Your electric bills are skyrocketing. Blame our failure to invest in renewable energy.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Fossil fuel prices are higher everywhere, and the effect is hitting electric bills as well as prices at the gas pump. 

Utilities that generate power from natural gas and coal face fuel costs two or three times as high as they were just a couple of years ago —and those costs are passed on to customers. Some utilities employ hedging strategies and long-term contracts to reduce the impact of price spikes. But as a general matter, how painful your bill increase will be is a function of how much electricity your utility generates from fossil fuels. 

Gee, don’t you wish we had more renewable energy in Virginia? 

Let’s review the problem. Dominion Energy Virginia, our largest utility, generates most of its electricity from gas and coal, with 29 percent from nuclear and a tiny percentage from solar and biomass. Our second-largest utility, Appalachian Power, derives 85 percent of its power from coal and gas and only 15 percent from renewable energy, primarily wind and hydro. 

Both utilities are investing more in renewables now, but for years they lagged other states even as wind and solar became the lowest-cost sources of energy nationwide. Because the “fuel” for wind turbines and solar panels is free, those sources generate electricity at a stable price that looks even better when coal and gas prices go up. (Nuclear reactors are fueled by uranium, so they aren’t affected by the fossil fuel crunch either; even so, most of them need subsidies to compete in the wholesale market.) 

As previously reported in the Mercury, Dominion filed a request with the State Corporation Commission in May to increase the “fuel factor” portion of its customer bills, citing the higher prices. In the past year, according to Dominion, the price of the natural gas it bought has gone up 100 percent. High gas prices cause utilities to switch to coal generation when it’s cheaper, so the price of coal also rose by 92 percent. In all, the company said it incurred more than a billion dollars more in fuel costs over the past year than it budgeted for a year ago. 

Under Virginia law, Dominion and APCo “pass through” the costs of fuel directly to customers. They don’t collect a profit, but they don’t have to swallow unexpected increases themselves. Customers will have to pay higher rates for as long as it takes Dominion to recoup the extra spending. The only question for the SCC is how quickly Dominion should collect the money.

Consumers in other states are also being hit by higher electricity bills, but the effect is uneven across the country. States that built more renewable energy protected their residents from fuel price increases. 

Data collected by the U.S. Energy Information Agency shows that with few exceptions, states with lower electricity rates than Virginia’s have more renewable energy than we do. Since the EIA data doesn’t reflect all the planned increases due to rising coal and gas prices, the disparity will become even more pronounced over the coming year. 

States in the Pacific Northwest with a lot of inexpensive hydroelectric power have especially low rates, but wind and solar are the cheapest forms of new energy. The higher fossil fuel prices go, the better wind and solar look by comparison. 

States in the Great Plains have been building wind for years because it outcompetes everything else, so their rates are low and increasingly insulated from fossil fuel volatility. South Dakota residents pay less per kilowatt-hour than Virginians do, and the state gets a whopping 83 percent of its electricity from renewable energy, primarily wind. Even North Dakota, a deep red state wedded to fossil fuels, gets more than 35 percent of its electricity from wind and another 5 percent from hydro. Its rates are already much lower than Virginia’s, and its renewable energy will cushion fuel cost increases. 

Investments in solar are also paying off. Take Utah for example, where residential rates are also far lower than Virginia’s. Utah has a coal problem, with 61 percent of its electricity from that one dirty source, and another 24 percent from natural gas. But, as EIA reports, “almost all the rest of in-state generation came from renewable energy, primarily solar power.” Moreover, “solar energy powers about 93 percent of Utah’s electric generating capacity added since 2015.” Evidently, Utah spent the past seven years working to future-proof its energy supply, while Dominion kept building more gas plants. 

Virginia’s slow start on the transition to renewable energy is the direct result of poor investment decisions by our utilities and a disgraceful myopia on the part of the State Corporation Commission. Environmental advocates pointed out for years that our over-commitment to fracked gas meant we’ve been gambling on fuel costs and undervaluing price stability. But the SCC kept approving new fossil fuel projects, and actually urged Dominion to build more gas plants.

Indeed, our situation would be even worse if the General Assembly had not passed the Virginia Clean Economy Act in 2020. The VCEA requires our utilities to transition to carbon-free electricity by 2050 and establishes wind and solar targets for Dominion and APCo to achieve by 2035. The targets are still too low to meet the climate emergency — but until the VCEA became law, Dominion was planning to build even more gas plants

Now customers have to pay for Dominion’s folly. Dominion’s filing states that if it recovers the entire $1 billion shortfall over the coming year, residential bills would have to go up by 19.8 percent. Dominion instead proposes to spread the higher charges over three years to ease the shock, making the bill increase 12.2 percent.  The effect would be further moderated this year by other adjustments the company proposes, like moving the costs of participating in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative into base rates, where they can be absorbed because those rates are so inflated. (On the other hand, the SCC just granted Dominion a separate rate increase for spending to extend the life of its aging nuclear plants—an undertaking projected to cost nearly $4 billion.) 

An SCC hearing examiner heard testimony in Dominion’s rate case on July 6 and 7. A ruling is expected later this summer, and the SCC seems likely to approve the three-year plan. 

Spreading the cost of higher fuel prices out over a longer time may reduce the rate shock, but there are drawbacks to this approach. First, Dominion will charge customers the financing costs of deferring collection on the full amount, adding to the total cost burden. (What, did you think the company was offering to absorb that cost itself?) The way it works is that ratepayers will borrow money to pay off our debt to Dominion, then repay the loan with interest over the next three years. 

