Dominion Resources embraces a post-truth world

A sign at a protest against the Atlantic Coast Pipeline

A sign at a protest against the Atlantic Coast Pipeline

This post was co-written with Seth Heald, an attorney currently serving as Chair of the Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club.

Donald Trump’s campaign for president upended the conventional wisdom that politicians must treat voters with honesty and respect. For Trump, no amount of lying, bullying, pettiness, crudeness and erratic behavior proved too much for an electorate hungry for change.

Indeed, some of his followers feel Trump succeeded because of his vices, not in spite of them. These trolls, bigots and bullies make up what historian Patty Limerick calls the Jerk Pride Movement, and they think they’re having their moment in the sun.

And lest anyone forget that corporations are people, the fossil fuel industry and its apologists have set out to prove that corporations can be jerks, too. Fossil fuel interests seized on the election as a mandate to gut the EPA, strip away clean air and water protections, open up public lands for exploitation, and renege on international climate commitments.

Since fake news and conspiracy theories served the Trump campaign so well, the anti-regulation crowd is stepping up its own use of half-truths, diversionary tactics and outright lies. Sure, they risk undermining the very foundations of American democracy, but fossil-fuel interests smell profit; nothing else matters.

Decent Americans should be outraged no matter who they voted for—and even more so when they see it happening in their own back yards, involving the people and institutions they deal with. We may not be able to staunch the flood of falsehood flowing across the internet, but we can hold our own leaders and institutions accountable when they add to it.

The corporate parent of Virginia’s own largest electric utility was already one of these corporate jerks, working with the American Legislative Exchange Council on state legislation undermining federal clean air and water protections. But recently Dominion Resources has gone further, adopting disinformation tactics in claiming its proposed fracked-gas pipeline will actually lower carbon emissions, and implicitly endorsing spurious reports and lies on a blog it sponsors. Dominion has gone from spinning facts to its own advantage, to actively misleading the people of Virginia.

Dominion is one of the partners in the Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP), which if built will bring massive amounts of fracked gas from West Virginia through Virginia and down to North Carolina. An analysis of the ACP’s climate change impact and that of the Mountain Valley Pipeline, conducted for the Sierra Club by physicist Richard Ball, showed that building these two pipelines would result in the emissions of twice the climate pollution of Virginia’s entire current greenhouse gas footprint.

Yet in a recent Facebook posting, Dominion claimed the Atlantic Coast Pipeline would “play an instrumental role in reducing carbon emissions in Virginia and North Carolina, which will allow both states to meet the requirements of the federal Clean Power Plan. In fact, the ACP alone could contribute as much as 25 to 50 percent of the carbon reductions necessary to meet interim goals in 2022.”

In the words of the Virginia Sierra Club’s former director, Glen Besa, “This is just not true and does not pass the sniff test. My personal rating is: Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire. Both of Dominion’s new gas plants in Virginia are fueled by existing pipelines. The ACP will bring in more fossil fuel for burning. At the same time Dominion has made NO new commitments to retire existing coal plants. Dominion can meet the Clean Power Plan without the ACP, but more importantly, the ACP will markedly increase carbon emissions, not decrease them.”

This bogus claim that a fracked-gas pipeline will help lower carbon pollution is in keeping with Dominion’s history of playing to both climate-concerned liberals and moderates on the one hand, and climate-denying conservatives on the other. Promising lower carbon emissions and Clean Power Plan compliance is intended to mollify the left, while Dominion courts the right through its work with ALEC, its lavish contributions to lawmakers, and its sponsorship of the libertarian Jim Bacon’s blog, Bacon’s Rebellion.

Even before Dominion signed on as his sponsor, Bacon exhibited an exasperating credulity when examining claims by Dominion and other fossil fuel companies. No doubt that endeared him to Dominion CEO Thomas Farrell, II and Company. If I were selling poison under the guise of medicine, I too would value a man who advertised my wares while proclaiming his independence.

But since joining the Dominion team and featuring its bright blue logo with every post, Bacon has adopted tactics familiar from the Trump campaign. These include promoting a sham “report” slamming a supposed new renewable electricity mandate that Virginia does not have and defending fake news about voter fraud. (Suppression of minority voting is a historic ALEC priority, along with opposition to wind and solar and promoting climate-science disinformation.)

Bacon’s post about supposed voter fraud is particularly instructive, as it adopts the “alt right’s” tactic of putting the onus on others to disprove absurd, baseless claims. Recall that Trump recently claimed, with no evidence, that he would have won the popular vote but for two million fraudulent votes supposedly cast against him. On the one hand Bacon (in perhaps the understatement of the year) acknowledged that Trump’s claim is a “huuuge stretch.” But then Bacon chastised “the news establishment” for not “distinguishing itself in debunking” Trump’s allegation. Indeed, Bacon posits, the national media’s reaction to Trump’s baseless allegation was “unhinged.” This, Bacon reasons, lends credence to Trump’s claim that the media is biased.

So now, according to a blog post with Dominion’s blue logo at the top, a president-elect’s lie about vote fraud is a stretch, but calling it a lie is unhinged. Welcome to the post-truth world.

Fossil fuel companies and their minions spreading disinformation is hardly a new tactic, of course. Read Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway’s Merchants of Doubt for a compelling account of how the tobacco, chemical, and fossil fuel industries have used industry-funded “studies” and science-for-sale to stave off regulation for decades or longer.

