Virginia renewables report shows huge solar gains in 2017

The Virginia Renewable Energy Alliance (VA-REA) says Virginia had a total of 570 megawatts (MW) of solar installed at the end of 2017, well over twice the 176 MW we had at the end of 2016. VA-REA projects the industry will add another 376 MW in 2018.

The numbers are included in VA-REA’s “2017 Development Report,” which also summarizes other aspects of renewable energy development in the past year. The report is available on the group’s website.

VA-REA members include companies from the solar, wind, and other renewable energy industries in Virginia, as well as utilities, some environmental groups, and other advocates.

As we head into the General Assembly session beginning this Wednesday, the strong showing by the solar industry in 2017 should give added momentum to the raft of pro-solar bills we hear are in the works. So far most have not yet been filed, but I will be posting about them when they reach a critical mass.

Moving to block competition, Dominion files its own sort-of-green energy tariff

Just a couple of the great things that count as “renewable energy” in the Virginia Code.

Dominion Virginia Power has filed for permission from the State Corporation Commission (SCC) to offer a 100% renewable energy tariff to commercial and industrial customers with peak loads of over 1,000 kilowatts. In a footnote, Dominion states that it intends to propose a similar tariff for residential customers in the future. The case is PUR-2017-0060.

Customers who want only carbon-free energy like wind and solar will likely be disappointed. Dominion intends to use a “portfolio of resources” that will include “dispatchable resources”—i.e., hydropower and stuff that can be burned. Dominion promises the sources it uses will meet Virginia’s definition of renewable. That’s not reassuring. Under Virginia law, renewable energy can include sources like landfill gas and municipal solid waste, as well as “biomass, sustainable or otherwise (the definitions of which shall be liberally construed).”

Dominion’s filing comes scarcely one month after an SCC decision confirmed the right of independent renewable energy provider Direct Energy to offer its products to Dominion customers, but only so long as Dominion lacks its own green tariff for those customers. The SCC order (explained here) made clear that under Virginia law, a competitor like Direct Energy would be blocked from taking on new customers once Dominion has an approved tariff.

Dominion’s filing looks suspiciously like an effort to cut Direct Energy off at the knees. If the upstart competitor follows through with its plans to offer Virginia residents a renewable energy option, Dominion will surely propose a residential renewable energy tariff. SCC approval of Dominion’s tariff would shut out Direct Energy, which is targeting only residential consumers for its product. Under the language of the Code, it does not appear to matter whether a competitor can offer a better product, or a better price.

For the moment, Direct Energy is not backing down. The company has set up a web page to gauge the interest of residential consumers while it deliberates its next move. Ron Cerniglia, Director of Corporate and Regulatory Affairs for the Mid-Atlantic Region, told me he thinks the timing of Dominion’s filing is “curious,” given that “Dominion has had ten years to file a renewable energy tariff and hasn’t. We’re concerned about the implications of limiting choice for consumers. We don’t know if the move will actually offer a choice consumers want, or if it is just closing doors on others.”

Indeed, ten years have passed since Virginia enacted its current utility law, which includes the right of a customer to “purchase electric energy provided 100 percent from renewable energy” from another supplier if its own utility isn’t offering it. During most of that time, Dominion has sold Renewable Energy Certificates to customers under its “Green Power Program,” but it has never offered residential customers an opportunity to buy actual renewable energy. (See “Is a Green Power program worth your money?”)

This is slated to change as the utility works with the solar industry on implementing a new solar option under legislation passed this year. However, the new law specifies that the solar option will not count as a tariff for “electric energy provided 100 percent from renewable energy,” so it does not block competitive offerings like Direct Energy’s.

Dominion was agreeable to excluding the solar program because it interprets the Code’s reference to “electric energy provided 100% from renewable electricity” to mean the electricity must come from renewables 100% of the time, an interpretation almost no one else shares.

This seems to be the reason Dominion intends to include carbon-emitting sources into its renewable energy offering, even though it’s safe to say there are no customers clamoring to get their electricity from garbage or the clear-cutting of forests. It also means the new tariff will likely be priced higher than one that included only solar, because electricity from biomass is more expensive today than harvesting the sun. (No word from Dominion on why it doesn’t just assign a portion of its pumped storage capacity to serve an all-wind-and-solar product.)

