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.

Dominion keeps trying to pull the wool over our eyes

 

Sheep like these are used to keep grass mowed around solar panels.

Dominion’s ad would have done a better job of distracting us if it had included baby animals. Their failure is my opportunity! These lambs keep the grass short around the solar panels at a farm near New Hope, Virginia. Owners Ann and Riley Murray shared this picture.

When your kid greets you at the door with the cheery news that he’s swept the floor for you without being asked, you are probably right to wonder which breakable item is no longer in its usual place.

I have the same feeling about the series of full-page ads Dominion Energy has taken out in newspapers over the past few weeks bragging about the company’s investments in solar energy. The ads are misleading—I’ll get to that in a minute—but the more interesting question is what the company is up to that it hopes we’re too busy looking at solar panels to notice.

Here are some possible answers:

• It was recently reported that Dominion Energy paid no federal income tax for 2018, in spite of earning over $3 billion in U.S. income. In fact, the company received a $45 million rebate, making its effective tax rate -1%. That’s pretty sharp manipulation of the tax laws. No wonder CEO Thomas Farrell II is the highest paid executive in the utility sector, with a reported $20.6 million in income.

• Most of that untaxed income comes from customers here in Virginia, but not all of it is earned. Let’s recap just a few of the high points: In 2014, the General Assembly passed a law letting Dominion charge customers for hundreds of millions of dollars incurred in planning for a new nuclear plant the company isn’t building. Then in 2015 Dominion persuaded legislators to “freeze” regulators’ ability to examine the books and order refunds of what turned out to be hundreds of millions more in customer overpayments. Regulators said the number might eventually rise as high as a billion dollars. When grumbling about that reached a fever pitch, Dominion persuaded the still-compliant (!) legislature to pass another billlast year letting it spend the money instead of refunding it.

• After getting authority to spend all that customer money, one of Dominion’s first moves was to interpret “spending” as “keeping.” Instead of the massive spending on energy efficiency that the legislature put into the law, Dominion tried to discount the number by 40 or 50% so it could keep the rest as “lost revenue.”

• Dominion’s Atlantic Coast Pipeline could shape up to be a huge profit center for the company, but also a huge financial burden for utility customers. Dominion fought hard against a bill this year that would have protected customers if and when the pipeline ever gets built. The company eventually defeated the bill in a Dominion-friendly Senate committee, but not before voting revealed deep fault lines in the House.

• Slides from a presentation to an investor meeting in March show Dominion bragging about Virginia having a favorable regulatory environment (read: utilities get their way).

• That presentation caught the interest of several House Democrats for another reason: it boasted customer-funded spending numbers at least $3 billion higher than it gave its regulators at the State Corporation Commission just two weeks before. In a news release May 2, the seven delegates demanded Dominion produce a full accounting of its future spending plans. Del. Elizabeth Guzman, D-Prince William, whose office issued the release, said “Dominion’s days of facing no consequences when telling Virginians one thing and Wall Street another are coming to an end. The SCC is right to uncover Dominion’s inconsistencies and hold the monopoly accountable since it is Virginia ratepayers who will ultimately pay the price.”

• The delegates also noticed Dominion has decided it wants to make even more profit from its Virginia customers. This spring the company asked the State Corporation Commission to raise its rate of return on common equity from 9.2% to 10.75%, an astounding increase at a time of low interest rates and easy access to capital. Dominion may believe that by overreaching, it will win some middle ground. In the March presentation, Dominion told shareholders the company expects to earn an average 10.2% return on equity from its Virginia investments, still a full percentage point higher than the utility is currently authorized to earn.

• The Virginia Attorney General’s Office is fighting Dominion’s attempts to collect $247 million from ratepayers for environmental upgrades at its Chesterfield power plant, calling the spending “imprudent” given that it will provide “little or no value to customers.”

All of this should feel pretty brazen to Virginia leaders and the public, but when you want something you don’t deserve, it helps to be shameless.

Yet at least some Dominion leaders seem to be aware that other people think the company should be ashamed of its greed, and that some of these people are voters who may eject its friendly legislators from office this fall. Their answer is to run an ad about solar panels to distract us and change the conversation.

