McAuliffe rides to Dominion’s rescue on Remington solar plant

photo credit Kanadaurlauber

photo credit Kanadaurlauber

Last October, Virginia’s State Corporation Commission turned down an application from Dominion Virginia Power to build a 20-megawatt solar facility on land it owns near Remington, Virginia. The SCC told Dominion it had failed to meet its statutory obligation to consider third-party market alternatives that could save ratepayers money.

Rather than going back to the drawing board, we learned today that Dominion has found another way to build the project. In what is being billed as a “public-private partnership,” Dominion will sell the power from the project to the state of Virginia, and then will sell the associated renewable energy certificates (RECs) to Microsoft to help it meet its renewable energy goals for its data centers.

Governor McAuliffe announced the deal today at an event in Richmond, touting its ability “to reduce Virginia’s carbon emissions and diversify our energy portfolio.”

The deal seems to offer a great outcome for Dominion and Microsoft. A Dominion spokesperson told me the company will have to file a new application with the SCC for a certificate of public convenience and necessity, which they anticipate doing in May. But with no ratepayer impact now, they don’t expect the SCC would deny it this time around.

In this way, Dominion avoids having to consider less expensive means of acquiring solar energy, such as power purchase agreements or bids from third party developers.

The announcement did not say whether the state would pay a premium for power generated at the Remington site. It is also not clear how the deal relates to Governor McAuliffe’s goal, announced last December 21, of having the state derive 8% of its electricity from solar energy within three years. Legally, if Microsoft buys the RECs from the Remington project, the state cannot claim to be purchasing solar energy. So we hope the Governor has not been misled into thinking the state is buying solar energy with this deal.

As a general matter, though, supporting a large solar project fits well within the Governor’s ambitious jobs agenda, and it may be money well spent if it leads to more projects and greater investment. Certainly it beats handing out tens of millions of dollars annually to an ever-shrinking coal industry, as Virginia still does.

But we should keep this 20 MW project in perspective. North Carolina installed 1,134 MW of solar in 2015 alone. And meanwhile over at the SCC, Dominion is awaiting approval of its latest natural gas plant, the 1,600-MW Greensville Power Station, which will increase Virginia’s CO2 emissions by much more than the Remington project could possibly reduce them.

Which is to say, the further we go, the behinder we get.

McAuliffe’s stark choice on the Clean Power Plan: serve Virginia, or Dominion Power

Photo by Josh Lopez, courtesy of the Sierra Club.

Photo by Josh Lopez, courtesy of the Sierra Club.

After the Supreme Court issued a stay of the EPA’s Clean Power Plan pending its review by the D.C. Circuit, many Republican governors halted compliance efforts in their states, while most Democratic governors opted to continue. Among these was Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe, who plans to unveil a draft state implementation plan this fall.

Deciding to move forward on President Obama’s signature climate effort was an easy call. Polls show strong support for reducing carbon pollution, and the Governor wants to prove himself a team player who supports his president and his party. McAuliffe often reiterates his conviction that climate change is already producing extreme weather and increasingly severe coastal flooding in Virginia, making government action urgent.

Governor McAuliffe has another choice before him now: he can craft a compliance plan that moves Virginia firmly in the direction of clean energy and lower carbon emissions, or he can adopt one that allows unbridled growth in new power generation from natural gas. The latter could still meet the letter of the law, but it would hugely increase greenhouse gas emissions from Virginia power plants.

McAuliffe has this choice because EPA’s rules come in two parts: the Clean Power Plan addresses existing power plants under one section of the Clean Air Act, while new power plants are addressed under another section of that law. As a result of the statutory structure and EPA’s rules, states can choose to cover both under one set of rules with a total cap on utilities’ CO2 emissions, or they can address new and existing sources separately.

If a state chooses to cover both under a single cap, new generation can be added up to the cap or go beyond if the utility buys emission allowances from another utility. But if a state treats new and existing sources separately, then new sources can grow without limit as long as each new unit meets a unit-specific standard. Of course, building more fossil-fueled power plants of any type will increase carbon emissions, at a time when the U.S. desperately needs to cut back.

The carbon reduction target EPA set for Virginia under the Clean Power Plan is extremely modest. EPA’s numbers show Virginia can meet the target for existing sources simply by not increasing emissions. If the state also includes new power plants under the cap, however, it creates a real incentive to invest in clean energy.

But there’s a problem. Dominion Resources, the Richmond-based parent company of Dominion Virginia Power, is heavily invested in the natural gas sector, primarily transmission and storage. That has led Dominion to lobby for an implementation plan that covers only existing power plants.

Excluding new sources would leave the company free to build as many new natural gas-burning power plants in the state as it wants, locking in years of increased carbon pollution, and further boosting demand for fracked gas and pipeline capacity. Dominion’s plans call for more than 9,500 megawatts of new gas generation in Virginia, equivalent in carbon impact to building eight average-sized coal plants in the state.

McAuliffe can do what Dominion wants, or he can do the right thing for the climate. He can’t do both.

The stakes are high on both sides. McAuliffe has made job creation his number one priority, and he lures new industry to the state with the promise of lower-than-average electricity rates. Dominion says supporting its natural gas plans is the way to deliver on that promise. Whether that is true or not doesn’t count in this calculus; with state law limiting governors to a single term, McAuliffe is focused on the present.

But adopting a plan that allows unlimited increases in greenhouse gas emissions would run contrary to Virginia’s long-term interests. Not only is the state on the front lines of sea level rise, it needs predictable, affordable electricity prices for decades to come. And nothing can provide that better than renewable power and increased energy efficiency.

Neither Dominion nor anyone else can guarantee the price of natural gas over the life of a new power plant. Questions of price and supply bedevil even the best analysts and make forecasting risky. Moreover, the growing awareness of the climate impacts of methane from leaking wells and pipelines is already producing calls for tighter regulation of natural gas. A carbon tax or cap-and-trade legislation would also make all fossil fuels more expensive relative to carbon-free renewables.

While the cost of using natural gas can only go up, the costs of wind, solar and battery storage are expected to continue their astonishing declines. Advances in energy efficiency promise huge savings for states that pursue programs to help customers cut their energy use.

From a bill-payer’s perspective, then, investments in clean energy make more sense than building gas plants, even without taking federal regulations into consideration. Recent analyses show Virginia can cap carbon pollution from new power plants and still save money for electricity customers.

Environmental groups say their number one energy priority this year is to ensure Virginia adopts a Clean Power Plan that includes both existing and new sources, and they are counting on Governor McAuliffe to deliver. Their message is simple: if McAuliffe wants to be on the climate team, Virginia’s compliance plan must reduce CO2 emissions, not let them grow.

