Times-Dispatch articles expose Dominion’s manipulation of government for its own enrichment—and that ain’t the half of it

Over the past few days the Richmond Times-Dispatch has run a three-part special report detailing Dominion Energy’s grip on the Virginia General Assembly and the company’s abuse of that power to enrich itself at the expense of its captive customers. Journalists Robert Zullo and Michael Martz examine how Dominion’s use of business and personal connections, campaign contributions and lobbying led to a series of laws that enriched the company and eroded the State Corporation Commission’s regulatory authority.

And Dominion still gets off too easy.

But before we get into that, first let me praise the RTD for even running this series. As recently as a few years ago, the paper assiduously avoided printing anything critical of Dominion outside the narrow confines of letters to the editor. News articles almost invariably adopted Dominion’s messaging and quoted Dominion spokespersons with no effort at independent verification. A single quote from an environmentalist or other critic, buried deep in the text, represented the only nod towards journalistic balance.

This has changed, as the paper’s remarkable exposé demonstrates. Zullo and Martz are not alone; columnist Jeff Schapiro frequently criticizes Dominion in ways that would never have seen print before. Somehow the RTD’s editors have found their spine.

The authors don’t editorialize. They quote a wide array of insiders and observers, though the absence of voices from the environmental community is striking. The coverage of personalities is sometimes even positive; Dominion CEO Tom Farrell, for example, comes off more as an upstanding citizen than as a master manipulator.

Indeed, many of the critics interviewed for the series pull their punches. Most of those quoted are full participants in the “Virginia Way,” a system in which going along to get along is embedded in the political culture. They are careful when criticizing Dominion, unwilling to tar their colleagues and, perhaps, aware they owe their own professional success to the same system that got us into this mess.

Overall, however, Dominion is right to hate the hot white light of journalistic scrutiny. Corporate greed doesn’t look good in print when the readers are its victims, and Dominion’s machinations are recorded here in excruciating detail. They culminate in the passage of 2015’s SB 1349, the law stripping the State Corporation Commission of its authority to review utility base rates and order refunds until 2022.

Dominion positioned its bill as a way to “protect” customers from the costs of complying with the federal Clean Power Plan, but it was not hard to recognize the Clean Power Plan as a politically charged fig leaf. SB 1349 was always about letting Dominion keep excess earnings. The Clean Power Plan, after all, was not scheduled to kick in until 2022, when rates would unfreeze. Meanwhile, as one SCC commissioner estimates, Dominion will keep as much as a billion dollars of money it has not earned.

Yet by concentrating on the money, the RTD misses bigger implications. Dominion’s corruption of our legislative process doesn’t just mean consumers are getting ripped off. It means Dominion has been able to undermine efforts to reduce energy use, protect our electric grid, move to greater use of renewable energy, and free us from dependence on fossil fuels.

Heck, under Dominion’s influence, elected leaders don’t even appreciate why these should be their priorities. Politicians genuinely think building fracked-gas pipelines like the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley pipelines will lower energy costs. (In case you missed it, they won’t.) This is the real damage Dominion does, that legislators don’t even know they’ve internalized the utility’s propaganda. This is the exercise of the “third dimension of power,” the hidden type of power described in former UVA professor Vivian Thomson’s recent book Climate of Capitulation.

As a result it doesn’t occur to our elected leaders to ask questions when Dominion promises to reduce carbon emissions while planning to build more fossil fuel generation. (The answer to the question is in the fine print; or if you prefer blunt speech, it’s a lie.)

These leaders acquiesce when Dominion lobbyists urge them to reject mandatory energy efficiency standards on the basis that Virginia has such low-cost electricity (wrong) that we can’t succeed at energy efficiency the way other states do (and anyway the SCC won’t let us, so we shouldn’t even try).

Dominion takes baby steps on renewable energy, and elected officials express their gratitude without noticing how dismally far behind our neighboring states we remain. (How kind of Dominion! Let’s give them some more money!) Democrats used to try to pass renewable energy mandates; they don’t any more. Dominion doesn’t like to be told what to do. So rather than fight and lose, legislators now say they don’t like mandates. That’s a true climate of capitulation.

In short, the people’s representatives pass bills Dominion wants, or reject ones Dominion opposes, and persuade themselves the legislature is in charge.

The RTD cites one especially telling example of this. “Since 1996, Dominion has been [Delegate Ken Plum’s] top political donor, contributing $105,750, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.” Yet, “’I’ve never felt squeezed by them,’ Plum said of the utility’s lobbying corps. ‘I have felt informed by them.’”

That’s what you call good lobbying. The lobbied official never feels squeezed, just informed.

