Looking backward, Virginia Republicans attack climate action and coddle coal

Photo credit: Mark Dixon from Pittsburgh, PA, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Even before taking office, Governor Glenn Youngkin made two rookie mistakes: he declared his intention to pull Virginia out of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) by executive order, not realizing it can only be done by legislation; and he nominated the much-reviled Trump-era EPA chief Andrew Wheeler to be his Secretary of Natural Resources, apparently unaware the appointment would need approval from the Democratic-led Senate he had just infuriated with the RGGI announcement. 

Evidently not a man to admit a blunder, on his first day in office Youngkin signed an  executive order directing the Department of Environmental Quality to notify RGGI of his intent to withdraw Virginia from the carbon-cutting program, and to develop an “emergency regulation” to send to the Air Pollution Control Board for the same purpose. The language in the order is a little less than he pledged, and yet still not legal.

These are unfortunate signs that Youngkin, who ran for governor as a moderate Republican, intends to govern as a burn-the-house-down extremist when it comes to the environment. 

It’s surprising to see Youngkin pursuing Trumpist energy policies, and not just because they failed so dismally when Trump tried them. As the former CEO of a multibillion-dollar private equity investment company, Youngkin is, presumably, not an idiot. He has acknowledged climate change is real and affecting Virginia, and he has access to the same polls the rest of us do that show Americans are concerned and want government action to address the crisis. Corporate America is also calling for action; CEOs of more than 70 of the world’s largest corporations wrote a letter last June calling on governments to adopt policies capable of capping the global rise in temperature at no more than 1.5 decrees Celsius. 

The legislation that put Virginia into RGGI will lead to a 30 percent cut in the Commonwealth’s electric sector CO2 emissions by 2030. Companion legislation, the Virginia Clean Economy Act (VCEA), extends the carbon cutting out to 2050, to hit zero carbon emissions from the electric sector. Youngkin complains that RGGI costs ratepayers money, but it’s not like the money raised through carbon allowance auctions disappears into the ether: it pays for coastal flood-control projects and low-income energy efficiency programs that Virginia wasn’t funding before. Maybe Youngkin intends to replace these hundreds of millions of dollars with some of the federal funding coming to Virginia through the federal infrastructure bill—you know, the legislation that Virginia’s Republican congressmen voted against

Or maybe he doesn’t really care about the human consequences of his actions, since Virginia governors can’t run for reelection. Even last fall Youngkin was being talked about as a potential presidential candidate based on his ability to say nothing of substance for an entire campaign season. It was a good trick, but it’s a hard one to pull off twice. If Youngkin runs for president, he’ll be doing it as the guy who started his governorship by torching Virginia’s climate action plan.

Whether they are fellow flame-throwers or not, General Assembly Republicans are rallying around the new governor. Two bills filed last week seek to do legally what Youngkin wanted to do by executive fiat. SB532 (Stuart) and HB1301 (Kilgore) would repeal the Clean Energy and Community Flood Preparedness Act, direct DEQ to suspend the Commonwealth’s participation in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative and remove provisions for using revenues from the auctions. 

SB81 (Stanley) would prohibit the Air Pollution Control Board from considering health, environmental, scientific, or economic factors when making regulations—an attack on both RGGI and clean car regulation, as well as on the independence and very mission of the Air Board. SB657 (Stuart) also attacks the Air Board’s authority (and that of the Water Board for good measure).

HB118 (Freitas) goes bigger. It repeals key features of the VCEA, including achieving zero carbon emissions by 2050; allowing the SCC to approve new fossil fuel plants only if a utility has met energy-saving goals and can prove cost-effectiveness; allowing utilities to recover costs of compliance with Virginia’s new renewable portfolio standard; and making wind, solar and offshore wind projects “in the public interest,” magic words that assure utilities they will get paid for making these investments.

The Freitas bill might pass the House, now that Republicans hold a slim majority, but neither of these two bills should pass the Senate with Democrats in charge. Creating the framework for the energy transition was a signature success for Virginia Democrats, and it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which they will let it be taken from them. 

That isn’t stopping other Republicans from taking their own shots. Several bills seek to undermine the energy transition in various ways; all of them are bad policy.