Virginia wind and solar companies say tax credit extensions cue up a happy new year

Photo by Dennis Schroeder / NREL

Photo by Dennis Schroeder / NREL

Congress included a welcome gift to the wind and solar industries in last week’s package of goodies that made up the year-end spending bill. For the wind industry, the renewal of the expired production tax credit (PTC) with a five-year phase-out finally ends the guessing game that has driven repeated boom-and-bust cycles—and will help Virginia’s first-ever wind farm move forward.

For solar, the extension of the investment tax credit (ITC) beyond the end of next year ensures that one of the fastest-growing industries in the U.S. won’t face a major disruption that would have driven many small companies out of business. That’s critical in Virginia, where the lack of incentives has left the market mostly to small players able to get by on small profit margins. As the economics of solar continuously improve, these small companies see a bright future in the Commonwealth.

I asked several Virginia industry members how they were feeling after Congress’ year-end gift.

“The certainty the tax credit extension gives our business is critical,” answered Jeff Nicholson, Director of Development for Waynesboro-based Sigora Solar. “While there won’t be as much of a crunch to get systems installed next year, we can hire without being concerned that the market for solar will plummet in a year.”

Sigora has been one of Virginia’s most remarkable small business success stories, growing from 11 employees at the beginning of 2015 to 44 today. With the ITC extension, the company now foresees a “long-term, steady stream of business” through the rest of the decade, said Nicholson.

The 30% ITC had been set to expire at the end of 2016 for residential customers, while dropping to 10% for commercial and utility-scale projects. Under the bill passed by Congress and signed by President Obama on December 18, the tax credit will remain at 30% for all systems through 2018, and then taper off gradually until it reaches 10% in 2022. If current price trends continue, the extra few years may be enough to make solar competitive with other fuels without subsidies.

“We know solar is a solid energy production fuel, every bit as viable as coal, oil, nuclear and wind, and it is clear that the more we build, the more cost effective it becomes,” said Paul Risberg, President of Charlottesville-based Altenergy Incorporated. Altenergy grew by 40% in 2015, and Risberg told me he now expects that trend to continue in 2016.

Another Virginia success story is Staunton-based Secure Futures LLC, which has carved out a niche supplying solar energy to tax-exempt entities like universities and local government entities in Virginia, using third-party power purchase agreements. CEO Tony Smith told me, “The ITC extension means that our business can continue to offer at or below grid-parity solar electricity to our commercial scale customers beyond 2016.”

But, he added, “It still remains challenging to attract investment in Virginia due to the disparity in incentives to solar in our state as compared with our neighboring states, especially for behind-the-meter third party owned solar.  We remain hopeful that our industry will continue to build support in Richmond to reduce the barriers to solar investment in Virginia.”

The Virginia solar industry got an extra year-end gift on Monday when Governor Terry MacAuliffe announced plans for the state government to buy 110 megawatts of solar over the next three years, accounting for 8% of its electricity usage. While 75% of that will be utility-scale solar to be built by Virginia Dominion Power, 25% will consist of on-site projects of less than 2 megawatts in size, to be built by third-party developers using power purchase agreements.* The state will follow a competitive procurement process, but in response to a question at the press conference, MacAuliffe said it will not limit participation to Virginia-based companies.

Still, the Virginia industry members were optimistic the announcement would help boost the profile of solar energy in the Commonwealth. The industry trade group, MDV-SEIA, says it participated in the discussions leading to the announcement.

Virginia has a lot of catching-up to do, of course; neighboring states are so far ahead and have so much momentum that, as the Virginia Sierra Club’s Glen Besa observed, “If Dominion sticks to its commitment (of 400 megawatts of solar by 2020), we’ll be further behind on solar than we are now.”

Photo credit NREL

Photo credit NREL

Like the ITC for solar, the 2.3 cents per kilowatt-hour PTC has been a crucial support for the wind industry, making it the second-biggest source of new electric generation in the U.S. for many years now. But until last week, Congress had been reluctant to extend the PTC for more than a year at a time, sometimes retroactively, causing havoc for planners and developers and leading to boom-and-bust cycles deeply damaging to growth.

Now the PTC will be extended through 2016 before tapering off and expiring altogether at the end of 2019. Projects that “commence construction” by the end of a given year will qualify at that year’s level. (“Commence construction” language was also added to the solar ITC.) The predictability that comes with the five-year tapering-off period is expected to finally bring stability to project planning.

And like the solar industry, the wind industry now predicts bright days ahead. Bruce Burcat, Executive Director of the Mid-Atlantic Renewable Energy Coalition, told me, “Sound policies like the PTC have driven innovation which has helped reduce the cost of wind energy down by about 66 percent over the past six years, making it highly price competitive with traditional forms of energy resources. This trend bodes well for the opportunity for wind to take hold in Virginia.”

Burcat is undeterred by Virginia’s lack of success with wind farms to date. “While no wind farms have been developed in Virginia, we believe that with the right signals from the Commonwealth, Virginia could see its first wind farms developed sometime in the next few years,” he said. “Wind farms would bring investment and jobs and other economic development opportunities to Virginia.  Wind farms would also be a very important tool for cleanly and cost-effectively helping Virginia meet the requirements of the EPA’s Clean Power Plan.”

Virginia’s first wind farm is expected to be Apex Clean Energy’s 75-MW Rocky Forge project in Botetourt County, which the company projects to have operational in 2017. Tyson Utt, Apex’s Director of Development for the Mid-Atlantic, told me, “The extension of the PTC will enable the facility to charge less for the energy it produces, saving electricity consumers money.” And, he added, “The project will be built on private land with private investment and will help diversify Virginia’s energy mix while injecting millions into the local economy.”

Apex also has a second wind farm of up to 180 MW under development in Pulaski County, scheduled for completion in 2017 or 2018.

Utt agrees the wind industry won’t need incentives for long to compete with fossil fuels. “The PTC exists to help level the playing field for renewable energy, relative to legacy generation sources that have benefited from permanent subsidies for decades. That said, renewable energy is becoming so economically competitive on its own that the industry now feels comfortable accepting a phase out of the PTC over the next five years, and the tax extenders package that just passed through congress does exactly this. Of course, wind energy offers additional benefits that are not currently reflected in our incentive structure, including the ability to generate electricity without producing carbon dioxide or consuming water. We expect that as our nation moves towards the recognition that there should be a price placed on carbon, wind energy will become even more competitive with conventional generation sources.”

[UPDATE: on January 6, the Associated Press reported that Appalachian Power is seeking to buy up to 150 MW of wind power through direct ownership or long-term power purchase agreements.]

In addition to the tax credit extensions for wind and solar, Congress passed other clean energy incentives that have gotten less attention. Scott Sklar, President of the Arlington-based Stella Group, Ltd. and an adjunct professor at George Washington University, noted that other renewable technologies also qualified for tax credits, and a tax deduction for energy efficiency improvements in commercial buildings was renewed. He also pointed to provisions in the Highway Authorization Act passed into law this month that favor renewable energy. As a result, he told me, “The end-of-year passage by Congress of extensions for the entire portfolio of energy efficiency and renewable energy, coupled with the infrastructure incentives for renewable energy in the highway bill, will more than double private investment into these sectors over the next six years.”