But if customers want only wind and solar, they are also likely to be disappointed in Direct Energy’s product. Cerniglia says his company includes baseload sources like “cleaner biomass” in its renewable energy product to provide 24/7 power. He estimated that the initial mixture would consist of “50% to 60% municipal waste biomass (Pennsylvania and Virginia sourced) and 40% to 50% wind (Pennsylvania sourced) . . . We are also committing to not utilize virgin wood / clear cut wood biomass in our product mix at any time.”

Direct Energy also has not determined the pricing of its product yet, but Cerniglia said it would be “equal to or lower than what Dominion Virginia Power residential customers pay for ‘brown’ power.”

Perhaps most importantly, he noted, “The benefit of a competitive market is that customers can leave us at any time. They’re not captive.”

 

Update: On June 21, a Hearing Examiner for the SCC recommended rejection of a similar application for a renewable energy tariff filed last year by Appalachian Power. See my discussion here for how this may affect Dominion’s application. 

Dominion Power promises huge solar investments and a lower carbon footprint—or does it?

Dominion Virginia Power says energy from solar farms is now a low-cost option. Photo credit Kanadaurlauber.

Dominion Virginia Power released its updated Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) this week with a press release that promised thousands of megawatts (MW) of new solar power and a dramatically lower carbon footprint. In a remarkable turnabout, the Executive Summary declares, “The Company must now prepare for a future in which solar PV generation can become a major contributor to the Company’s overall energy mix.”

Alas, a closer look reveals Dominion will actually increase its carbon emissions over the period studied. Meanwhile, the solar would be built at a rate of only 240 MW per year over the 15-year period covered by the IRP, about the same amount being installed in Virginia this year. (Over 25 years, Dominion says its solar could reach 5,200 MW, which means the pace of installation would actually drop in the out years.) That should elicit yawns, not excitement.

The solar numbers pale in comparison to the more than 4,600 MW of new natural gas combined-cycle plants Dominion has been building just in this decade. (Remember that solar farms generate electricity at about 20-25% of “nameplate” capacity on average, while combined-cycle gas plants nationally average 50-60%, and can achieve 70% or higher.*) And even come 2032, the new solar will make up only a tiny fraction of a generation portfolio that consists almost entirely of coal, gas and nuclear.

I’ll be interested to see the numbers analyzed, but my guess is that all the renewable energy Dominion proposes to build over the next 15 years represents no more than 5-10% of its total electric generation. That’s too little, too late, in a state that can do so much better.

So the more things change, the more Dominion stays the same. Behind the hype being offered to the press stands a utility that is still committed to fossil fuels and nuclear power.

Virginia utilities file IRPs with the State Corporation Commission (SCC) every year. The plans are supposed to reflect the utilities’ best sense of how they will meet consumers’ needs for electricity while complying with state and federal laws and policies. This involves some guesswork about the direction of future regulations, including regulations of CO2 emissions.

In spite of President Trump’s determination to roll back climate protections while he is in office, Dominion’s IRP assumes an eventual price on carbon. Most utilities nationwide are doing the same thing. But given the uncertainties, Dominion has chosen (as it did last year) to model different scenarios instead of committing to a single plan.

Even the low-cost plan that wouldn’t comply with the EPA Clean Power Plan contains just as much solar as the other plans, reflecting the company’s assessment (on page 3) that solar is now “cost-competitive with other more traditional forms of generation, such as combined-cycle natural gas.”

Yet the carbon reductions Dominion promises in its press release appear to be something of a sleight-of-hand. For one thing, Dominion has chosen to compare its CO2 output in 2032 to its output in 2007, not 2017. CO2 emissions were markedly higher in 2007 than now, with the shale gas boom and the rise of renewables leading to massive coal retirements in the interim.

Moreover, a careful reading of the press release reveals the reductions Dominion promises are per-capita, not overall. A chart on page 115 of Dominion’s IRP shows every one of the scenarios Dominion studied will actually increase the company’s total CO2 emissions between now and 2042.

That reality exasperates climate activists. Glen Besa, former Director of the Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club, comments, “The only impression you could have reading Dominion’s release was that it was making dramatic reductions in carbon pollution, which obviously is not the case.”

CO2 emissions would not increase if Dominion were simply shutting down coal and building more solar. But all of the alternative scenarios Dominion models for its IRP contain more gas plants: at least another 1,374 MW of gas combustion turbines in all plans, and 1,591 MW of combined cycle gas in some scenarios. Combustion turbines are more flexible than combined-cycle plants and so are better for meeting spikes in demand and integrating renewable energy like solar, but while they run less often, they are typically higher-polluting. Many utilities are using demand response or installing battery storage instead; Dominion appears to prefer gas.

