Tom Farrell’s nuclear fantasy

Tom Farrell doesn’t get it. Dominion Power, the utility of which he is CEO, has been all about building natural gas plants for the past couple of years, as it rushes to take advantage of cheap fracked gas. Out with the aging coal plants that had been its first love, in with the next cheap thing, and never mind the pollution! Then suddenly two weeks ago, faced with a question about climate change, Farrell told reporters the answer is more nuclear plants.

Mother Earth to Tom Farrell: The correct answer is “renewable energy.”

Most of the rest of the country gets this. Wind supplied more new electric generation than natural gas did in 2012. More people work in solar energy than in coal mining. Renewable energy has overtaken nuclear worldwide. Almost no one is building nuclear plants, partly because—here’s an inconvenient truth for you, Tom—they cost too much. Almost three years ago a Duke University study found that power from new nuclear plants is more expensive than solar energy, and the cost of solar has only gone down since then.

But Farrell is convinced wind and solar can’t provide reliable electricity to power the whole grid. You’d think he’d been reading propaganda from the Koch Brothers and had come to believe that if there are solar panels somewhere and a cloud crosses the sun, the whole grid crashes.

Can I just point out here that Dominion’s own North Anna nuclear reactors shut down suddenly in 2011 following an earthquake in Virginia, and the grid did not crash? Even though nuclear is one-third of Dominion’s Virginia portfolio, and North Anna represents more than half of that? And even though, while weather forecasters are pretty good at predicting regional cloud cover, no one can yet predict an earthquake?

The reason the grid didn’t crash is that grid operators make sure there is enough surplus generation available to keep supplying power even at times of catastrophic failure. And note that the nuclear plants didn’t come back online when the clouds cleared off, either. They were down for four months.

If nuclear power is more expensive than renewables, and it has to be backed up 100% with other forms of energy, for much longer time periods, where is the place for new nuclear?

As the CEO of a utility, Tom Farrell should know better. He should also know about the new study demonstrating that renewable energy alone—onshore wind, offshore wind, and solar energy—can power the entire grid 99.9% of the time. The study authors show that doing this would actually cost less than conventional sources of electricity, assuming you include in the price the “external” cost society pays for the use of fossil fuels. That is, if you factor in the cost of climate change, it’s cheaper to build renewable energy than new fossil fuel plants.

Climate aside, there’s other evidence for the superior value of renewable energy in providing price stability for customers and a whole range of benefits for the grid. And of course, for meeting demand at the cheapest possible cost, you can’t beat energy efficiency.

It’s time to face reality, Tom Farrell. If all you care about is making money for Dominion today, your natural gas strategy probably makes sense. But if you care about tomorrow—or even about the big picture today—it doesn’t. Either way, there’s no room in the picture for expensive new nuclear plants.

And if you’re sincerely concerned about climate change, now would be a good time for Dominion to invest in energy efficiency, wind and solar.

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Note to readers: Willett Kempton, one of the authors of the study cited above on powering the grid with renewable energy, will be speaking at a townhall meeting sponsored by Sierra Club and Environment America this Wednesday, March 13, at the MetroStage Theatre, 1201 North Royal St., Alexandria, VA. The meeting is open to the public (Tom Farrell is especially invited). To RSVP, contact Phillip Ellis at phillip.ellis@sierraclub.org or 571-970-0275.

 

Renewable energy makes small gains in Virginia’s 2013 legislative session

The Virginia General Assembly will soon wrap up its work on the 2013 legislative session. Renewable energy advocates began the session with high hopes for a series of bills that promised to reform our renewable energy law, expand net-metering, and open up new opportunities for financing solar systems and small wind turbines.

So how did we do? Well, this is Virginia. Progress is slow, the utilities are powerful, and half the legislature doesn’t believe in climate change. On the other hand, they do believe in business. Under the circumstances, we did okay.

Renewable Portfolio Standards: bye-bye, bonuses

Readers of this blog already know the long, miserable tale of Virginia’s weak and ineffective, voluntary renewable portfolio standard (RPS), which has enriched utilities with tens of millions of dollars in incentives without bringing any new renewable energy projects to Virginia. This year the legislature went halfway to fixing the problem. Legislation negotiated between the office of the Attorney General and the utilities will deprive utilities of future ill-gotten gains for meeting the RPS law, but won’t change the pathetic nature of the law itself.

Stripping out the RPS incentives was only part of a bigger, more complex bill that sweetens the deal for utilities in other ways, so it’s hard to judge whether the legislation as a whole marks a victory for consumers. Skeptics will note that Dominion’s stock price has actually gone up several percentage points since the deal was announced, which you wouldn’t expect if the AG were correct that the bill will save consumers close to a billion dollars over time.