If Americans aren’t in a panic about climate change, the reason isn’t a paucity of information about what is happening and why. It is due to a calculated disinformation campaign by the fossil fuel industry and a cadre of front groups like ALEC to make people believe the science is unsettled, exploiting the natural human tendency to do nothing in the face of uncertainty. As one internal tobacco company memo explained, “doubt is our product.”

Dominion Resources is a special case. Its Dominion Virginia Power subsidiary is a regulated public utility that is supposed to act in the public interest. Sham reports, fake news and false claims undermine the ability of regulators, legislators, and the public to understand and address the true nature of the energy choices facing us. Virginians should demand better.

 

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.

Inside the minds of Dominion’s leaders, vacant space where climate thinking should be

Climate activists protest outside Dominion Resources' May shareholder meeting in Columbia, SC. Photo credit Ian Ware, Chesapeake Climate Action Network.

Climate activists protest outside Dominion Resources’ May shareholder meeting in Columbia, SC. Photo credit Ian Ware, Chesapeake Climate Action Network.

At Dominion Resources’ annual May meeting, shareholders presented five resolutions designed to improve the company’s assessment of its opportunities and vulnerabilities on climate, renewable energy and nuclear power. The company’s Board opposed the resolutions and fought vigorously to keep them off the shareholder ballot. (All five failed.) Guest blogger Seth Heald attended the meeting and sent this report back.

Two senior Dominion Resources executives—Bob Blue and Thomas F. Farrell, II—gave speeches on consecutive days earlier this month. I’ll report here on what they said, but even more telling is what they failed to say. Neither man mentioned a critical topic for their company and our world: climate change.

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s short story Silver Blaze, Sherlock Holmes solves the kidnapping of a racehorse by focusing on what didn’t happen. A dog didn’t bark in the night when the crime was committed, suggesting that the perpetrator was friendly with the dog. As The New Yorker’s Maria Konnikova, author of How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes, describes Holmes’s insight: “pay attention to what isn’t there, not just what is. Absence is just as important and just as telling as presence.”

Here’s the context of the two Dominion speeches. Bob Blue, president of Dominion Resources’ Dominion Virginia Power (DVP) subsidiary, was the luncheon speaker on May 10 before several hundred people in Richmond at the Virginia Chamber of Commerce conference on “Energy, Sustainability & Resiliency.” Tom Farrell, Dominion Resources’ board chairman, president, and CEO, spoke the following day in Columbia, SC, addressing a small audience—many of them Dominion employees and board members—at Dominion Resources’ 107th annual shareholders meeting. (Dominion always draws smaller audiences, and smaller climate protests, when it holds its shareholder meeting away from its Richmond headquarters.) As best I can tell, Bob Blue and I were the only two people present at both events. I took detailed notes.

DVP is Virginia’s largest electric utility. Thanks to its fossil-fuel-fired power plants it’s also the commonwealth’s number one emitter of climate-disrupting carbon dioxide. It’s hard for serious people to think about “energy, sustainability, and resiliency” these days without thinking about how climate change is and will be affecting us and our children. The past year has certainly been filled with near-constant reminders of climate change for anyone paying attention. These include Pope Francis’s encyclical, record warm global-average temperatures, the Paris international climate accord, severe droughts, and severe floods.

So it seems reasonable to expect Blue might have expressed some thoughts on how the climate crisis will be affecting his company and the electric-power industry in the coming decades. It was, after all, a conference on energy, sustainability, and resiliency.

Blue said at the outset that “natural gas is the new default fuel” for electric-power generation. He mentioned his company’s new gas-fired power plants and said, “We expect the big things we build to last 50 years or more.” He alluded to the hits Dominion has taken recently on its environmental record by saying the company had done a lot of things well, “but our weakness is our inability to communicate in simple terms about complex matters.” (Translation: We’re doing everything just right, but folks don’t realize it because they can’t understand complex matters.)

If climate change is a subject Blue has given any thought to lately, he neglected to mention it. To be fair, he did briefly mention the EPA Clean Power Plan, saying he thinks it would cost Virginia between $5 billion and $13 billion. But then he claimed it was too complex and boring to go into in detail. And he also talked a bit about solar and wind power, but there was no reference at all to the underlying climate problem that is the primary reason we need to transition from fossil fuels.

What’s more, Blue brought up solar and wind mostly to justify DVP’s go-slow approach in deploying them. Speaking a few days after the Kentucky Derby, in what he called “Triple Crown season,” Blue said that with solar and wind power, “The earliest horse out of the gate doesn’t always win.” That’s true in horse racing (although sometimes the first horse out does win), but it’s a poor analogy to use when addressing climate change, where greater CO2 emissions today necessitate much sharper reductions later. Thinking about climate change means recognizing the need for early action.

Come to think of it, the horse-out-of-the-gate analogy is more apt for building gas-fired power plants than it is for deploying clean energy. There’s no need to rush to build multiple fossil-fuel plants when we know we have to kick our fossil-fuel habit. In fact, there’s a high likelihood that a rush to build huge new fossil-fuel infrastructure now will leave ratepayers on the hook later, paying for power plants that have to be shut down early for us to reach our future carbon-emission targets. Yet Dominion has certainly been moving with great speed lately to get gas-fired power plants built. There is a sense of urgency at Dominion, but it’s about building more fossil-fuel infrastructure, not addressing climate change.

