Dominion Power defends its billion-dollar handout from ratepayers; squashes dissent; asks for more.

DominionLogoA Senate committee quickly killed SB 1095, a bill introduced by Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax) that could have brought an early end to a five-year prohibition on regulators’ ability to review Dominion Virginia Power’s earnings and to order refunds where warranted. The prohibition, passed two years ago as part of 2015’s SB 1349 (Frank Wagner, R-Virginia Beach), will mean as much as a billion dollars in extra cash to the utility—money that would otherwise be returned to customers.

After losing the vote on SB 1095 in Senate Commerce and Labor, Petersen introduced SB 1593, a bill that would have prohibited campaign contributions from public service corporations like Dominion Power. He was forced to withdraw the bill when Senate leaders complained he had filed it late.

Score two for Dominion. But in case you thought the utility giant might choose to lie low for a while, consider another of this year’s bills: HB 2291 (Terry Kilgore, R-Gate City). The legislation allows Dominion to seek approval to charge customers for billions of dollars in nuclear power plant upgrades. Kilgore has collected $162,000 in campaign contributions from Dominion’s parent company over the years, even though he represents an area of the state that is not served by Dominion Virginia Power (meaning it won’t be his constituents paying for his bill). Astoundingly, the bill passed the House of Delegates with only two dissenting votes (cast by Mark Keam, D-Vienna, and Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke).

Obviously, there is a pattern here. It actually began at least as far back as 2014, when another Kilgore-sponsored bill passed allowing Dominion to shift onto its customers several hundred million dollars of nuclear development costs that otherwise would not have been recovered for many years, if ever. The legislation inspired much criticism, but little action.

Taken together, these legislative giveaways add up to enormous sums of money. The 2015 legislation involved as much as a billion dollars in customer payments that exceed the profit margin allowed by the State Corporation Commission, according to an estimate offered by one commissioner. In the absence of SB 1349, Dominion would likely have had to issue refunds, lower rates, or both.

At the time, Dominion claimed that the EPA’s proposed Clean Power Plan would impose huge costs on ratepayers unless the General Assembly acted to stop base rates from rising. Legislators weren’t told the real effect of SB 1349 would be to keep base rates from falling. And meanwhile, customers’ utility bills could continue to rise because base rates make up only a portion of monthly bills.

Petersen’s bill this year took notice of the fact that the Clean Power Plan is now highly unlikely to take effect. SB 1095 would have reinstated the SCC’s authority to review rates if and when the Clean Power Plan was deemed truly dead. This misses the mark only in being way too generous to Dominion. As the SCC has pointed out, the review freeze period will be over before the Clean Power Plan is slated to take effect, so SB 1349 could not possibly protect ratepayers from compliance costs anyway.

SB 1349 is currently being challenged in court as an unconstitutional abrogation of the SCC’s power. Two former Attorneys General, Republican Ken Cuccinelli and Democrat Andy Miller, have weighed in on the side of consumers. The current Attorney General, Democrat Mark Herring, was harshly critical of the bill when it was before the General Assembly, but now says he is obligated to defend the law.

SB 1349 passed the General Assembly two years ago amid great confusion about what was in the bill and what it all meant. Legislators padded it out with modest solar-energy and energy-efficiency provisions to make it palatable to skeptical Democrats and ensure it would be signed by Governor McAuliffe.

But this year, legislators have no such excuse. They cannot have missed the torrent of criticism the law inspired, or the point that Dominion won’t spend a dime of its ill-gotten gain on compliance with the Clean Power Plan. It is hard to see the 9-2 vote in Commerce and Labor to kill Petersen’s SB 1095 as anything but a blatant, bipartisan gift to Dominion. (The dissenting votes came from Republicans Dick Black and Stephan Newman.)

Dominion’s corrosive effect on Virginia politics is one of the main threads of a book published last year called Virginia Politics & Government in a New Century: The Price of Power. Author Jeff Thomas outlines a whole host of ways in which Virginia politics have become mired in corruption. SB 1349 is Exhibit A.

Now the unearned largesse for Dominion—and the ignominious end to Senator Petersen’s effort to rein in Dominion’s influence—have become an issue in this year’s governor’s race. Republicans Denver Riggleman and Corey Stewart and Democrat Tom Perriello are all taking aim at the connection between Dominion’s campaign spending and the billion-dollar boondoggle it received from SB 1349. If Kilgore’s HB 2291 passes the Senate this month, they will have another example on which to build their case that Dominion’s campaign donations have corrupted Virginia’s legislative process.

Legislators themselves publicly reject the idea of a causal relationship between the steady stream of campaign cash and their votes in favor of the bills, while privately acknowledging the sway Dominion holds over the General Assembly. Indeed, the comfortable fiction that campaign donations don’t affect a politician’s votes is such an insult to voters’ intelligence that the wonder is why it took so many years to become a campaign issue.

Given Wagner and Kilgore’s leadership roles in the Republican-controlled House and Senate, the issue might not seem like obvious fodder for the Republican primary campaign. Of course, Wagner is also running for governor on the Republican ticket, so the assaults of challengers Riggleman and Stewart might simply be tactics designed to undermine the competition. If voters respond, though, we can expect to hear a lot more discussion of government corruption.

In today’s chaotic political environment, Democrats who don’t speak out could find themselves under fire, too. Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam, the other Democrat running for Governor, has accepted over $97,000 from Dominion since 2008, according to VPAP.org, and so far seems not to have joined the chorus of voices criticizing Dominion’s influence.

The anti-corporate sentiments that fueled Bernie Sanders’ campaign have only intensified with Donald Trump’s embrace of bankers and oil barons. Democratic voters today are less likely than ever to forgive leaders of their own party for cozying up to big corporations. If either Democratic candidate for governor cedes the issue of clean government to the other—or to Republicans—this might be the election in which it matters.

Virginia General Assembly session opens. What can we expect?

