Renewable energy bills to watch

People gathered with signs supporting climate action

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

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

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

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

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

RPS

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

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

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

Customer-sited solar

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

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

Other PPA and net metering bills

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

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

Resilience hubs

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

HOAs

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

Community solar.

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

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

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

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

Resolving local disputes over utility-scale projects

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

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

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

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

Other RE siting bills

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

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

Grants, tax deductions, tax credits and other financing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Customer rights to buy renewable energy

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

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

Offshore wind

The CEA contains detailed provisions for the buildout and acquisition of offshore wind. HB234 (Mugler) directs the Secretary of Commerce and Trade to develop an offshore wind master plan. SB860 (Mason) puts the construction or purchase of at least 5,200 MW of offshore wind in the public interest.

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

 

The strange case of thermal RECs

Renewable energy advocates are hoping that 2020 will be the year Virginia finally begins to make wind and solar the centerpiece of its energy planning, rather than a grudging add-on. The General Assembly will consider at least two bills that adopt a mandatory renewable portfolio standard as well as legislation to lower carbon emissions and open the private market to greater investments in renewables.

But good intentions don’t always produce effective legislation. Sloppy drafting causes unanticipated consequences. Minor amendments offered by an opponent produce major consequences only the opponent anticipated.

For a case in point, let’s consider Virginia’s existing, voluntary RPS. Worse than useless, it has enabled all kinds of mischief by defining “renewable energy” to include things that do not contribute carbon-free renewable power to the grid

As currently written, our renewable portfolio standard never has been, and never will be, responsible for a single electron of wind or solar energy. That means that any bill that takes as its starting point the definition that currently exists in the Virginia Code, or even uses the term “renewable energy” without narrowly defining it, risks failing right out of the gate.

Part of the problem is biomass. But a much greater problem is one that has been largely overlooked, mainly because no one understands it. It’s called “thermal” energy, and it is a major piece of mischief all by itself.

Added to the statute in 2015, thermal renewable energy certificates quickly became the primary means for Dominion Energy Virginia to meet its RPS targets, after counting the energy from the utility’s own hydro and biomass facilities and those from which it buys power under contract.

The thing is, no one seems to know where thermal RECs come from. The code offers three possibilities. One is “the proportion of the thermal . . . energy from a facility that results from the co-firing of biomass.” Another is “the thermal energy output from (i) a renewable-fueled combined heat and power generation facility that is (a) constructed, or renovated and improved, after January 1, 2012, (b) located in the Commonwealth, and (c) utilized in industrial processes other than the combined heat and power generation facility.” Finally, there is a tiny (and mainly unused) category for solar hot water systems and swimming pool heating.

The second definition, added to the code in 2015, is so specific that it was clearly written with a particular industrial facility or facilities in mind. From that definition, we can determine that thermal RECs don’t represent renewable electricity added to the grid.

What no one but Dominion seems to have known was that thermal RECs would instantly become the leading category for RECs, and one that would eliminate any chance for wind or solar to ever compete for RPS dollars in Virginia.

The Virginia statute is an oddity. “Thermal” is not a recognized category in the regional registry for purchase and sale of RECs among utilities and voluntary buyers (known as PJM GATS). I also haven’t found another state RPS program that includes thermal in its definition of renewable energy, aside from solar thermal.

A year ago I asked Dominion what kind of industry supplies thermal RECs; I was promised an answer, but none came. So a week ago I asked the staff of the State Corporation Commission. They don’t know either.

Every year in November, Dominion submits a report to the SCC about its renewable energy activities, including information the law requires about a utility’s RPS program. The reports are available on the SCC website.

None of the reports include any discussion of thermal RECs, including the report submitted covering 2015, the first year these RECs were allowed. The reports don’t indicate where thermal RECs come from, what kind of industrial process produces them, or whether there might be a lot more available that could supply Dominion in the future as RPS goals increase.

However, by law Dominion has to provide other information that, read together, allows us to deduce a few bits of information about thermal RECs, and about their role in the RPS:

  • They are generated by one or more Virginia facilities.
  • The facility or facilities were placed in service this decade, confirming that we are talking about that second meaning of thermal.
  • The facilities are not owned by Dominion.

All or almost all the RECs Dominion purchases are thermal RECs. Thermal RECs make up all or nearly all the energy and RECs Dominion has banked to use in future years. (Virginia law allows a utility to hang on to a REC for up to five years after it was generated.) If these were wind and solar RECs instead of thermal RECs, the value of the banked RECs would exceed $40 million, even at the low REC prices currently prevailing in the PJM marketplace.

