Green Power for Suckers program wins regulatory approval

Trees clearcut.

Don’t think of biomass as destroying forests, think of it as a way to feel good about subsidizing pollution. Photo by Calibas, Creative Commons.

Virginia’s State Corporation Commission (SCC) has approved Dominion Energy Virginia’s request to offer a new product to electric utility customers who want to buy renewable energy at a discount but lack the knowledge to understand when they are being taken for chumps.

“Rider REC” is an ultra-cheap version of the company’s Green Power Program (itself of questionable value). For less than a buck a month on their electric bills, customers will be able to buy renewable energy certificates that cost Dominion next to nothing because no one else wants them. And for good reason: these are the dregs of the renewable energy category.

You won’t find any wind or solar in Rider REC, but you might find paper mill waste, trees burned after clear-cutting, or century-old hydro dams—all officially “renewable” under the generous provisions of Virginia law. Dominion will scrounge up these old and dirty leftovers, package them up, and put a green bow on them.

“Caveat emptor,” says the SCC with a shrug. The SCC seems to think anyone dumb enough to pay extra voluntarily deserves whatever they get.

This is not the first time the SCC has shown disregard for eco-conscious consumers. Four years ago it gave Dominion the nod for a program the company was calling “community solar,” which wasn’t actually selling any solar and had nothing to do with communities. Dominion never did roll out that program, perhaps because there was no way to market it without courting accusations of consumer fraud. But it had the SCC’s blessing for it!

(In case you are confused: this was before the company’s most recent iteration of community solar, also approved, also not actually community solar, and which we are still waiting for. Dominion executives could probably do with a thesaurus.)

In response to concerns that customers wouldn’t know what they are getting, the SCC order did impose one labeling requirement. Dominion’s marketing materials must “clearly identify the source of the RECs available for purchase under Rider REC (i.e., the less expensive of PJM Tier II RECs or national Green-e eligible RECs).”

Perhaps Dominion will even tell buyers what those things mean, though the SCC doesn’t seem to be saying it has to. In the interests of clarity, Dominion could explain that “PJM Tier II RECs” translates to “some stuff we found behind the refrigerator and think might still be edible.” But it probably won’t.

That’s because, just as with the old community solar thing, the problem is that if buyers understand what’s in it, they won’t be buyers.

 

This article was originally published in the Virginia Mercury on November 8, 2019. 

First solar crowdfunding campaign launches in Virginia

workers complete a rooftop solar array on a warehouse

A Secure Futures project on an InterChange warehouse. Photo courtesy of Secure Futures.

Unless you have a sunny roof or back yard, you probably haven’t found a way to put your money into building local solar facilities. This month, that changed.

Secure Futures, LLC has created a crowdfunding platform to sell solar bonds in support of five projects across Virginia, all for tax-exempt institutions. The financial details, including interest rates and terms, can be found on the crowdfunding website.

The five projects, totaling 1.3 megawatts of solar capacity, involve these customers:

  • The Caritas Center in Richmond, a non-profit that works to break the cycles of homelessness and addiction in the Metro Richmond area, will have a 426.6 kW system to serve a building under construction
  • Eastern Mennonite School, a private K-12 school in Harrisonburg; the 131 kW solar facility will meet 33% of the school’s total electric demand
  • Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a nonprofit scientific and educational organization with a research center in Ruckersville, where the 200 kW facility will go
  • Shenandoah University, a private university in Winchester; the 467 kW project will provide 10% of the university’s electricity
  • Temple Rodef Shalom, the largest Jewish congregation in the Commonwealth, located in Falls Church; the 115 kW facility will provide 29% of the temple’s electricity

All of the projects will be installed using power purchase agreements or solar services agreements, and all are scheduled for completion in 2019 and 2020.

Although selling bonds to finance solar projects doesn’t sound revolutionary, I’ve found few precedents for the general public to buy into specific projects. Solar City sold corporate bonds directly to the public until the company was bought by Tesla; the bonds financed Solar City’s nationwide portfolio of projects. (Disclosure—I own stock in several renewable energy companies including Tesla, not always to my profit.)

Several years ago another company, Solar Mosaic, raised money from individual investors who could choose to link their investments to specific projects, but the company has since closed the investment side of its business. Other companies have offered investment opportunities only to accredited investors—i.e, people with high incomes or net worth.

Opportunities for regular folks to invest have been slow to emerge since Congress changed the law to allow people to invest through internet crowdfunding back in 2012. But it took the Securities and Exchange Commission until 2016 to implement rules, so it’s early yet. If Secure Futures finds success raising funds for these Virginia projects, perhaps solar bonds will turn out to be the next new thing in project financing.

Dominion Energy’s new choices are really about limiting choices

Trees clearcut.

Dominion’s renewable energy products contain copious amounts of biomass, also known as burning trees. Photo by Calibas, Creative Commons.

An annual survey conducted by Yale and George Mason universities shows concern about climate change is surging. Seventy-three percent of Americans think climate change is happening, and 69% are at least somewhat worried about it, the highest percentages since the surveys began in 2011.

Another Yale survey found that “a large majority of registered voters (85%) – including 95% of Democrats and 71% of Republicans – support requiring utilities in their state to produce 100% of their electricity from clean, renewable sources by 2050. Nearly two in three conservative Republicans (64%) support this policy.”

Yet here in Virginia, Dominion Energy expects to reduce carbon emissions less in the future than in the past, and it has no plan to produce 100% of its electricity from clean, renewable sources by 2050. For all the talk here of solar, Virginia still had one-seventh the amount of solar installed as North Carolina at the end of 2018 and no wind energy.

Dominion has developed a few solar projects and new tariffs to serve tech companies and other large customers, but ordinary residents still lack meaningful choices. So this spring, Dominion decided to do something about that.

The wrong thing, of course.

Dominion has asked the State Corporation Commission for permission to market two quasi-environmentally-responsible products. One is for people who are willing to pay a premium for renewable energy, and don’t read labels, and the other is for people who want a bargain on renewable energy, and don’t read labels.

There may be plenty of both kinds of customers out there, but that doesn’t mean the SCC should approve either product. Indeed, while the purpose of the bargain product is to offer a choice nobody wants, the purpose of the premium product is to close off better choices.

Let’s look first at the product for bargain-hunters, a super-cheap version of the utility’s Green Power Program. Dominion is calling it “Rider REC.” A better name for it would be the “You Call This Green? Power Program.”

Rider REC consists of the dregs of the renewable energy category, the stuff that isn’t good enough for the Green Power Program. That’s a low bar already, because the Green Power Program doesn’t sell green power. It sells renewable energy certificates (RECs), the “renewable attributes” of electrons from facilities labeled renewable.

Customers who pay extra for RECs still use whatever mix of energy their utility provides. For Dominion customers, that’s fracked gas, nuclear and coal, plus a tiny percentage of oil, biomass, hydro and solar.

Buying RECs lets good-hearted people feel better about using dirty power by donating money to owners of renewable energy facilities somewhere else. The facilities might be in Virginia, or they might be clear across the country.

For example, say a utility out west builds a wind farm because wind is the cheapest way to generate power. If the state doesn’t have a renewable portfolio standard that requires the utility to use the RECs for compliance (most windy states don’t), the RECs can be sold to buyers in liberal East Coast states, lowering energy prices for the utility’s own customers.

RECs don’t even have to represent clean sources like wind. Some RECs subsidize industries that burn trees (aka biomass), black liquor (a particularly dirty waste product of paper mills) and trash.

Dominion’s Green Power Program uses RECs that meet the standards of a national certification program called Green-e. Green-e requires that facilities be no more than 15 years old and meet minimum environmental standards, such as requirements that woody biomass be sustainably grown and that generators don’t violate state and federal pollution limits.

But Virginia’s definition of renewable energy is, shall we say, more forgiving than Green-e’s. Our law does not discriminate against decades-old facilities like hydroelectric dams, or energy from trees that have been clear-cut. (Nor does it recognize that burning trees produces even more lung-damaging, asthma-inducing pollution than coal, and more climate-warming CO2 as well.) Virginia’s definition of renewable energy even includes a vague category of “thermal” energy that may be another way paper mills profit from the REC racket.

This loose definition of “renewable” creates a business opportunity for anyone unscrupulous enough to seize it. Dominion proposes to package up these otherwise unmarketable RECs from sketchy sources across the continental United States and pawn them off on unsuspecting consumers here in Virginia.

There is always money to be made by suckering well-meaning folks, but that’s not a good enough reason for the SCC to let Dominion do it. The case is PUR-2019-00081. Public comments are due by Aug. 15.

So what about the more expensive quasi-environmentally responsible product? “Rider TRG” consists of real, straight-from-the-facility electricity on the power grid serving Virginia, not RECs from out west. And while it is not dirt-cheap like Rider REC, Rider TRG would cost residential customers a premium of only about $50 per year.

Unfortunately, Virginia’s kitchen-sink definition of renewable energy means the sources still don’t have to be new or carbon-free or sustainable. It appears most of them won’t be.

Dominion’s filing indicates the program will use the energy from the Gaston hydroelectric dam built in 1963; the Roanoke Rapids hydro station built in 1955; the Altavista, Southampton and Hopewell power stations that were converted from coal to wood-burning in 2013; and several solar farms the company has already built or contracted for.

In addition, Dominion proposes to allocate to the program the portion of electricity from its Virginia City coal plant representing the percentage of wood that is burned along with the coal.

That’s right, Dominion intends for renewable energy buyers to subsidize its coal plant. The idea is cynical enough to have come from the Trump administration.

Dominion knows full well that customers who want renewable energy want new wind and solar, so why is its first product for residential customers so loaded with dirty biomass and old hydro?

The answer is that Dominion doesn’t care if no one signs up for Rider TRG. The point isn’t to give customers what they want, it’s to prevent them from shopping elsewhere for better options. Like Appalachian Power before it, Dominion wants to close off the narrow opening provided by Virginia law that allows customers to shop for 100% renewable energy from other providers only if their own utility doesn’t offer it. The SCC approved APCo’s renewable energy tariff some months ago. Dominion is following APCo’s successful strategy.

Yet APCo’s product consists of hydro, wind and solar, so it is nefarious, but not actually bad. Dominion’s is nefarious and bad.

An SCC decision in 2017 confirmed customers’ right to shop for renewable energy as long as the incumbent utility doesn’t offer it. Currently at least two other providers, Direct Energy and Calpine Energy Solutions, offer renewable energy to commercial customers in Dominion territory. Yet according to documents provided by Direct Energy, Dominion is refusing to let its customers transfer to Direct Energy and Calpine, triggering competing petitions to the SCC.

Dominion no doubt hopes to resolve the dispute permanently by terminating its customers’ right to switch providers at all.

The case is PUR-2019-00094. Comments may be submitted until Nov. 14, and a public hearing will be held on Nov. 21.

 

This article first appeared in the Virginia Mercury on July 22, 2019.

 

UPDATE November 5: The SCC approved Dominion’s Rider REC, the Green Power For Suckers program, on October 31, disregarding the recommendation of SCC staff to deny it. It hasn’t yet ruled on Rider TRG. However, the SCC staff has pointed out that if Dominion left the controversial biomass elements out of the program, it would cost less than half as much.

