Yay, Dominion is building solar! Just not for you.

solar installation public domainThis week’s news of an 18 megawatt solar facility to be installed at Naval Station Oceana in Newport News marks the latest in a string of announcements of new solar projects to be built in Virginia. The Commonwealth had only about 22 megawatts of solar installed as of the end of 2015, but by the end of this year, we should be comfortably into the triple digits. That’s still trivial compared to neighboring North Carolina, which added over 1,000 megawatts last year alone, but it’s grounds for celebration here in the “dark state.”

How is this happening? Customer demand, coupled with falling costs, finally wrought a change of attitude at Dominion Virginia Power. The state’s largest utility dragged its feet on solar for years until announcing, in early 2015, plans to spend $700 million on 400 megawatts of solar power in Virginia by 2020.

The welcome change comes with a caveat: while these new projects will supply solar to important and influential customers like Microsoft, Amazon, and even the state government itself, Dominion offers no programs to supply solar to ordinary Virginians. And indeed, even where ratepayers are footing the bill for projects, our regulators insist that the renewable energy certificates—the right to say it’s solar power—should be sold to someone else.

Dominion’s early adventures in solar were not altogether encouraging. In 2012 the General Assembly authorized the utility to “study” solar by building up to 30 megawatts of distributed (mostly rooftop) projects. The SCC approved $80 million for the “Solar Partnership Program” the following year, with the stipulation that Dominion should sell the renewable energy certificates to reduce the cost to ratepayers. A steep learning curve made for slow and expensive going, and while a number of schools, universities and commercial businesses signed up to host projects, they weren’t permitted to purchase the solar energy being produced right on their property.

In 2013, Dominion created a special tariff “Schedule RG” especially to allow commercial customers to buy renewable energy. Cumbersome, limited and expensive, it never attracted any takers. Dominion spokesman David Botkins suggested to reporters last May the problem was Dominion’s low rates. As in, who wants renewable energy when dirty power is so cheap?

That was one month before Amazon Web Services announced it had contracted for the output of an 80 megawatt solar farm to be built in Accomack County. The project sidestepped Dominion’s limitations by feeding power directly into the Delmarva Power grid in Maryland. Dominion promptly bought the project.

Schedule RG was clearly a failure, but just as clearly, there was money to be made on solar. Dominion just needed to figure out how.

The utility was already trying. In January of 2015 Dominion proposed to build a 20 megawatt solar farm near Remington, Virginia. The State Corporation Commission (SCC) originally rejected Dominion’s proposal, saying the company had not considered third-party alternatives that might be cheaper for ratepayers. (They were proved right when it turned out the Amazon project was slated to deliver power at a cost that was 25% less.)

Dominion didn’t give up on Remington, nor was it willing to turn the project over to a private developer. Instead, it got to work rejiggering the deal into what, this spring, became a public-private partnership. Governor McAuliffe arranged to have the state government, rather than ratepayers, buy the power output from Dominion, while Microsoft agreed to buy the renewable energy certificates (RECs) to meet its corporate commitment to buying renewable energy. (In every solar deal, watch what happens to the RECs.*)

Although I wondered at the time if the state might be taking a financial hit to make the deal work, more recent information suggests the opposite. According to Dominion’s website, “the construction and deployment of this solar asset will lower the cost of the energy purchased by the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth is projected to save $500,000 to $1M in energy costs over the lifetime of the project.”

This tells us two things: one, obviously, we should sell more solar to Microsoft. And two, either the website omits key details about the financing, or the cost of energy produced by solar panels is now pretty darn competitive.

The projects have started coming in more quickly in recent months. In February of this year, Dominion announced it would buy the output of a 20 megawatt solar farm in Chesapeake through a power purchase agreement (PPA) with a North Carolina developer. Other PPAs are said to be under consideration.

Then, on June 30, the SCC gave Dominion approval to move forward on building three new projects totaling 56 megawatts in Powhatan, Louisa, and Isle of Wight counties. The 800 local jobs associated with the projects sparked news stories across the state.

That brings us to this week’s announcement of the deal with the Commonwealth and the Department of the Navy at Oceana. According to Dominion’s press release, Dominion Virginia Power will own and operate the facility, and the Commonwealth will buy the electricity, with Dominion retiring the RECs on the Commonwealth’s behalf.

Deputy Secretary of Commerce Hayes Framme confirmed to me this deal is the first step toward satisfying Governor McAuliffe’s commitment to having the state government get 8% of its power from solar by the time he leaves office, an amount equal to roughly 110 megawatts. That should mean there will be more announcements to come.