All this gas means higher CO2 output. Not incidentally, burning more gas also means more business for Dominion’s parent corporation, Dominion Resources (soon to be known as Dominion Energy), which is heavily invested in gas transmission. And crucially, Dominion Energy needs more gas power plants to justify building the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. So building more gas plants serves the interests of Dominion’s affiliates, not its customers.

The problem with building new gas plants is that it lowers carbon only so far compared to coal, and then you’re stuck at that level for the life of the gas plants, unless you’re willing to abandon them early. That’s why any utility that’s serious about protecting ratepayers from stranded costs has to invest in wind, solar, energy efficiency and storage, not natural gas.

Speaking of wind, the IRP includes the 12 MW pilot project known as VOWTAP in all of the plans, even though Dominion lost millions of dollars in federal funding when it would not commit to building the two test turbines by 2020, three years past the original deadline. But none of the scenarios studied include any land-based wind, and none include a build-out of the federal offshore wind energy area Dominion bought the rights to, which could support at least 2,000 MW of offshore wind power. This is a strange omission given that Dominion continues to include a scenario in which it would build the world’s most expensive nuclear reactor, known as North Anna 3.

Polls consistently show overwhelming public support for renewable energy. Yet right now, ordinary Virginia ratepayers have no access to renewable energy unless they put solar on their own rooftop. Corporations like Amazon Web Services and Microsoft account for the bulk of the solar energy being installed in Virginia, with most of the remaining going to the military, state government, universities, and schools.

So 3,200 MW over 15 years won’t even begin to satisfy consumer demand. North Carolina installed almost 1,000 MW last year; I’d like to see Dominion set that as an annual target, bringing it up to the 15,000 MW over 15 years it modeled for last year’s IRP (before hiding the encouraging results from pubic view). Round out the solar with other cost-effective clean energy options, and we will see the kind of carbon reductions that don’t have to be fudged in a press release.


*On page 88 of the IRP, Dominion provides it own capacity factor forecasts: solar 25%, combined cycle gas 70%, gas combustion turbines 10%, nuclear 96%, onshore wind 42%, offshore wind 42%. The chart does not include a number for coal.

Virginia General Assembly session opens. What can we expect?

Photo credit: Corrina Beall

Photo credit: Corrina Beall

The General Assembly failed to act on clean energy bills in 2016, but as the 2017 legislative session gets underway, advocates hope the delay will have only increased pressure for progress this year.

New energy legislation includes the four bills negotiated over the summer by the utilities and the solar industry promoting utility, community-scale, and agricultural renewable energy projects. The “Rubin Group” (named for facilitator Mark Rubin) brought together utilities, the solar industry trade group MDV-SEIA, and a group called Powered by Facts, but largely excluded environmental and consumer interests. Not surprisingly, the resulting bills are heavily weighted towards utility-scale solar, and utility control of solar in general.

But if the chairmen of House and Senate Commerce and Labor thought the Rubin Group’s work would mean no one else would float new renewable energy bills, they were certainly wrong.

Community-scale solar. I’ve previously addressed the Rubin Group’s legislation that enables a utility-administered, community-scale program to sell solar to participants on a voluntary basis. I see Senator Wagner will be carrying the bill in the Senate, now designated SB 1393. I haven’t had time to compare the current bill to the draft previously shared with stakeholders, but I’m cautiously optimistic that it will produce a viable solar option for consumers. Even better would be HB 2112 from Delgate Keam and SB 1208 from Senator Wexton, which authorize a broader set of community solar models. Delegate Krizek’s solar gardens bill, HB 618, also authorizes shared solar.

Utility-scale solar. Another bill from the Rubin Group, SB 1395 (Wagner), would raise from 100 MW to 150 MW the size of wind and solar projects that qualify as “small renewable energy projects” subject to Permit By Rule (PBR) permitting by DEQ, and allowing utilities to use that process for facilities that won’t be rate-based. In contrast, Senator Deeds’ SB 1197 would undo much of the streamlining gained by the PBR process, sending projects to the SCC if they either disturb an area of 100 acres or more or are within five miles of a boundary between political subdivisions.

The third Rubin Group bill, Wagner’s SB 1388, would allow utilities to earn a margin when they obtain solar energy via power purchase agreements with (lower cost) third-party developers rather than building projects themselves.

