Virginia legislative session wraps up with action on solar, coal ash, and pumped storage

Next year I'm bringing him to lobby with me. Photo credit: Sierra Club

Next year I’m bringing him to lobby with me. Photo credit: Sierra Club

The Virginia General Assembly wraps up its 2017 session on Saturday, February 25. As usual, the results are a mixed bag for energy. On the plus side is the promise of a new solar purchase option for customers. On the downside, utility opposition to energy efficiency and distributed generation meant a lot of worthwhile initiatives never made it out of subcommittee.

Putting it into perspective, it could have been worse. For clean energy advocates in Virginia, that’s what we call a success!

Governor Terry McAuliffe has already acted on some of the bills that passed and will have until March 27 to act on the remaining bills. Under Virginia law, the governor can sign, veto, or amend the bills for legislators’ consideration.

“Rubin Group” bills move renewable energy forward—and back.

Negotiations between utilities, the solar industry trade association MDV-SEIA, and the group Powered by Facts produced three pieces of legislation that appear likely to become law (and all of which I’ve discussed previously). The most significant of these “Rubin Group” bills (named for facilitator Mark Rubin) is SB 1393 (Wagner), the so-called “community solar” bill, which is designed to launch a utility-controlled and administered solar option for customers. The utilities will contract for the output of solar facilities to be built in Virginia and will sell the electricity to subscribers under programs to be approved by the State Corporation Commission. Critical details such as the price of the offering will be determined during a proceeding before the State Corporation Commission.

This was the only one of the Rubin Group bills that had participation from members of the environmental community (Southern Environmental Law Center and Virginia League of Conservation Voters), and it received widespread (though not unanimous) support from advocates.

Broader legislation that would have enabled true community solar programs did not move forward. SB 1208 (Wexton) and HB 2112 (Keam and Villanueva), modeled on programs in other states, had the backing of the Distributed Solar Collaborative, a stakeholder group composed of everyone but utilities. In the Senate, Wexton’s bill was “rolled into” Wagner’s bill, but only her name, not the provisions of her bill, carried over.

SB 1395 (Wagner), a second Rubin Group bill, increases from 100 MW to 150 MW the size of solar or wind projects eligible to use the state’s Permit by Rule process, which is overseen by the Department of Environmental Quality. The legislation also allows utilities to use the PBR process for their projects instead of seeking a permit from the SCC, if the projects are not being built to serve their regulated ratepayers.

The third Rubin Group bill establishes a buy-all, sell-all program for agricultural generators of renewable energy. Although supported by MDV-SEIA as part of the package deal, passage of SB 1394 (Wagner) and HB 2303 (Minchew) should be considered a loss for solar. The program replaces existing agricultural net metering rules for members of rural cooperatives and could lead these coops to reach their 1% net metering cap prematurely, blocking other customers from being able to use net metering. And while negotiators say the program should be economically beneficial to participants, it appears to offer generators no options they don’t already have under existing federal PURPA law.

The governor has until March 27 to act on these bills.

Appalachian Power PPAs for private colleges only

Under HB 2390 (Kilgore), the existing pilot program that allows some third-party power purchase agreements (PPAs) in Dominion Power territory will be extended to Appalachian Power territory, but only for the private colleges and universities who could afford to hire a lobbyist to negotiate the special favor, and only up to a 7 MW program cap. APCo is expected to use passage of the bill to assert that PPAs for all other customers are now illegal. The governor has not indicated whether he will sign the bill.

Intellectual property

SB 1226 (Edwards, D-Roanoke) allows solar developers to keep confidential certain proprietary information that would otherwise be subject to disclosure under the state’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). It resolves a problem that has held up a solar project on the Berglund Center, a public building in Roanoke.

Storage, pumped or otherwise

HB 1760 (Kilgore) and SB 1418 (Chafin) allow Dominion Power to seek rate recovery for a scheme to use abandoned coal mines for pumped storage facilities. If you think this sounds weird and possibly dangerous, you are not alone. Usually the idea is to keep water out of coal mines to avoid the leaching of toxic chemicals into groundwater. Apparently no one has ever used coal mines for pumped storage before, and neither the company that would construct the project, nor the sites under consideration, nor the technology to be used, have been revealed.

SB 1258 (Ebbin) adds storage to the mandate of the Virginia Solar Energy Development Authority.

Dominion’s nuclear costs, and the politics of the “rate freeze”

HB 2291 (Kilgore) allows Dominion to charge ratepayers for the costs of upgrading its nuclear facilities. Because the charges will appear as a rider on top of base rates, consumers would not be protected by the “rate freeze” Dominion pushed through in 2015’s SB 1349.

That 2015 legislation, of course, was supposedly designed to shield customers from the impact of the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, a ruse that has been since laid bare. Instead, it will allow Dominion to keep an estimated billion dollars of customers’ money it would otherwise have had to refund or forego. This year, with the CPP on death row under Trump, Senator Chap Petersen introduced SB 1095, which would repeal the rate freeze. His bill was promptly killed in committee, but continues to gain support everywhere outside the General Assembly. Governor McAuliffe belatedly announced his support for Petersen’s bill, but did not use his authority to resurrect it.