The Navy’s role here is especially interesting. Although some news outlets reported the Navy would buy the electricity, this appears to be a misreading of the Navy’s press release. Naval Station Oceana will instead receive “in-kind consideration in the form of electrical infrastructure upgrades” for hosting the project on its land. But the press release dwells mainly on the benefit to the regional grid that serves the naval station:

“Renewable energy projects, like the one at NAS Oceana and others throughout the Mid-Atlantic Region, are win-win-win collaborations. They’re good for the utility companies, good for our installations and good for the communities surrounding our installations,” said Rear Adm. Jack Scorby, Jr., commander, Navy Region Mid-Atlantic. “These projects increase the energy security, energy diversity and energy resiliency of our bases. Energy security, or having assured access to reliable supplies of energy and the ability to protect and deliver sufficient energy to meet mission-essential requirements, is critical to our installations’ roles to support the Fleet.”

The reference to “energy security, energy diversity and energy resiliency” is key here. The Navy will benefit from having a large renewable generation source onsite, one that can be protected from attack and that is not susceptible to fuel supply disruptions.

Come to think of it, “energy security, energy diversity and energy resiliency” are three of the prime reasons we need more solar projects all across the state, and why the benefits shouldn’t be limited to large, influential customers. So yay, Dominion, for getting rolling on all these solar projects! Now please stop blocking the way for the rest of us.

*RECs were invented as a way to identify units of electricity generated by wind, solar and other sources, since the electrons themselves can’t be dyed green. But RECs don’t have to just follow electrons around; they can also be bought and sold separately from the underlying electricity. When the RECs associated with a solar project are sold separately (in the case of the Remington solar project, to Microsoft), the electricity loses its green quality, and the buyer (in this case, the Commonwealth) can’t claim to be buying solar energy. For a fuller explanation of RECs, see this earlier post on the subject.

Charging green customers more without doing more: Appalachian Power discovers the beauty of market segmentation, and moves to block competition

This wind farm isn't in Virginia, and APCo's proposal doesn't include building any new wind. But the cows are cute. Photo credit: NREL

This wind farm isn’t in Virginia, and APCo’s proposal doesn’t include building any new wind. But the cows are cute. Photo credit: NREL

Appalachian Power Company has asked the State Corporation Commission to approve a 100% renewable energy product it wants to offer its environmentally-conscious electricity customers. These customers would pay about 18% more for a combination of wind and hydro than they currently do for “brown” power. But APCo doesn’t plan to build new facilities. It will simply segregate out some of its existing wind and hydro (none of it in Virginia) to package as a new, higher-priced product.[i] The case is PUE-2016-00051.

Since APCo currently sells the renewable energy certificates (RECs) associated with these wind and hydro projects to buyers elsewhere, the change means it would terminate those contracts and provide the RECs to its green energy customers along with the electricity. RECs represent the “renewable attributes” of the power (the bragging rights, if you will), so the electricity by itself doesn’t count as renewable if it doesn’t come with the RECs.

The price of RECs represents only a part of the 18% premium. RECs are really cheap nationally, because supply exceeds demand.[ii] Another driver of the premium is that wind energy was more expensive back in 2007-2010, when these projects were built. Falling wind prices and a natural gas glut have pushed overall energy prices down since then. APCo customers are still paying off the cost of its wind farms (or in the case of two of them, are still paying on power purchase contracts). APCo proposes to shift the burden of paying for those wind farms onto the customers it believes are willing to pay more. At least theoretically, this means it will also reduce the price it charges the rest of its customers, who (it assumes) don’t care where their power comes from.

APCo says if demand is high enough, it will invest in new renewable energy facilities to add supply, which might decrease the cost of the tariff in the future. Cost declines have made new wind competitive with fossil fuels, so a tariff based on new facilities would have lower pricing.

Page 37 of APCo’s filing shows the effect of the accounting change on a customer’s bill for a residential customer using 120 kWh/month:

100% RE: $160,  non-RE customers: $135

or an extra $25/month, $300/year

By my math that comes out to:

100% RE: 13.3 cents/kWh,   non-RE customers: 11.3 cents/kWh

No doubt APCo is responding to consumer demand in proposing this renewable energy tariff. Virginians have become much more vocal, and much less patient, about wanting their utilities to invest in clean energy. But APCo has less virtuous motives as well. Offering electricity generated by 100% renewable energy closes off one avenue under which solar developers currently argue that third-party power purchase agreements (PPAs) are legal. PPAs are a common tool for financing solar projects, and are the only way some customers can afford to buy renewable energy. They are not being used today in APCo territory because of the risk that the utility will sue, claiming a violation of its monopoly on electricity sales.

The Virginia Code contains an exception to utilities’ exclusive monopoly in their territory: if a utility doesn’t sell 100% renewable energy to its customers, anyone else can. The SCC previously ruled that selling RECs doesn’t count, so APCo and Dominion’s own green power programs (consisting mostly of overpriced RECs) do not close the loophole. I have always wondered why they didn’t just do what APCo now proposes, if for no other reason than to close the loophole. The Code says nothing about the green power having to be reasonably priced.