Senator Marsden’s SB 813 exempts investor-owned utilities from the requirement that they consider alternative options, including third-party market alternatives, when building solar facilities that have been declared in the public interest. This is surely an attempt to smooth the way for utility-owned solar at the SCC. However, if you’re trying to get utilities to keep costs down by using third-party installers, this is the wrong incentive.

Agricultural net metering. The last bill from the Rubin Group, Senator Wagner’s SB 1394, would revoke the recently enacted code provisions that allow agricultural customers to attribute electricity from a renewable energy facility to more than one meter on their property for the purposes of net metering. The proposed legislation would terminate this provision in 2018 (grandfathering existing net metering customers for 20 years) and instead offer farmers a buy-all, sell-all option for their renewable production.

Under the proposed bill, negotiated between the utilities and Powered by Facts, farmers would have to buy all their (dirty) power from their utility at retail, and sell their renewable power to the utility at the utility’s avoided cost—essentially wholesale. This doesn’t sound like a good deal for the farmers, but we’re told it more or less pencils out. On the plus side, the bill would allow farmers to build up to 1.5 megawatts of renewable capacity on up to 25% of their land, or up to 150% of the amount of electricity they use, whichever is less, which is more than they can under today’s rules. (But since federal law allows anyone to sell power they produce from a qualifying facility into the grid at avoided cost, even this part of the bill is of dubious added benefit.)

Regardless, removing the net metering option seems both unnecessary and unwise; many farmers specifically want to run their farms on solar, for marketing reasons or otherwise, and taking away their ability to aggregate meters and use net metering will be viewed as a serious setback.

The first draft of this bill that I had seen contained a provision that projects under the new program would apply against the state’s 1% cap on total net metering output, even though the projects would not be net metered. Fortunately, I don’t see that in the current version. [Update: this provision does appear in the version of the bill reported out of the Senate subcommittee on January 27, presenting a reason sufficient in itself to oppose the legislation.]

An agricultural bill that is more readily supportable is Senator Edwards’ SB 917, which eases the rules for agricultural customer-generators and increases the size of projects that can qualify for meter aggregation under the net metering statute. It also extends the law to include small hydro projects.

PPAs. Two bills attempt to resolve the ongoing dispute over customers’ rights to use third-party power purchase agreements for their on-site renewable facilities. Delegate Toscano’s HB 1800 essentially reiterates what solar advocates believe to be existing law allowing on-site PPAs, but—as a peace offering to utilities—narrows it to exclude residential customers. Senator Edwards’ SB 918 takes a different approach, replacing the Dominion PPA pilot program with a permanent statewide program to be designed by the State Corporation Commission.

Tax credits. Delegate Hugo’s HB 1891 provides a tax credit for residents who install geothermal heat pumps—a nice idea, but it will face tough sledding in a tight budget year. That budget reality could also doom Delegate Sullivan’s HB 1632, offering a broader renewable energy property tax credit (it would include geothermal heat pumps).

In spite of the current budget deficit, Republicans are making a new attempt to reinstate taxpayer subsidies for coal mining companies (Delegate Kilgore’s HB 2198). Delegate Morefield’s HB 1917 takes a better approach, offering a new tax credit for “capital investment in an energy production facility in the coalfield region.” This is worth watching, as it is not limited to coal facilities but applies to any facility that has “the primary purpose of producing energy for sale.”

Climate. Republicans seem inclined to make a renewed attack on the EPA’s Clean Power Plan (Delegate O’Quinn’s HB 1974), even though Trump’s election seems likely to send it to an early grave. This probable fate inspired Senator Petersen’s SB 1095, which says that if and when the Clean Power Plan is really declared dead, then the notorious “rate-freeze” imposed two years ago will end. As readers know, that law (Wagner’s SB 1349 from the 2015 session), will allow Dominion to keep an estimated $1 billion in excess revenues; at the time, Dominion said the law was needed to protect its customers from rate hikes required by compliance with the Clean Power Plan. Unfortunately the condition in Petersen’s bill doesn’t seem likely to kick in for at least a year or two, and possibly more; we’d prefer to see the legislation revoke the freeze immediately, and put the ill-gotten gains to use as a massive stimulus package supporting clean energy jobs.

On the flip side, Delegate Villanueva is gamely making another run at getting Virginia to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (HB 2018) as a way to change utility incentives and raise money for climate adaptation and clean energy.

