Dominion won’t build new baseload gas plants. So why is it still building the Atlantic Coast Pipeline?

gas pipeline protesters standing in front of solar panels

The message from several Virginians was clear at the opening of a new solar farm in Troy, Virginia last month. Protesters want Governor Ralph Northam to speak out against the ACP and the Mountain Valley Pipeline, both under development in Virginia.

Utility giant Dominion Energy and gas turbine maker General Electric reportedly agree on a startling fact: there is no market for new baseload gas plants.

As recently as two years ago, Dominion’s utility subsidiary in Virginia had as much as 8,000 megawatts (MW) of new combined cycle gas plants on the drawing board. Combined cycle plants, designed to run most of the time, have become the dominant source of power generation in Virginia.

This year, new combined cycle plants are noticeably absent from Dominion Energy Virginia’s Integrated Resource Plan. Proposed instead are a series of smaller, peak-serving combustion turbines. Although the utility is proposing a bunch of them, they will have to compete with increasingly-competitive storage options for regulatory approval.

It’s not just Virginia. According to the Forbesarticle linked above, Dominion Energy has no plans to build any more combined cycle plants anywhere, due to competition from wind and solar.

Other utilities are also losing interest in combined cycle gas pants, as GE has learned to its chagrin. GE is cutting 12,000 jobs in its GE Power unit, says Forbes.

A new study from the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) shows why utilities are smart to avoid building new gas plants. RMI says that as early as 2026, cost declines for wind and solar will make it more expensive to operate natural gas infrastructure than to abandon it and replace it with new wind and solar facilities. When that happens, gas plant owners will be left with stranded assets.

Even in today’s market, RMI concludes gas is a risky investment:

RMI examined four case studies of proposed gas plants from utilities across the US. These cases included two combined-cycle gas turbine (CCGT) power plants, planned for high-capacity factor operation, and two combustion turbine power plants, planned for peak-hour operation. These power plants are proposed for a wide variety of regions with different resource availability, resource costs, climate- and weather-driven demand needs, and customer bases.

In all four cases, RMI found clean energy portfolios to be cost-competitive with proposed gas-fired generation, while meeting all required grid services and supporting system-level reliability. In three of the four cases, optimized, region-specific clean energy portfolios cost 8–60 percent less than the proposed gas plant, based on industry-standard cost forecasts and without subsidies. In only one case was the clean energy portfolio’s cost slightly higher than the proposed gas plant. However, further analysis revealed that modest carbon pricing (i.e., < $8/ton) or feasible community-scale solar cost reductions would easily reverse the result. Similarly, two more years of anticipated renewable and storage cost reductions would also eliminate the difference in cost between the clean energy portfolio and the gas plant.

All this is very bad news for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. The ACP received approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) last year on the strength of supply contracts with the utility subsidiaries of Dominion Energy and Duke Energy, Dominion’s major partner in the pipeline. If these utilities don’t actually need the gas, the whole basis for FERC’s approval of the pipeline collapses.

No wonder Dominion Energy wants to extend its reach into South Carolina. Plans for new nuclear plants in the state recently imploded, potentially leaving a supply gap that new gas plants could fill.

And no wonder Dominion Energy Virginia continues to propose gas combustion turbines and ignore energy storage in spite of its cost declines. Dominion is scrambling to save the ACP.

How did Dominion get it so wrong? Recall that Dominion and its partners announced plans for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline in early September of 2014; the rationale for the pipeline would have relied on industry forecasts from 2013 and before. At that time, the gas industry was giddy about fracked gas displacing coal. While critics (including me) said new baseload gas plants would be giant concrete paperweights before they’d reached the end of their useful life, most utilities were drinking the fracked gas Kool-Aid.

In the intervening years, coal has certainly continued its exit (Donald Trump’s half-baked rescue plans notwithstanding), but solar and wind have become the cheapest source of electricity in the U.S., according to federal statistics. The cost of electricity from utility-scale solar farms has dropped by half since 2013, and by last year Dominion had identified solar as the cheapest source of new electricity in Virginia.