By not mentioning or acknowledging climate change Blue accomplished at least two objectives that he must think serve his company’s short-term interests. First, he avoided offending the many Republicans in the room, including some state legislators, whose party still cannot bring itself to acknowledge the climate threat. Blue’s climate silence is understandable in that regard, although it hardly reflects moral courage or true business leadership. Problems ignored as unpleasant or “controversial” tend to get worse, not better.

Second, by not mentioning climate change Blue could avoid having to explain how Dominion’s business plan will affect the climate, or Virginia’s ability to transition from fossil fuels to carbon-free energy in time to help our country avoid catastrophic climate impacts. Stated another way, ignoring climate change allowed Blue to ignore the need to compare his company’s greenhouse-gas-emissions trajectory with what the science tells us must be done to retain a recognizable climate.

Climate silence is a topic of considerable interest to scholars these days. In fact, on the day after Blue’s speech The Washington Post ran an article describing a recent study of climate silence by two Penn State researchers. In his new book Moral Disengagement, renowned Stanford psychologist Albert Bandura explains, “If one ignores … the evidence of the harmful results of one’s conduct, one has few reasons to activate self-censure or any need to change behavioral practices.”

This may help to explain Blue’s silence. When your business model doesn’t square with your conscience, you may prefer not to activate your conscience.

Bandura’s insights also illuminate the lacuna where climate thinking should be in the mind of the Dominion Resources CEO. Farrell’s speech to shareholders in Columbia a day after Blue’s talk was preceded by a short video intended to show Dominion’s good works in South Carolina. I’ve attended the last four Dominion shareholder meetings (two in Richmond, one in Cleveland, and this one in Columbia). The videos about the company’s local charitable and civic involvement are a staple at each meeting, and they’re always well-produced, moving, and interesting.

This year’s video highlighted contributions (financial, in-kind, and services) that Dominion and its employees made to the Red Cross and others in South Carolina last fall, when the state suffered from catastrophic flooding. A news clip in the video from the time of the floods showed an emotional Governor Nikki Haley saying, “This is the heaviest flooding we’ve ever seen.” Another person could be heard saying, “Eastover [SC] lost everything.” Columbia’s mayor said the floods “changed our lives.” A number of scenes of devastation were shown.

Dominion’s employees clearly did great work in helping a stricken region recover, and the company’s donations to the Red Cross are certainly admirable. But there was a sad irony in employing that tragic event to highlight Dominion’s many good works. Did any of the assembled Dominion executives or board members think about climate change as the video rolled? Did they think about the wisdom of their company’s plans to build massive new fossil-fuel infrastructure? Certainly Farrell did not mention climate in his prepared remarks following the video.

When company executives rarely talk publicly about climate change it’s easier for them and their audiences and employees not to think about it. Executives’ public silence on the issue also makes it easier for the legislators with whom executives regularly interact not to think about climate. And if you don’t think about a problem much, you’re unlikely to gain a sense of urgency about having to address it. That’s Albert Bandura’s moral-disengagement theory in a nutshell.

Dominion’s public silence on climate is complemented by its support for the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which promotes climate-change disinformation to state legislators. That further promotes inaction on climate. A corporation’s use of front groups to do the corporation’s dirty work behind the scenes is another example of moral disengagement, according to Bandura.

Farrell started his talk by listing what he said are Dominion’s four core values: “safety, ethics, excellence, and one Dominion.” There’s a large and growing body of scholarly research on climate-change ethics, including a number of recent excellent books on the topic suitable for lay readers. But Farrell’s discussion of ethics had no references to the climate. A shareholder resolution on the Dominion proxy ballot this year called on the company to have at least one board member with environmental expertise. Such expertise might include familiarity with the field of climate ethics. But Dominion’s board recommended a “no” vote on the resolution, and it was defeated.

Farrell claimed that Dominion is a leader in environmental stewardship. “We’re a leader, but people don’t recognize it.” He discussed the company’s major expansion in the natural-gas transmission business in recent years, and said the Marcellus shale-gas formation in the East “will provide gas for the balance of this century at least.” He noted the company’s pending acquisition of Utah-based gas company Questar, which will allow the company to expand its gas business across the West.

Farrell took questions from shareholders after his talk. I asked him for his thoughts about climate change, after noting that we’d been through a year of record global temperatures, floods, and the Paris climate accord. He said he didn’t want to talk about the Paris agreement. “I’ll leave that to President Obama and Secretary Kerry. That’s above my pay grade.” Farrell’s pay package last year topped $20 million.

 

Seth Heald is a student in the Johns Hopkins University Master of Science in Energy Policy and Climate program. His article on climate communication and moral disengagement is published in the May-June 2016 issue of the journal Environment, Science and Policy for Sustainable Development. He serves as volunteer chair of the Sierra Club’s Virginia Chapter. 

Why does Dominion Power support EPA’s Clean Power Plan?