Petersen is encouraging the Governor to offer an amendment to Kilgore’s HB 2291 that would repeal the rate freeze, an option allowed by Virginia’s legislative procedure since both provisions affect the same provision of the Code.

Dominion, of course, says the CPP isn’t actually dead and buried just yet, and Republicans seem to fear its resurrection. HB 1974 (O’Quinn) requires the Department of Environmental Quality to submit any Clean Power Plan implementation plan to the General Assembly for approval, so they can stab it with their steely knives.  The governor is expected to veto the bill.

State’s failures on energy efficiency will now be tracked

SB 990 (Dance) requires the Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy to track and report on the state’s progress towards meeting its energy efficiency goals. Or in Virginia’s case, its lack of progress.

HB 1712 (Minchew) expands the provisions of state law that allow public entities to use energy performance-based contracting.

That’s it for energy efficiency legislation this year. Several good bills were offered but killed off in the House Energy Subcommittee, notably HB 1703 (Sullivan), which would have required electric utilities to meet efficiency goals, and HB 1636 (Sullivan again), which would have changed how the SCC evaluates energy efficiency programs. Delegate Sullivan, by the way, introduced a companion bill to SB 990, but his was killed in that same House subcommittee, all on the same day.

Coal ash legislation watered down but passes

SB1398 (Surovell) will require Dominion Power to monitor pollution and study options for the closure of its coal ash impoundments, including removal of the ash to secure, lined landfills. Unfortunately amendments in the House will allow Dominion to proceed with capping the waste in unlined pits while it completes the study. As one editorial put it, “Why not do it right the first time?” The editorial—along with a lot of people who have to live near the coal ash dumps—would like to see the governor offer amendments to the bill, but we’ve heard nothing from the governor’s office on that yet.

Republicans keep trying to throw taxpayer money down a rathole; Governor vetoes

Governor McAuliffe has already vetoed HB 2198 (Kilgore), which would reinstate the coal employment and production incentive tax credit and extend the allowance of the coalfield employment enhancement tax credit. SB 1470 (Chafin) is identical to HB 2198 and so likely faces a veto as well.

Why Trump won’t stop the clean energy revolution

A protest in Manhattan against the presidency of Donald Trump, held the day after the election. Photo credit Rhododendrites - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=53011447

A protest in Manhattan against the presidency of Donald Trump, held the day after the election. Photo credit Rhododendrites – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=53011447

It is not an overstatement to say that Donald Trump’s win over Hillary Clinton horrified everyone who is worried about climate change. Reading the news Wednesday morning was like waking up from a nightmare to discover that there really is a guy coming after you with a meat cleaver.

You might not be done for, though. You could just end up maimed and bloodied before you wrest the cleaver away. So with that comforting thought, let’s talk about what a Trump presidency means for energy policy over the next four years.

I’ve had a lot of time to think about this. As a career pessimist, I’ve been worried about the possibility of a Trump win since last spring. I can fairly say I was panicking before panic became mainstream. But even with the worst-case scenario starting to play out, I’m convinced we will continue making progress on clean energy.

There is no getting around how much harder a Trump presidency makes it for those of us who want the U.S. to meet its obligations under the Paris climate accord. It’s not clear that Trump can actually “cancel” the accord, as he has promised to do. On the other hand, a man who puts fossil fuel lobbyists and climate skeptics in charge of energy policy is hardly likely to ask Congress for a carbon tax.

Nothing good can come of it when the people in charge relish chaos and embrace ignorance. Destroying the EPA will not stop glaciers melting and sea levels rising.

But just as politicians can’t repeal the laws of physics driving global warming, so there are other forces largely beyond their control. Laws and regulations currently in place; state-level initiatives; market competition; technological innovation; and popular attitudes towards clean energy have all driven changes that will withstand a fair amount of monkeying with. It’s worth a quick review of these realities.

Coal is still dead

Donald Trump’s promise to bring back coal jobs is about as solid as his promise to force American companies to bring jobs back from China. Even if he’s sincere, he can’t actually do it.

The economic case for coal no longer exists, and that remains true even if Trump and anti-regulation forces in Congress gut EPA rules protecting air and water. Fracking technology did more than the Obama administration to drive coal use down by making shale gas cheap. A glut of natural gas pushed prices down to unsustainable levels and kept them there so long that utilities chose to close coal plants or convert them to gas rather than wait.

What gas started, renewables are finishing. Today, coal can’t compete on price with wind or solar, either. That leaves coal with no path back to profitability. Not many utilities want to pollute when not polluting is cheaper.

Nor will the export market recover. China doesn’t want our coal, and a president who pursues protectionist trade policies will find it hard to get other countries to take our products.

It’s also hard to find serious political support for coal outside of a handful of coal states. Politicians say they care about out-of-work coal miners, but they care more about attracting industry to their states with cheap energy. That is certainly the case in Virginia, where Governor McAuliffe didn’t even include coal mining or burning anywhere in his energy plan.