Recall that we are still waiting for the SCC to rule on APCo’s terrible PPA-alternative proposal. The solar industry and environmental groups opposed the proposal not just because it was expensive, convoluted and certain to fail, but also because the Code’s renewable energy exception appears to allow PPAs already, making the APCo program unnecessary.[iii]

APCo and Dominion argue that the Code exception applies only where the seller supplies 100% of the customer’s demand, 100% of the time, with 100% renewable energy. A single wind farm can’t guarantee around-the-clock output, so APCo has combined wind energy with some hydro. That’s something a wind or solar developer can’t do, especially when the developer is merely putting solar panels on a customer’s roof.

These are nice legal arguments guaranteed to keep lawyers employed and the market in limbo. From the public policy point of view, though, there is nothing to be gained by suppressing the renewable energy market. Why squelch private investment and deny customers the right to use a popular financing tool to install wind and solar? For customers willing to pay a premium, why limit them to APCo’s product? If a company wants only wind power or solar power, why not let them contract with any willing provider?

The SCC should definitively declare in favor of PPAs, open the market to competition, and let the free market get to work. If the SCC won’t do it, the legislature should. If customers want APCo’s renewable energy product, terrific. If they can do better elsewhere, let them. We all win by creating new clean energy jobs, having carbon-free electricity displace fossil fuels, and giving customers the products they want.

[i] Page 6 of APCo’s Petition states: “Initially, the Company will assign to Rider REO the output of its renewable generators that are currently under long-term Purchased Power Agreements (the ‘Renewable PPAs’): the Summerville hydro-electric facility, and the Camp Grove, Fowler Ridge, Beech Ridge, and Grand Ridge wind facilities.” The Summersville dam, in West Virginia, was built in 2001. The Camp Grove Wind farm is in Illinois and began operation in 2007. Fowler Ridge, in Indiana, was commissioned in 2008. Beech Ridge, in West Virginia, became operational in 2010. Grand Ridge, in Illinois, was built in 2009.

[ii] It appears from APCo’s filing that its wind RECs sell for $18/MWh, or 1.8 cents/kWh. I don’t see a price stated for hydro RECs in APCO’s filing, but they typically have little value.

[iii] A second basis for believing that PPAs are legal does not rely on the Code exception. Rulings from Iowa and New Hampshire have recognized that PPAs involving rooftop solar are not the kind of electricity sales covered by public utility regulations. APCo’s new offering does not undercut that argument.


Update: on June 21, 2017, a Hearing Examiner recommended that the SCC reject APCo’s application, finding it not in the public interest. See my discussion of that ruling here. The SCC commissioners will have the final say, however.

Virginia wind and solar companies say tax credit extensions cue up a happy new year

Photo by Dennis Schroeder / NREL

Photo by Dennis Schroeder / NREL

Congress included a welcome gift to the wind and solar industries in last week’s package of goodies that made up the year-end spending bill. For the wind industry, the renewal of the expired production tax credit (PTC) with a five-year phase-out finally ends the guessing game that has driven repeated boom-and-bust cycles—and will help Virginia’s first-ever wind farm move forward.

For solar, the extension of the investment tax credit (ITC) beyond the end of next year ensures that one of the fastest-growing industries in the U.S. won’t face a major disruption that would have driven many small companies out of business. That’s critical in Virginia, where the lack of incentives has left the market mostly to small players able to get by on small profit margins. As the economics of solar continuously improve, these small companies see a bright future in the Commonwealth.

I asked several Virginia industry members how they were feeling after Congress’ year-end gift.

“The certainty the tax credit extension gives our business is critical,” answered Jeff Nicholson, Director of Development for Waynesboro-based Sigora Solar. “While there won’t be as much of a crunch to get systems installed next year, we can hire without being concerned that the market for solar will plummet in a year.”

Sigora has been one of Virginia’s most remarkable small business success stories, growing from 11 employees at the beginning of 2015 to 44 today. With the ITC extension, the company now foresees a “long-term, steady stream of business” through the rest of the decade, said Nicholson.

The 30% ITC had been set to expire at the end of 2016 for residential customers, while dropping to 10% for commercial and utility-scale projects. Under the bill passed by Congress and signed by President Obama on December 18, the tax credit will remain at 30% for all systems through 2018, and then taper off gradually until it reaches 10% in 2022. If current price trends continue, the extra few years may be enough to make solar competitive with other fuels without subsidies.

“We know solar is a solid energy production fuel, every bit as viable as coal, oil, nuclear and wind, and it is clear that the more we build, the more cost effective it becomes,” said Paul Risberg, President of Charlottesville-based Altenergy Incorporated. Altenergy grew by 40% in 2015, and Risberg told me he now expects that trend to continue in 2016.

Another Virginia success story is Staunton-based Secure Futures LLC, which has carved out a niche supplying solar energy to tax-exempt entities like universities and local government entities in Virginia, using third-party power purchase agreements. CEO Tony Smith told me, “The ITC extension means that our business can continue to offer at or below grid-parity solar electricity to our commercial scale customers beyond 2016.”

But, he added, “It still remains challenging to attract investment in Virginia due to the disparity in incentives to solar in our state as compared with our neighboring states, especially for behind-the-meter third party owned solar.  We remain hopeful that our industry will continue to build support in Richmond to reduce the barriers to solar investment in Virginia.”