The problem for Dominion Energy is that the ACP is the only big trick it has now, after the failure of its own ambitions for new nuclear. Dominion doubled down on natural gas in 2016 when it paid 4.4 billion dollars for natural gas distribution company Questar, paying a 23% premium on the deal. It can’t back down from gas now. Either it has to spend 6 billion dollars (and rising) on this new pipeline, or admit its entire growth plan was based on a serious mistake.

Abandoning the ACP could make Dominion’s stock price tumble, giving it something else in common with GE. But as the saying goes, if you find yourself in a hole, you should really stop digging. In this case, literally.

Central Virginia Electric Cooperative finds solar hits a sweet spot

CVEC CEO Gary Wood and Virginia Governor Ralph Northam flip the switch on the solar farm

CVEC president and CEO Gary Wood and Virginia Governor Ralph Northam work together to flip a giant plastic mock-up of a switch at the opening of the Palmer Center.

Rural electric cooperatives are not generally known as hotbeds of progressive energy policy. So when coops start installing solar farms to serve their members, it’s clear we’ve arrived at a turning point in Virginia. Solar has gone mainstream.

Not that anyone is blasé about it. The CEO of Central Virginia Electric Cooperative (CVEC), Gary Wood, was bursting with pride this week at the commissioning of CVEC’s first two solar farms, which together form the largest solar project for a distribution cooperative in Virginia to date. Governor Northam was also on hand to praise the jobs and clean energy associated with solar and to help “flip” a big plastic mock-up of a switch.

The story was all about keeping it local: The 5 megawatts (MW) of fixed panels at the Martin Center sit on 35 acres in Kents Store, Virginia, in the heart of CVEC territory. Twelve miles away in Troy, the Palmer Center boasts its own 5 MW of panels on 41 acres, with these using single-axis tracking.  Both solar farms are on land belonging to the Palmer family; Grover Palmer worked for CVEC for 39 years.

Solar arrays at the Palmer Solar Center in Troy, Virginia

The solar panels at the Palmer Center will track the sun throughout the day, producing more electricity than the fixed-tilt arrays at the nearby Martin Center. How much more? We’ll be interested in finding out.

The developer and project owner, Coronal Energy, is based nearby in Charlottesville and hired local workers for the project. Coronal will continue to own and operate the solar farms for the 25 years of the power purchase agreement.

More importantly, the electricity the solar farms produce will be used locally by the coop’s customers. Most of the solar will be added to the power mix serving all 36,000 members, but 4 MW has been designated to supply an optional “community solar” program CVEC is calling Solar Share. CVEC Board Chair H.T. Brown said the program is the first such program to get approval from the State Corporation Commission under legislation passed in 2017.

Customers who want to participate in the Solar Share program can subscribe for up to 250 kilowatt-hours per month in blocks of 50 kWh, with each block costing $4.50 (plus transmission costs). This replaces an equal amount of ordinary “brown” power they would otherwise buy from the grid. The cost for solar under the program will be 1.4 cents/kWh higher than the standard rate, but subscribers are guaranteed that the solar portion of their bill won’t increase for the next 25 years. That is not a deal you can get anywhere for electricity from fossil fuels.

Of course, most customers use a lot more than 250 kWh per month. Wood said CVEC imposed the limit to allow as many customers as possible to enroll. The supply is limited to 11,000 blocks, and demand is strong. Melissa Gay, Communications & Member Service Manager for CVEC, told me customers were allowed to begin signing up at midnight on March 29. The first sign-up came at 12:02. Less than two months later, the program is 30 percent subscribed, with an advertising campaign not yet begun.

CVEC is not the first Virginia coop to offer a community solar program; BARC Electric Cooperative earned that distinction in 2016. Like CVEC, BARC’s program uses 50 kWh blocks that are priced a little higher than brown power initially ($4.95 per block in BARC’s case) but won’t increase over time.