Nuclear. Delegate Kilgore has introduced HB 2291, a bill to make it easier for Dominion Virginia Power to stick ratepayers with the costs of any upgrades it makes to its nuclear power plants. The bill further attacks and undermines the SCC’s authority to determine whether expenses are reasonable, the sort of favor to Dominion that has become a theme in recent years. Kilgore doesn’t even represent any Dominion customers; he’s in APCo territory. I guess that’s why he’s okay with raising rates for Dominion customers.

Energy efficiency. Efficiency bills suffered the same fate as renewable energy bills last year; many were offered, but few were chosen. (Actually, it might have been none. We don’t do much energy efficiency in Virginia.)

Delegate Sullivan is trying again to set energy efficiency goals with HB 1703, or at the very least to have government track our progress towards meeting (or rather, not meeting) the state’s existing goal, with HB 1465. He is also trying again to change how the SCC evaluates energy efficiency programs to make them easier to implement (HB 1636). Senator Dance’s SB 990 also sets an energy consumption reduction goal.

Delegate Krizek’s HJ 575 would authorize a study of infrastructure investments that yield energy savings. Delegate Minchew’s HB 1712 authorizes energy performance-based contracting for public bodies.

Miscellaneous. Delegate Kilgore’s HB 1760 supports a new pumped storage facility in the Coalfields region (news to me). Senator Ebbin’s SB 1258 would add energy storage to the work of the Virginia Solar Development Authority, which seems eminently sensible.

More bills are likely to be filed in the coming days, and I would promise to update you on them if I weren’t marking Trump’s inauguration by leaving the country for a week. Serious advocates should peruse the LIS website and perhaps sign up for the bill tracking service “Lobbyist in a Box.” Also watch for a clean energy lobby day that MDV-SEIA will organize, likely on the yet-to-be-announced day the House Commerce and Labor Subcommittee on Energy meets, usually in early February.

This year’s legislative session lasts a mere 45 days, weekends included. Cynics say the tight schedule limits the damage politicians can do, but in reality it just means lawmakers have to lean heavily on lobbyists and constituents—and as the lobbyists are on hand, and the constituents are at home, the schedule favors the lobbyists. So if you want to make your voice heard, now’s the time.

Virginia hearing examiner says renewable energy PPAs are legal, but will the ruling stick?

A third-party PPA made it possible to build this solar facility at the University of Richmond. Appalachian Power Company contends that a project like this would be illegal in its territory.

A third-party PPA made it possible to build this solar facility at the University of Richmond. Appalachian Power Company contends that a project like this would be illegal in its territory.

A hearing examiner for the Virginia State Corporation Commission recommended on August 31 that the SCC reject Appalachian Power Company’s proposed alternative to third-party power purchase agreements (PPAs) for renewable energy, concluding the program is not in the public interest. The parties will have three weeks to comment before the recommendation goes to the Commissioners for a final decision. The case is PUE-2015-00040.

The ruling against APCo’s proposed Rider RGP is less important to customers than the reasoning behind it. In addition to finding a myriad of faults with the proposal, the Hearing Examiner concluded it isn’t needed because PPAs are already legal under the Virginia Code. This is an outcome long sought by the solar industry and environmental groups, and one supported by the Attorney General’s Office of Consumer Counsel.

However, the Hearing Examiner’s report is merely a recommendation. Nothing is final until the Commissioners rule, and they could make a decision about Rider RGP without addressing the current legality of PPAs. Moreover, earlier this year, APCo proposed another program that it clearly hopes will nip in the bud any surge of PPA activity that might result from a decision in the present case. (I’ll get to that in a moment.)

The rejection of Rider RGP won’t disappoint any would-be customers. A long line of witnesses testified at the hearing on September 29, 2015 that APCo’s expensive and convoluted program would find no takers. As the Solar Research Institute summarized it, the proposed Rider RGP “would require a customer interested in a solar PPA to first pay for 100% of their service under the standard tariff, pay for 100% of the solar energy generated, pay a $30 program fee, and receive excess payments back through a Renewable Output Credit.” Oh, and they still wouldn’t be using renewable energy. (Note that although solar energy was the focus of the discussion for participants, the decision applies to other forms of renewable energy as well.)

The SCC staff made some suggestions to improve the program, but the hearing examiner, Deborah Ellenberg, concluded it was really beyond saving. Not only that, but the plain language of the Virginia Code makes third-party PPAs legal in the state already. Thus, there is no need for a utility-sponsored alternative.

