A while back I was engaged in an online discussion with other solar advocates about renewable energy — specifically, how to get more of it built. Some of the participants I knew, others I did not. The conversation was lively, ranging from the need for better education to public policy and incentives.
But then one of the participants threw in an unexpected comment. His email read, “Aren’t we all tired of synagogues?”
The question stopped me cold. I had never heard anyone express weariness of synagogues, much less understood that to be a consensus sentiment. However, I’m not Jewish, so if it were something my Jewish friends grumbled about among themselves but did not share more widely, then I wouldn’t necessarily know about it.
But our discussion was about renewable energy, so surely the comment could not really be about a physical house of worship. “Synagogue” had to be shorthand for something else. If someone said “aren’t we all tired of church,” it might be understood to refer to doctrinal thinking, or more likely, to preaching. You could see how someone would be tired of renewable energy advocates preaching about the benefits of wind turbines and solar panels. Could “synagogue” be meant as a sort of metaphor for haranguing people?
It seemed like a stretch, even assuming the person who had made the comment was Jewish, which I didn’t know. I looked back at the email to see if the name might give me a clue. At that moment, another email came through from him: “Sorry about that autocorrect, it was supposed to be ‘subsidies.’”
I was relieved that synagogue fatigue was off the table, but now I had a new question to ponder: Are we, in fact, all tired of subsidies?
Opposition to subsidies is one of the touchstones of free-market capitalism, and even within the wind and solar industries you will find believers in the proposition that if a technology can’t attract enough customers on its own merits, it deserves to remain niche, and the government ought not to put its fat thumb on the scale.
Republican attacks on the Virginia Clean Economy Act, passed last year by the Democrat-controlled General Assembly, are often framed as opposition to the government “picking winners and losers.” The law certainly does that, by directing utilities to close coal plants and incorporate an increasing percentage of electricity from wind and solar.
Some Republicans are raising the same objection in response to the Biden administration’s plans for addressing the climate crisis. Technological advances and market forces are already moving us inexorably towards a clean energy economy—but not fast enough. So Biden’s initiatives rely on the full range of government powers, subsidies among them, to drive down greenhouse gas emissions nationwide in an effort to avoid a worldwide climate catastrophe.
But here’s the thing: to the extent the U.S. has anything resembling an energy policy, subsidies have always been a tool of first resort. Indeed, this has been the case literally since the nation’s founding. Often the difference between Republicans and Democrats is not in whether they embrace subsidies, but which ones they favor.
Cash grants, tax credits, loan guarantees, low-cost access to public land, public purchasing requirements, protective tariffs and federal R&D funding all shape the way energy is produced, delivered and consumed, and they are responsible for the fossil-fuel heavy energy economy we have today. Even U.S. foreign policy and our military have been deployed for the benefit of extractive industries. A century ago, the National Guard came to the aid of the coal barons against striking miners. More recently, a think tank crunched numbers to estimate the U.S. spends $81 billion per year to protect global oil supplies. That figure rises to over $3 trillion when you count the Iraq war.
Externalities matter, too. If an industry is allowed to inflict damage to a community’s air and water, that is a form of subsidy that can be partly measured in dollars spent on health care and clean-up. Regulations requiring expensive pollution controls can lessen the economic advantages of offloading costs onto the public, but any remaining costs shouldered by the public are a subsidy to the polluter.
Conversely, by displacing fossil fuels, a clean energy facility may confer a public benefit far exceeding the cost of any government subsidy it receives. When we’re dealing with climate change, the public benefit of carbon-free energy is immense.
None of this is an argument against the merits of free market competition, which remains the economy’s most important driver of innovation leading to better and cleaner energy technologies. Well-designed subsidies should work with the market, not against it, to speed the energy transition towards a net-zero future.
Regular readers of this blog know I discourage Virginians from spending their money on so-called green energy offerings from Dominion Energy, Appalachian Power, or REC sellers like Arcadia. They might make you feel better about the electricity you use, but the best products do little to put new solar projects on the grid, and the worst are actually counter-productive.
There is a better way to put solar on the grid and salve your conscience, while also cutting out the middleman. Take the money you were going to pay to Dominion Energy for its Green Power Program (or are already paying, if I didn’t warn you off soon enough), and give it to someone who will put actual solar panels on actual houses in Virginia.
That someone might be Jeff Heie, whose non-profit, GiveSolar, works with low-income home-builder Habitat for Humanity in Rockingham County, Virginia to outfit Habitat homes with rooftop solar. The homeowner gets a 4-kilowatt system that cuts their electricity bill by $40; they commit to sending half that amount back to GiveSolar to help pay for the cost of solar on future Habitat homes.
GiveSolar keeps installation costs down by holding solar “barn-raisings” using volunteers from the community and a solar company, Green Hill Solar, that is willing to install at cost. As a result, a 4-kW system can be installed for $5,000, about half price.
Eventually GiveSolar expects its Solar Seed Fund to be self-funding as owners of Habitat homes send in their $20 per month repayments, but meanwhile the organization needs donations to get the program up and running. Heie hopes to raise $100,000 to put solar on 20 homes.
It sounds like a lot of money, until you consider that Dominion reports it has 30,000 Virginia customers enrolled in its Green Power Program. If all those customers are currently spending an average of just $5 per month on pointless RECs, and if they sent that money to GiveSolar instead, Heie would raise 150% of his goal every month.
Indeed, Heie has plans to take his model to other Habitat for Humanity affiliates around Virginia; he told me he has already heard from five that are interested in installing solar. His approach has also won him the support of other nonprofits, including Solar United Neighbors of Virginia, which is helping to raise $20,000 for the first four projects in Rockingham County and has secured a $10,000 matching grant.
There is a huge need for projects like these. Many low-income Virginia residents spend more than 6 percent of their income on electricity and home heating. Legislators have responded with programs providing funding for low-income energy efficiency programs; capping energy costs for customers who qualify under a percentage-of-income calculation; authorizing Dominion to install solar on some low-income homes (with the utility’s usual profit-margin, and without the barn-raising); and establishing a shared solar program that, if successful, will give some low-income residents the ability to buy electricity from community solar facilities.
But the potential for rooftop solar to lower energy costs and displace fossil fuels is so huge, and these government programs so limited, that there’s still plenty of room for GiveSolar’s inexpensive, hands-on, and self-sustaining approach. The Habitat homeowners who benefit pay the money back over time, creating a virtuous cycle. Donors don’t have to guess whether their money is building solar projects; they can see it happen, and even take part. Neighbors help neighbors, and by doing so, help the planet.
More than $4.3 billion in federal stimulus dollars will be flowing to Virginia this year as part of the American Rescue Plan, with cities and counties in line for another $2.7 billion. In a joint statement in May, Governor Northam and Democratic leaders laid out spending priorities that included rehabilitating and upgrading the infrastructure in public schools. The General Assembly plans to meet for a special legislative session in August to allocate the funds. In addition to the federal money, Virginia also finds itself in the happy position of having surplus funds of its own to spend.
As it stands now, the federal funds cannot be used for new school construction, a restriction that upsets school officials in areas with aging schools and no budget to replace them. But whether some money is spent on new schools or not, the General Assembly should not just throw dollars out the door and hope for the best. Virginia has an enormous opportunity to improve student health and learning, correct historic injustices, and meet the demands of the climate crisis, but only if the right standards are in place from the outset.
First, funding should be prioritized to Title 1 schools, which are those with at least 40 percent of children from low-income families. Given Virginia’s history of segregation and racism, a high number of Title 1 schools are in Black communities, while others are in parts of rural Virginia that have been left behind economically. Title 1 schools on average are older and in worse condition than schools in more affluent areas, and the students are more likely to suffer from asthma and other health problems that are exacerbated by mold and poor indoor air quality. Improving indoor air quality and student well-being should be the primary goals for all new or renovated facilities, and it makes sense to start with the students most in need.
Second, while many localities are attracted to the idea of shiny new schools, in most cases it takes less time and costs less to retrofit an old school that is structurally sound than to tear it down and build new. It’s also better for the environment, even if the new school would be built to a “green” standard. Children don’t need new buildings; they need healthy, high-performing buildings. A beautiful remodel of the historic school their parents and grandparents attended could be just what the doctor ordered.
Third, new or renovated schools should be required to meet the highest standards for energy efficiency, including windows, insulation and HVAC. New construction should also be all-electric, as should most renovated buildings. This maximizes taxpayer savings on energy costs over the lifetime of the building, supports the goal of healthy indoor air, and is consistent with Virginia’s commitment to phase out fossil fuels.