It’s obvious enough that Dominion distributes money to legislators from both parties because it expects to buy influence. Legislators know this, and many acknowledge that it works on their colleagues. As for themselves, however, they are certain they can take money without being influenced. Even Ken Cuccinelli, who advocates for the SCC to regain its authority over Dominion, dismisses the idea of banning campaign contributions from public utilities. (Mind you, he offers no other solutions.)

Voters are rightly more skeptical, as demonstrated by the groundswell of support for Senator Chap Petersen’s proposals to repeal the rate freeze and to bar campaign contributions from regulated public utilities. Dozens of candidates seeking office this year have pledged not to take Dominion money, and according to the group Activate Virginia, 8 incumbents and 46 House candidates have promised to roll back the rate freeze.

In both cases, the question is why so few incumbents have signed on. Perhaps, after reading the RTD’s report, they will understand why they should. What’s at stake goes way beyond money.

New pipelines report shows the ACP is part of a widespread, systemic market failure

Photo courtesy of Chris Tandy.

Anyone who examines the corporate deals that underlie the Atlantic Coast Pipeline comes away with a strong sense of looking at a broken regulatory system. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) is supposed to approve only those pipelines that can demonstrate they are actually needed. Pipeline companies demonstrate need by showing that customers have contracted for most or all of the pipeline’s capacity. In the case of the ACP, Dominion Energy and its partners manufactured the need by making their own affiliates the customers of the pipeline.

What’s weird is that FERC seems to be okay with this. It recently approved another pipeline with a similar setup—the Nexus pipeline that will carry fracked gas from Ohio through Michigan to Canada. FERC ignored blatant self-dealing between the pipeline company and its regulated utility affiliate, including clear evidence the regulated utility affiliate increased its share of the pipeline’s capacity only to create a “need” for its parent company’s project.

A new report from Oil Change International concludes the U.S. is currently building unneeded fracked-gas pipelines as a result of FERC’s regulatory failures, including its failure to police self-dealing. The result will be excess pipeline capacity, paid for by regulated utility customers.

The primary cause of the overbuilding, and the reason companies like Dominion engage in self-dealing to create the impression of “need,” is that FERC sets an absurdly high rate of return on pipelines—14%, compared to a typical utility rate of return of 10%. FERC set the high rate back in 1997 when interest rates were double what they are now, so it was more expensive to build large infrastructure. FERC hasn’t changed the rate since then even though it is causing obvious market distortions—and creating an incentive for utilities to jump into the pipeline business.

What is even weirder is that Virginia’s State Corporation Commission seems to be okay with self-dealing, too. The ACP is also using affiliate contracts that commit the customers of state-regulated electric utilities (including Dominion Energy Virginia) to pay for the use of the pipelines.

The SCC’s job is to protect electric utility customers from precisely this kind of exploitation. These customers don’t have the option to walk away from the likes of Dominion Energy Virginia; they are required by law to get their electricity from that utility and no other. If the SCC looks at self-dealing and shrugs, where are the customers supposed to go for protection?

That’s why Virginia has a law called the Affiliates Act that requires SCC approval before a regulated utility can commit its customers to any contract or arrangement with an affiliated company. Dominion had to commit electricity customers to the ACP in order to show FERC the pipeline was needed. Yet Dominion never even asked the SCC for approval.

Recognizing the risk to ratepayers, the Sierra Club petitioned the SCC to require Dominion to comply with the Affiliates Act by disclosing the affiliate relationship and seeking approval of the arrangement that affects captive customers. Without SCC approval, Dominion would seem to be on thin ice telling FERC it has the contracts in place that demonstrate the “need” for the ACP.

One would have thought the SCC would jump at the chance to weigh in. The FERC filings show it will cost ratepayers three to four times more to use the ACP than to stick with the competing pipeline that Dominion already has long-tem contracts with.

But on September 19, the SCC denied the Sierra Club’s petition. One of the reasons cited was that Dominion will have to get SCC approval before it actually charges ratepayers for any gas carried by the pipeline.

Meaning, the SCC says it will consider the merits of the problem only after Dominion has secured FERC approval, and after the ACP has already ripped a 600-mile gash across the countryside, dispossessing landowners, tearing up forests, and endangering streams and water supplies.

Well, that poses a bit of a problem, doesn’t it? If the SCC turns down Dominion’s rate recovery request at that point, its decision will cancel out the very argument of “need” that Dominion and its partners used to get the ACP approved by FERC. Meaning, the ACP should never have been built.

But the pipeline will be there in all its razed-earth, $5 billion glory. What then? Perhaps Dominion will instead use the pipeline to serve its LNG export terminal at Cove Point or go hawking its expensive gas to new industrial customers, as some politicians hope. But more likely, this being Virginia, we would expect our General Assembly to order the SCC to grant rate recovery anyway, citing energy security or whatever fig leaf Dominion comes up with.

And a systemic market failure will leave Virginians, along with residents of other states, paying more to burn fracked gas for decades, unwillingly and unfairly doing our part to exacerbate the climate crisis.