If there is a silver lining for coal miners, it’s that without an Obama bogeyman to blame for everything, coal-state Republicans will have to seek real solutions to unemployment in Appalachia.

Solar and wind are still going to beat out conventional fuels

Analysts predict renewable energy, especially solar, will become the dominant source of electricity worldwide in the coming decades. Already wind and solar out-compete coal and gas on price in many places across the U.S. As these technologies mature, prices will continue to fall, driving a virtuous cycle of escalating installations and further price reductions.

While federal policies helped make the clean energy revolution possible, changes in federal policy now won’t stop it. Today the main drivers of wind and solar are declining costs, improvements in technology, corporate sustainability goals, and state-level renewable energy targets.

As the revolution unfolds over the next decade, the folly of investing in new fossil fuel and nuclear infrastructure will become increasingly clear. Natural gas itself is cheap right now, but new gas infrastructure built today will become worthless before it can recover its costs and return a profit. Corporations like Dominion Resources and Duke Energy are investing in gas transmission pipelines and gas generating plants only because they think they can profit from them now, and force captive utility customers to bear the cost of paying off the worthless assets later.

Advocates fighting new gas infrastructure have mostly had to work at the state level, since they’ve received little help from the Feds. That much won’t change. The cavalry isn’t coming to save us? Well, we are no worse off than we were before. We just have to do the job ourselves.

Dominion’s gas build-out is still a bad idea

Dominion Power is enthusiastic about natural gas, but we’ve seen this movie before. Environmentalists and their allies tried, and failed, to stop Dominion’s newest coal plant in Wise County from being built. Regulators approved it in spite of Dominion’s cost projections showing a levelized cost of energy of 9.3 cents per kilowatt-hour. That’s about twice the wholesale price of energy today, and well above where wind and solar would be even without subsidies.

Approval to construct the plant came in the fall of 2008. A mere eight years later, that looks like a terrible decision. Dominion Virginia Power shows no further interest in building coal plants. Instead, it has since built two huge natural gas plants and received approval to build a third. Its sister company is building the Atlantic Coast Pipeline to lock ratepayers into even more gas.

Eight years from now, those will look like equally bad decisions.

Renewable energy is popular with everyone

One of the most remarkable pieces of legislation passed during the last few years was the extension of the Investment Tax Credit and the Production Tax Credit, subsidies that have underpinned the rapid spread of solar and wind power. It turns out that Republicans don’t actually hate subsidies; they only hate the ones that benefit other people.

Wind energy is one of the bright spots in the red states of the heartland. Farmers facing volatile markets for agricultural products appreciate the stable income they get from hosting wind turbines among the cornfields, and they aren’t going to give that up.

And everybody, it turns out, loves solar energy. There’s a simple, populist appeal to generating free, clean energy on your own roof. The failure on Tuesday of a utility-sponsored ballot measure in Florida is especially notable: the constitutional amendment would have ended net metering and led to steep declines in solar installations in the Sunshine State. Voters said no. The lesson will resonate across the South: people want solar.

Indeed, public polling for years has shown overwhelming support for wind and solar energy, across the political spectrum. Even people who don’t understand climate change think it’s a good idea to pollute less. And the energy security benefits of having wind and solar farms dotting the landscape are simple and intuitive. So while the fossil fuel industry may use a friendly Trump administration to launch attacks on renewable energy, no populist army will back them.

The Clean Power Plan was important, but not transformative

Congressional Republicans have talked smack about the EPA for years, and the Clean Power Plan raised the needle on the right wing’s outrage meter to new levels. Most EPA rules have a layer of insulation from Congressional meddling as long as Senate Democrats retain the ability to filibuster legislation that would repeal bedrock environmental laws like the Clean Air Act. And laws protecting the air and water have such broad public backing that it is hard to imagine even the Chaos Caucus going there.

The Clean Power Plan could be different. Trump’s choice of a new Supreme Court justice will produce a conservative majority that might well strike down Obama’s most important carbon rule. For a handful of states that rely heavily on electricity from aging coal plants and aren’t compelled to close them under other air pollution rules, this will buy them a few years. (But see “Coal is still dead,” above.)

For most states, though, the Clean Power Plan was never going to be a game-changer. Many states were given targets that are easy to meet, or that they have already met. As I’ve pointed out before, Virginia’s target is so modest that the state could meet it simply by adopting a few efficiency measures and supplying new demand with wind and solar. That’s if the state decided to include newly-built generating sources in its implementation plan, which it doesn’t have to do.

By its terms, the Clean Power Plan applies only to carbon pollution from power plants in existence as of 2012. Newer generating plants are regulated under a different section of the Clean Air Act, under standards that new combined-cycle gas plants can easily meet. That’s a gigantic loophole that Dominion Virginia Power, for one, intends to exploit to the fullest, and it’s the reason the company supported the Clean Power Plan in court.