Fourth, if the roof will be new or upgraded, it should be made solar-ready, allowing the school to take advantage of third-party power purchase agreements (PPAs) or solar services agreements to install solar panels. Leveraging private capital to pay for the school’s primary energy source stretches construction dollars. These agreements provide financing for solar facilities at no upfront cost and typically save money for schools from the outset. Once the solar panels are paid off, energy bills plummet and savings pile up.
New schools and deep retrofits can even achieve net-zero status affordably, and ought to be required to do so in most cases. Net-zero schools become a source of community pride and offer educational benefits as students learn about energy and how solar panels work. According to a study conducted for Fairfax County Public Schools, the additional upfront cost of building a net-zero-ready school (one that will produce as much energy as it uses once solar panels are added) is only about 5 percent more than standard construction, and the additional cost is recovered through energy savings in under 10 years. Renovating older schools to net-zero costs 11 percent more, but still pays off in 15 years.
Even if we weren’t worried about climate, these standards would make sense for student health and taxpayer savings. Yet today, school districts are not required to build high performance schools, and most don’t. The result is higher operating costs, and in some cases school boards being told that their brand-new schools won’t support solar. Solar companies say it’s probable that solar would be just fine, but this shouldn’t even be an issue. Yet it will continue to be cited as an obstacle if solar-readiness is not made standard.
Our children deserve better. Virginia should seize this year’s historic opportunity to invest in healthy, high-performing schools that are free of fossil fuels and will deliver long-term benefits for taxpayers and the climate.
Virginia residents who want to do right by the planet are confronted with a bewildering array of renewable energy and “green power” options. Unfortunately, few of these programs actually deliver renewable energy. People who want the gold standard — electricity from new wind and solar projects — are completely out of luck if their utility is Dominion Energy Virginia or Appalachian Power.
To understand how there can be so many options and none of them good, we first have to talk about renewable energy certificates. RECs are a topic that is way more interesting than it sounds because — well, it would have to be, wouldn’t it? RECs are how we know that some electricity can be attributed to a renewable source. If you want to know what kind of renewable energy your utility is buying, or if you yourself want to buy renewable energy, RECs matter.
RECs are not electricity; they aren’t even real certificates. They were conceived of as an accounting tool enabling a utility to show it is in compliance with a state mandate to include a percentage of renewable energy in its mix. A utility amasses RECs associated with its own renewable generating sources, or buys them from renewable sources it doesn’t own, and then “retires” them to show compliance with the law. Since RECs are separate from the electricity itself, they can be bought and sold independently. There is even an online marketplace for your REC shopping convenience.
RECs are also how voluntary buyers of renewable energy, like customers of Arcadia or Dominion’s Green Power Program, know they’re actually getting what they pay for —assuming they understand that what they pay for is not actually energy, and may have no relationship to the electricity powering their home or business. If you buy RECs, you are still using whatever electricity your utility provides, but you are also paying a premium on top of your regular bill.
There is no nationwide, generally accepted definition of “renewable energy,” just as there is no definition of “natural” in food labeling. In Virginia, there is a state law defining what counts as renewable, and it includes not just solar, wind and hydro, but also a range of burnable fuels like biomass and municipal solid waste that foul the air and contribute to climate change. Buyer beware!
The Virginia Clean Economy Act narrowed the list of sources that Dominion and APCo can use to meet the law’s new renewable portfolio standard, and also limited the locations of qualifying facilities. After 2025, happily, most of the RECs retired by Dominion and APCo under the VCEA will come from Virginia wind and solar facilities.
But crucially, the VCEA didn’t change the definition of renewable energy in the code. Dominion won’t be able to use RECs from its biomass plants to meet the VCEA, but it can still sell them to anyone else and label the product “renewable” without falling afoul of the law. Anyone buying a renewable energy product from Dominion had better check the list of ingredients.
It’s not just Dominion. Anyone buying RECs from Arcadia or anywhere else should take a good look at what they are getting, and ask themselves if the money they spend means new renewable energy will be added to the grid.
The answer is probably no. If the RECs come from a wind farm in Texas or Iowa, the electricity from those turbines doesn’t feed into the grid that serves Virginia, so you can’t even pretend it is powering your house. It also doesn’t mean anyone built a wind farm because of REC buyers like you. Wind energy is already the cheapest form of new energy in the central part of the U.S. People build wind farms because they are profitable, not because they can sell RECs. In fact, those wind farms are swimming in surplus RECs, because states in the center of the country don’t have renewable energy mandates to make their own utilities buy them.
For that matter, a lot of RECs come from facilities that were built before the idea of RECs even existed. Hundred-year-old hydroelectric dams can sell RECs; so can fifty-year-old paper mills that sell biomass RECs from burning wood.
With this background, let’s look at the offerings available in Virginia and see which are worth paying more for.
Dominion Energy Virginia
In theory, Dominion customers will have the ability to buy real solar energy directly from independent providers beginning as early as 2023, thanks to shared solar legislation sponsored by Sen. Scott Surovell and Del. Jay Jones and passed in 2020. The law envisions independent solar developers building solar facilities in Virginia and selling the electricity (and the RECs) to subscribers who are Dominion customers. But the SCC opened a Pandora’s box last fall by allowing Dominion to propose the rules, and in an act of classic Dominion overreach, the utility has now proposed to collect an average of $75 a month as a “minimum bill” from every customer who buys solar energy from someone else. A fee like that would end the program before it ever started.
The matter is hardly settled. The solar industry has asked for an evidentiary hearing and suggested that the minimum bill should be set at a single dollar. If all else fails, the program may go forward serving only low-income customers, whom the legislation exempts from the minimum bill.
Dominion customers can hope for the best, but any shared solar option is still at least two years away.
In the meantime, the utility’s website lists four renewable energy options: two that sell RECs, one that sells actual energy (and retires the RECs for you) and one that doesn’t exist.
• The REC-based Green Power Program has been around for a decade, and as of 2019 it had more than 31,000 subscribers. Dominion’s “product content label” projected that for 2020 the program would likely consist of 56 percent wind RECs, 34 percent biomass RECs, and 10 percent solar RECs. Facilities are advertised as being “in Virginia and the surrounding region,” but the fine print reveals sources as far away as Mississippi, Georgia, Missouri and Alabama, none of which are part of the PJM transmission grid that serves Virginia. (Side note: the biomass icon is a cow, not a tree, which is misleading but charming, unless they might be burning cows, in which case it is deeply disturbing.) With the website out of date, I contacted Dominion for current content information: solar is now up to 13 percent, but, sadly, biomass still makes up 35 percent of the mix (but now it has a leaf icon!).
• REC Select. When I say “buyer beware,” I have this offering in mind. Dominion has been authorized to go Dumpster diving to buy the cheapest RECs from around the country and from any facility that meets Virginia’s overly-expansive definition of renewable energy. The website implies that so far the company is only buying wind RECs from Oklahoma and Nebraska, an indication of just how cheap those are. But under the terms of the program, the RECs could come from 50-year-old paper mills in Ohio or hundred-year-old hydroelectric dams. No educated consumer would buy this product, and both Dominion and the SCC should be ashamed of themselves for putting it out there.
• The 100% Renewable Energy Program delivers actual energy from Virginia, and retires RECs on your behalf. That’s the good news. But only a few of the solar farms are new; the rest of the energy comes from old hydro plants and, worse, from biomass plants that are so highly polluting that they don’t qualify for Virginia’s renewable energy mandate under the VCEA. The inclusion of biomass makes the program more expensive than it would be otherwise. So why include biomass when no one wants it? Because Dominion doesn’t really care if you sign up for this program. The company only offers it to close off a provision in the law that allowed customers to buy renewable energy from competitors if their own utility doesn’t offer it.
• Dominion’s website does list one attractive program under the name “community solar.” Like the shared solar program already discussed, it would deliver actual solar energy from new facilities to be built in Virginia, while retiring the RECs on your behalf. This would pass all our tests, except that it doesn’t exist. The SCC gave Dominion the green light to offer the program more than two years ago, and we’ve heard nothing since, even though the enabling legislation appears to make it mandatoryfor both Dominion and APCo.
APCo never developed a community solar program either, and the shared solar program discussed earlier would not be available to APCO customers even if it gets off the ground. But APCo does have two renewable energy offerings.
• For its Virginia Green Pricing program, APCo put together wind and hydro from its own facilities. That means it’s actual energy and reasonably priced, at less than half a cent per kWh. But these are existing facilities that all its customers had been paying for until APCo figured out how to segment the market and make more money, and the hydro is old. (As with Dominion’s renewable energy program, the real purpose of the new product was to close off competition.)
• Even cheaper is Alternative Option-REC, the RECs for which “may come from a variety of resources but will likely be associated with energy from waste, solid waste and hydro facilities.” No biomass, anyway, but I still have trouble imagining who would pay extra for (literally) garbage.