Sklar is bullish on clean energy. “With expanding markets, allowing these technologies to-scale even further, will insure electric grid and fuel parity before 2020, and also insure that renewable energy and energy efficiency will become the dominant energy provider both in the US and the world.”

I should note, though, that not everyone was entirely happy with Congress last week. Though they lauded the tax credit extensions, environmental groups including the Sierra Club opposed the lifting of the oil export ban that Republicans demanded in return. Exporting American crude oil, they fear, will lead to more drilling in the U.S. and higher oil consumption worldwide, further driving climate change. And while wind and solar compete head-to-head with the biggest climate culprit, coal, currently they offer little competition for oil in the transportation sector.

But with a world-wide oil glut that shows no signs of easing, observers including Sklar think lifting the export ban won’t have much effect in the near term. The extension of the renewable energy tax credits, on the other hand, will help push clean energy pricing to a point where wind and solar dominate the market for new electricity generation. According to an analysis by the Council on Foreign Relations, “Extension of the tax credits will do far more to reduce carbon dioxide emissions over the next five years than lifting the export ban will do to increase them.”

So it’s easy to see coal as the biggest loser here, but Big Oil shouldn’t feel too smug. As battery storage becomes more affordable and electric cars gain market share, wind and solar will begin to displace oil, too. The future, my friends, belongs to clean energy.

Here’s to 2016!

________________________

*The astute reader may wonder how the Governor persuaded Dominion to allow it to buy electricity from third-party providers in spite of Dominion’s tireless defense of its monopoly on electricity sales and its reluctance to allow other customers to use PPAs outside the narrow confines of a pilot program. Unlike most of us, the state purchases power from Dominion under a contract, rather than under a tariff overseen by the State Corporation Commission. So allowing the state to use PPAs required negotiating a change to the contract but does not have immediate ramifications for lesser folk. But still: at some point, doesn’t it become obvious that restrictions on PPAs are simply holding the market back?

And even all you astute readers may not have thought to ask: when the state buys solar electricity from Dominion or third parties, who will own the RECs? After all, it is not the guy with the solar system on his roof who can legally claim to be using solar energy, but the guy holding the renewable energy certificates (RECs) associated with that energy. If the state wants to brag about meeting its new goal of 8% of its electricity from solar, it had better hold the RECs to prove it—and not, for example, allow Dominion to sell the RECs to a Pennsylvania utility or to the voluntary participants of its Green Power Program. When I asked Deputy Secretary of Commerce Hayes Framme about this, however, he said the question of who will own the RECs “has yet to be determined.”

For Virginia, EPA’s Clean Power Plan more like a powderpuff

Photo credit: Corrina Beall

Photo credit: Corrina Beall

On August 3 the EPA released the final version of its Clean Power Plan, the Obama Administration’s effort to lower carbon pollution from existing power plants. It’s a big, complex rule—in large measure because it gives states so many options for compliance—but a few things are immediately clear. One, it’s just as well I never got around to reading the fine print of the proposed plan, because the final rule is practically a do-over. Two, this do-over goes so easy on Virginia that the Republican hissy fit about the proposed rule was (and is) a total waste of time. And three, Dominion Virginia Power’s little “rate freeze” gamble, rushed through the General Assembly this year, is set to pay off big for the company.

The proposed rule was never as tough for Virginia to meet as opponents asserted. Their claims of billions of dollars in added costs had little basis in fact—indeed, a recent University of Virginia analysis found numerous errors in the Virginia Tech cost study that many detractors relied on. But the proposed rule had enough of a bite that it would have been a major driver of new policies and investments. By contrast, the final rule is so soft on Virginia that it will likely take a back seat to customer demand and market forces in shaping our energy future.

This is welcome news to some, like Governor Terry McAuliffe, who pushed EPA to go easier on Virginia and is trumpeting the results as a good outcome. It’s a disappointment, though, to those who are worried about climate change and who believe Virginia is well positioned to make much steeper cuts in carbon pollution than the new rule requires.

Look at EPA’s table below and you will see how easy our path is. The Clean Power Plan allows states to choose whether to measure carbon emissions by rate or by mass. Using rate, EPA’s analysis of the business-as-usual case projects Virginia would arrive at an emissions rate of 959 pounds of carbon dioxide (CO2) per megawatt-hour by 2020 without the Clean Power Plan. With the Plan in place, that number will have to drop to 934. That’s a difference of only 3%, an easy target to meet just by adding enough emissions-free wind and solar to the existing fuel mix.

VA goals under CPP

Alternatively, the state can choose to measure CO2 emissions by mass (total short tons of CO2 emitted). Using that approach, EPA says all Virginia has to do is ensure CO2 emissions are no higher in 2030 than they were in 2012. Indeed, the 2030 goal is higher than what EPA expects Virginia to accomplish under business as usual without the plan!

In other words, we can achieve our assigned goals just by using energy a bit more efficiently and meeting any increase in electric demand with renewable energy. Lucky for us, this happens to be exactly what customers are asking for—especially the companies that are driving the growth in demand, including data centers and hi-tech companies. Companies like Apple, Google and Amazon are committed to running on wind and solar.

And given that leaders from both parties in Virginia support energy efficiency and want to see our utilities add wind and solar to their portfolios, compliance with the Clean Power Plan is a no-brainer. Heck, if the utilities aren’t interested in deploying renewables, the private sector will be glad to do it. The legislature could just loosen up the utilities’ monopoly protections, open up the solar and wind sectors to fair competition, and let private renewable companies and big utilities have at it in an open market.

But wait, there’s more: remember all the bellyaching from legislators about how West Virginia and Kentucky had it so much easier than we did under the proposed rule? No longer.* Not only does the final rule make it harder for them than for us, but it also proposes a system for buying and selling clean energy credits known as Emission Rate Credits, opening the possibility of a tidy little profit opportunity. If Virginia ramps up renewable energy production beyond what we need for compliance, as we can easily do, there might be some eager buyers just over the border.

Of course, anyone truly concerned about climate change has to hope our neighbors will proudly surpass their carbon reduction goals and even set tougher ones for themselves. Even if they don’t, we hope Virginia will set aggressive climate goals for itself, foregoing the opportunity to profit from selling credits. But it’s nice to know that if we don’t achieve these heights of virtue, there is money to be made.

For the moment, Virginia Republicans are still bashing the EPA as though the Clean Power Plan were anything but an opportunity. One has to wonder whether they’ve even read the new, final plan. In an op-ed published August 8, Delegates Israel O’Quinn and Scott Taylor claim the Clean Power Plan will have “severe” effects on Virginia’s economy, citing the highly questionable claims of conservative State Corporation Commission staff, made months ago about the proposed plan.