Photo credit: Corrina Beall

Photo credit: Corrina Beall

The General Assembly failed to act on clean energy bills in 2016, but as the 2017 legislative session gets underway, advocates hope the delay will have only increased pressure for progress this year.

New energy legislation includes the four bills negotiated over the summer by the utilities and the solar industry promoting utility, community-scale, and agricultural renewable energy projects. The “Rubin Group” (named for facilitator Mark Rubin) brought together utilities, the solar industry trade group MDV-SEIA, and a group called Powered by Facts, but largely excluded environmental and consumer interests. Not surprisingly, the resulting bills are heavily weighted towards utility-scale solar, and utility control of solar in general.

But if the chairmen of House and Senate Commerce and Labor thought the Rubin Group’s work would mean no one else would float new renewable energy bills, they were certainly wrong.

Community-scale solar. I’ve previously addressed the Rubin Group’s legislation that enables a utility-administered, community-scale program to sell solar to participants on a voluntary basis. I see Senator Wagner will be carrying the bill in the Senate, now designated SB 1393. I haven’t had time to compare the current bill to the draft previously shared with stakeholders, but I’m cautiously optimistic that it will produce a viable solar option for consumers. Even better would be HB 2112 from Delgate Keam and SB 1208 from Senator Wexton, which authorize a broader set of community solar models. Delegate Krizek’s solar gardens bill, HB 618, also authorizes shared solar.

Utility-scale solar. Another bill from the Rubin Group, SB 1395 (Wagner), would raise from 100 MW to 150 MW the size of wind and solar projects that qualify as “small renewable energy projects” subject to Permit By Rule (PBR) permitting by DEQ, and allowing utilities to use that process for facilities that won’t be rate-based. In contrast, Senator Deeds’ SB 1197 would undo much of the streamlining gained by the PBR process, sending projects to the SCC if they either disturb an area of 100 acres or more or are within five miles of a boundary between political subdivisions.

The third Rubin Group bill, Wagner’s SB 1388, would allow utilities to earn a margin when they obtain solar energy via power purchase agreements with (lower cost) third-party developers rather than building projects themselves.

Senator Marsden’s SB 813 exempts investor-owned utilities from the requirement that they consider alternative options, including third-party market alternatives, when building solar facilities that have been declared in the public interest. This is surely an attempt to smooth the way for utility-owned solar at the SCC. However, if you’re trying to get utilities to keep costs down by using third-party installers, this is the wrong incentive.

Agricultural net metering. The last bill from the Rubin Group, Senator Wagner’s SB 1394, would revoke the recently enacted code provisions that allow agricultural customers to attribute electricity from a renewable energy facility to more than one meter on their property for the purposes of net metering. The proposed legislation would terminate this provision in 2018 (grandfathering existing net metering customers for 20 years) and instead offer farmers a buy-all, sell-all option for their renewable production.

Under the proposed bill, negotiated between the utilities and Powered by Facts, farmers would have to buy all their (dirty) power from their utility at retail, and sell their renewable power to the utility at the utility’s avoided cost—essentially wholesale. This doesn’t sound like a good deal for the farmers, but we’re told it more or less pencils out. On the plus side, the bill would allow farmers to build up to 1.5 megawatts of renewable capacity on up to 25% of their land, or up to 150% of the amount of electricity they use, whichever is less, which is more than they can under today’s rules. (But since federal law allows anyone to sell power they produce from a qualifying facility into the grid at avoided cost, even this part of the bill is of dubious added benefit.)

Regardless, removing the net metering option seems both unnecessary and unwise; many farmers specifically want to run their farms on solar, for marketing reasons or otherwise, and taking away their ability to aggregate meters and use net metering will be viewed as a serious setback.

The first draft of this bill that I had seen contained a provision that projects under the new program would apply against the state’s 1% cap on total net metering output, even though the projects would not be net metered. Fortunately, I don’t see that in the current version. [Update: this provision does appear in the version of the bill reported out of the Senate subcommittee on January 27, presenting a reason sufficient in itself to oppose the legislation.]

An agricultural bill that is more readily supportable is Senator Edwards’ SB 917, which eases the rules for agricultural customer-generators and increases the size of projects that can qualify for meter aggregation under the net metering statute. It also extends the law to include small hydro projects.

PPAs. Two bills attempt to resolve the ongoing dispute over customers’ rights to use third-party power purchase agreements for their on-site renewable facilities. Delegate Toscano’s HB 1800 essentially reiterates what solar advocates believe to be existing law allowing on-site PPAs, but—as a peace offering to utilities—narrows it to exclude residential customers. Senator Edwards’ SB 918 takes a different approach, replacing the Dominion PPA pilot program with a permanent statewide program to be designed by the State Corporation Commission.

Tax credits. Delegate Hugo’s HB 1891 provides a tax credit for residents who install geothermal heat pumps—a nice idea, but it will face tough sledding in a tight budget year. That budget reality could also doom Delegate Sullivan’s HB 1632, offering a broader renewable energy property tax credit (it would include geothermal heat pumps).

In spite of the current budget deficit, Republicans are making a new attempt to reinstate taxpayer subsidies for coal mining companies (Delegate Kilgore’s HB 2198). Delegate Morefield’s HB 1917 takes a better approach, offering a new tax credit for “capital investment in an energy production facility in the coalfield region.” This is worth watching, as it is not limited to coal facilities but applies to any facility that has “the primary purpose of producing energy for sale.”