Dominion’s plans to tackle global warming are mostly hot air

Graph compares CO2 reductions by Dominion Energy and Xcel

Dominion (blue line) starts out with lower total CO2 emissions than the larger Xcel (red line), but after switching out old coal for new fracked gas, Dominion’s carbon-cutting slows to a crawl, while Xcel’s keeps going.

My readers will be shocked, shocked to learn that contrary to Dominion Energy’s propaganda, the company plans to cut carbon emissions by only about 1% per year between now and 2030, a slower pace than it has achieved in the past.

According to an analysis of Dominion’s own data by the Energy and Policy Institute, “the company reduced its carbon emissions at an average rate of 4% per year from 2005 to 2017, mostly by retiring coal plants in the later years of that period. That reduction rate plummets to 1% per year between now and 2030 under Dominion’s new goal.”

“The company’s reduction pace would increase again between 2030 and 2050 in order to meet its later goal [of 80% carbon reduction from 2005 to 2050], though only to about 2.8%, still lower than its pace from 2005 to 2017.”

Fracked gas investments are both the reason Dominion has brought carbon emissions down as much as it has, and the reason it can’t keep up the pace. Closing expensive, old coal plants is an easy way to cut carbon and save money at the same time. Replace the output of a coal plant with the same output from a gas plant, and you’ve slashed carbon emissions almost in half overnight.

But it’s not such a great trick if it requires you to build a new gas plant with a useful life of 30 years. That makes it much harder to decarbonize further by replacing gas with carbon-free renewables.

This is exactly Dominion Energy Virginia’s problem. A comparison of the utility’s 2013 and 2018 integrated resource plans shows coal fell from 22% of the total energy mix to 18%, while natural gas jumped from 17% to 32%, displacing purchased energy as well as coal.

The company achieved this feat with three new, huge combined-cycle gas plants it brought online just in the past five years: Warren (1,370 MW) in 2014, Brunswick (1,358 MW) in 2016, and Greensville (1,588 MW) in 2018. Together these plants increased Dominion’s natural gas generating capacity by more than 50%.

Not only did Dominion stick utility ratepayers with these big new gas plants, its parent company promised investors the utility will burn enough gas to justify spending $7 billion-plus on the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. Decarbonizing violates the business plan.

Dominion is in good company — by which I mean bad company — in making bold claims about carbon cuts that prove inadequate on closer inspection. According to the Energy and Policy Institute, the other southeastern monopoly utilities, Duke, Southern, and NextEra, are all using the same playbook.

Other utilities have avoided the gas trap. National leaders like Minneapolis-based Xcel, Consumers Energy in Michigan, and NIPSCO in Indiana are replacing coal with renewables and leapfrogging over new gas. That puts them in a position to deliver on their promises of rapid emissions cuts.

The Energy and Policy Institute analysis pointedly contrasts Xcel with Dominion:

Xcel Energy is one of the country’s largest electric utilities, with operations in eight states, primarily Colorado and Minnesota. Xcel pledged in December 2018 to reduce its carbon emissions 80 percent by 2030 from 2005 levels, and to fully decarbonize by 2050. Xcel’s new goal is an upgrade of a previous one to cut carbon emissions 60 percent by 2030. It says it plans to lean heavily on renewable energy and batteries will save its customers money. In a detailed report released in March, Xcel says its goals fall within the range compatible with Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change scenarios that achieve either a 2°C or 1.5°C target.

Graphing Xcel’s trajectory vs. Dominion’s is telling: the companies’ decarbonization pathways tracked one another closely from 2005 until 2017. At that point, Xcel’s trajectory starts turning sharply downward, while Dominion’s flattens out.

Another contrast you’ll notice between Xcel and Dominion: Dominion has no plans to get to zero emissions, ever. It’s hard not to conclude that the company’s leaders are simply putting the best climate face on a gas strategy that hasn’t changed.

Eventually, though, the falling costs of wind and solar and the public’s demand for climate action will force Dominion to follow Xcel and others into deep decarbonization.

It may not be the business plan, but it is the future.

This post was originally published in the Virginia Mercury on July 15, 2019. 

 

So many bills filed, so few remain: almost-halftime status report on climate and energy legislation

Virginia statehouse, where the General Assembly meetsTuesday, January 5 marks “crossover” at the Virginia General Assembly, the date when House bills go over to the Senate, and Senate bills to the House. Any legislation that hasn’t made it through the gantlet to a successful vote in its starting chamber evaporates in a puff of smoke, if it has not already died due to causes natural or unnatural.

I’ve hot-linked the bill numbers to their pages in the Legislative Information Service; follow the links on the page to read the legislation or see vote results. The information below is based on what was available as of yesterday, February 3.

Many of the committee hearings were recorded on video.

Renewable energy bills

Solar Freedom, the bill to remove barriers to customer-owned solar statewide, met implacable resistance from Republicans in control of the Commerce and Labor committees, as did narrower bills focused just on power purchase agreements (PPAs). That meant the only significant renewable energy legislation moving forward is a bill negotiated between the rural electric cooperatives and solar advocates that will ease restrictions on customer solar in coop territory. See HB 2547 (Hugo) and SB 1769 (Sturtevant), below.

Two bills that would have provided financial support for solar have passed their committees, but only after the money part got taken out.

A watered-down municipal renewable energy bill survives, but in a disappointingly limited form. An interesting solar-on-schools bill now looks less interesting.

Legislation enabling localities to impose new decommissioning requirements on large solar farms will likely move forward.

Here is the status of the renewable energy bills I’ve been tracking, with a little color commentary sprinkled in:

 HB 2329 (Keam) and SB 1456 (McClellan and Edwards) is the Solar Freedom bill that would have removed 8 barriers to renewable energy installations by utility customers, including lifting the 1% net metering cap, removing PPA caps, and allowing municipal net metering.  Advocates gave this everything they had, with hundreds of citizens lobbying for the bill and showing up at the subcommittee hearings.But Republicans held firm for their utility friends. HB 2329 was defeated in Commerce and Labor 8-7 on a party-line vote with two Democrats absent and one (Lindsay) present but strangely not voting. The Senate companion was killed in Commerce and Labor on a 10-3 party-line vote. Some of the reforms in Solar Freedom also appear in weakened form in one bill (HB 2547 and SB 1769) that moves forward—but only for the electric cooperatives.   

HB 1683 (Ware) gives electric cooperatives greater autonomy, including authority to raise their total system caps for net metering up to 5% of peak load. Amended to remove the net metering language, then withdrawn by patron.

HB 1809 (Gooditis) follows up on last year’s HB 966 by making the renewable energy and energy efficiency provisions mandatory. If utilities don’t meet annual targets, they have to return their retained overearnings to customers. Defeated in Commerce and Labor subcommittee 3 on party-line vote, with only Democrats supporting.

HB 1869 (Hurst), SB 1483 (Deeds) and SB 1714 (Edwards) creates a pilot program allowing schools that generate a surplus of solar or wind energy to have the surplus credited to other schools in the same school district. HB 1869 defeated in Commerce and Labor subcommittee 3 on party-line vote. In Senate Commerce and Labor, SB 1714 was incorporated into SB 1483, then defeated unanimously.

HB 1902(Rasoul) would provide a billion dollars in grant funding for solar projects, paid for by utilities, who are required to contribute this amount of money through voluntary contributions (sic). Killed in Appropriations subcommittee on party-line vote.

HB 1928 (Bulova) and SB 1460 (McClellan) expands utility programs allowing third-party power purchase agreements (PPAs) for renewable energy while continuing to restrict the classes of customers who are allowed to have access to this important financing tool. In committee hearings, utility lobbyists claimed there was no need for the legislation because there is “plenty of room left” under the existing caps. Industry members testified that there is a lot more in the queue than is public, and caps will likely be reached this year. HB 1928 killed in Commerce and Labor subcommittee 3 by a 6-4 vote; Republican Tim Hugo voted with Democrats in support of the bill. SB 1460 killed in Senate Commerce and Labor 10-3, with only Democrats supporting.

HB 2117 (Mullin) and SB 1584 (Sutterlein) fixes the problem that competitive service providers can no longer offer renewable energy to a utility’s customers once the utility has an approved renewable energy tariff of its own. Now that the SCC has approved a renewable energy tariff for APCo, this is a live issue. HB 2117 defeated in Commerce and Labor subcommittee 3 on party-line vote. Although the patron of SB 1584, David Sutterlein, is a Republican, his bill died in Senate Commerce and Labor 11-1, with only fellow Republican Ben Chafin voting for it, and Republican Stephen Newman abstaining.

STILL ALIVE: HB 2165 (Davis and Hurst) and HB 2460 (Jones and Kory), and SB 1496 (Saslaw) provide an income tax credit for nonresidential solar energy equipment installed on landfills, brownfields, in economic opportunity zones, and in certain utility cooperatives. This is a Rubin Group bill. HB 2165 and HB 2460 remain stuck in the Committee on General Laws (not a good sign). SB 1496 was amended in Finance to change it from a tax credit to a grant-funded program, but with no money. Then it passed the committee unanimously. 

STILL ALIVE:  HB 2192 (Rush) and SB 1331 (Stanley) is a school modernization initiative that includes language encouraging energy efficient building standards and net zero design. It also encourages schools to consider lease agreements with private developers (apparently there is one particular North Carolina firm that wants this). It does not contemplate the more common use of third-party power purchase agreements. HB 2192 was amended in General Laws, where it passed unanimously. It still has nice (but not mandatory) language on net zero schools. It allows leases with private developers who will construct and operate buildings and facilities. It permits public schools to contract with utilities for solar energy as part of the school modernization project. New language requires that renewable energy facilities must be on school property and cannot be used to serve any other property. PPAs are still not mentioned. Ambiguous language in these provisions may cause problems for schools. SB 1331 was amended with what appears to be the same language as its House counterpart. It reported unanimously from Finance.

HB 2241 (Delaney) establishes a green jobs training tax credit. Failed in House Finance subcommittee on party-line vote.

HB 2500 (Sullivan) establishes a mandatory renewable portfolio standard (RPS) for Virginia, eliminates carbon-producing sources from the list of qualifying sources, kicks things off with an extraordinarily ambitious 20% by 2020 target, and ratchets up the targets to 80% by 2027. Failed in Commerce and Labor subcommittee 3 with only Democrat Mark Keam supporting it.

STILL ALIVE:  HB 2547 (Hugo) and SB 1769 (Sturtevant) makes changes to the net metering program for customers of electric cooperatives. The overall net metering cap is raised from the current 1 percent to a total of 5%, divided into separate buckets by customer type and with an option for coops to choose to go up to 7%. Customers will be permitted to install enough renewable energy to meet up to 125% of previous year’s demand, up from 100% today. Third-party PPAs are generally legal, with a self-certification requirement. However, the coops will begin imposing demand charges on customers with solar, to be phased in over several years, replacing any standby charges. This bill was negotiated between the coops and the solar industry via the “Rubin Group.” You have to hand it to the coops, this is huge movement on their part, if not perfect, and it is too bad that Dominion and APCo held fast to their obstructionist position rather than allow their customers more freedom to install solar. An amendment to the bill establishes a stakeholder group for further discussions with Dominion and APCo on net metering, a prospect that will appeal only to eternal optimists and amnesiacs who don’t remember the past five years of time-wasting, fruitless negotiations. Delegate Hugo told me he tried to get Dominion and APCo to sign on to the coop deal but couldn’t persuade them—and I understand from others that he did make a real effort. But he scoffed at my suggestion that maybe Dominion shouldn’t have the final say. HB 2547 reported unanimously from Commerce and Labor. SB 1769 was amended to include the same stakeholder language requiring the mice to continue negotiations with the cat. It has now passed the Senate unanimously.