  • HB74 (also Ware) would subsidize certain large industrial customers by allowing them to share in the benefits, yet exempting them from the costs, of the energy transition, shifting their share of the costs onto all other customers. 
  • HB5 (Morefield) raids the RGGI funds to get money for his own district. 
  • HB892 (Kilgore) and SB398 (McDougle) subsidize RGGI costs for certain fossil fuel generators, another raid on the funds. 
  • HB1204 (Kilgore) prevents the RPS from taking effect until 2025 and guts the carve-out for distributed generation permanently. It also removes the authority of the Air Pollution Control Board over air pollution permits for “minor” sources of pollution.
  • HB1257 (Kilgore, on a roll!) guarantees customers access to natural gas in the name of “energy justice,” banning local electrification efforts, and making it really hard for the city of Richmond to terminate its gas utility.
  • HB1261 (Bloxom) also strips the Air and Water Boards of their permit-granting authority. 
  • HB73 (Ware) and SB761 (Sutterlein) eliminates language putting wind, solar and offshore wind in the public interest, undercutting the market certainty that put Virginia into the top ranks for solar energy in the past year and attracted a major offshore wind turbine blade manufacturing facility to Portsmouth. (The bill also lets the SCC put costs of new facilities into a utility’s rate base instead of tacking on a rate adjustment clause. If this were the only thing the bill did, it would be worth supporting.)

Not all the bills we are likely to see this year have been filed yet, so there is a good chance we will see further attacks on climate action, all with the pretense of saving money. I will continue updating this post when I hear of other bills like these. 

“Virginia is no longer anti-coal,” — new Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares. 

Speaking of things that cost ratepayers money, bills to subsidize coal are back this year. As we have all learned, coal is no longer a competitive fuel in Virginia. It lost out first to fracked gas, and more recently to solar. But in a compromise with coalfields Republicans, the VCEA excluded one coal plant, the Virginia City Hybrid Energy Center (VCHEC) in Wise County, from a requirement that Dominion Energy Virginia close its Virginia coal plants this decade. In theory, VCHEC could stay open until 2045, when the VCEA requires Dominion to reach zero carbon across all its generation.

In reality, though, the reprieve isn’t enough to save the coal plant. Dominion’s own analysis, from its 2020 Integrated Resource Plan case, assigned VCHEC a net present value of negative $472 million just for the ten years from 2020-2029. Dominion didn’t try to extend that analysis out to 2045, but clearly the cost to customers from running a money-losing coal plant for 25 years would top a cool billion. Not surprisingly, the SCC is considering requiring Dominion to retire VCHEC to save money for its customers.

Given concerns about RGGI’s cost to consumers, you might think Southwest Virginia Republicans would lead the charge to retire the money-losing coal plant in their midst. You would be wrong. To understand why, it will help you to know that the counties making up Southwest Virginia are not in Dominion’s service territory, but in Appalachian Power’s. The people who benefit from keeping a coal plant open in Wise County are not the same people who have to pay for the plant’s spectacular losses. 

As an excuse to keep the plant open, coalfields Republicans claim it’s to help the environment. Yes, really. Some of VCHEC’s fuel is waste coal excavated from the piles of mining waste that litter the coalfields, a toxic legacy of the era when coal was king and environmental regulations went unenforced. Burning the waste coal is one way to get rid of it, though not the only way or, for that matter, the right way. 

As a new report from the Appalachian State School of Law discusses, the federal infrastructure bill (again, the same one Virginia Republicans voted against) will provide millions of dollars to Virginia to remediate abandoned minelands, including these piles of toxic waste. (The report, titled Addressing Virginia’s Legacy GOB Piles, has been sent to General Assembly members but is not yet available online.)

In a letter to Senator John Edwards, report lead author Mark “Buzz” Belleville expressed his strong disagreement with bills aimed at encouraging the burning of waste coal. As he wrote, “Waste coal is of lower quality, requiring additives for combustion and resulting in even greater CO2 emissions and traditional air pollution than newly-mined coal. As the report notes, existing GOB piles can be disposed of or remediated in other manners that do not undermine Virginia’s commitment to a transition to clean energy.”

Rather than use the coming federal funds to remediate GOB piles, Republicans would prefer that Dominion customers be forced to pay hundreds of millions of dollars in higher energy costs and put more pollution into the air. 

So at the same time they rail against the costs of RGGI and VCEA, Republicans are using waste coal as a reason to raise costs even more. 

  • HB656 (Wampler) dangles a tax credit for using waste coal. 
  • SB120 (Hackworth) and HB657 (Wampler) declare waste coal a “renewable energy” source and exempts VCHEC from the requirement that it close by 2045. 
  • HB894 (Kilgore) outright prohibits the SCC from requiring Dominion to retire VCHEC “before the end of its useful life.” (Would that be before or after Virginia becomes so hot we all move to Canada?)
  • HB1326 (Kilgore, trying everything he can think of) makes it “in the public interest” for utilities to use waste coal, and gives utilities a way to charge ratepayers extra for doing so.

Electricity customers had better get used to being used as a political football by legislators who attack the costs of the energy transition but have no qualms about making ratepayers subsidize coal. 

This post originally appeared in the Virginia Mercury on January 20, 2022. It has been updated to include bills filed since then.