Regardless of whether it is upheld in the courts, however, the Clean Power Plan has already had a significant effect nationwide by forcing utilities and state regulators to do better planning. It led to a raft of analyses by consulting firms showing how states could comply and actually save money for ratepayers by deploying cost-effective energy efficiency measures. If the Clean Power Plan doesn’t become law, states can ignore those reports, but their residents should be asking why.

For Virginia, nothing has changed at the state level. Or has it?

Virginia has off-year elections at the state level, so Trump’s election has no immediate effect on state law or policy. Most significantly, Terry McAuliffe is still governor of Virginia for another year, he still knows climate change is real, and his Executive Order 57, directing his senior staff to pursue a strategy for CO2 reductions, is still in effect. McAuliffe has disappointed activists who hoped he would become a climate champion, but Trump’s win could light a fire under his feet. He has an opportunity to put sound policies in place, if he chooses to do so.

Offshore drilling in Virginia probably isn’t back on the table

Trump has promised to re-open federal lands for private exploitation, reversing moves by the Obama administration. His website says that includes offshore federal waters. However, the decision by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management to take Virginia out of consideration for offshore drilling isn’t scheduled to be revisited for five years. Trump’s people could change the process, perhaps, but there’s not much demand for him to do so. With oil prices low, companies aren’t clamoring for more places to drill.

Environmental protection begins at home . . . and the grassroots will just get stronger

I would hate for anyone to mistake this stock-taking for optimism. The mere fact that the clean energy revolution is underway does not mean it will proceed apace. Opportunities abound for Trump to do mischief, and nothing we have heard or seen from him during the campaign suggests he will rule wisely and with restraint.

But advancing environmental protection has always been the job of the people. Left by itself, government succumbs to moneyed interests, and regulators are taken captive by the industries they are supposed to regulate. Americans who want clean air and water and a climate that supports civilization as we know it have to demand it. It will not be given to us.

Sound economics, common sense, and technological innovation are on our side. Most important, though, is the groundswell of public support for clean energy and action on climate. That never depended on the election, and it won’t stop now.

McAuliffe’s bright new energy plan still has that rotten-egg smell

Students protesting the new state motto.

Students protesting the new state motto.

Earlier this week, Virginia Secretary of Commerce and Trade Todd Haymore published an op-ed in the Roanoke Times boasting of the Commonwealth’s achievements on energy. It was a sad reminder that Virginia has trouble moving beyond “all of the above,” a phrase that seems to have become the state motto. But then on Wednesday, the McAuliffe Administration released a cheerful new version of the Virginia Energy Plan that reads like an extended love poem to solar power.

Haymore’s column more accurately reflects this Administration’s approach to energy: a lot of fracked gas, tricked out with bright snippets of solar. But I much prefer the Energy Plan. The entire first third of it is given over to trumpeting Virginia’s progress on developing solar energy. Though the amount of solar installed to date is still tiny, Virginia solar has terrific momentum, and McAuliffe can rightly claim a share of the credit.

The Plan also touches briefly on onshore wind (thanks to a single project from Apex Clean Energy), offshore wind power (nothing to see here, folks, move along), and an array of modest-yet-promising energy efficiency initiatives.

But the Energy Plan has its darker moments, too. If McAuliffe is in love with solar, he is still married to fossil fuels. The Plan continues to promote fracked gas infrastructure like Dominion’s Atlantic Coast pipeline, and insists that flooding the Commonwealth with natural gas is the key to economic prosperity.

Natural gas sneaks into other parts of the Energy Plan as well. The section on alternative fuel vehicles shows a preference for natural gas-fueled vehicles over electric vehicles, bucking the nationwide trend toward EVs. It’s another discouraging indication of just how powerful utility giant Dominion Resources has become in Virginia. Though we think of it as an electric utility, Dominion is a much bigger player in the gas world. You can run an EV on solar, but a natural gas vehicle commits you to fracking.

Locking us into natural gas in all parts of our lives serves Dominion’s purposes very well. But for Virginia, it means considerable pain down the road. With the world finally committed to tackling global warming, our failure to cut carbon now will mean deeper cuts forced on us later.

The Energy Plan does contain a short discussion of the need to fight climate change, but it fails to acknowledge the tension between embracing gas and cutting carbon. The Plan assures us that “Regardless of the outcome of litigation involving the [EPA’s Clean Power Plan], the Governor will work to identify a path toward further reducing Virginia’s carbon emissions and shifting to greater utilization of clean energy to power the Commonwealth economy.” But no hints follow as to how McAuliffe expects to accomplish this while expanding the use of a carbon-emitting resource like natural gas.

We’ve already seen that McAuliffe is capable of holding two contradictory thoughts in his head at the same time. The Governor frequently asserts that climate change is an urgent problem, then in the same breath brags that he persuaded EPA to soften Virginia’s targets under the Clean Power Plan to make compliance easier. He repeats this claim in the Energy Plan, and seems to expect applause.