Sierra Club files petition with SCC seeking Affiliates Act review before Dominion commits to Atlantic Coast Pipeline deal

 

By Pax Ahimsa Gethen – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=55451003

Today the Sierra Club filed a petition with the Virginia State Corporation Commission seeking a Declaratory Judgment that Dominion Virginia Power’s arrangement to obtain gas capacity in the Atlantic Coast Pipeline is subject to Commission approval under the Virginia Affiliates Act. That law requires a public service corporation to get the approval of the Commission before it enters into a “contract or arrangement” with an affiliated company.

The Affiliates Act applies, according to the Sierra Club, because Dominion Virginia Power’s parent corporation, Dominion Resources, is a partner in the Atlantic Coast Pipeline joint venture, and Dominion Virginia Power’s (DVP) fuel procurement subsidiary, Virginia Power Services Energy Corporation (VPSE), contracted for capacity on the pipeline. Put more simply, a utility—Dominion Virginia Power– and two of its corporate affiliates have negotiated a business deal, and the Affiliates Act directs the Commission to carefully review that deal to ensure that consumers don’t get the short end of the stick.

If the Commission grants Sierra Club’s petition, DVP will have to submit its agreement with Atlantic Coast to the Commission for formal review and approval. Sierra Club and other interested parties will then have a chance to weigh in on whether the agreement will actually benefit consumers.

There is good reason to think it won’t benefit consumers. Bill Penniman, a retired energy attorney who serves as Conservation Co-Chair for the Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club, has studied Atlantic Coast’s filings with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). He notes that as of now, the amount of money that DVP (via VPSE) will pay Atlantic Coast for pipeline capacity is secret. The public filings reveal, however, that the maximum amount Atlantic Coast can charge any customer is more than three times the amount that another company, Transcontinental, can charge for pipeline capacity that services the exact same power plants as Atlantic Coast. And as it happens, says Penniman, DVP already has twenty-year shipping agreements with Transcontinental. The fact that DVP is now trying to enter into a whole new contract to ship gas to the same power plants via a much costlier pipeline ought to raise a lot of eyebrows.

If this talk of parent companies and subsidiaries is confusing, it might help to picture Dominion Resources as a giant spider with DVP as one leg and other Dominion-owned companies as other legs. Some of those legs have hairs on them; they are subsidiaries of the subsidiaries, but still part of the spider. VPSE is a hair on the DVP leg; its job is to buy fuel and whatever else the utility needs to run its power plants and make electricity.

In this case, VPSE has contracted with Atlantic Coast to buy a big chunk of space on the pipeline. DVP will use this pipeline capacity to deliver the gas needed to fire its Greenville and Brunswick facilities. Yet another leg on the spider, Dominion Transmission, has been hired to build and operate both Atlantic Coast and a connecting line called the Supply Header (which ups the price of the whole system).

To top it all off, the spider itself, Dominion Resources, owns 48% of the Atlantic Coast venture, along with Duke Energy and Southern Company. You can picture the Dominion spider teaming up with its spider buddies on the project, but I don’t recommend that if you tend towards arachnophobia and are already not happy with this analogy.

Having VPSE contract for capacity on Atlantic Coast is absolutely critical to the success of the whole pipeline venture. Atlantic Coast can’t get permission from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to build the pipeline unless it can show the pipeline is needed, and the only way to show need is by having customers lined up to buy the capacity. If VPSE didn’t sign that contract, Atlantic Coast couldn’t get built.

But here’s the thing: while FERC has final authority for approving or rejecting the pipeline itself, Virginia’s State Corporation Commission has authority to decide whether any agreements between regulated utilities and their corporate affiliates are in the public interest. In fact, the law says that the Commission must review and approve inter-affiliate agreements before they take effect.

However, even though DVP has directed VPSE to buy pipeline capacity on Atlantic Coast for DVP to use at its power plants, DVP has never submitted VPSE’s arrangement with Atlantic Coast for Commission review. Atlantic Coast has assured FERC it has enough customers to justify building the pipeline, but the fact of the matter is, one of its key customers—VPSE (and, by extension, DVP)—may not have had authority to enter into the deal in the first place.

This is what the Affiliates Act is supposed to prevent. Virginia Code section 56-77 says that any “contract or arrangement” between a public service company and an affiliated interest for goods, property, or services requires prior approval from the Commission. The fact that VPSE is acting as a contractual middle man between DVP and Atlantic Coast makes no difference: this is an arrangement between DVP, VPSE, and Atlantic Coast that is made specifically for the benefit of DVP. They’re all the legs (and leg-hairs) of the same spider, and they are likely to put the spider’s welfare above anyone else’s. And that’s exactly the reason the General Assembly passed the Affiliates Act.