The Virginia solar industry got an extra year-end gift on Monday when Governor Terry MacAuliffe announced plans for the state government to buy 110 megawatts of solar over the next three years, accounting for 8% of its electricity usage. While 75% of that will be utility-scale solar to be built by Virginia Dominion Power, 25% will consist of on-site projects of less than 2 megawatts in size, to be built by third-party developers using power purchase agreements.* The state will follow a competitive procurement process, but in response to a question at the press conference, MacAuliffe said it will not limit participation to Virginia-based companies.

Still, the Virginia industry members were optimistic the announcement would help boost the profile of solar energy in the Commonwealth. The industry trade group, MDV-SEIA, says it participated in the discussions leading to the announcement.

Virginia has a lot of catching-up to do, of course; neighboring states are so far ahead and have so much momentum that, as the Virginia Sierra Club’s Glen Besa observed, “If Dominion sticks to its commitment (of 400 megawatts of solar by 2020), we’ll be further behind on solar than we are now.”

Photo credit NREL

Photo credit NREL

Like the ITC for solar, the 2.3 cents per kilowatt-hour PTC has been a crucial support for the wind industry, making it the second-biggest source of new electric generation in the U.S. for many years now. But until last week, Congress had been reluctant to extend the PTC for more than a year at a time, sometimes retroactively, causing havoc for planners and developers and leading to boom-and-bust cycles deeply damaging to growth.

Now the PTC will be extended through 2016 before tapering off and expiring altogether at the end of 2019. Projects that “commence construction” by the end of a given year will qualify at that year’s level. (“Commence construction” language was also added to the solar ITC.) The predictability that comes with the five-year tapering-off period is expected to finally bring stability to project planning.

And like the solar industry, the wind industry now predicts bright days ahead. Bruce Burcat, Executive Director of the Mid-Atlantic Renewable Energy Coalition, told me, “Sound policies like the PTC have driven innovation which has helped reduce the cost of wind energy down by about 66 percent over the past six years, making it highly price competitive with traditional forms of energy resources. This trend bodes well for the opportunity for wind to take hold in Virginia.”

Burcat is undeterred by Virginia’s lack of success with wind farms to date. “While no wind farms have been developed in Virginia, we believe that with the right signals from the Commonwealth, Virginia could see its first wind farms developed sometime in the next few years,” he said. “Wind farms would bring investment and jobs and other economic development opportunities to Virginia.  Wind farms would also be a very important tool for cleanly and cost-effectively helping Virginia meet the requirements of the EPA’s Clean Power Plan.”

Virginia’s first wind farm is expected to be Apex Clean Energy’s 75-MW Rocky Forge project in Botetourt County, which the company projects to have operational in 2017. Tyson Utt, Apex’s Director of Development for the Mid-Atlantic, told me, “The extension of the PTC will enable the facility to charge less for the energy it produces, saving electricity consumers money.” And, he added, “The project will be built on private land with private investment and will help diversify Virginia’s energy mix while injecting millions into the local economy.”

Apex also has a second wind farm of up to 180 MW under development in Pulaski County, scheduled for completion in 2017 or 2018.

Utt agrees the wind industry won’t need incentives for long to compete with fossil fuels. “The PTC exists to help level the playing field for renewable energy, relative to legacy generation sources that have benefited from permanent subsidies for decades. That said, renewable energy is becoming so economically competitive on its own that the industry now feels comfortable accepting a phase out of the PTC over the next five years, and the tax extenders package that just passed through congress does exactly this. Of course, wind energy offers additional benefits that are not currently reflected in our incentive structure, including the ability to generate electricity without producing carbon dioxide or consuming water. We expect that as our nation moves towards the recognition that there should be a price placed on carbon, wind energy will become even more competitive with conventional generation sources.”

[UPDATE: on January 6, the Associated Press reported that Appalachian Power is seeking to buy up to 150 MW of wind power through direct ownership or long-term power purchase agreements.]

In addition to the tax credit extensions for wind and solar, Congress passed other clean energy incentives that have gotten less attention. Scott Sklar, President of the Arlington-based Stella Group, Ltd. and an adjunct professor at George Washington University, noted that other renewable technologies also qualified for tax credits, and a tax deduction for energy efficiency improvements in commercial buildings was renewed. He also pointed to provisions in the Highway Authorization Act passed into law this month that favor renewable energy. As a result, he told me, “The end-of-year passage by Congress of extensions for the entire portfolio of energy efficiency and renewable energy, coupled with the infrastructure incentives for renewable energy in the highway bill, will more than double private investment into these sectors over the next six years.”

Sklar is bullish on clean energy. “With expanding markets, allowing these technologies to-scale even further, will insure electric grid and fuel parity before 2020, and also insure that renewable energy and energy efficiency will become the dominant energy provider both in the US and the world.”