STILL ALIVE: HB 2621 (Ingram) and SB 1398 (Stanley) authorize a locality to require the owner or developer of a solar farm, as part of the approval process, to agree to a decommissioning plan. This is a Rubin Group bill. An amended version of HB 2621 reported from Counties, Cities and Towns unanimously. SB 1398 was incorporated into SB 1091.

HB 2641 (Gooditis) makes third-party power purchase agreements for distributed renewable energy resources legal statewide. Killed in Commerce and Labor subcommittee 3 by a 6-3 vote. Delegate Hugo, who had voted for Bulova’s narrower PPA bill, joined the other Republicans in voting against this broader one.

HB 2692 (Sullivan) allows the owner of a multifamily residential building to install a renewable energy facility and sell the output to occupants or use for the building’s common areas. Stricken from docket.

STILL ALIVE: HB 2741 (Aird) establishes a rebate program for low and moderate-income households that install solar. Amended so it retains the structure of the program but removes funding; otherwise it was going to be sent to Appropriations to die. As amended it was reported Commerce and Labor unanimously.

STILL ALIVE: HB 2789 (O’Quinn) requires Dominion and APCo to apply for approval of three-year programs to incentivize low-income energy efficiency and solar totaling $25 million each. The efficiency spending comes out of the money utilities are required to spend under last year’s grid mod legislation. The solar spending is new money. Somehow I missed this bill in my earlier round-up. It passed the House 88-11. The nay votes are  all Republicans: Adams, L.R., Byron, Cole, Fariss, Freitas, Gilbert, Landes, Poindexter, Wright, Brewer and LaRock.

STILL ALIVE: HB 2792 (Tran) and SB 1779 (Ebbin) establishes a 6-year pilot program for municipal net metering for localities that are retail customers of investor-owned utilities. The initial bill negotiated with the utilities was predictably much more limited than most localities wanted; further amendments have left it useful for only a few small on-site projects that don’t need PPAs. Fairfax County supervisor Jeff McKay testified in committee it would do nothing to help the county’s projects.Tran presented the amended bill in committee just a day or two after coming under fire from conservative Republicans for a bill that would ease one restriction on late-term abortions. In an obviously orchestrated attempt to demonstrate that conservative middle-aged white men still wield the power in Richmond, Delegate Hugo said he needed time to read the amendment. Committee chairman Terry Kilgore obliged, saying they would come back to it. Kilgore then kept Tran waiting through several hours of other bills, many of which also had new amendments, before letting her bill come back up. (Proving once again that middle school has nothing on the General Assembly.) As amended, HB 2792 reported from Commerce and Labor 19-2, with only Republicans Hugo and Head voting no.

HJ 656 (Delaney) would have the Virginia Resources Authority study the process of transitioning Virginia’s workforce from fossil-fuel jobs to green energy jobs. Failed to report from Rules subcommittee on party-line vote, all Republicans voting against it.

STILL ALIVE: SB 1091 (Reeves) imposes expensive bonding requirements on utility-scale solar farms, taking a more drastic approach than HB 2621 (Ingram) and SB 1398 (Stanley) to resolving the concerns of localities about what happens to solar farms at the end of their useful life. SB 1091 was amended to conform to the compromise language of HB 2621 and has passed the Senate unanimously.

Energy Efficiency (some of which have RE components)

We’re seeing modest progress in efficiency bills this year, mostly of the greasing-the-wheels variety. One of particular interest is Chap Petersen’s bill enabling Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) financing programs for residential buildings.

HB 2243 (Sullivan) creates an energy efficiency revolving fund to offer no-interest loans to local government, public schools, and public institutions of higher learning. Killed in Appropriations subcommittee on party-line vote.

STILL ALIVE: HB 2292 (Sullivan) and SB 1662 (Wagner), dubbed the “show your work bill,” requires the SCC to provide justification if it rejects a utility energy efficiency program. HB 2292 reported from Commerce and Labor with a substitute. SB 1662 passed the Senate with only 6 Republicans in opposition.

STILL ALIVE: HB 2293 (Sullivan) establishes a stakeholder process to provide input on the development of utility energy efficiency programs. Reported unanimously from Commerce and Labor with a substitute.

HB 2294 (Sullivan) establishes mandatory energy efficiency goals for electric and gas utilities. Killed in Commerce and Labor subcommittee 3 on party-line vote.

HB 2295 (Sullivan) creates an energy efficiency fund and board to administer it. Killed in an Appropriations subcommittee on a party-line vote.

STILL ALIVE: HB 2332 (Keam) protects customer data collected by utilities while allowing the use of aggregated anonymous data for energy efficiency and demand-side management efforts. Reported unanimously from Commerce and Labor with a substitute.

SB 1111 (Marsden) requires utilities to provide rate abatements to certain customers who invest at least $10,000 in energy efficiency and, by virtue of their lower consumption, end up being pushed into a tier with higher rates. Stricken at the request of the patron.

STILL ALIVE: SB 1400 (Petersen) removes the exclusion of residential buildings from the Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) program, which allows localities to provide low-interest loans for energy efficiency and renewable energy improvements on buildings. Passed the Senate unanimously.

HB 2070 (Bell, John) provides a tax deduction for energy saving products, including solar panels and Energy Star products, up to $10,000. Stricken from docket in Finance subcommittee.

Energy transition and climate

Bills designed to push Virginia towards a clean energy future died in the face of unanimous Republican opposition. House Republicans also united to pass a bill prohibiting Virginia from implementing its carbon reduction plan. But in a faint nod to reality, most Republicans and Democrats support legislation to help southwest Virginia develop renewable energy and energy storage (as long as it doesn’t cost anything).

HB 1635 (Rasoul, with 9 co-patrons) imposes a moratorium on fossil fuel projects, including export facilities, gas pipelines and related infrastructure, refineries and fossil fuel exploration; requires utilities to use clean energy sources for 80% of electricity sales by 2028, and 100% by 2036; and requires the Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy to develop a (really) comprehensive climate action plan, which residents are given legal standing to enforce by suit. This is being referred to as the “Off Act.” Defeated on the floor of the House 86-12.

HB 1686 (Reid, with 14 co-patrons) and SB 1648 (Boysko) bans new or expanded fossil fuel generating plants until Virginia has those 5,500 MW of renewable energy we were promised. This is referred to as the “Renewables First Act.” HB 1686: Defeated in Commerce and Labor Subcommittee 3. 2 Democrats voted for it, 6 Republicans and 1 Democrat against. SB 1648 PBI’d 12-0 in Commerce and Labor.

STILL ALIVE: HB 2611 (Poindexter) would prohibit Virginia from joining or participating in RGGI without support from two-thirds of the members of the House and Senate, making it sort of an anti-Virginia Coastal Protection Act. Passed the House on party-line vote.

HB 2501 (Rasoul) directs the Division of Energy at DMME to include a greenhouse gas emissions inventory in the Virginia Energy Plan. Killed in Commerce and Labor subcommittee 3 on party-line vote.

HB 2645 (Rasoul, with 13 co-patrons), nicknamed the REFUND Act, prohibits electric utilities from making nonessential expenditures and requires refunds if the SCC finds they have. It also bars fuel cost recovery for more pipeline capacity than appropriate to ensure a reliable supply of gas. Other reforms in the bill would undo some of the provisions of last year’s SB 966, lower the percentage of excess earnings utilities can retain, and require the SCC to determine rates of return based on cost of service rather than peer group analysis. Democrat Steve Heretick voted with Republicans to kill the bill in Commerce and Labor subcommittee 3.

HB 2735 (Toscano) and SB 1666 (Lewis and Spruill) is this year’s version of the Virginia Coastal Protection Act, which would have Virginia formally join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI). It dedicates money raised by auctioning carbon allowances to climate adaptation efforts, energy efficiency programs, and coalfields transition. HB 2735 died in Commerce and Labor subcommittee 3 on party-line vote. SB 1666 met the same fate in Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources, with Democrat Rosalyn Dance abstaining.

STILL ALIVE: HB 2747 (Kilgore) and SB 1707 (Chafin) create a Southwest Virginia Energy Research and Development Authority which will, among other things, promote renewable energy on brownfield sites, including abandoned mine sites, and support energy storage, including pumped storage hydro. HB 2747 reported unanimously from Commerce and Labor and was referred to Appropriations, where it passed with a substitute (presumably removing its fiscal impact, though I haven’t looked closely enough to confirm that). SB 1707 reported from Local Government and then from Finance, also with a substitute, presumably the same one.

HJ 724 (Rasoul) is a resolution “Recognizing the need for a Green New Deal in Virginia which promotes a Just Transition to a clean energy economy through lifting working families.” This was referred to Commerce and Labor subcommittee 3, but there is no further information about it in the LIS.

Other utility regulation

 Bills that preserve, protect, and extend the monopoly power of our utilities are doing well. On the other hand, Dominion has so far failed to kill a bill strengthening the standards of review the SCC will use in considering whether to allow rate recovery for pipeline capacity. 

STILL ALIVE: HB 1718 (Ware) requires an electric utility to demonstrate that any pipeline capacity contracts it enters are the lowest-cost option available, before being given approval to charge customers in a fuel factor case. The discussion in the committee was lively. Delegate Ware assured the committee the bill was not intended to stop the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, but would simply guide the SCC’s review of a rate request after the pipeline is operational. Dominion’s lobbyist argued the legislation was unnecessary because the SCC already has all the authority it needs, and it shouldn’t be allowed to look back to second-guess the contents of the ACP contract. The bill passed the committee 11-8, with Democrats Keam, Kory, Bagby, Toscano, Heretick, Mullin and Bourne joining Republicans Ware, Byron, Webert and Wilt in support.  Republicans voting against were Kilgore, Hugo, Marshall, Robert Bell, O’Quinn, Yancey, Ransone, and Head. Democrat Eileen Filler-Corn abstained. [UPDATE 2/5/19: HB 1718 passed the House on a bipartisan vote of 57-40, with Filler-Corn abstaining again. Here is the tally of who voted on which side.]

STILL ALIVE: HB 1840 (Danny Marshall) allows utilities to develop transmission infrastructure at megasites in anticipation of development, charging today’s customers for the expense of attracting new customers. Reported from Commerce and Labor with a substitute. Democrats Bagby, Heretick, Mullin and Bourne joined the Republicans in support.

STILL ALIVE: HB 2477 (Kilgore) would eliminate one of the few areas of retail choice allowed in Virginia by preventing large customers from using competitive retail suppliers of electricity, including for the purpose of procuring renewable energy, in any utility territory with less than 2% annual load growth. A substitute bill in Commerce and Labor removes this language but replaces it with other requirements designed to make it difficult for large customers to leave the embrace of their incumbent monopoly. The substitute passed 15-2, with only Delegates Filler-Corn and Keam opposed.

HB 2503 (Rasoul) requires the State Corporation Commission to conduct a formal hearing before approving any changes to fuel procurement arrangements between affiliates of an electric utility or its parent company that will impact rate payers. This addresses the conflict of interest issue in Dominion Energy’s arrangement to commit its utility subsidiary to purchase capacity in the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.  Stricken from docket.