DominionLogoWhen utility giant Dominion Resources Inc. filed a brief in support of the federal Clean Power Plan last week, a lot of people were caught off guard. Hadn’t Dominion CEO Tom Farrell said as recently as January that it would cost consumers billions of dollars? Why, then, is the utility perfectly okay with it now?

Well, first, because the mere threat of the plan has already cost Virginia consumers a cool billion, but it’s all going straight into Dominion’s pockets. What’s not to like? Otherwise, as applied to the Commonwealth, the Clean Power Plan itself is a creampuff that could even save money for ratepayers. Farrell’s claim that it will cost billions, made at a Virginia Chamber of Commerce-sponsored conference, seems to have been a case either of pandering to his conservative audience, or of wishful thinking. (Looking at you, North Anna 3!)

And second, Dominion’s amicus brief indicates its satisfaction with the way it thinks Virginia will implement the Clean Power Plan. Dominion has been lobbying the Department of Environmental Quality to adopt a state implementation plan allowing for unlimited construction of new natural gas plants (and perhaps that new nuclear plant), which happens to be Dominion’s business plan.

If you can get everything you want and still look like a green, progressive company, why wouldn’t you support the Clean Power Plan?

The only risk here is that it makes Virginia Republicans look like idiots. Their number one priority this legislative session was stopping the Clean Power Plan, largely on the grounds of cost. They ignored the hard numbers showing the plan essentially gives Virginia a pass, and instead relied on propaganda from fossil fuel-backed organizations like Americans for Prosperity and, crucially, the word of Dominion Power lobbyists.

Sure, it wasn’t just Republicans; a lot of Virginia Democrats swallowed Dominion’s argument during the 2015 legislative session that the Clean Power Plan would be so expensive for consumers that the General Assembly had to pass a bill—the notorious SB 1349—freezing electricity rates through the end of the decade so they would not skyrocket.

SB 1349 suspended the ability of regulators at the State Corporation Commission to review Dominion’s earnings. One outraged commissioner, Judge Dimitri, calculated that the effect of this “rate freeze” would be to allow Dominion to pocket as much as a billion dollars in excess earnings, money that ratepayers would otherwise have received in refunds or credits.

Nor has SB 1349 even prevented rates from going up, since the State Corporation Commission’s approval of Dominion’s latest mammoth gas plant[1] will tack on 75 cents to the average customer’s monthly bill.

Environmental groups had opposed the gas plant, arguing approval is premature since we don’t know what Virginia’s Clean Power Plan will look like, and that Dominion hadn’t properly considered other options.

It gets worse. Building more of its own gas plants allows Dominion to terminate contracts to buy power from other generators. In theory, this should represent an offsetting savings for consumers. But as Judge Dimitri explained in a concurrence, SB 1349 means Dominion doesn’t have to subtract this savings from the bill it hands those ratepayers.[2]

As Sierra Club Virginia Chapter Director Glen Besa noted, “The State Corporation Commission decision today proves that there really is no electricity rate freeze. The SCC just allowed Dominion to raise our electricity rates and increase carbon pollution for a power plant we don’t need.”

Now, let’s have a look at what is actually in Dominion’s Clean Power Plan brief. In part, it is a defense of EPA’s holistic approach to regulating generation and a rejection of the conservative claim that the agency should not be allowed to regulate “outside the fence line” of individual plants. Adopting the conservative view, argues Dominion, could lead to widespread, expensive coal plant closures.

But mostly, Dominion likes the Clean Power Plan because the company feels well positioned to take advantage of it. The brief makes this argument with classic corporate understatement:

Dominion believes that, if key compliance flexibilities are maintained in the Rule, states adopt reasonable implementation plans, and government permitting and regulatory authorities efficiently process permit applications and perform regulatory oversight required to facilitate the timely development of needed gas pipeline and electric transmission infrastructure, then compliance is feasible for power plants subject to the Rule.

What Dominion means by “reasonable implementation plans” requires no guesswork. Virginia clean energy advocates want a mass-based state implementation plan that includes new sources, so power plant CO2 emissions from Virginia don’t actually increase under the Clean Power Plan. You or I might think that reasonable, given the climate crisis and EPA’s carbon-cutting goals. But that’s not what Dominion means by “reasonable.”

Dominion’s business plan, calling for over 9,000 megawatts of new natural gas generation, would increase CO2 emissions by 60%. To Dominion, a 60% increase in CO2 must therefore be reasonable. Anything that hinders Dominion’s plans is not reasonable. QED.

“Needed gas pipeline . . . infrastructure” is no puzzle either. Dominion wants approval of its massive Atlantic Coast Pipeline. That pipeline, and more, will be needed to feed the gaping maws of all those gas plants. Conversely, Dominion, having gone big into the natural gas transmission business, needs to build gas generating plants to ensure demand for its pipelines.

Dominion is not the only electric utility betting big on natural gas. Southern Company and Duke Energy have also recently spent billions to acquire natural gas transmission and distribution companies. Moody’s is criticizing these moves because of the debt incurred. From a climate perspective, though, the bigger problem is that this commitment to natural gas comes right at the time when scientists and regulators are sounding the alarm about methane leakage.

There is surely some irony that Dominion, while defending the EPA’s plan to address climate change, is doing its level best to increase the greenhouse gas emissions that drive it.