I should note, though, that not everyone was entirely happy with Congress last week. Though they lauded the tax credit extensions, environmental groups including the Sierra Club opposed the lifting of the oil export ban that Republicans demanded in return. Exporting American crude oil, they fear, will lead to more drilling in the U.S. and higher oil consumption worldwide, further driving climate change. And while wind and solar compete head-to-head with the biggest climate culprit, coal, currently they offer little competition for oil in the transportation sector.

But with a world-wide oil glut that shows no signs of easing, observers including Sklar think lifting the export ban won’t have much effect in the near term. The extension of the renewable energy tax credits, on the other hand, will help push clean energy pricing to a point where wind and solar dominate the market for new electricity generation. According to an analysis by the Council on Foreign Relations, “Extension of the tax credits will do far more to reduce carbon dioxide emissions over the next five years than lifting the export ban will do to increase them.”

So it’s easy to see coal as the biggest loser here, but Big Oil shouldn’t feel too smug. As battery storage becomes more affordable and electric cars gain market share, wind and solar will begin to displace oil, too. The future, my friends, belongs to clean energy.

Here’s to 2016!


*The astute reader may wonder how the Governor persuaded Dominion to allow it to buy electricity from third-party providers in spite of Dominion’s tireless defense of its monopoly on electricity sales and its reluctance to allow other customers to use PPAs outside the narrow confines of a pilot program. Unlike most of us, the state purchases power from Dominion under a contract, rather than under a tariff overseen by the State Corporation Commission. So allowing the state to use PPAs required negotiating a change to the contract but does not have immediate ramifications for lesser folk. But still: at some point, doesn’t it become obvious that restrictions on PPAs are simply holding the market back?

And even all you astute readers may not have thought to ask: when the state buys solar electricity from Dominion or third parties, who will own the RECs? After all, it is not the guy with the solar system on his roof who can legally claim to be using solar energy, but the guy holding the renewable energy certificates (RECs) associated with that energy. If the state wants to brag about meeting its new goal of 8% of its electricity from solar, it had better hold the RECs to prove it—and not, for example, allow Dominion to sell the RECs to a Pennsylvania utility or to the voluntary participants of its Green Power Program. When I asked Deputy Secretary of Commerce Hayes Framme about this, however, he said the question of who will own the RECs “has yet to be determined.”

Is a Green Power program worth your money?

Photo credit: Neep at the English Language Wikipedia.

Photo credit: Neep at the English Language Wikipedia, via Wikimedia Commons.

Most people who install renewable energy systems on their property do so at least partly to save money on their electricity bill. Yet more than 30,000 Virginians have shown they will pay more on their electricity bills for a product labeled as green energy, with no hope of ever recovering their investment. These are the participants in Dominion Virginia Power’s voluntary Green Power Program. The size and growth rate of this program don’t mean it’s a good option (it’s not), but it does demonstrate the huge consumer appetite for wind and solar in a state that offers little of it.

In the last couple of years, other companies have created their own renewable energy products to compete with Dominion’s and other utility programs. They typically offer 100% wind power (Arcadia Power and Groundswell) or a mix of wind and other renewables (e.g., 3Degrees, which is Dominion’s broker, but which also sells RECs directly). The companies often partner with environmental groups that help recruit residential customers in return for a donation. Recently the Sierra Club announced it had entered into a partnership with Arcadia.

I’ve been skeptical of the value of voluntary REC products offered to Virginia consumers. I’d rather see people install their own solar; or if they can’t do that, to contribute directly to a solar installation on a local church, school or low-income housing unit, or use their influence as alumni donors to goad their alma maters into installing renewable energy on campus. But with the numbers of green power participants growing, and my own favorite environmental group now promoting one of them, it seems like a good time to revisit the question: is it worth spending your money on a green power program?

Arcadia and other programs share certain elements with Dominion’s Green Power Program: you continue to buy the same conventional “brown” power you always have, but in addition you are billed a premium that goes to buy renewable energy certificates (RECs), as well as pay the broker. The RECs represent renewable energy generated—and used—somewhere else, often not in the same state or even the same region.

In other states, green power programs often sell RECs “bundled” with the underlying power. But in Virginia, only your own utility will sell you power, and for reasons I can’t fathom, our utilities don’t offer renewable energy. So the best you can do is buy RECs.

Buying RECs is supposed to give you a claim to the renewable energy they represent. Obviously, that’s a stretch if you live in Virginia and the RECs you buy come from a wind farm in Indiana, or if you’re buying RECs from solar panels installed on someone else’s roof. Participating in a green power program can require a certain suspension of disbelief.

At best, buying RECs through a green power program supports a market for renewable energy. Ideally, the money would incentivize new projects, but it doesn’t always work that way. A developer can’t count income from RECs when it looks for project financing unless it has a long-term contract with a buyer for the RECs; so for new projects to go forward without such long-term contracts, they have to make financial sense without the RECs. In that case, the REC sales are simply a nice addition to the bottom line.

Arcadia says it hopes to grow to a point where it can contract with a wind developer for the RECs from a new wind farm, but meanwhile it buys RECs from existing projects.