STILL ALIVE: HB 2691 (O’Quinn) establishes a pilot program for electric utilities to provide broadband services in underserved areas, and raise rates for the rest of us to pay for it, proclaiming this to be in the public interest. A substitute bill has utilities only providing the capacity on their lines to private broadband suppliers, and makes the investment eligible for recovery as an electric grid transformation project (seriously!), but prevents utilities from going into broadband services themselves. The amended bill passed Commerce and Labor unanimously.

HB 2697 (Toscano) and SB 1583 (Sutterlein) supports competition by shortening the time period that a utility’s customer that switches to a competing supplier is barred from returning as a customer of its utility from 5 years to 90 days. HB 2697 died in House Commerce and Labor subcommittee 3 on a party-line vote, with all the Republicans voting against it. SB 1583 died in Senate Commerce and Labor 11-2, with only Republicans Newman and Chafin voting for it. Democrats Saslaw, Dance and Lucas joined the rest of the Republicans in demonstrating their Dominion-friendly bonafides.

STILL ALIVE: HB 2738 (Bagby) and SB 1695 (Wagner) authorizes utilities to acquire rights of way on land that the Virginia Economic Development Partnership Authority decides could attract new customers to the site, and allows utilities to recover costs from existing customers. Because, you know, having utilities seize Virginians’ land for speculative development is already going so well for folks in the path of the pipelines. Who could complain about paying higher rates to help it happen more places?  A substitute tightens the requirements somewhat without changing the basics. HB 2738 reported from Commerce and Labor 19-1 (Kory opposing, Keam abstaining). SB 1695 now has a similar amendment; it passed the Senate 34-6 and has been referred to House Commerce and Labor. The dissenting senators are an interesting mix of Rs and Ds: Chase, McPike, Newman, Peake, Spruill, and Suetterlein.

SB 1780 (Petersen) requires, among other things, that utilities must refund to customers the costs of anything the SCC deems is a nonessential expenditure, including spending on lobbying, political contributions, and compensation for employees in excess of $5 million. It directs the SCC to disallow recovery of fuel costs if a company pays more for pipeline capacity from an affiliated company than needed to ensure a reliable supply of natural gas. It requires rate reviews of Dominion and APCo in 2019 and makes those biennial instead of triennial, and provides for the SCC to conduct an audit going back to 2015. It tightens provisions governing utilities’ keeping of overearnings and provides for the allowed rate of return to be based on the cost of providing service instead of letting our utilities make what all the other monopolists make (“peer group analysis”).  Killed in Commerce and Labor 12-1, with only Republican Richard Stuart supporting the bill.

Your guide to 2019 climate and energy bills

Virginia statehouse, where the General Assembly meetsUpdated (again!) January 23.

Clean energy and climate action are mainstream concepts with the public these days, but at Virginia’s General Assembly they have yet to gain much traction. Last year saw one renewable energy bill after another die in committee, along with legislation mandating lower energy use through energy efficiency and climate measures like having Virginia join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI).

The only major energy legislation to pass the GA in 2018 was the infamous SB 966, the so-called “grid mod” bill that included spending on energy efficiency and a stipulation that 5,500 megawatts (MW) of utility-owned or controlled solar and wind is “in the public interest.” But the bill didn’t actually mandate any efficiency savings or renewable energy investments, and it contained no support for customer-owned solar.

So clean energy advocates and climate activists are trying again, though the odds against them look as tough as ever. Republicans hold a bare majority of seats overall, but they dominate the powerful Commerce and Labor Committees that hear most energy bills. And Republicans overall (though with some exceptions) are more hostile to clean energy legislation than Democrats, and more willing to side with utilities against customers and competitors.

In particular, the House energy subcommittee has been a regular killing field for renewable energy bills. It consists of 7 Republicans and 4 Democrats, and last year every clean energy bill but one lost on party-line votes. Bills don’t advance to the full committee, much less to the House floor, unless they garner a majority in the subcommittee.

Over at Senate Commerce and Labor, Republicans hold an 11-4 majority on the full committee, and none of the Democrats are what you would call environmental champions. The electric utility subcommittee does not appear to be active this year.

A scattering of other clean energy and climate bills have been assigned to House Rules (which Republicans dominate 11-6) and Appropriations (12-10), where a subcommittee will several energy-related bills with fiscal impacts (at least three have been assigned to date). Some Senate bills will go to Finance.

Of course, this is an election year in Virginia, with every House and Senate seat up this fall. Legislators have reason to worry that the 2017 “blue wave” could turn into a 2019 flood tide that sweeps out not just vulnerable Republicans, but Democrats facing primary challenges from the left.

Will that persuade some of them to finally support clean energy, or at least some of the pragmatic initiatives that have broad popular support?

That’s the hope driving a number of bills framed around supporting market competition and customer choice, enabling private investments in renewable energy, and saving money for consumers and taxpayers. These are themes that appeal as much to conservatives as to liberals.

But a lot of these bills have the same problem they’ve always had. Dominion Energy opposes them, and Dominion controls the legislature.

Both Dominion and elected leaders maintain the fiction that it’s the other way around. That fiction allowed Senator Wagner and Delegate Kilgore, the chairmen of the Commerce and Labor Committees, to “refer” solar bills for secret negotiation between utilities and the solar industry via the private, closed-door Rubin Group.

About that Rubin Group

Frankly, I’ve never understood the notion that the solar industry ought to be able to work things out with the utilities so legislators don’t have to make decisions themselves. Solar installers negotiating with Dominion is like mice negotiating with the cat. The cat is not actually interested in peaceful coexistence, so it’s hard to imagine an outcome that makes life better for the mice.

And however much they insist they support solar, Kilgore, Wagner and company act like they’re secretly pleased that Kitty is such a good mouser. I don’t know how else to explain the way they lecture the mice on the virtues of compromise.

The Rubin Group has managed to produce legislation where the interests of the utilities and the solar industry align, primarily in ways that help utility-scale solar farms. When it comes to net metering and customer solar generally, however, Dominion hasn’t been willing to give up anything unless it gets something in return—and as it already has everything but the crumbs, progress seems to have stalled. I hear negotiations remain ongoing, however, so this isn’t the last word.

On the other hand, the solar industry did reach an accommodation with the electric cooperatives this year over customer solar. As member-owned non-profits, the coops are sometimes more responsive to the desires of their customer-owners, and this seems to be evidence of that. (Though see this blogpost from Seth Heald about the failures of democracy and transparency at Virginia’s larges coop, an issue now in litigation before the SCC.)

With the solar industry stalled in its talks with Dominion and a sense of urgency mounting, customer groups and other solar industry alliances have stepped into the void. Several bills seek to preserve and expand the market for customer solar with bills removing policy barriers. The most comprehensive of these is the Solar Freedom legislation put forward by Delegate Keam (HB 2329) and Senators McClellan and Edwards (SB 1456), removing 8 non-technical barriers to renewable energy deployment buy customers. Other net metering bills have similar provisions that tackle just one barrier at a time.

Another group of bills don’t seem intended to win Republican support, much less Dominion’s. Bills that will dramatically alter our energy supply, put Virginia at the forefront of climate action and rein in utility power have no chance of passage this year, but may become part of a platform for strong climate action next year if a pro-environment majority wins control of the GA.

The list below may look overwhelming, so let me just note that this is not even comprehensive, and additional bills may yet be filed.

I’ve separated the bills into categories for easier reference, but watch for overlap among them. I’ve put Solar Freedom up first (because I can!); after that, bills are ordered by number, with House bills first.

Solar Freedom 

HB 2329 (Keam) and SB 1456 (McClellan and Edwards) is the Solar Freedom bill that removes barriers to renewable energy installations by utility customers, mostly in the net metering provisions, and adds language to the Commonwealth Energy Policy supporting customer solar. The 8 provisions are:

  • Lifting the 1% cap on the total amount of solar that can be net metered in a utility territory
  • Making third-party financing using power purchase agreements (PPAs) legal statewide for all customer classes
  • Allowing local government entities to install solar facilities of up to 5 MW on government-owned property and use the electricity for other government-owned buildings
  • Allowing all customers to attribute output from a single solar array to multiple meters on the same or adjacent property of the same customer
  • Allowing the owner of a multi-family residential building or condominium to install a solar facility on the building or surrounding property and sell the electricity to tenants
  • Removing the restriction on customers installing a net-metered solar facility larger than required to meet their previous 12 months’ demand
  • Raising the size cap for net metered non-residential solar facilities from 1 MW to 2 MW
  • Removing standby charges for residential and agricultural net metering customers

Other renewable energy bills

HB 1683 (Ware) gives electric cooperatives greater autonomy, including authority to raise their total system caps for net metering up to 5% of peak load.

HB 1809 (Gooditis) follows up on last year’s HB 966 by making the renewable energy and energy efficiency provisions mandatory. If utilities don’t meet annual targets, they have to return their retained overearnings to customers.

HB 1869 (Hurst), SB 1483 (Deeds) and SB 1714 (Edwards) creates a pilot program allowing schools that generate a surplus of solar or wind energy to have the surplus credited to other schools in the same school district.

HB 1902 (Rasoul) would provide a billion dollars in grant funding for solar projects, paid for by utilities, who are required to contribute this amount of money through voluntary contributions (sic).

HB 1928 (Bulova) and SB 1460 (McClellan) expands utility programs allowing third-party power purchase agreements (PPAs) for renewable energy while continuing to restrict the classes of customers who are allowed to have access to this important financing tool.

HB 2117 (Mullin) and SB 1584 (Sutterlein) fixes the problem that competitive service providers can no longer offer renewable energy to a utility’s customers once the utility has an approved renewable energy tariff of its own. Now that the SCC has approved a renewable energy tariff for APCo, this is a live issue.

HB 2165 (Davis and Hurst) and HB 2460 (Jones and Kory), and SB 1496 (Saslaw) provide an income tax credit for nonresidential solar energy equipment installed on landfills, brownfields, in economic opportunity zones, and in certain utility cooperatives. This is a Rubin Group bill.

HB 2192 (Rush) and SB 1331 (Stanley) is a school modernization initiative that includes language encouraging energy efficient building standards and net zero design. It also encourages schools to consider lease agreements with private developers, but does not seem to contemplate the more common use of third-party power purchase agreements.

HB 2241 (Delaney) establishes a green jobs training tax credit.

HB 2500 (Sullivan) establishes a mandatory renewable portfolio standard (RPS) for Virginia, eliminates carbon-producing sources from the list of qualifying sources, kicks things off with an extraordinarily ambitious 20% by 2020 target, and ratchets up the targets to 80% by 2027.

HB 2547 (Hugo) and SB 1769 (Sturtevant) makes changes to the net metering program for customers of electric cooperatives. The overall net metering cap is raised from the current 1 percent to a total of 5%, divided into separate buckets by customer type and with an option for coops to choose to go up to 7%. Customers will be permitted to install enough renewable energy to meet up to 125% of previous year’s demand, up from 100% today. Third-party PPAs are generally legal, with a self-certification requirement. However, the coops will begin imposing demand charges on customers with solar, to be phased in over several years, replacing any standby charges. In the House version only, one additional provision allows investor-owned utilities (Dominion and APCo) to ask the SCC to raise the net metering cap if they feel like it, but I’m told it is not expected to be in the final legislation. This bill was negotiated between the coops and the solar industry via the “Rubin Group.”