But whereas BARC built its 550 kW system specifically for community solar, Gay told me the Solar Share program wasn’t even part of CVEC’s planing originally. The coop had wanted to add solar to its resource mix because it was a good deal for everyone. Customer demand led to the decision to carve out 40 percent of the solar contract for community solar.

And that is the beauty of the coop model when it listens to its members. For CVEC, solar just makes sense.

Virginia regulators reject Dominion renewable energy tariff

Virginia’s State Corporation Commission (SCC) has rejected Dominion Energy Virginia’s application for approval of a new rate schedule “CRG” under which it would offer renewable energy to large users of energy.

The SCC concluded Dominion had failed to show the tariff would result in “just and reasonable rates.” The Commission focused especially on two issues. First, the tariff relied on a formula made up of a long list of unknown variables including half a dozen different cost and price forecasts, producing “simply too much uncertainty and subjectivity.”

Second, Dominion proposed to collect a profit on the renewable energy it purchased for customers, equivalent to the return on equity it is allowed to charge on projects it builds. This would be unusual (typically the costs of purchased power are simply passed through to customers), and the Commission wasn’t having it.

This puts Dominion back at square one in developing a renewable energy tariff it can offer to large customers other than the Amazons and Facebooks of the world, who negotiate their own terms.

On the one hand, that’s good for customer choice and free market competition; as long as the utility does not have an approved tariff for 100% renewable energy, customers are allowed to buy renewable energy from other providers.

On the other hand, the SCC opinion also seems to suggest that when Dominion comes back with a new proposal, it might have to be one that, while cheaper, could be even less appealing to customers than the already-questionable CRG tariff. Pointing to the very broad definition of renewable energy in § 56-576 of the Code, the SCC makes the peculiar assertion that “The Commission must find that the energy provided by the proposed tariffs meets the General Assembly’s definition of renewable energy, not an individual customer’s preferred definition of such.”

This language concerns Cale Jaffe, Assistant Professor of Law at the University of Virginia and the Director of the Environmental and Regulatory Law Clinic. He says:

I take that as a not-so-thinly veiled criticism of Tier 1 renewables like wind and solar by the Commissioners.  I.e., Va. Code 56-576 defines “renewable energy” to include, “biomass, sustainable or otherwise, (the definitions of which shall be liberally construed), energy from waste, landfill gas, municipal solid waste….” I read the Commission as advising Dominion that if it comes back with another 100% Renewable Energy tariff, it needs to include “cheaper” options (if externalities are excluded), which the Commission would define to include unsustainable biomass along with other Tier 3 resources (e.g., waste to energy).

For customers, the result could be the worst of both worlds if a tariff with a mix of cheap, crummy stuff won SCC approval. It would close off the market to competition, yet probably not attract many takers.

Taking the optimistic view, though, there’s little out there in the renewable energy world that can compete with today’s wind and solar prices, with the exception of hydropower in places that have a lot of it. If Dominion’s prices are high, that’s because it insists on mixing in high-cost biomass to satisfy its own insistence that a renewable energy tariff consist of renewable energy 100% of the time.

The SCC’s focus on cost to customers has implications for Dominion’s proposed Schedule CRG-S, which would offer residential and smaller non-residential customers a mix of renewable sources at a fixed price that would increase the bills of participating residential customers by nearly 18%, or more than $20 per month for someone using 1,000 kWh. (Again, it’s that insistence on “100% of the time” that appears to be driving up the price.) This is a greater increase than the similar tariff Appalachian Power proposed, and the SCC rejected as too high, just a year ago.

For Dominion, the answer to every problem is more gas

Dominion Energy Virginia just released its 2018 Integrated Resource Plan (IRP), and the message it conveys could not be clearer: no matter what happens, the utility plans to build more fracked gas generation.