But the ad just starts its own conversation — and not in the intended way.

The ad brags, “At Dominion Energy, we’ve increased the number of solar panels in Virginia from 5,250 to over 2 million since 2015. And we’re now the 4th largest solar producer in the nation.”

First off, a minor point, but a symptomatic one: that “fourth largest” claim doesn’t hold up. As of last September, a ranking of the largest solar owners put Dominion in 10th place. Even using the updated number (2,600 MW) from Dominion’s March 2019 investor presentation wouldn’t get the company to fourth place unless other companies have been hastily selling off projects. It does appear Dominion can rightly claim to be the fourth largest solar owner among energy holding companies that own electric utilities. But so what?

The Virginia number catches our attention, though. Two million solar panels sounds like a lot. It’s just that — well, somebody check my math here, but if those are average 300-watt panels, that comes out to 600 MW, which is a pitifully small amount compared to Dominion’s fossil fuel investments. We’re glad to have any solar at all, but it isn’t something to write friends in California about (they’ve got 24,000 MW of solar and counting).

Speaking of California, that and North Carolina are where the rest of Dominion’s solar projects are, in case you’re wondering. The laws are better there. Dominion didn’t write their laws.

Also, while we are at it, almost none of the solar Dominion is developing is for ordinary residents, in spite of what the ad implies. Almost all of it is for data centers and other large customers. Dominion is counting the 350 MW of solar it is developing for Facebook towards the commitment it made to the General Assembly last year to develop 3,000 MW of renewable energy by 2022.

Legislators who thought Dominion would build a lot of solar for regular folks when they agreed to last year’s boondoggle bill should find that disappointing. If they didn’t get solar for their constituents, what exactly did they get?

Unfortunately for Dominion, that brings us back to the long list of things the company was hoping we would ignore while we look at bright shiny objects. Ads about solar panels aren’t enough to distract people from the billions of dollars Dominion is taking from our pockets.

Perhaps the executives at Dominion will conclude the ad just wasn’t good enough. Next time they could try putting sheep in the picture with the solar panels. Especially baby sheep.

Maybe they thought about it and were afraid it would remind Virginians they were getting fleeced.

But they had better try something. Because right now, frankly, no one is distracted.

This article first appeared in the Virginia Mercury on May 6, 2019. 

In a last-ditch effort to stop climate regulations, Virginia Republicans try legislating by budget amendment

Dominion Energy Virginia's Chesterfield Coal Plant

Dominion’s coal-burning power plant in Chesterfield County.

The Northam administration is finalizing regulations to reduce the carbon pollution from Virginia power plants by 30 percent between 2020 and 2030. The Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) estimates the move will cost consumers only about a dollar per month while accelerating the transition to clean energy.

Instead of celebrating this modest progress on climate action, Virginia Republicans have been fighting it every step of the way. Their latest effort takes the form of two amendments to the state budget that would effectively prevent Virginia from joining the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a nine-state platform for trading carbon emission allowances. It would also stop the Commonwealth from participating in a new compact focused on reducing carbon emissions in transportation.

Virginia law gives the governor a line-item veto in the budget, which requires a two-thirds majority in the legislature to override. But for reasons known only to himself, Governor Northam has instead chosen to remove the amendments by offering his own amendments, which the General Assembly can reject by a simple majority vote.

This cues up the issue for a battle on the House floor on Wednesday, when the legislature returns for the “veto session.” The governor needs the votes of all the Democrats and at least two Republicans to prevail in the House, and those of at least one Republican and the Lieutenant Governor to prevail in the Senate.

Earlier this year, Republicans voted almost unanimously for legislation that, like the budget amendment, would have stopped Virginia from participating in RGGI. Northam vetoed that bill, saying it was bad policy and violated the state constitution. His action probably didn’t persuade any Republicans that he was right and they were wrong.

Still, there are reasons why a Republican who voted for the anti-RGGI bill might support the governor in the budget vote.

One is that using the budget to achieve a policy outcome you couldn’t reach through the legislative process makes a lot of legislators uneasy; it feels like bad governance.