Climate. Republicans seem inclined to make a renewed attack on the EPA’s Clean Power Plan (Delegate O’Quinn’s HB 1974), even though Trump’s election seems likely to send it to an early grave. This probable fate inspired Senator Petersen’s SB 1095, which says that if and when the Clean Power Plan is really declared dead, then the notorious “rate-freeze” imposed two years ago will end. As readers know, that law (Wagner’s SB 1349 from the 2015 session), will allow Dominion to keep an estimated $1 billion in excess revenues; at the time, Dominion said the law was needed to protect its customers from rate hikes required by compliance with the Clean Power Plan. Unfortunately the condition in Petersen’s bill doesn’t seem likely to kick in for at least a year or two, and possibly more; we’d prefer to see the legislation revoke the freeze immediately, and put the ill-gotten gains to use as a massive stimulus package supporting clean energy jobs.

On the flip side, Delegate Villanueva is gamely making another run at getting Virginia to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (HB 2018) as a way to change utility incentives and raise money for climate adaptation and clean energy.

Nuclear. Delegate Kilgore has introduced HB 2291, a bill to make it easier for Dominion Virginia Power to stick ratepayers with the costs of any upgrades it makes to its nuclear power plants. The bill further attacks and undermines the SCC’s authority to determine whether expenses are reasonable, the sort of favor to Dominion that has become a theme in recent years. Kilgore doesn’t even represent any Dominion customers; he’s in APCo territory. I guess that’s why he’s okay with raising rates for Dominion customers.

Energy efficiency. Efficiency bills suffered the same fate as renewable energy bills last year; many were offered, but few were chosen. (Actually, it might have been none. We don’t do much energy efficiency in Virginia.)

Delegate Sullivan is trying again to set energy efficiency goals with HB 1703, or at the very least to have government track our progress towards meeting (or rather, not meeting) the state’s existing goal, with HB 1465. He is also trying again to change how the SCC evaluates energy efficiency programs to make them easier to implement (HB 1636). Senator Dance’s SB 990 also sets an energy consumption reduction goal.

Delegate Krizek’s HJ 575 would authorize a study of infrastructure investments that yield energy savings. Delegate Minchew’s HB 1712 authorizes energy performance-based contracting for public bodies.

Miscellaneous. Delegate Kilgore’s HB 1760 supports a new pumped storage facility in the Coalfields region (news to me). Senator Ebbin’s SB 1258 would add energy storage to the work of the Virginia Solar Development Authority, which seems eminently sensible.

More bills are likely to be filed in the coming days, and I would promise to update you on them if I weren’t marking Trump’s inauguration by leaving the country for a week. Serious advocates should peruse the LIS website and perhaps sign up for the bill tracking service “Lobbyist in a Box.” Also watch for a clean energy lobby day that MDV-SEIA will organize, likely on the yet-to-be-announced day the House Commerce and Labor Subcommittee on Energy meets, usually in early February.

This year’s legislative session lasts a mere 45 days, weekends included. Cynics say the tight schedule limits the damage politicians can do, but in reality it just means lawmakers have to lean heavily on lobbyists and constituents—and as the lobbyists are on hand, and the constituents are at home, the schedule favors the lobbyists. So if you want to make your voice heard, now’s the time.

Virginia utilities back legislation to offer consumers a solar option

Photo credit iid.com

Photo credit iid.com

A group comprised primarily of Virginia utilities and solar industry members has proposed four pieces of legislation for the 2017 Virginia legislative session. The bills address four areas the group agreed to work on: creating a pilot program to offer solar energy to customers on a voluntary basis, under the name of “community solar”; raising from 100 MW to 150 MW the size limit for wind and solar projects that can take advantage of the streamlined Permit by Rule process, and allowing utilities to use that process in some circumstances; creating a program to allow farmers to sell some surplus solar to the grid; and allowing utilities to earn a profit on solar facilities they don’t build themselves (an incentive for them to do more deals with developers, whose costs are less and who receive more favorable tax treatment).

The group, referred to as the Rubin Group after its moderator, Richmond lawyer Mark Rubin, formed earlier this year when the Commerce and Labor Committees of the General Assembly refused to act on a suite of renewable energy and energy efficiency bills offered during the 2016 session. The committee chairmen, Senator Frank Wagner and Delegate Terry Kilgore, said members needed more time to consider the proposals, though they were similar to ones submitted (and killed) in previous years. Wagner and Kilgore assigned a special subcommittee to study the legislation and make recommendations for next year.

The subcommittee met once in the spring to hear summaries of the bills. It took no further action until December 8, when four members showed up to hear presentations from the Rubin Group and ask a few questions. The hearing took half an hour. No one mentioned energy efficiency.

Setting aside more contentious issues, the Rubin Group had agreed to focus on drafting legislation where they felt compromise between the solar industry and the utilities was possible. That left out a lot, including the many bills dealing with net metering issues and third-party ownership. They also chose not to bring in environmental or consumer groups until they had nearly completed drafting their bills, though they did include an advocacy group called Powered by Facts that focused on agricultural customers. Representatives from Southern Environmental Law Center and League of Conservation Voters were finally brought in to review and comment solely on the community solar bill. Other stakeholders were briefed on the bills in late November but not allowed to see the legislation until today. (As of this writing, the bills had not yet been posted anywhere I can link to.)

The community solar bill has generated the most interest, especially from residential customers who can’t put solar on their own roofs and are eager for options. And a review of the language suggests that in concept, at least, this bill holds a great deal of promise for bringing solar to average Virginians.

However, the name “community solar” is something of a misnomer for the Rubin Group’s bill, which might better be described as enabling a program for utility-administered, community-scale solar. The legislation provides for the utility to solicit bids for new solar facilities to be built by private developers around the state. The utility will contract for the output of the facilities and sell the electricity to customers who want to buy solar. Customers will never own the projects.

The bill is labeled a three-year pilot program. It consists of generating facilities up to 2 megawatts in size, for an initial total of 4 MW for APCo and 25 MW for Dominion. When a program is 90% subscribed, the utilities will add facilities up to a total of 10 MW for APCo and 40 MW for Dominion. Each utility will issue requests for proposals (RFPs) from developers, and will purchase the output and the associated renewable energy certificates (RECs). The utility will retire the RECs on the customer’s behalf, which assures customers they are actually getting solar. Electric cooperatives are also authorized to conduct similar pilot programs.