What is clear is that the RPS remains as voluntary and as crummy as it ever was, but the utilities can no longer use it to rip off ratepayers while pretending to be good citizens. Some environmental groups consider stripping out the incentives a bad thing, on the theory that only by giving utilities a bonus can we expect them to meet the goals. Other groups (including the Sierra Club) believe Dominion, at least, will want to maintain its greenwashed public image by continuing to meet the RPS goals, and that ending the consumer rip-off is worth celebrating.

Sure, if the goals had brought wind and solar to Virginia, the Sierra Club would have considered the incentives a tolerable price to pay. As it happened, Dominion and the other utilities continuously rebuffed efforts over the years to improve the RPS. Had Dominion approached the RPS as an opportunity to bring real renewable energy to Virginia rather than as a cash cow to be milked for its own advantage, the company would have saved itself a public relations fiasco and likely kept its bonuses, too. Surely, someone at HQ should be out of a job right now.

Taking the long view, it is also worth noting that getting rid of the free money is a necessary first step towards a mandatory RPS in Virginia, which would unleash market forces for renewable energy that don’t emerge with a voluntary law. Utilities would oppose such a move more vigorously if they still had incentives to protect that were available only under the voluntary program.

. . . but reform efforts fail again

These views all assume the legislature will someday pass a bill to improve the goals and bring wind and solar projects to Virginia, without which the RPS is meaningless anyway. Surely legislators must recognize how pointless it is to have an RPS that can be met with out-of-state, pre-World War II hydro, plus some trash and wood-burning and a few assorted projects that put no power on the grid. (Even without the performance incentives, utilities remain entitled to pass along to customers the cost of meeting the RPS goals.)

Bills to improve the goals should have passed the legislature this year as part of the reform package. HB 1946 (Lopez) and SB 1269  (McEachin) even received the support of Dominion Power for provisions that would limit most future purchases for the RPS to high-quality projects like wind and solar. What killed the bills seems to have been a combination of opposition from vested interests and sheer cussedness on the part of some Republicans, who were engaged in partisan maneuvers that had nothing at all to do with renewable energy.

As usual, we are left hoping for better luck next year.  Meanwhile, however, a couple of other RPS bills made incremental progress. Most notably, HB 1917 (Surovell) adds solar thermal energy to the definition of renewable energy; as of this writing it has passed the House and is on the Senate floor.

A loss for more honest competition among fuels

There are more ways to support renewable energy than through an RPS, of course. One of my favorite bills would have required utilities and the State Corporation Commission to consider the long-term price stability of fuels used in electric power generation. HB 1943 (Lopez) would have helped price-stable wind and solar compete against notoriously price-volatile natural gas. It’s an idea that should appeal to fair-minded conservatives, so it’s a shame it hasn’t gained traction since first being introduced in 2012. However, it died in committee in the face of opposition from Dominion Power, which doesn’t want any interference with its plans for new natural gas plants.

Power Purchase Agreements get a “pilot”

Two bills passed the legislature to allow some third-party power purchase agreements (PPAs) for wind and solar within Dominion’s territory. Under a PPA, an installer retains ownership of the solar equipment, with the customer buying the electricity that is generated. This arrangement has two primary advantages: the customer can “go solar” with no money down and no responsibility for the equipment; and in the case of a tax-exempt entity like a church or a university, it provides a way to access federal tax credits worth 30% of the system cost.

The bills were designed to prevent a recurrence of a dispute that erupted in 2011 when a Staunton-based solar company, Secure Futures, installed a large solar system at Washington & Lee University under a PPA. Dominion issued “cease and desist” letters insisting that only it could sell electricity in its assigned territory. Although Virginia law is unclear on this point, the university and the solar company capitulated in the face of massive litigation costs. Since then Dominion’s army of lawyers has proven as effective as any statute in stopping further efforts to use PPAs in Virginia.

This year’s bills, SB 1023 (Edwards) and HB 2334 (Yancey), were originally written to allow third-party PPAs wherever customers can currently install renewable energy systems that they own themselves. They were significantly scaled back to win acceptance from Dominion Power. (AEP and the coops wouldn’t play at all, so legal ambiguity remains the rule in their territories.)

The bills allow up to 50 megawatts’ worth of solar and wind installations using PPAs, in Dominion territory only, as a pilot program.  Whether net-metered or not, they will be counted against the current net-metering cap of 1% of the utility’s generation. Tax-exempt entities can have a facility of any size up to 1 megawatt (500 kW if they net meter); taxable entities must have a minimum size of at least 50 kW (so no homeowner need apply). PPAs that do not meet the requirements are expressly prohibited in Dominion territory.

Agricultural net metering, yes; community net metering, no

A bill to allow agricultural net metering also passed this year. HB 1695 (Minchew) allows the electricity from a single solar, wind, or digester gas facility to be attributed to two or more electricity meters as long as they are all on the same property and have the same owner. Thus, for example, a farmhouse, barn and other out-buildings can all share in the benefits of solar panels on one of the buildings, even if each building is separately metered.