No doubt the delegates wrote their piece before the final rule came out, and didn’t want to consign it to the dustbin just because the rule turned out to be a creampuff. That must also be why Virginia Republican leaders joined the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity at a rally at the University of Richmond on Monday evening to lambaste the EPA. There, they launched a bill that would require General Assembly approval of any state implementation plan (an approval which, they assure us, will not be forthcoming). Republicans don’t intend to give up their talking points just because it turns out their hysteria was misplaced. Anti-regulatory zealotry is impervious to reality.

They’re not the only ones who don’t want to admit the final rule will be cheap to meet, and could even save customers money. Dominion lobbyists spent the whole of the 2015 legislative session ginning up fears that the Clean Power Plan would cause skyrocketing electricity bills unless legislators passed a law (SB 1349) freezing rates and limiting regulatory review. The lobbyists’ pitch was that the legislation would keep Dominion from passing along compliance costs to ratepayers. The immediate effect, however, was to protect the utility’s excess earnings, avoiding rebates and rate reductions for customers.

The upshot is that for the second year in a row, and for several years to come, the General Assembly will allow Dominion to overcharge consumers. Recall that in 2014, the utility won the ability to charge ratepayers for 70% of the hundreds of millions of dollars it had spent so far on a new nuclear plant that may never get approval (especially now that we’ve seen the price tag). The maneuver soaked up enough of the company’s excess earnings to avoid a refund.

A consultant for the Attorney General’s Office of Consumer Counsel has analyzed the effects of the 2014 and 2015 bills and concluded that last year’s nuclear boondoggle cost ratepayers $188.4 million that would otherwise have been refunded, while the 2015 bill allows Dominion to avoid reducing rates as it would otherwise be required to do. (See SCC Case PUE2015-00027 OAG Smith Testimony, available through the State Corporation Commission website.)

As a result, concludes the analyst, Dominion will rack up excess earnings. “Looking forward, projected revenues for the 2016 rate year will exceed the Company’s cost, including a fair rate of return, by approximately $229.4 million.” But, he adds, “because of Virginia law, the Company’s base rates cannot be adjusted downwards prospectively in the current case.” That’s just 2016. SB 1349 shields Dominion’s earnings from review through the end of the decade and prevents rate adjustments until 2022.

During the fight over SB 1349, a lot of people voiced skepticism that the Clean Power Plan would cause utility bills to rise by very much, if at all. But no one expected Dominion’s tactic to pay off so quickly. With compliance so easily attainable, Dominion’s excuse for SB 1349 has crumbled, but the payoff is just beginning.**


*There is a delicious irony here. Under pressure to produce a rule that will withstand legal attacks from coal states, EPA changed the approach to be more even-handed and thus more defensible—but with the result that it is now much harder for coal states to comply.

**Dominion’s maneuvers may be bad for customers, but they have been very good for shareholders. Dominion Resources just reported second-quarter earnings of $413 million, more than twice as much as the same period last year. SB 1349’s patron, Senator Frank Wagner, did pretty well, too. Since January of this year, Wagner has collected $6,000 in campaign contributions from Dominion and another $23,000 in contributions from several of its top executives—including CEO Tom Farrell, who can easily afford it out of his $17.3 million compensation.

Dominion makes a play for utility-scale solar, but Amazon steals the show

As_solar_firmengebaude.Christoffer.ReimerThis winter Dominion Virginia Power promised Governor Terry McAuliffe it would build 400-500 megawatts (MW) of utility-scale solar power in Virginia by 2020, part of the deal it cut to gain the governor’s support for a bill shielding it from rate reviews through the end of the decade. The company also took a welcome first step by announcing a proposed 20-MW solar farm near Remington, Virginia.

The applause had hardly died down, though, when Amazon Web Services announced it would be building a solar project in Accomack County, Virginia, that will be four times the size of Dominion’s, at a per-megawatt cost that’s 25% less.

Why such a big difference in cost? The way Dominion chose to structure the Remington project, building and owning it directly, makes it cost more than it would if a third party developed the project, as will be he case for the Accomack project. That means Dominion is leaving money on the table—ratepayers’ money.

There is nothing wrong with the Remington project otherwise. The site seems to be good, local leaders are happy, and solar as a technology has now reached the point where it makes sense both economically and as a complement to Dominion’s other generation. But by insisting on building the project itself, and incurring unnecessary costs, Dominion risks having the State Corporation Commission (SCC) reject what would otherwise be a great first step into solar.

And that’s a crying shame, because solar really is a great deal for consumers these days. Utilities now regularly sign contracts to buy solar for between 4.5 and 7.5 cents per kilowatt-hour. Compare that to the 9.3 cents/kWh cost of electricity produced by Dominion’s newest coal plant in Virginia City, and it’s no wonder that solar is the fastest growing energy source in the country.

Utilities get those rates by buying solar energy from solar developers, not by playing developer themselves. From the ratepayer’s point of view, developers have three advantages over utilities: they are experts at what they’re doing, they work on slimmer profit margins, and they get better tax treatment. Dominion loses all three advantages if it builds the Remington solar farm itself.

Dominion has already demonstrated its lack of solar knowhow. In a May 7, 2015 filing with the SCC (case PUE-2011-0017), it admitted its “Solar Partnership Program,” which puts solar on commercial rooftops, is a year behind schedule and will total less than 20 MW of the 30 MW legislators wanted. Previously the company had told stakeholders it would likely hit its $80 million budget limit with only 13-14 MW installed.

As for profit margins, Dominion gets a guaranteed 10% return on its investments. This explains its desire to build solar itself, but it’s hard to justify charging ratepayers a 10% premium when there are cheaper alternatives courtesy of the free market. Unlike Dominion, solar developers have to compete against each other, so they accept much slimmer profit margins.

And then there are the tax implications. A third-party developer can claim the federal 30% tax credit immediately, and can take accelerated depreciation on the cost of the facility over five years. A utility has to take both the tax credit and the depreciation over the expected life of the facility, 20 years or more.

These three factors—knowhow, free-market cost competition, and tax implications—add up to huge savings for consumers when a project is put out to bid by third-party developers.

Just how big the savings could be is clear from a comparison of Dominion’s solar farm with Amazon’s project, to be built by a third-party developer. Dominion says Remington will cost $47 million for 20 MW, or $2.35 million/MW. Amazon’s project is reported to cost $150 million for 80 MW, or $1.875 million/MW. That is a difference of about 25%.

Obviously, then, the better way to finance Remington is for Dominion to put the project out for competitive bid among solar developers. Dominion won’t make as much money for its shareholders, but it will save money for ratepayers. And really, as a member of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), Dominion ought to jump at the chance to live up to ALEC’s “free markets” mantra.

