development businesses.” Green technologies are defined as “any materials, components, equipment, or practices that are used by a business to reduce negative impacts on the environment, including enhancing the energy efficiency of a building, using harvested rainwater or recycled water, or installing solar energy systems.”

SB542 (Edwards) repeals the sunset date on crowdfunding provisions and provides fixes for certain existing obstacles to this financing approach. The bill is the result of lessons learned in developing a 2019 “solar bonds” program for five commercial and non-profit customers.

SB754 (Marsden) authorizes utilities to establish on-bill financing of energy efficiency, electrification, renewable energy, EV charging, energy storage and backup generators.

HB1656 (O’Quinn) authorizes Dominion and APCo to design incentives for low-income people, the elderly, and disable persons to install energy efficiency and renewable energy, to be paid for by a rate adjustment clause.

HB1701 (Aird) authorizes the Clean Energy Advisory Board to administer public grant funding, and makes small changes to the Board.

SB634 (Surovell) establishes the Energy Efficiency Subsidy Program to fund grants to subsidize residential “efficiency” measures, interestingly defined as solar PV, solar thermal or geothermal heat pumps. It also creates a subsidy program for electric vehicles.

SB1039 (Vogel) allows a real property tax exemption for solar energy equipment to be applied retroactively if the taxpayer gets DEQ certification within a year.

SB1061 (Petersen) allows residential customers to qualify for local government Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) financing programs for renewable energy and energy efficiency improvements; currently the availability of this financing tool is restricted to commercial customers. Note the potential interplay with HB654, above.

Customer rights to shop for renewable energy

HB868 (Bourne) and SB376 (Suetterlein and Bell) allows customers to buy 100% renewable energy from any licensed supplier, regardless of whether their own utility has its own approved tariff.

HB 889 (Mullin) and SB 379 (McPike), the Clean Energy Choice Act, is broader than HB868. The legislation allows all customers to buy 100% renewable energy from any licensed supplier regardless of whether their utility has its own approved tariff. In addition, large customers (over 5 MW of demand) of IOUs also gain the ability to aggregate their demand from various sites in order to switch to a competitive supplier that offers a greater percentage of renewable energy than the utility is required to supply under any RPS, even if it is not 100% renewable. Large customers in IOU territory who buy from competing suppliers must give three years’ notice before returning to their utility, down from the current five years. The SCC is directed to update its consumer protection regulations.

Offshore wind

The CEA contains detailed provisions for the buildout and acquisition of offshore wind. HB234 (Mugler) directs the Secretary of Commerce and Trade to develop an offshore wind master plan.

SB860 (Mason) and HB1664 (Hayes) puts the construction or purchase of at least 5,200 MW of offshore wind in the public interest.

HB1607 (Lindsey) and SB998 (Lucas) allows Dominion to recover the costs of building offshore wind farms as long as it has a plan for the facilities to be in place before January 1, 2028 and that it has used reasonable efforts to competitively source the majority of services and equipment. All utility customers in Virginia, regardless of which utility serves them, will participate in paying for this through a non-bypassable charge. Surely this bill came straight from Dominion.

 

Virginia is all-in on offshore wind, but Dominion’s go-it-alone approach raises questions

John Warren speaking at AWEA

John Warren, Director of Virginia’s Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy, speaks at AWEA about the opportunities for state collaboration on supply chain development.

It’s not every day that the names of a major utility and the nation’s largest grassroots environmental organization share space on a banner. But at the American Wind Energy Association’s (AWEA) annual offshore wind conference on October 22-23 in Boston, Massachusetts, the logos of the Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club and Dominion Energy bookended those of half a dozen state agencies, educational institutions and business development organizations on a banner proclaiming “Virginia is all-in on offshore wind.”

The banner anchored a large corner booth showcasing the strengths Virginia brings to the growing industry. Broad stakeholder support is one advantage; unlike Massachusetts, Virginia has seen little opposition to its plans for developing the 112,799-acre offshore wind energy area 27 miles out from Virginia Beach.