A divided General Assembly can find common ground on clean energy

Almost two years ago, Virginia’s General Assembly made history with a series of laws shepherding Virginia towards a future of clean, low-cost wind and solar energy. During this year’s election campaign, Republican talking points included attacks on the Virginia Clean Economy Act (VCEA), the law at the center of the transition. But talk, as they say, is cheap. With the VCEA protected by the Democratic majority in the Senate, Republicans didn’t have to put forward a serious alternative, and they didn’t.

Now that the Republicans have won the governorship and a majority in the House of Delegates, passing any new legislation (or repealing anything already in place) will require bipartisan action. Democrats want to protect Virginia’s progress in tackling carbon emissions and putting equity into energy planning. Republicans want to reduce burdens on industry. Both sides want affordable electricity and a robust economy that creates jobs. Rhetoric aside, there is much to agree on.

Solar is wildly popular with conservatives as well as liberals, in part because it saves money. With no fuel costs, and ever-falling prices of solar panels, solar arrays are now the go-to choice for utilities that need more power. It is cheaper for a utility to build a new solar facility today than to operate an existing coal plant in Virginia. 

As for existing gas plants, they compete with solar only when the price of fracked gas is low. Gas prices have doubled in the past year, so Virginia’s current reliance on natural gas for 60% of our electricity generation hurts everyone’s wallets. 

And while fracked gas is imported from other states, we can build solar and wind facilities here in the Commonwealth and off our coast, so our own workers and businesses benefit. The faster we bring on the energy transition, the better for our economy. 

The energy transition also means cleaner air and water for our children, improving the efficiency of homes to make them more comfortable and less costly to live in, reducing the energy burden on low-income residents, helping coastal communities adapt to rising sea levels, and giving people greater freedom to invest their own money in solar panels on their own property. All of these are part of the VCEA and the other bills that guide our energy transition, and repealing them now would be shooting ourselves in both feet.

Nonetheless, there is room for improvement. Last year legislators established a fund to put renewable energy on abandoned mine sites and other brownfields, but didn’t allocate money. Under the bipartisan infrastructure bill just passed in Congress, Virginia will receive an estimated $23,579,905 annually in federal abandoned mine land funding. Once former mine sites are cleaned up, they will be ideal locations for solar facilities, and the General Assembly should make sure that happens. 

Other federal funding will support smart grid and transmission investments. Some of these projects are already underway in Virginia, and the General Assembly should make sure that savings go to ratepayers, not to utilities.

Solar on schools has been one of the greatest success stories of the past few years in Virginia, with more than 45 jurisdictions signing contracts that will put solar panels on school roofs at no up-front cost, and with energy savings every year. But some schools are still built with roofs that aren’t designed to support solar. That has to change. 

Indeed, in 2019 the General Assembly passed a Republican-sponsored bill that went further, declaring it “the intent of the General Assembly that new public school buildings and facilities and improvements and renovations to existing public school buildings and facilities be designed, constructed, maintained, and operated to generate more electricity than consumed.” In 2022, legislators could turn this into a requirement, saving money for taxpayers across the Commonwealth. 

Community solar offers another money-saving opportunity. Legislation passed in 2020 will allow residents and businesses to buy electricity from shared solar projects developed by private companies. The initial program is small and confined to customers of Dominion Energy, which is trying to persuade regulators to mandate crushingly high minimum bills. Legislators can fix these problems by expanding the program statewide and capping the minimum bill. 

The General Assembly has repeatedly failed to rein in the power of utilities like Dominion, which uses its influence to protect its profits at the expense of consumers. The ability to make unlimited political contributions backfired on Dominion when its $200,000 contribution to an anti-Youngkin campaign was exposed. But public utilities should not be allowed to buy influence, period. Let’s make this the year that stops.

This op-ed appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch on November 27,2021. 

Has the energy transition hit a roadblock in Virginia, or just a rough patch of pavement?

Photo credit: Mark Dixon from Pittsburgh, PA, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Election Day was a tough day for climate advocates. 

After two years of historic progress that included passage of the Virginia Clean Economy Act (VCEA), the centerpiece of the Commonwealth’s plan to decarbonize the electric sector by 2050, voters handed a narrow victory to its critics. Republicans will take over as governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general and, barring any surprises in two recounts, the House of Delegates.

During the campaign, former Carlyle Group CEO Glenn Youngkin criticized the VCEA for raising rates and putting “our entire energy grid at risk.”  While largely supportive of solar and wind (especially offshore wind, which he “wholly supports”), Youngkin also argued for more natural gas to feed “the rip-roaring economy that I’m going to build.” This is, essentially, the old “all of the above” strategy we hoped had been buried for good, coupled with unfounded fear-mongering about power outages. 