Another is that the anti-RGGI bill was for show; everyone knew the governor would veto it. Moderate Republicans who privately acknowledge the urgency of the climate crisis were able to use their vote to demonstrate party loyalty without actually interfering with the DEQ program.

They bill vote also followed surprise testimony from State Corporation Commission staff members who claimed that trading with RGGI would cost Virginia households much more than DEQ modeling showed. The staff members provided no evidence, but hard-line Republicans saw the threat of rate increases as a gift horse they weren’t going to look in the mouth.

DEQ staff did look it in the mouth, however, and found a number of bad teeth.  DEQ Chief Deputy Chris Bast lambasted the SCC staff for coming into the discussion late, using incorrect assumptions, and failing to show their work.

The SCC staff members followed up after the end of the session with a letter stating their reasoning, though still without showing their math. The late release of the letter prompted Delegate David Toscano to write an editorial in the Washington Post decrying the staff members’ overtly political tactics as well as criticizing their analysis.

In its response to comments on the proposed carbon regulations, DEQ lists several flaws in the SCC staff’s analysis, ranging from significantly overestimating program costs to assuming that Virginia coal plants are immune to the economic stressors affecting coal plants across the U.S.

With time to reflect, many legislators will conclude the evidence supports DEQ. But more to the point, some Republicans may realize that holding Virginia back is bad economics and bad policy.

An analysisreleased this month shows wind and solar could replace 74 percent of coal plants nationwide at an immediate savings to customers; by 2025, that number will be 86 percent. Major utilities like Xcel and MidAmerican have targeted 100% renewable energy, saving money for customers in the process.

Meanwhile, voters across the country—and in Virginia—support renewable energy over fossil fuels by wide margins. Even polling by conservative groups shows strong support for clean energy.

It simply makes no sense for Virginia to opt out of the clean energy future. No doubt a lot of Republicans will vote to do it anyway in hopes of denying a win to a Democratic governor. But if they do, they run the risk of their constituents holding them accountable come November.

This article originally appeared in the Virginia Mercury on April 2. It has been updated to include DEQ’s response to the SCC staff’s letter.

Update April 4: Disappointingly but not surprisingly, the Governor’s amendments were defeated along party lines yesterday. If he wants to keep the carbon regulations moving towards implementation, he will have to exercise his veto authority. There have been questions raised about his authority to do that, so stay tuned. 

As Virginia prepares to join carbon-trading states, arguments erupt over the price of admission

photo courtesy of the Sierra Club

Virginia won’t enter the nine-state carbon emissions trading program known as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative until 2020 under regulations being finalized by the state, but debate about how much it might cost utility ratepayers is already heating up.

Estimates range from little or no cost — or even a cost savings — to as high as $12 per month for the average household, depending on who is doing the calculations and the assumptions they make.

An Associated Press article reports that State Corporation Commission staff testified before a legislative committee that joining RGGI via the Virginia Coastal Protection Act, SB 1666 and HB 2735, would cost Virginia households an added $7-12 per month. The Northam administration disputed the SCC figure, saying the true cost would be about a dollar per month.

Republicans killed the bill in both the Senate and House committees that day.

A few days later, the anti-RGGI bill, HB 2611 (Poindexter), sailed through the House on a party-line vote. It would prevent Virginia from participating in RGGI or any other carbon-reduction regimen. If it also passes the Senate in coming weeks, it faces certain veto by the governor.

So is joining RGGI an inexpensive way to incentivize utilities to save energy and lower carbon emissions, or will it pile costs onto customers?

RGGI, for those of you who need a quick brush-up on your carbon policies, is a cooperative, market-based effort that has been running in New England and the Mid-Atlantic states as far south as Maryland for the past decade.

It works by auctioning carbon pollution allowances to major emitters, gradually ratcheting down the number of allowances made available each year to incentivize conservation and the use of lower-carbon fuels. States use the money they raise to fund energy efficiency, community solar, weatherization and other programs, often focusing especially on low-income residents.

First things first: RGGI works.