This is not a problem in states that have good Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS). Those laws create REC markets that support new renewable energy development within their borders (and occasionally from other states). RECs in RPS states command higher prices in long-term contracts.*

As it happens, though, the best wind is often in conservative western or Midwestern states that lack RPS laws or have weak goals. So these green power programs can be seen as a way for good-hearted liberals to send money to red states. Admittedly, that may not be quite what they intended.

Even if they know all this, some people sign up for these programs anyway—either to send a message to their utility that they want cleaner electricity and are willing to pay for it, or for the psychological value of offsetting their fossil fuel consumption. For these people, there are reasons to prefer the Arcadia or Groundswell program to Dominion’s:

  • Arcadia uses 100% wind power. Dominion uses a mix of resources, including 29% biomass. The web site is not clear about what this means; it references landfill gas and agricultural biogas, neither of which are usually considered biomass. Environmentalists have concerns about using biomass (specially grown crops or, more commonly, wood from trees) for a number of reasons that include pollution and sustainability issues.
  • Dominion’s program costs subscribers 1.3 cents/kWh. At least in past years, approximately half of the money collected was spent on overhead and promotion. Arcadia’s program costs subscribers 1.2 cents/kWh. I have been unable to determine how much of that goes for program costs.
  • When you sign up for Arcadia, the company takes over your billing from Dominion. You receive bills directly from Arcadia. That sends a signal to Dominion that its customers want renewable energy, but don’t want to participate in Dominion’s greenwashing.

Of course, these programs only exist because our utilities have been so slow to incorporate wind and solar into Virginia’s energy mix. The solution is to let consumers buy wind and solar directly from producers anywhere in the state—a choice that is forbidden to them now—and ultimately, to create a 21st century energy economy based on sustainable and renewable energy.

The climate crisis makes that an urgent priority for everyone. We won’t achieve it if we merely rely only on volunteers.


*An interesting question is what will happen to the voluntary REC market when the Clean Power Plan kicks in. Electricity from new renewable energy projects will acquire a higher value when coal-heavy states have to start buying Emission Rate Credits (ERCs). The EPA stresses that ERCs are not the same as RECs, but most of us would say that if one buyer holds the ERC and another the REC from the same unit of energy, something has gone very wrong.


Why can’t I buy solar?

photoEvery year, on the first weekend in October, homeowners and businesses across the U.S. open their doors to a special kind of tourist: the solar wannabe. The American Solar Energy Society’s annual Solar Tour features homes with solar PV and hot water, along with an assortment of “green living” features that inspire envy and emulation.

Envy especially, I’m here to tell you. My home in the Northern Virginia suburbs is surrounded by beautiful mature trees that provide shade for my house, cooling for the neighborhood, carbon sequestration for the planet, and food for an abundance of insects, birds and other wildlife. What it doesn’t provide is a sunny place on the roof for solar panels. So when I go to houses on the DC Metro area tour, it’s a teeth-gritting experience.

I’m hardly alone. Less than a quarter of residents can install solar panels at their homes. The rest either have shade or other siting issues, or they are renters, or they live in condominiums where they don’t control the roof and common areas. That leaves the vast majority of us solar wannabes with nowhere to turn.

Some states let customers choose their electricity suppliers, which means they can select one that will supply them with renewable energy. But Virginia upholds the rights of monopolists to control our electricity supply. And my local monopolist, Dominion Virginia Power, sells only one electricity product: a mix of coal, nuclear, and natural gas, with barely a smidgen of stuff the legislature considers renewable (mainly wood trucked in from forests and burned).

I could subscribe to Dominion’s Green Power Program, but I’d still get the exact same dirty power. I’d just be paying extra for renewable energy certificates (RECs), mostly from wind farms in other states.

RECs don’t do it for me. Adding money to my utility bill for RECs is about as satisfying as buying a gallon of ordinary milk and adding a dollar extra to know that a buyer in Indiana paid for ordinary milk but got organic. Maybe both milks taste the same, but that’s not the point.

No, if I’m buying RECs, I want them to come attached to actual, Virginia-made wind or solar power. I know I’m not alone; the 20,000 people who have signed up for the Green Power Program, plus those who buy from other REC sellers like Pear and Arcadia, are proof that if Dominion cared to build wind or solar, it would find a ready market.

But it hasn’t. And Dominion also refuses to let the private market do the job. I’ve been approached by would-be solar developers who ask why they can’t put a solar array on unproductive farmland and sell the power to people like me. When that happens I swoon with delight for a moment, then glumly point them to the experience of Washington and Lee University three years ago. The university wanted to buy solar from a project on its campus but owned by a developer. Dominion came down on them like a ton of bricks, claiming a violation of its monopoly.

Dominion also opposes allowing customers to pool their money for a shared solar project, like an array on one house that could provide electricity for two or more. Sometimes called community net metering or solar gardens, and a growing trend in other states, shared solar unleashes the power of private investment by freeing up customers to build and own solar together and get credit on their utility bills for their percentage of the electricity the project puts on the grid. Imagine how much new economic activity we could create this way, and how much clean generation we could build, without state government mandates or subsidies.