I compiled the information from these reports into the table below. The 2019 filing, containing information for 2018, also gives us a view into the current year. It states: “The company began 2019 with banked renewable energy and RECs of 4,252,354 MWh and expects to have a bank of approximately 4,113,477 MWh of renewable energy and RECs toward future RPS targets at year-end 2019.”

Source: Virginia State Corporation Commission. (Ivy Main)

As you can see, Dominion has enough RECs banked that, when added to generation from Dominion’s own or contracted renewable energy facilities, Dominion has no need to purchase any RECs from any source until 2022 (when it still won’t need much).

Dominion doesn’t report what it paid for thermal RECs, but they are undoubtedly cheaper than any other qualifying source. One reason: with no competitive market for thermal RECs, Dominion is almost certainly the only buyer. In antitrust parlance, the term for this is “monopsony,” a word I hope you will now want to work into your dinner table conversation.

Monopsony power includes the power to set the price of a product, because the seller has no one else to sell to. In the case of thermal RECs, we don’t know who the seller is, but clearly its primary business is not the production of thermal RECs for sale. In fact, the money it gets for these RECs likely represents a windfall, and it is happy to get anything that covers its administrative cost in documenting its use of thermal energy.

On the other hand, Dominion doesn’t have to be overly stingy, since Virginia law allows the utility to pass on to ratepayers the cost of purchasing RECs for the RPS. One can imagine Dominion CEO Thomas Farrell having a nice dinner with the CEO of the corporation owning the industrial facility that uses the thermal energy, and together deciding what Virginia consumers will pay for these RECs. As long as it is less than the cost of other RECs available to Dominion, who will complain?

Whatever the price is, a monopsony price of thermal RECs will be less than the price of wind and solar RECs in Virginia, because wind and solar have a competitive market and buyers who are willing to pay more.

For years, critics have complained that the voluntary RPS is a failure for every purpose except greenwashing. But with no appetite for reform in the General Assembly, it’s been easy to ignore how the definition of renewable energy was expanding like a slime mold escaping its petri dish.

This year, though, the reformers are on the move. One or more bills requiring utility investments in renewable energy seem likely to gain traction. Advocates will be keeping their fingers crossed—and reading the definitions.

 

This article was originally published in the Virginia Mercury on January 7, 2020.

 

What’s not to like about biomass? Deforestation, pollution and overpriced power.

What if you could get your electricity from a fuel that destroys forests, produces more air pollution than coal, and is priced higher than alternatives?

“Wow, sign me up!” you would not say, because as a sane person you don’t like deforestation, pollution and overpriced power.

Also, because you are not Dominion Energy Virginia. Dominion burned wood at one power plant from 1994 until last year; converted three small coal plants to wood-burning in 2013; and burns wood along with coal at its Virginia City coal plant. This “biomass” energy makes up about one percent of the electricity Dominion sells to Virginia ratepayers, according to its most recent IRP.

Biomass counts as renewable under the Virginia Code, so in theory it can also be used to supply customers who are willing to pay extra for renewable energy. Lots of people want renewable energy these days. Unfortunately for Dominion, they want clean, non-polluting renewables like wind and solar. No one is clamoring for biomass.

That’s especially true because biomass costs more than wind or solar, not to mention more than fossil sources. Who’s going to buy dirty energy when they can get clean energy for less money?

We recently learned just how much more expensive biomass is when the State Corporation Commission held a hearing on Dominion’s latest effort to get a renewable energy tariff approved. Rider TRG combines wind, solar and hydro with biomass, originally including biomass burned at the Virginia City coal plant.

Pretty much everyone hates the proposed tariff, as the Virginia Mercury reported. Counties looking to buy renewable energy objected. Corporate customers said they wouldn’t buy it.

So, in a halfway step meant to mollify opponents, Dominion offered to remove the Virginia City coal plant from the list of sources, while leaving in the rest of the biomass facilities.

Here’s the interesting part: taking Virginia City out made the program more affordable. Having biomass as part of the renewable energy mix, it turns out, doesn’t save money for participants; it costs extra.

In that case, you might say (again, you being a sane person), Dominion ought to remove all the biomass from Rider TRG and save participants even more money, while making it a program people might actually want.

And indeed, the SCC staff calculated that if all the biomass were to be removed, it would reduce the cost by almost two-thirds. For average residential customers using 1,000 kilowatt-hours per month, removing biomass from Rider TRG would mean the added cost of making all their power renewable would fall from $4.21 per month to $1.78.

A no-brainer, right? Making the program both cleaner and more affordable would make it more popular and spur construction of new renewable energy facilities.