Knowledgeable observers say EPA softened some initial state targets and tightened others to make the final Clean Power Plan more legally defensible. Regardless, for a man who believes in climate change, McAuliffe’s boast is exasperating. It’s like announcing you pulled off a bank heist when the evidence points to an inside job. Well-wishers can only cringe.

McAuliffe has a little more than a year left in the single term Virginia allows its governors. Here’s hoping he uses it to commit the Commonwealth more firmly to the solar energy he so loves, along with the other essentials of the 21st century energy economy: wind power, battery storage, and energy efficiency. That should make it easier to break with natural gas. Sure, fracked gas looks cheap today, but cheap is not the stuff of legacies.


*On a purely tangential note, Haymore’s column isn’t helped by the editing habits of the Roanoke Times. Like many newspapers these days, the Roanoke Times seems to believe its readers can’t handle full paragraphs. It presents almost all of the Secretary’s short sentences as separate paragraphs, as though insisting that each one should be mulled over individually. The result puts me in mind of the slips of paper inside Chinese fortune cookies, if the fortunes had been written by guys working for energy companies. (That is not, frankly, something I would like to see.)

Virginia, meet Paris. Things will never be the same.

By Tristan Nitot - standblog.org, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41689

By Tristan Nitot – standblog.org, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41689

After Republicans in Virginia’s General Assembly shut down the McAuliffe administration’s work on implementing the EPA Clean Power Plan last winter, Governor McAuliffe decided on an end run. He issued Executive Order 57, directing administration officials to recommend ways to reduce carbon pollution from the state’s power plants. The workgroup led by Secretary of Natural Resources Molly Ward is holding meetings this fall to gather information and advice.

This puts Ward in something of a pickle. Meeting the climate challenge requires Virginia to commit to a future with less fossil fuel, while McAuliffe is championing Dominion Power’s plans to radically expand fossil fuel investments in the Commonwealth.

Last week the European Union joined the United States, China, India, Canada, Mexico and dozens of other countries in ratifying the Paris climate accord, putting it over the threshold needed for it to take effect. The goal of the accord is to limit the increase in world temperatures to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius, 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, a level beyond which climate effects are projected to be catastrophic. Given mounting concerns that 2 degrees isn’t sufficiently protective, the 197 signatory nations also agreed to a stretch goal of 1.5 degrees Celsius.

The U.S. is the world’s second highest emitter of CO2 after China, and our average emissions per person are two-and-a-half times that of the Chinese. No other country has contributed more to the problem. American leadership was key to bringing other countries on board, and it will be key to implementing solutions.

A few niggling details remain, like how we are actually going to do this. The EPA’s Clean Power Plan is a first step, but its scope is narrow. It addresses only carbon emissions from electric generating plants in use as of 2012, not new sources (though states can choose to do that). It doesn’t address emissions outside the electric sector. It also doesn’t address methane emissions from natural gas infrastructure, a climate threat that seriously undercuts the climate benefit of utilities switching from coal to gas. Its goal of reducing electric-sector carbon pollution by 30% by 2030 is nowhere near what’s needed.

To meet its Paris commitment, the U.S. will have to dramatically reduce fossil fuel use in everything from electricity and heating to manufacturing and transportation. The good news is that the technologies to do this exist, and they are getting better and cheaper by the day. The bad news is that even an all-hands-on-deck approach would need time to work, and there are still way too many hands sitting idle in their bunks below deck.

Future federal regulation that goes well beyond the Clean Power Plan is inevitable. Through whatever means—a carbon tax, removal of fossil fuel subsidies, new incentives, or simple mandates—renewable energy has to take over the power sector, with fossil fuels limited to a supporting role before being phased out altogether. Building codes must be dramatically strengthened to minimize energy consumption, and transportation must be electrified so vehicles run on wind and solar, not gasoline or diesel. And all this has to happen starting now.

With the U.S. committed to this path, it makes no sense for any state to pursue a fossil fuel-heavy strategy simply because federal mandates aren’t in place yet. The ratification of the Paris accord means all new fossil fuel investments—drilling machinery, fracking wells, pipelines, generating plants—must be evaluated against the likelihood that they will have to be abandoned well before the end of their useful life.

In Virginia this includes proposed new fracked-gas transmission pipelines; a new natural gas generating station that Dominion Power just received approval to build; as much as 9,000 megawatts more of natural gas generating plants that Dominion wants to build; and at least two new natural gas generating plants proposed by other developers, who would use the new gas pipelines to supply them. Altogether, these projects represent tens of billions of dollars in investments in infrastructure that would have to be shut down and left to decay within a decade or two.

All this could happen without violating the Clean Power Plan, if Virginia takes advantage of a loophole allowing it to exclude new gas plants from its implementation plan. Dominion’s gas plants alone would increase carbon emissions from Virginia by as much as 83%. That won’t get us to Paris.

It seems obvious that these investments would be better channeled into carbon-free renewable energy and reducing energy use through efficiency and building improvements. These are the “no regrets” investments that make sense for human health and economic development reasons anyway. With the Paris accord, the decision has gone from no-regrets to no-brainer.