Indeed, anyone reading Dominion’s brief and looking for an indication that Dominion supports the Clean Power Plan because it believes the utility sector needs to respond to the climate crisis would be sadly disappointed.

On the other hand, the brief positively sings the praises of “market-based measures” for producing the lowest possible costs. This is a little hard to take, coming from a monopoly that uses its political and economic clout to keep out competition and reap excessive profits through legislation like SB 1349, and which intends to use its captive ratepayers to hedge the risks of its big move into natural gas transmission.


[1] SCC case PUE-2015-00075 Final Order, March 29, 2016.

[2] Commissioner Dimitri, in a concurring opinion:

“I would find that SB 1349 cannot impact the Commission’s authority in this matter because it violates the plain language of Article IX, Section 2, of the Constitution of Virginia, for the reasons set forth in my separate opinion in Case No. PUE-2015-00027.

“Indeed, the instant case further illustrates how SB 1349 fixes base rates as discussed in that separate opinion. The evidence in this case shows that Dominion plans to allow certain NUG contracts, currently providing power to customers, to expire while base rates are frozen by SB 1349. The capacity costs associated with these contracts, however, are currently included in those base rates. Thus, as explained by Consumer Counsel, this means that “the Company’s base rates will remain inflated” because Dominion (i) will no longer be paying these NUG capacity costs, but (ii) will continue to recover such costs from its customers since base rates are frozen under SB 1349. Based on Dominion’s cost estimates, between now and the end of 2019, it will have recovered over $243 million from its customers for NUG capacity costs that the Company no longer incurs. While other costs and revenues are likely to change up and down during this period and would not be reflected in base rate changes precluded by SB 1349, these NUG costs are known, major cost reductions that will not be passed along to customers.” [Footnotes omitted.]

 

 

Nuking clean energy: how nuclear power makes wind and solar harder

Dominion Resources CEO Tom Farrell is famously bullish on nuclear energy as a clean solution in a carbon-constrained economy, but he’s got it wrong. Nuclear is a barrier to a clean-energy future, not a piece of it. That’s only partly because new nuclear is so expensive that there’s little room left in a utility budget to build wind and solar. A more fundamental problem is that when nuclear is part of the energy mix, high levels of wind and solar become harder to achieve.

To understand why, consider the typical demand curve for electricity in the Mid-Atlantic, including Virginia. Demand can be almost twice as high at 5 p.m. as it is at 5 a.m., especially on a hot summer day with air conditioners running.

Average hourly load over a one-week period in January, April and July 2009. Credit B. Posner.

Average hourly load over a one-week period in January, April and July 2009. Credit B. Posner.

The supply of electricity delivered by the grid at any moment has to exactly match the demand: no more and no less. More than any other kind of generating plant, though, the standard nuclear reactor is inflexible in its output. It generates the same amount of electricity day in and day out. This means nuclear can’t be used to supply more than the minimum demand level, known as baseload. In the absence of energy storage, other fuel sources that can be ramped up or down as needed have to fill in above baseload.

Wind and solar have the opposite problem: instead of producing the same amount of electricity 24/7, their output varies with the weather and time of day. If you build a lot of wind turbines and want to use all the electricity they generate (much of it at night), some of it will compete to supply the baseload. Although solar panels produce during daylight when demand is higher, if you build enough solar you will eventually have to cut back on your baseload sources, too.

With enough energy storage, of course, baseload generating sources can be made flexible, and wind and solar made firm. Storage adds to cost and environmental footprint, though, so it is not a panacea. That said, Virginia is lucky enough to have one of the largest pumped storage facilities in the country, located in Bath County. Currently Dominion uses its 1,800 MW share of the facility as a relatively low-cost way to meet some peak demand with baseload sources like coal and nuclear, but it could as easily be used to store electricity from wind and solar, at the same added cost.

Without a lot of storage, it’s much harder to keep wind and solar from competing with nuclear or other baseload sources. You could curtail production of your wind turbines or solar panels, but since these have no fuel cost, you’d be throwing away free energy. Once you’ve built wind farms and solar projects, it makes no sense not to use all the electricity they can produce.

But if nuclear hogs the baseload, by definition there will be times when there is no load left for other sources to meet. Those times will often be at night, when wind turbines produce the most electricity.

The problem of nuclear competing with wind and solar has gotten little or no attention in the U.S., where renewables still make up only a small fraction of most states’ energy mixes. However, at an October 27 workshop about Germany’s experience with large-scale integration of renewable energy into the grid, sponsored by the American Council on Renewable Energy, Patrick Graichen of the German firm Agora Energiewende pointed to this problem in explaining why his organization is not sorry the country is closing nuclear plants at the same time it pursues ambitious renewable energy targets. Nuclear, he said, just makes it harder.

How big a problem is this likely to be in the U.S.? Certainly there is not enough nuclear in the PJM Interconnection grid as a whole to hog all the baseload in the region, and PJM has concluded it can already integrate up to 30% renewable energy without affecting reliability. But the interplay of nuclear and renewables is already shaping utility strategies. Dominion Virginia Power is on a campaign to build out enough generation in Virginia to eliminate its imports of electricity from out of state. And in Virginia, nuclear makes up nearly 40% of Dominion’s generation portfolio.