Dominion refused. Having the program be successful, you see, is not the point. As I wrote this summer, the purpose of Rider TRG isn’t to offer a product people want to buy, it’s to prevent anyone else from selling renewable energy. If the commission approves Dominion’s tariff, under state law competitors will be locked out of the Virginia market.

If the biomass turns out to be a kind of poison pill for the program, so that no one signs up, that really doesn’t matter to Dominion because, again, the whole point of Rider TRG isn’t to attract customers, it’s to kill competition.

The SCC hasn’t ruled on the program yet. Post-hearing briefs are due Dec, 20, so we can expect an order in the case early next year.

But why biomass?

At this point you may be asking yourself why Dominion chose to invest in all those biomass plants in the first place. The answer is subsidies. During its early years, Virginia’s voluntary renewable portfolio standard rewarded Dominion with tens of millions of dollars annually as a bonus for meeting the renewable energy goals set out in the law. Section 56-576 of the Virginia Code very helpfully defines renewable energy to include “biomass, sustainable or otherwise, (the definitions of which shall be liberally construed).”

Fun fact: as recently as 2008, only “sustainable biomass” qualified as renewable energy. The definition was altered in 2009, at the same time it was expanded to cover biomass burned in a coal-fired power plant such as the one Dominion had just announced it would build.

The RPS bonus money boondoggle came to an end in 2013 when public outrage reached a fever pitch. Then-Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli reached a deal on legislation to repeal the bonus money provisions of the statute. (Utilities could still recover the costs of the RPS program from ratepayers.) Left intact was everything else, including defining renewable energy as “biomass, sustainable or otherwise.”

Liberally construing “sustainable or otherwise” has not been good for southeastern forests. Dogwood Alliance and Southern Environmental Law Center document widespread clear-cutting, loss of forests, and replacement of mixed hardwood forests with pine plantations. As these groups and others have also pointed out, burning wood produces more pollution than coal and isn’t carbon-neutral in the time frame that matters for the climate pickle we’re in.

Dominion is not the worst offender; pride of place belongs to wood pellet manufacturer and exporter Enviva, which just received a permit to expand its Virginia facility in Southampton.

Dominion also isn’t the only Virginia utility to have invested in burning trees. Northern Virginia Electric Cooperative provides its customers with electricity from a biomass plant in South Boston. NOVEC doesn’t have an RPS to meet, so it sells renewable energy certificates to Maryland utilities. It’s a lousy deal for the Maryland residents who get higher bills and no clean energy to show for it, but meanwhile NOVEC brags about its “environmentally friendly” plant.

So now what?

There are really two questions when it comes to burning trees for fuel: one, should government give it preferential treatment; and two, should an electric utility be doing it at all?

The General Assembly will almost certainly consider legislation this year requiring utilities to increase the proportion of electricity they sell that comes from renewable energy. If biomass is allowed to qualify, the result will be less new wind and solar and less progress towards a carbon-free grid. The lesson from other states that have renewable energy mandates is simple: states that allow junk get junk. (Here’s looking at you, Maryland.)

But as we’ve seen, biomass can’t compete with other energy sources on cost if it doesn’t get subsidies. Dominion can follow NOVEC’s lead in selling RECs to Maryland or other states that haven’t wised up yet, but REC payments won’t make up the cost difference between biomass and other fuels.

Worse—or better, depending on your point of view—other states may decide not to support the biomass racket. Maybe Dominion could still sell the renewable energy certificates (RECs) to the ultra-cheap Green Power for Suckers program that the SCC approved a couple weeks back. But selling cheap RECs to chumps would net the company only—ahem—chump change.

In fact, the SCC should take a hard look at biomass when Dominion files its next Integrated Resource Plan. Requiring the utility to get out of the wood-burning business wouldn’t just clean the air and protect forests, it could be a smart way to save money for customers.

 

This article originally appeared in the Virginia Mercury on December 2, 2019. 

It’s time for the General Assembly to side with customers, not utilities, on solar

Solar canopy over a parking lot

Solar panels on parking lots, landfills, rooftops and other sites could provide a lot of clean electricity if policy barriers are removed.

Last winter, the Virginia General Assembly passed legislation giving utilities the green light to develop 5,500 megawatts (MW) of wind and solar energy. This marks a milestone for Virginia, offering the possibility for an amount of solar equal in output to Dominion Energy’s newest gas-fired power plant in Greensville.*

Amid the general celebration of this support for utility solar and wind, few legislators noticed that the bill did nothing to help residents and businesses that want to build renewable energy for their own use. Private investment drives most of the solar market in many other states, so leaving it out of the picture means squandering an opportunity.