The second problem is that if the high cost of fossil fuel isn’t temporary, extending the recovery period will lead to even greater shocks in coming years. If prices stay high and we keep kicking the can down the road, we will pay more financing costs and pile up more debt. Where does this end?

This is not mere speculation. Dominion’s filing already projects that “fuel costs will remain elevated over the next year,” and expert witness testimony in the case notes that Dominion revised its natural gas price projections upwards after it filed its request, without updating the amount it is seeking to collect to reflect the higher projections. 

Over at Appalachian Power the situation may not be any better. APCo typically seeks its fuel factor rate increases in September of each year. Last year the utility sought a $3 average increase in residential bills to cover higher fuel costs, at a time when coal and gas prices were still well below this year’s prices. When the company files for its next fuel factor increase two months from now, the rate increase it seeks is likely to pack a much bigger punch. 

What of other Virginia utilities? Our smallest publicly-owned utility, Kentucky Utilities (Old Dominion Power, which serves five counties in southwest Virginia), is also heavily dependent on fossil fuels although now planning to build more renewables. ODP filed for a modest rate increase in February of this year, just before Russia invaded Ukraine and sent world natural gas prices to heights not seen since the start of the fracking revolution. 

Chris Whelan, vice president for communications and corporate responsibility, told me ODP is able to dampen the effect of fuel price volatility through a “flexible fuel procurement strategy that includes long-term contracts to help hedge against price swings as well as the ability to purchase fuel on the spot market when prices drop.” Still, ODP will have to seek another increase next February unless prices suddenly plummet. The utility recovers excess fuel costs (or lowers rates if fuel costs fall) on an annual basis, so customers would pay off the full amount over 12 months. 

Electric cooperatives that buy electricity from Old Dominion Electric Cooperative also face price increases due to high fossil fuel prices and a paucity of renewables. ODEC’s 2021 energy profile shows it generates 38 percent of its electricity from gas, 14 percent from nuclear, and 4 percent from coal. It purchases the rest from the wholesale market (38 percent) and from renewable energy projects (6 percent). Electricity sold on the PJM wholesale market is generated mainly by natural gas, nuclear and coal, so wholesale market prices are also higher now.

According to Kirk Johnson, ODEC’s senior vice president for member engagement, ODEC has had to raise energy prices twice since the beginning of the year, effective May 1 and July 1. Assuming individual distribution cooperatives passed those costs through immediately, residential co-op customers will have seen a 16 percent increase in their electricity rates since Jan. 1. That’s a really steep increase, but Johnson notes ODEC will collect the full amount of the excess cost by Jan. 1, 2023. 

ODEC’s increase for six months is almost four percentage points lower than the increase Dominion would impose for 12 months if it were to collect its full $1 billion in the shortest time possible. Johnson said ODEC engages in a hedging strategy that acts like an insurance policy to limit the effect of fuel price volatility, and that this strategy has saved their ratepayers hundreds of millions of dollars.

So hedging and long-term contracts can smooth out fossil fuel volatility, but rates are going up everywhere in Virginia. The lesson is clear enough: “cheap” fracked gas was a bad bargain. Our utilities should have been building wind and solar over the last several years to protect us from fossil fuel price volatility, rather than waiting for the General Assembly to force them to act. 

Going forward, the more we invest in wind and solar, the more price stability we will have in our electricity rates, and the less we will have to worry about high fossil fuel prices in the future.  

This article originally appeared in the Virginia Mercury on July 18, 2022. I’ve corrected information for Utah.

*EIA’s webpage lists each state’s average residential price of electricity per kilowatt-hour, but finding the fuel mix for each state requires looking up each one separately. For those of you who like to dive into these details, I’ve assembled the information for you. Note that most of EIA’s data is for 2021, but some state data is for 2020. Unfortunately this includes Virginia.

StatePrice cents/kWh% REsource of RE
Virginia12.837biomass, hydro, solar
Idaho9.8674mostly hydro
Washington10.1275mostly hydro
North Dakota10.4840mostly wind
Utah10.6615mostly solar
Montana11.0052mostly hydro
Wyoming11.0619mostly wind
Nebraska11.1128mostly wind
Oregon11.2268mostly hydro, some wind
Missouri11.5412mostly wind
Arkansas11.7510mostly hydro
Louisiana11.984biomass
South Dakota12.0382wind, hydro
Iowa12.0960almost all wind
North Carolina12.2616mostly solar and hydro
Oklahoma12.3845mostly wind
Kentucky12.637hydro

Dear readers: Many of you know that although I write independently of any organization, I also volunteer for the Sierra Club and serve on its legislative committee. The Sierra Club’s Virginia Chapter urgently needs funds to support its legislative and political work towards a clean energy transition. So this summer I’m passing the hat and asking you to make a donation to our “Ten Wild Weekends” fundraising campaign. Thanks!

West Virginia wants to raise Virginia power bills

photo of mountain scraped of soil for coal mining
Under the West Virginia order, customers will pay more to support the state’s coal industry. Sierra Club photo.

Most people are aware by now that inflation has hit the energy sector hard, with fossil fuels in particular skyrocketing in price over the past year. 

Dominion Energy Virginia, the state’s dominant utility, says it needs to charge residential customers an extra $14.93 per month on average to cover higher natural gas prices. Appalachian Power, which serves Southwest Virginia as well as West Virginia, has already asked the West Virginia Public Service Commission for permission to increase residential bills by an average of $18.41 to cover higher coal and gas prices, and is likely to seek a similar increase from Virginia customers this summer.  