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline is a big deal for Dominion Resources. The company is all-in on natural gas, and building this $5 billion pipeline is expected to generate a lot of profit for shareholders. What’s missing from this equation is the public interest, and there are good reasons for the Commission to be skeptical. How does it benefit Virginians to construct an extraordinarily expensive pipeline when much cheaper pipeline capacity already exists? That’s the question the Sierra Club will pose to the Commission if grants the petition and requires DVP to submit its Atlantic Coast agreement for review.

Furthermore, why should DVP commit itself (and its customers) to a huge amount of natural gas capacity over twenty-year period when there are better, cleaner options available? While Dominion and all its spider legs may think that burning more gas is a great idea, the reality is, natural gas increasingly looks less like a long-term energy solution and more like a trap for companies that made the wrong bet. At the same time, renewable energy and efficiency resources are growing ever cheaper. The Commission might well question Dominion’s plan to lock its customers into a bad investment in fossil fuels over the next twenty years at the expense of smarter renewable alternatives.

There’s a reason the Affiliates Act exists, and this is it. Here’s hoping the Commission grants Sierra Club’s petition and gives the Dominion spider a good, hard look under the microscope.

 

Dominion Power promises huge solar investments and a lower carbon footprint—or does it?

Dominion Virginia Power says energy from solar farms is now a low-cost option. Photo credit Kanadaurlauber.

Dominion Virginia Power released its updated Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) this week with a press release that promised thousands of megawatts (MW) of new solar power and a dramatically lower carbon footprint. In a remarkable turnabout, the Executive Summary declares, “The Company must now prepare for a future in which solar PV generation can become a major contributor to the Company’s overall energy mix.”

Alas, a closer look reveals Dominion will actually increase its carbon emissions over the period studied. Meanwhile, the solar would be built at a rate of only 240 MW per year over the 15-year period covered by the IRP, about the same amount being installed in Virginia this year. (Over 25 years, Dominion says its solar could reach 5,200 MW, which means the pace of installation would actually drop in the out years.) That should elicit yawns, not excitement.

The solar numbers pale in comparison to the more than 4,600 MW of new natural gas combined-cycle plants Dominion has been building just in this decade. (Remember that solar farms generate electricity at about 20-25% of “nameplate” capacity on average, while combined-cycle gas plants nationally average 50-60%, and can achieve 70% or higher.*) And even come 2032, the new solar will make up only a tiny fraction of a generation portfolio that consists almost entirely of coal, gas and nuclear.

I’ll be interested to see the numbers analyzed, but my guess is that all the renewable energy Dominion proposes to build over the next 15 years represents no more than 5-10% of its total electric generation. That’s too little, too late, in a state that can do so much better.

So the more things change, the more Dominion stays the same. Behind the hype being offered to the press stands a utility that is still committed to fossil fuels and nuclear power.

Virginia utilities file IRPs with the State Corporation Commission (SCC) every year. The plans are supposed to reflect the utilities’ best sense of how they will meet consumers’ needs for electricity while complying with state and federal laws and policies. This involves some guesswork about the direction of future regulations, including regulations of CO2 emissions.

In spite of President Trump’s determination to roll back climate protections while he is in office, Dominion’s IRP assumes an eventual price on carbon. Most utilities nationwide are doing the same thing. But given the uncertainties, Dominion has chosen (as it did last year) to model different scenarios instead of committing to a single plan.

Even the low-cost plan that wouldn’t comply with the EPA Clean Power Plan contains just as much solar as the other plans, reflecting the company’s assessment (on page 3) that solar is now “cost-competitive with other more traditional forms of generation, such as combined-cycle natural gas.”

Yet the carbon reductions Dominion promises in its press release appear to be something of a sleight-of-hand. For one thing, Dominion has chosen to compare its CO2 output in 2032 to its output in 2007, not 2017. CO2 emissions were markedly higher in 2007 than now, with the shale gas boom and the rise of renewables leading to massive coal retirements in the interim.

Moreover, a careful reading of the press release reveals the reductions Dominion promises are per-capita, not overall. A chart on page 115 of Dominion’s IRP shows every one of the scenarios Dominion studied will actually increase the company’s total CO2 emissions between now and 2042.

That reality exasperates climate activists. Glen Besa, former Director of the Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club, comments, “The only impression you could have reading Dominion’s release was that it was making dramatic reductions in carbon pollution, which obviously is not the case.”

CO2 emissions would not increase if Dominion were simply shutting down coal and building more solar. But all of the alternative scenarios Dominion models for its IRP contain more gas plants: at least another 1,374 MW of gas combustion turbines in all plans, and 1,591 MW of combined cycle gas in some scenarios. Combustion turbines are more flexible than combined-cycle plants and so are better for meeting spikes in demand and integrating renewable energy like solar, but while they run less often, they are typically higher-polluting. Many utilities are using demand response or installing battery storage instead; Dominion appears to prefer gas.