More to the point, keeping costs down this way will make it possible for the project to get SCC approval, opening the way to many more like it. With hundreds of megawatts still to go, Dominion needs to show it can do solar right.

In fact, Dominion should put out a request for proposals for the full 400 MW it says it plans to build. This could include revisiting its refusal to buy power from another proposed solar farm that went nowhere. That solar facility in Clarke County, proposed by OCI Solar Power six months ago, would have added another 20 MW to the grid. With only a year and a half to go before the 30% federal tax credit drops to 10%, Virginia ratepayers have a right to expect many more solar farms, and soon.

Frustration over Dominion’s slow pace is widespread among solar advocates. Cale Jaffe, Director of the Southern Environmental Law Center’s Virginia office, noted, “Last General Assembly session, Dominion committed to building 400 megawatts of utility-scale solar projects in Virginia by 2020.  The General Assembly then passed, at Dominion’s urging, legislation declaring up to 500 megawatts of new solar projects to be in the public interest. But, unfortunately, Dominion appears to be getting out of the blocks very slowly when it comes to solar power.  I’m concerned that the company is not currently on pace to live up to its pledge.” SELC has intervened in the Remington case on behalf of environmental groups Appalachian Voices and Chesapeake Climate Action Network.

Of course, we also need solar from all sources, not just our utilities. Homeowners, small businesses, nonprofits, and big industrial customers—all should be encouraged to build solar as a matter of the public interest. Solar diversifies our energy base, creates local jobs, strengthens the electricity grid, and will help Virginia meet the EPA’s Clean Power Plan.

Even 500 MW of solar pales compared to the 4,300 MW of new natural gas plants Dominion expects to have built by 2020. When you adjust for capacity factors, in 2020 solar will make up less than five percent of Dominion’s power generation from new projects, and barely a blip on the radar screen of total generation.

While sad, this is hardly news. Virginia famously lags behind neighboring states in developing solar resources. Maryland had 242 MW of solar installed at the end of 2014 and expects to meet its goal of 1,250 MW by the end of 2015. North Carolina has over 1,000 MW and counting. The same source puts Virginia at a grand total of 14 MW.

(In fairness I think our total has to be a little better than that, but when your state’s total looks like some other state’s rounding error, who really stops to crunch the numbers?)

Getting serious about solar means opening our market to competition. Attracting more projects like Amazon’s will require the General Assembly to pass legislation removing all barriers to third-party power purchase agreements. Amazon’s solar farm has the advantage of being located on the Maryland border. It will feed into power lines owned by Delmarva Power, and then into the PJM transmission grid serving the multistate region that includes Virginia. It will not serve Amazon’s data centers in Virginia directly, but will simply offset their power demand. If Amazon or anyone else wanted to put in a similar solar farm elsewhere in Virginia, they would run into restrictions on third-party power purchase agreements and the absurd terms and conditions imposed by our utilities even on large corporate customers.

Tearing down the barriers that prevent the private market from building solar is critical to closing this gap. Dominion made a half-hearted effort to serve big customers, in the form of its cumbersome “RG tariff.” The fact that no one has used it, and Amazon has done an end-run around it, proves how worthless it is. Virginia should put an end to utility red tape, open the market to competition, and let the sunshine in.

The State Corporation Commission will hear arguments on the Remington proposal starting at 10 a.m. on July 16, 2015 at its offices in Richmond. The case is PUE-2015-00006.

McAuliffe touts gas and nuclear, says it’s not his job to worry about risks

And he'll have to, given the hash we adults are making of it.  Photo courtesy of Glen Besa.

And he’ll have to, given the hash we adults are making of it. Photo courtesy of Glen Besa.

A forum on climate change held last Wednesday in Richmond was supposed to be about moving to clean energy, but it sometimes seemed to be more of a platform for Governor Terry McAuliffe to tout plans for more natural gas and nuclear energy in the Commonwealth. It wasn’t that he neglected energy efficiency, wind and solar—he had plenty of good things to say about these, and even a few initiatives to boast of. It was just that they paled against the backdrop of massive new natural gas and nuclear projects, to which he seems even more firmly committed.

The event was a conference called “The Next Frontier of Climate Change,” organized by The New Republic magazine and the College of William and Mary. Moderator Jeffrey Ball of Stanford University shaped the conference as a series of interviews, beginning with Governor McAuliffe. You can see video of the interview here.

Ball started out asking about the politics of climate change, which gave McAuliffe a chance to reiterate his convictions that climate change is real, that we can see it happening today in Hampton Roads, and that part of meeting the challenge involves supporting the kind of 21st century technologies that will also make Virginia an exciting and attractive place to live. That includes offshore wind and solar.

But McAuliffe also made it clear he sees everything through the lens of economic growth, and his top priority is attracting new business to fill the gap left by shrinking federal spending in the state. “When I ran for governor,” he explained, “I tried to put everything in an economic issue: what is good for the Commonwealth, how do you grow and diversify. I preside over a commonwealth that, we are the number one recipient of Department of Defense dollars, number one. Now, that’s great when they’re spending, but when they’re cutting like they’re cutting today, it has a dramatic impact.”

He is also persuaded that renewable energy, even with all its job benefits, won’t get him as much economic growth as cheaper fossil energy can, and his friends at Dominion Resources and its subsidiary, Dominion Virginia Power, have convinced him that means backing their plans for natural gas and nuclear.

McAuliffe said he supports EPA’s Clean Power Plan, and said in the course of the interview that he thought it would result in lower electricity rates for Virginians over the long run; but he’d still like it to demand less of our utilities. He echoed assertions from legislators and utilities that the draft plan’s treatment of existing nuclear plants makes it “unfair” to Virginia. Repeating a line that is now standard among Virginia politicians, he claimed the Clean Power Plan doesn’t give us “full credit” for reducing our carbon emissions by building nuclear reactors back in the 70’s. He has been raising the issue with the Obama Administration, and feels confident EPA will make the changes he requested.

Neither McAuliffe nor anyone else has explained why we should get credit for doing something 40 years ago for entirely different reasons, at a time when very few people had climate change on their radar screens. But never mind that; according to this theory, which he asserted again at the conference, the Clean Power Plan’s failure to credit us for our nukes puts us at a disadvantage compared to coal-heavy states like West Virginia and Kentucky that haven’t done diddley-squat.

(You know, I hope someone is passing all this along to the folks in West Virginia and Kentucky, who have been screaming bloody murder about how tough it will be for them to comply with the Clean Power Plan. I don’t get the sense they are aware they have this terrific advantage over Virginia and can expect shortly to begin luring away our businesses. Mitch McConnell, for one, seems entirely oblivious of the favor the EPA is doing his state. What a shame it would be if all of McConnell’s anti-EPA rhetoric were based on a simple misunderstanding!)