On the bright side, Governor-elect Youngkin has acknowledged that climate change is real and is causing damage here in Virginia. At the same time, he supposedly told a Norfolk State University audience in October that he didn’t know what is causing climate change. It seems likely this was a clumsy lie prompted by political expedience, rather than a reflection of actual ignorance. Two years ago Youngkin touted Carlyle Group’s record as “the first major private investment firm to operate on a carbon-neutral basis.” That’s not something you do just to be on trend.

So yes, Youngkin knows that increasing greenhouse gas emissions are driving the warming of the planet, and at Carlyle he was willing to do something about it. But now that he’s a politician, Youngkin is embracing natural gas in a way that suggests he’d rather ignore the truth about methane than take a stance unpopular in his party. Heck, for all we know, he may now even subscribe to the plan recently laid out by U.S. Senate Republicans to address climate change by increasing natural gas production and exports. 

Wait, you say, isn’t this also the Russian plan? Sell more gas and, if worse comes to worst, Siberia heats up enough to become a vacation destination? Let’s just say it’s not a coincidence that the senators promoting this “solution” come from North Dakota, Alaska and Wyoming—all states that are big energy exporters, but more importantly, where people think a few degrees of warming would be kind of nice. But given that the population of all three states combined is significantly less than the population of Northern Virginia alone, we probably don’t want them making policy for us.

The fact that we have no idea where Youngkin stands on the need for climate solutions is only one part of the problem facing climate activists in Virginia’s upcoming legislative session. The bigger problem is that a lot of our Republican legislators are outright hostile to climate science and Virginia’s framework for the energy transition. These folks are loaded for bear, and they will use their narrow win to flood the House with bills aimed at rolling back the energy transition. 

In addition to VCEA, the Republican hit list includes the Clean Energy and Community Preparedness Act, which directed Virginia to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI); the Clean Car Standard, which promotes sales of electric vehicles; and the Commonwealth Clean Energy Policy, which makes the transition to a net-zero-energy economy official state policy.  

Whether these bills will pass the House is less certain, given the benefits these laws are already delivering. The VCEA spurred “incredible growth” in solar installations, making Virginia fourth in the nation for new solar generation in 2020, and the world’s biggest offshore wind blade manufacturer just announced plans for a facility in Portsmouth, Virginia. Does anyone really want to stop that momentum? Tens of millions of dollars are already flowing to climate adaptation projects in coastal areas thanks to RGGI’s carbon allowance auctions. Pulling the plug on that cash flow would hurt Republicans representing the area. 

Notwithstanding the rhetoric, the VCEA is good for business and consumers. Ratepayers will save money through the mandated closure of uneconomic coal, oil and biomass plants, and by the removal of barriers to distributed renewable energy generation. Solar’s low cost positions it to overtake fossil fuels as the go-to generation source for utilities, but the VCEA creates the market certainty that attracts investment. And offshore wind—the most expensive part of the VCEA, but the part Youngkin apparently likes—is also popular on both sides of the aisle as an engine of investment and job creation.   

That doesn’t mean anti-VCEA bills won’t pass the House; being bad policy is never enough to kill legislation, or even stop people who ought to know better from voting for it. In 2019, an anti-RGGI bill from Del. Charles Poindexter (R-Franklin) passed both the House and Senate on party-line votes. It was prevented from taking effect only thanks to a veto from Governor Northam. Today, I can count very few House Republicans who won’t toe the same party line.

With Democrats still in charge of the Senate, Youngkin isn’t likely to find a RGGI or VCEA repeal on his desk. Creating an energy transition framework was one of the Democrats’ biggest successes in the past two years, and protecting that success will be a party priority. 

But there are many ways Republicans can undercut climate action. They might attract just enough Democratic votes with bills that, for example, grant exemptions for powerful industries that have friends among Senate Democrats. They could also use the budget process to undermine the transition by starving agencies and grant programs of funding. 

If politics doesn’t completely get in the way, though, there should be room for consensus on some new areas of progress. Highly efficient schools with solar roofs save money for taxpayers; electric school buses are good for children’s health; solar on abandoned mine sites promise employment to residents of Southwest Virginia. 

Beyond the General Assembly, executive agencies have had the job of implementing all the various parts of the RGGI program and the VCEA. And the agencies, of course, answer to the governor. The Department of Environmental Quality will have signed off—or not—on the Mountain Valley Pipeline’s permits before Younkin takes office, but after that, we can expect DEQ to return to being the easy-permitting, lax-enforcing agency it was of old.