HB 2621 (Ingram) and SB 1398 (Stanley) authorize a locality to require the owner or developer of a solar farm, as part of the approval process, to agree to a decommissioning plan. This is a Rubin Group bill.

HB 2641 (Gooditis) makes third-party power purchase agreements for distributed renewable energy resources legal statewide.

HB 2692 (Sullivan) allows the owner of a multifamily residential building to install a renewable energy facility and sell the output to occupants or use for the building’s common areas.

HB 2741 (Aird) establishes a rebate program for low and moderate-income households that install solar.

HB 2792 (Tran) and SB 1779 (Ebbin) establishes a 6-year pilot program for municipal net metering for localities that are retail customers of investor-owned utilities.

HJ 656 (Delaney) would have the Virginia Resources Authority study the process of transitioning Virginia’s workforce from fossil-fuel jobs to green energy jobs.

SB 1091 (Reeves) imposes expensive bonding requirements on utility-scale solar farms, taking a more drastic approach than HB 2621 (Ingram) and SB 1398 (Stanley) to resolving the concerns of localities about what happens to solar farms at the end of their useful life.

Energy Efficiency (some of which have RE components)

HB 2243 (Sullivan) creates an energy efficiency revolving fund to offer no-interest loans to local government, public schools, and public institutions of higher learning.

HB 2292 (Sullivan) and SB 1662 (Wagner), dubbed the “show your work bill,” requires the SCC to provide justification if it rejects a utility energy efficiency program.

HB 2293 (Sullivan) establishes a stakeholder process to provide input on the development of utility energy efficiency programs.

HB 2294 (Sullivan) establishes mandatory energy efficiency goals for electric and gas utilities.

HB 2295 (Sullivan) creates an energy efficiency fund and board to administer it.

HB 2332 (Keam) protects customer data collected by utilities while allowing the use of aggregated anonymous data for energy efficiency and demand-side management efforts.

SB 1111 (Marsden) requires utilities to provide rate abatements to certain customers who invest at least $10,000 in energy efficiency and, by virtue of their lower consumption, end up being pushed into a tier with higher rates.

SB 1400 (Petersen) removes the exclusion of residential buildings from the Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) program, which allows localities to provide low-interest loans for energy efficiency and renewable energy improvements on buildings.

HB 2070 (Bell, John) provides a tax deduction for energy saving products, including solar panels and Energy Star products, up to $10,000.

Energy transition and climate

HB 1635 (Rasoul, with 9 co-patrons) imposes a moratorium on fossil fuel projects, including export facilities, gas pipelines and related infrastructure, refineries and fossil fuel exploration; requires utilities to use clean energy sources for 80% of electricity sales by 2028, and 100% by 2036; and requires the Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy to develop a (really) comprehensive climate action plan, which residents are given legal standing to enforce by suit. This is being referred to as by the Off Act. (Update: HB 1635 passed Commerce and Labor on January 23 and heads to the floor of the House. Read this blogpost to understand what’s going on.)

HB 2735 (Toscano) and SB 1666 (Lewis and Spruill) is this year’s version of the Virginia Coastal Protection Act, which would have Virginia formally join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI). It dedicates money raised by auctioning carbon allowances to climate adaptation efforts, energy efficiency programs, and coalfields transition. The Governor has made this bill a priority.

HB 1686 (Reid, with 14 co-patrons) and SB 1648 (Boysko) bans new or expanded fossil fuel generating plants until Virginia has those 5,500 MW of renewable energy we were promised. This is referred to as the Renewables First Act.

HB 2611 (Poindexter) would prohibit Virginia from joining or participating in RGGI without support from two-thirds of the members of the House and Senate, making it sort of an anti-Virginia Coastal Protection Act.

HB 2501 (Rasoul) directs the Division of Energy at DMME to include a greenhouse gas emissions inventory in the Virginia Energy Plan.

HB 2645 (Rasoul, with 13 co-patrons), nicknamed the REFUND Act, prohibits electric utilities from making nonessential expenditures and requires refunds if the SCC finds they have. It also bars fuel cost recovery for more pipeline capacity than appropriate to ensure a reliable supply of gas. Other reforms in the bill would undo some of the provisions of last year’s SB 966, lower the percentage of excess earnings utilities can retain, and require the SCC to determine rates of return based on cost of service rather than peer group analysis.

HB 2747 (Kilgore) and SB 1707 (Chafin) create a Southwest Virginia Energy Research and Development Authority which will, among other things, promote renewable energy on brownfield sites, including abandoned mine sites, and support energy storage, including pumped storage hydro.

HJ 724 (Rasoul) is a resolution “Recognizing the need for a Green New Deal in Virginia which promotes a Just Transition to a clean energy economy through lifting working families.”

Other utility regulation

HB 1718 (Ware) requires an electric utility to demonstrate that any pipeline capacity contracts it enters are the lowest-cost option available, before being given approval to charge customers in a fuel factor case.

HB 1840 (Danny Marshall) allows utilities to develop transmission infrastructure at megasites in anticipation of development, charging today’s customers for the expense of attracting new customers.

HB 2477 (Kilgore) would eliminate one of the few areas of retail choice allowed in Virginia by preventing large customers from using competitive retail suppliers of electricity, including for the purpose of procuring renewable energy, in any utility territory with less than 2% annual load growth. (I haven’t confirmed this, but that might be Dominion as well as APCo.)

HB 2503 (Rasoul) requires the State Corporation Commission to conduct a formal hearing before approving any changes to fuel procurement arrangements between affiliates of an electric utility or its parent company that will impact rate payers. This addresses the conflict of interest issue in Dominion Energy’s arrangement to commit its utility subsidiary to purchase capacity in the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

HB 2691 (O’Quinn) establishes a pilot program for electric utilities to provide broadband services in underserved areas, and raise rates for the rest of us to pay for it, proclaiming this to be in the public interest.

HB 2697 (Toscano) and SB 1583 (Sutterlein) supports competition by shortening the time period that a utility’s customer that switches to a competing supplier is barred from returning as a customer of its utility from 5 years to 90 days.

HB 2738 (Bagby) and SB 1695 (Wagner) authorizes utilities to acquire rights of way on land that the Virginia Economic Development Partnership Authority decides could attract new customers to the site, and allows utilities to recover costs from existing customers. Because, you know, having utilities seize Virginians’ land for speculative development is already going so well for folks in the path of the pipelines. Who could complain about paying higher rates to help it happen more places?

SB 1780 (Petersen) requires, among other things, that utilities must refund to customers the costs of anything the SCC deems is a nonessential expenditure, including spending on lobbying, political contributions, and compensation for employees in excess of $5 million. It directs the SCC to disallow recovery of fuel costs if a company pays more for pipeline capacity from an affiliated company than needed to ensure a reliable supply of natural gas. It requires rate reviews of Dominion and APCo in 2019 and makes those biennial instead of triennial, and provides for the SCC to conduct an audit going back to 2015. It tightens provisions governing utilities’ keeping of overearnings and provides for the allowed rate of return to be based on the cost of providing service instead of letting our utilities make what all the other monopolists make (“peer group analysis”).


This article originally appeared in the Virginia Mercury on January 17, 2019. I’ve updated it to include later-filed bills and one or two that I missed originally. 

2018 Guide to Wind and Solar Policy in Virginia

[A downloadable PDF of this guide is available here.]

Introduction

Advocates for wind and solar finally begin to feel cautiously optimistic about the prospects for clean energy in Virginia. Prices for wind and solar have dropped to the point where the question is no longer whether they can compete with fossil fuels, but whether fossil fuels can compete with them. Support for renewable energy is high in the General Assembly, new solar projects are popping up across the state, and interest in offshore wind is on the rise again, after a years-long nap.

Still, Virginia’s energy laws were written by and for monopoly utilities that are heavily invested in coal, gas and nuclear. The Virginia Code contains a thicket of barriers that protect utility profits from competition and limit the options of developers, consumers, local governments and businesses.

This survey of current policy is intended to help decision-makers, industry, advocates and consumers understand what options for wind and solar exist today, where the barriers lie, and what we could be doing to take fuller advantage of the clean energy opportunities before us.

A few disclaimers: I don’t cover everything, the opinions expressed are purely my own, and as legal advice it is worth exactly what you’re paying for it.

  1. Overview: Virginia making headway on solar, but still no wind
Virginia Maryland North Carolina W. Virginia Tennessee
Solar* 631.26 932.7 4,411.65 6.05 236.36
Wind** 0 191 208 686 29
Total 631.26 1,123.7 4,619.65 692.05 265.36

  Installed capacity measured in megawatts (MW) at the end of 2017. One megawatt is equal to 1,000 kilowatts (kW).

*Source: Solar Energy Industries Association **Source: American Wind Energy Association

Virginia installed almost 400 megawatts (MW) of solar last year, bringing the total at the end of 2017 to 631 MW, up from 238 at the end of 2016. This nudges us closer to Maryland, though it leaves us further behind North Carolina than ever.

Most of the Virginia solar to date has been installed to serve large tech companies, not the general public. This reflects the companies’ renewable energy commitments, their buying power, and their willingness to pursue new financing models that make the most of solar’s increasingly low cost.

Corporate demand will likely continue to drive the majority of Virginia installations in the near term, but Virginia utilities are starting to add solar to the resource mix that serves ordinary customers.

On the other hand, Virginia remains the only state in our 5-state neighborhood without a wind farm. To be fair, all 5 states have been stuck in the doldrums; an American Wind Energy Association update showed no new wind farms opening in any of them in 2017. That leaves Apex Clean Energy’s 75 MW Rocky Forge wind farm still in limbo; it received its permit more than a year ago and remains construction-ready whenever a buyer shows up.

Among the recent developments showing momentum for solar:

  • In 2017, Dominion Energy Virginia acknowledged for the first time that solar had become the cheapest form of energy in Virginia. In May of this year, a news source reported that the utility’s parent company, Dominion Energy, has given up on building any new combined-cycle (baseload) gas plants and will build only large solar plants, though the company proposes many more of the smaller gas combustion turbines.
  • A new law passed in 2018 (SB 966) puts 5,000 MW of utility wind and solar “in the public interest,” although this language is not a mandate.
  • The 2018 law also makes it in the public interest for utilities to develop up to 500 MW of distributed solar (some parts of the bill say just 50 MW).
  • Dominion’s 2018 Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) includes up to 6,400 MW by 2033 in most of the scenarios it modeled. The IRP is not binding, but it gives regulators and the public a look into how a utility plans to meet customer demand over a 15-year period.
  • Some rural cooperatives and municipal electric utilities in Virginia are now adding solar.
  • Solar projects keep getting bigger. A few years ago, a 20 MW solar farm was considered huge; today it is at the low end for utility-scale. In 2015 Amazon Web Services stunned us all by announcing an 80 MW facility. By the end of 2017 it had contracted for 260 MW of solar in Virginia, including a 100 MW project. In March of this year Microsoft announced it had reserved 315 MW of a planned 500 MW project.
  • An analysisby the Solar Foundation found that Virginia could add over 50,000 jobs by building enough solar to meet 10% of the Commonwealth’s electricity supply over five years.

The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) website contains a list of projects that have begun the permitting process under Virginia’s permit-by-rule provisions, which govern projects up to 150 MW. Larger projects need permission from the State Corporation Commission (SCC). All projects must also obtain local permits.