The IRP lays out five scenarios for meeting electric demand over the next 15 years, each one responding to a different set of assumptions. Yet weirdly, no matter which assumptions you choose, Dominion’s plan involves building a little bit of solar and a lot more gas.

Dominion Energy Virginia IRP; table showing alternatives considered

Dominion’s “Alternative Plans” (from page 24 of the IRP) prove to be very short on actual alternatives.

Everywhere you see “CT” in the table, that’s another gas plant–and they show up in every “alternative.” Assume no carbon tax? Great, Dominion will build gas. What if Virginia follows through on plans to cut carbon by joining the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI)? No problem, Dominion will build gas. How about if the Feds impose a national carbon plan? Alrighty then, Dominion will build gas!

Seriously, folks, if fracked gas is always the answer, somebody isn’t asking the right question.

The question we’d like to see addressed is how the utility intends to help Virginia transition to a clean energy economy. The question Dominion seems to be answering is how to create a need for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

This isn’t a surprise; Dominion’s parent company, Dominion Energy, is the majority partner in the pipeline, and the pipeline’s approval was premised on the utility “needing” the pipeline to serve its gas plants. It’s a blatant conflict of interest that the SCC should have addressed by now, but it declined to do so. (The Sierra Club has taken the SCC to court over this dereliction of duty.)

Dominion would prefer we talk about its plans for more solar. It is true the 2018 IRP proposes more solar generation than the 2017 IRP did. Last year’s IRP revealed that solar had become the lowest-cost energy in Virginia, but it forecast only 240 MW per year. This year’s IRP shows solar increasing over the next few years to a maximum of 480 MW per year beginning in 2022 (about half of what North Carolina installed in 2016). To put that in perspective, Microsoft recently announced it was contracting for 350 MW of Virginia solar to be built in one fell swoop, to serve just its own operations.

Meanwhile, the IRP notes that Dominion’s newest combined-cycle gas plant, the 1,585 MW Greensville behemoth, will enter service next year. Running at full capacity, it would provide the equivalent amount of electricity to 13 years’ worth of planned solar construction, since the expected output of a solar farm is about 25% of its “nameplate” capacity. (To be fair, the Greensville plant will likely run at more like 75-80% capacity. But it follows three other new gas plants Dominion built this decade. Together the four plants add a total of  4,862 MW. And those are nowhere near all the gas plants Dominion operates.)

The fact that all of Dominion’s IRP scenarios look alike and rely heavily on gas seems to be intended to send a message not to the SCC but to Governor Northam. Dominion doesn’t like the carbon reduction rulemaking now underway at the Department of Environmental Quality, which aims to lower emissions from Virginia power plants by 30% between 2020 and 2030. So the IRP “assumes” Dominion will comply by purchasing dirtier power from states not subject to regulation, actually driving up both cost and carbon emissions. Meanwhile, it’s going to build gas no matter what.

Welcome to Dominion’s game of hardball, Governor Northam.

Of course, the IRP is only a planning document. The SCC may approve it but still reject a proposed facility when the utility asks for permission to build it. Market watchers will question whether Dominion will be able to justify all—or any—of the 8 proposed gas combustion turbine facilities in hearings before the SCC. Virginia has too little solar now to need combustion turbines for back-up, and by the time there is enough to challenge the capabilities of the grid, experts predict battery storage will be the better and cheaper choice.

But never mind that; for Dominion, what matters now is justifying the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

The race to 100% renewable is on in Virginia: Floyd and Blacksburg lead in committing to energy transition (sort of)

On October 24, 2017, deep in the heart of Virginia, the mostly Republican supervisors of Floyd County (population 15, 755) issued a resolution proclaiming the county’s commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by “replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy along with conservation and energy efficiency,” and “support[ing] the achievement of near zero greenhouse gas emissions through policies that shift the energy supply strategy of our County from fossil fuels to 100% clean renewable energy.” The vote in support was unanimous.