This broad stakeholder support is the product of more than a decade of work on the part of researchers, environmental organizations, the business community and elected leaders from both parties.

For the Sierra Club and the Northam administration, offshore wind offers carbon-free, renewable energy and a way to position the Virginia as a leader in the green economy. For the Port of Virginia and Virginia Beach Economic Development, it brings new business opportunities. For Old Dominion University and Virginia Tidewater Community College, it’s a chance to train young people and participate in ground-breaking research in ocean science and engineering. And for Dominion Energy, it offers a new avenue for profit and a way to rebrand itself as a clean energy company without having to shed its core investments in fracked gas.

Now at last it is poised to happen. Last month, Governor Ralph Northam signed an executive order targeting the full build-out of the federal offshore wind lease area off Virginia by 2026; two days later, Dominion Energy, which holds the lease, confirmed it plans to build 2,600 MW of offshore wind in three phases in 2024, 2025 and 2026. Once built, the 220 turbines are projected to produce enough electricity to power over 700,000 homes.

This commitment puts Virginia among the states pursuing offshore wind most aggressively. With other states rapidly increasing their own targets and signing contracts with developers, the East Coast could now see over 25,000 MW of offshore wind by 2030, with some conference speakers predicting the total will rise to 30,000 MW by the end of the decade. At the AWEA conference a year ago, that number stood at just 10,000 MW—and attendees were plenty jazzed then.

Virginia will also have the first wind turbines in federal waters when the 2-turbine Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind (CVOW) pilot project reaches completion next summer. Earlier this year CVOW became the first project permitted by the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM).

Massachusetts hits a snag, and sends a shiver through the industry

The second project in line, the 800-MW Vineyard Wind off Massachusetts, suffered a setback this summer when the Department of Interior (DOI) decided to require an additional layer of review. Bowing to objections from the commercial fishing industry and the National Marine Fisheries Service, DOI is now requiring a supplemental Environmental Impact Statement to look at the cumulative impact of many wind farms instead of limiting review to the one project.

Project developers and advocates wonder whether the move reflects a Trump administration change in attitude towards offshore wind or merely shows the federal government is still figuring out how to balance competing ocean uses. President Trump is famously derisive of wind power, but BOEM Director Walter Cruikshank assured the AWEA audience that the administration remains committed to a successful offshore wind industry.

That may be, but meanwhile the delay in the project timeline is causing heartburn for industry members and anger among advocates. Jack Clarke, Director of Public Policy & Government Relations at Mass Audubon, commented testily that if the National Marine Fisheries Service was really so concerned about protecting fisheries, it should have acted 40 years ago before overfishing led to the collapse of Massachusetts’ cod, haddock and flounder fisheries.

Clarke is a veteran of more than a decade’s worth of battles over offshore wind, beginning with the ill-fated Cape Wind project proposed in 2001. Cape Wind was ultimately abandoned in 2017 in the face of implacable resistance from NIMBYs—but not from Mass Audubon and other wildlife groups, which championed the wind farm as part of the solution to global warming. Now, Clarke says, it is time for the government to put its full weight behind the wind projects.

Fewer conflicts seen for Virginia

Concerns about commercial fishing seem less likely to stall offshore wind plans in Virginia, where years of public engagement helped ensure the Virginia Wind Energy Area is reasonably free of conflicts with the fishing industry, as well as shipping and military operations.

AWEA panelists also agreed that careful siting and construction practices can limit harm to wildlife. Siting wind farms 25 miles or more out to sea puts them beyond the paths of migratory birds; and according to Dr. Stuart Clough, President of environmental consulting firm APEM, European data shows birds tend to avoid wind farms altogether, or keep to shipping channels that transect them.

Yet some impacts are inevitable. Sarah Courbis, Protected Species & Regulatory Specialist at consulting firm Ecology and Environment, Inc., recommended developers follow a practice known as “adaptive management,” which involves continuous monitoring during construction and operations, with contingency plans in case problems arise.