Virginia electric coops
Some electric cooperatives offer real renewable energy to customers, and a couple have community solar programs that are quite attractive.
• Many coops also sell RECs, of mixed quality. Shenandoah Valley Electric Cooperative offers RECs generated by wind farms owned or contracted byOld Dominion Electric Cooperative, the generation cooperative that supplies power to most Virginia coops. Rappahannock Electric Cooperative, however, sells only biomass RECs.
• Bottom line: if you are a member of an electric cooperative, you may have better options than either Dominion or APCo is offering — and if you don’t, hey, you’re an owner of the coop, so make some noise!
If you like RECs, you don’t have to buy them from your own utility. The folks at Arcadia have struggled for years to offer products that put new renewable energy on the grid. In states that allow community solar, Arcadia now offers wind and solar from projects in those states. Everywhere else, they just sell RECs. The website provides no information indicating where the facilities are, meaning they could be out in the same central plains states that are awash in surplus wind RECs. Their game plan appears to be for all the nice liberals with climate guilt to throw enough money at red state RECs that eventually the day will come when demand exceeds supply and drives the price up enough to incentivize new projects. The plan sounds self-defeating to me, but in any case, buyers should keep in mind that the RECs bought before that glorious date will have incentivized precisely nothing.
Obviously, if you have a sunny roof, you can install solar onsite and net-meter. Of all the programs available today, that’s the one that will save you money instead of making you spend more.
If you don’t have a sunny roof, but you’d still like to see your money put solar onto the grid, consider contributing to a church, school or non-profit that is going solar, or to an organization that puts solar on low-income homes. Two that operate in Virginia are Give Solar, which puts solar on Habitat for Humanity houses, and GRID Alternatives, which trains workers to install solar on low-income homes here and abroad. If everyone in Virginia who is currently buying RECs were to choose this alternative instead, it would put millions of dollars to work building new solar in Virginia, and lowering the energy bills of people who most need the help.
And that might make it the best option of all.
A version of this article first appeared in the Virginia Mercury on May 21, 2021.
It is never fun to see our fellow Americans suffer, whether it’s from pandemic diseases or weather disasters. Our hearts go out to the residents of Texas who suffered without electricity and heat for days, some of them also without safe drinking water, and a few of them even dying from exposure, fires or carbon monoxide poisoning as they tried to keep warm.
On the other hand, picking apart the preposterous excuses from Texas leaders seeking to avoid responsibility for the fully preventable power outages and the misery that accompanied them—well, that’s another matter. And it’s made so much easier by those leaders’ insistence on trying to score political points instead of admitting that at least some of the blame rests on their shoulders.
Take Governor Greg Abbott, who went on Fox News to blame liberals for the debacle. Ignoring his state’s failure to plan for climate change and invest in power grid winterization, he told talk show host Sean Hannity the problem was actually the portion of the state’s electricity supply that comes from wind and solar. “This shows how the Green New Deal would be a deadly deal for the United States of America. Our wind and our solar got shut down, and they were collectively more than 10 percent of our power grid, and that thrust Texas into a situation where it was lacking power on a statewide basis.”
No one in Abbott’s echo chamber pointed out that a) solar actually did just fine, b) states like Iowa and South Dakota, with much worse winter weather, rely much more heavily on wind power than Texas does, yet there are no stories about their turbines seizing up and their grids collapsing, and c) if a shortage of ten percent shuts your grid down, you have way more problems than you can blame on the Green New Deal. In fact, the biggest factor in the grid failure was some 28,000 megawatts of coal, nuclear and gas power that went offline, as the Electric Reliability Council of Texas reported.
And then there was Ted Cruz. I’m not referring to the farce of his skipping out on the post-storm misery to fly to Cancun, then pinning it on his daughters before high-tailing it home to make a show of handing out relief supplies. That incident just reminds us that no matter how deep our divisions, Americans can always find unity in our collective loathing of Ted Cruz.
No, in this case I want to point to a pair of tweets from Cruz, almost exactly two years apart. February 13, 2019: “Success of TX energy is no accident: it was built over many years on principles of free enterprise & low regulation w more jobs & opportunities as the constant goal. We work to export this recipe for success t more & more states so that all Americans enjoy the same prosperity.”
And here he is on February 22 of this year, reacting to news that free enterprise and low regulation had produced $5,000 electric bills for some customers in the aftermath of the storm: “This is WRONG. No power company should get a windfall because of a natural disaster, and Texans shouldn’t get hammered by ridiculous rate increases for last week’s energy debacle. State and local regulators should act swiftly to prevent this injustice.”
Luckily for us, lots of other people have been more interested in understanding what happened and preventing it from happening again than in trying to duck blame and score political points. The real story, it turns out, is simple at its core: “low regulation” meant the Texas grid and power providers did not adequately prepare for winter storms that climate change is making worse than they used to be. And because the Texas grid is cut off from the rest of the country (a feature, not a bug, to cowboy politicians), when the crisis hit there was no way to import power from other states that were better prepared.
Let’s take a closer look at what went wrong, how it could have been avoided, and what lessons it offers for the rest of us.
The setup: an isolated grid with “free enterprise and low regulation”
The grid that serves Texas is uniquely isolated, which also gives it a unique vulnerability. The Electric Reliability Council of Texas serves most of the state, and no other states. Texans are proud of that (or were before this month), because it means there is no role for federal regulators like FERC. It also means that when power ran out, ERCOT couldn’t just import it from parts of the country with a surplus. Of course, states near Texas also suffered in the storm, so there may not have been a lot of surplus power to be had. It is worth noting, though, that the border city of El Paso fared better than the rest of Texas because it is not part of ERCOT but part of a larger regional transmission organization (RTO) serving several southwestern states.
Another feature of ERCOT is the low regulation that Ted Cruz celebrated. ERCOT keeps it simple for power generators. They get paid for the power they produce. Other RTOs have what is called a “capacity market” to reward generating plants just for being available to run when called on, and they penalize participants who fail to perform. ERCOT does neither. With a reserve capacity of only about ten percent and no way to guarantee generators would be available when needed, ERCOT had set itself up for trouble.
If generators had faced penalties for nonperformance, they could have—and almost certainly would have—spent the money needed to prepare their facilities for colder-than-usual weather. Winterization is a normal cost of doing business for a power provider in a northern state, but Texas winters are usually warm enough not to require it. If you won’t be penalized for not winterizing, you have little incentive to do it when you’re competing on cost with other power sellers.
ERCOT was vulnerable for another reason. Demand for power in Texas is usually higher in summer, with air conditioners running, than it is in the state’s typically mild winters, so ERCOT plans for that. But in cold weather, gas-fired power plants face competition for fuel, when some of the gas supply goes for heating buildings. This month, when gas wells and pipelines also froze up, there simply wasn’t enough fuel to go around. ERCOT’s overreliance on gas proved to be a liability much greater than the smaller amount of renewable energy on the grid.
The last important feature of the Texas system is retail competition. Electricity customers in ERCOT can choose among dozens of power providers. Some providers keep rates constant; others offer a variable rate that just passes through the wholesale cost of power, with only a small monthly fee added. When wholesale rates are low, the consumer saves money on a plan like that. But regulators didn’t insist on any safeguard to protect customers against the possibility of wholesale prices spiking to astronomical levels due to a power shortage. That’s exactly what happened in the aftermath of this month’s storm.
That $5,000 power bill Cruz criticized? That’s unfettered free-market supply-and-demand at work. It’s a feature, not a bug. If you don’t like that feature, Senator Cruz, maybe low regulation isn’t for you. Helping consumers avoid power bills in the thousands of dollars would have been easy, but it would have required a little bit of regulation.
The storm; or how nature takes no interest in political posturing
Well before this storm hit, ERCOT was fully aware of the vulnerabilities of its particular brand of laissez-faire operations. Ten years ago, in the wake of another winter storm, Texas operators were warned of the dire consequences that could ensue if they did not require generators to winterize operations.
But, they didn’t, and this chart from the U.S. Energy Information Agency shows what happened to generation as a result. Before the storm, you can see natural gas and coal plants running less when high winds produce plenty of cheaper wind power, then cranking up when wind speeds drop. As the week goes on, power supply from natural gas plants increases to meet higher demand from colder weather, while other generation holds steady. Then suddenly you see every category of energy resource except solar drop in output, as critical components of some generating units freeze up and the units fall offline, while fuel supplies also dwindle. Some wind generation falls off, but so does coal, nuclear, and—especially—natural gas, just as they are all needed most.