The utilities will be allowed to recover all of their costs through a rate schedule, including for squishy categories like administrative and marketing charges, plus a margin determined by the “weighted average cost of capital.”

The legislation does not set the price of the electricity, something left to the State Corporation Commission to decide under tight parameters. Leaving the price out of the legislation is reasonable, given that the RFPs haven’t even been issued yet, but it does mean we have no idea at this point whether customers will see a savings from the program either immediately (highly unlikely) or in the future. But the legislation does allow customers to lock in a fixed price for as long as they are in the program, giving them the price stability that is one of the major benefits of solar.

In addition, the members of the Rubin Group say they have agreed to abide by a Memorandum of Understanding they drafted to guide implementation of the bill at the SCC. This MOU has not been made public, and in any case the SCC would not be bound by it, but it may help ensure that regulations implementing the pilot program meet the parties’ expectations.

So how much of a difference could this program make? As a rule of thumb, supplying an average Virginia household with 100% solar energy requires the output of 10 kilowatts (kW) worth of solar panels. Thus the program total of 50 MW (50,000 kW) would be enough to supply 5,000 average Virginia households if they were to meet their entire electric load this way, or more if they are energy efficient or plan to meet only a portion of their load with solar. By comparison, Dominion alone claims to have over 30,000 customers in its Green Power Program. That program offers mostly wind RECs from other states, and does not reduce customers’ use of ordinary grid power from fossil fuels and nuclear. Thus there seem to be more than enough customers primed to sign up for a program that is infinitely better than what they are paying extra for today.

The astute reader will wonder why Dominion didn’t just change its Green Power Program to a Virginia solar program, something it could do through the State Corporation Commission without new legislation. If any astute reader figures that out, please let me know, because I’ve been wondering about it for years.

Regardless, the Rubin bill holds promise as an option for customers who can’t put solar on their own rooftops. It would mean more solar projects get built in Virginia, creating jobs and bringing new economic development to localities across the state. It would decrease demand for dirty power and possibly persuade our utilities that the future really does lie with solar, not with fracked gas.

Calling it community solar seems unwise, however. Virginians are wary of a bait-and-switch from a utility with a long history of promising the moon and delivering green cheese.

For real community solar, we will have to look to legislation developed by the Virginia Distributed Solar Collaborative. This broad-based group of solar stakeholders includes consumers, local government employees and environmentalists as well as solar industry representatives (but not utilities). The Collaborative developed its own model bill this summer based on legislation from other states. The model bill gives much greater freedom to customers to cooperate in the development and ownership of renewable energy facilities for their own benefit. Customers don’t have to wait for their utility to choose a developer, and they can choose to own a share of a facility, not just buy some of the electricity generated. Utilities can own facilities, but so can non-profit or for-profit entities. Utilities are required to purchase the output of the community facilities, and to issue bill credits to its customers who are subscribers.

As a practical matter, members of the Virginia Distributed Solar Collaborative don’t expect the General Assembly to adopt their model instead of something that comes with the Dominion Power seal of approval. But it’s important for legislators to understand what the alternative looks like, and why their constituents may feel that a utility-operated program shouldn’t be the only option.

Will Virginia run roughshod over local zoning power to help gas drilling companies?

Although Virginia’s 2017 General Assembly session is still more than three months off, fossil fuel interests will already be planning how to win more special favors from the legislature. In past years they’ve gotten subsidies or a relaxation of environmental safeguards. This year, it could be help dealing with pesky local governments that want to protect communities from fracking. Guest blogger Linda Burchfiel brings us the story.

Photo credit Virginia Sierra Club

Photo credit Virginia Sierra Club

Even in a Dillon Rule state like Virginia, where local governments have only the authority conferred on them by the state, localities have some authority over matters that affect the daily life of residents. Traditionally they have authority to enact zoning ordinances to maintain their sense of community. Recently, counties have started to use their authority to limit the ability of natural gas drilling companies to conduct fracking operations within their borders. Now the industry is pushing back—hard.

Indeed, any action that limits fracking sends the oil and gas industry into high gear. The industry is already working to undermine new state regulations governing disclosure of chemicals used in fracking operations. Based on the experience of other states, we expect to see the industry seek legislation in Virginia’s upcoming General Assembly Session to block local authority over fracking.

New forms of “unconventional drilling,” including hydraulic fracturing or “fracking,” make drilling for natural gas potentially profitable in parts of Virginia that have no history of oil and gas development. Fracking companies have been travelling to new areas, leasing acres of land and approaching local governments for permits. Before considering permits, some local governments have insisted on researching fracking and its consequences.

This happened in 2010 in Rockingham County, which sits in the Shenandoah Valley atop a sliver of the Marcellus Shale. When a Texas-based drilling company requested permits to conduct fracking operations there, county supervisors decided they had better educate themselves on the subject. A Republican board member took the lead, investigating the safety records of fracking companies in other states and sounding the alarm about his findings. Facing growing opposition and unwilling to wait, and with falling gas prices making fracking in the county less profitable, the drilling company eventually withdrew its request.

Fracking also threatens the Tidewater area, where the U.S. Geological Survey estimates the Taylorsville Basin may contain over a trillion cubic feet of shale gas in an area underlying parts of more than a dozen Virginia counties. (A map of the Taylorsville Basin can be found here.) But while the potential for industry profits may be good, the potential risks are much greater. This low-lying region is in the Chesapeake Bay watershed and contains the Potomac Aquifer, which supplies water for drinking, agriculture and industry for almost half of Virginia’s population. In recognition of these unique environmental challenges, the Virginia Oil and Gas Act includes special provisions to protect the Tidewater Region. Two such provisions are the requirement of an environmental impact assessment for a permit, and a prohibition of drilling for oil or natural gas within 500 feet of the Chesapeake Bay or any tributary.