Maybe our governor needs to put a few items on his reading list, like the PJM analysis that shows the Clean Power Plan puts Virginia at an advantage over neighboring states, especially if it joins a regional compliance program. He should also check out a new report from Virginia Advanced Energy Industries Coalition and the Advanced Energy Economy Institute that describes the tremendous job growth in renewable energy and energy efficiency that will flow from compliance with the Clean Power Plan. Given the opportunities presented, the Governor should embrace more stringent goals, and should look to clean energy rather than nuclear as the money-saving, job-creating approach to compliance.

However, McAuliffe’s enthusiasm for nuclear goes beyond using it to wangle a softer carbon reduction target out of the EPA. He told Ball repeatedly that he is a “huge fan” of nuclear energy, thinks a new nuclear plant should be part of Virginia’s compliance with the Clean Power Plan, and expressed delight over Dominion’s plans for a third reactor at North Anna.

And yet, when confronted with a question from the audience about the wisdom of building another nuclear plant on an earthquake fault line, he said cheerfully that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission won’t approve a plant that isn’t safe. Worrying about it isn’t his job.

We’d better hope his confidence in the NRC is well placed—and hope too that the NRC successfully resists the political pressure to approve the plant that it will no doubt receive from Governor McAuliffe.

Ball suggested that what was behind the question on nuclear was a contention that if the state ramped up its investments in efficiency and renewable energy it would not need to build a new nuclear plant. McAuliffe assured Ball that wind, solar and efficiency couldn’t do that yet. He knew that because—ahem—he’d heard it from Dominion.

I guess no one has told the Governor that asking Dominion for its take on efficiency is like asking Exxon about electric cars.

McAuliffe’s enthusiasm for big projects that promise more business for Virginia (and Dominion) has also caused ongoing friction between the Governor and members of the public over natural gas pipelines. This led to the incident at the conference that grabbed headlines, with an angry protester trying to shout down the Governor.

At issue was McAuliffe’s support for Dominion’s controversial Atlantic Coast Pipeline. The proposed 550-mile natural gas transmission project will require the seizure and clear-cutting of a 125-foot wide right-of-way across Virginia from West Virginia to the coast in North Carolina, through national forests and private land. And of course, it will increase Virginia’s carbon footprint by enabling the burning of more fossil fuel here.

Pipeline opponents had brought into the New Republic event a banner reading “McAuliffe: Pipeline will be Climate Chaos.” During the Q&A period the protester reminded McAuliffe that he had once opposed natural gas fracking in Virginia.

But McAuliffe remained unruffled even as the protester hurled insults at him, until she was escorted from the room. “We’re not doing the fracking here,” he said, by way of explaining his support for the pipeline. “The fracking is done elsewhere. I’m not, as the governor of Virginia, going to stop fracking in America today.” Therefore, he concluded, we might as well take advantage of the fracking going on elsewhere to “bring cheap gas to parts of Virginia that can open up and build the economy.”

It seemed no one had alerted him to research indicating the gas boom will start to go bust just five years from now. If that happens, of course, higher gas prices will make the Governor’s manufacturing renaissance go bust, too, leaving Virginia worse off than before. Coupled with Dominion’s plans to bring online a staggering 4,300 MWs of new natural gas generating plants by 2019, Virginia is putting itself at the mercy of a natural gas market that is entirely outside our control.

But when I asked the Governor if he wasn’t worried about the risks of over-investing in natural gas, he shrugged off the concern. It’s not his job to review Dominion’s plans, he said.

Well, sure. But there’s a problem with cheerleading for every big energy project that comes along and taking no responsibility for their downsides. This is the “all of the above” strategy that brought us the climate crisis. From a governor who knows climate change is happening before our eyes in Virginia, we’re still hoping for better.

Virginia’s legislative session ends. How did we do?

Photo credit: Corrina Beall

The General Assembly made a mad dash to the end of the 2015 legislative session last week. House Republicans were in a hurry to finish up a day early, even if bills suffered as a result, in the peculiar belief that prioritizing speed over quality would demonstrate their competence.

Apparently they thought that would play to the anti-government crowd. And I guess it does; if you weren’t anti-government before they pulled a stunt like that, you probably are now.

Being in a rush had to be their excuse for that ethics bill they pushed through in the final hours. I can finally understand why Senator Dick Saslaw says, “You can’t legislate ethics.” What he means is that the Virginia General Assembly can’t legislate ethics. Most of the rest of us would have no problem doing it. Our legislators, however, are just too fond of living well on the tab of corporate lobbyists.

So the new bill drops the gift limit from $250 to $100—but then removes the aggregate cap, allowing for an unlimited number of $99 gifts. Gifts that go over the limit but that are donated to charity now don’t count, providing a nice way for a legislator to buy popularity at no expense to himself.

A report from the group ProgressVA analyzes the bill’s effect and concludes that some 70% of lobbyists’ 2014 giving would still be legal under the new law, while opening up some brand-new loopholes. Among the most egregious is that lobbyists and their clients will now be able to pay for legislators to fly around the state for official meetings without the travel having to be disclosed, much less reimbursed. This means legislators from southwest Virginia can expect even more face time with coal lobbyists, but now on corporate jets—and their constituents will never know about it.

Addressing (or not) the issue of extravagant vacations paid for by companies with business before the legislature, the bill imposes a requirement that there be “a reasonable relationship between the purpose of the travel and the official duties of the requester.” That means junkets to France paid for by Virginia Uranium are still okay. So is letting corporate America pay for you to attend meetings of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), where lobbyists can teach you how to hobble environmental regulators and suppress voting.

If you can’t figure out a way to meet the reasonable relationship test (and I’m embarrassed for you if you have so little imagination), you can still accept a fun travel adventure as long as Virginia’s toothless ethics council approves it—or simply doesn’t act within five days of your request.

And of course, this so-called ethics reform makes no attempt to address the biggest obstacles to honest government in Virginia: the flood of corporate money into campaign chests and the ability of legislators to use campaign money for personal expenses. Even if Governor McAuliffe fixes the serious flaws in the ethics bill, nothing in it will stop companies like Dominion Resources from continuing to use cash to corrupt the democratic process.

Which brings us to energy legislation. The Associated Press summed up the situation very nicely: “Virginia’s 2015 legislative session was a good one for energy giant Dominion Resources Inc., the state’s most politically influential company. Legislation it wanted passed, passed. Bills it didn’t like did not.”

Chief among the legislation Dominion wanted was Senator Wagner’s SB 1349, which spares Dominion from having to refund excess profits for the next five years. Pretty much every newspaper in the state editorialized against it, so I’ll spare you a rehash of its failings.

Sadly, Governor McAuliffe signed the bill without amendments. He told reporters, “It was clear to Dominion that at the end of the day a veto would have been devastating for them.” If so, that’s a lot of leverage the Administration squandered.