But Dominion clearly thinks a pipelines-and-gas-plants approach will make more money for its shareholders. Dominion is betting that regulators will allow it to bill customers for the costs of new fossil fuel infrastructure even if it turns out that using it means paying a high carbon tax, or not using it at all. Dominion counts on the prevalence of climate doubt and magical thinking within the Virginia legislature and the staff of the SCC to muffle the wake-up call from Paris.

This is a deeply irresponsible and immoral calculus.

To date, Governor McAuliffe has backed Dominion at every turn. With only a year and a half left in his term, the “jobs governor” wants to lure businesses to Virginia quickly with the promise of cheap natural gas. It’s a strategy that might backfire in the short run, as savvy businesses go to states better preparing for life after Paris. Surely, it will backfire in the long run, when Virginia is left paying off unwanted fossil fuel infrastructure. The Paris accord marks a good point for McAuliffe to change his allegiance.

Indeed, after Paris, nothing will ever be the same. The days of natural gas as a bridge fuel are rapidly ending, and the U.S. has committed itself to breaking from its fossil fuel past. Executive Order 57 offers Virginia an opportunity to map out a carbon-free strategy. Time is short. Allons-y!

Yay, Dominion is building solar! Just not for you.

solar installation public domainThis week’s news of an 18 megawatt solar facility to be installed at Naval Station Oceana in Newport News marks the latest in a string of announcements of new solar projects to be built in Virginia. The Commonwealth had only about 22 megawatts of solar installed as of the end of 2015, but by the end of this year, we should be comfortably into the triple digits. That’s still trivial compared to neighboring North Carolina, which added over 1,000 megawatts last year alone, but it’s grounds for celebration here in the “dark state.”

How is this happening? Customer demand, coupled with falling costs, finally wrought a change of attitude at Dominion Virginia Power. The state’s largest utility dragged its feet on solar for years until announcing, in early 2015, plans to spend $700 million on 400 megawatts of solar power in Virginia by 2020.

The welcome change comes with a caveat: while these new projects will supply solar to important and influential customers like Microsoft, Amazon, and even the state government itself, Dominion offers no programs to supply solar to ordinary Virginians. And indeed, even where ratepayers are footing the bill for projects, our regulators insist that the renewable energy certificates—the right to say it’s solar power—should be sold to someone else.

Dominion’s early adventures in solar were not altogether encouraging. In 2012 the General Assembly authorized the utility to “study” solar by building up to 30 megawatts of distributed (mostly rooftop) projects. The SCC approved $80 million for the “Solar Partnership Program” the following year, with the stipulation that Dominion should sell the renewable energy certificates to reduce the cost to ratepayers. A steep learning curve made for slow and expensive going, and while a number of schools, universities and commercial businesses signed up to host projects, they weren’t permitted to purchase the solar energy being produced right on their property.

In 2013, Dominion created a special tariff “Schedule RG” especially to allow commercial customers to buy renewable energy. Cumbersome, limited and expensive, it never attracted any takers. Dominion spokesman David Botkins suggested to reporters last May the problem was Dominion’s low rates. As in, who wants renewable energy when dirty power is so cheap?

That was one month before Amazon Web Services announced it had contracted for the output of an 80 megawatt solar farm to be built in Accomack County. The project sidestepped Dominion’s limitations by feeding power directly into the Delmarva Power grid in Maryland. Dominion promptly bought the project.

Schedule RG was clearly a failure, but just as clearly, there was money to be made on solar. Dominion just needed to figure out how.

The utility was already trying. In January of 2015 Dominion proposed to build a 20 megawatt solar farm near Remington, Virginia. The State Corporation Commission (SCC) originally rejected Dominion’s proposal, saying the company had not considered third-party alternatives that might be cheaper for ratepayers. (They were proved right when it turned out the Amazon project was slated to deliver power at a cost that was 25% less.)

Dominion didn’t give up on Remington, nor was it willing to turn the project over to a private developer. Instead, it got to work rejiggering the deal into what, this spring, became a public-private partnership. Governor McAuliffe arranged to have the state government, rather than ratepayers, buy the power output from Dominion, while Microsoft agreed to buy the renewable energy certificates (RECs) to meet its corporate commitment to buying renewable energy. (In every solar deal, watch what happens to the RECs.*)

Although I wondered at the time if the state might be taking a financial hit to make the deal work, more recent information suggests the opposite. According to Dominion’s website, “the construction and deployment of this solar asset will lower the cost of the energy purchased by the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth is projected to save $500,000 to $1M in energy costs over the lifetime of the project.”

This tells us two things: one, obviously, we should sell more solar to Microsoft. And two, either the website omits key details about the financing, or the cost of energy produced by solar panels is now pretty darn competitive.

The projects have started coming in more quickly in recent months. In February of this year, Dominion announced it would buy the output of a 20 megawatt solar farm in Chesapeake through a power purchase agreement (PPA) with a North Carolina developer. Other PPAs are said to be under consideration.