But for residents of Southwest Virginia, that could be just the beginning of the rate increases: West Virginia wants to force APCo customers to pay even more, and not just in West Virginia. If the West Virginia PSC has its way, Virginia customers would have to shoulder their “share” of the cost of propping up two money-losing West Virginia coal plants. 

The PSC’s order of May 13 reiterates previous instructions to APCo to keep its West Virginia coal plants running at least 69 percent of the time, even when the plants lose money. This decision comes on top of a decision in October of 2021 allowing APCo to charge customers for hundreds of millions of dollars in costs to prolong the life of these coal plants out to 2040. An expert hired by the Sierra Club found it would cost up to $1.1 billion more to keep the plants operating until 2040 instead of retiring them in 2028. 

For Virginia customers, the problem is that these West Virginia coal plants, Amos and Mountaineer, also provide electricity to Southwest Virginia, so Southwest Virginia residents have to pay for them. Even before the fuel price spikes of the past year and a half, APCo wanted to charge its Virginia customers for the upgrades approved by the West Virginia PSC. The company will certainly also want Virginians to pay for the even higher costs that will follow from the 69 percent run requirement.

Virginia’s State Corporation Commission has so far held off on approving the millions of dollars that would be Virginia’s share of the costs to upgrade Amos and Mountaineer. But with the West Virginia PSC plowing ahead to support its state’s favored industry, it’s not at all clear the SCC will stand its ground. 

APCo’s study claims that closing Amos and Mountaineer will cost ratepayers more than keeping them open, ensuring there will be a battle of the experts come the September hearing. The study is opaque in its methodology and reasoning. But APCo almost certainly didn’t assume the plants would have to run 69 percent of the time regardless of market conditions, and it probably also didn’t factor in today’s sky-high fossil fuel costs that further support retiring the coal plants and investing in cheaper, price-stable wind and solar.

Obviously, the biggest losers here are West Virginia residents. They will bear the largest share of these costs, one more price of living in a state run by fossil fuel oligarchs.

In an alternate universe, West Virginia would have developed an economy that took advantage of its extraordinary natural beauty, one based on small farms, four-season tourism, artist enclaves and vacation homes: think Vermont but with better weather. Instead, fossil fuel and mining barons bought up mineral rights, paid off politicians, and despoiled vast swaths of the state, leaving most residents dependent on dirty jobs or piecing together a living from low-wage work. 

I’m rooting for West Virginia to change course for a post-coal world, but that’s not easy for a state where politicians, bureaucrats and industry conspire to maintain the power of extraction industries. Virginians, however, shouldn’t be forced to enable this misuse of power. The SCC should reject West Virginia’s effort to make Virginia customers pay to prop up West Virginia coal.

This article originally appeared in the Virginia Mercury on June 10, 2022.

Dear readers: Many of you know that although I write independently of any organization, I also volunteer for the Sierra Club and serve on its legislative committee. The Sierra Club’s Virginia Chapter urgently needs funds to support its legislative and political work towards a clean energy transition. So this summer I’m passing the hat and asking you to make a donation to our “Ten Wild Weekends” fundraising campaign. Thanks!

The facts about coal plants Dominion didn’t want you to know

smokestack

Photo credit Stiller Beobachter

Last winter, during the fight to pass the Virginia Clean Economy Act, Dominion Energy lobbyists went out of their way to save the company’s youngest coal plant in Wise County. It worked. Legislators exempted the Virginia City Hybrid Energy Center from closure until 2045, when Dominion has to shutter all its fossil fuel generation.

VCHEC was approved in 2008 and built in 2013 as a boondoggle for Dominion, earning the company an enhanced rate of return. It was also intended as an expensive gift from then-Gov. Tim Kaine to coalfield Democrats, who went on to lose their seats anyway. Even then, it was a terrible deal for Dominion’s customers and the climate, with all the carbon pollution you expect from coal and a cost that was twice that of cleaner alternatives.

No wonder it proved to be one of the last coal plants ever built in the U.S.

Knowing this, and knowing the determination of this year’s General Assembly to turn the commonwealth in the direction of clean energy, you might not have expected VCHEC to have a lot of friends left in Richmond. But Dominion never told legislators what it would cost consumers to keep its coal plants running. Among all the criticism of the price tag associated with Virginia’s energy transition — much of that criticism coming from Dominion itself — one crucial fact gets lost: It’s coal that is hitting consumers the hardest.

An analysis Dominion reluctantly made public last month as part of its Integrated Resource Planning case shows that VCHEC is far and away the worst performing economically of all the utility’s fossil fuel-burning plants. This one coal plant carries a 10-year net present value of negative $472 million. (The analysts didn’t extend their calculations out to 2045, where it would certainly cross a billion dollars; maybe they were running low on red ink.)

VCHEC isn’t the only coal plant in Dominion’s fleet with a negative valuation, just the worst. In fact, all the Virginia coal plants have negative values.

These are Dominion’s numbers, not those of the Sierra Club or the other environmental and consumer groups challenging Dominion’s plans. The Sierra Club hired a consulting company to run its own analysis, using a standard utility model. That analysis concluded it would be cheaper for customers to build more solar now and speed up the closure not just of VCHEC but of all Dominion’s coal plants. This includes even the company’s Mount Storm coal plant in West Virginia, the only one assigned a positive economic value in Dominion’s analysis. From a customer standpoint, all of them should go.

Maybe that’s not too surprising. We already knew coal was dead. But how many of us knew we were paying to prop up the corpse?

Dominion’s lawyers tried to keep the terrible cost numbers out of the public’s hands, contending it was “confidential commercial and financial information that other entities could use to their competitive advantage in future negotiations.” I can imagine these future meetings: the other entities would be so busy mocking Dominion that, indeed, negotiations might stall permanently.