And really, Governor, “devastating”? But since you fell for that, can I interest you in a bridge in Brooklyn?

SB 1349 does contain some welcome language calling solar energy projects of at least 1 MW in size, and up to an aggregate of 500 MW, “in the public interest,” a phrase that will help utilities when they seek approval for these projects at the State Corporation Commission. But nothing actually requires the utilities to build these projects, and the 1 MW size minimum has been carefully crafted to be above the limit for net-metered solar projects. Dominion wrote the bill for itself, not for ordinary people who want to go solar on their own.

The solar language was not originally part of SB 1349; it was imported from another Dominion bill, Delegate Yancey’s HB 2237, as a way to get buy-in from the solar industry and Democrats.

As for customer-owned solar, this was another bad year. The only concession won from Dominion was an increase in the size cap for net-metered projects from 500 kW to 1 MW, a compromise from the initial proposal of 2 MW.

Wherever else solar advocates faced utility opposition, they lost. That includes bills on community net metering, solar gardens, RPS improvements, expanded 3d party PPA availability, and a higher hurdle for standby charges. Also going down to early defeat was the renewable energy grant program that had been celebrated last year as a near-triumph (it only lacked passage again this year, plus—oh yeah—funding).

The GA did pass one of the Governor’s solar priorities, establishing the Virginia Solar Energy Development Authority (HB 2267 and others). The Authority is explicitly tasked with helping utilities find financing for solar projects; there is no similar language about supporting customer-owned solar. The Authority is supposed to identify barriers to solar, but isn’t given any tools to remove them. So we shall see.

Bills that did not require Dominion’s approval did better. Chief among these was legislation enabling Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) loans for commercial customers. This should help bring low-cost financing to energy efficiency and renewable energy projects at the commercial level.

And while Dominion’s sole concession to energy efficiency this year was agreeing to a “pilot program” of unspecified size as part of the SB1349 deal, natural gas utilities sought and won legislation (SB 1331) that makes it easier to win regulatory approval for energy efficiency programs that could benefit lots of customers. The difference is that natural gas companies have “decoupled” profits from sales, so it’s in their interest to help customers use energy more wisely. Dominion and Appalachian Power, by contrast, have a profit model that requires ever-increasing sales, making efficiency bad for business.

While legislators repeatedly shot down any solar bills that might be characterized as subsidies, they dropped their free market principles when it came to subsidies for coal mining. Unless the governor vetoes HB 1879, Virginia taxpayers will continue to pay tens of millions of dollars annually to prop up an uncompetitive industry with a long legacy of poisoning our air, land and water. Anyone who is ever tempted to believe a Virginia Republican’s claim to legislate based on his conservative principles and not merely on politics should check how they voted on this bill. (Here are the House votes, and here are the Senate votes.)

The limited progress made this year towards greening our energy supply does not bode well for compliance with the EPA’s Clean Power Plan. The only legislation that would have moved Virginia decisively towards compliance, by having us join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, died in committee. On the other hand, a number of bills that would have hindered compliance also died. True, SB 1349 makes the process harder by adding a hurdle to the closure of coal plants. Republicans also pushed through a bill that requires the Department of Environmental Quality to waste time and money studying whether the federal carbon reduction rules have health benefits beyond those gained by regulating conventional pollutants.

But overall, the session ended in a draw on climate issues. On the one hand, that’s bad, given that 2014 was the hottest year on record globally.* On the other hand, this is Virginia. Merely not regressing counts as progress here.

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*I know, 2014 was not hot in eastern North America, and 2015 has started out with one of those winters that make people say they could use a little global warming. Nature has a keen sense of irony. But while you were shivering, the rising sea ate a little more of our shoreline.

 

 

 

Dominion gets what it wants, but Virginia doesn’t get what we need

DominionLogoNo, you can’t always get what you want.   You can’t always get what you want.   You can’t always get what you want.     But if you try sometime you find,           You get what Dominion Power wants.

With apologies to the Rolling Stones

I guess there’s a reason I never made it as a songwriter. That last line is a disaster. But that, in a nutshell, is what happened to SB 1349, known as the rate-freeze bill, the ratepayer rip-off, or the Dominion bill, depending on whether you were pro, con, or still trying to figure it out.

The bill began and ended as a way for Dominion Virginia Power to shield excess profits from the possibility of regulators ordering refunds to customers. Along the way, Appalachian Power jumped on board, even though its president had already admitted the company had been earning more than it should.

When we last looked, SB 1349 was undergoing radical rewriting on the floor of the Senate, in real time. Conflicting amendments were being passed around. Outside the chamber, lawmakers from both parties were huddled in hallways with Dominion lobbyists. The coal caucus had already tacked on language making it harder to close coal-fired power plants. Now the Governor, progressive leaders and clean energy supporters were pushing amendments guaranteeing more solar and energy efficiency programs.

To get a sense of how impossible it was for the rank and file to follow, check out the bill history with its amendments offered and rejected, and the readings of the amendments waived.

With cameras rolling and the clock ticking, senators made speeches about provisions other people told them were now in the bill, but without anyone having the time to read the language they were expected to vote on. That being normal, they voted on the strength of promises made and assurances given.

With Dominion Power insisting on passage, the result was never in real doubt. Few legislators want to cross the most powerful force in Virginia politics, and the source of so much campaign cash, perks, and donations to local charities. But they needed to hear those promises made and assurances given; otherwise, what would they tell their constituents, when newspapers across the state had been blasting this bill?

The promises made and assurances given also quieted the environmentalists who had led the opposition. Consumers, we were told, would now see investments in solar and energy efficiency that would bring long-term savings, energy diversity and greater price stability, as well as lower pollution and new jobs. The bill would contain firm commitments and produce meaningful investments in energy efficiency and solar power.

The Senate passed the bill, and then finally everyone read what had been voted on. Yes, Dominion had got what it wanted, but then it got . . . even more of what it wanted!

The bill contains a solar provision that smooths the way for utilities to develop or buy up to 500 megawatts of solar power, using Virginia suppliers. But it doesn’t require any minimum solar investment or contain a deadline for getting that solar power on the grid.

As for efficiency, SB 1349 does now contain a provision requiring utilities to create ”pilot programs” for energy assistance and weatherization for low-income, elderly and disabled customers, but it doesn’t say how big a program has to be or how much money must be spent. A “pilot program,” by definition, is small and experimental. It is a baby step, when we were expecting adult strides.

While clean energy advocates were still trying to figure out what happened to the promise of firm commitments and deadlines on solar power, SB 1349 blew through the House.

In short, the final bill language now on the Governor’s desk gives Dominion the authority, but not the obligation, to make clean energy investments.