As for the Department of Energy, that agency has been going gangbusters turning Virginia into a clean energy leader and promoting new models like brownfields redevelopment and clean energy financing. Hopefully those efforts offer so much in the way of economic opportunities that a businessman like Youngkin will want them to continue. 

But that, like so much else, remains to be seen. 

This article was originally published in the Virginia Mercury on November 16, 2021.

Carbon-free electricity by 2035? Virginia is ready.

(Photo by Dennis Schroeder / NREL)

Virginia’s General Assembly made history in 2020 by becoming the first state in the South to pass a law requiring the full decarbonization of its electric sector. The Virginia Clean Economy Act requires our two largest utilities, Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power, to close all Virginia carbon-emitting power plants by 2045. As of 2050, the state will not issue carbon allowances to any other power plants in the commonwealth, including those owned by electric cooperatives and independent generators.  

Less than a year later, President Joe Biden wants to move up the date for a carbon-free electric grid nationwide to 2035. Biden is also targeting a net-zero carbon economy by 2050. On that, Virginia is actually more ambitious, at least on paper, since the Commonwealth Energy Policy sets a goal for a net-zero economy by 2045. 

But the electric sector has to come first, mainly because it’s the linchpin for reductions in the rest of the economy.  Clean electricity allows for clean transportation when cars, trucks and buses are electrified, and for clean buildings when gas heating and gas appliances are replaced with electric. It’s harder to zero out emissions from industry and agriculture; we do need more time to develop cost-effective solutions for those. 

The good news is the U.S. is already halfway to zero, according to a new report from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory that compared CO2 emissions from the power sector today to projections 15 years ago. But a lot of that achievement came from replacing coal with fracked gas, with energy efficiency and renewables making up the rest. From here on in, efficiency and carbon-free sources have to carry the whole load.

What would it take for Virginia to achieve a carbon-free grid just 14 years from now, half the time allowed by the VCEA? Questions fall roughly into three categories: cost, feasibility and reliability. All three will be easier to overcome if the whole country is working together towards a single goal, especially if the federal government does more than just point the way. But there’s a strong case for optimism regardless.  

Cost

Cost is the biggest concern in the minds of most people, but it shouldn’t be. It’s been three years since solar became the cheapest form of new power generation in Virginia, and prices continue to drop. The International Energy Administration declared last year that falling prices mean solar is “becoming the new king of the world’s electricity markets,” poised to become the primary source of new electricity generation worldwide by 2030. (Did you read about the solar project in Saudi Arabia that will deliver solar at barely over a penny per kilowatt-hour?)

Wind has been the cheapest form of generation for years in many states, and its price is still falling. Of course, for Virginia the big wind opportunity lies offshore. Offshore wind technology is still in its infancy in the U.S., making it relatively expensive, but its price trajectory is also steeply downward. Once the industry scales up and American manufacturing, supply chain and workforce replace European imports, prices will fall further — though it may never match solar on price. 

The only expensive part of an all-renewables scenario right now is the challenge of keeping supply in sync with demand. But as with wind and solar, the cost of battery storage technologies has been falling.

Meanwhile, what happens to our existing fossil fuel plants? Closing coal plants was already the right move for consumers. Virginia’s few remaining coal plants don’t run much and are money sinks. Dominion’s newest coal plant, for example, has a 10-year net present value of negative $472 million. Shuttering coal plants will save money today as well as speeding us along the path to zero carbon.

By contrast, we have a lot of gas plants that currently make money, so our utilities are even more loath to plan for their demise. Dominion spent most of the last decade building out a huge fleet of natural gas combined-cycle plants on the theory that fracking would make gas a cheap fuel forever. The theory ignored the growing competitiveness of wind and solar that was evident even early on in the building spree. This isn’t just hindsight talking; in 2013 I wrote that Dominion’s newly-approved 1,358-megawatt Brunswick County Power Station was destined to become a giant concrete paperweight as clean energy displaced fossil fuels. Yet a few years later Dominion added to its paperweight collection with the even larger Greensville County Power Station. 

In both cases the equally short-sighted State Corporation Commission approved these investments, so bad luck, ratepayers: we are stuck paying off the capital costs whether the plants run or not. That does not mean we have to operate them; projections show that by 2030 it will be cheaper to turn gas plants into solar panel factories while we run our grid on wind and sunlight. 

Feasibility

 A rapid transition to a carbon-free grid poses logistical challenges. We need enough suitable land to hold all that solar. (Agrivoltaics will help.) The federal government needs to identify new areas of the ocean for offshore wind turbines. We also need solutions to seasonal fluctuations in demand. We need new transmission lines. We need enough lithium for batteries, steel for turbines, silicon for solar and a trained workforce, stat!  