Fortunately for all of us, the Attorney General’s Office of Consumer Counsel persuaded the SCC the information should be public. Some information truly is confidential; this is merely embarrassing. Dominion’s customers—and the General Assembly—should know what it’s costing us to prop up coal.

This article originally appeared in the Virginia Mercury on September 24, 2020.

The analysis Dominion ultimately produced, showing 10-year Net Present Values for certain of its generating units, under various scenarios. Notice biomass doesn’t do too well either. The analysis omits some additional units, apparently because they are already scheduled for retirement.

What part of ‘zero’ doesn’t Dominion understand?

Photo courtesy os the Sierra Club.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Dominion Energy Virginia filed its 2020 Integrated Resource Plan on May 1. Instead of charting the electric utility’s pathway to zero carbon emissions, it announced its intent to hang on to all its gas plants, and even add to the number. In doing so, it revealed a company so thoroughly wedded to fracked gas that it would rather flout Virginia law and risk its own future than do the hard work of transforming itself.

The Virginia Clean Economy Act may be new, but Dominion can hardly claim to be surprised by the commonwealth’s move away from fossil fuels. Gov. Ralph Northam’s executive order last September set a statewide target of zero carbon emissions from the electric sector by 2050. “Challenge accepted,” said a Dominion spokesman at the time, and in February of this year the company claimed it was embracing a 2050 net-zero-carbon goal company-wide. A month later, passage of the Clean Economy Act moved the deadline up to 2045 for Dominion, keeping it at 2050 for utilities that lack Dominion’s head start of 30 percent nuclear power.

Dominion’s IRP, however, does not accept the challenge to get off fossil fuels. It rejects the challenge, directing a giant middle finger at the governor and the General Assembly. Dominion’s “preferred” plan keeps the utility’s existing fracked gas generating plants — currently 40 percent of its electric generation — operating through 2045. The IRP acknowledges this violates the law, so it argues against the law.

The IRP posits that if Dominion stops burning gas in Virginia, it will instead simply buy electricity from out of state, some of which will be generated by gas, and this will cost more money without reducing carbon emissions at the regional level. Better, then, to keep burning gas in Virginia.

It gets worse. The IRP actually proposes increasing the number of gas combustion turbines in Dominion’s fleet. The VCEA imposes a two-year moratorium on new fossil fuel plants, so Dominion’s timetable has these gas peaker plants coming online in 2023 and 2024. The justification is vague; the IRP cites “probable” reliability problems related to adding a lot of solar, but it offers no analysis to back this up, much less any discussion of non-gas alternatives.

Dominion’s flat-out refusal to abandon gas by 2045 poisons the rest of the document. The IRP is supposed to show a utility’s plans over a 15-year period, in this case up to 2035. And for those years, the IRP includes the elements of the VCEA that make money for Dominion: the build-out of solar, offshore wind and energy storage projects. It also includes money-saving retirements of outmoded coal, oil and biomass plants, as the VCEA requires. Heck, it even includes plans to close a coal plant the VCEA would allow to stay open in spite of its poor economic outlook (the Clover plant, half-owned by Old Dominion Electric Cooperative.)

But the IRP proposes no energy efficiency measures beyond those mandated by the VCEA between now and 2025. Dominion hates energy efficiency; it reduces demand, which is bad for business. So the company has made no effort to think deeply about how energy efficiency and other demand-side measures can support a zero-carbon grid — or, for that matter, how customer-owned solar can be made a part of the solution, rather than part of the problem.

This isn’t surprising: a plan that contemplates keeping gas plants around indefinitely looks very different, even in the first 15 years, from a plan that closes them all within 10 years after that.

A company that really accepted the challenge of creating a zero-carbon energy supply would not just get creative in its own planning; it would look beyond generating and supplying electricity, at the larger universe of solutions. It would advocate for buildings constructed to need much less energy, including for heating and cooling, to lessen the seasonal peaks in energy demand.

It would want the state to embrace strong efficiency standards. It would press its corporate and institutional customers to upgrade their facilities and operations to save energy, especially at times of peak demand. It would partner with communities to create microgrids. It would invest in innovation.

In short, it would ask “How can we achieve our fossil-free goal?” instead of asking “How can we keep burning gas?”

It’s not hard to understand why Dominion clings to gas; its parent company is fighting desperately to keep the Atlantic Coast Pipeline project alive in the face of spiraling costs (now up to $8 billion), an increasingly uphill battle at the State Corporation Commission to stick utility ratepayers with the costs of a redundant gas supply contract and a dearth of other customers anywhere along the route.

What is really hard to understand, though, is why Dominion chose to be quite so transparent in its disdain for the VCEA. Senator Jennifer McClellan and Delegate Rip Sullivan, both Democrats, who introduced the law and negotiated its terms with Dominion lobbyists and other stakeholders through many long days and nights, reacted to the IRP with entirely predictable outrage. In a statement they responded:

“The VCEA requires Virginia utilities to step up to the plate and be active leaders in carbon reduction. Dominion Energy’s IRP is tantamount to quitting the game before the first pitch is thrown. The law sets clear benchmarks for Virginia to reach 100 percent clean energy by 2045, not for utilities to plan to import carbon-polluting energy from West Virginia or Kentucky.”

Senator McClellan, it might be pointed out, could be on her way to becoming Virginia’s next governor. Most companies would hesitate to offend a leader of her stature, as well as such a prominent Democratic leader as Delegate Sullivan.