To add further safeguards, the King George Board of Supervisors proposed an ordinance in August 2015 with specific restrictions intended to protect the community from the noise, traffic and environmental degradation of fracking. After the gas industry threatened to sue, the Board held a new public hearing this year, then passed the ordinance with only slight modifications. Restrictions include a prohibition on well drilling within 750 feet of a waterway or road or occupied building, limiting drill sites to four acres, prohibiting holes from being bored within 100 feet of a property line, and requiring each company interested in drilling to apply for a special exception permit and to submit extensive information.

Although the oil and gas industry had tried to influence the Board’s decision with the threat of long and expensive litigation, its legal theory is weak. A 2015 opinion by Attorney General Mark Herring affirms that municipalities have the authority to use zoning ordinances to restrict fracking, including authority to prohibit it entirely within a jurisdiction. His opinion overturned that of the previous Attorney General, Ken Cuccinelli, who had stated that localities could not “ban altogether” oil and gas exploration and drilling through zoning ordinances. Even Cuccinelli, however, had conceded that a county “may adopt a zoning ordinance that places restrictions on the location and siting of oil and gas wells that are reasonable in scope and consistent” with applicable state laws.

If the industry can’t win in court, though, it may attempt to use the legislature to pass legislation taking away local governments’ ability to limit fracking. Given the historic influence the fossil fuel industry has on Virginia’s General Assembly, this poses a serious threat to localities that want to control their own fate.

The industry has an ally in this effort: the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a lobbying organization heavily funded by the fossil fuel industry. ALEC counts many conservative Virginia legislators among its members, as well as utility giant Dominion Resources. ALEC members draft and share model state-level legislation that favors corporate interests. ALEC claims to support sending power back to the local level, but in fact it consistently favors unlimited fossil-fuel extraction and burning, regardless of ALEC’s ostensible principles. So if local governments want to restrict fracking, while state legislatures are less inclined to do so, ALEC will likely favor blocking local government restrictions.

A recent news account revealed that ALEC and its local government affiliate, the American City-County Exchange (ACCE) are working to block local government action in states where the state legislature is more corporate-friendly than local governments. Thus we should be prepared to see ALEC insert itself in Virginia’s legislative process to try to block local restrictions on fracking.

Indeed, ALEC has already been working in other states to stop local governments from restricting fracking. This includes Texas, which passed a preemptive ban on local government efforts to stop fracking in 2015. In Florida, a similar ALEC-supported ban was defeated after opponents pointed out that the measure threatened localities’ traditional control over other local issues, such as education.

Linda Burchfiel is the Fracking Issues Chair for the Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club.

Sierra Club scorecard plumbs divisions among Virginia legislators

SC ScorecardBy and large, Virginia Republicans are still locked in a fossil fuel echo chamber, where “all of the above” and “war on coal” guide their votes. Virginia Democrats mostly acknowledge the damage climate change is doing to the commonwealth and around the planet and support a course correction. And regardless of ideology, large majorities from both parties vote for whatever Dominion Power wants.

These are the major takeaways from this year’s legislative session and the 2016 Climate and Energy Scorecard, just released by the Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club. Constituents and clean energy advocates will want to look at not just the raw grades of individual legislators, but also the discussion provided in the report, to understand the dynamics of our General Assembly.

Twenty-eight Democrats earned perfect scores. All but a handful of Republicans earned failing grades. Sierra Club gave extra credit to legislators who introduced bills that advanced clean energy. This included several Republicans highlighted in the scorecard, but their bad votes on other bills dragged down their overall scores.

This is really a shame, since some Republicans have worked hard to advance clean energy legislation. Leesburg Delegate Randy Minchew comes to mind here for his dogged efforts on behalf of distributed solar energy, something you might not guess from his overall grade of D.

Often, it seems, reform-minded Republicans go along with their party’s more retrograde positions where they are pressured to do so by their party leaders, or where the votes are so lopsided that there is nothing to gain from breaking with the majority.

If party leaders have an outsize influence on voting, so too does Dominion Power. In fact, if you want to know who the true champions of the people are, don’t look at party affiliation. Look for the few legislators who will stand up to the most powerful political force in Richmond.

That assumes you can find votes to examine. In the introduction to the Sierra Club scorecard, Legislative Chair Susan Stillman noted with frustration this year’s paucity of recorded votes available to score:

The challenges of producing a fair and even scorecard are growing, as are the opportunities for Virginia citizens to have a clear and accurate picture of their elected representative’s voting record. Transparency in the General Assembly sunk to a new low this year: 95% of the bills defeated in the House of Delegates were done so on an unrecorded vote or no vote at all. This is not business-as-usual: just over a decade ago, nearly every bill that passed through the House received a recorded vote.

An ongoing problem, both for scorecard referees and for clean energy advocates, is that most bills that would advance the cause of renewable energy and energy efficiency never make it out of committee; in the House, the bills are heard in a tiny subcommittee. Not only do votes go unrecorded, but this approach deprives most of our elected representatives of the opportunity to vote on some of the most important energy policy issues facing Virginia.

And then there was this year, in which even the subcommittee members never got a chance to vote. A dozen or so of the most promising clean energy bills were never heard at all, but were sent to a newly-formed interim study subcommittee, ostensibly for the purpose of giving these bills the benefit of greater deliberation. The effect was to kill them quietly for the year.

As Stillman notes, all these unrecorded votes make it hard to know where the vast majority of legislators stand:

Without a recorded vote, the public is deprived of the full measure of his or her elected official’s voting history. And the problem of unrecorded votes is growing worse. This year’s unprecedented rate of unrecorded votes in the House is up from 76% in 2015—a 25% jump in one year. Virginia legislators are killing more bills than ever without accountability for their actions. This practice is wrong, and it’s dangerous for our democracy.