Customers—and the solar companies who depend on small-scale solar— hope it’s their turn this year. They’d like to see the General Assembly give customer-built solar the same level of love in 2019 that it gave utility solar in 2018.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t square with the agenda of our utilities, which want to protect their monopolies on electric generation. Over the past few years, Dominion Energy and its fellow utilities have blocked dozens of bills aimed at removing some of the policy barriers stifling the market.

Just one example: Fairfax County, like many jurisdictions across the state, owns a closed landfill. It can’t be used for most purposes, but it could hold a solar array large enough to power multiple county buildings.

Yet no fewer than four different provisions of Virginia’s net metering law keep a cost-effective project from moving forward: a 1 MW limit on commercial solar arrays; a requirement that electricity from a solar facility must be used onsite; a rule that a solar facility can’t be larger than needed to meet the site’s electric demand over the preceding year; and a prohibition on meter aggregation that keeps a customer with solar on one building from sharing it with another building.

These would all be simple legislative fixes, but for years now Dominion and the other utilities have opposed the reforms.

Other reforms are needed, too. The solar industry faces a ceiling on the total amount of solar customers can own under the net metering program; utilities killed bills that would raise the ceiling. Businesses tried to lift restrictions on third-party financing using power purchase agreements. Utilities killed the bills. Homeowners tried to get out from under the oppressive fees called standby charges that utilities impose to keep customers from putting up more than 10 kilowatts (kW) of solar panels. Utilities killed the bills.

Killing bills clearly must get tedious. So, this year, Dominion is using the occasion of a report to the General Assembly on solar energy last month to launch a propaganda campaign against the whole radical idea of customers producing their own energy supply.

The 44-page, glossy brochure boasts photographs of sunlight slanting across solar panels nestled in fields of dandelions. Much of it is devoted to touting Dominion’s own progress in installing solar. Dominion claims its 1,600 MW of solar make it a national leader, though that might have to be taken with a grain of salt given that the U.S. now has more than 58,000 MW of solar.

And of course, most of Dominion’s solar is in other states; and of the solar in Virginia, most is being built in response to demand from the state government and corporate customers. Only a few of the solar farms Dominion includes will actually serve ordinary ratepayers.

The achievements amount to even less for Dominion’s customer-sited projects. The company’s Solar Partnership Program for commercial customers built only 7.7 MW out of the 30 MW the SCC approved five years ago. The Solar Purchase Program that Dominion once hoped might replace net metering has produced a grand total of 2 MW.

And then there are the 18 schools across the commonwealth that are the lucky recipients of solar panels in Dominion’s “Solar for Students” program. Each school gets 1.2 kW worth of solar panels, or roughly enough to run an old refrigerator. (In fairness, those old refrigerators are electricity hogs. If you have one, replace it.)

If these programs demonstrate Dominion’s level of competence building rooftop solar, that seems like reason enough to open up the private market.

It’s also worth keeping in mind that the reason customers are trying so hard to remove Virginia’s policy barriers is that they don’t just want electricity, they want solar. Yet absolutely none of the solar energy from any project Dominion builds or buys, even those paid for by Virginia ratepayers, will stay in Virginia to meet our voluntary renewable portfolio standard (RPS).

If that surprises you, check out a different document Dominion filed last month, with significantly less fanfare than it gave the solar report. The other filing, Dominion’s annual report to the State Corporation Commission (SCC) on renewable energy, confirms that Dominion sells the “renewable attributes” of solar energy produced here to utilities in other states in the form of renewable energy certificates (RECs).

Then, for the Virginia RPS, Dominion buys cheaper RECs from facilities like out-of-state, century-old hydro dams, biomass (wood) burners, trash incinerators, and a large but mysterious category called “thermal” that is nowhere defined but definitely has nothing to do with solar. So other states get the bragging rights to our solar, and we get dams, trash and wood, plus a mystery ingredient.

But regardless of who gets to claim it, all solar is good solar in a world threatened by climate change. That’s my attitude, anyway, and I only wish Dominion shared it. But, returning our attention to the glossy solar brochure, we find Dominion instead doing its darnedest to undermine the idea of solar built by anyone but the lovable monopoly itself.

The report offers up a poll that concludes: “Solar power is the most popular energy source of all those tested in this polling (Nuclear, Wind, Solar, Natural Gas, and Coal).” But then it goes on to suggest customers don’t understand solar, don’t want to spend much money on it, and don’t really value it very highly after all.

For example, the report follows news of solar’s 82% positive rating with this caveat: “However, when asked to choose what is most important to them regarding their own electricity provider . . .customers chose as follows: dependability and reliability 53%; affordability 28%; investing in renewable energy 16%.”