Now Dominion wants to add a third nuclear reactor at its North Anna site, to bring the number of its reactors in Virginia to five. If the company also succeeds in extending the life of its existing reactors, the combination would leave precious little room for any other energy resource that produces power when demand is low.

That affects coal, which is primarily a baseload resource. It would also impact combined-cycle natural gas plants, which are more flexible than coal or nuclear but still run most efficiently as baseload. But the greatest impact is on our potential for renewables.

This desire to keep high levels of nuclear in its mix explains Dominion’s lack of interest in land-based wind power, which produces mostly at night and therefore competes with nuclear as a baseload source. Dominion’s latest Integrated Resource Plan pretty much dismisses wind, assigning it a low value and a strangely high price tag in an effort to make it look like an unappealing option.

Dominion shows more interest in solar as a daytime source that fills in some of the demand curve above baseload. But given Dominion’s commitment to nuclear, its appetite for Virginia solar is likely to be limited. Already it insists that every bit of solar must be backed up with new natural gas combustion turbines, which are highly flexible but less efficient, more expensive and more polluting than combined-cycle gas, and add both cost and fuel-price risk.

Dominion’s seeming insistence that solar must be paired with gas to turn it into something akin to a baseload source is plainly absurd. It seems to be an effort to increase the cost of solar, part of an attempt to improve the company’s prospects of getting the North Anna 3 nuclear reactor approved in the face of its dismal economics.

Good resource planning would consider all existing and potential sources together, including using the existing pumped storage capacity in the way that makes most sense. We already know that North Anna 3 would be breathtakingly expensive. Evaluating it in the full context of other supply options will show it is even worse than Dominion acknowledges.

Dominion’s campaign to isolate Virginia’s power supply from the larger PJM grid also does a disservice to ratepayers. Keeping generation local benefits grid security when the generation is small-scale and distributed, but not when it’s a huge nuclear reactor sited on a fault line right next to two others. Otherwise, there is nothing wrong with importing power from other states. These are not hostile foreign nations. Pennsylvania is not going to cut us off if we don’t release their political prisoners.

In truth, it seems to be Tom Farrell’s plan to secure Dominion’s profitability for decades to come by walling off Virginia into a corporate fiefdom and controlling the means of production within it, like some retrograde Soviet republic. Utility customers, on the other hand, benefit much more from having our grid interconnected with PJM and the thousands of other power sources that help balance load and ensure reliability. One can only hope that Dominion’s regulators at the State Corporation Commission will see that.

Over the course of the next couple of decades, Virginia, like the rest of the U.S.—and indeed, the rest of the world—has to transition to an electricity supply that is almost entirely emissions-free. Very little planning has gone into making this happen, but several studies have shown it can be done. The Solutions Project offers a broad-brush look at how Virginia can combine onshore wind, offshore wind, solar and small amounts of other sources to reach a 100% clean energy future. Other researchers have done the same for PJM as a whole.

No doubt this will be a long and challenging journey, but the path we start out on should be the one most likely to get us to our goal. Nuclear seems likely to prove a stumbling block along the way, and an expensive one at that. Certainly, we shouldn’t make the problem worse.


Update: A number of commenters from the pro-nuclear camp have argued that nuclear is, or could be, more flexible than I’ve made it out to be. A new article in Utility Dive addresses this issue, concluding it is possible, but not easy, to make nuclear plants more load-following. France and Germany have succeeded to some degree, but U.S. nuclear plants pose greater challenges. “It can be done, but ‘the issue is that nuclear power plants weren’t designed to do that in the United States,’ said Jim Riley, senior technical advisor for nuclear operations at the Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry group that develops policy on issues related to nuclear energy.”

According to the article, some U.S. utilities are looking to tackle the challenge rather than retire their nuclear plants. These are nuclear plant owners that have to bid power into the wholesale market, where a nuclear plant, with its fixed operating costs, can’t compete with low-cost natural gas and renewable energy, especially at night. But of course, if you run a high-cost plant for fewer hours of the day, the average cost per kilowatt-hour increases.

Dominion doesn’t have to bid its nuclear into a wholesale market, so it has no incentive to try to run its plants flexibly. And given the astoundingly high cost of North Anna 3, curtailing its operation, and increasing the cost per kilowatt-hour produced, would be out of the question.

Dominion shareholder votes reflect growing concerns on methane, climate

Protesters lined the road leading to the Dominion shareholder meeting in Richmond. Photo credit Corrina Beall.

Protesters lined the road leading to the Dominion shareholder meeting in Richmond. Photo credit Corrina Beall.


Shareholders attending Dominion’s shareholder meeting last week once again raised questions about the utility giant’s dependence on fossil fuels in a carbon-constrained world. Guest blogger Seth Heald brings us this view from inside the meeting.

News coverage of Dominion Resources Inc.’s May 6 annual shareholders meeting focused on the demonstration held outside the company’s suburban Richmond training facility. More than 150 people had traveled from all over Virginia and beyond to wave signs and banners protesting Dominion’s planned Atlantic Coast Pipeline for fracked natural gas and its unhealthy dominance over Virginia politicians (on full display during this year’s General Assembly session). Other signs condemned Dominion’s role as a major carbon polluter and its membership in the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

But developments inside the meeting, which I attended, were newsworthy too.