Stillman gives a shout-out to the founding members of the new, bipartisan Transparency Caucus for its efforts to make all votes public and ensure every bill gets a hearing.

These would be modest reforms, but welcome. If sunlight is the best disinfectant, there’s a big, dirty House (and Senate) in Richmond that need cleaning.

Only the good die young: A mid-way review of Virginia climate and energy bills

Photo credit: Corrina Beall

Photo credit: Corrina Beall

Virginia’s 2016 legislative session is only half over, but it’s already clear that the General Assembly is no more capable of dealing with climate change and a rapidly-evolving energy sector than it ever was. Republicans are stuck in denial, Democrats are divided between those who get it and those who don’t, and for most legislators in both parties, the default vote is whatever Dominion Power wants.

Republican attacks on EPA climate regulations sail through both houses, while popular RGGI legislation dies in committee.

Practically the first bills filed this session call for Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality to submit for legislative approval any plan to comply with the EPA’s Clean Power Plan. Anxious to safeguard Virginia’s heritage of carbon pollution against the twin threats of clean energy and a more stable climate, the Republican leadership rammed through HB 2 and SB 21 on party-line votes. Governor McAuliffe has promised vetoes.

Eager as it was to defeat Obama’s approach to climate disruption, the Party of No supported no solutions of its own, even when proposed by one of its own. Virginia Beach Republican Ron Villanueva couldn’t even get a vote in subcommittee for his Virginia Alternative Energy and Coastal Protection Act, which would have had Virginia join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI). It was the only legislation introduced this year that would have lowered greenhouse gas emissions and raised money to deal with climate change. The Democratic-led Senate version also failed to move out of committee, on a party-line vote.

Republicans scoff at climate change, but they are beginning to worry about its effects. Bills have moved forward to work on coastal “resiliency” efforts and to continue studying sea level rise (referred to as “recurrent flooding,” as though it were a phenomenon unto itself and suggesting no particular reason it might get worse). The Senate passed SB 282, creating the Virginia Shoreline Resiliency Fund, and SJ 58, extending the work of the Joint Subcommittee to study recurrent flooding. The House passed HJ 84, a companion to SJ 58, and HB 903, establishing a Commonwealth Center for Recurrent Flooding Resiliency.

Bold energy efficiency measures die. Not-so-bold measures don’t do well either.

Virginia appears set to continue its woeful record on energy efficiency. Between the opposition of electric utilities and their regulators at the State Corporation Commission, bills that would have set the stage for cost-effective reductions in energy use got killed off early or watered down to nothing.

Among the latter were the fairly modest bills pushed by the Governor. They passed only when reduced to a provision for the SCC to evaluate how to measure the subject. Weirdly, even that found opposition from conservative members of the Senate and House.

The only bill to move forward more or less intact was Delegate Sullivan’s HB 1174, which requires state agencies to report on how badly the state is doing in meeting its efficiency goal. So we may not make progress, but at least we’ll have to acknowledge our failures. (Roughly the same group of conservatives didn’t think we should even go that far.)

Renewable energy bills won’t move forward this year, except the one Dominion wants.

As previously reported, the Republican chairmen of the House and Senate Commerce and Labor committees decided not to decide when it came to much-needed renewable energy reforms. Every bill to create new market opportunities for wind and solar was “carried over to 2017,” i.e., referred to a not-yet-existent subcommittee composed of unnamed people tasked with meeting at a not-yet-scheduled time, in order to do “something.”

“We do need to get moving on these solar bills faster than we have been going,” said House C&L Chairman Terry Kilgore, in explaining why his committee was not getting moving on any solar bills.

On the other hand, over in House Finance, Dominion Virginia Power’s bill to lower the taxes it pays for renewable energy property fared better. In exchange for an 80% tax exclusion for its own utility projects, Dominion offered up reductions in the tax savings currently afforded to the smaller projects being developed by independent solar companies. In an amusing sideshow, Republican leaders tried to use their support for this legislation to strong-arm liberal Democrats into supporting a bill extending coal subsidies, on the theory that passing one bill that benefits Dominion warrants passing another bill that benefits Dominion.

Given the lack of progress in opening the wind and solar markets, there is more than a little irony in the fact that legislation moved forward in both the House and Senate requiring utilities to direct customers to an SCC website with information about options for purchasing renewable energy. (Which leads to the question: if visitors to such a site encounter an error message, is it still an error?)

Coal subsidies remain everyone’s favorite waste of money.

Once again, the House and Senate passed bills extending corporate welfare for companies whose business model involves blowing up mountains and poisoning streams. Over the years legislators have spent more than half a billion dollars of taxpayer money on these giveaways, knowing full well it was money down a rat-hole. Community activists have pleaded with lawmakers to put the cash towards diversifying the coalfields economy instead, but there has never been a serious effort to redirect the subsidies to help mine workers instead of corporate executives and the utilities that buy coal.

This year the corporate handout went forward in the face of reports that one of the biggest recipients plans to pay multi-million-dollar bonuses to its executives while laying off miners and looking for ways to dodge its obligations to workers. Add to this the news that the same company owes two coalfields counties $2.4 million in unpaid taxes for last year, and you have to wonder what fairy tales legislators are hearing from lobbyists that makes them put aside common sense.

It’s not just Republicans who voted for these subsidies (though there is no excuse for them, either). Some Democrats did so, too. Governor McAuliffe has said he would veto these bills, which means senators like David Marsden, Jennifer Wexton, John Edwards and Chap Petersen will have a chance to redeem themselves by voting against an override.

Many thanks to Senators Howell, Ebbin, Favola, Locke, McEachin, McPike and Surovell for seeing through the propaganda of the coal lobby and voting no.