The poll apparently didn’t give respondents the option of choosing solar andreliability andaffordability. Pollsters must not have told folks that customers in other states enjoy all three at once, or that solar actually has a positive effect on grid reliability and customer savings.

If the question had been, “How biased is this poll?” I bet they could have scored 100%.

After delivering a few more similarly manipulated polling results, the report goes on to discuss the results of last summer’s solar stakeholder process. Readers may recall that Dominion hired consultant Meridian Institute to convene a series of meetings to get feedback on renewable energy policy questions. Hundreds of Virginians took the trouble to attend in person or by phone to share their expertise and opinions.

The result, presented in an 18-page appendix to Dominion’s report, is impressive only for how completely inane it is.

Here, for example, is how Meridian opens its summary of stakeholder feedback:

Most stakeholders who expressed a general opinion about the expansion of renewable energy in Virginia indicated that they support such expansion. Others indicated that their support for renewable energy was dependent on a variety of factors. Some stakeholders did not express a general opinion about the expansion of renewable energy in Virginia.

I am sorry to say it goes on like that for pages.

If you persist in reading the Meridian summary, the most you will get out of it is what we all knew going into it: utilities disagree with customers and the solar industry about whether existing restrictions on customer solar are good or bad.

Except, the report does not even say that. It only says the “participants” in the solar stakeholder process disagreed on these questions. Putting it that way leaves open the possibility that some customer, somewhere, in one of those meetings, might have taken the utilities’ side.

If so, the customer’s name was Tooth Fairy.

I have little doubt Dominion provided a copy of its pretty solar report to every legislator in Richmond, and is already using it in its fight against expanding the rights of customers in Virginia to go solar. Dominion will point to its report as proof that customers are too stupid and too conflicted to be allowed to make their own decisions. Ergo, Dominion should control all solar in Virginia, on rooftops as well as elsewhere.

Legislators should indeed read the report. And then after they’ve had a good laugh, they should tell Dominion no.

——————

*That equivalence is because Dominion projects its 1,588 MW Greensville plant will run at 80% of its full capacity. Solar farms, generating only during daylight hours, achieve capacity factors in the range of 25%, while rooftop solar comes in a little less.


This post originally appeared in the Virginia Mercury on December 7, 2018.

Solar map locates Northern Virginia on the dark side of the metro region

people standing by solar panels on a high school.

The 90 kW of solar panels on the roof of Wakefield High School represent almost 5% of Arlington’s solar total. Arlington schools have been a bright spot in Northern Virginia’s otherwise lackluster solar performance. Photo credit Phil Duncan.

Those of us who’ve lately become bullish on Virginia solar got a rude wake-up call this week when the Northern Virginia Regional Commission (NVRC) updated its map showing the amount of solar installed in every locality in Northern Virginia and the greater Washington region. Stunningly, every single suburban Maryland jurisdiction did better than every single Virginia jurisdiction. So did Washington, DC.

The map reveals that as of the end of 2017, Fairfax County had the most solar of any Virginia locality measured, reflecting its status as Virginia’s most populous county. Fairfax boasted a cumulative capacity of 2,104 kilowatts (kW) of solar, edging out Virginia’s richest county, Loudoun, which came in with 1,878 kW, as well as much smaller but more liberal Arlington with 1,785 kW.

All the Northern Virginia jurisdictions together (which also included Prince William, Manassas, Alexandria, and Falls Church) boasted a total of 8,443 kW, spread across 1,112 systems. That’s an average of about 7.5 kW per system, meaning these are overwhelmingly rooftop solar installations on homes and businesses. (An average home solar system is about 5 or 6 kW. Using solar for all of a home’s electricity needs might require 8-10 kW or more, especially if the home is heated with electricity or includes an electric vehicle.)

NoVa’s 8,443 kW is about as much as Prince George’s County, Maryland alone had five years ago. Today, PG County leads the region with 136,507 kW. Added together, the Maryland suburban localities finished the year with 272,688 kW of solar, over 32 times the suburban Virginia total. Washington, with 40,954 kW, beat all of suburban Virginia almost five times over.

So what do Maryland and DC have that Virginia doesn’t have? One answer is incentives. Maryland and DC have mandatory renewable portfolio standards (RPS) that require utilities to buy a certain percentage of their electricity from solar generated in state, including from their own customers. As the percentage requirement increases year after year, the forces of supply and demand set prices for solar renewable energy certificates (SRECs) that make solar a profitable investment for consumers. In DC, the value of SRECs is currently so high that a home solar installation can pay for itself in less than four years. In Virginia, with the federal 30% tax credit but no RPS or SREC market, payback may take ten years.