Like onshore wind, offshore wind still hasn’t taken off in Virginia. In 2014 Dominion Energy Virginia won the right to develop an estimated 2,000 MW of wind power offshore of Virginia Beach, but it still hasn’t offered a timeline for a commercial offshore wind project or even included one in its IRP. The 2018 IRP does include Dominion’s two-turbine, 12 MW pilot project, with a projected in-service date of 2021. Last year Dominion formed a partnership with Danish energy giant Ørsted (formerly DONG Energy) to see the pilot project through.

  1. Customers’ ability to purchase renewable energy is still limited

 Currently, the average Virginia resident or business can’t pick up the phone and call their utility to buy electricity generated by wind and solar farms. Customers of a few rural cooperatives are the exception; see the next section on green power programs, and section 4 on community solar.

Section 56-577(A)(6) of the Virginia code allows utilities to offer renewable energy tariffs, and if they don’t, customers are supposed to be able to go elsewhere for it. Neither of our two major investor-owned utilities, Dominion Energy Virginia (formerly Dominion Virginia Power) and Appalachian Power Company (APCo), currently has an approved tariff for renewable energy. The SCC has previously rejected renewable energy tariffs from APCo and Dominion that the SCC ruled were not in the public interest, mostly because they were too expensive.

Both utilities are trying again. APCo’s latest proposed renewable energy tariff, dubbed Rider WWS, combines wind, hydro, and new solar, and would cost residential customers a premium of 4.25 percent over brown power—a huge drop from the 18 percent increase associated with the earlier, rejected program. (The case is PUR-2017-00179.)

Dominion’s new renewable energy tariff is intended for residential and non-residential customers with a peak demand of less than 1 MW. Rate Schedule CRG-S (case PUR-2017-00157) would consist of hydro, wind and new solar, but possibly also other sources from within the PJM region. Dominion calculates the premium at 17.87 percent over brown power, a surprisingly high premium given how cheap solar, wind and hydro have become.

The SCC has not yet ruled on either program, so it is not clear when, or if, Dominion and APCo will implement these renewable energy tariffs.

Can you go elsewhere? Since the State Corporation Commission has ruled that REC-based programs do not qualify as selling renewable energy, under the terms of §56-577(A)(6), customers are currently permitted to turn to other licensed suppliers of electric energy “to purchase electric energy provided 100 percent from renewable energy.”

That means you should be able to go elsewhere to buy wind and solar, at least for the limited time before Dominion and APCo can get tariffs approved. But Virginia utilities claim that the statute’s words should be read as requiring not only that another licensed supplier provide 100% renewable energy, but that it also supply 100% of the customer’s demand, all the time. Obviously, the owner of a wind farm or solar facility cannot do that. Ergo, say the utilities, a customer cannot really go elsewhere.

In spite of the roadblocks, an independent power seller called Direct Energy announced plans in 2016 to sell a renewable energy product to Virginia residents in Dominion’s territory. (The company described the product as a combination of wind and municipal waste biomass.) Dominion fought back, but in 2017 the SCC confirmed Direct Energy’s right to enter the Virginia market; however, the SCC also ruled that Direct Energy will have to stop signing up customers once Dominion has its own approved renewable energy tariff.

Legislation defeated in the General Assembly this year would have allowed customers of Dominion and APCo to purchase electricity generated 100 percent from renewable energy from any supplier licensed to business in the state, regardless of whether the utility had its own approved program.

Ron Cerniglia, Director of Corporate and Regulatory Affairs for Direct Energy, says Direct Energy “will be ready to begin offering a full suite of product and service offerings that customers currently receive in other competitive markets including a 100% renewable product by August to non-residential customers (e.g, commercial and industrial) within the Dominion Virginia Power service territory.”

Dominion will soon have a solar option. Legislation passed in 2017 under the misleading banner of “community solar,” authorizes Dominion and APCo to contract for power from solar farms to sell to consumers. Dominion’s program is awaiting approval at the SCC (case PUR-2018-00009). Rider VCS will be available to all retail customers at a premium of about 2.01 cents/kWh in the first year. As of this writing, APCo does not appear to have proposed a similar program.

The legislation states that these “community solar” programs explicitly do not count as ones selling “electric energy provided 100 percent from renewable energy,”though ironically, they may be the first programs from Dominion and APCo to do exactly that for residential and small commercial consumers.

Large customers have more options. As discussed in section 14, Dominion has worked with large tech companies, including Amazon, Microsoft and Facebook, to meet their demands for electricity from solar. Customers of this size also have the market power to sidestep utility control to achieve their aims through the wholesale energy market.

Other companies, institutions, and even local governments can aggregate their demand to achieve the same result, without affecting their retail purchase contracts with their utility (and thus not incurring the ire of the utility). For example, the Northern Virginia Regional Commission has hired a consultant to help area governments develop large-scale solar projects using a wholesale power purchase agreement, an undertaking I wrote about last fall.

  1. “Green power” products: mostly brown power painted green

Instead of offering renewable energy tariffs, for years Dominion and APCo have offered voluntary programs under which the utilities pay brokers to buy renewable energy certificates (RECs) on behalf of the participants. Participants sign up and agree to be billed extra on their power bills for the service. Meanwhile, they still run their homes and businesses on regular “brown” power.

As I wrote a few years back in What’s wrong with Dominion’s Green Power Program, there is little evidence that voluntary RECs from Midwestern wind farms are driving any new renewable energy, whether you buy them from a utility or a third-party supplier like Arcadia. But if you’re considering this route, read this post first so you understand what you are getting. Personally, I recommend instead making monthly tax-deductible donations to GRID Alternatives to put solar on low-income homes.

The situation is better with some rural cooperatives. Old Dominion Electric Cooperative (ODEC), which supplies power to most of Virginia’s coops, signed long-term contracts for the output of three wind farms in Maryland and Pennsylvania, which it resells to some member coops. Customers of participating coops can choose to buy wind power for an additional cost. (See the information posted by Shenandoah Valley Electric Cooperative as an example.) ODEC has contracted for two solar farms in Virginia as well.

But not all coops do this. Most have REC-only offerings. In the case of Rappahannock Electric Cooperative, the RECs come from a biomass plant somewhere “in the greater mid-Atlantic area.” That is, customers voluntarily pay extra to subsidize the burning of trees for power, probably at a facility out of state. Because of wood’s high moisture content, this kind of biomass is a highly polluting way to make energy and an important source of carbon dioxide emissions, calling into question the value of the program to customers who want to support renewable energy.

  1. Community solar: what’s in a name? 

Community solar, in its purest form, enables people to work together to develop and own a solar facility in their community for the use of all the participants. This kind of community solar is not currently an option in Virginia. Solar advocates have introduced enabling legislation for several years running, but it has been defeated every year in the face of utility opposition.

Two Virginia rural electric cooperatives offer programs that come close. In both cases, the coop has contracted for the output of a solar project in its territory and offers shares of the electricity to coop members. BARC, in southwestern Virginia, was the first to offer such a program, using a small 500 kW solar facility. This year Central Virginia Electric Cooperative(CVEC) launched a 4 MW program. Subscribers can lock in the rate for 20 years, one of the most attractive features of community solar.

As noted in Section 2, legislation enacted in 2017 enables a kind of pseudo-community solar controlled by a utility. Using this authority, Dominion has contracted for the development of a number of smaller (up to 2 MW) solar projects around Virginia, and will offer customers the option of paying a 2.01 cents/kWh premium to buy solar. Unlike a true community solar program (or CVEC’s), the price is not fixed but will change annually based on market factors, and it includes a profit margin for Dominion.

It looks like a renewable energy tariff, and it quacks like a renewable energy tariff, but all concerned call it community solar. The program now awaits approval by the SCC (case PUR-2018-00009) and is expected to be available to Dominion customers by the end of the year.

  1. Virginia’s RPS: modest, and with much to be modest about

Most states have adopted renewable portfolio standards (RPS) or other mandates to require utilities to build or buy renewable energy. Leading states have been ratcheting up their percentages while tightening the rules for what qualifies, giving priority to new wind and solar.

Virginia is not among these leading states.

Virginia Code §56-585.2 creates a voluntary RPS, which means utilities have the option of participating but don’t have to. Renewable energy is defined in §56-576 to include not just wind, solar, and falling water, but also highly polluting forms of energy like trash incineration and burning trees, a/k/a biomass (“sustainable or otherwise”), as well as old, large hydroelectric plants that don’t qualify for other states’ programs. Utilities are also allowed to include up to 20% of RECs from renewable energy research and development activities, providing a subsidy to a few Virginia universities with good lobbyists.

Utilities demonstrate compliance with the RPS through the retirement of renewable energy certificates (RECs). The SCC insists that utilities take a least-cost approach to meeting the RPS, which means RECs from trash incinerators, wood burning, and old out-of-state hydro will always edge out wind and solar, simply because there is little competition for those junky RECs. If utilities build wind and solar, they are required to sell the high-value RECs from these projects (to utilities out of state or to the voluntary market) and buy low-cost junky ones instead. Thus, no matter how much solar Dominion builds, customers will never see solar as part of the RPS.

Perhaps it goes without saying that the RPS makes no provision for Virginia utilities to buy RECs from solar homes or businesses.

The targets are also modest to a fault. Although nominally promising 15% renewables by 2025, the statute uses a 2007 baseline, ignoring load growth, and contains a sleight-of-hand in the definitions section by which the target is applied only to the amount of energy after nuclear is excluded. Nuclear makes up a third of Dominion’s energy mix. Thus the combined result is an effective RPS target of well under 10% in 2025.

According to Dominion’s 2017 Annual Report to the State Corporation Commission on Renewable Energy, the “fuel” types used to meet the RPS in 2016 consisted entirely of hydro, municipal solid waste incineration, woody biomass, landfill gas, research and development, and “thermal energy” (another unusual source). The in-service dates of facilities generating renewable energy or RECs range from the 1910s to the 2010s, with the majority clearly pre-dating adoption of the RPS. Almost half the energy or RECs come from out of state. The report does not say who Dominion bought and sold RECs from and to, or for how much.

The General Assembly has rejected numerous bills to make the RPS mandatory, and efforts to narrow the definition of renewable energy have repeatedly failed in the face of utility and other industry opposition. The utilities have offered no arguments why the goals should not be limited to new, high-value, in-state renewable projects, other than that it would cost more to meet them than to buy junk RECs.

But with the GA hostile to a mandatory RPS and too many parties with vested interests in keeping the kitchen-sink approach going, it is hard to imagine our RPS becoming transformed into a useful tool to incentivize wind and solar.

That doesn’t mean there is no role for legislatively-mandated wind and solar. But it would be easier to pass a bill with a simple, straightforward mandate for buying or building a certain number of megawatts than it would be to repair a hopelessly broken RPS. The GA passed up an opportunity to do just that in this year’s SB 966, which makes up to 5,500 MW of solar and wind “in the pubic interest,” but not mandatory.

Short of that, the GA could require that Dominion apply the RECs from its solar projects to the voluntary RPS, instead of selling them, and allow the utility to buy other RECs only to fill any gaps left over.

  1. Customer-owned generation

The low cost of solar panels and the federal 30% tax credit make it cost-effective for most customers to install solar on a sunny roof or field, with homeowners reporting payback periods of less than 10 years. The federal tax credit will be available in full for projects that commence construction by the end of 2019. It drops to 26% for projects commenced in 2020 and 22% for projects commenced in 2021. Thereafter it drops to 10% for commercial and utility projects but disappears for homeowners entirely. Virginia itself offers no cash incentives or tax credits for wind or solar.