All this gas means higher CO2 output. Not incidentally, burning more gas also means more business for Dominion’s parent corporation, Dominion Resources (soon to be known as Dominion Energy), which is heavily invested in gas transmission. And crucially, Dominion Energy needs more gas power plants to justify building the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. So building more gas plants serves the interests of Dominion’s affiliates, not its customers.

The problem with building new gas plants is that it lowers carbon only so far compared to coal, and then you’re stuck at that level for the life of the gas plants, unless you’re willing to abandon them early. That’s why any utility that’s serious about protecting ratepayers from stranded costs has to invest in wind, solar, energy efficiency and storage, not natural gas.

Speaking of wind, the IRP includes the 12 MW pilot project known as VOWTAP in all of the plans, even though Dominion lost millions of dollars in federal funding when it would not commit to building the two test turbines by 2020, three years past the original deadline. But none of the scenarios studied include any land-based wind, and none include a build-out of the federal offshore wind energy area Dominion bought the rights to, which could support at least 2,000 MW of offshore wind power. This is a strange omission given that Dominion continues to include a scenario in which it would build the world’s most expensive nuclear reactor, known as North Anna 3.

Polls consistently show overwhelming public support for renewable energy. Yet right now, ordinary Virginia ratepayers have no access to renewable energy unless they put solar on their own rooftop. Corporations like Amazon Web Services and Microsoft account for the bulk of the solar energy being installed in Virginia, with most of the remaining going to the military, state government, universities, and schools.

So 3,200 MW over 15 years won’t even begin to satisfy consumer demand. North Carolina installed almost 1,000 MW last year; I’d like to see Dominion set that as an annual target, bringing it up to the 15,000 MW over 15 years it modeled for last year’s IRP (before hiding the encouraging results from pubic view). Round out the solar with other cost-effective clean energy options, and we will see the kind of carbon reductions that don’t have to be fudged in a press release.


*On page 88 of the IRP, Dominion provides it own capacity factor forecasts: solar 25%, combined cycle gas 70%, gas combustion turbines 10%, nuclear 96%, onshore wind 42%, offshore wind 42%. The chart does not include a number for coal.

Direct Energy wins right to sell renewable energy in Virginia, but there’s a catch

Direct Energy may have just won a Pyrrhic victory in its bid to sell renewable energy to Virginia residents. The State Corporation Commission ruled last week that the company can market 100% renewable electricity to Virginia customers of Dominion Virginia Power and Appalachian Power, but only as long as the utilities aren’t offering it themselves. Once they do, Direct Energy can continue to serve existing customers but won’t be able to sign up new ones.

The ruling makes it harder for Direct Energy to enter the residential market in Virginia. On the other hand, Direct Energy appears to have won a round on a second issue involving sales to large (over 5 megawatts in demand) commercial and industrial customers. The SCC ruled that these customers don’t have to give five years’ notice before they can switch back to their utility from a renewable energy provider like Direct Energy, as they would have to do if they were not buying renewable energy.

This is a significant win for Direct Energy’s ability to offer renewable energy to large customers, since Dominion’s position on the five-year notice requirement could scare off customers worried about being left without a supplier if Direct Energy were to leave the market. However, that part of the SCC’s order is under review in response to a motion for reconsideration filed by Dominion on Tuesday, so I won’t address that further here.

Direct Energy is a Delaware-based company currently licensed to sell natural gas in Virginia as a competitive service provider. Last August the company filed a petition for declaratory judgment (PUE-2016-00094) asking the SCC to clarify its rights under Virginia law to sell renewable energy to customers of Dominion Virginia Power. The SCC brought in Dominion and Appalachian Power, and Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) intervened on behalf of environmental groups Appalachian Voices and Chesapeake Climate Action Network.

Section 56-577 (A)(5) of the Virginia Code explicitly allows sellers of 100% renewable energy into the territories of the state’s monopoly utilities if those utilities themselves aren’t offering renewable energy to their customers. Currently, neither Dominion nor Appalachian Power offer a tariff for renewable energy. That means the door is wide open for anyone else to do so.

But that open door is merely a tease, as the Commission’s order just confirmed. All Dominion or APCo has to do is jump in with its own product, and the door shuts in the face of the interloper. Once the SCC approves a utility’s program, Direct Energy can continue selling to any customers it has already signed up, but it won’t be able to sign up any new customers.

It can take months or years of marketing for a third-party supplier to build up enough of a customer base to make the whole effort worthwhile, so the SCC’s ruling makes the Virginia residential market much less attractive.