European studies have shown that marine mammals generally adapt well to wind farms, moving out of the area during construction and returning afterwards. That is expected to hold true for the U.S., though conservation groups remain worried about interference with migrating North Atlantic Right Whales, a species already perilously close to extinction. Courbis said, however, that although wind farm construction affects whale behavior, the more serious threat to the species comes from entanglement in fishing gear and ship strikes, which cause most whale fatalities.

Nonetheless, Vineyard Wind committed to curtailing construction when Right Whales are nearby, as Deepwater Wind did when building its Block Island project in 2016. Conservation groups are pressuring other developers to take similar protective measures.

One of the more interesting features of Virginia’s CVOW pilot project is that it will test how well a double “bubble curtain” can muffle construction noise to reduce interference with marine mammals.

Questions of timing and cost

Other important questions remain for the Virginia wind farm, including whether the Administration’s timeline is achievable, who will actually do the work, and—critically—what it will cost.

Completing the first 880 MW of wind turbines off Virginia by 2024 depends on many factors that aren’t entirely under the control of Dominion and state agencies: how fast a supply chain develops; whether Virginia attracts manufacturers; how quickly port facilities can be upgraded; the availability of an installation vessel capable of handling 12-MW turbines (currently there are none); and whether BOEM will be able to expeditiously review the many Construction and Operations Plans (COPs) it will receive from offshore wind developers up and down the East Coast over the next few years.

Then there is the question of who will build Virginia’s first commercial wind farm. Dominion contracted with the Danish wind giant Ørsted for CVOW, but it has not renewed the partnership for the commercial wind farm. A shareholder call on Friday, November 1, indicated that Dominion intends to develop, own and operate the project itself.

If so, that raises questions of competence and cost. Other states have proceeded with competitively-bid contracts that ensure developers are qualified and that consumers pay a fair market price for the electricity produced. The competency issue can be solved through talent acquisition, but without competition or a price guarantee, it will be a challenge for Virginia’s State Corporation Commission (SCC) to ensure electricity customers don’t overpay.

I asked Stephanie McClellan, Director of the Special Initiative on Offshore Wind at the University of Delaware, how the SCC could tackle the problem. McClellan pointed to two offshore wind contracts that had been signed without competitive bidding: the ill-fated Cape Wind, and the (also never built) Bluewater Wind project in Delaware.

In 2007 the Delaware Public Service Commission hired an independent consultant to analyze the factors that determine the cost of electricity from a wind farm. These include the output of the turbines (primarily a factor of turbine size and wind speed), construction cost (CAPEX), operations and maintenance costs (OPEX), and financing costs. On the basis of this analysis Bluewater Wind won an all-source RFP against coal and natural gas, though thereafter it failed to find financing.

Within a year the Great Recession and the fracking boom would combine to delay the offshore wind industry in the U.S. by nearly a decade, while the European build-out gained steam.

But meanwhile, the economic case for offshore wind has only strengthened. Costs have plunged 32% in the past year globally, and conference participants see further price drops ahead as the U.S. builds its own manufacturing and supply chain instead of importing European parts. Dominion is currently floating cost figure of $8 billion for the Virginia wind farm based on European parts, but that figure ought to come down with U.S. parts and technology advances.

Could Virginia emerge a winner?

The conventional wisdom is that higher wind speeds make offshore wind more cost-effective in the Northeast than in Virginia. But members of the Virginia team think we may have offsetting advantages.

John Warren, Director of Virginia’s Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy, says Virginia could see lower prices than the Northeast because of lower labor costs and the proximity of our lease area to the supply chain. He sees regional collaboration with Maryland and North Carolina as the key to a low-cost supply chain. But unlike Maryland, he told conference attendees, Virginia will not impose a local content requirement that might increase costs.

George Hagerman, Senior Project Scientist at Old Dominion University, believes new, gigantic turbines like GE’s 12 MW Haliade-X promise an advantage in the Southeast because they can capture more energy at low wind speeds. The very strong winds that sometimes blow off New England would force a turbine that size to shut down for its own protection, resulting in a lower overall output.

Hagerman has also suggested that as a utility, Dominion’s financing costs will be lower than those of an independent developer, giving it an extra cost advantage.