Ten years is still not a bad payoff for solar panels that can produce free electricity for 40 years or more. That points to the other advantage Maryland and DC have over Virginia: pro-solar policies. Virginia law does provide for net metering, the policy that lets a solar customer put surplus power onto the grid during the day and receive a credit for it that is used against the same amount of power drawn from the grid at night. Without net metering, we would have very little rooftop solar at all.

But a whole host of restrictions apply to net metering in Virginia. Homeowners are limited to a 20 kW system, and utilities can (and do) apply punitive fees known as “standby charges” to residential systems over 10 kW. Commercial customers are limited to 1,000 kW, no matter how much space they have or how much electricity they use. Sharing solar arrays among customers is prohibited. A building owner cannot install solar and sell the electricity to tenants. A local government cannot install solar on a vacant lot and use it to power a building across the street. Only certain customers can use third-party ownership financing.

And if the market flourishes anyway, Virginia law puts a ceiling on the total capacity of net-metered systems. Once the total reaches 1% of a utility’s sales, the program will come to a screeching halt. Think of it as an anti-RPS.

This year the Virginia General Assembly passed legislation that encourages Virginia utilities to develop solar, but the bill failed to address the barriers holding back private investments in solar. Other bills that would have opened up the market failed in the Republican-controlled (and utility-friendly) Commerce and Labor committees.

Barrier-busting bills will certainly be back again next year, and local governments that want more solar in their communities should make sure these reforms are part of their legislative wish list. Meanwhile, there is room under current law for local governments and schools to install a lot more solar than they have to date. Leading by example is a powerful tool to capture the attention of the public, educate residents on the benefits of solar, and instill pride in the community.

Localities can also help residents and businesses go solar by promoting solar coops like Solarize NoVa, offering low-cost financing via commercial PACE loans(as Arlington is doing), and setting expectations for developers.

Maryland and DC may still beat Virginia on solar over the next few years, but it shouldn’t happen without a fight.

How Virginia could build 5,000 megawatts of wind and solar, and still have no wind or solar

Pie graph showing Dominion Energy Virginia energy mix 2017

No amount of new solar would enlarge the sliver of renewables in Dominion’s energy mix if it sells the RECs. Graph is from Dominion Energy Virginia’s 2018 Integrated Resource Plan.

With the passage of SB 966 earlier this year, the Virginia General Assembly declared 5,000 megawatts (MW) of utility solar and wind energy in the public interest, spreading optimism that Virginia is beginning its slow transition to a clean energy economy. All indications are that Dominion Energy Virginia, the state’s largest utility, intends to make good on that number. Yet under Virginia law, as interpreted by the State Corporation Commission, Virginia utilities could build all that wind and solar and still not be able to claim it in the energy mix serving Virginia residents.

That peculiar result is possible if Dominion and other utilities sell the renewable energy certificates (RECs) associated with the electricity generated from the wind or solar project, transferring to their buyers the legal right to call it renewable energy. The likely buyers are utilities in other states that need RECs to meet mandates for renewable energy under the laws of those states. If the RECs get sold this way, Dominion Energy can build one solar farm after another in Virginia, without ever adding solar to our electricity mix.

That’s right: if you sell the RECs from a solar facility, you can’t say you are using electricity from solar.

This scenario is not just possible, but likely, based on earlier State Corporation Commission (SCC) rulings. The first time Dominion received permission to develop solar, based on a 2013 law enabling the utility to build up to 33 MW of distributed solar (dubbed the Solar Partnership Program), the SCC insisted that Dominion sell the RECs to reduce the cost of the program to ratepayers.

What about Virginia’s voluntary renewable portfolio standard (RPS), which requires participating utilities to get a portion of their electricity from renewable energy sources, including solar? Dominion continues to meet its annual targets, which gradually rise to 15% of non-nuclear electricity by 2025, measured against 2007 demand.

But here, too, the SCC does not want ratepayers to have to spend a dime more than necessary on meeting the RPS. It requires utilities to sell higher-value RECs and replace them with the cheapest RECs available that still meet the Virginia definition of renewable energy. This practice, known as REC “optimization” or arbitrage (selling high, buying low), is common in states with loose RPS laws, and is sometimes used in the private sector as well.

The use of REC optimization, paired with Virginia’s kitchen-sink approach to what qualifies as renewable energy, renders Virginia’s RPS meaningless. Making it mandatory wouldn’t make it meaningful.

chart showing fuel types used to show RPS compliance by Dominion Energy Virginia

Fuel types used to meet compliance with Virginia RPS. From Dominion’s Annual Report to the SCC on Renewable Energy, November 2017. (MSW=municipal solid waste incineration.)