The storm was, to be sure, one of the worst winter storms ERCOT had ever faced. And the situation could have been worse. If operators had not proactively cut power to customers, demand in excess of supply would have damaged grid infrastructure so severely that large swaths of the population would have been without power for weeks or months. (Let us now praise faceless bureaucrats, for they just saved Texas.)
So it was bad, and could have been worse. Why didn’t Texas prepare for it, even after being warned? I have one theory. People who cling to simplistic notions that global warming “should” produce only warmer winters have a tiresome habit of pointing to cold weather as evidence that climate change isn’t real, but I think they also take secret comfort in the idea that if the planet is warming, extreme cold weather events will become less common, with less need to prepare for them. If your political philosophy requires you to see regulation as an evil, your own willful misunderstanding of climate science might provide all the excuse you’re looking for not to act.
Could it happen here?
Bad weather can happen anywhere, and it’s always safer not to gloat. That said, several features distinguish ERCOT from PJM, and Texas from Virginia. As noted before, PJM has a capacity market that rewards even otherwise-uneconomic generators for hanging around being ready to produce at short notice, and those generators are penalized if they don’t perform when needed. As a result, we are much less likely to see the kind of power shortage and price spikes that Texans experienced. (Not that PJM is without flaws. Its capacity market unnecessarily discriminates against wind and solar, its policies are making the integration of renewable energy harder than it ought to be, and it has incentivized such an oversupply of gas generation that consumers are paying higher prices for the inefficiency. But that’s another story.)
Virginia also features monopoly power companies rather than retail choice. There is plenty of disagreement as to whether that is good or bad for consumers. The monopoly model requires strong regulation to ensure captive consumers aren’t being overcharged, and are being offered the products they want—like renewable energy. Critics (and I’m among them) have argued that Virginia isn’t doing enough on this front.
On the other hand, the retail choice model depends on consumers being well informed, and also requires regulators to scrutinize the tactics of power providers and punish the ones who take advantage of unwary consumers. So, ironically, a deregulated electricity market requires strong regulation to protect participants. Strong regulation could have prevented Texas providers from offering residential customers a tariff based on wholesale prices, with risks that residents couldn’t easily understand or mitigate against.
Texas was also more vulnerable to disruption because power generators were not required to winterize their plants or penalized for not doing so. Sure, a winterized plant would have turned a hefty profit in this storm, but in a more average winter, the extra cost would not have paid off. The option not to winterize isn’t a good one in PJM. As a result, when the power does go out in PJM, the problem is inevitably in the delivery infrastructure, not the generation.
Virginia’s system of vertically-integrated utilities means our utilities own their electric generation as well as the power lines. They can charge customers for building and maintaining those generating facilities, so they have less incentive to skimp on weatherization. That increases the reliability of those facilities. But even if several power plants in Virginia were to fail all at once, we could still draw power from more than 1,200 facilities across PJM, or even from the larger Eastern Interconnection. By design, Texas does not have that option.
One distinction between ERCOT and PJM that doesn’t make a difference, in spite of Governor Abbott’s claims, is the greater percentage of wind in ERCOT than in PJM. Wind actually makes up 23% of generation in ERCOT, more than perhaps Abbott wanted to admit, given that most of it came online under his watch. In PJM, wind makes up only about 3%. If Abbott were correct that wind turbines can’t handle winter weather, that would be a reason for more northern grids like PJM to avoid wind. But of course, Abbott’s claim is political wishful thinking divorced from reality. Wind turbines operate just fine in the much colder winters of Iowa, the Dakotas, Canada—heck, even in the frigid and stormy North Sea, where offshore wind ramps up production in winter.
As for solar, you could see from the chart that it was not affected by the cold weather. Texas residents who were lucky enough to have both rooftop solar and batteries spent the aftermath of the storm bragging about never losing power. That’s a compelling argument not just for more solar in the generation mix, but for more distributed generation in particular, including solar microgrids and resilience hubs to help communities weather future storms.
In the wake of this month’s storm, the independent Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) analyzed what went wrong and issued recommendations for Texas grid operators. Among the unsurprising recommendations: ERCOT should do better planning for resource adequacy and increase its interconnections to other power systems so it does not have to go it alone.
I would add one more recommendation: keep your ideology out of it. You can’t deliver reliable power that is also reasonably priced without robust regulation. If leaders refuse to learn from this winter, they’ll simply set up Mother Nature for another opportunity to mess with Texas.
A version of this article appeared in the Virginia Mercury on February 25, 2021.
[This post was updated January 22 to include two bills filed just ahead of the deadline. See SB1463 under Renewable Energy, and HB2330 under Climate.]
The 2021 General Session is in full swing, with bills being heard at all hours of the day, every day of the week. We’re now told the session will be extended to 45 days as it normally is in odd years, buying a little time for committees to act before the new “crossover” date of February 6.
Meanwhile, the list of bills I’ve corralled over the past week has grown to nearly 50. I’ve included the updated list here—scroll down.
Unless you’re paid to lobby, you may have only a few minutes at a time to contact legislators about the bills you want to see passed (or in some cases, defeated). So how do you set priorities?
Let me propose three criteria for you to lobby for a bill:
If enacted, the legislation would achieve progress on the issue you care about, in a way you approve of;
The legislation has a shot at passage; and
Your lobbying could make a difference
Do you like the bill? You might think this one is easy, but I recommend reading the whole bill before you decide to support one, and not just the summary. In my experience, the summaries are often misleading or incomplete. And even if you agree with the apparent goal of a bill, you might conclude the specifics are unwise or could lead to unintended consequences. But don’t dismiss a bill because it doesn’t go far enough or have everything you want. They seldom do.
Can it pass? This largely depends on who is against it, and how much influence they have. It used to be that if the utilities opposed a bill, it would die. Last year we saw a rebellion against that norm, but utilities are still formidable foes—and there are plenty of other powerful interests who can sink a bill.
There is a second reason some bills don’t have a chance: they cost money. If legislation requires public spending and the patron hasn’t got that figured out, the committee that hears the bill is likely to send it to the Appropriations Committee to die.
Can you make a difference? It’s a waste of your time to lobby for a bill that can’t pass, unless your game plan is to build momentum for future years. On the other end of the scale, sometimes a bill has been negotiated before it is even introduced, or it makes technical amendments that no one opposes; those bills don’t need your help. Focus on the bills where you believe public support matters. (And then get your friends involved, too.)
Three bills to consider for your priority list. These bills pass all three tests. They would make a difference on climate and they all have a shot, but they need public pressure to win votes.
Right to shop for renewable energy, HB2048. Consumers of all kinds want the right to buy renewable energy from suppliers other than their utility, and the provision for low-income residents to receive a discount is a clear winner. Dominion is fighting this threat to its monopoly, but it’s on the wrong side of history. It has been referred to the House Labor and Commerce committee, subcommittee 3 (members: Sullivan (Chair),Keam,Lopez,Bagby,Heretick,Ayala,Kilgore,Ware,Marshall,O’Quinn,Ward
If you have time to adopt additional bills, you might consider adding one or more of the utility reform measures. I’m also partial to HB1925 to bring renewable energy to the Coalfields, which would pair nicely with HB1899/SB1252, sunsetting the coal tax credits. I could go on, but you’ve heard enough.
Here is the whole list, updated this morning, and hopefully now comprehensive:
Renewable energy and storage
HB1925 (Kilgore) Establishes, but does not fund, the Virginia Brownfield and Coal Mine Renewable Energy Grant Fund and Program. Kilgore put in a similar bill last year, which unfortunately did not pass. With no budget impact, this ought to pass easily. But I said that last year, too.
HB1937 (Rasoul) is this year’s version of the Green New Deal Act. It contains policy initiatives to prioritize jobs and benefits for EJ populations and displaced fossil fuel workers and requires a transition to renewable energy by 2035, though these latter provisions are poorly integrated into the VCEA.
HB1994 (Murphy) and HB2215 (Runion) expands the definition of small agriculture generators to include certain small manufacturing businesses such as breweries, distilleries and wineries for the purposes of the law allowing these businesses to aggregate meters and sell renewable energy to a utility.
HB2006 (Heretick) exempts energy storage systems from state and local taxation but allows a revenue share assessment. This is a priority bill for renewable energy industry associations.
HB2034 (Hurst) clarifies that the program allowing third-party power purchase agreements (PPAs) applies to nonjurisdictional customers (i.e., local government and schools) as well as jurisdictional customers (most other customers). Currently, PPA projects with local governments in APCo territory have been held up due to a contract provision between the localities and APCo, and it is hoped this legislation will break the logjam. [Passed House, now in Senate Commerce & Labor.]