Hagerman has led the research on the Virginia offshore wind opportunity for over a dozen years now. In 2010 he was the lead researcher for the Virginia Coastal Energy Research Consortium (VCERC), whose report that year concluded a wind farm off Virginia Beach could be built cost-effectively within five to ten years and bring economic development and thousands of jobs to the area.

The timeline has slipped, but, the Virginia stakeholders agree, the opportunity has only gotten better.

 

A version of this article first appeared in the Virginia Mercury on November 4, 2019. 

At long last, Dominion decides it’s game on for offshore wind

Offshore wind turbines

The Block Island wind farm in Rhode Island. Photo by Ionna22 via Wikimedia Commons.

When utility regulators gave Dominion Energy Virginia the go-ahead to build two offshore wind turbines last November, it was still unclear whether the pilot project might be the end as well as the beginning of offshore wind in Virginia.

Now, however, Dominion seems to have decided it’s game on. Although the company hasn’t issued any public statements about its intentions, its presentation to investors in March included $880 million in spending on offshore wind through 2023, over and above the cost of the pilot project.

This came as a surprise to everyone, including Virginia regulators at the State Corporation Commission. Commissioners were not pleased that Wall Street heard the utility’s plans before they did. Dominion’s 2018 Integrated Resource Plan did not propose building a full-sized offshore wind farm any time in the next 15 years.

Nor had the 2016 and 2017 IRPs, even though the company has been sitting on a lease for an area of ocean that could provide at least 2,000 megawatts of offshore wind power, enough for 500,000 homes.

At a hearing on the IRP this month, the company promised regulators it would submit detailed information in its future filings, and confirmed that it currently has its sights set on 2024 for the first commercial wind farm.

For now, however, Dominion remains focused on getting the two test turbines up and running in a state-held lease area 24 miles out to sea from Virginia Beach. If all goes according to plan, the Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind project will be up and running by late summer 2020.

The two, 6-MW turbines will contribute only enough electricity to the grid for about 3,000 homes, but they will be the first turbines in federal waters anywhere in the U.S.  (The nation’s first wind farm, off Block Island in Rhode Island, is closer to shore in state waters.)

With that finish line in sight, state officials, developers, business people and offshore wind researchers were at Old Dominion University in Norfolk Tuesday night to share their vision of how Virginia will leverage its baby steps into a multi-billion-dollar industry that could “reinvent” Hampton Roads.

The town hall forum, organized by the Sierra Club, emphasized the workforce, supply chain and port opportunities if Virginia succeeds in becoming a commercial hub for offshore wind farms all along the East Coast. Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration hopes to find success with this plan even if Virginia lags other states in building wind farms.

Thomas Brostrøm, president of Ørsted North America, the Danish developer that is partnering with Dominion to build its pilot, described the size of the opportunity. The “pipeline” for projects in the U.S. has now reached 20,000 MW, mostly in New England, New York, New Jersey and Maryland. A buildout of 1,000 to 1,500 MW per year is enough to support a U.S.-based supply chain, he said. This is important not just for American businesses but also for customers, since local manufacturing means lower costs.

Brostrøm also agreed with elected leaders and port officials at the forum that Virginia’s deep-water port and unobstructed access to open ocean makes it a particularly attractive base of operations for an industry that has to transport turbine blades the length of football fields.

According to Jennifer Palestrant, director of the SMART Center for Maritime and Transportation at Tidewater Community College, the area’s ability to provide a workforce and job training needed for the new industry is also a given.

“Virginia has been building ships for 300 years,” she told the audience. “We’ve got this.” Workforce training “is in the bag.”

No doubt Virginia’s port and workforce advantages merit this home-state boosterism, but leaders in other states make similar claims. Those states also aren’t leaving anything to chance; while dangling subsidies for offshore wind energy, they are requiring developers to work with local communities and businesses.

Dominion’s decision on whether and when to move forward with a commercial wind farm will thus have a huge impact on how much of the industry Hampton Roads can attract. Mark Mitchell, the company’s director of generation projects, told the town hall audience that one of the most important pieces of information the company wants to gain from CVOW is the capacity factor of the turbines — that is, how much electricity they produce as a percentage of their full “nameplate” capacity.