Dominion’s 2017 Annual Report to the State Corporation Commission on Renewable Energy records the company’s progress on meeting the RPS as well as describing its other renewable energy investments. The report confirms both Dominion’s ongoing use of REC optimization for the RPS and its practice of selling RECs from solar projects to reduce ratepayer costs.

Nothing in the 2018 legislation speaks to RECs generated by the 5,000 MW of utility wind and solar that are now declared to be in the public interest. One might suppose the General Assembly intends for utilities to build those projects for ratepayers, not to sell off the legal right to claim we have wind and solar in our mix. But then again, it is entirely possible most legislators never gave the topic a moment’s thought.

If one were to raise it with them now, some might even prove quite comfortable with the idea. As long as we get the jobs and economic development associated with new energy projects, and we use the clean energy to reduce the burning of fossil fuels, they might say heck yeah, let Maryland or New Jersey buy the bragging rights for their state RPS requirements and subsidize our energy costs.

If taking advantage of the flaws in other state’s laws feels like the wrong way to make progress, there is an alternative. We could reform Virginia’s RPS to make it less like corporate welfare for producers of the least valuable forms of renewable energy, and more like a transition plan to a clean energy economy. Put that together with a plan for true grid transformation, and we will have something to brag about ourselves.

Virginia legislators face a flood of new solar bills

Photo courtesy of Department of Energy, via Wikimedia Commons.

It’s true that Republicans remain in control of the General Assembly, and the way things run in Richmond, having only the narrowest of margins diminishes the majority’s power remarkably little. Yet the Blue Wave swept in a set of younger, more diverse, and more progressive delegates, many of whom are as interested in reforming energy policy as they are in social and economic issues.

As a result, I count more than 50 bills dealing with solar, energy efficiency, electric vehicles and battery storage; several more that affect clean energy by addressing carbon emissions; and still others that deal with utility regulation in ways that have implications for renewables and storage. And bills are still being filed.

In this post, I cover just the renewable energy bills of general interest filed to date, saving energy efficiency, storage, EVs and climate for later.

Most of these bills cover renewable energy generally. Bills submitted by the Rubin Group (the private negotiating group consisting mostly of utilities and solar industry members) are limited to solar.

One bill this year takes a new run at a mandatory renewable portfolio standard (RPS). This is Delegate Sullivan’s HB 436, which narrows the kind of resources eligible for the program (now mostly wind, solar and hydro) as well as making it mandatory. As currently drafted it is so ambitious that it would likely mean utilities would have to buy a lot of Renewable Energy Certificates from out of state to meet the early year targets, but changes to the bill may be in the works.

Delegate Sullivan has also proposed HB 54, which would provide a state tax credit of 35% of the cost of installing certain kinds of renewable energy property, up to a maximum credit of $15,000.

Several bills enable community solar programs, to provide options beyond the utility-controlled program passed last year that more closely resembles a green tariff. SB 313 (Edwards) SB 311 (Edwards) offer two different customer-controlled models. SB 586 (Gooditis) would authorize, but not require, utilities to set up utility-controlled programs; it differs from last year’s bill in that customers would have a direct connection with a specific renewable energy project. Since it would not be limited to solar, it could open a new option for community wind.

The Rubin Group drafted three pieces of legislation. The centerpiece bill, SB 284 (Saslaw) and HB 1215 (Hugo) raises from 500 megawatts (MW) to 4,000 MW (by 2024) the amount of large-scale solar utilities can build or buy that is deemed to be “in the public interest,” a designation that takes this determination away from the State Corporation Commission. The bill also makes it in the public interest for utilities to own or buy up to 500 MW of small-scale solar projects (under 1 MW each). These will be distributed projects, but utility-controlled, along the lines of Dominion’s not-very-successful Solar Partnership Program.

SB 284 and HB 1215 don’t actually require the utilities to do anything, but the legislation is widely seen as signaling their intent to move forward with additional solar development. While a very welcome signal, legislators should keep in mind that a Solar Foundation analysis earlier this year noted it would take as much as 15,000 MW of solar to provide just 10% of Virginia’s electricity supply.

Recognizing this reality, Delegate Mark Keam has introduced HB 392, which declares it in the public interest for the Commonwealth to get 10% of its electricity from solar, and raises to 15,000 MW the amount of utility solar in the public interest.

The two other Rubin Group bills deal with land use, putting language into the code giving people the right to put up solar panels on their own property for their own use, except where local ordinances specifically prohibit it, and subject to setback requirements, historic districts, etc. The bills are SB 429 (Stanley), its companion bill HB 508 (Hodges), SB 179 (Stanley) and companion bill HB 509 (Hodges).