HB2048 (Bourne) restores the right of customers to buy renewable energy from any supplier even once their own utility offers a renewable energy purchase option. In addition, third party suppliers of renewable energy are required to offer a discounted renewable energy product to low-income customers, saving them at least 10% off the cost of regular utility service.
HB2067 (Webert) lowers from 150 MW to 50 MW the maximum size of a solar facility that can use the Permit by Rule process. [Killed in committee.]
HB2148 (Willett) provides for energy storage facilities below 150 MW to be subject to the DEQ permit by rule process as “small renewable energy projects.” Although 150 MW is not “small,” the permit by rule process has worked pretty well, so this should be acceptable. This is a priority bill for renewable energy industry associations.
HB2201 (Jones) expands provisions related to siting agreements for solar projects located in an opportunity zone to include energy storage projects; however, according to existing language, the provision only takes effect if the GA also passes legislation authorizing localities to adopt an ordinance providing for the tax treatment of energy storage projects. (Why doesn’t the bill just go ahead and include that authorization? Don’t ask me.) This is another renewable energy industry bill.
HB2269 (Heretick) provides for increases in the revenue share localities can require for solar projects based on changes in the Consumer Price Index.
SB1201 (Petersen) changes the definition of an “electric supplier” to include the operator of a storage facility of at least 25 MW, and subjects them to the same reporting obligations as other suppliers.
SB1258 (Marsden) requires the State Water Control Board to administer a Virginia Erosion and Sediment Control Program (VESCP) on behalf of any locality that notifies the Department of Environmental Quality that it has chosen not to administer a VESCP for any solar photovoltaic (electric energy) project with a rated electrical generation capacity exceeding five megawatts. The provisions become effective only if the program is funded; Marsden has submitted a budget amendment. This is also a priority bill for renewable energy industry associations.
SB1295 (DeSteph) requires utilities to use Virginia-made or US-made products in constructing renewable energy and storage facilities “if available,” but it does not require any added cost to be reasonable. [Amended to resolve the reasonable cost issue.]
SB1420 (Edwards) is a companion bill to HB2034, clarifying PPA language for Appalachian Power territory.
SB1463 (Cosgrove) would reverse the progress made last year in preventing homeowner associations from unreasonably restricting rooftop solar. It would create a loophole to let HOAs ban solar once again. [Withdrawn by patron.]
Energy efficiency and buildings
HB1811 (Helmer) adds a preference for energy efficient products in public procurement.
HB1859 (Guy) amends last year’s legislation on Commercial Property Assessed Clean Energy (C-PACE) loans to allow these loans to be extended to projects completed in the previous 2 years; it also expressly excludes residential buildings of less than 5 units and residential condominiums. [Passed House with a substitute, now in Senate.]
HB2001 (Helmer) requires state and local government buildings to be constructed or renovated to include electric vehicle charging infrastructure and the capability of tracking energy efficiency and carbon emissions.
SB1224 (Boysko) requires the Board of Housing and Community Development to adopt amendments to the Uniform Statewide Building Code within one year of publication of a new version of the International Code Council’s International Energy Conservation Code (IECC) to address changes related to energy efficiency and conservation. The bill requires the Board to adopt Building Code standards that are at least as stringent as those contained in the new version of the IECC. This is one of the important bills I wrote about last week.
HB1919 (Kory) authorizes a locality to establish a green bank to finance clean energy investments. Fairfax County has requested this authority.
HB1834 (Subramanyam) requires owner of carbon-emitting power plants to conduct a study at least every 18 months to determine whether the facility should be retired. It also requires notice of any decision to retire a facility to be submitted to state and local leaders within 14 days, a step that allows transition planning.
HB1899 (Hudson) sunsets coal tax credits, because it is absolutely crazy that Virginia continues to subsidize coal mining while we’ve committed to close coal plants.
HB1934 (Simon) requires local approval for construction of any gas pipeline over 12 inches in diameter in a residential subdivision. The genesis of this bill is a particular project in Simon’s district, but I was surprised this isn’t a requirement already.
HB2292 (Cole) is similar to the Green New Deal bill but without the speeded-up RPS timeline. It contains a moratorium on permits for new fossil fuel infrastructure and requires programs for transitioning fossil fuel workers that guarantees them jobs at the same income they had before and provides early retirement benefits and pension guarantees. It also requires development of new job training programs; requires that 40% of energy efficiency and clean energy funding go to EJ communities; and mandates that 50 percent of the clean energy workforce come from EJ communities.
SB1265 (Deeds) makes it easier for DEQ to inspect and issue stop-work orders during gas pipeline construction.
SB1311 (McClellan) requires DEQ to revise erosion and sediment control plans or stormwater management plans when a stop work order has been issued for violations related to pipeline construction.
HB2281 (Ware) would exempt certain companies that use a lot of energy from paying for their share of the costs of Virginia’s energy transition under the VCEA, driving up costs for all other ratepayers. And thus the slow chipping away at the VCEA begins. Everybody’s got a reason they’re special. [Killed in subcommittee.]
HB2330 (Kory) is the legislation the SCC asked for to provide guidance on the Percentage of Income Payment Program under the Virginia Clean Economy Act.
SB1282 (Morrissey) directs DEQ to conduct a statewide greenhouse gas inventory, to be updated and published every four years.
SB1284 (Favola) changes the name of the Commonwealth Energy Policy to the Commonwealth Clean Energy Policy, and streamlines the language without making major changes to the policies set out last year in Favola’s successful SB94. That bill overhauled the CEP, which until then had been a jumble of competing priorities, and established new targets for Virginia to achieve 100% carbon-free electricity by 2040 and net-zero carbon economy-wide by 2045. This year’s bill shows the Northam Administration is now fully on board, and the result is a policy statement that is more concise and coherent.
SB1374 (Lewis) would set up a Carbon Sequestration Task Force to consider methods of increasing carbon sequestration in the natural environment, establish benchmarks, and identify carbon markets.
And because this category would not be complete without a bill from a legislator who thinks climate action is a bunch of hooey, we have HB2265 (Freitas), which would repeal provisions of the VCEA phasing out carbon emissions from power plants, repeal the restrictions on SCC approval of new carbon-emitting facilities, and nix the provisions declaring wind, solar, offshore wind and energy storage to be in the public interest. Oh, but in case you thought Freitas was just a free market believer, or cared about cost, the bill provides that planning and development of new nuclear generation is in the public interest.
Clean Virginia developed a full slate of bills, each a little different, that all restore SCC oversight over utilities and/or benefit customers with refunds.
HB1835 (Subramanyam) eliminates provisions that limit rate reductions to $50 million in the next SCC review of Dominion’s rates.
HB1914 (Helmer) changes “shall” to “may” in a number of places, giving the SCC discretion over when to count utility costs against revenues.
HB1984 (Hudson) gives the SCC added discretion to determine a utility’s fair rate of return and to order rate increases or decreases accordingly.
HB2049 (Bourne) would prevent utilities from using overearnings for new projects instead of issuing refunds.
HB2057 (Ware) changes how the SCC determines a fair rate of return for utilities and gives the SCC discretion in the treatment of certain utility generation and distribution costs, as well as in determining when a rate increase is appropriate. It also provides that when a utility has earnings above the authorized level, 100% of the overearnings must be returned to customers, up from 70% today. The SCC is also given authority to determine when a utility’s capital investments should offset overearnings.
HB2160 (Tran) gives the SCC greater authority to determine when a utility has overearned and gives the Commission greater discretion in determining whether to raise or lower rates and order refunds. It also requires 100% of overearnings to be credited to customers’ bills, instead of 70%, as is the case today.
HB2200 (Jones) makes a number of changes to SCC rate review proceedings, including setting a fair rate of return, requiring 100% of overearnings to be credited to customers’ bills, and eliminating the $50 million limit on refunds to Dominion customers in the next rate review proceeding.
SB1292 (McClellan) requires 100% of overearnings to be credited to customers’ bills, instead of 70%, as is the case today.
EVs and Transportation energy
The Virginia Mercury ran a good article this week that covered most of these bills.
HB1850 (Reid) increases the roadway weight limit for electric and natural gas-fueled trucks to accommodate the extra weight of batteries or natural gas fuel systems.
HB1965 (Bagby) is the Clean Car Standard bill, which would require manufacturers to deliver more electric vehicles to Virginia dealers beginning in 2025.
HB1979 (Reid) creates a rebate program for new and used electric vehicles.
HB2118 (Keam) establishes an Electric Vehicle Grant Fund and Program to assist school boards in replacing diesel buses with electric, installing charging infrastructure, and developing workforce education to support the electric buses.
