After the grid mod bill, the SCC wants to know how much authority it still has over utility spending

offshore wind turbines

Offshore wind turbines, Copenhagen, Denmark. Dominion Energy has asked the SCC for permission to proceed with building two wind turbines off the Virginia coast as a test project. Photo by Ivy Main.

It’s no secret the State Corporation Commission didn’t like this year’s big energy bill, the Grid Transformation and Security Act. SCC staff testified against SB 966 in committee, and their objections played a major role in amendments removing the “double dip” provision that would have let Dominion Energy Virginia double its earnings on infrastructure projects. Since passage of the bill, the SCC has raised questions about the constitutionality of the law’s provisions favoring in-state renewable energy, and its staff has issued broadsides about the costs of the legislation.

Now the SCC is mulling the question of how much authority it still has to reject Dominion’s proposals for spending under the bill. Dominion has filed for approval of a solar power purchase agreement (case number PUR-2018-00135) and two offshore wind test turbines it plans to erect in federal waters 24 nautical miles out from Virginia Beach (PUR-2018-00121). The utility has also requested permission to spend a billion dollars on grid upgrades and smart meters (PUR-2018-00100).

In an order issued September 12, the SCC asked participants in the solar and offshore wind cases to brief them on legal issues arising from the legislation. The SCC has focused in on two new sections of the Virginia Code. One is the language making it “in the public interest” for a utility to buy, build, or purchase the output of up to 5,000 megawatts (MW) of Virginia-based wind or solar by January 1, 2024. The SCC noted that subsection A of the provision says such a facility “is in the public interest, and the Commission shall so find if required to make a finding regarding whether such construction or purchase is in the public interest.”

The other new Code section gives a utility the right to petition the SCC at any time for a “prudency determination” for construction or purchase of a solar or wind project located in Virginia or off its coast, or for the purchase of the output of such a project if developed by someone else.

Together these sections give Dominion a good deal of latitude, but they don’t actually force the SCC to approve a project it thinks is a bad deal for ratepayers. In other words, wind and solar may be in the public interest, but that doesn’t mean every wind and solar project has to be approved.

The SCC asked for briefs on seven questions:

  • What are the specific elements that the utility must prove for the Commission to determine that the project is prudent under Subsection F?
  • Is the “prudency determination” in Subsection F different from the “public interest” findings mandated by Subsections A or E?
  • Do the public interest findings mandated by either Subsections A or E supersede a determination under Subsection F that a project is not prudent? If not, then what is the legal effect of either of the mandated public interest findings?
  • If the construction (or purchase or leasing) is statutorily deemed in the public interest, is there any basis upon which the Commission could determine that such action is not prudent? If so, identify such basis or bases.
  • In determining whether the project is prudent, can the Commission consider whether the project’s: (a) capacity or energy are needed; and (b) costs to customers are unreasonable or excessive in relation to capacity or energy available from other sources?
  • Do the statutorily-mandated public interest findings under either Subsections A or E override a factual finding that the project’s: (a) capacity or energy are not needed for the utility to serve its customers; and/or (b) costs to customers are unreasonable or excessive in relation to capacity or energy available from other sources, including but not limited to sources of a type similar to the proposed project?
  • Does the utility need a certificate of public convenience and necessity, or any other statutory approval from the Commission, before constructing the proposed projects?

Even if the Commission decides it has latitude in deciding which wind and solar projects to approve, that doesn’t necessarily spell disaster for the two projects at issue. The SCC could still decide they meet the standard for prudency and approve them.

Oral argument on the issues is scheduled for October 4.

Should approval of smart meters depend on how the meters will be used?

The SCC is also mulling over its authority in the grid modernization docket. One day after it asked lawyers in the solar and offshore wind cases to weigh in on the meaning of prudency, it issued a similar order asking for input on what the new law means by “reasonable and prudent” in judging spending under the grid modernization provisions. (Yes, the grid mod section of the law insists that spending be “reasonable” in addition to “prudent,” begging the question of whether spending can be prudent but not reasonable. Perhaps thankfully, the SCC order does not pursue it.)

The SCC’s questions to the lawyers show an interest in one especially important point: Dominion wants to spend hundreds of millions of dollars of customer money on smart meters, without using them smartly. Smart meters enable time-of-use rates and customer control over energy use, and make it easier to incorporate distributed generation like rooftop solar. None of these are in Dominion’s plan. Is it reasonable and prudent for Dominion to install the meters anyway, just because they are one of the categories of spending that the law allows?

Or as the SCC put it:

If the evidence demonstrates that advanced metering infrastructure enables time-of- use (also known as real-time) rates and that such (and potentially other) rate designs advance the stated purposes of the statute, i.e., they accommodate or facilitate the integration of customer-owned renewable electric generation resources and/or promote energy efficiency and conservation, may the Commission consider the inclusion or absence of such rate designs in determining whether a plan and its projected costs are reasonable and prudent?

Reading the tea leaves at the SCC: Staff comments on Dominion’s IRP

The SCC’s question about smart meters surely indicates how the commissioners feel about the matter: they’d like to reject spending on smart meters, at least until Dominion is ready to use them smartly. If the SCC concludes it has the authority to reject this part of Dominion’s proposal as not “reasonable and prudent,” it seems likely to do so.