Like all publicly traded corporations, Dominion holds an annual meeting where shareholders vote on significant issues and have a chance to hear from and question corporate management. Most shares are voted online or by mail, but some shareholders choose to come to the meeting in person. Over the years Dominion has encouraged its electricity customers to buy stock, so many company shareholders live in Virginia.

Only shareholders or their proxies may attend the meeting, and this year security was exceptionally tight. Attendees had to show their admission ticket and driver’s license at three separate places and then go through a metal detector before getting to the meeting. No cameras, cell phones, or recording devices were permitted.

This was my third straight Dominion shareholder meeting. Perhaps most notable this time was the large number of people who lined up to address Dominion CEO and board chairman Thomas F. Farrell II, who told shareholders the company had allotted 30 minutes for their comments and questions. In previous years half an hour was more than enough time for all shareholder comments. But this time it was immediately clear that Farrell would have to allow more time or else those at the back of the line wouldn’t be able to speak. To his credit he allowed all waiting in line a chance to speak. The whole comment process took about an hour, causing the meeting to run significantly longer than in previous years.

Under Dominion’s standard meeting procedure, Farrell stands on the stage facing the audience, and people with comments or questions must deliver them from a microphone at the back of the large room, perhaps 50 feet away from Farrell. Members of the company’s board of directors all sit together in the front row, with their backs to the audience. Several of the shareholders this year spoke against the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline, describing how it would harm their land or their region or the planet. One woman movingly described how the pipeline would ruin land that had been in her family for hundreds of years. Many shareholders in the audience turned in their seats to look at the speakers, but not the board members. They sat in the front row and looked straight ahead.

Shareholders voted on a number of resolutions that asked the board or the company to take various actions. The ballot indicated that the board opposed all resolutions that had been submitted by shareholders. Nevertheless, three climate-related shareholder resolutions improved their vote count this year over last. For the first time ever one of them—seeking a report on emissions of the potent greenhouse gas methane—got 25 percent of voting (i.e., non-abstaining) shares, up from 21 percent a year ago.

Doing almost as well were shareholder votes seeking reports on climate-change business risk (23.5% this year versus 21 percent last year) and burning wood to generate electricity (22 percent this year versus 21 percent last year).

These are far from a majority of voting shares, it’s true, but these percentages represent close to $6 billion worth of shareholder value, and the totals are impressive when one considers that many large mutual funds routinely vote against resolutions that are opposed by a company’s board.

In opening comments to the board and shareholders Farrell spoke about efforts to reduce “carbon intensity” in electric power generation. That’s a measure comparing quantity of carbon-dioxide emissions to quantity of electricity produced. Dominion representatives always like to talk about how they’re reducing carbon intensity. They rarely if ever talk about reducing the company’s total carbon emissions.

Reducing carbon intensity is a fine thing, but the trouble is that you can reduce carbon intensity modestly just about forever while still increasing total carbon-dioxide emissions. That’s particularly true if, like Dominion, you resist meaningful efforts to make energy efficiency a significant part of your generation mix. As the Washington Post’s Chris Mooney has noted, doing something about climate, even doing a lot, isn’t the same as doing enough. Dominion and its ALEC partners who reflexively attack the EPA’s climate efforts are still resisting doing much of anything significant on climate, much less doing a lot, or enough.

What affects the climate is the total amount of carbon dioxide (and other greenhouse gases, like methane) in the atmosphere. At some point—and climate science tells us we’re well past that point—you can’t claim to be serious about climate change unless you’re willing to talk about (and commit to) reducing total carbon emissions, not just carbon intensity.

That was the subject of a shareholder question from Lindsay Mendoza of Mercy Investment Services, Inc., which manages assets of The Sisters of Mercy, the 180-year-old Catholic order renowned for its work in social justice, health care, and education. Mendoza asked Farrell when Dominion would begin to reduce total carbon-dioxide emissions, as opposed to carbon intensity. Farrell quickly responded: “That’s a good question.” (An overused cliché, no doubt, but Farrell seemed sincere in saying it, and he did not give that response to any other shareholder.) He went on at some length to discuss the company’s activities, but he didn’t specify a year, or decade, or even a century in which Dominion’s total carbon-dioxide emissions might actually begin to decline. That’s particularly disappointing in light of Dominion’s ranking, based on emissions reported to the EPA, as Virginia’s top carbon polluter.

Shareholders can try to press Farrell for a more specific answer at next May’s annual meeting. But in the meantime, asking Dominion and its board when the company will begin to reduce the company’s total carbon-dioxide emissions is a “good question” that Virginia’s governor, legislators, and the State Corporation Commission (Dominion Power’s state regulator) ought to be asking.

Besides being a Dominion shareholder, Seth Heald is Vice Chair of the Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club and a student in the MS in Energy Policy and Climate program at Johns Hopkins University.

Dominion won’t explain ties to anti-clean energy “bill mill” ALEC

Dominion Resources, the parent of Dominion Virginia Power, held its shareholder meeting today in Cleveland, Ohio. Unhappy Dominion shareholders have introduced many resolutions over the years seeking to reform aspects of the company’s business practices, from buying mountaintop-removal-mined coal to exposing investors to risks from climate disruption. Although Dominion routinely challenges the resolutions, seeking to keep them off the ballot, this year half a dozen resolutions made it through the legal obstacle course to be voted on. One of the resolutions, submitted by the New York State Common Retirement Fund, called on Dominion to disclose its financial support for the secretive American Legislative Exchange Council, which works to defeat and roll back renewable energy and climate initiatives across the country. The resolution prompted guest blogger Seth Heald, in Cleveland today for the shareholder meeting, to offer this commentary.  