There are thousands of Virginians like me who want renewable energy and are willing to pay for it. If our utilities don’t want to build it, they should step aside and let customers do it.

What the heck is a REC? Renewable Electricity Certificates, Renewable Portfolio Standards, and why it all matters anyway

More than 30 states have Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS) to increase the amount of renewable energy their residents use. Renewable energy does not always cost more than conventional energy, but when it does, renewable energy certificates (RECs) may provide the means for making up the cost difference. Whether RPS laws work well, or whether they cost their residents money without providing a value, depends on how well the laws are written. Policy makers, industry watchdogs, and the public all need a basic understanding of how RPS laws and the REC markets work to ensure that the laws are actually serving the public.

So what the heck is a REC?

“REC” stands for “renewable energy certificate.” A REC is a way to monetize the environmental attributes of energy from a renewable resource, so the extra value can be bought and sold independent of the electrons that form the energy itself.

We’ll use an example to make it easier to understand. Say you want to put solar panels on your roof, but you can’t because your house is shaded by tall trees. So you go to your neighbor with the sunny location next door and tell her that if she will put solar panels on her roof, you will buy the electricity from her. You work out a deal, call a solar installer, and soon she’s got a solar array that produces, on average, exactly the amount of electricity your house uses. [1]

As it happens, though, you can’t buy the actual solar energy her panels are producing. That electricity is powering her house, and any excess electricity is feeding into the grid through her meter. Once power is in the grid, it’s all just electrons. The electrons don’t look different whether they come from a coal plant or a wind farm or a solar array. So there is no way to identify and claim the specific electrons that come on the grid from specific solar panels.

What you can buy from your neighbor is the right to say you’re running your house on solar energy, up to whatever amount of power her solar panels produce. This is the essence of a renewable energy certificate. A REC doesn’t represent electricity, but rather the extra value to society of that electricity having been produced by solar panels. So you continue to buy your electricity off the grid from your utility, and then you pay your neighbor something extra for the RECs. You are not actually using solar power, but you are paying for the right to say you are.

Chances are, there won’t be any actual paper certificates involved. You will simply have a contract with your neighbor that states how much you’re paying her per kilowatt-hour. Your contract would also prevent her from making the same deal with any other neighbor, double-dipping by selling the RECs twice.

It is a short step from there to creating a whole market for RECs as a commodity. If you were to stop buying your neighbor’s RECs, she could sell them to someone else, perhaps a “green” business that wanted to say it was running its store on solar power. The price would depend on supply and demand for renewable energy in your area.

What’s a REC got to do with an RPS?

Now let’s scale up our example and add utilities to the story. Your state, it turns out, has a Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS), a law that tells utilities that they must obtain a certain percentage of their power from renewable sources. Utilities that own their own generation sources may choose to invest in wind, solar, biomass, or other renewable generation facilities, depending on what the law defines as renewable. Utilities that don’t own their own generation, or that can’t produce enough renewable electricity, have to buy that power from others.

This is where RECs come in. When the utility offers to buy renewable power from someone who is generating it, it will want to buy the RECs as well. Buying the RECs allows the utility to demonstrate its compliance with RPS targets. Indeed, in some states, RECs are the only measure of compliance.

If the utility has to go beyond its own service area to find enough renewable energy, the RECs can take on a life of their own as they get bought and sold independently of the power generated. If the state RPS law allows it, a utility could even buy RECs from a renewable power facility that isn’t part of the same regional transmission grid. In that case, the facility sells the power to its local utility, and sells the RECs to the utility that needs them for its RPS obligations. There is no longer any connection between the electricity and its renewable attributes.

The problem with separating RECs from the energy itself

The REC market is important for making an RPS work, and it makes sense when the power generated is within the state that sets the RPS. But when a utility goes beyond the borders of a state, or even of its own service area, to buy RECs, the usefulness of the program to ratepayers declines, and the likelihood of double-counting and confusion increases.

Let’s go back to our example of the two houses. You have a contract with your neighbor to buy the RECs from her solar panels. Buying the RECs gives you the right to say you are powering your home with solar power. But here’s the rub: now that you’ve bought her RECs, she doesn’t have the right to say she is powering her home with solar, even though the panels are on her house. After all, you can’t both claim the same solar power, right?

You can see how easy it would be for double-counting to occur. She has the solar panels, you have the RECs, but there’s only one house’s worth of solar being produced.

Now let’s scale up again to the utility level, where it can get really weird. No two states have the same RPS laws. Some states have strict requirements for what counts as renewable, some have looser requirements, and some have no RPS at all. Utilities want to spend as little as possible to meet their requirements, so they may buy and sell RECs to make sure that the most expensive RECs (usually from solar power) are being used to meet only the toughest standards. If a state doesn’t have a minimum requirement for solar, the utility will try to sell any solar RECs it’s holding to a utility in another state that requires solar, and then buy cheaper RECs (perhaps from landfill gas or older hydroelectric projects) to satisfy its own state’s less-stringent requirements.