Federal coordination will be key to solving many of these challenges, but we can also reduce land acquisition and transmission barriers if we don’t insist on replacing large, utility-owned fossil fuel power plants only with large, utility-owned wind and solar farms. Virginians will benefit far more if we prioritize solar and storage on rooftops, parking lots, brownfields, closed landfills and rights-of-way. That’s not just about space, but about assigning value to benefits like storm resilience, emergency preparedness and local jobs. 

For the same reason, we should insist on building homes better. Houses that are well insulated need less heat in the winter and air conditioning in the summer, reducing the problem of seasonal swings in energy demand. (They are also healthier and more comfortable.)

Reliability

A rapid transition to a carbon-free grid is a climate imperative, but it’s still a tall order for a utility or a regulator whose job it is to keep the lights on. Batteries, energy efficiency and demand response programs can do only so much. Planners will also have to factor in the likelihood that by 2035, many vehicles will be electric, and electricity will replace gas appliances in new buildings and retrofits. Balancing supply and demand 24/7 with just today’s tools would not be an easy job. 

And, fortunately, they will not be working with today’s tools. The pace of change in energy and computer technology over the past 14 years will be matched or exceeded by the pace of the next 14. Green hydrogen gets all the press, but hundreds of other innovations will also combine to make a zero-carbon energy supply feasible and reliable — and, not incidentally, far better for people and the planet than what we have now. 

In fact, we are witnessing the launch of a new era in energy, what Tony Seba’s RethinkX Project calls “the fastest, deepest, most profound disruption of the energy sector in over a century,” driven by low-cost solar, wind and battery storage (SWB).

The Project’s report Rethinking Energy 2020-2030 puts it this way: “The SWB disruption of energy will closely parallel the digital disruption of information technology. Just as computers and the Internet slashed the marginal cost of information and opened the door to hundreds of new business models that collectively have had a transformative impact upon the global economy, so too will SWB slash the marginal cost of electricity and create a plethora of opportunities for innovation and entrepreneurship. What happened in the world of bits is now poised to happen in the world of electrons.” 

So, a carbon-free grid by 2035? Bring it on, President Biden. Virginia is ready.

A version of this article ran in the Virginia Mercury on April 16, 2021.

Hurricanes mean power outages. Resilience hubs can help.

Satellite imagery shows Hurricane Isabel in 2003

Hurricane Isabel was one of Virginia’s worst natural disasters–and it was only a category 2 storm when it made landfall in North Carolina. Photo credit NOAA National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service (NESDIS)

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says this year’s hurricane season could set a record for the number of storms big enough to be given names. NOAA now predicts a total of 19 to 25 named storms (winds of 39 mph or greater) in the Atlantic, of which 7 to 11 are likely to become hurricanes. Isaias, a Category 1 hurricane, was already the ninth named storm of this season.

With global warming heating the ocean and making hurricanes worse, states and localities have to prepare not just for the storms but also for their aftermath, when residents are left without power, sometimes for days.

I still have keen and unpleasant memories of 2003’s Hurricane Isabel, one of Virginia’s deadliest and costliest storms. My family was among the 2 million households who lost power.

For eight days we used a camp lantern for light and cooked outside over fires kindled in a Weber grill. We ate our way through the thawing contents of the freezer, then got creative with canned foods. We have a well with an electric pump, so our water supply consisted of what was in the jugs and pots we filled before the storm hit. And without power for our septic pump, we could not put anything down the drain or flush toilets. (My daughters were just hitting their teen years at the time. You can imagine how well they took this.)

Still, we were lucky. We didn’t need power to run a medical device like an oxygen machine or wheelchair, or to keep medicine refrigerated. Firewood and a grill gave us a cooking option we wouldn’t have had if we lived in an apartment, and we owned plenty of jugs and pots to hold water. Most importantly, if it had gotten bad enough we could have left in our car — something many city dwellers don’t have, especially if they are low-income or elderly.

After Isabel, a lot of my neighbors went out and got generators, buying peace of mind for themselves but underscoring how the wealth gap affects even the ability to weather a storm. Yet in these intervening years, electricity has truly become central to everything Americans do. We get our information over the internet; business happens online; cell phones have replaced landlines. In an emergency, having access to electricity can mean the difference between getting help and having none.

The traditional government response to a hurricane warning is to issue evacuation orders and designate emergency shelters, but experience has shown that a lot of people stay put. Some can’t afford to leave or lack transportation. Others have pets they can’t take with them and won’t leave behind, or they fear looters might take advantage of their absence. Distrust of government probably plays a role, too, making some folks prefer to take their chances with a storm than let people in uniform tell them what to do.

And this year, of course, the pandemic will make people even more hesitant to leave home.