The emergence of bulk purchasing coops, sometimes also called “solarize” programs, such as those offered through nonprofits Solar United Neighbors of Virginia and LEAP, makes the process easy for homeowners and businesses and reduces costs.

Virginia allows net energy metering at the retail rate, though with limits (see section 7). Commercial customers can also reap the advantages of solar in reducing high demand charges.

In 2016 the General Assembly passed legislation enabling Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) loans for commercial customers. Localities now have an option to offer low-cost financing for energy efficiency and renewable energy projects at the commercial level. Arlington County has launched the first C-PACE program and is accepting applications now. Several other counties have initiated studies or are developing their own programs. PACE is not available for residential customers.

The lack of a true RPS in Virginia means Virginia utilities generally will not buy solar renewable energy certificates (SRECs) from customers. Back in the old days utilities in other states would buy SRECs generated in Virginia, but those markets have gradually closed. Pennsylvania, which had been the last remaining SREC market for Virginia residents, closed its borders last year.

The fact that the federal tax credit is such an important part of financing solar presents a challenge to customers who don’t pay any taxes, or enough taxes to use the credit. This includes non-profits, government entities, and low-income residents. Third-party financing offers a viable solution for tax-exempt entities, where available (see Section 10), but serving low-income residents remains a challenge.

  1. Limits on retail net metering

Section 56-594 of the Virginia Code allows utility customers with wind and solar projects to net energy meter at the retail rate. System owners get credit from their utility for surplus electricity that’s fed into the grid at times of high output, such as during the middle of a sunny day. That offsets the grid power they draw on when their systems are producing less than they need. Their monthly bills reflect only the net of the energy they draw from the grid.

Residential customers can net meter systems up to 20 kW, although standby charges will apply to those between 10 and 20 kW, generally making the larger sizes uneconomical.

Commercial customers can net meter up to 1,000 kW (1 MW). There is an overall cap of 1% of a utility’s peak demand that can be supplied by net metered systems (as measured at their rated capacity).

If a system produces more than the customer uses in a month, the credits roll over to the next month. However, at the end of the year, the customer will be paid for any excess credits only if they have entered a power purchase agreement with the utility. This will likely be for a price that represents the utility’s “avoided cost” of about 4 cents, rather than the retail rate, which for homeowners is about 12 cents. This effectively stops most people from installing larger systems than they can use themselves.

In 2015, the definition of “eligible customer-generator” was tightened to limit system sizes to no larger than needed to meet 100% of a customer’s demand, based on the previous 12 months of billing history. The SCC wrote implementing regulations (see20VAC5-315-10 et seq.) but failed to address what happens with new construction; in practice, utilities have simply told customers how much they can install.

In 2018 the House Commerce and Labor subcommittee on energy defeated a bill that would have increased the limit to 125% of previous demand and extended this to new construction, for residents in Dominion territory. Dominion had agreed to the change, recognizing that there is already a financial disincentive for customers to install more solar than they can use.

A number of other barriers also restrict customer solar. A building owner cannot install a solar facility and sell the output to tenants. A condo association or homeowners association cannot build a central solar facility to share the output. The owner of two or more separately metered buildings cannot share the output of a solar facility on one building with another building, with a limited exception for farmers (see section 8). A local government cannot install a solar facility at one site to serve another site.

These barriers reflect an argument, promoted by utilities, that customers who install solar for their own use don’t pay their fair share of the upkeep of the grid, shifting costs to those who don’t own solar. A range of “value of solar” studies in other states have generally found the reverse, concluding that distributed solar provides a net benefit to utilities, other customers, and society at large. A stakeholder group in Virginia completed the initial phase of a value of solar study in 2014 but got no further after the utilities pulled out of the process.

Over many years the utilities and the solar industry have tried to resolve their differences on net metering, without success. Efforts began in 2013 with the Small Solar Working Group, a broad stakeholder group facilitated by DEQ. That morphed into the Solar Working Group in 2014, then collapsed when the utilities walked away from a “Value of Solar” report the group drafted. In 2016 the utilities and the solar industry began meeting again privately in the “Rubin Group” (named for the moderator, Mark Rubin). This group produced consensus legislation in 2017 and 2018, primarily enabling the utilities to pursue their own solar goals, but they found no common ground on customer-owned solar.

In the absence of state tax credits or rebates, net metering remains critical to the financial viability of most customer-owned solar, making solar installers unwilling to give it up. For their part, utilities have put themselves into a box by insisting that customers ought to share grid costs equally. Reaching a resolution that allows the private solar market to grow will require taking the top off the box and valuing benefits as well as costs.

The issue is poised to come to a head this year. In addition to ongoing Rubin Group discussions, the Northam Administration has announced that net metering issues will be one focus of attention as the Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy (DMME) develops the 2018 Energy Plan, due at the end of October. DMME appears to have handed the solar work over to Dominion, which, as part of 2018’s SB 966 legislation, had tasked itself with conducting a study of net metering. Dominion has hired a consultant, Meridian Institute, “to design and facilitate a stakeholder engagement process” to consider “improvements” to net metering.

  1. Agricultural customers and meter aggregation

Under a bill passed in 2013, owners of Virginia farms with more than one electric meter are permitted to attribute the electricity produced by a system that serves one meter (say, on a barn) to other meters on the property (e.g., the farmhouse and other outbuildings). This is referred to as “agricultural net metering.” Unfortunately, there have been complaints from installers about a lack of cooperation from utilities in actually using this provision.

Advocates had hoped that agricultural net metering would be a first step towards broader meter aggregation options, but 2017 legislation instead took agricultural customers in a new direction. Farmers can now elect to devote up to a quarter of their acreage to solar panels, up to 1.5 MW or 150% of their own electricity demand. The electricity must be sold to the utility at its avoided cost, while the farmer must buy all its electricity from the utility at retail. A farmer who chooses to do this cannot also use agricultural net metering. Agricultural net metering will be terminated entirely in 2019 in territory served by electric cooperatives, though existing customers are grandfathered.

  1. Homeowner associations cannot ban solar (but they sure keep trying)

 Homeowner association (HOA) bans and restrictions on solar systems have been a problem for residential solar. In the 2014 session, the legislature nullified bans as contrary to public policy. The law contains an exception for bans that are recorded in the land deeds, but this is said to be highly unusual; most bans are simply written into HOA covenants. In April of 2015 the Virginia Attorney issued an opinion letter confirming that unrecorded HOA bans on solar are no longer legal.

Even where HOAs cannot ban solar installations, they can impose “reasonable restrictions concerning the size, place and manner of placement.” This language is undefined. The Maryland-DC-Virginia Solar Energy Industries Association has published a guide for HOAs on this topic.

Because of the vagueness of “reasonable restrictions,” HOAs continue to be a problem for many would-be solar homeowners.

  1. Limits on third-party financing (PPAs)

One of the drivers of solar installations in other states has been third-party ownership of the systems, including third-party power purchase agreements (PPAs). In a typical third-party PPA, the customer pays no money upfront and is charged only for the power produced by the system. At the end of the contract, or at some intermediate point, the customer usually can buy the system outright at a greatly reduced cost.

For customers that pay no taxes, including non-profit entities like churches and colleges as well as local government, PPAs are an especially important financing tool because they can’t use the 30% federal tax credit to reduce the cost of the system if they purchase it directly. Under a PPA, the system owner can take the tax credit (as well as accelerated depreciation) and pass along the savings in the form of a lower electricity price.

The Virginia Code seems to sanction this approach to financing solar facilities in its net metering provisions, specifically §56-594, which authorizes a “customer generator” to net meter, and defines an eligible customer generator 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).

Notwithstanding this provision, in 2011, when Washington & Lee University attempted to use a PPA to finance a solar array on its campus, Dominion Virginia Power issued cease and desist letters to the university and its Staunton-based solar provider, Secure Futures LLC. Dominion claimed the arrangement violated its monopoly on power sales within its territory.

Given the threat of prolonged and costly litigation, the parties turned the PPA contract into a lease, allowing the solar installation to proceed but without the advantages of a PPA. (Note that PPAs are sometimes referred to as “leases,” but they are distinct legally. Leasing solar equipment is like renting a generator; both provide power but don’t involve the sale of the electricity itself. I have never heard of a utility objecting to a true lease.)

In 2013 Dominion and the solar industry resolved the dispute via compromise legislation that specifically allows customers in Dominion territory to use third-party PPAs to install solar or wind projects under a pilot program capped at 50 MW. Projects must have a minimum size of 50 kW, unless the customer is a tax-exempt entity, in which case there is no minimum. Projects can be as large as 1 MW. The SCC is supposed to review the program every two years beginning in 2015 and has authority to make changes to it. I’m not aware the SCC has reviewed the program to date.

Although the program got off to a slow start, PPA projects are beginning to come online at a rapid clip, and solar companies say an increase in the program size will be needed so installations don’t suddenly stall.

Outside of Dominion territory, the story is less rosy. Appalachian Power and the electric cooperatives declined to participate in the PPA deal-making. In 2017, the legislature passed a bill to allow private colleges and universities—but no one else—in APCo territory to use PPAs to install a maximum of 7 MW of renewable energy. This year a bill to expand the program for APCo customers was scuttled at the last moment due to APCo’s opposition.

Meanwhile, Secure Futures has developed a third-party-ownership business model that it says works like a PPA for tax purposes but does not include the sale of electricity. This allows the company to install larger projects in more parts of Virginia (including most recently a 1.3 MW solar array at Carilion New River Valley Medical Center in Christiansburg, which I have to mention here because the project combines solar and sheep farming and therefore will make for cute photos). Currently Secure Futures is the only solar provider offering this option, which it calls a Customer Self-Generation Agreement.

Solar schools. The availability of PPA financing has had a direct and noticeable impact on the ability of pubic schools to install solar. The projects that I know about include the following; most (but not all) of these use the PPA structure.

  • Bath County (three schools)
  • Arlington County (two schools; county is currently evaluating bids for other schools)
  • Albermarle County (six schools)
  • City of Lexington (one school)
  • Middlesex County (two schools)
  • Augusta County (seven schools)
  • City of Richmond (ten schools)
  • City of Harrisonburg (RFP issued)
  1. Personal property tax exemption for solar developers

In 2014 the General Assembly passed a law exempting solar generating equipment “owned or operated by a business” from state and local taxation for installations up to 20 MW. It did this by classifying solar equipment as “pollution abatement equipment” under §58.1-3660 of the Code. Note that this applies only to the equipment, not to the buildings or land underlying the installation, so real estate taxes aren’t affected.

The law was a response to a problem that local “machinery and tools” taxes were mostly so high as to make third-party PPAs uneconomic in Virginia. In a state where solar was already on the margin, the tax could be a deal-breaker. A separate code provision (§58.1-3661) permitted localities to exempt solar equipment from taxation, but seeking the exemptions on a county-by-county and city-by-city basis proved crushingly onerous for small developers.

The initial 20 MW cap was included at the request of the Virginia Municipal League and the Virginia Association of Counties, and it seemed at the time like such a high cap as to be irrelevant. However, with solar increasingly attractive economically, Virginia’s tax exemption rapidly became a draw for solar developers, including Virginia utilities.