Then, on June 30, the SCC gave Dominion approval to move forward on building three new projects totaling 56 megawatts in Powhatan, Louisa, and Isle of Wight counties. The 800 local jobs associated with the projects sparked news stories across the state.

That brings us to this week’s announcement of the deal with the Commonwealth and the Department of the Navy at Oceana. According to Dominion’s press release, Dominion Virginia Power will own and operate the facility, and the Commonwealth will buy the electricity, with Dominion retiring the RECs on the Commonwealth’s behalf.

Deputy Secretary of Commerce Hayes Framme confirmed to me this deal is the first step toward satisfying Governor McAuliffe’s commitment to having the state government get 8% of its power from solar by the time he leaves office, an amount equal to roughly 110 megawatts. That should mean there will be more announcements to come.

The Navy’s role here is especially interesting. Although some news outlets reported the Navy would buy the electricity, this appears to be a misreading of the Navy’s press release. Naval Station Oceana will instead receive “in-kind consideration in the form of electrical infrastructure upgrades” for hosting the project on its land. But the press release dwells mainly on the benefit to the regional grid that serves the naval station:

“Renewable energy projects, like the one at NAS Oceana and others throughout the Mid-Atlantic Region, are win-win-win collaborations. They’re good for the utility companies, good for our installations and good for the communities surrounding our installations,” said Rear Adm. Jack Scorby, Jr., commander, Navy Region Mid-Atlantic. “These projects increase the energy security, energy diversity and energy resiliency of our bases. Energy security, or having assured access to reliable supplies of energy and the ability to protect and deliver sufficient energy to meet mission-essential requirements, is critical to our installations’ roles to support the Fleet.”

The reference to “energy security, energy diversity and energy resiliency” is key here. The Navy will benefit from having a large renewable generation source onsite, one that can be protected from attack and that is not susceptible to fuel supply disruptions.

Come to think of it, “energy security, energy diversity and energy resiliency” are three of the prime reasons we need more solar projects all across the state, and why the benefits shouldn’t be limited to large, influential customers. So yay, Dominion, for getting rolling on all these solar projects! Now please stop blocking the way for the rest of us.


*RECs were invented as a way to identify units of electricity generated by wind, solar and other sources, since the electrons themselves can’t be dyed green. But RECs don’t have to just follow electrons around; they can also be bought and sold separately from the underlying electricity. When the RECs associated with a solar project are sold separately (in the case of the Remington solar project, to Microsoft), the electricity loses its green quality, and the buyer (in this case, the Commonwealth) can’t claim to be buying solar energy. For a fuller explanation of RECs, see this earlier post on the subject.

Does McAuliffe deserve that bad grade on climate and energy?

Protesters at an anti-pipeline rally aim their message at Governor McAuliffe

Protesters at an anti-pipeline rally aim their message at Governor McAuliffe

Clean energy advocates who scrutinize Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe’s record see different things. Chesapeake Climate Action Network (CCAN), the Virginia Student Environmental Coalition (VSEC) and other groups recently released a mid-season “report card” that gave McAuliffe a D-plus on climate and energy. The bad grades primarily stem from his support of massive fracked-gas pipelines and offshore oil drilling, as well as Department of Environmental Quality’s (DEQ’s) approval of Dominion Virginia Power’s plans to “close” coal ash ponds by leaving toxic waste in unlined pits next to rivers.

Meanwhile, though, other environmental leaders are praising the governor for speaking out about the reality of climate change and promising to forge ahead with implementation of the EPA’s Clean Power Plan in spite of the current judicial stay. They also say McAuliffe should get more credit for his vetoes of bills attacking the Clean Power Plan and extending subsidies to coal companies.

It is possible to agree with both the criticism and the defense. McAuliffe’s enthusiastic support for Dominion’s Atlantic Coast Pipeline has been an enduring irritant to climate activists as well as to landowners along the planned routes of the ACP and other natural gas pipelines. A Sierra Club analysis concluded that the pipelines would increase the Commonwealth’s greenhouse gas footprint by more than twice the total emissions of all power plant generation in the state.

He is also rightly criticized for supporting off-shore drilling, which would increase climate pollution and sea level rise and threaten the Navy’s and tourism’s contributions to Hampton Roads’ economy—a potential double whammy for residents and businesses.

And the Virginia DEQ has begun to look a lot like its North Carolina counterpart, a captured agency incapable of defending our air and water from the corporate polluters it is supposed to regulate. Sure, the problem has festered through several administrations, but McAuliffe’s failure to intervene is impossible to reconcile with his pro-environment rhetoric.

The problem goes beyond DEQ. In response to a detailed petition to the Governor for an interagency review to modernize the state’s fracking regulations, McAuliffe’s Secretary of Commerce and Labor announced a plan to limit the issues and refer them to an industry-dominated organization funded by the American Petroleum Institute for decision. This is hardly a sign of a Governor committed to protecting the environment, safety and health.