Dominion defeats legislation protecting the public from coal ash contamination

Senator Scott Surovell’s SB 537 would have required toxic coal ash to be disposed of in lined landfills rather than left in leaking, unlined pits and simply covered over. The bill failed in committee in spite of support from one Republican (Stanley), after Democratic Senator Roslyn Dance caved to pressure from Dominion and abstained. One might have expected more backbone from a legislator with coal ash contamination in her own district. (Nothing excuses the Republicans who voted against the public health on this, either. Last I heard, Republican babies are as vulnerable to water pollution as Democratic babies.)

 

Virginia legislators look to tax breaks and barrier-busting to boost renewable energy

Let's get these projects moo-ving. Photo credit NREL

Let’s get these projects moo-ving. Photo credit NREL

The orchestrated mayhem of the Virginia General Assembly session is well underway. Thirteen days are gone and only twenty-one days remain until what’s known as “Crossover,” after which any bill that hasn’t passed its own chamber is effectively dead. This year Crossover falls on February 16. After that, each chamber considers only bills already passed by the other.

By that measure, yours truly is one lazy blogger, because I’m only just getting to the renewable energy bills. On the other hand, bills were still being filed until Friday, and some bills are undergoing revisions before they are heard in committee. These are moving targets; advocates beware.

Removing barriers to investment 

Readers of this blog know that Virginia law is riddled with barriers that restrain the market for wind and solar in Virginia. This year several bills take aim at the policies holding us back.

HB 1286 (Randy Minchew, R-Leesburg, in Commerce and Labor) is barrier-busting legislation developed by the solar industry in consultation with the wind industry and solar advocates. It clarifies that renewable energy companies that sell to retail customers under power purchase agreements (PPAs) are not public utilities and don’t have to meet the statutory requirements for public utilities and suppliers. Customers can use third-party PPAs to purchase renewable energy electricity generated by facilities located on the customer’s property, everywhere in the state. The bill also lifts the one percent cap on net metering programs relative to total utility sales, and authorizes community net metering programs. It also expands the concept of “agricultural net metering” to cover other customers who want to attribute electricity from one facility to multiple meters on the customer’s property.

In addition, the bill amends the Commonwealth’s energy policy by adding the goals of encouraging private sector distributed renewable energy, increasing security of the electricity grid by supporting distributed renewable energy projects, and augmenting the exercise of private property rights by landowners desiring to generate their own energy from renewable energy sources on their lands. None of this language by itself forces action, but the State Corporation Commission takes note of energy policy in its decision-making.

SB 140 (John Edwards, D-Roanoke, in Commerce and Labor) attacks the standby charges that have been so controversial. It increases the size of electrical generating facilities operated by residential or agricultural net energy metering customers that are subject to a monthly standby charge from those with a capacity of 10 kilowatts to those with a capacity of 20 kilowatts. Since residential solar facilities that are net-metered are already limited to 20 kW, this would effectively repeal standby charges for residential net metering.

SB 139 (John Edwards, D-Roanoke, in Commerce and Labor) makes a small change to the existing agricultural net metering option.

SB 148 (John Edwards, D-Roanoke, in Commerce and Labor) replaces the pilot program enacted in 2013 that authorized a limited pilot program for third-party PPAs. generation facilities. The bill requires the State Corporation Commission to establish third-party power purchase agreement programs for each electric utility. The existing pilot program applies only to Dominion Virginia Power and sets the maximum size of a renewable generation facility at one megawatt; the programs authorized by SB 148 apply to all electric utilities and do not set limits on the size of facilities.

Although SB 148 is similar to HB 1286 in attempting to ensure the legality of third-party PPAs, solar advocates prefer HB 1286. Giving the State Corporation Commission authority here should not be necessary and might lead to higher costs and more regulations.

Community energy/solar gardens

It’s darned hard to buy renewable energy in Virginia if you are among the approximately 75% of residents who can’t put solar panels on your own roof or build a wind turbine out on the back forty. That’s an enormous untapped market.

SB 1286, above, contains a provision authorizing community energy programs In addition, HB 1285 (Randy Minchew, R-Leesburg, in Commerce and Labor) is a stand-alone bill that authorizes (but does not require) investor-owned utilities and coops to establish community energy programs.

HB 618 (Paul Krizek, D-Alexandria, referred to Commerce and Labor) would require the State Corporation Commission to adopt rules for “community solar gardens” that would let customers subscribe to a portion of the output of a solar facility located elsewhere in their area. The solar electricity and the renewable energy credits (RECs) would be sold to the local utility, which would then credit the subscribers on their utility bills.

But whereas customers who have solar panels one their own roof get credited at full retail value and own the associated renewable energy credits, HB 618 allows the SCC to devise rules that could result in a much worse deal for solar garden subscribers, including allowing the utility to impose a “reasonable charge” to cover ill-defined costs.

That’s an unfortunate invitation to the utilities to pile on fees. Unless the utilities involved really want to make the program work for their customers, it’s hard to imagine this turning out well. We would not expect to see viable programs in Dominion or APCo territory if this passes. On the other hand, some municipal utilities have been more responsive to the interests of their customers, so it could work for them.

Tax credits and exemptions

An important tax bill to watch this year is HB 1305 (Jackson Miller, R-Manassas, referred to Finance), which changes the state and local tax treatment of solar and wind energy facilities. It exempts utility solar and wind from taxation, but lowers from 20 MW to 1 MW the size of other solar projects that are exempt from local machinery and tools tax (a kind of personal property tax; securing that exemption was a major win for the solar industry in 2014). The bill replaces the hard-won 100% exemption with an 80% exemption. The change is very nice for utilities (Virginia is always very nice to utilities), but it makes the economics worse for third-party owned facilities in the 1 MW to 20 MW range—exactly the ones the state should be trying to attract.