Virginia law gives our governor an option that most states don’t offer: rather than sign it or veto a bill outright, he can amend it and send it back to the legislature for a final vote. That makes Governor McAuliffe the one person who can still salvage something from this miserable bill. He can put in the solar numbers and dates that went missing—or raise them further—and put hard targets into the efficiency programs. Doing so would finally put McAuliffe on the path to creating all those clean energy jobs he campaigned on.

Dominion will still get what it wants, but if McAuliffe will try, we might get what we need.

Huge Virginia solar farm scuttled because Virginia utilities aren’t interested

This could have been us.  Photo credit U.S. Department of Agriculture

This could have been us.
Photo credit U.S. Department of Agriculture

A solar array that would have more than doubled Virginia’s solar power will not be built after all, with the developer blaming Dominion Virginia Power and other utilities for their lack of interest in buying the output.

The Winchester Star reports that the 20-megawatt array—100,000 solar panels, capable of powering 20,000 homes—had been planned for 145 acres of agricultural land in Clarke County. A spokesman for the developer, OCI Solar Power, said the company allowed its land option to lapse “due to the lack of long-term solar procurement efforts by Dominion and other VA utilities.”

This shouldn’t surprise anyone. Virginia has done little to encourage our utilities to buy solar power, and so for the most part they haven’t. The state’s voluntary renewable energy goal is a sorry dishrag of a law. It can be—and is—met with old, out-of-state hydro plants, trash burning, and wood. And because our utilities have a state-sanctioned monopoly on power sales, customers who want solar power can’t go buy it from someone else.

But if it isn’t surprising for Virginia to lose a big solar opportunity due to utility intransigence, it is stupid. Virginia consumers would love to buy solar energy, local governments would love to have solar farms generating tax revenue, and local businesses would love to create solar jobs. A win-win-win opportunity is being wasted, at a time when lawmakers complain about how hard it is to reduce our carbon emissions.

Even Dominion says it wants utility-scale solar (eventually), but it wants to build its own so it can earn the fat return on equity guaranteed to it by Virginia law. (If the utility buys power from someone else, it can pass along the cost to customers, but it doesn’t earn a profit.)

Last year the General Assembly overwhelmingly passed a bill to support solar development, and then failed to fund it. Governor McAuliffe’s energy plan talks a good game on solar, but it’s toothless. We will continue to miss out on opportunities like this one until we have a law that requires Virginia utilities to buy solar, or lets consumers contract for it directly from any willing seller.

Or better yet, both.

Fiscal and environmental sanity get a boost as McAuliffe proposes to roll back coal subsidies

Your taxpayer dollars at work!

Your taxpayer dollars at work!

Thanks to the state’s budget deficit, Virginia may finally scale way back a notorious fossil fuel subsidy that currently transfers tens of millions of dollars annually from taxpayers to the pockets of corporations that mine Virginia coal. The Richmond Times Dispatch reports that if Governor McAuliffe has his way, the Virginia Coal Employment and Production Incentive Tax Credit and the Coalfield Employment Enhancement Tax Credit will be limited to $500,000 per year, saving the government $20 million per year.

The refundable tax credits were intended to make Virginia coal cheaper for utilities to buy, and thus more competitive with coal mined in other states. In theory, that was supposed to mean more coal mining jobs in southwest Virginia. In practice, the subsidies meant some coal companies paid no state taxes, and actually received significant cash handouts, even as coal jobs declined. And because the subsidies are based on tons of coal mined and not on the number of people employed, mining companies suffered no penalty from capital investments that maximized production while cutting jobs.

Critics of the subsidies thought they had won their point three years ago when the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee (JLARC) issued a critique of the various Virginia tax credits that was especially critical of the handouts to coal companies. As it describes beginning on page 67, the subsidies did not stop coal employment from falling 54% since 1990, or slow the steady decline in production:

“The precursor to one of the current coal credits was in place before the decline began, while the other was enacted shortly thereafter. It is important to note that with or without the credits, the decline in Virginia coal production was predicted by numerous analysts because over two-thirds of recoverable coal reserves in Virginia have already been mined.”

Indeed, the report continued, coal employment and production was actually worse with the credits in place:

“In the process of developing and refining the credit, analysts projected that coal employment and production would decline by 28 percent between 1996 and 2005 without the credit. However, actual mining employment was substantially lower than expected during this period, declining 36 percent.”

In spite of this damning analysis, in 2012 the General Assembly actually extended the expiration date of the coal subsidies until 2017. Insiders say Senate Democrats were persuaded to vote for the extension as a favor to coalfields senator Phil Puckett, who needed the backing of coal companies to hold his seat in 2013 and keep Democrats in control of the Senate. (Some might say he failed to return the favor.)

The coal subsidies have long infuriated environmentalists and community activists in the Coalfields region. In their view, Virginia taxpayers should not be forced to reward mining companies for blowing off the tops of our mountains, filling ancient stream valleys with rubble, poisoning wells and rivers, and destroying homes to get at the last, thin seams of Virginia coal.

So Coalfields activists welcomed the Governor’s proposal as a “good first step” in planning a future where coal is no longer the economic engine it once was. “We need to take our heads out of the sand and invest heavily in diversifying our economy in Southwest Virginia,” said Wise County resident Jane Branham, Vice President of Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards. “Supporting outdoor recreation, tourism, sustainable agriculture, reforestation and a new generation of entrepreneurs is the path forward in the mountains, not subsidizing bad actor coal companies that continue to poison the natural resources our future depends on.”

Renewable energy advocates have also complained that by making coal cheaper, the subsidies make it harder for other forms of energy to compete. One would expect this argument to resonate with free market advocates, a category that supposedly includes all Virginia Republicans and a lot of the Democrats. Yet in spite of criticism from some Democrats, the subsidies have not faced serious opposition before now.

Acquiescence in such an expensive and counter-productive corporate welfare program mostly reflects the influence of the Virginia coal industry. (See last week’s post for a sampling of how coal companies work to buy votes with campaign cash.) But the drafters sweetened the deal with a provision that siphons off a portion of the excess cash to fund the Virginia Coalfield Economic Development Authority (VACEDA), which is supposed to help the region diversify beyond coal. (It might work better if coal executives didn’t sit on the board.)

Under McAuliffe’s proposal, VACEDA would get a direct appropriation of $1.2 million to replace the money it would lose by the scaling back of the tax credits. That should satisfy those legislators whose primary concern is helping residents of southwest Virginia.

Those whose primary concern is helping coal companies, however, aren’t likely to be happy. Congressman Morgan Griffith has already been quoted as suggesting Governor McAuliffe’s proposal to scale back the coal subsidies amounts to a “war on coal.”

He expressed no concern about coal’s war on the people of southwest Virginia. For those who care about that, Governor McAuliffe’s move feels like a breath of clean air.

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Addendum: Senator Bill Carrico (R-Alpha Natural Resources) has now filed a bill, S741, to extend the coal subsidies until 2022.