Ellenberg pointed to two statutory provisions that support the legality of third-party PPAs. First, Virginia Code §56-577 A 5 provides that customers may purchase renewable energy from third-party sellers if their own utility does not offer a tariff for renewable energy. Specifically, customers may:

[P]urchase electric energy provided 100 percent from renewable energy from any supplier of electric energy licensed to sell retail electric energy within the Commonwealth . . . if the incumbent electric utility serving the exclusive service territory does not offer an approved tariff for electric energy provided 100 percent from renewable energy. . . .

Until now, APCo has offered only a green power program that sells RECs, which the SCC says doesn’t count.

The language of §56-577 sounds clear enough, but APCo and Dominion Power have maintained that this section only allows customers to go elsewhere if the other supplier can provide 100% of their electricity from renewable energy, something that can’t be done with a solar facility or a wind turbine.

This flimsy reading of the statute was the basis on which Dominion challenged a PPA at Washington and Lee University back in 2011. The issue was temporarily resolved two years later when Dominion and the solar industry agreed to a pilot program that now allows a limited number of PPAs in Dominion territory, under tight parameters that exclude residential customers. The program never applied in APCo territory, however—a sore point to customers there. APCo has clung to its reading of §56-577, regardless of the growing clamor for renewable energy in southwestern Virginia.

Ellenberg’s report flatly rejects the utility interpretation. If the SCC adopts her reading, any customer in APCo territory would be free to buy renewable energy from third-party suppliers, until APCo offers a qualifying program.

Ellenberg also cited Virginia’s net metering statute. Virginia Code §56-594 authorizes “customer generators” to enter into behind-the-meter PPAs with third parties that own and operate a renewable facility for the customer. Code §56-594 B defines an eligible customer generator for net metering purposes as “a customer that owns and operates, or contracts with other persons to own or operate, or both, an electrical generating facility that . . . uses as its total source of fuel renewable energy . . .” (emphasis added).

Interpreting this provision takes no special legal talent, surely. It would seem to cover residential and commercial facilities installed and owned by third-party developers, including the familiar no-money-down contract offered to residential customers by Solar City. But again, APCo and Dominion Virginia Power claim the Code doesn’t mean what it says. For more than five years they’ve backed up their position with threats of lawsuits, creating the kind of uncertainty that is toxic to development deals.

If the SCC’s final order endorses the hearing examiner’s finding that PPAs are currently legal, the result could be to open up the Virginia solar (and wind) market to large amounts of private investment statewide.

However, Ellenberg’s finding that PPAs are currently legal appears in her discussion but not in her recommendations to the commissioners; her recommendations are limited to the actions she proposes (rejecting or modifying the tariff). The SCC does not have to rule on the question of PPA legality in order to decide this case. Surely, though, it would be strange if it were to duck the opportunity now that the issue has been fully briefed. With solar a hot commodity across the state, the current legal limbo has become a significant economic drag that the SCC ought not to ignore.

As I mentioned, though, APCo still has one card up its sleeve. This spring it proposed a new tariff to offer its customers 100% renewable energy derived from existing wind, solar and hydro projects. The product appears to meet the condition of §56-577. If approved, it would slam shut the door that the Hearing Examiner just opened (or rather, that she said was open all along, if you had dared to go through it into the toxic miasma where gray-suited lawyers lay in wait). APCo’s request for approval of the tariff (PUE-2016-00051) is scheduled to be heard by the SCC on November 15, with comments due by November 8.

Solar advocates take a dim view of APCo’s move. The new tariff won’t build any new facilities; it simply shifts the burden of paying for existing renewable energy projects onto volunteers, at a significant premium. In today’s market, third-party developers can offer electricity generated by new solar projects at competitive prices. So APCo’s tariff looks less like an accommodation to its eco-conscious customers, and more like a maneuver to prevent anyone from building solar on its turf.

It’s high time the SCC put a stop to this anti-competitive behavior and let Virginians build solar projects with their own money. The Commissioners can follow the Hearing Examiner’s advice, or they can take a pragmatic approach and recognize that PPAs are really just a way to finance projects. They don’t turn solar developers into utilities, and APCo should stop wasting everyone’s time and money blocking private investment in a part of the Commonwealth that desperately needs it.

Basic change in utility business and regulation is inevitable: Advanced energy is coming to all utilities, like it or not.