HB2282 (Sullivan) directs the SCC to develop and report on policy proposals to accelerate transportation electrification in the Commonwealth. The bill also limits how utilities get reimbursed for investments in transportation electrification: they must recover costs through normal rates for generation and distribution, and not through rate adjustment clauses or customer credit reinvestment offsets.
HJ542 (McQuinn) requests a statewide study of transit equity and modernization.
SB1223 (Boysko) adds a requirement to the Virginia Energy Plan to include an analysis of electric vehicle charging infrastructure and other infrastructure needed to support the 2045 net-zero carbon target in the transportation sector.
SB1380 (Lucas) authorizes electric utilities to partner with school districts on electric school buses. The utility can own the batteries and the charging infrastructure and use the batteries for grid services and peak shaving.
SB1453 (Edwards) revises Titles 45.1 and 67 of the Virginia Code. “The bill organizes the laws in a more logical manner, removes obsolete and duplicative provisions, and improves the structure and clarity of statutes pertaining to” mining and energy. The bill is a recommendation of the Virginia Code Commission.
Everybody has a favorite topic to bring up at parties when someone who knows them only vaguely and can’t remember what line of work they’re in seeks clues by asking, “So what have you been up to lately?”
“Advocating for offshore wind!” I used to respond brightly, which is why I wasn’t that popular at parties even before the pandemic.
But I got my longed-for turbines when Virginia Governor Ralph Northam and Dominion Energy committed to developing 2,600 megawatts of offshore wind by the middle of this decade.
So now I’m campaigning for another cutting-edge technology, or rather, for a cutting-edge combination of otherwise familiar technologies. I’m talking about agrivoltaics. For those of you not in the know, agrivoltaics refers to using land for solar panels and farming purposes at the same time. The “construction footprint” of solar—that is, the amount of land at a solar facility that is taken up by infrastructure and can’t be used for anything else—is less than 2%. The rest is up for grabs.
Consider one approach. At most utility-scale solar facilities, the ground under and between the rows of solar panels is planted in grass, which has to be mowed periodically. Instead of paying a maintenance crew to come through with lawn mowers, why not hire sheep to do the lawn care? The sheep do a better job at less cost, the shepherds get fresh pasture for their flock, and the soil gets nicely fertilized.
(Sheep, it turns out, are the grazers of preference. Cattle like to rub up against things that ought not to have 1200-pound animals rubbing against them, and goats—well, they’re goats: they eat the wiring.)
I admit I have no personal knowledge of this, since I live in wooded suburbs with neither solar panels nor sheep. The closest I get to country life is owning a dog of the farm collie variety. And she shows no talent for herding, though it’s possible she is just not in her element. Five years after arriving here from rural South Carolina, Ellie has still not gotten over her indignation at having been “rescued” by a family without a farm.
Actually, I recently toyed with the fantasy of moving to a farm, which is such a COVID cliché that I apologize for mentioning it. But if my fellow residents of Northern Virginia haven’t done this yourselves, you will cry in your morning latte to learn that for the price of the average home in the D.C. area, you can buy hundreds of acres of open space elsewhere in Virginia, typically with a house thrown in. Alas, not a single listing mentioned suitability for solar, with or without sheep, and when I caught on that they didn’t mention internet access either, my enthusiasm waned.
So what I know about solar sheep comes mostly from the American Solar Grazing Association, which I urge you to check out because it is by far the cutest professional organization I have ever belonged to. Most of the projects it highlights are small in scale, given that the partnership between solar developers and shepherds is a new one. Still, the partnerships work because they save money for solar project owners and earn money for graziers.
A few Virginia farmers and developers have shown it works. The 3-megawatt Bedford Solar Farm has used sheep as the primary means of vegetation management since beginning operations in January 2018. Sheep are also on the job at the 1.3-megawatt solar facility at Carilion New River Valley Medical Center near Roanoke. The project owner, Secure Futures LLC, argues for the economic and environmental benefits in an enthusiastic blogpost (but beware of the b-a-a-a-d puns).
For others, the bigger benefit comes in community acceptance. The more a solar facility looks and operates like an agricultural use, the easier it will be to integrate it into the rural landscape. If we want Virginia to succeed in its quest to decarbonize our electricity supply, we need more solar. We need much more of it on rooftops and parking lots and closed landfills, but we also need the big projects. The carbon math just doesn’t work otherwise.
Virginia’s solar industry is young, but developers already report difficulty in securing permits for projects that require hundreds or even thousands of acres. The industry sweetened the pot this year by supporting laws that provide extra revenue to counties in exchange for hosting projects. But solar was already a good deal for county government and landowners, producing more revenue for both than farming alone. The people putting up a fuss are the neighbors.
I’m not terribly sympathetic to these folks. Virginia has lost way more farmland and forests to subdivisions than it ever will to solar projects, including the subdivisions many of those complaining neighbors live in (looking at you, Fawn Lake!). Land that is carved up and paved over never becomes a field or forest again, but solar is a temporary use; when the lease is up, the panels and their supports are taken away, and an open meadow remains.
As for concerns about losing land that was growing food, we need to keep in mind that more than 30 million acres of U.S. farmland is largely wasted today growing the 40 percent of U.S. corn production that gets processed into ethanol for mixing with gasoline. Solar is not competing with food.
But it isn’t me who has to be persuaded, it’s the people who show up at public hearings to oppose what they regard as some kind of industrial eyesore. They don’t care that leasing land for solar may be what lets a family hold onto their farm. They don’t want to look at it.
So developers, and the utilities who buy the projects from them, have to do more to make themselves welcome by offering other benefits. It doesn’t have to be sheep. Some developers offer wildlife-friendly fencing and set aside land for walking trails. Another especially welcome trend is for facility owners to plant native wildflowers in place of grass to support bees and other pollinators.
If sheep don’t move you, pollinators should. We are in a biodiversity crisis as well as a climate crisis, and populations of native bees critical to pollination of many food crops are in steep decline. So why not make use of the space under solar panels to strike a blow for bees? Neighboring farmers also benefit, because studies show that attracting insect pollinators increases yields of food crops grown nearby. A study from Yale University found additional benefits, including the cooling effect of native plantings that increase solar production.
Minnesota and Maryland are leading the way in formalizing programs with guidelines and incentives for pollinator-friendly solar facilities, but Virginia is also out front on this topic. The Departments of Conservation and Recreation (DCR), Mines, Minerals and Energy (DMME), and Environmental Quality (DEQ) created the Virginia Pollinator-Smart Solar Program and developed a scorecard to help local governments and solar developers understand how to achieve pollinator-friendly status. (Check out the terrific webinar from last April.)
Solar developer Sun Tribe announced it achieved the state’s first Gold Certified solar site under the program at Cople Elementary School in Westmoreland County, where the solar array sits on 4.3 acres. Small projects like this should be simple to replicate, but scaling up may be harder.
For one thing, the only large supplier of native plant seeds in our region, Ernst Conservation Seeds in Pennsylvania, projects that it would take up to ten years to build up enough stock to supply a robust utility-scale solar market. (Ernst also has a seed mix designed for those who want both pollinator plants and sheep among their solar panels; of course it’s called “Fuzz and Buzz.”)
The solar companies I’ve spoken with are enthusiastic, but they cite one other challenge: persuading their customers, including utilities, to accept sheep or pollinator plantings on site. So we may have to look to other kinds of customers for leadership: institutional buyers, corporations and government buyers — the kind of customers for whom social and environmental benefits add value beyond the cheap electricity they can get from solar.
I don’t imagine I will ever be able to give my dog a farm, with or without solar sheep, but I take comfort in the certainty that grazing, native plantings and other co-benefits will eventually become standard practice, simply because they’ll have to.
Meeting our energy needs sustainably means solar is going to become a visible part of our landscape. The job of the solar industry, its allies and its customers is to make that not just tolerable, but welcome. And for that, solar projects must offer more than energy.
Immediately following the 2016 election of Donald Trump, I wrote a column titled “Why Trump won’t stop the clean energy revolution.”
If you were to read it now, you would yawn. What seemed bold back then now feels like forecasting the inevitable. Of course coal has not come back. Of course wind and solar are cheaper now than fossil fuels. Of course people agree a zero-carbon future is achievable.
Still, few of us could have predicted how far off course Trump would try to take us. Withdrawing from the Paris climate accord was the least of it. The Washington Post tallied more than 125 rollbacks of environmental regulations and policies over the past four years. Trump’s more flamboyant acts of perfidy distracted attention away from his sustained attack, not just on climate science, but on the laws protecting America’s lands, air and water.
Really, we should be grateful Trump staffed his administration with grifters and sycophants who repeatedly bungled the details and opened their decisions to legal challenge. Incompetence is underrated. Skilled managers would have done much more damage.