It is harder to know where the SCC might land on the solar and offshore wind spending. The SCC’s staff, at least, are skeptical of Dominion’s plans to build lots of new solar generation. In response to Dominion’s 2018 Integrated Resource Plan (IRP), Commission staff questioned whether Dominion was going to need any new electric generation at all, given the flattening out of demand. But if it does, according to the testimony of Associate Deputy Director Gregory Abbott, Dominion ought to consider a new combined-cycle (baseload) gas plant, not solar. (Combined-cycle gas was the one generating source Dominion almost completely ruled out.)

Abbott criticized Dominion’s presentation of the case for solar, though he took note of the technology’s dramatic cost declines. Instead of seeing that as a reason to invest, however, he suggested it would be better to wait for further cost declines, or at least leave the construction of solar to third-party developers who can provide solar power more cheaply than the utility can. Remarkably, he also suggested Dominion offer rebates to customers who install solar, urging that Dominion’s spending under the grid transformation law “is designed specifically to handle these [distributed energy resources].”

Abbott also seemed supportive of Dominion’s venture into offshore wind. The only offshore wind energy in the IRP is the 12 MW demonstration project known as CVOW, but as Abbott noted, “the Company indicated that it will pursue a much larger roll-out of utility-scale offshore wind, beginning in 2024, if the demonstration project shows it to be economic.”

This suggests staff are inclined to support Dominion’s spending on the CVOW project, but for Abbott, it was one more reason Dominion should not invest in solar. He concluded, “If the demonstration project proves that utility-scale offshore wind is economic compared to solar, then it may make sense to get the results of the CVOW demonstration project before deploying a large amount of solar.”

This post originally appeared in the Virginia Mercury on September 24.

Virginia buys Dominion’s pig in a poke

How Dominion sees the bill.

A pig in a poke is defined as “an object offered in a manner that conceals its true value, especially its lack of value.” The expression is said to go back about five hundred years to English marketplaces. A poke was a sort of sack, but why 16th century people bought pigs in sacks, and why they would have bought a sack without looking inside, is not at all clear. I’m guessing the seller was the local pig monopoly, and the buyers were timid leaders who meekly paid their farthings and hoped for the best. After all, that is how we do it in the marketplace of Virginia’s General Assembly when Dominion Energy Virginia comes peddling legislation.

And indeed, the true value (or lack of value) of this year’s boondoggle bill (HB 1558/SB 966) will probably not be understood for months or even years to come. The General Assembly passed this legislation that will govern billions of dollars of new spending paid for by Virginia customers after just a handful of hearings over a few weeks, and with no study or input from outside experts. If you will excuse the expression, this is a lousy way to make sausage.

Arguably, the only thing worse than this bill is the law it seeks to fix, the infamous “rate freeze” legislation of 2015 that simply let Dominion keep a billion dollars of customer money to line its own pockets. You’d think legislators would have learned something about legislating in haste and repenting at leisure.

But the legislation could have been worse. We know this because it was worse; the bills Dominion originally put forward returned even less money to consumers, gave the utilities even more leeway on spending, and included the infamous “double dip” that the SCC said would let Dominion charge customers twice for the same projects. The bills improved over the next few weeks under pressure from progressive Democrats, conservative Republicans, the SCC, the Attorney General’s office, the Governor, and consumer and environmental groups.

Whether it is good enough now remains a matter of debate. Conservatives for Clean Energy and the League of Conservation Voters support the bill, especially the provisions relating to investments in energy efficiency and renewable energy. The Sierra Club, an early opponent, used what leverage it had to get the worst provisions changed before removing its opposition late in the game (while still not supporting the bill). The AG’s Office of Consumer Counsel and Appalachian Voices never dropped their opposition.

Nevertheless, the poke has been bought, so you should definitely take a look at the pig. The Virginia Poverty Law Center and the Southern Environmental Law Center produced a handy summary of the bill’s final provisions compared to both the original bill and the status quo under the 2015 law (and sometimes also to the pre-2015 law).

The summary describes the categories of new spending authorized by the law, but a lot is left to interpretation—Dominion’s interpretation, mostly. Customers don’t seem to have any say in how their money gets spent. They are just supposed to feel happy with the provisions granting them some initial refunds reflecting a portion of the overearnings from past years, plus the utility’s savings from the federal tax cut. Going forward, though, the likelihood of further refunds or rate cuts seems remote. The whole point of the bill is to allow utilities to spend overearnings and avoid refunds. And as always, rates can continue to go up through “rate adjustment clauses” (RACs) like the ones that tacked new charges onto electricity bills even when base rates were frozen.

Moreover, what VPLC’s summary (understandably) lacks is a comparison to what ought to be in there: full refunds based on a review of past earnings rather than legislative guesstimates; mandatory—and much higher—levels of energy efficiency, wind and solar; proper regulatory oversight of rates and spending; and an independent assessment of grid modernization needs rather than blanket permission for a utility to indulge in projects that benefit itself most.

We’ll have to wait until next year for any new legislation, but it is not too early to start laying the groundwork. Governor Northam should direct his administration to begin working with national experts on a comprehensive grid modernization study. The goal should not be to tinker around the edges of current law and policy, but to draft a new and better approach from the ground up. (For a great discussion of why we need this study and what it should look like, see Tom Hadwin’s blogpost from last week.)

Meanwhile, legislators should promise their constituents that they will never again allow a public utility to write our energy laws and force through massive and complex changes over the course of a few weeks of the legislative session. Next time Dominion offers a pig in a poke, the answer should be no.