According to a 2018 report by Analysis Group, the RGGI region has met its targets, and benefited economically as well:

“Over three years (2015-2017), the RGGI program led to $1.4 billion (net present value) of net positive economic activity in the nine-state region,” the report says. “Each RGGI state’s electricity consumers and local economy also experienced net benefits from the RGGI program. When spread across the region’s population, these economic impacts amount to nearly $34 in net positive value added per capita.”

Virginia’s carbon reduction plan, now in the final stages of drafting at DEQ, will have Virginia participate in the RGGI auctions but not raise money from auctioning allowances.

Beginning in 2020, RGGI will add Virginia carbon emissions (28 million tons, the baseline DEQ has chosen) to the total for the existing members (56 million tons), and our utilities will bid for and trade allowances with the utilities in the other nine states.

But unlike the existing RGGI states, under DEQ’s plan Virginia will distribute its share of carbon allowances to our utilities at no cost, based on their previous year’s electricity sales. Utilities will sell the allowances into the RGGI auction bucket and buy back as many as they need. Initially, at least, the effect on ratepayers should be pretty much a wash.

Chris Bast, chief deputy at the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality said DEQ’s modeling program estimated rates would increase about 1 percent as a result of the new regulations. That’s a much lower figure than the $7 per month the SCC estimated the program would cost even with free allowances.

State Corporation Commission spokesman Ken Schrad said the DEQ “has understated the price of carbon emissions and understated Dominion’s cost of money for future capital investments (borrowed from lenders or invested by shareholders).”

“DEQ modeled Dominion as if it was a deregulated utility in a competitive market,” Schrad said. “Dominion’s fossil fuel generating units must be paid for in rates regardless of whether they are generating electricity under its vertically integrated structure.”

Bast takes issue with this. “I don’t know where the SCC got its numbers,” Bast told me. “Many folks, including the DEQ, have done extensive modeling to determine the environmental and economic impacts of the rule. That modeling is part of the public record and is part of the extensive public process that has gone into crafting this regulation. The SCC’s analysis is an outlier by several orders of magnitude – nearly 600%. The SCC has not provided any comment about ratepayer impact during any of our regulatory proceedings.

“We’re simply asking the SCC to show their work. But, to date, they have refused to provide us with the analysis that supports their conclusions.”

Bast says DEQ has not modeled what the program would cost if utilities had to pay for allowances, as contemplated under the Coastal Protection Act. Paying for allowances, according to the SCC, could drive costs up by an additional $5 per month.

This is a moot point, for now, since the Coastal Protection Act did not pass. But advocates believe that auctioning allowances offers an opportunity to raise funds to invest in energy efficiency and climate programs, so the idea remains on everyone’s radar for next year.

How RGGI works:

Under the Coastal Protection Act, auction proceeds would go into the state’s coffers to fund energy efficiency and resiliency programs that benefit the public. Utilities would be able to recover the costs of buying allowances from their customers, so there would be more impact on rates than there would be if allowances are free.

The Coastal Protection Act takes an extra step and actually requires investor-owned utilities to build wind and solar to achieve at least 50 percent of the required emissions reduction. If that amount were to exceed what they planned to build anyway, it would mean more costs paid for by customers—though maybe not a lot, if it speeds up the retirement of old fossil fuel plants that ought to close anyway.

RGGI reduces carbon emissions over time by gradually decreasing the number of auction allowances available in the region year after year. As the carbon cap tightens, either allowances become more expensive, or utilities reduce emissions, or both.

So far the RGGI states have succeeded in reducing emissions without higher allowance prices. They have done this in large part by closing coal plants and investing in energy efficiency and renewable energy, including programs paid for by auctioning the carbon emissions allowances.

Most RGGI states also have mandates for efficiency and renewable energy, which Virginia lacks. (In spite of the hoopla around it, last year’s “grid mod” bill did not require utilities to achieve any specific efficiency or renewable energy outcomes.) The combined effect of all these actions is that the prices paid for auction allowances in RGGI have stayed low.