Photo credit: Sierra Club

Photo credit: Sierra Club

Occasionally I ask other people to write for this blog, not merely because I am lazy, but also because energy policy is such a broad topic that I sometimes overlook new developments and perspectives. This week guest blogger Jane Twitmyer takes a step back from the battle over our energy future to point out that the battlefield itself is shifting under our feet—a fact which, if ignored, could cost utility customers dearly.  –I.M.

A favorite utility narrative holds that the federal Clean Power Plan is the reason we must upgrade our electric utility system and reduce emissions from fossil fuels. Without it, we could continue to run our big coal and gas plants and leave unchanged the transmission grid that has served us so well. But the truth is, the EPA as ‘bully’ is a myth. A new report from the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) concludes “significant changes are occurring” in the way we generate and use electricity regardless of whether or not the Clean Power Plan, still under court challenge, is implemented. One change: NERC has tripled the amount of new renewable energy generation it predicts for next year.

NERC is just catching up with analysts and investment banks, who have been documenting the changes for several years. The Rocky Mountain Institute warns that grid-connected, solar-plus-battery-storage systems “will be economic within the next 10-15 years for many customers in many parts of the country,” undercutting utility sales and turning electricity markets “upside down.”

Investment analysts agree. CitiGroup predicts utilities could suffer a “50%+ decline in their addressable market.” Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla, just made an offer to buy SolarCity because he believes on-site generation will eventually supply a third of our total electricity, and will be accompanied by huge amounts of battery storage like Tesla’s Powerpack.

Musk believes electric cars will increase demand for electricity, but other analysts see energy efficiency lowering demand. Efficient buildings are given a central place in the new energy mix in the NERC report.

Using less energy, or increasing our energy intensity, will reduce demand significantly without creating the economic disaster we have been warned will occur. Minnesota found the state’s efficiency program returned $4 for every $1 invested, helping to create almost $6 billion in new economic output. One of Warren Buffet’s utilities expects to reduce demand enough to close a couple of old coal plants and still not need any new generation until 2028. The utility is financing those retrofits for its customers’ buildings.

E-Lab, a group at the Rocky Mountain Institute that works with all industry stakeholders to chart our electricity systems, also sees changes in grid management systems making delivery of electricity more efficient. Pilot projects using new technology with grid-regulating software and designed with a variety of regulatory changes and financing models are being tested all around the country.

Each kilowatt-hour supplied by a rooftop solar panel, stored in an on-site battery, or saved by an efficient building, means one less kilowatt-hour utilities must generate. This inevitable reduction in central grid demand is why the future isn’t just about switching resources, like burning gas instead of coal, or even building solar and wind farms. The future is about a re-imagined system that allows and encourages you and me and our local mall to make our own electricity on-site, feeding some of what we make into storage and some onto the grid, and allowing us to draw on the grid when we need to.

We have the technology to create the new system, and regardless of any new EPA rules, this is the right time to replace the old technology. In 2010, 70% of our coal plants and all of our nuclear facilities were more than 30 years old. Recently SNL Energy identified 21,357 MW of coal, gas and nuclear generation “at risk” of early closure through 2020, plants that are inefficient and no longer economic to run.

Here in Virginia, our utilities don’t seem to be getting the message. Dominion Virginia Power has chosen to put most of its new investment dollars into large-scale natural gas plants, not renewable energy. Five or six years ago natural gas was believed to be the ‘transition’ fuel that could take us from coal to renewables-based electricity. We now understand that methane, released when extracting and distributing gas, is 86 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than CO2 while it is in the atmosphere. In addition, methane emissions have been both underreported and inaccurately measured, raising concerns that the climate impact of natural gas may be far greater than originally thought. New methane rules are being developed that should give us a better picture of actual emission levels, but it is already clear that if natural gas is a bridge fuel, the bridge must be a short one.

With analysts predicting the transition to renewable energy will happen sooner rather than later, investing heavily in new gas plants carries a significant economic risk as well as a climate risk. Investors like UBS Bank believe too many large plants will be “structural losers,” assets whose use is diminished before they are paid for. Going forward, we will still need to use some measure of natural gas, but natural gas can no longer be labeled the ‘transition’ fuel.