Originally the bill would also have enabled community net metering, sometimes known as solar gardens, but the utilities opposed it. Bowing to political reality, Delegate Minchew scaled it back. The bill is notable, however, for making progress without including any provisions that seem capable of doing mischief.

A note about all the bills: In Virginia, the governor can sign a bill, veto it, or send it back to the legislature with amendments of his own, so none of these bills are final as of this writing.

The case for diversity: natural gas plus renewables

Natural gas is currently cheap. It’s so cheap right now that some producers are losing money with every cubic foot they pump out of the ground. So what better time to be a buyer, right? That’s the thinking of utilities like Dominion Virginia Power, which plans to shut its oldest, worst-performing coal plants and replace them only with new natural gas-fired electric generation.

In fact, it’s the thinking of utilities across the U.S., many of which are planning the same move. But ratepayers and regulators at Virginia’s State Corporation Commission should insist that Dominion take this opportunity to diversify its fuels. New natural gas generation should be at least evenly balanced with price-stable renewable energy like wind and solar. Here are three reasons why.

Natural gas prices will not stay low. Producers are currently pulling back on production because they can’t afford to lose money selling below their costs. And with utilities rushing to build new gas-fired electric generating plants, demand is set to soar in the coming years. Exports of liquid natural gas (LNG) will also serve new markets overseas, where gas prices are much higher than in the U.S., further pushing up demand here. Finally, with the price of oil about 10 times the current price of gas when measured per unit of energy, gas will increasingly displace oil in other uses such as powering heavy trucks and possibly conversion of gas to liquid fuels.

With all these factors pushing up demand, the price of natural gas has to go up, and the only question is how high. Longer term production will likely increase as well, dampening the price shocks, but natural gas prices have a long history of volatility, and there is no reason to think they will stabilize now.

Gas plants might outlive the boom. The Energy Information Agency says the U.S. has enough “technically recoverable” natural gas to last us 92 years at 2010 consumption levels,[1] a figure it has revised so often, and by so much, that no one places much confidence in it. Assuming they have it right this time, 92 years at 2010 levels is not as reassuring as it sounds. Higher consumption rates as utilities replace coal with gas plants, coupled with a rise in exports of LNG into the international market, will cause that 92 year-supply figure to shrink dramatically. Supplying gas generating plants for their full 30-plus year lifespans might require us to pay much higher prices or to import LNG at whatever price the international market sets. (Indeed, LNG terminals conceived just a few years ago were built as import terminals.)

Recoverable gas supplies could also decrease dramatically if states or localities impose drilling bans or cutbacks due to concerns about drinking water contamination and air pollution associated with gas “fracking”; because of problems disposing of the contaminated wastewater; or due to an unwillingness in dry states to allocate the huge amounts of fresh water consumed in the fracking process.

Price stability doesn’t matter to utilities—but it does to consumers. Utilities pass through the cost of fuel directly to ratepayers, so price spikes have no effect on a utility’s bottom line. Dominion Virginia Power earns a high profit on the capital cost of a new generating plant, so its incentive is to build as much new generation as it can. From a profit standpoint, it is indifferent to fuel costs.

From a consumer’s perspective, however, fuel costs matter very much. We pay for both the construction of the new plant and for the cost of fuel for as long as the plant operates.  For us, a new coal or gas plant is like a variable rate mortgage; we know what our monthly payment will be in the first year, but after that it is anybody’s guess. Worse, we’re locked in for 30 years with no ability to refinance or renegotiate. If you had a choice, would you agree to buy something for 30 years when you only know the price today?

As it happens, we do have a choice. Wind turbines and solar panels are like a fixed-rate mortgage. Once you’ve built the wind farm or installed the solar panels, the fuel is free. You know from the start exactly what you will be paying over the life of the project. People choose higher fixed-rate mortgages over variable rate mortgages for the same reasons we should favor renewable energy over new fossil fuel plants, even with the ultra-low teaser rate being offered for natural gas today.

Virginia’s State Corporation Commission has been reluctant to embrace renewable energy, feeling itself on solid ground only with the certainty of fossil fuels priced with time horizons of three years or less. This attitude has likely influenced Dominion to favor a natural-gas-only strategy over one that would hedge unsustainably low current gas prices with the long-term price stability of renewable energy. Yet a hedging strategy would be the more prudent one. Using the savings from cheap gas today to pay for equal amounts of renewable energy would give us lower electricity costs both now and for the next thirty years, compared to what we would have with natural gas alone.

There are many other reasons for Virginia to invest in renewable energy, from job creation to cleaner air and water, to getting in on the ground floor of innovative technologies. Dominion should not close off these options by filling all its new generation needs with natural gas plants that commit us for the next 30 years. Ratepayers should insist on a strategy that incorporates at least as much renewable energy as natural gas.

A version of this article originally appeared in the Virginian-Pilot on September 16, 2012