A growing number of legislators also seem interested in ending Dominion’s monopoly and bringing retail choice to Virginia. Though the bill that would have done that didn’t make it out of committee this year, the high-handed tone of the IRP will push more legislators into the anti-monopoly camp.

Arrogance and complacency seem like dangerous traits in times like these, but that’s Dominion for you. It will rise to any challenge, as long as the challenge doesn’t require anything the company didn’t already want to do.

A version of this article appeared in the Virginia Mercury on May 14, 2020.

Want a better understanding of how this year’s legislation works? I’m presenting the ins and outs of over a dozen bills in these three webinars:

  • What to expect when you’re expecting an energy transition, May 14, 2020 (recording available here)
  • New solar opportunities for homeowners, businesses and nonprofits, May 21, 2020, 5:30 p.m., register here
  • New tools for local governments to cut carbon, May 28, 2020, 5:30 p.m., register here

With a framework for Virginia’s energy transition in place, here’s what happens next

workers installing solar panels on a roof

One expected effect of the Clean Economy Act will be a boom in solar jobs across Virginia. Photo courtesy of NREL.

With Democrats in charge, Virginia passed a suite of bills that establish a sturdy framework for a transition to renewable energy in the electric sector.

At the center of this transformation are the Clean Economy Act, HB1526/SB851, and the Clean Energy and Community Flood Preparedness Act, HB981/SB1027. Other new laws direct further planning, make it easier for customers to install solar, improve the process for siting wind and solar farms, and expand financing options for energy efficiency and renewable energy.

Gov. Ralph Northam has signed some bills already, and has until April 11 to sign the others or send them back to the General Assembly with proposed amendments. Once signed, legislation takes effect on July 1.

I assume the Governor has other things on his mind right now than asking the General Assembly to tinker further with a bill like the Clean Economy Act, though bill opponents may be using the virus pandemic to argue for delay. That would be a self-defeating move; as the economy restarts, Virginia is going to need the infusion of jobs and investment that come with the build-out of clean energy. And one of the strongest arguments in support of our energy transition, after all, is that it will save money for consumers.

So what happens after July 1? How does this all work? Let’s look at the way these major pieces of legislation will change the energy landscape in Virginia.

Virginia joins RGGI, and CO2 emissions start to fall. 

Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality has already written the regulations that call for Virginia power plants to reduce emissions by 30 percent by 2030. The mechanism for achieving this involves Virginia trading with the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a regional carbon cap and trade market.

The regulations have been on hold as the result of a budget amendment passed last year, when Republicans still ruled the General Assembly. After July 1, DEQ will be able to implement the regulations, with the commonwealth participating in carbon allowance auctions as early as the last quarter of this year or the first quarter of 2021.

In addition to joining RGGI, the Clean Energy and Community Flood Preparedness Act also allows the commonwealth to earn money from the allowance auctions. The Department of Housing and Community Development will spend 50 percent of auction proceeds on “low-income efficiency programs, including programs for eligible housing developments.”

The Department of Conservation and Recreation will get 45 percent of the auction proceeds to fund flood preparedness and climate change planning and mitigation through the Virginia Community Flood Preparedness Fund. The last 5 percent of proceeds will cover administrative costs, including those for administering the auctions.

Energy efficiency savings become mandatory, not just something to throw money at.

Two years ago, the Grid Transformation and Security Act required Dominion and Appalachian Power to propose more than a billion dollars in energy efficiency spending over 10 years, but the law didn’t say the programs had to actually be effective in lowering electricity demand.

This year that changed. For the first time, Virginia will have an energy efficiency resource standard (EERS) requiring Dominion to achieve a total of 5 percent electricity savings by 2025 (using 2019 as the baseline); APCo must achieve a total of 2 percent savings. The SCC is charged with setting new targets after 2025. At least 15 percent of the costs must go to programs benefiting low-income, elderly or disabled individuals, or veterans.

The EERS comes on top of the low-income energy efficiency spending funded by RGGI auctions.

Dominion and Appalachian Power ramp up renewables and energy storage. 

The Clean Economy Act requires Dominion to build 16,100 megawatts of onshore wind and solar energy, and APCo to build 600 megawatts. The law also contains one of the strongest energy storage mandates in the country: 2,700 MW for Dominion, 400 MW for Appalachian Power.

Beginning in 2020, Dominion and Appalachian must submit annual plans to the SCC for new wind, solar and storage resources. We’ll have a first look at Dominion’s plans just a month from now: the SCC has told the company to take account of the Clean Economy Act and other new laws when it files its 2020 Integrated Resource Plan on May 1.

The legislation provides a strangely long lead time before the utilities must request approval of specific projects: by the end of 2023 for APCo (the first 200 MW) or 2024 for Dominion (the first 3,000 MW). But the build-out then becomes rapid, and the utilities must issue requests for proposals on at least an annual basis.

In addition to the solar and land-based wind, Dominion now has the green light for up to 3,000 MW of offshore wind from the project it is developing off Virginia Beach, and which it plans to bring online beginning in 2024. All told, the Clean Economy Act proclaims up to 5,200 MW of offshore wind by 2034 to be in the public interest.

Dominion’s plans for new gas plants come to a screeching halt.

Before the 2020 legislative session, Dominion’s Integrated Resource Plan included plans for as many as 14 new gas combustion turbines to be built in pairs beginning in 2022. In December, the company announced plans to build four gas peaking units totaling nearly 1,000 MW, to come online in 2023 and 2024.

But that was then, and this is now. The Clean Economy Act prohibits the SCC from issuing a certificate of convenience and necessity for any carbon-emitting generating plant until at least January 1, 2022, when the secretaries of natural resources and commerce and trade submit a report to the General Assembly “on how to achieve 100 percent carbon-free electric energy generation by 2045 at least cost to ratepayers.”