Dominion's coal-fired Chesterfield Power Station, on the James River, has been driving climate change since 1952. Photo credit Ed Brown, Wikimedia Commons.

Dominion’s coal-fired Chesterfield Power Station, on the James River, has been driving climate change since 1952. Photo credit Ed Brown, Wikimedia Commons.

In the past week or so communities across Virginia staged Earth Day festivals and other events to raise environmental awareness and support environmental protection. Virginia’s largest electric utility, Dominion Virginia Power, had tables or booths at a number of these events, touting the company’s environmental record.

The utility’s parent corporation—Dominion Resources, Inc.—attempts to defend the company’s environmental practices on its website. Chief environmental officer Pamela F. Faggert explains “[e]nvironmental awareness is the responsibility of each Dominion employee. It is woven into the fabric of our culture ….”

What you won’t find on Dominion’s website or in its Earth Day handouts is any mention of its work to undermine environmental protections through its financial contributions to the American Legislative Exchange Council, widely known as “ALEC.” ALEC has been described as “a corporate bill mill.” It brings together corporations and state legislators and comes up with “model legislation” for the legislators to introduce back home. Sometimes state legislatures pitch in with their own additional financial support. A report on ALEC’s influence in Virginia, issued by the group Progress VA, states that between 2001 and 2010, Virginia spent over $230,000 of taxpayers’ money to send legislators to ALEC conferences “to meet with corporate lobbyists behind closed doors.” The report notes that more than 50 bills drawn from ALEC sources have been introduced in the Virginia General Assembly in recent years.

ALEC gained notoriety recently because of its sponsorship of “stand your ground” laws, such as the one in Florida connected to the Trayvon Martin shooting death. According to The Guardian, more than 60 corporations withdrew from ALEC after that connection was publicized.

ALEC’s proposed energy and environmental legislation reliably favors corporate polluters’ interests over the environment. An ALEC model resolution intended to stymie efforts to address climate change expressed the goal of “prohibiting EPA by any means necessary from regulating greenhouse gas emissions, including if necessary defunding EPA greenhouse gas regulatory activities.” As reported in the Virginian-Pilot, a Virginia delegate introduced this resolution in the House of Delegates after it was presented to him by the coal industry. A different ALEC resolution called for opposition to “all Federal and state efforts to establish a carbon tax on fuels for electricity and transportation.” A list of ALEC model legislation is available at http://www.alecexposed.org/.

The nonprofit watchdog Center for Media and Democracy reports that Dominion Resources has participated on ALEC’s energy, environment and agriculture task force. A 2010 “roster” of people on that task force (obtained by the group Common Cause and posted online) includes Dominion executive Robert Blue, who currently is Dominion Virginia Power’s president. Blue and other Dominion executives served alongside Joseph Bast, president of the Heartland Institute—an extremist group notorious for its support of climate-science denial and comparing those who “still believe” in climate science to mass murderers.

Also on ALEC’s environment task force roster serving alongside Dominion executives were representatives of the American Petroleum Institute, Koch Companies Public Sector LLC (affiliated with Koch Industries and the Koch brothers), the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (a coal-industry group that lobbies against carbon-emission restrictions), and the Koch-backed right-wing, anti-environment group Americans for Prosperity.

ALEC has been linked to sponsorship of recent efforts to block or roll back state legislation that promotes renewable energy. ALEC has also backed efforts to water down laws requiring disclosure of fracking chemicals, and efforts to block federal regulation of toxic coal-ash storage sites. (Federal regulation, had there been any, might have served to prevent the recent Duke Energy coal-ash spill in North Carolina, which flowed downstream into Danville, Virginia.)

You simply can’t square these anti-environment positions with Dominion’s professed corporate culture of environmental awareness, supposedly woven into the company’s very fabric. No wonder Dominion keeps quiet about its ALEC involvement.

At Dominion’s May 7 shareholder meeting I asked the company’s chairman and CEO, Thomas Farrell, II, why Dominion participates in ALEC and what the company gets from that participation. Farrell clearly didn’t want to say much. His entire answer was “We see value in it and that’s why we participate.”

EPA records reveal that Dominion is the largest emitter of carbon-dioxide pollution in Virginia. Meanwhile Virginia’s Hampton Roads area, where many Dominion customers live, is one of the most vulnerable places in the nation to harm from climate change caused by carbon emissions. Virginia continues to suffer from the recent Duke Energy spill of toxic coal ash into the Dan River.

ALEC’s efforts to block environmental protections harm all Virginians, indeed all Americans. The people of Virginia—Dominion’s customers—should press Dominion to work to reduce its carbon emissions sharply rather than waxing poetic about its environmental “culture” while quietly supporting groups like ALEC that seek to block efforts to address climate change.

Seth Heald is vice chair of the Sierra Club Virginia Chapter, and is also a Dominion Resources shareholder. He is a graduate student in the Master of Science in Energy Policy and Climate program at Johns Hopkins University.