In 2016 Dominion proposed changing the exemption to benefit its own projects at the expense of those of independent developers. In the end, the statute was amended in a way that benefits utility-scale projects without unduly harming smaller projects. Many new projects are now only 80% exempt, rather than entirely exempt. However, the details are complex, with different timelines and different size classes, and anyone looking to use this provision should study it carefully.

The exemption applies only to solar, not to wind.

  1. Dominion-owned distributed solar

Solar Partnership Program (commercial customers). In 2011, the General Assembly passed a law allowing Dominion to build up to 30 MW of solar energy on leased property, such as roof space on a college or commercial establishment. The demonstration program was intended to help Dominion learn about grid integration. The SCC approved $80 million of spending, to be partially offset by selling the RECs (meaning the solar energy would not be used to meet Virginia’s RPS goals). The “Solar Partnership Program” resulted in several commercial-scale projects on university campuses and corporate buildings, but the program did not offer any economic advantages, and it seems to have fizzled out. The Dominion Energy web pageon distributed generation still mentions it, but the link does not lead to more information (and didn’t last year either).

Dominion seems to be ready to try again. The 2018 legislation (SB 966) contains language saying it is in the public interest for utilities to develop or own up to 500 MW of distributed solar. Elsewhere in the same legislation the limit is shown as 50 MW, and it is not clear which one is the typo. Either number gives Dominion plenty of leeway to try out fancy technology involving grid integration of renewables to enhance system reliability and community resilience, or just make another go at undercutting customer-owned solar.

Dominion Solar Purchase Program (residential and business customers). The same 2011 legislation that enabled the “Solar Partnership” initiative also authorized Dominion to establish “an alternative to net metering” as part of the demonstration program. The alternative Dominion came up with was a buy-all, sell-all deal for up to 3 MW of customer-owned solar. As approved by the SCC, the program allows owners of small solar systems on homes and businesses to sell the power and the associated RECs to Dominion at 15 cents/kWh, while buying regular grid power at retail for their own use. Dominion then sells the power to the Green Power Program at a hefty markup. It is not clear whether the program continues to be available; as with the Solar Partnership Program, the links on the Dominion Energy website don’t lead anywhere helpful.

I ripped this program from the perspective of the Green Power Program buyers who pay for other people to install solar on their homes. While some installers advertised it as an option, others felt it was a bad deal for customers, given the costs involved, the likelihood that the payments represent taxable income, and the fact that selling the electricity could make new system owners ineligible for the 30% federal tax credit on the purchase of the system.

There are many good ways Dominion could work with the General Assembly to offer alternatives to net metering that also support customer solar. This program isn’t one of them.

  1. Utility renewable energy tariffs for large customers

Large customers that want wind and solar have had to force the issue in the past. In 2013, Dominion Power introduced a Renewable Generation (RG) Tariff to allow customers to buy renewable power from providers, with the utility simply acting as a go-between and collecting a monthly administrative fee. The program was poorly designed and got no takers.

In 2015, Amazon Web Services made Dominion’s RG tariff irrelevant. Amazon contracted directly with a developer for an 80 MW solar farm, avoiding Dominion’s monopoly restrictions with a plan to sell the electricity directly into the PJM (wholesale) market. Dominion Energy bought the project, and negotiated a special rate with Amazon for the power. This contract became the basis for an “experimental” tariff (Schedule MBR) that Dominion Energy Virginia offered to customers with a peak demand of 5 MW or more, with a program cap of 200 MW.

Since that first deal, Dominion and Amazon have followed up with contracts for an additional 180 MW of solar in five Virginia counties.

Dominion used a different approach for a deal with Microsoft. After the SCC turned down Dominion’s application to charge ratepayers for a 20-MW solar farm in Remington, Virginia, Dominion reached an agreement with Microsoft and the Commonwealth of Virginia under which the state buys the output of the project, while Microsoft buys the RECs. This seems to have been done as a favor to Dominion by then-governor Terry McAuliffe, as a way to move the Remington project forward, and I wouldn’t expect to see it repeated.

In the fall of 2017, Facebook negotiated its own terms with Dominion for 130 MW of a 300 MW solar project. With this as its basis, Dominion created yet another new tariff, Schedule RF.

The alphabet soup of tariffs suggest Dominion is still finding its way in serving large corporations. The utility has a strong incentive to make deals with large corporations that want a lot of renewable energy: if they don’t like what Dominion is offering, they can make an end run around the utility by working through the PJM wholesale market, as discussed above in section 2. This appears to be Microsoft’s plan for a 500 MW solar farm announced last year. Perhaps we should watch for Dominion to propose yet another new tariff, if they haven’t run out of letters.

For a customer without the market power of Amazon, Facebook or Microsoft, buying renewable energy from Dominion remains challenging. As noted in section 2, the SCC already rejected one set of voluntary schedules Dominion had proposed for customers with a peak demand of at least 1,000 kW (1 MW). The rejection can’t be called a loss for customers, since the plan was to use a mix of sources that count as renewable under the Virginia Code but still pollute, including biomass—making it only sort-of green. The SCC said the tariff was too expensive, possibly because biomass is expensive compared to other kinds of renewable energy.

While that particular renewable energy tariff was more an effort to close off competition from Direct Energy than to serve the needs of customers, Dominion seems serious about finding solar options for large customers. One of the tasks the Rubin Group says it plans to take on this year is considering further changes to help large customers who want solar.

  1. Dominion plans for utility-scale solar

As early as 2014, Dominion had announced it wanted to begin developing large-scale solar projects in Virginia. In 2015, two bills promoted the construction of utility-scale solar by declaring it in the public interest for utilities to build or buy solar energy projects of at least 1 MW, and up to an aggregate of 500 MW. This year’s legislation increased that number to 5,000 MW and included wind in the total.

Dominion got off to a rocky start when the SCC rejected the company’s plan to charge ratepayers for its first project, a 20 MW solar farm in Remington, Virginia because the company had not considered cheaper third-party alternatives. Governor McAuliffe helped save the project by working out a deal with Microsoft, as discussed above. Further projects fared better, however, and Dominion is now so enthusiastic about solar that its 2018 Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) calls for up to 480 MW per year, all for the benefit of its regular ratepayers.

Dominion’s website currently lists several solar projects in Virginia, but only three of them, totaling 56 MW, serve the Dominion Energy Virginia rate base. Even with the boost from the General Assembly, future projects will still have to gain SCC approval. And while Dominion will be able to charge ratepayers for projects that do get approved, the SCC will probably insist that the RECs be sold—whether to utilities in other states that have RPS obligations, or to customers who want them for their own sustainability goals, or perhaps even to voluntary green power customers. If this happens, the result will be that Dominion still won’t use solar to meet the Virginia RPS, and ordinary customers will still not have solar as part of the electricity they pay for. That’s the weird world of RECs for you.

  1. Governor McAuliffe’s program to purchase solar for state government will be continued under Northam

Following a recommendation by the Governor’s Climate Change and Resiliency Commission, on December 21, 2015, Governor McAuliffe announced that the Commonwealth would commit to procuring 8% of its electricity from solar, a total of 110 MW, with 75% of that built by Dominion and 25% by private developers.

The first deal to count towards this goal was an 18 MW project at Naval Station Oceana, announced on August 2, 2016. The Commonwealth will buy the power and the RECs. (The Remington Project did not count, because as the buyer of the RECs, only Microsoft can claim the right to be buying solar power.) Two solar farms supplying the University of Virginia and its Darden School of Business also counted towards the 8%.

Although no other projects have been announced since McAuliffe left office, Deputy Secretary of Commerce and Trade Angela Navarro confirmed to me that the 110 MW goal remains in place. She adds, “We also have around 2 MW of agency-owned solar installed or slated to be installed this year. We’re still working toward the 110MW goal, and we hope to announce an even more ambitious goal through the Energy Plan process.”

  1. Onshore wind

No Virginia utility is actively moving forward with a wind farm on land. Dominion Energy’s website used to list 248 MW of land-based wind in Virginia as “under development,” without any noticeable progress. The current web page doesn’t mention specific projects or sizes, only that “we are evaluating wind energy projects in Virginia.” If so, none of them has made it into any recent IRP.

On the other hand, Appalachian Power continues to try to add wind power to its mix, though so far not from any Virginia sites. In April of this year, the SCC denied APCo’s request to acquire two wind projects in West Virginia and Ohio, saying the company didn’t need the power.

With no utility buyers, Virginia has not been a friendly place for independent wind developers. In previous years a few wind farm proposals made it to the permitting stage before being abandoned, including in Highland County and on Poor Mountain near Roanoke.

Nonetheless, Apex Clean Energy has obtained a permit to develop a 75-MW Rocky Forge wind farm in Botetourt County. The company says the project is construction-ready and believes it can produce electricity at a competitive price, given its good location and improved turbine technology. However, the company will not move forward until it has a customer.

Looking forward a few years, the ability of wind to complement solar may give it a role as solar dominates new capacity additions in Virginia. Currently, Dominion’s IRP proposes to pair solar with gas combustion turbines, not battery storage. Wind energy paired with solar would reduce the need for gas back-up, perhaps tilting the equation in favor of battery storage instead.

  1. Offshore wind

Progress towards harnessing Virginia’s great offshore wind resource remains slow. Dominion won the federal auction for the right to develop about 2,000 MW of wind power off Virginia Beach in 2013, and last year the company received approval for its Site Assessment Plan (SAP).

We had originally been told the federal government’s timeline would lead to wind turbines being built off Virginia Beach around 2020. Later, however, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management said Dominion has five years from approval of the SAP to submit its construction and operations plan, after which we’ll have to wait for review and approval. Presumably the project will also require an environmental impact statement.

That would put first construction in the mid-2020s—if Dominion can be prodded into going forward. Right now the company’s Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) does not include offshore wind in any of its scenarios for the next 15 years, except for 12 MW from two test turbines.

Those test turbines may become a reality, now that Dominion has partnered with the Danish energy company, Ørsted, formerly known as DONG Energy, to see the 12 MW project through to completion. Dominion is expected to make some sort of filing with the SCC this summer to move the project along. The IRP lists an in-service date of 2021.

All this is promising, as Ørsted clearly has its eyes on the commercial lease area. Governor Ralph Northam also seems keen to reignite offshore wind in Virginia. This spring DMME issued a Request for Proposals for a plan “to position Virginia as the East Coast offshore wind supply chain industry location of choice,” the first step in what advocates hope will become a Master Plan for Virginia offshore wind.

DMME is also including offshore wind as one focus of the 2018 Energy Plan, with plans for a public listening session and a facilitated stakeholder group.

  1. State carbon trading rules

The Trump administration’s pullbacks on the Paris accord and the Clean Power Plan prompted Governor McAuliffe last year to order the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) to write rules lowering carbon emissions from Virginia power plants by 30% by 2030. Under draft rules set to be finalized this fall, Virginia power plants will trade carbon allowances with those in member states of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI).

Any rules that put pressure on carbon-emitting power plants should be good for wind and solar, but at this writing there is still some uncertainty about what the final rules will look like.

Governor Northam pushed for legislation this year that would have had Virginia formally join RGGI, rather than just trading with it. Joining RGGI would allow Virginia to auction carbon allowances instead of merely handing them out free to power plants. Auction money would support investments in wind and solar, among other priorities. Republicans in the General Assembly defeated the legislation, but advocates expect it to be re-introduced next year.