Currently Dominion expects the test turbines to perform at a capacity factor of 42%. If the turbines do better than that, it means they can produce electricity at lower cost. If they perform less well, costs will be higher. Virginia is at a disadvantage compared to states further north, where stronger winds drive higher capacity factors. And with lower energy prices overall than northeastern states and no subsidies to offer, getting offshore wind to pencil out here is harder.

But Mitchell sounded confident about the future of the industry in Virginia.  As Dominion sees it, he said, offshore wind is important for achieving carbon reductions, and it complements solar “without solar’s land-use issues.” By 2024, he projects costs will fall enough to make an offshore wind farm attractive. “We see the economics coming in to support that,” he said.

This is wonderful news, and also a sudden and remarkable about face for a company that has worked at a snail’s pace since winning the development rights to the Virginia lease six years ago. Other states started later and are on track to finish earlier.

From this we draw two conclusions, one surprising and the other, not so much. First, IRPs are meaningless. Far from revealing the utility’s plans for 15 years, they don’t even tell the SCC what Dominion is thinking at that very moment.  Eat your hearts out, commissioners; to this company, you are irrelevant.

And, more obviously, Dominion follows the money. None of the reasons Virginians want offshore wind — clean energy, jobs, business development, climate mitigation — mattered until a pathway to profit opened up.

No doubt Dominion needs a new profit center. For years the company expected wealth to flow from a planned $19 billion nuclear reactor at North Anna, until the economics grew from challenging to impossible. Currently it’s gambling on the $7 billion-plus Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which is facing a similar cost spiral amid a morass of lawsuits and unresolved questions of whether it has any real customers.

Offshore wind offers an entirely new business opportunity with almost unlimited potential, and one with the added benefit of working with, not against, public opinion and advances in clean energy technology.

Building a commercial wind farm in Virginia may be just the beginning for Dominion. An industry source told me the utility’s parent company, Dominion Energy, is negotiating to buy a $400 million, offshore wind turbine installation vessel.

If true, investing in one of these specialized ships could be a canny business move, since the offshore wind industry is facing a severe shortage of them worldwide, and the U.S. currently has none at all. The purchase would indicate Dominion sees an opportunity to make money on the booming offshore wind market in the Northeast, regardless of what happens in Virginia.

Before the town hall, I asked Dominion for confirmation of its plans and received this response:

“Onshore construction activities associated with CVOW are slated to begin soon.  Additionally, the company is in the early phases of developing a construction operations plan for the larger commercial lease area and expects to have a high-level timeline soon.

“As the first approved offshore wind project in federal waters, CVOW has already provided many valuable lessons learned which will ultimately benefit our customers and the environment as we move through the dozens of required surveys, reports and assessments as part of the construction operation plan for larger scale development. Mark [Mitchell] will provide remarks next week [i.e., at the Sierra Club town hall] and we will share additional information as it becomes available.”

If this seems like disappointingly little information, take heart: you now know at least as much about Dominion’s offshore wind plans as the SCC does.

This article first appeared in the Virginia Mercuron May 30, 2019. 

 

SCC rips into Dominion’s offshore wind pilot, approves it anyway

Photo credit: Phil Holman

The Virginia State Corporation Commission (SCC) approved Dominion Energy Virginia’s proposed Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind (CVOW) project on Friday, but not happily. A press releasefrom the SCC complains about the project’s “excessive costs” and the way it is structured to make customers, rather than the developer, shoulder risks:

The offshore wind project consists of two wind turbines to be built by Dominion that would begin operating in December 2020. In its factual findings, the Commission determined that the company’s proposal puts “essentially all” of the risk of the project, including cost overruns, production and performance failures, on Dominion’s customers. Currently, the estimated cost of the project is at least $300 million, excluding financing costs.