Our utility systems are at a crossroad. One road requires our utilities, our regulators and our legislators to re-imagine our electricity system, rethinking the old monopoly rate regulations that reward centralized fossil fuel generation. This reimagined system will require a grid that is no longer the rigid one-directional distributer of electricity, but rather one that finds value in resources that generate and store electricity where it is used. If we fail to take that road, the alternative path will lead to ‘grid defection’: customers choosing to leave the grid and provide their own electricity by installing solar with batteries and retrofitting their buildings to use less. One thing is certain: a top down, monopolistic, state-regulated system is NOT the future.

As NERC concluded, changes to the energy mix, and to the level of demand, are happening with or without the Clean Power Plan. They are happening because it is time to rebuild our aging energy infrastructure. They are happening because the technology is now available to create an energy system that protects our air and our water as well as our atmosphere. And the changes are happening because a rebuilt system, designed as an interactive network, not a one directional, top-down grid, will actually be a cheaper system. It will be a system that is more reliable and more resilient, as well as more secure from storms and attack. That rebuilt system will serve Virginia’s electricity customers better without risk to our air, our water or our climate.

Jane Twitmyer is a renewable energy consultant and advocate.

 

Sierra Club scorecard plumbs divisions among Virginia legislators

SC ScorecardBy and large, Virginia Republicans are still locked in a fossil fuel echo chamber, where “all of the above” and “war on coal” guide their votes. Virginia Democrats mostly acknowledge the damage climate change is doing to the commonwealth and around the planet and support a course correction. And regardless of ideology, large majorities from both parties vote for whatever Dominion Power wants.

These are the major takeaways from this year’s legislative session and the 2016 Climate and Energy Scorecard, just released by the Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club. Constituents and clean energy advocates will want to look at not just the raw grades of individual legislators, but also the discussion provided in the report, to understand the dynamics of our General Assembly.

Twenty-eight Democrats earned perfect scores. All but a handful of Republicans earned failing grades. Sierra Club gave extra credit to legislators who introduced bills that advanced clean energy. This included several Republicans highlighted in the scorecard, but their bad votes on other bills dragged down their overall scores.

This is really a shame, since some Republicans have worked hard to advance clean energy legislation. Leesburg Delegate Randy Minchew comes to mind here for his dogged efforts on behalf of distributed solar energy, something you might not guess from his overall grade of D.

Often, it seems, reform-minded Republicans go along with their party’s more retrograde positions where they are pressured to do so by their party leaders, or where the votes are so lopsided that there is nothing to gain from breaking with the majority.

If party leaders have an outsize influence on voting, so too does Dominion Power. In fact, if you want to know who the true champions of the people are, don’t look at party affiliation. Look for the few legislators who will stand up to the most powerful political force in Richmond.

That assumes you can find votes to examine. In the introduction to the Sierra Club scorecard, Legislative Chair Susan Stillman noted with frustration this year’s paucity of recorded votes available to score:

The challenges of producing a fair and even scorecard are growing, as are the opportunities for Virginia citizens to have a clear and accurate picture of their elected representative’s voting record. Transparency in the General Assembly sunk to a new low this year: 95% of the bills defeated in the House of Delegates were done so on an unrecorded vote or no vote at all. This is not business-as-usual: just over a decade ago, nearly every bill that passed through the House received a recorded vote.

An ongoing problem, both for scorecard referees and for clean energy advocates, is that most bills that would advance the cause of renewable energy and energy efficiency never make it out of committee; in the House, the bills are heard in a tiny subcommittee. Not only do votes go unrecorded, but this approach deprives most of our elected representatives of the opportunity to vote on some of the most important energy policy issues facing Virginia.

And then there was this year, in which even the subcommittee members never got a chance to vote. A dozen or so of the most promising clean energy bills were never heard at all, but were sent to a newly-formed interim study subcommittee, ostensibly for the purpose of giving these bills the benefit of greater deliberation. The effect was to kill them quietly for the year.

As Stillman notes, all these unrecorded votes make it hard to know where the vast majority of legislators stand:

Without a recorded vote, the public is deprived of the full measure of his or her elected official’s voting history. And the problem of unrecorded votes is growing worse. This year’s unprecedented rate of unrecorded votes in the House is up from 76% in 2015—a 25% jump in one year. Virginia legislators are killing more bills than ever without accountability for their actions. This practice is wrong, and it’s dangerous for our democracy.

Stillman gives a shout-out to the founding members of the new, bipartisan Transparency Caucus for its efforts to make all votes public and ensure every bill gets a hearing.

These would be modest reforms, but welcome. If sunlight is the best disinfectant, there’s a big, dirty House (and Senate) in Richmond that need cleaning.