The Rubin Group tried and failed to negotiate changes to Virginia’s net metering program, which affects most customer-sited solar projects, including residential rooftop solar. This is hardly a surprise; a group that works on consensus gives every member veto power. With utilities hostile to any perceived incursion on their monopoly power, and solar advocates pledged to protect the rights of residents, there aren’t a whole lot of opportunities for consensus here.

With the Rubin Group out of the net metering space, legislative champions have stepped into the vacuum to propose a host of bills that would support customers who install solar for their own use:

  • HB 393 (Keam) removes the 1% cap on net metered projects, and provides that when net metered projects reach 1% of a utility’s electric load, the SCC will conduct a study of the impact of net metering and make recommendations to the General Assembly about the future of the program. HB 1060 (Tran) simply removes the cap.
  • SB 191 (Favola) provides that Virginia customers who wish to self-generate electricity with renewable energy using the net metering provisions of the Code may install up to 125% of their previous 12 months’ electric demand, or in the case of new construction, of the electric demand of similar buildings. A 2015 law currently limits customers to 100% of previous demand.
  • HB 421 (Sullivan) allows owners of multifamily residential buildings to install renewable energy facilities and sell the output to occupants. This bill does not provide for the electricity to be net metered.
  • HB 930 (Lopez) requires the SCC to establish a net metering program for multifamily customer-generators, such as condominiums, apartment buildings, and homeowner associations.
  • HB 978 (Guzman) requires utilities to justify standby charges with a value of solar study. As currently written, the bill does not appear to have retroactive effect, so it might not repeal the existing, much-hated standby charges already approved by the SCC.
  • SB 82 (Edwards) expands the agricultural net metering program, increasing the project size limit from 500 kW to 1 MW, providing that the electricity can be attributed to meters on multiple parcels of land, and repealing the 2017 law ending agricultural net metering in coop territory.

Finally, several bills once again tackle third-party power purchase agreements (PPAs), which the Virginia Code appears to make legal, but which utilities have consistently maintained are a violation of their monopoly on the sale of electricity. HB 1155 (Simon) reaffirms the legality of PPAs. SB 83 (Edwards) replaces the existing PPA pilot program that dates from 2013 and directs the SCC to establish a broader program.

HB 1252 (Kilgore) replaces the existing pilot, which has different rules for Dominion and APCo, with a new program renamed “net metering power purchase agreements” that would be consistent for both utilities. It would open up APCo territory more than at present, by allowing any tax-exempt entity to participate rather than just the private colleges and universities that won inclusion last year. However, as currently drafted, it would narrow the program as it exists in Dominion territory by eliminating the eligibility of for-profit customers. Although it is the least customer-friendly option among the PPA bills, Kilgore’s position as chairman of House Commerce and Labor, which will hear the bill, gives it the strongest chance of passage.

Note that most of the renewable energy bills (other than those dealing with tax credits and land use) will go to the Commerce and Labor committees. In the House, a subcommittee usually meets once to hear all the bills (and typically to kill all but the ones anointed by chairman Terry Kilgore). While the schedule is not set, in the past the subcommittee meeting has been held in early February.


Important dates:

First Day of Session: Wednesday, January 10

Bill filing Deadline: Friday, January 19

Crossover (last day on which bills passed in one chamber can go to be heard in the other): Wednesday, February 14

Sine Die (end of Session): Saturday, March 10 

How to research a bill:

I’ve hot-linked the bills discussed here, but you can also find them all online pretty easily. On the home page of the General Assembly website, you will see options at the lower right that direct you to the Legislative Information Service, or LIS. If you know the number of a bill, you can type it into the first box (omitting spaces), and click “GO.” This will take you to a page with information about the bill, including a summary of the bill, the bill’s sponsor (called a “patron” in Virginia), the committee it has been assigned to, and its current status. Follow links to learn more about the committee, such as who is on it and when it meets. You will also see a link to the full text of a bill as a PDF.

Always read the full text of a bill rather than simply relying on the summary. Summaries sometimes contain errors or omit critical details, and bills can get amended in ways that make them very different from what the summary says. For the same reason, make sure you click on the latest version of the bill’s text.

If you don’t know a bill number, the General Assembly home page also lets you search “2018 Regular Session Tracking.” When you hit “GO,” this button brings you to a page with options for finding a bill, including by the name of the legislator (“member”), the committee hearing it, or the subject.

When you click on the name of a committee, you will see the list of bills referred to that committee, with short descriptions. It also tells you who is on the committee, when the committee meets and where. You can click on “Agendas” to see which bills are scheduled to be heard at the next committee meeting. Unfortunately the agendas are not set until a day or two before the meeting.