The vote made Floyd the first Virginia locality to join more than 70 cities, towns and counties across the U.S. that have committed to achieving 100% renewable electricity. At least five cities are already powered by renewable energy today, according to the Sierra Club. (And surprise! None of the five are in California.)

Floyd’s resolution does not set a date for accomplishing its goal, so some might call it more aspirational than committed. And even the residents of Floyd subsequently showed themselves more than a little conflicted. (I’ll get to that in a moment.)

But within three months, the Town of Blacksburg followed suit with its own resolution in favor of 100% renewable energy, and it upped the ante by setting a target date of 2050. The Blacksburg commitment is bolstered by the town’s previous work on a climate action plan and its own claim to fame as the location of Virginia’s first Solarize campaign.

As best I can tell, Floyd and Blacksburg are the only Virginia localities to take the pledge so far, but the idea is under consideration across the state. The Sierra Club launched its “Ready for 100” campaign in Virginia almost two years ago in an effort to persuade Arlington and Alexandria to set a target date of 2035 for both government and residents to be powered by 100% renewable electricity. Fairfax City and Charlottesville have also begun the conversation.

The 2035 target proposed for Arlington and Alexandria is both more and less ambitious than Blacksburg’s goal, since it covers only the electric sector. Moving to 100% renewable energy, as Blacksburg aims to do, also requires things like eliminating petroleum use in transportation and an end to heating by natural gas and fuel oil. These are harder in the near term but generally considered achievable by 2050, given the projections for electric vehicles, cost declines that make electricity from wind and solar competitive with fossil fuels, and a growing belief that combating climate change will soon push us towards a policy to “electrify everything.”

Not everyone agrees that abandoning fossil fuels is the right goal, including some of the same people who said it was. Immediately after passing the 100% resolution, supervisors in Floyd County contracted a case of buyers’ remorse when the local Tea Party found out and raised a ruckus. (The local newspaper had been covering the topic for months, but evidently it didn’t make Fox News.)

Barely six weeks later, on December 12, the board issued a hastily-prepared second resolution. It began by repeating several findings of the first resolution, including recognizing the threat of climate change and the role of humans in causing it. So far, so good. Then it took a sharp detour to praise fossil fuels and to pledge to “protect the freedom and economic interests” of residents by working for “viable, cost-effective, clean and reliable energy resources of all available types,” which the drafters seemed to think included fossil fuels. Only one supervisor voted no. They did not, however, repeal the first resolution. That leaves Floyd with its first-in-the-commonwealth status on embracing 100% renewable energy, but sadly paralyzed on putting it into action.

It is worth reading this second Floyd resolution to understand the underlying concerns of the noisy minority who pushed it through. It reveals that a belief in coal as a cheap fuel remains common, though it has been years since coal lost its competitiveness. And the reference to fossil fuels as “clean” is surely an echo of the “clean coal” propaganda that never had any truth behind it, but seemed to offer a free lunch. The very silliness of the phrase works in its favor: since no one would make up something so absurd, people figure, it has to be true.

The second resolution also reflects a genuine concern about the potential of an over-active government to infringe on individual liberties. Billy Weitzenfeld, President of Sustain Floyd, told me some local people who were opposed to the pro-renewable energy resolution expressed a fear that it would lead to the government taking away peoples’ wood stoves and forcing everyone to put solar panels on their houses. Thus the freedom from utility control that rooftop solar offers to consumers was turned on its head and made to look like a threat to individual liberty.

Weitzenfeld feels the Tea Party concerns are misplaced, but he also thinks the conflict could have been avoided by better dialog in the process. It was unfortunate, he said, that fear took over, and—at least temporarily—brought a halt to what had been an exciting momentum on clean energy initiatives.