Yet the past four years have also pushed us closer to the brink of climate chaos and the collapse of ecosystems. We wasted time we did not have.
As president, Joe Biden will be able to undo most of the environmental rollbacks with new executive orders and agency actions. Biden has also promised a long list of new initiatives, though many of them would require Democratic control of the Senate.
Virginia and other states partially filled the four-year void with commitments to decarbonize our electricity supply and build renewable energy. But even for Virginia the path to zero-carbon would be a lot easier with federal action. Public support for climate action is strong even from Republicans, though it’s hard to imagine a really aggressive climate bill getting a floor vote in the Senate while Mitch McConnell is in charge. (In my dreams, Maine Senator Susan Collins announces she is changing her party affiliation to Independent and will caucus with Democrats to get a climate bill passed. I have really great dreams.)
Let’s assume for now, though, that Joe is on his own. What can he do through executive orders and agency actions? A lot, it turns out, so I’ll just focus on a few high-profile moves and how they might affect the energy transition here in Virginia.
Carbon emissions: a new Clean Power Plan? Recall that back in 2016, the EPA finalized regulations under the Clean Air Act designed to reduce carbon emissions from power plants with state-by-state targets. Lawsuits and backpedaling by the Trump EPA prevented the Clean Power Plan from ever taking effect, and the replacement plan was derided for its weakness.
Four years later, a Biden EPA could use the same Clean Air Act authority to write new regulations. The thing is, though, the Clean Power Plan put the squeeze on coal-dependent states but would have had virtually no effect on Virginia. And that was before the Virginia Clean Economy Act set us on a path to decarbonization, putting Virginia ahead of any revamped rule that might come out of the EPA now.
A better scenario for us would be if the threat of new climate action from EPA brought Republican senators to the table for a climate bill that would, say, impose a carbon tax (or fee-and-dividend) in return for stripping EPA of its authority to regulate carbon emissions.
But I promised to focus on what Biden can do without Congress, so let’s get back to that.
Coal. Among the protections Trump tried to roll back are EPA regulations like the Mercury and Air Toxics Standard and the Coal Ash Rule, both of which limit pollution caused by coal plants. While both are in litigation (see “bungling,” above), we can expect the EPA under Biden to reverse course and, if anything, tighten these protections. Virginia has already committed to closing most of its coal plants, a decision that will prove even wiser when coal plants have to meet stricter standards.
Of course, these Trump regulatory rollbacks didn’t do the coal industry any good. Nationally, coal plants have continued to close at an even faster rate than they did during Obama’s second term. The false hopes Trump offered for a coal renaissance forestalled real efforts to help communities in Appalachia transition.
Here in Virginia, even coalfields legislators understand the need to diversify the economy of Southwest Virginia. Biden’s election is their wake-up call to stop trying to revive a past that was never a golden era for workers anyway, however enriching it was for the coal bosses.
Fracked gas. Biden made it clear he would not ban fracking other than on federal lands, but we can expect stronger regulations to limit the leakage of methane from wellheads, pipelines and storage infrastructure. That’s a Virginia priority, too.
Energy efficiency. Federal efficiency requirements for products including appliances and HVAC systems have proven to be low-cost and consumer-friendly. A renewed focus on strong national standards will help reduce per-capita energy consumption and help Virginia meet its carbon reduction goals at less cost to consumers.
Wind and solar. It would take legislation to extend federal tax credits for renewable energy, but there are other actions the Biden administration can take to support wind and solar. These include increased funding of R&D through the Department of Energy (a program that already has support in Congress), and removing tariffs on imported solar panels.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission can also help wind and solar. FERC has caused its share of climate damage, most memorably for Virginians by approving the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley pipelines. FERC’s decisions also control the playing field for the electricity sector, including rules that currently disadvantage wind and solar in the wholesale markets. These rules could just as easily be rewritten. Although FERC is an independent agency, Biden will have an opportunity to appoint climate-friendly FERC commissioners as vacancies occur and terms expire.
And indeed, FERC is already starting to come around. Chairman Neil Chatterjee recently hosted a technical conference and issued a proposed policy statement on carbon pricing in regional markets, an act that may have led Trump to demote him this month.
Offshore wind. Within the Department of Interior, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) issues offshore energy leases and oversees development of offshore projects, including wind farms. More than a year ago offshore wind activity at BOEM ground almost to a halt, setting back one project after another. Congress isn’t happy, and it may direct more funding to BOEM to help re-start the process.
Biden will also direct BOEM to get out of the way of current projects and begin the process of designating new offshore lease areas for development. Both of these are critical to Virginia’s clean energy plans. (Of course, an investment tax credit for offshore wind would help, too — but there I go again, looking for legislation.)
Transportation. Until Trump came in, the auto industry was gradually improving fuel economy standards in new cars and light trucks. Biden will put that program back in place, and likely impose more stringent tailpipe emission standards. These moves will boost the transition to electric and hybrid vehicles and lead to lower carbon emissions from the transportation sector, another Virginia priority.
Declaring a national climate emergency. It’s a long shot, but Biden could use his executive authority to declare a climate emergency the way Trump declared a national emergency to redirect funds from national defense to his border fence. There are many ways this could help the Virginia transition if Biden were to go this route.
But of course he won’t. Biden is no Trump. And for that, we should all be grateful.
This article was originally published in the Virginia Mercury on November 12, 2020.
Hurricane Isabel was one of Virginia’s worst natural disasters–and it was only a category 2 storm when it made landfall in North Carolina. Photo credit NOAA National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service (NESDIS)
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says this year’s hurricane season could set a record for the number of storms big enough to be given names. NOAA now predicts a total of 19 to 25 named storms (winds of 39 mph or greater) in the Atlantic, of which 7 to 11 are likely to become hurricanes. Isaias, a Category 1 hurricane, was already the ninth named storm of this season.
With global warming heating the ocean and making hurricanes worse, states and localities have to prepare not just for the storms but also for their aftermath, when residents are left without power, sometimes for days.
I still have keen and unpleasant memories of 2003’s Hurricane Isabel, one of Virginia’s deadliest and costliest storms. My family was among the 2 million households who lost power.
For eight days we used a camp lantern for light and cooked outside over fires kindled in a Weber grill. We ate our way through the thawing contents of the freezer, then got creative with canned foods. We have a well with an electric pump, so our water supply consisted of what was in the jugs and pots we filled before the storm hit. And without power for our septic pump, we could not put anything down the drain or flush toilets. (My daughters were just hitting their teen years at the time. You can imagine how well they took this.)
Still, we were lucky. We didn’t need power to run a medical device like an oxygen machine or wheelchair, or to keep medicine refrigerated. Firewood and a grill gave us a cooking option we wouldn’t have had if we lived in an apartment, and we owned plenty of jugs and pots to hold water. Most importantly, if it had gotten bad enough we could have left in our car — something many city dwellers don’t have, especially if they are low-income or elderly.
After Isabel, a lot of my neighbors went out and got generators, buying peace of mind for themselves but underscoring how the wealth gap affects even the ability to weather a storm. Yet in these intervening years, electricity has truly become central to everything Americans do. We get our information over the internet; business happens online; cell phones have replaced landlines. In an emergency, having access to electricity can mean the difference between getting help and having none.
The traditional government response to a hurricane warning is to issue evacuation orders and designate emergency shelters, but experience has shown that a lot of people stay put. Some can’t afford to leave or lack transportation. Others have pets they can’t take with them and won’t leave behind, or they fear looters might take advantage of their absence. Distrust of government probably plays a role, too, making some folks prefer to take their chances with a storm than let people in uniform tell them what to do.
And this year, of course, the pandemic will make people even more hesitant to leave home.
The hurricane hunker-downers, and everyone else left without power after a storm, need access to electricity that doesn’t depend on the grid. There weren’t many options 17 years ago, when Isabel hit. Since then, though, the technological innovations that are transforming our energy supply have also created ways to keep the power flowing that don’t require balky, fuel-dependent generators.
Solar panels on a community center, school or other centrally-located and publicly-accessible building can provide continuous power when the sun is shining; adding batteries allows the panels to keep providing power at night and when the grid is down. Even just a few solar panels can power lights and provide cellphone charging. A larger array will run a refrigerator, microwave, television and coffeemaker. If it is large enough, it can even provide heating and cooling.
A site like this might serve as an emergency shelter for evacuees, or be part of a microgrid that includes nearby critical services such as a police or fire station. But it could be just a neighborhood location where people drop by to charge phones and computers, heat food, get news and see familiar faces. This concept is known as a “resilience hub,” and it’s the sort of modest investment that punches above its weight in community benefits. Good emergency planning should include locating a resilience hub wherever people are most likely to suffer in the aftermath of a storm due to lack of mobility, old age, disability or poverty.