Direct Energy and the environmental groups had argued that once a competitive service provider got approval to sell 100% renewable electricity in Virginia, it ought to be able to continue signing up new customers, even once the SCC had approved a competing product from the incumbent utility. As the company explained in its Petition:

It would be illogical for the Virginia General Assembly to prohibit Direct Energy or any competitive service provider from continuing to market and serve additional customers once Dominion Virginia Power begins to offer a 100% renewable energy tariff. No retail business can survive if it cannot do business with new customers. This is certainly true in the retail energy market, in which customers move on and off a system with regularity, reacting to price signals and relocating in and out of utility service territories. Consequently, it is most reasonable to interpret Virginia Code § 56-577 (A) (5) (b) to allow Direct Energy to continue to serve additional customers to the class of customers to which it is marketing at the time that the Commission approves a Dominion Virginia Power 100% renewable energy tariff.

Unfortunately for Direct Energy, the Code was written to protect Virginia utilities from competition to the greatest extent possible consistent with also making them look good. What is logical and reasonable to anyone running a business doesn’t enter into it; nor, for that matter, does the best interest of the buying public.

The SCC’s order is a win for Dominion and APCo, but a loss for customers who have waited ten years for their utilities to offer them renewable energy. Both Dominion and APCo offer what they call “green power” but are simply sales of renewable energy certificates as an add-on to regular “brown” power.* Even if the utilities now gin up a their own renewable energy product, consumers would be better off having choices.

After all, the Virginia Code doesn’t say a utility program has to be better or cheaper than the one offered by a competitive service provider like Direct Energy. Indeed, some consumers have already expressed concern Dominion might close the door on Direct Energy with a product that meets the Virginia Code’s broad definition of renewable energy but is distinctly inferior.

“My worry is that Dominion will offer a “100% renewable” program that is biomass, hydro and other things that aren’t really zero carbon, but still slide by,” says Ruth Amundsen, a solar advocate in Norfolk. “And then Direct Energy would be out.”


*Legislation passed this year will allow customers to buy electricity generated from solar facilities from their utilities. The program is styled “community solar,” but it looks like it would satisfy the statutory definition of a sale of electricity generated from 100% renewable energy. However, a provision of the bill, added at the behest of SELC, states that it will not be considered such a product.

Why, you might ask, would Dominion agree to a provision that says their solar option isn’t a tariff for 100% renewable energy, especially with the Direct Energy petition outstanding? I have an answer, but first a word of caution: you are now getting deep in the weeds. Carry tick repellant.

Recall that the fight over third party power-purchase agreements (PPAs) involves two provisions of the Virginia code, including § 56-577 (A) (5)—the one we’re talking about here. Companies that want to help customers install on-site solar facilities by using PPAs have argued that this section clearly permits customers to buy solar electricity from third party suppliers when their utility doesn’t offer a renewable energy tariff. No green tariff, no bar to a PPA.

But the utilities argue that this kind of electricity sale doesn’t meet the statutory requirement, because although a solar facility is 100% renewable, it does not serve 100% of the customer’s load. A strange reading, yes; and wrong, too, according to an SCC hearing examiner who looked at the question back when APCo put together its own renewable energy product. APCo decided to withdraw its product rather than risk the SCC confirming the hearing examiner’s reading. That action meant the utilities could keep their reading of the statute as a live threat against any company that wants to offer a PPA under terms that don’t meet the terms of the pilot program Dominion negotiated a few years ago.

Apparently, preserving that argument mattered more to Dominion than chasing off would-be competitors like Direct Energy. The gamble will have paid off if Direct Energy drops its Virginia effort in light of the SCC’s ruling last week.

 

Update, April 7. Ron Cerniglia, Director of Corporate & Regulatory Affairs for Direct Energy, provided the company’s view of the SCC’s ruling for us. His note reads:

In its ruling on Direct Energy’s Petition for Declaratory Judgment, the State Corporation Commission (SCC) agreed with Direct Energy on two of the three major points on which Direct Energy sought clarification.  The SCC did not agree that a retailer could continue to provide 100% renewable service to residential and small (<5 MW) individual customers, including new customers, after the utility (e.g., APCo or Virginia Electric and Power Company) receives approval of their own 100% renewable tariff.  However, residential customers and individualized non-residential customers who sign-up with a retailer do not immediately return to utility service when and if a utility receives approval of their 100% renewable tariff.  Instead, the customer remains with the retailer for the term of the customer agreement.  
The SCC agreed with Direct Energy that a retailer may continue to offer 100% renewable service to large customers (>5 MW) or to customers aggregating to >5 MW even if such sales are no longer permitted because the utility  is offering its own 100% renewable tariff.  The SCC also agreed with Direct Energy that if a retailer is providing 100% renewable service to a large customer that several  conditions and limitation  do not apply.  That includes the requirement of  that 5 year advance notice must be given before a retailer’s customer can return to the utility for service.  It is on this last point that Dominion has filed a Petition for Reconsideration.  This week, the SCC granted Dominion’s petition without ruling up or down on its substance. 
We do not believe that Dominion has raised any issue that the SCC has not already considered. We are very appreciative of the SSC’s actions to date and are hopeful that it will make short work of the petition, and quickly enter another Order denying Dominion the relief it is requesting.  Direct Energy is excited to open up the Virginia market to competition with a 100% renewable product. Once the uncertainty has been addressed, we believe that Virginians will have the choice to choose a renewable power supply solution.
Update May 12. On April 26, the SCC issued an Order on Reconsideration confirming its earlier ruling that the five year advance notice requirement did not apply to large customers (over 5 MW) who return to the utility following cancellation of a renewable energy supply contract with a competitive service provider.
On May 9, 2017 Dominion filed with the SCC its own plan for a renewable energy tariff for large users.  (PUR-2017-00060.) The filing notes that Dominion intends to follow this with a residential green tariff.