The result is just like the example of the two houses: a utility might own a big wind farm or a giant solar array, but if the state has no RPS or only a weak one, it will sell the RECs from that wind or solar facility to utilities in states that do have strong RPS laws. The utility that buys the RECs buys the right to claim that it is providing its customers with renewable energy. The utility that sells the RECs has sold the right to make that same claim. It may own a wind farm, and power from it may flow through its wires, but legally, it’s just selling electrons.

This is not just a theoretical problem. Dominion Virginia Power does precisely this when it advertises its West Virginia wind farms as producing power for Virginia. In fact, it sells the RECs to utilities in other states that have tougher RPS laws than Virginia’s. In this case, Virginia is getting neither the benefit of the wind jobs nor the right to say it is using renewable energy.  Meanwhile, the ratepayers in the state with the tougher RPS, who pay for those RECs, are getting the bragging rights and paying the bill, but they are not seeing the clean energy jobs that the RPS incentivizes. Only West Virginia gets those jobs, along with the actual wind farms.

The ratepayers are like the owners of the two houses. People in the state where the renewable energy is produced may think they are getting renewable energy, but so do the people in the state whose utility is buying the RECs. Customers in the state with the tough RPS are paying for the renewable energy to be produced, but the benefits—jobs, economic development and cleaner air—go to the state where the project is. They are told they are buying renewable energy, but if they understand what is happening, they might well feel like chumps.

What does a good RPS look like?

The problem we just described is why a well-crafted RPS will limit out-of-state RECs purchased separately from the power itself.[2] It is in the interest of ratepayers to create a market for renewable energy in their own area, so jobs are created close to home, and so nearby dirty energy sources are displaced by clean energy, resulting in healthier air and cleaner streams and rivers.

An effective RPS will also include “carve-outs” (minimum levels) for higher-value types of renewable energy like wind and solar that may cost more to produce than biomass, landfill gas, or hydro. Creating demand for wind and solar supports higher prices and can make a project economically feasible when it wouldn’t be otherwise. Again, stimulating these investments means jobs and economic development in the state as well as cleaner air and water when older, dirtier facilities are shut down.

The worst RPS laws are ones that allow RECs from energy that isn’t really renewable (like coal-bed methane), from projects that don’t actually produce energy (like research and development), or that would be produced anyway (like energy from facilities that pre-date the RPS law). Giving credit for these kinds of power devalues the RECs from new and truly renewable projects and undercuts the economic incentives that can make new investments in renewable energy possible.

What does this mean for policy-makers and the public?

There are two main lessons from all this:

  1. Don’t be fooled by appearances. If your state’s RPS can be met with out-of-state RECs from old hydro plants, don’t assume it’s being met with energy from that new wind farm or utility-scale solar array you’ve been reading about here in your state. Those RECs are being sold somewhere else. The only way to find out what you’re paying for in your state’s RPS is to require your utilities to disclose the sources it is using—and then check.
  1. Looser requirements are not better. A kitchen-sink approach to what qualifies as renewable energy ends up being counter-productive because the cheapest sources will always be chosen over higher-quality projects.

Mandatory vs. voluntary RPS lawsIn most states, the RPS is mandatory; utilities that don’t meet the targets are fined by means of an “alternative compliance payment.” In Virginia, which has a “voluntary” RPS, utilities are free to decide whether they want to participate in the program. There is no fine for failing to meet the goals; instead, utilities are rewarded for meeting them, by being allowed to earn a significantly greater profit on their sales of electricity. Since this means charging ratepayers more, this voluntary RPS will cost ratepayers more than a mandatory RPS for the same amount of renewable energy incentivized.

Virginia’s all-carrot, no-stick approach ensures that no utility declines to participate because it costs them nothing to do so (all the costs of compliance are passed through to the consumers), while generating bonus money. The “voluntary” nature of the program is therefore meaningless—and after all, it is mandatory for the ratepayers.

Conclusion: Caveat ratepayer!

Mandatory RPS laws, requirements that the energy be produced in state or that RECs come “bundled” with the energy they represent, stricter standards for what counts as renewable, and carve-outs for wind and solar all produce the most value for the residents who are paying the bills.

Done right, RPS laws and RECs can lead to more renewable energy, job growth, economic development, and a healthier environment for all. But poorly-crafted laws do a disservice to ratepayers and fail at their central purpose. Policy-makers and the public must act like smart consume

[1] Your neighbor will likely enter into a “net-metering” arrangement with your utility, under which she feeds extra power into the grid on sunny days but draws electricity off the grid at night and on cloudy days. Most states now have laws allowing net-metering, but details differ.

[2] Although states are increasingly limiting their RPS programs to in-state RECs, there is some question whether doing so, at least for mandatory programs, could violate the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution. See, e.g., Elefant and Holt, “The Commerce Clause and Implications for State Renewable Portfolio Standard Programs.” Clean Energy States Alliance, March 2011.