Yet messaging matters, and McAuliffe is a vocal messenger on the topic of climate change. The governor points to the flooding that routinely shuts down streets in Norfolk as proof that human-caused sea level rise is already a problem right here in Virginia. And as a team player for the Democrats, he supports Obama’s Clean Power Plan even as he brags (superfluously and probably incorrectly) that he persuaded EPA to soften its Virginia targets to reduce our burden of compliance.

Besides which, if he’s no Jerry Brown or Jay Inslee leading his state towards a fossil-free future, McAuliffe is also not Ken Cuccinelli, hounding climate scientists out of state. Given a Republican majority in Virginia’s General Assembly that is dedicated to propping up the coal industry and blocking anything EPA does, it could have been so much worse.

So perhaps CCAN is letting the perfect be the enemy of the good—or in this case, letting the good be the enemy of the “meh.”

Regardless of how they feel about McAuliffe’s record, both the glass-half-full folks and the glass-half-empty folks agree there’s an “incomplete” on his report card that could make an enormous difference to his legacy. The ultimate test of the Governor’s climate credentials, they say, is whether he pushes DEQ to write a Clean Power Plan that puts a firm cap on total carbon emissions from the electric sector in Virginia. Though the General Assembly found a way to stop DEQ from completing work on the state implementation plan temporarily, nothing stops McAuliffe from taking a public stand on this most critical point.

That sounds like a no-brainer for a Democrat who is serious about reining in CO2. Unfortunately, it doesn’t meet with the approval of Tom Farrell, CEO of Dominion Resources, or Bob Blue, President of Dominion’s electric utility subsidiary, Dominion Virginia Power. They want DEQ to write a plan that leaves out new sources of emissions. That would let them continue building lots of big, new natural gas generating plants that, Blue assures us, will be capable of spewing carbon for at least another half century. All that burning of fracked gas would be lousy for the climate, but it would guarantee profits for Dominion’s utility and pipeline affiliate.

So on the one hand, the Governor can choose to be a climate hero, fighting sea level rise and deadly heat waves, creating tens of thousands of clean energy jobs and attracting forward-looking companies to the state, building his national reputation, doing what’s right for all our children and grandchildren, —

Or he can make Dominion happy.

It will be very interesting to see what becomes of that “incomplete” on his report card.

Republicans find new way to stop McAuliffe moving forward on Clean Power Plan

Must not be a Virginia Republican. Photo courtesy of Glen Besa.

Must not be a Virginia Republican. Photo courtesy of Glen Besa.

Virginia Republicans have found a new way to obstruct development of a state plan implementing the federal Clean Power Plan: take away funding for it. A line inserted by House Republicans in the state budget will prevent the Department of Environmental Quality from using any funds “to prepare or submit” a state implementation plan unless the U.S. Supreme Court’s stay of the Clean Power Plan is released.

Governor McAuliffe is fighting back, but the approach he has taken is expected to fail in the face of Republican majorities in the House and Senate. He has responded by offering an amendment to the budget item, removing “prepare or” from the Republicans’ budget amendment. The result would retain the prohibition on submitting a state plan while the Supreme Court’s stay is in effect (a harmless prohibition since EPA won’t accept them for now anyway), but allows DEQ to continue developing the state plan.

McAuliffe’s amendment accords with his support for the Clean Power Plan and his pledge to continue development of an implementation plan even while the EPA rule is in limbo. He has already vetoed Republican-backed bills that would have required DEQ to submit any implementation plan to the General Assembly for approval before sending it to the EPA. These vetoes can only be overridden by a two-thirds majority, and Republicans don’t have the numbers.

But the budget amendment is doomed to fail. A governor’s budget amendment can be defeated by a simple majority vote. House Republicans are expected to vote in lock step to reject the amendment when the General Assembly reconvenes April 20.

Environmental groups had expected the governor to use a line-item veto to strip out the offending language. Doing so would have meant the Republicans couldn’t muster a two-thirds majority to overcome the veto. We’re told McAuliffe changed his approach on the advice of attorneys who felt a line-item veto invited a constitutional challenge. The result, though, is a loss for the Governor.

Worse, it means Virginia will lose time in crafting a plan to diversify and de-carbonize our electricity grid. As a coastal state on the front lines of sea level rise, Virginia has more to lose than almost any other state from our fossil fuel addiction. And for Virginia, compliance with the Clean Power Plan is so easy that it’s hard to listen to Republicans fuss without picturing tempests in teapots.

Obviously, Republican opposition to a plan to cut carbon is neither more nor less than an act of spite aimed at President Obama. But what have they gained with this maneuver? At most it’s a “win” for an old energy model built on obsolete coal plants owned by bankrupt corporations that have laid off thousands of workers and cut the benefits of retired miners while lavishing campaign cash on legislators and paying millions of dollars in executive bonuses. That’s not the kind of win you put on campaign posters.

The Sierra Club and other climate activists plan to call out the House Republican leadership for their budget maneuver with a rally at the Capitol at 10 a.m. on April 20, during the veto session. The event, fittingly, is called “Turn Up the Heat in the House.”