Dominion’s Own Model Shows that 15,000 MW of Solar Would Save Virginia Customers $1.5 Billion

powerhouse_six_1_megawatt_solar_array_ettp_oak_ridge_2016_courtesy-doeDominion Virginia Power has begun making good on its commitment to install 400 megawatts of solar in Virginia, a goal we have been cheering. Dominion argues its projects make economic sense. That leads us to wonder: if 400 MW makes economic sense, would more be even better? As guest blogger Will Driscoll reveals, we don’t need to speculate; Dominion ran the numbers. They just didn’t like the answer. 

By Will Driscoll 

Dominion Virginia Power modeled a resource plan with 15,000 megawatts of solar power, which it calculated would save Virginia customers $1.5 billion compared to a plan that includes a $19 billion nuclear reactor.  Yet when the company submitted its menu of resource options to regulators at the State Corporation Commission as part of its 2016 Integrated Resource Plan (IRP), it included the North Anna 3 nuclear plant while omitting the high-solar option.

The high-solar option only became public when attorneys Will Cleveland and Peter Stein of the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC), representing an environmental coalition, asked the right questions during the discovery phase of the IRP proceedings.

Utilities in 33 states must periodically file an IRP.  The IRP is intended to define the least-cost set of resources that can meet forecasted electricity demand plus a reserve margin, while also meeting the state’s policy goals on renewables and efficiency.  Utilities use computer models to develop an IRP.

Dominion’s utility planning model generated the 15,000-megawatt solar option when the utility set no constraint on the amount of solar that could be added.

The high-solar plan would actually save Virginians much more than $1.5 billion, according to an expert witness in the IRP hearing, former Texas Public Utility Commissioner Karl Rabago.  The projected $1.5 billion in savings would be after Dominion’s projected $5.8 billion of solar integration costs (i.e., any costs needed to adapt the grid for a high level of solar).  Yet the $5.8 billion value “is at least 54 to 84 percent higher than the PJM high and low [integration cost] numbers that [Dominion] cites,” Rabago said.  Thus, “the overall savings … [with] a more reasonable approach to the integration costs would be much higher than $1.5 billion.” (PJM is a regional transmission organization that coordinates the movement of electricity through Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, the District of Columbia, and parts of seven other states.)

To those who have followed the low and still-falling costs of utility-scale solar, it may not be surprising that solar, including any integration costs, would cost less than the proposed North Anna 3 nuclear reactor.  But to learn that Dominion’s own utility planning model presented that result to Dominion is a revelation.

To justify discarding the high-solar option, Dominion executive Robert Thomas said that “15,000 megawatts of solar… was a lot of land.” Yet data from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory show that this amount of solar would need only 0.4 percent of Virginia’s land area (i.e., 15000 MW times 7.9 acres per MW, divided by 27.376 million acres of land).  Mr. Thomas also said that the high-solar option “could create reliability issues,” yet high-renewables utilities in Iowa, South Dakota, California and Europe are highly reliable, thanks to accurate day-ahead weather forecasting and sophisticated utility “unit commitment” models that are also available to Dominion.

The State Corporation Commission, in its final order regarding Dominion’s IRP, did not mention the high-solar option.  The SCC approved the IRP as submitted, noting that “approval of an IRP does not in any way create the slightest presumption that resource options contained in the approved IRP will be approved in a future certificate of public convenience and necessity (“CPCN”), rate adjustment clause (“RAC”), fuel factor, or other type of proceeding governed by different statutes.”

SELC attorney Will Cleveland called on Dominion and the SCC to do better next time: “Citing ‘feasibility concerns,’ Dominion rejected and buried the high solar resource plan without any legitimate analysis of whether the plan was in fact feasible. Virginia ratepayers deserve the lowest-cost, cleanest energy available, and it is increasingly clear that means more solar, not more fossil fuels or nuclear. In the future, Dominion should not be allowed to dismiss the cheaper, cleaner resource plan without a full analysis.”