According to the Analysis Group, consumers in RGGI states have benefited:

“On the one hand, the inclusion of the cost of CO2 allowances in wholesale prices tends to increase wholesale electricity prices in the RGGI region at the beginning of the 2015-2017 period,” the report says.

“But these near-term impacts are more than offset during these years and beyond, because the states invest a substantial amount of the RGGI auction proceeds on energy efficiency programs that reduce overall electricity consumption and on renewable energy projects that reduce the use of higher-priced power plants. Consumers gain because their overall electricity bills go down.

“Since RGGI’s commencement in 2009, energy and dollar savings resulting from all states’ investments in energy efficiency and renewable energy has more than offset the wholesale market price increases associated with inclusion of allowance costs in market bids.”

Virginia is as well-positioned as any of the RGGI states to meet the carbon-reduction goals.

Utilities can reduce energy demand through energy efficiency, resulting in less need for carbon-emitting fuel to be burned. They can also replace coal-fired generation with power from gas (with about half the CO2 of coal) or renewables (zero C02 for wind, water and solar; biomass has CO2 emissions as high as coal, but decision-makers pretend it’s carbon neutral).

Our nuclear plants, which provide a big chunk of Virginia’s electricity, are already operating at full capacity, and that’s not expected to change.

Intuitively, the solutions wouldn’t be expected to cost very much. Some of Virginia’s coal plants aren’t running very much these days anyway, putting them precariously close to the point where it is cheaper to close them than keep paying to have them available. As for alternatives, Dominion says solar is the cheapest form of new energy.

And energy efficiency is, famously, the lowest-cost energy resource, and vastly underutilized in Virginia.

In fact, projections have Dominion coming in under the RGGI cap for at least several years, putting our utilities in the happy (for them) position of possibly making money in the auctions.

But that doesn’t quite settle the matter.

There is one other consideration that could affect rates: Virginia utilities participate in the regional transmission organization known as PJM, which runs the wholesale power market. Anything that makes Virginia power more expensive makes it less attractive to the market.

That is surely part of the SCC staff’s concern.

To understand this dynamic, I consulted economist Bill Shobe, a professor at the Center for Economic and Policy Studies at the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University of Virginia, who studies carbon markets.

Shobe said that if Virginia utilities get CO2 allowances for free based on their previous year’s electricity generation, as the DEQ plan calls for, there should be no impact on their power plants’ competitiveness in PJM. The cost to customers would be little or nothing.

But if a coal or gas plant has to add the cost of CO2 allowances to its price of power, as happens in other RGGI states, power plants from non-RGGI states that don’t have to charge for CO2 will have a price advantage.

Shobe said if a Virginia utility adds the cost of CO2 allowances to the price of power from its own fossil fuel plants, those plants won’t run as much. Even the utility itself might buy cheaper wholesale power rather than run its own plants. Worse, the imported power could be higher in CO2 than the Virginia power it displaces, a problem known as “leakage.”

Dominion Energy Virginia’s 2018 Integrated Resource Plan, a document that forecasts how the utility will meet electric demand, predicted that if Virginia joined RGGI, its four big gas plants would run only an average of 64 percent of the time in 2025, compared to 79 percent in a scenario with no carbon constraints.

Dominion also claimed the cheaper imported power would come with such a higher carbon footprint than the power it was replacing that the whole deal would be counterproductive as a CO2 reduction strategy.

Skeptics should note that Dominion didn’t report the assumptions behind the modeling. Even its consultant, ICF, included a disclaimer that it was using the information Dominion gave it but “makes no assurances as to the accuracy of any such information or any conclusions based thereon.”

It’s also not clear that Dominion recognized any difference between getting free allowances and having to pay for them.

Shobe explained that Dominion’s modeling program didn’t account for DEQ’s use of “output-based allocation”— that is, distributing carbon allowances for free based on a utility’s generation in the previous year. This approach, said Shobe, incentivizes the utility to keep generating as much zero- or low-carbon electricity as it can so it will get as many allowances the next year as possible, and it will use its allowances to keep its own power competitive with imports.

The modeling that ICF did for Dominion, say Shobe, “treats all allowances as if they are sold at auction. Period. They don’t even attempt to model free allowances much less output-based allocation.”