Even with no further moratorium, Dominion will find it hard to sell the SCC on the need for new gas plants on top of all the renewable energy and energy storage mandated in the Clean Economy Act. Solar and battery storage together do the same job that a gas peaker would have done — but they are required, and the gas peaker is not. Meanwhile, the energy efficiency provisions of the act mean demand should start going down, not up.

Dominion has already signaled that it recognizes the days of new gas plants are largely over. On March 24, Dominion filed a request with the SCC to be excused from considering new fossil fuel and nuclear resources in its upcoming Integrated Resource Plan filing, arguing that “significant build-out of natural gas generation facilities is not currently viable” in light of the new legislation.

Fossil fuel and biomass plants start closing.

By 2024, the Clean Economy Act requires the closure of all Dominion or APCo-owned oil-fueled generating plants in Virginia over 500 MW and all coal units other than Dominion’s Virginia City Hybrid plant in Wise County and the Clover Station that Dominion co-owns with Old Dominion Electric Cooperative.

This mandate is less draconian than it sounds; it forces the closure of just two coal units, both at Dominion’s Chesterfield plant. Other Dominion coal plants in Virginia have already been retired or switched to using gas or biomass, and one additional coal plant in West Virginia lies beyond the reach of the legislation. Oil-fired peaking units at Yorktown and Possum Point were already slated for retirement in 2021 and 2022. APCo owns no coal or biomass plants in Virginia.

Although the exceptions might appear to swallow the rule, the truth is that coal plants are too expensive to survive much longer anyway. One indication of this is a March 24 report Dominion filed with the SCC showing its fuel generation sources for 2019: coal has now fallen to below 8 percent of generation.

By 2028, Dominion’s biomass plants must shut down, another victory for consumers. All other carbon-emitting generating units in Virginia owned by Dominion and APCo must close by 2045, including the Virginia City plant and all the gas plants.

As of 2050, no carbon allowances can be awarded to any generating units that emit carbon dioxide, including those owned by the coops and merchant generators, with an exception for units under 25 MW as well as units bigger than 25 MW (if they are owned by politically well-connected multinational paper companies with highly-paid lobbyists).

Solar on schools and other buildings becomes the new normal.

In December, Fairfax County awarded contracts for the installation of solar on up to 130 county-owned schools and other sites, one of the largest such awards in the nation. Using a financing approach called a third-party power purchase agreement (PPA), the county would get the benefits of solar without having to spend money upfront. The contracts were written to be rideable, meaning other Virginia jurisdictions could piggyback on them to achieve cost savings and lower greenhouse gas emissions.

Fairfax County’s projects, along with others across the state, hit a wall when, on Jan. 7, the SCC announced that the 50 MW program cap for PPAs in Dominion territory had been reached. But with the passage of the Clean Economy Act and Solar Freedom legislation, customers will be able to install up to 1,000 MW worth of solar PPAs in Dominion territory and 40 MW in APCo territory.

Fairfax County schools will soon join their counterparts in at least 10 other jurisdictions across the state that have already installed solar. With the PPA cap no longer a barrier, and several other barriers also removed, local governments will increasingly turn to solar to save money and shrink their carbon footprints.

Virginia agencies start working on decarbonizing the rest of the economy. 

In spite of its name, the Clean Economy Act really only tackles the electric sector, with a little spillover into home weatherization. That still leaves three-quarters of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions to be addressed in transportation, buildings, agriculture and industry. Ridding these sectors of greenhouse gas emissions requires different tools and policies.

Other legislation passed this session starts that planning process. SB94(Favola) and HB714 (Reid) establish a policy for the commonwealth to achieve net-zero emissions economy-wide by 2045 (2040 for the electric sector) and require the next Virginia Energy Plan, due in 2022, to identify actions towards achieving the goal. Depending on who the next governor is, we may see little or nothing in the way of new proposals, or we may see proposals for transportation and home electrification, deep building retrofits, net-zero homes and office buildings, carbon sequestration on farm and forest land and innovative solutions for replacing fossil fuels in industrial use.

Collateral effects will drive greenhouse gas emissions even lower.

Proposed new merchant gas plants are likely to go away. With Virginia joining RGGI and all fossil fuel generating plants required to pay for the right to spew carbon pollution, the developers of two huge new merchant gas plants proposed for Charles City County will likely take their projects to some other state, if they pursue them at all.

Neither the 1,600 MW Chickahominy Power Station and the 1,050 C4GT plant a mile away planned to sell power to Virginia utilities; their target is the regional wholesale market, which currently rewards over-building of gas plant capacity even in the absence of demand. The Chickahominy and C4GT developers sought an exemption from RGGI through legislation; the bill passed the Senate but got shot down in the House.

If the C4GT plant goes away, so too should Virginia Natural Gas’ plans for a gas pipeline and compressor stations to supply the plant, the so-called Header Improvement Project.

Other coal plants will close. Although the CEA only requires Dominion to retire two coal units at its Chesterfield Power Station, other coal plants in the state will close by the end of this decade, too. That’s because the economics are so heavily against coal these days that it was just a matter of time before their owners moved to close them.

Adding the cost of carbon allowances under RGGI will speed the process along. That includes the Clover Station, which Dominion owns in partnership with Old Dominion Electric Cooperative (ODEC), and the Virginia City Hybrid Electric plant in Wise County, Dominion’s most expensive coal plant, which should never have been built. 

The Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley Pipelines find themselves in more trouble than ever. If I had a dollar for every time a Dominion or Mountain Valley spokesperson said, “Our customers desperately need this pipeline,” I would not be worried about the stock market right now.

The fact is that no one was ever sure who those customers might be, other than affiliates of the pipeline owners themselves—and that doesn’t exactly answer the question. With Virginia now on a path away from all fossil fuels, neither pipeline has a path to profitability inside Virginia any longer, if they ever had one.

 

A version of this article originally appeared in the Virginia Mercury on March 31. 

The strange case of thermal RECs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source: Virginia State Corporation Commission. (Ivy Main)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

[Update: Several astute readers pointed me to information indicating that the source of the thermal RECs is WestRock, a Georgia-based multinational paper company that burns wood and black liquor (a toxic byproduct of the pulping process) as a power source. WestRock is the single biggest emitter of air toxics in Virginia, with its facility in Covington topping the ranks as the Commonwealth’s number one air polluter, ahead of even Dominion’s biggest and dirtiest coal plant. So when you are sorting through junk mail or have a cardboard box delivered, take time to savor the moment. Maybe you didn’t actually help make that paper, but you probably contributed your small mite to WestRock CEO Steven Voorhees’ $18 million compensation package.]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But why biomass?

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

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

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

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

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

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

So now what?

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Ignoring state climate rules, Dominion decides what carbon regulations should look like

woman in dinosaur costume holding sign reading clean energy now

Four out of five dinosaurs agree. The fifth, that would be Dominion. Photo courtesy of Sierra Club Virginia Chapter.

For several years now, Dominion Energy Virginia has factored into its plans an assumption that electricity from carbon-emitting power plants will eventually include a cost reflecting CO2’s role as the primary driver of global warming. Dominion says it has even integrated this into its corporate goals, targeting an 80 percent reduction in CO2 emissions by 2050.

That promise may be more propaganda than corporate lodestar, but in any case the utility’s Integrated Resource Plans regularly point to the probability of future carbon regulations as a reason to build new renewable energy facilities and close old coal plants.

Planning for constraints on CO2 emissions proved wise this spring when Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality finalized a state carbon cap-and-trade program. The DEQ regulations call for Virginia power plant owners to trade carbon allowances with those in the member states of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI). A Republican budget maneuver has delayed implementation of the new rules, but once they take effect they are expected to hasten the retirement of expensive old coal plants and support investments in new renewable energy projects.

But it’s not the DEQ regulations that Dominion is planning around. The utility’s 2019 update to its 2018 IRP, filed with the State Corporation Commission on Aug. 29, treats the DEQ regulations as hypothetical. Instead, it posits some unspecified future federal carbon regulations that, apparently, it would like much better.

The update describes three alternative scenarios, down from five in the 2018 IRP. The first is a “base case” that assumes no carbon emission constraints. The second assumes the state carbon limits take effect as well as some future federal regulations, and the third assumes federal (but not state) limits. However, the cover letter makes it clear that only the third scenario actually describes what Dominion intends to do. As it happens, that is the most expensive— and most profitable —plan.

The primary feature of the base case is that it keeps some old coal units running that will be closed in the other scenarios. According to Dominion, this makes it the least-cost approach to meeting electricity demand. Whether that’s true is a matter of dispute; these units hardly run at all any more, and experts for environmental organizations in the IRP hearing testified that retiring them will save money for customers.

It suits Dominion’s political strategy, however, to pretend that coal remains a low-cost option. This fiction makes coalfield legislators happy, and it allows Dominion to blame rising electricity rates on environmental regulations instead of on its own profligate spending and excess profits.

But Dominion Energy made a big bet on fracked gas, not coal. It won’t fight to keep outdated coal plants online and spewing out CO2 if it’s cheaper to close them. Gas plants are another matter. Dominion Energy’s massive investments in gas transmission and storage make the company keen to keep Virginia gas plants running full-tilt, and to build as much new gas generation as possible.

For that reason, Dominion hates the DEQ regulations. It warns the regional cap and trade plan will result in power from outside the state replacing electricity from Dominion’s combined-cycle gas plants, which provide baseload power. Dominion argues this will lead to higher, rather than lower, carbon emissions as well as higher consumer costs.

DEQ and others disagree on both counts, though the SCC takes Dominion’s view. So although Dominion labels its second scenario RGGI-compliant, it treats the DEQ regulations as hypothetical, as if Gov. Ralph Northam might change his mind any day now and order them scrapped.

Instead, Dominion offers its third scenario, positing only unspecified and (with Trump as president) truly hypothetical future federal carbon regulations. In Dominion’s fantasy, a federal plan will be strong enough to support Dominion building profitable new renewable energy and storage projects, but not so strong that it can’t also build a bunch of new gas plants.

Ergo, that’s what Dominion is shooting for. The cover letter accompanying the IRP update makes it clear that Dominion is already pursuing projects that appear only in the third plan. These include a 300 MW pumped hydro storage project that will take a decade to develop and cost upwards of $1.5 billion (if indeed it pans out), and an 852 MW offshore wind project slated for 2025, a year later than what Dominion told investors in March.

The third scenario also includes more than 3,000 MW of solar between now and the end of 2034, but that’s actually a whole lot less solar than under the RGGI scenario. Even the base case has more solar. Go figure.

Still missing is the rest of the 2,000 MW of offshore wind that the Virginia lease area can support. Also still missing are thousands more megawatts of wind and solar that Virginia would need if, instead of a gas-friendly plan, the federal government were to enact regulations actually sufficient to the climate crisis.