The environmental coalition represented by SELC consisted of Appalachian Voices, Chesapeake Climate Action Network, and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Will Driscoll is a writer and analyst.  Previously he conducted environmental analyses for EPA, as a project manager for ICF Consulting.  His publications include the book Nonproliferation Primer (MIT Press).

Even Appalachian Power doesn’t like its third-party solar option

Colleges in APCo territory want to use PPAs to install solar facilities like the one recently installed at the University of Richmond, in Dominion territory.

Colleges in APCo territory want to use PPAs to install solar facilities like the one recently installed at the University of Richmond, in Dominion territory.

Facing a withering report from a Virginia hearing examiner recommending denial of its request for a renewable energy “Rider RGP,” Appalachian Power Company (APCo) has responded with a simple message to the State Corporation Commission: um, never mind.

APCo proposed Rider RGP as an alternative to third-party power purchase agreements (PPAs) for customers wanting to install rooftop solar. The proposal would have put APCo in the middle of the deal and created a buy-all, sell-all scheme. But the proposal was roundly criticized at last year’s hearing and in witness statements as convoluted and expensive.

On September 19 APCo asked to withdraw its application, citing changed circumstances. In reality, of course, nothing has changed since the Hearing Examiner’s August 31 report, other than APCo learning it was about to lose.

The company probably doesn’t mind being rejected for a program that witnesses said no one would sign up for. The much bigger issue for the company is that if the SCC adopts the hearing examiner’s view, APCo could lose its battle to block PPAs in its service territory.

For those of you just coming to the story, here’s the Cliff Notes version (this earlier post has the unabridged telling): APCo’s customers want the ability to install solar on their property through PPAs, a financing arrangement in which a solar developer installs and owns the panels, selling the electricity that’s generated to the customer. Often this means the customer can reduce its electricity bills without incurring an up-front cost. For tax-exempt institutions like colleges that can’t take advantage of the federal 30% tax credit for solar, the PPA model means the developer can take the tax credit and pass along the savings.

Virginia utilities say this arrangement violates their monopoly on the sale of electricity. Customers point to two statutory provisions that make PPAs legal. One provision allows customers to buy renewable energy from third parties if their utility doesn’t offer it. (No utility in Virginia does.) The other provision defines a net metering customer to include one who contracts with someone else to install and operate a solar facility on the customer’s property—an apt description of a PPA arrangement. Customers would seem to have the better of the argument, surely, but no bank will finance a PPA when a deep-pocketed utility is threatening to sue.

Dominion temporarily settled the issue in its territory with a pilot program that allows some PPAs, but APCo declined to participate. Under pressure from educational institutions that want solar, APCo proposed Rider RGP as an alternative for its territory. Customers and solar advocates seized the opportunity to seek a clear ruling from the SCC on the legality of PPAs. They argued, and the Hearing Examiner agreed, that Rider RGP wasn’t just badly designed, but unnecessary, given the provisions of the statute that already allow PPAs.

APCo doesn’t want the SCC commissioners to confirm this conclusion. It hopes that by withdrawing Rider RGP, the SCC will dismiss the case and not reach the merits of the argument on PPA legality. It is urging the SCC not to consider the point at all, or if it does so, not to take it up until it considers APCo’s plan, announced in April, to offer a green tariff to customers.

That green tariff is the “changed circumstances” APCo says makes Rider RGP unnecessary. If the SCC approves the green tariff, APCo will offer to sell real renewable energy to customers who want it. APCo clearly believes that having that tariff available to customers closes off the statutory provision that allows customers to go to third-party sellers if their own utility doesn’t offer renewable energy.

The green tariff would not, however, affect the legality of PPAs under the other statutory provision, the one that defines net metering customers to include those who have renewable energy facilities located on their property but owned and operated by someone else. Nor does the offer of a green tariff seem likely to satisfy customer demand for PPAs; buying electricity from a utility through a green tariff is a very different animal from having solar panels on your own roof.

The SCC is considering APCo’s request to withdraw its proposal for Rider RGP. It issued an order asking the parties to the case to comment by September 26. Advocates are expected to oppose APCo’s request and to ask the SCC to rule definitively on the legality of PPAs. By doing so, the Commission would finally bring legal clarity to an issue that has been holding back solar development in Virginia.


Update: September 26, Dominion Virginia Power filed a motion to intervene out of time, with a brief begging the SCC not to even look at the legality of PPAs, or if it did, to reject the hearing examiner’s reading of the statute on the grounds that her opinion disagrees with Dominion’s.  Dominion’s brief notes that it wrote its own opinion into a tariff, which the SCC approved, and therefore that ought to be more important than whatever the General Assembly actually said.

On October 7, the SCC allowed APCo to withdraw its proposal, ducking the issue of PPA legality and ensuring that more time and money will be wasted on future proceedings.