With free allowances, customer costs should be minimal.

What if we auction the allowances?

Shobe said auctioning allowances instead of distributing them for free would make the power from Virginia’s fossil fuel plants less competitive in the PJM market. Yet customers will still have to pay for the capital cost of these huge gas plants that the SCC itself foolishly allowed Dominion to build, even if the power they generate is less competitive in PJM.

(“Foolishly” is obviously my term for it. The SCC not only doesn’t admit it did anything wrong, it rejected Dominion’s IRP in part because the company didn’t propose building yet another giant gas plant.)

The SCC’s high-end estimate seems to be based on this concern, but its numbers are much higher than even Dominion’s.

Dominion’s IRP estimated that joining RGGI would “cost Virginia customers about $530 million over the period 2020 to 2030,” or $53 million per year. The IRP says the impact would be about $3.50-$5 per month for residential customers, depending on the approach taken.

Even that estimate has to be taken with a bucket of salt. As the SCC staff noted at the time, Dominion overestimated the costs of joining RGGI by using overly high demand projections and failing to assume any decrease in demand from the hundreds of millions of dollars in efficiency programs the utility is required to design.

Obviously, those programs will also lower carbon emissions, helping Virginia meet the RGGI targets—as will building the solar energy envisioned by the grid mod bill.

So how the SCC staff has now come up with cost estimates even higher than Dominion’s is a head-scratcher. Nothing in the Coastal Protection Act appears to add costs beyond what Dominion knew about for its IRP.

This debate is surely not over.

We hope DEQ and the SCC will come together on a shared set of facts and assumptions, but meanwhile it is worth noting two points.

One is that even Dominion agrees some sort of carbon regulation at the federal level is likely eventually, even if it doesn’t happen under President Donald Trump’s administration.

Starting to shrink our carbon footprint now instead of later is going to save us money, even apart from its climate and health benefits.

The other is that the RGGI approach brings proven economic benefits to customers. As the Analysis Group report showed, customers in RGGI states actually saw lower bills in spite of higher rates because of the investments in energy efficiency.

If that happens in Virginia, joining RGGI will actually put more money in the pockets of customers.

 

A version of this article first appeared in the Virginia Mercury on February 6, 2019. 

Appalachian Power gets approval to sell 100 percent renewable energy to customers. Hold the champagne.

Photo credit Andy Beecroft via Wikimedia.

Last week the State Corporation Commission (SCC) approved a request from Appalachian Power Company (APCo) to offer its customers the option of buying electricity entirely from renewable sources. The sources will be primarily wind and hydro, with some solar to be added as it gets built. Participants will pay a premium of less than 4% over ordinary “brown” power, resulting in bill increases of $4.25 per month for a customer who uses 1,000 kW per month.

The approval gives APCo more than a new way to meet customers’ desire for renewable energy. It also triggers a provision in Virginia law that blocks competitive service providers from selling renewable energy to all but the largest of a utility’s customers once the utility itself has an approved offering. Both APCo and Dominion Energy Virginia have long sought to close off competition, but this marks the first time either has succeeded.

The SCC order goes against the recommendation of hearing examiner D. Matthias Roussy, Jr., who had advised against approval of APCo’s tariff.

The SCC had previously rejected a similar program APCo proposed in 2016, primarily due to its high cost. That program, too, would have repackaged the utility’s existing wind and hydro projects that all ratepayers currently pay for, and passed on the cost of those contracts to participants in the renewable energy program. The result was a price premium for the program of about 18%, which the SCC deemed unreasonable.

But APCo didn’t go back to the drawing board and redesign its program; it just changed the pricing. The cost to participants will now be based on the market value of renewable energy certificates (RECs) generated by facilities like the ones APCo owns.

REC prices are set by supply and demand, and an oversupply of wind RECs in the market has pushed prices way down over the past few years. Using REC prices allowed APCo to slash the cost of its renewable energy program by more than 75%.

On the one hand, this is a false calculation, since the value of RECs has little to do with the actual cost of developing and operating a project. On the other hand, the SCC liked the result: a lower cost to participants.