The Commission found that the offshore wind project was not the result of a competitive bidding process to purchase power from third-party developers of offshore wind. Doing so would likely have put all or some of the risks on developers as has been done with other offshore wind projects along the East Coast of the United States. The Commission also found that any “economic benefits specific to [the project] are speculative, whereas the risks and excessive costs are definite and will be borne by Dominion’s customers.”

In spite of these harsh words, the SCC goes on to conclude that the language of the giant energy bill passed by the General Assembly last winter, SB 966, leaves regulators no choice but to approve CVOW:

The Commission concluded that the offshore wind project “would not be deemed prudent [under this Commission’s] long history of utility regulation or under any common application of the term.” However, the Commission ruled, as a matter of law, that recent amendments to Virginia laws that mandate that such a project be found to be “in the public interest” make it clear that certain factual findings must be subordinated to the clear legislative intent expressed in the laws governing the petition.

Obviously, the SCC has a point about the high cost of CVOW. Even Dominion agreed that if you just want 12 megawatts (MW) of power, you can get it a lot more cheaply than $300 million. The SCC’s Final Orderis even harsher on this topic. Moreover, the SCC doesn’t see any future for offshore wind as a matter of pure economics.

Nor is it all that reassuring that Dominion has said the price tag won’t have any impact on rates. What Dominion means is that we ratepayers have already paid for it, and as we aren’t going to get our money back anyway, we may as well enjoy seeing it put to use in building an offshore wind industry.

That’s where Dominion is (sort of) right, and the SCC (sort of) wrong. CVOW is the first step in the Northam administration’s plan to build an offshore wind industry in Virginia and install at least 2,000 MW of offshore wind turbines in the coming decade, a goal shared by many members of the General Assembly.

Northam says CVOW will lead to the commercial projects. Dominion says maybe, maybe not (“It’s too soon to have that conversation,” in the words of Dominion’s Katharine Bond). At any rate, it sure won’t happen without CVOW first.

Critics have said it’s silly to insist on a pilot project when other states are going forward with full-scale wind farms. That’s not entirely fair. As the first project in federal waters, the first in the Mid-Atlantic, and the first to be located 27 miles out to sea, CVOW’s two turbines will have much to teach the industry about offshore wind installation and performance in this part of the world. The whole U.S. offshore wind industry stands to benefit.

And also, Dominion has us over a barrel. Dominion holds the lease for the 2,000 MW; nobody else can come in and build it. So if Northam wants an offshore wind industry with thousands of new jobs, he has to do it Dominion’s way or not at all.

Clearly the SCC would choose not to do it at all. But then, the SCC has never shown any understanding of the climate crisis and the pressing need for Virginia to respond by developing as much wind and solar as possible, as rapidly as possible.

In the long term, we have to build out much more than 2,000 MW of offshore wind. As we do, and as costs decline in response to increasing economies of scale and technological improvements, the price tag of one pilot project will shrink in proportion to the billions of dollars flowing into the offshore wind industry and decarbonizing our electricity supply.

If it’s Dominion’s way or the highway, we have to do it Dominion’s way—for now—and then make sure it gets done.

No doubt the SCC would disagree. Yet to its credit, on Friday the SCC also approved Dominion’s purchase of power from a proposed 80-megawatt solar facility dubbed the “Water Strider” project. Unlike the offshore wind project, the solar project met the Commission’s prudency test because it involves a purchase from a private developer and followed a competitive bidding process. This resulted in a price to customers that the SCC felt is “in line with market rates.”

Though the Water Strider project looks like a clear winner for ratepayers, its approval wasn’t a foregone conclusion either. After a long history of approving one fossil fuel project after another, the SCC has belatedly begun to question Dominion’s projections about its need for more generation, at precisely the time when the new generation happens to be solar and wind.

For now, the SCC believes it must bow to the will of the General Assembly. For these two projects, that’s a good thing, but ratepayers will be in trouble if the SCC declines to assert its oversight authority in other filings under SB 966. Dominion wants to spend billions of dollars over the coming years on smart meters, software, burying power lines and other grid projects. Customers still need the SCC to make sure we get our money’s worth.

This article originally appeared in the Virginia Mercury