The hurricane hunker-downers, and everyone else left without power after a storm, need access to electricity that doesn’t depend on the grid. There weren’t many options 17 years ago, when Isabel hit. Since then, though, the technological innovations that are transforming our energy supply have also created ways to keep the power flowing that don’t require balky, fuel-dependent generators.

Solar panels on a community center, school or other centrally-located and publicly-accessible building can provide continuous power when the sun is shining; adding batteries allows the panels to keep providing power at night and when the grid is down. Even just a few solar panels can power lights and provide cellphone charging. A larger array will run a refrigerator, microwave, television and coffeemaker. If it is large enough, it can even provide heating and cooling.

A site like this might serve as an emergency shelter for evacuees, or be part of a microgrid that includes nearby critical services such as a police or fire station. But it could be just a neighborhood location where people drop by to charge phones and computers, heat food, get news and see familiar faces. This concept is known as a “resilience hub,” and it’s the sort of modest investment that punches above its weight in community benefits. Good emergency planning should include locating a resilience hub wherever people are most likely to suffer in the aftermath of a storm due to lack of mobility, old age, disability or poverty.

The challenge, of course, is that a resilience hub or microgrid requires an upfront investment. Solar panels pay for themselves over time by reducing electricity bills, but someone still has to front the cost. Legislation passed this year makes that much easier, and local governments are already saving money with solar on public buildings across the state.

The battery is more of a problem. If it simply sits around waiting for a power outage, it won’t earn its keep over the 10-15 years of its useful life. A battery that isn’t providing useful services on a regular basis is also bad for the planet, since batteries have an environmental footprint of their own.

But a battery doesn’t need to sit idle. When it is not being used to provide stored energy in a power outage, the battery could provide a range of benefits to the grid, helping to meet peak demand, integrate renewable energy, and provide frequency regulation and other ancillary services. This is such a valuable service to the grid that in Vermont, utility Green Mountain Power pays for much of the cost of batteries in the homes of customers in exchange for the right to use them.

Virginia has no resilience hubs yet, and the fiscal crisis caused by the pandemic means local governments may not have funding for them. However, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is offering $500 million in grants under a program that looks tailor-made for resilience hubs and microgrids that power critical services and other community needs on an emergency basis.

Our utilities could also play an active role. The recently enacted Virginia Clean Economy Act (VCEA) provides all the authority Dominion Energy Virginia and Appalachian Power need to support solar-plus-storage at neighborhood locations. The law permits the utilities to even own the solar, if they want to, if an array meets a 50-kilowatt minimum size.

More importantly, Dominion and Appalachian can own the batteries, or contract with third parties to be able to use them. The VCEA sets out ambitious energy storage targets that include a “goal of installing at least 10 percent of such energy storage projects behind the meter”—a category that includes most customer-sited storage. The VCEA also allows utilities to select storage projects on a basis other than cost if a project “materially advances non-price criteria, including favoring geographic distribution of generating facilities.”

The State Corporation Commission took comments this summer on how to implement the VCEA’s requirements for energy storage. This is a good opportunity for the SCC to look beyond utility-scale projects that deliver storage services to the grid cheaply, but do nothing to provide backup power when the grid goes down. The SCC should insist utilities include storage at resilience hubs in neighborhoods that are most at risk from storms, and where residents are least likely to have other options when the grid goes down.

That probably won’t be near my house, but I’m okay with help going to the communities where it is most needed. This year’s pandemic has exposed the interconnectedness of our lives in ways that usually lie beneath the surface. Whether it’s a virus, a natural disaster, climate change or acts of injustice, we are really all part of the same community.

This article originally appeared in the Virginia Mercury on August 24, 2020.

What part of ‘zero’ doesn’t Dominion understand?

Photo courtesy os the Sierra Club.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Dominion Energy Virginia filed its 2020 Integrated Resource Plan on May 1. Instead of charting the electric utility’s pathway to zero carbon emissions, it announced its intent to hang on to all its gas plants, and even add to the number. In doing so, it revealed a company so thoroughly wedded to fracked gas that it would rather flout Virginia law and risk its own future than do the hard work of transforming itself.

The Virginia Clean Economy Act may be new, but Dominion can hardly claim to be surprised by the commonwealth’s move away from fossil fuels. Gov. Ralph Northam’s executive order last September set a statewide target of zero carbon emissions from the electric sector by 2050. “Challenge accepted,” said a Dominion spokesman at the time, and in February of this year the company claimed it was embracing a 2050 net-zero-carbon goal company-wide. A month later, passage of the Clean Economy Act moved the deadline up to 2045 for Dominion, keeping it at 2050 for utilities that lack Dominion’s head start of 30 percent nuclear power.