Some customers agreed. A number of APCo’s customers offered support for the program at the SCC. For them, this marks the first opportunity they will have to buy energy from specific wind and solar projects (okay, and a lot of decades-old hydro, too). Currently their only option is buying RECs to offset the dirty power they use, so they are willing to accept a price premium based on REC values.

Other customers were less impressed. Wal-Mart Stores opposed the program because the company prefers to save money by buying renewable energy, not spend more on it. As summarized by the Hearing Examiner, Wal-Mart felt the APCo tariff would be okay as a REC offering, but a real renewable energy tariff ought to “permit the customer to realize the benefits and risks of taking service from renewable energy sources”—i.e., offer at least the potential of saving money for the customer.

Wal-Mart has a point. Given the plunging costs of building and operating new renewable energy projects in recent years, a utility could, in theory, offer a renewable energy tariff at below the cost of brown power. Wind and solar increasingly outcompete even existing coal plants, and APCo is still heavily reliant on coal.

But APCo isn’t going to do any such thing. If its customers can buy renewable energy at a discount, who would want to buy power from fossil fuels?

So APCo had to make sure its program costs more. Tying it to REC prices means it always will, because RECs are always an additional cost.

Just as importantly, APCo has to make sure no other seller of electricity can be allowed to compete with a better or cheaper product. That’s where section § 56-577 A 5 of the Virginia Code comes to the aid of our monopoly utilities. Now that APCo has an approved tariff for a 100% renewable energy tariff, no competitive supplier can come on to its turf with a product that’s better, or simply different. (The Code contains an exception for very large customers.)

Concern about this squelching of competition drove most of the opposition to APCo’s tariff at the SCC, from both competitive suppliers like Collegiate Clean Energy and environmental advocates like the Southern Environmental Law Center, as well as a number of customers. For them, the SCC Order approving APCo’s program represents a loss for consumer choice that will inevitably lead to less renewable energy development.

Separately, Dominion Energy Virginia filed for approval of its own renewable energy tariff, following the Commission’s rejection of the company’s initial proposal last year (correctly in my view). Last month a hearing examiner recommended Dominion’s new tariff be approved, though with changes that would make it significantly cheaper than what Dominion wants. Dominion’s proposal as filed would have cost the average customer an extra $20 per month.

But on January 9, two days after the SCC approved APCo’s tariff, Dominion filed a request to withdraw its application. The request states that the company intends to file a new application “consistent with the principles outlined” in the APCo order.

Although Dominion’s request doesn’t specify which principles it has in mind, they likely include the SCC’s determination that a renewable energy tariff need only match demand on a monthly basis, not the hourly basis Dominion used. According to the hearing examiner’s report, Dominion’s insistence on hourly matching was a significant factor in the program’s high cost.

Dominion’s withdrawal of its renewable energy tariff grants a temporary reprieve to competitive service providers like Direct Energy, which wants to offer renewable energy to Dominion customers. But if Dominion re-files with a program that meets SCC approval, the window of opportunity for competition in the electric sector in Virginia will close permanently in both major utility territories, absent a change in the law.

Anticipating this, Direct Energy sought legislation in the 2018 session that would have ensured the ability of competitors to offer renewable energy even after the SCC approved a utility’s own tariff. Neither the House bill (from Delegate Michael Mullin, D-Newport News) nor the Senate bill (from Senator David Sutterlein, R-Roanoke) made it out of the Commerce and Labor committee. Delegate Mullin is trying again this year; his bill is HB 2117.

Cliona Robb, a lawyer with the law firm of Christian & Barton who represents Direct Energy, says her client hopes for a better outcome in the General Assembly this year.

With the SCC’s order approving APCo’s program, harm to competition is no longer hypothetical. If legislators are serious about renewable energy development in Virginia, keeping the door open to competition has to be a key priority.


This article first appeared in the Virginia Mercury on January 10, 2019.

Update: Senator Sutterlein has also filed a bill this year that would continue to allow competition even once a utility has an approved green tariff. The Senate bill is SB 1584.