SB 743 (Frank Wagner, R-Virginia Beach, referred to Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources) helps solar projects below 5 MW qualify for the above-mentioned tax exemption passed in 2014. The bill makes the Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy the agency that certifies solar projects as “pollution control equipment and facilities,” eligible for exemption from state and local taxation. This exemption from state sales tax and local machinery and tools taxes is one of the few perks Virginia can offer commercial-scale solar developers here, where margins on projects are very thin compared with projects in North Carolina or Maryland with stronger incentives.

Tax credits are also on the agenda this year. Tax credits fell into disfavor in Virginia following an audit that revealed that many tax credits aren’t achieving their objectives (see: tax subsidies for coal mining). Senate Finance Committee members resolved to end them just about the same time the solar industry came asking for one themselves two years ago, with unhappy results for solar. But tax credits are legislative candy, and there’s no telling how long the diet will last. Hopeful persons may as well put out their own plate of chocolates. If the diet is off, then the main problem with this year’s bills, from the point of view of the Republicans who make up the majority of our legislature, is simply that they come from Democrats.

HB 480 (Rip Sullivan, D-Arlington, referred to Finance) establishes a 35% tax credit for renewable energy property, to be claimed over 5 years, with a $5 million program cap. The credit would apply not just to wind and solar but also some biomass, combined heat and power, geothermal and hydro systems.

SB 142 (John Edwards, D-Roanoke, referred to Finance) and HB 1050 (Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, referred to Finance) establish a tax credit of up to 30% for solar thermal systems used for water heating or space heating and cooling. Solar PV systems are not included in the bill.

State funding through carbon cap and trade

SB 571 (Donald McEachin, D-Richmond, referred to Agriculture, Conservation and Natuaral Resources) and HB 351 (Villanueva, R-Virginia Beach, referred to Commerce and Labor) would require the Governor to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), the cap-and-trade program that has successfully ratcheted down carbon emissions in the northeastern states. Funds generated by auction allowances would fund sea level rise adaptation in coastal areas, economic transition efforts for southwest Virginia, energy efficiency for low-income families, and distributed renewable energy programs.

Financing

HB 941 (David Toscano, D-Charlottesville, referred to Counties, Cities and Towns) expands the authorization for Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) programs to include residential and condominium projects. This would allow localities to offer low-interest financing to homeowners for both energy efficiency and renewable energy investments.

Utility cost recovery

HB 1220 (David Yancey, R-Newport News, referred to Commerce and Labor) is billed as a technical fix for language added to the Code last year that encourages utilities to invest in solar. The bill clarifies that a utility that purchases a solar facility is allowed cost recovery on the same favorable terms it would get by building the facility itself.

Energy storage

Energy storage is emerging as the hot new energy technology area, about where solar was five years ago. Interest in it has been driven by recent price declines as well as the success of wind and solar and the growing awareness that these carbon-free sources are likely to make up a significant portion of our electricity supply in coming years. So while the use of storage is by no means limited to renewable energy applications, I include it here because it will interest those who follow wind and solar policy.

HB 452 (Patrick Hope, D-Arlington, in Commerce and Labor) and SB 403 (Ebbin, D-Alexandria, in Commerce and Labor) create the Virginia Energy Storage Consortium to promote research, development, commercialization, manufacturing and deployment of energy storage. It’s a great idea.

HB 1137 (David Toscano, D-Charlottesville, in Commerce and Labor) directs the State Corporation Commission to develop a program to enable commercial and industrial customers to sell battery storage services to the grid. If you’ve heard of the concept known as “vehicle-to-grid” (using electric cars to put power back on the grid as well as drawing from it), you’ll understand what this is about. It would allow these and other “energy balancing devices” to provide value to the grid in the form of spinning reserves, frequency regulation, distribution system support, reactive power, demand response, or other electric grid services. It’s an idea whose time has come.

Biomass

Wind and solar have several less popular relatives with more tenuous claims on the renewable energy family name. Virginia’s definition of “renewable” embraces them all, regardless of merit. It treats biomass to a special place of honor, including even the burning of trees that haven’t been harvested sustainably, and regardless of how much pollution gets spewed into the atmosphere.

SB 647 (Barbara Favola, D-Arlington, in Commerce and Labor) and HB 973 (Alfonso Lopez, D-Arlington, in Commerce and Labor) would change that to require that electricity from new biomass plants, to qualify as renewable energy, would have to meet a minimum efficiency level. Burning wood from trees would generally meet that standard only when it produces both electricity and heat (or, through the magic of science, cooling).

Consumer choice

HB 444 (Manoli Loupassi, R-Richmond, in Commerce and Labor) and SB 745 (Frank Wagner, R-Virginia Beach, in Commerce and Labor) would expand the current requirement that utilities inform ratepayers about their options for purchasing renewable energy.

Which might lead you to ask, “what options?” since for most of us here in Virginia they are sadly lacking. But maybe this year’s session will start to change that.

A note about House Commerce and Labor: Bills noted above that have been assigned to the House Committee on Commerce and Labor have all been assigned to its Subcommittee on Energy. This powerful subcommittee typically meets only once or twice before Crossover. I’m told it will meet on the afternoon of Tuesday, February 9, likely continuing well into the evening due to the number of bills assigned.

February 9 is also Clean Energy Lobby Day, when members of the renewable energy and energy efficiency industries descend on Richmond to educate legislators about the need for sound reforms. This year the solar industry trade association MDV-SEIA is organizing the lobby day, which is free to participants. The organization has also created a petition to support third-party financing of solar in Virginia.


UPDATE:

Senator McEachin files bill for mandatory RPS. SB 761 Donald McEachin (D-Richmond) would make Virginia’s pathetic, voluntary RPS into a mandatory RPS that would rank as one of the best in the country. It would require utilities to meet an increasing percentage of electricity sales from solar, onshore wind, offshore wind, and energy efficiency, reaching 25% of base year sales by 2025 (and deleting the current, obnoxious slight-of-hand that leaves nuclear out of the equation, but keeping a base year of 2007). By 2017, half of it would have to come from sources located within Virginia.