Dominion’s IRP, however, does not accept the challenge to get off fossil fuels. It rejects the challenge, directing a giant middle finger at the governor and the General Assembly. Dominion’s “preferred” plan keeps the utility’s existing fracked gas generating plants — currently 40 percent of its electric generation — operating through 2045. The IRP acknowledges this violates the law, so it argues against the law.

The IRP posits that if Dominion stops burning gas in Virginia, it will instead simply buy electricity from out of state, some of which will be generated by gas, and this will cost more money without reducing carbon emissions at the regional level. Better, then, to keep burning gas in Virginia.

It gets worse. The IRP actually proposes increasing the number of gas combustion turbines in Dominion’s fleet. The VCEA imposes a two-year moratorium on new fossil fuel plants, so Dominion’s timetable has these gas peaker plants coming online in 2023 and 2024. The justification is vague; the IRP cites “probable” reliability problems related to adding a lot of solar, but it offers no analysis to back this up, much less any discussion of non-gas alternatives.

Dominion’s flat-out refusal to abandon gas by 2045 poisons the rest of the document. The IRP is supposed to show a utility’s plans over a 15-year period, in this case up to 2035. And for those years, the IRP includes the elements of the VCEA that make money for Dominion: the build-out of solar, offshore wind and energy storage projects. It also includes money-saving retirements of outmoded coal, oil and biomass plants, as the VCEA requires. Heck, it even includes plans to close a coal plant the VCEA would allow to stay open in spite of its poor economic outlook (the Clover plant, half-owned by Old Dominion Electric Cooperative.)

But the IRP proposes no energy efficiency measures beyond those mandated by the VCEA between now and 2025. Dominion hates energy efficiency; it reduces demand, which is bad for business. So the company has made no effort to think deeply about how energy efficiency and other demand-side measures can support a zero-carbon grid — or, for that matter, how customer-owned solar can be made a part of the solution, rather than part of the problem.

This isn’t surprising: a plan that contemplates keeping gas plants around indefinitely looks very different, even in the first 15 years, from a plan that closes them all within 10 years after that.

A company that really accepted the challenge of creating a zero-carbon energy supply would not just get creative in its own planning; it would look beyond generating and supplying electricity, at the larger universe of solutions. It would advocate for buildings constructed to need much less energy, including for heating and cooling, to lessen the seasonal peaks in energy demand.

It would want the state to embrace strong efficiency standards. It would press its corporate and institutional customers to upgrade their facilities and operations to save energy, especially at times of peak demand. It would partner with communities to create microgrids. It would invest in innovation.

In short, it would ask “How can we achieve our fossil-free goal?” instead of asking “How can we keep burning gas?”

It’s not hard to understand why Dominion clings to gas; its parent company is fighting desperately to keep the Atlantic Coast Pipeline project alive in the face of spiraling costs (now up to $8 billion), an increasingly uphill battle at the State Corporation Commission to stick utility ratepayers with the costs of a redundant gas supply contract and a dearth of other customers anywhere along the route.

What is really hard to understand, though, is why Dominion chose to be quite so transparent in its disdain for the VCEA. Senator Jennifer McClellan and Delegate Rip Sullivan, both Democrats, who introduced the law and negotiated its terms with Dominion lobbyists and other stakeholders through many long days and nights, reacted to the IRP with entirely predictable outrage. In a statement they responded:

“The VCEA requires Virginia utilities to step up to the plate and be active leaders in carbon reduction. Dominion Energy’s IRP is tantamount to quitting the game before the first pitch is thrown. The law sets clear benchmarks for Virginia to reach 100 percent clean energy by 2045, not for utilities to plan to import carbon-polluting energy from West Virginia or Kentucky.”

Senator McClellan, it might be pointed out, could be on her way to becoming Virginia’s next governor. Most companies would hesitate to offend a leader of her stature, as well as such a prominent Democratic leader as Delegate Sullivan.

A growing number of legislators also seem interested in ending Dominion’s monopoly and bringing retail choice to Virginia. Though the bill that would have done that didn’t make it out of committee this year, the high-handed tone of the IRP will push more legislators into the anti-monopoly camp.

Arrogance and complacency seem like dangerous traits in times like these, but that’s Dominion for you. It will rise to any challenge, as long as the challenge doesn’t require anything the company didn’t already want to do.

A version of this article appeared in the Virginia Mercury on May 14, 2020.

Want a better understanding of how this year’s legislation works? I’m presenting the ins and outs of over a dozen bills in these three webinars:

  • What to expect when you’re expecting an energy transition, May 14, 2020 (recording available here)
  • New solar opportunities for homeowners, businesses and nonprofits, May 21, 2020, 5:30 p.m., register here
  • New tools for local governments to cut carbon, May 28, 2020, 5:30 p.m., register here