Dominion has not even modeled that possibility. The update’s third scenario still includes 10 new fracked-gas combustion turbines, a total of 2,425 MW, with two units coming online every year from 2022 through 2026.

Maybe the Dominion executive team thinks it knows more than the rest of us do about the federal climate plan we’ll see once Donald Trump is sent packing in 2020. More likely, Dominion is simply using its IRP carbon assumptions to bolster its case for more spending and higher profits.

In which case, the more things get updated, the more they stay the same.

 

This article originally appeared in the Virginia Mercury on September 13, 2019.

Fairfax County plans a historic solar buy—if Dominion Energy doesn’t stand in the way

Worker installing solar panels on a roof.

A worker installs solar panels at Washington & Lee University. Photo courtesy of Secure Futures LLC.

In June, Fairfax County announced it was seeking proposals from solar companies to install solar at up to 130 county-owned facilities and schools, with another 100 sites to be considered for a later round. The request for proposals (RFP) covers solar on building roofs, ground-mounted solar and solar canopies over parking lots.

This massive solar buy could add as much as 30-40 megawatts of solar, according to one industry member’s calculation. This would easily triple the amount of solar installed to date in the entire NoVa region. What’s more, Fairfax County’s contract will be “rideable” so that other Virginia localities can install solar using the same prices and terms.

“It’s hard to overstate how significant a move this is,” says Debra Jacobson, an energy lawyer who serves on the county’s Environmental Quality Advisory Council. “It’s not just the largest solar buy by a local government in Virginia. It also opens the door for other Virginia counties and cities to buy solar because it makes the process simple and straightforward.”

Jacobson says approximately 15 solar companies attended a bidder’s conference hosted by Fairfax County, indicating strong interest. The county intends to select a contractor by early fall.

One problem stands in the way: Virginia law currently places an overall limit of 50 MW on projects installed in Dominion territory using third-party power purchase agreements (PPAs), the primary financing mechanism for tax-exempt entities.

Even without Fairfax County’s projects, the solar industry warns the cap will likely be met by the end of this year, as schools, universities, churches and other customers across Virginia sign PPAs at an accelerating rate.

The solar industry is asking the State Corporation Commission for action to keep the market alive. Secure Futures LLC, a Staunton-based solar developer, submitted a letter to the SCC on June 24 asking the commission to raise the program cap from 50 MW to 500 MW in Dominion territory and 7 to 30 MW in Appalachian Power territory and to increase the size limit for individual projects from 1 MW to 3 MW.

PPAs allow customers to have on-site solar installed with no upfront cost; the customer pays only for the electricity the solar array produces, at a price that is typically below the price of electricity purchased from the utility. It’s an especially critical tool for cash-strapped local governments and school systems, letting them save taxpayer money while lowering their carbon footprint. Every kilowatt-hour they get from solar replaces electricity they would have to buy from the grid, which in Virginia still comes almost entirely from fossil fuels and nuclear.

For-profit monopoly utilities like Dominion Energy Virginia and Appalachian Power don’t like losing sales when customers generate their own electricity. Virginia’s customer-owned electric cooperatives negotiated legislation this year to remove PPA barriers for non-profits in their territories, but Dominion and APCo didn’t sign on. Both utilities fought Solar Freedom legislation and other bills that would have lifted the PPA cap, claiming there was still plenty of room for projects under the 50 MW cap.

But there may be a simple solution — if the utilities don’t fight it. The legislation that created the PPA program in 2013 directs the SCC to review it every two years beginning in 2015, and to “determine whether the limitations [on the program size and project sizes] should be expanded, reduced, or continued.”

The SCC has never opened a case docket or consulted stakeholders in any previous review of the program — but no one seems to have asked until now. Secure Futures’ letter requests that the SCC open a public docket for this year’s review and consult with stakeholders, including the solar industry and customers.

In his letter, Secure Futures’ CEO Tony Smith notes that Virginia remains well behind North Carolina and Maryland on solar installations, solely for reasons of state policy. Installations using PPAs also lagged until the past year, but are now expanding “at an exponential rate,” according to Secure Futures, with notifications filed for almost 20 MW of projects as of June 12. This number does not include the Fairfax County projects or many others that are still in the early stages of development.

Other solar developers have also asked the SCC to lift the PPA cap. Ruth Amundsen, manager of the Norfolk Solar Qualified Opportunity Zone Fund, told the SCC in a July 20 letter that her fund has identified $117 million of potential solar sites in the Norfolk and Virginia Beach area. The fund brings in investors and installs solar on businesses and non-profits in Virginia Qualified Opportunity Zones, which are low income census tracts that offer tax benefits for investors, at no upfront cost to the customer.  It also hires residents of the Opportunity Zones as solar installers, training them and providing employment.

But, Amundsen’s letter notes, “Without PPAs, none of this is possible. If the PPA cap remains at 50MW, we cannot in good conscience advise these investors to invest in solar in the Virginia QOZs, as there would be no feasible financing method once the cap is reached.”

Amundsen also wants the ability to use PPAs for installation on private homes, which is currently not allowed under the terms of the PPA program in Dominion territory. “The original intent of the Norfolk Solar QOZ Fund was to mitigate the energy burden of low-income home owners.  But because of the current limitation on Power Purchase Agreements (PPAs) in Virginia, we cannot install on private homes via a PPA.  Removal of that limitation, and clarification that PPAs are legal with all customers, would allow us to better serve the most affected residents as far as crushing utility bills.”

 

This article originally appeared in the Virginia Mercury on August 1, 2019. 

Dominion Energy’s new choices are really about limiting choices

Trees clearcut.

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

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

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

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

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

The wrong thing, of course.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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