The challenge, of course, is that a resilience hub or microgrid requires an upfront investment. Solar panels pay for themselves over time by reducing electricity bills, but someone still has to front the cost. Legislation passed this year makes that much easier, and local governments are already saving money with solar on public buildings across the state.
The battery is more of a problem. If it simply sits around waiting for a power outage, it won’t earn its keep over the 10-15 years of its useful life. A battery that isn’t providing useful services on a regular basis is also bad for the planet, since batteries have an environmental footprint of their own.
But a battery doesn’t need to sit idle. When it is not being used to provide stored energy in a power outage, the battery could provide a range of benefits to the grid, helping to meet peak demand, integrate renewable energy, and provide frequency regulation and other ancillary services. This is such a valuable service to the grid that in Vermont, utility Green Mountain Power pays for much of the cost of batteries in the homes of customers in exchange for the right to use them.
Virginia has no resilience hubs yet, and the fiscal crisis caused by the pandemic means local governments may not have funding for them. However, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is offering $500 million in grants under a program that looks tailor-made for resilience hubs and microgrids that power critical services and other community needs on an emergency basis.
Our utilities could also play an active role. The recently enacted Virginia Clean Economy Act (VCEA) provides all the authority Dominion Energy Virginia and Appalachian Power need to support solar-plus-storage at neighborhood locations. The law permits the utilities to even own the solar, if they want to, if an array meets a 50-kilowatt minimum size.
More importantly, Dominion and Appalachian can own the batteries, or contract with third parties to be able to use them. The VCEA sets out ambitious energy storage targets that include a “goal of installing at least 10 percent of such energy storage projects behind the meter”—a category that includes most customer-sited storage. The VCEA also allows utilities to select storage projects on a basis other than cost if a project “materially advances non-price criteria, including favoring geographic distribution of generating facilities.”
The State Corporation Commission took comments this summer on how to implement the VCEA’s requirements for energy storage. This is a good opportunity for the SCC to look beyond utility-scale projects that deliver storage services to the grid cheaply, but do nothing to provide backup power when the grid goes down. The SCC should insist utilities include storage at resilience hubs in neighborhoods that are most at risk from storms, and where residents are least likely to have other options when the grid goes down.
That probably won’t be near my house, but I’m okay with help going to the communities where it is most needed. This year’s pandemic has exposed the interconnectedness of our lives in ways that usually lie beneath the surface. Whether it’s a virus, a natural disaster, climate change or acts of injustice, we are really all part of the same community.
The solar panels on Wilson Middle School are saving money for Augusta County taxpayers. Photo courtesy of Secure Futures.
In mid-March, the Virginia General Assembly passed legislation to transition our economy from fossil fuels to clean energy over the coming years. Two weeks later, Virginia shut down in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Among the businesses whose very existence is now in peril are the energy efficiency companies and solar installers we will be counting on to get us off fossil fuels.
The timing seems terrible — although to be fair, there’s no good time for an economy-crushing, worldwide pandemic. Eventually, however, the virus will run its course or be defeated through vaccine or cure. At that point, we will face a choice: we can stagger blinking out into the sunlight aimlessly wondering now what?, or we can execute the well-developed plan we have spent these weeks and months formulating.
Let’s go with the second option.
First, it’s worth remembering that nothing happening now will change the trajectory of clean energy. Solar and wind had banner years in 2019, continuing their steady march to dominance. Wind has become the largest single source of electricity in two states, Iowa and Kansas. The island of Kauai in Hawaii is now 56 percent powered by renewable energy, mostly solar. Across the U.S. wind, solar and hydro produce more electricity than coal. Wind is the cheapest form of new electric generation nationally; solar takes pride of place in Virginia.
Fracked gas helped kill coal but is itself vulnerable to price competition from renewables. Odd as it sounds, the collapse in oil prices will make natural gas more expensive. That’s because oil producers in Texas and North Dakota are closing wells that produced natural gas along with oil. The tightening supply of gas may finally make fracking companies in Appalachia profitable, but it means higher prices for utilities. Wind and solar will just keep looking better.
The Trump administration is still trying futilely to hold back the tide, but the U.S. will get a lot farther riding the wave than struggling against it. Congressional leaders should declare the country “all in” on clean energy. Instead of bailing out the highly polluting fossil fuel industries, they should put that money to work creating more jobs and economic development — and actually doing something about climate change — with energy efficiency and renewables.
Congress should return the Investment Tax Credit for solar (and offshore wind) to the 30 percent level in effect last year and keep it there, instead of continuing the phase-out now in effect. Congress should also give solar owners the option of taking the credit as a cash grant, as it did during the last recession, and for the same reason: tax-based incentives are less useful in a recession, when companies can’t use the credits.
Virginia’s Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner have a critical role to play in convincing their colleagues to support solar. So far neither is rising to the task.
On the state level, Northam did the right thing in signing this year’s energy legislation, allowing utilities and industry members to start planning for the future. But the Clean Economy Act gets wind and solar off to a very slow start; Dominion doesn’t have to build Virginia solar for five years yet. And though the new laws remove many policy constraints on customer-sited solar, they offer next to nothing in the way of financial incentives.
Governor Northam should make it clear he intends to make rooftop solar a priority for next year, along with projects on closed landfills, former coal mine areas, and other brownfields, with a special focus on areas hardest-hit economically. He can also encourage corporations that do business in Virginia to meet their sustainability goals with Virginia wind and solar, starting right now.
The governor should also prioritize building efficiency. Virginia will be adopting a new residential building code this year, and if past years are any indication, its energy efficiency provisions will fall short of the most recent model code standard. It’s up to the governor to make sure Virginia adopts the full code.
Local governments are already taking advantage of suddenly-empty buildings to accelerate maintenance and repairs. But it’s a good time to think bigger, with new financing tools available that make energy efficiency retrofits and solar facilities cash-positive right from the start.
Energy performance contracting allows the energy savings to pay for retrofits. The Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy keeps a list of pre-qualified energy service companies and offers expertise to help local government employees navigate the process.
This year’s legislation also greatly expanded local governments’ ability to finance on-site solar through third-party power purchase agreements, effective July 1. The PPAs are structured so that a school district, municipality or any commercial or non-profit customer can have a solar array installed at no cost, paying just for the energy produced.
In December, Fairfax County awarded contracts for PPAs to install solar on more than a hundred sites, including schools and other government buildings. The county’s contract is “rideable,” which allows other counties and cities to piggyback, getting the same terms without the need for new contract negotiations.
Unfortunately, local governments in southwest Virginia are prevented from pursuing PPAs — not by state legislation, which allows it starting July 1, but by a contract with Appalachian Power that governs their electricity purchases from the utility. The contract is up for renewal this year; disgracefully, APCo is refusing to agree to new terms allowing the localities to use solar PPAs. APCo should back off, and let local governments in economically depressed southwest Virginia start saving money and supporting solar jobs this year.
Arlington County has gone beyond on-site solar, contracting for a share of a large solar farm in southern Virginia that will provide more than 80 percent of the electricity for county government operations. It’s a model any locality can adopt.
Virginia residents and businesses also have good reasons to focus on clean energy. The enforced down-time many people are experiencing means more time to research options, and companies are motivated to offer low prices on energy efficiency upgrades and rooftop solar.
The federal government offers more generous tax credits this year than next. Credits for residential energy efficiency equipment and a deduction for energy efficient commercial buildings expire at the end of this year.
The investment tax credit for solar (as well as for geothermal heat pumps, fuel cells and small wind turbines) stands at 26% for projects placed in operation this year, but it will drop to 22% in 2021. It falls to 10% for commercial customers and disappears altogether for residential customers in 2022. If Congress acts to raise the credit to 30%, buyers will get an even bigger boost. If it doesn’t, there will be a rush this year to get projects done by the end of the year, so customers should secure their place in line now.
Virginia nonprofits have helped hundreds of residents and businesses save money on solar and EV chargers through bulk purchasing programs. Virginia Solar United Neighbors just announced a series of virtual information sessions to promote the Arlington Solar EV Co-op. And LEAP, which closed operations temporarily due to the virus, reports it has restarted two programs, Solarize NOVA and Solarize Piedmont.
In an ideal world, the U.S. would already be well along in executing a comprehensive plan for a clean energy transition, one that includes job retraining for workers, and that resists counterproductive efforts to save the fossil fuel industry. But we can do the next best thing, and use the tools of government, the market and consumer choice to speed us in the right direction.
COVID-19 has handed all of us a big, fat lemon. Let’s make some lemonade.
A version of this article appeared originally in the Virginia Mercury on April 30, 2020.