Weitzenfeld has not thrown in the towel, though. He and other advocates in Floyd are getting back to doing “the proactive stuff that can really make a difference”: putting solar on rooftops through a second Solarize program, encouraging energy audits, engaging the public, and building what he calls “the constituency of practitioners,” people whose own experience with renewable energy will make them the ones to push back against fear and misinformation the next time around.

Looking on the bright side, even the rebelling Tea Partiers recognized the climate threat, which is also a theme common to the other Virginia resolutions. In other conservative states, more prosaic considerations have driven the decision. And by that, of course, I mean money. The Republican mayor of Georgetown, Texas, said economics pushed them to become one of the first cities in America to run entirely on wind and solar energy, when they found they could save money doing it. Bentonville, Texas, may become the second city in that state to achieve the 100% goal, on economic grounds as well as due to concerns over air quality associated with coal and gas burning.

In 2008, tiny Rock Port, Missouri, became the first locality in the U.S to be powered entirely by wind energy, taking advantage of a cheap and abundant resource in a windy farm community. Greensburg, Kansas, also went all-wind in 2013, and uses this and other green initiatives as a major branding tool.

All of these are small communities that control their own electricity supply, which gives them options most Virginia localities lack. Blacksburg residents get their electricity from Appalachian Power; most others have to deal with Dominion Energy Virginia or one of the rural electric cooperatives. So even if they achieve consensus within their communities on a goal of 100% renewables, meeting the goal will require navigating a range of barriers.

We are not alone there. A fair number of the cities on the Ready for 100 list are also located in the Southeast, and suffer from the same outdated monopoly utility structure that we do. Virginia localities can look for guidance to Atlanta, Georgia (100% renewable energy by 2035), and Columbia, South Carolina (100% renewable electricity by 2036).

Next week Sierra Club will launch its “100% Virginia Campaign” to encourage residents across the state to advocate for clean energy in their communities, with the hope that more localities will take up resolutions for 100% renewable electricity by 2035.

More generally, Sierra Club organizer Alice Redhead says the goal is to “build a movement for clean energy across the state and set the conditions for Virginia to transition to 100% renewable energy statewide by 2050. We are pushing for localities around Virginia to commit to 100% clean energy, but we are also making sure that the campaign is flexible rather than one size fits all and allows for locally-tailored initiatives that are strategic for the conditions in different areas of the state. Local campaign teams that are a part of the 100% Virginia network will develop unique plans to advocate for clean energy progress specific to their area.”

In an upcoming blogpost I’ll take a harder look at the obstacles facing Virginia localities, as well as the opportunities that make getting to 100 a viable option.

What the fate of one solar bill reveals about politics in Virginia

 

Want an extra solar panel on your roof, just in case? Too bad, chump. Better luck next year. Maybe.

While Dominion’s latest effort to legislate profits into perpetuity got all the press attention this winter, another story went largely ignored. A whole raft of bills that would have opened more opportunities for customer-owned and third-party owned renewable energy died in committee. So did bills supporting energy choice and an energy efficiency mandate.

These bills generally had one thing in common: they were opposed by the same utility that was touting its own clean energy investments as a reason to vote for the Ratepayer Rip-Off.

Most of the rejected bills would have promoted customer investments in solar, a segment of the market that Dominion’s legislation won’t help. These bills included:

  • HB 54 (Sullivan) state tax credit of 35% on renewable energy property
  • SB 313 (Edwards) and SB 311 (Edwards) community solar
  • HB 393 (Keam) remove the 1% cap on net metered projects and provide for an SCC study of the impact of net metering
  • HB 1060 (Tran) remove the 1% cap on net metered projects
  • HB 1253 (Tran) expand net metering by local governments
  • HB 421 (Sullivan) allow owners of multifamily residential buildings to install renewable energy facilities and sell output to occupants
  • HB 930 (Lopez) allow net metering program for multifamily customer-generators
  • HB 978 (Guzman) require utilities to justify standby charges with a value of solar study (withdrawn by the patron, reportedly at the request of utilities)
  • SB 82 (Edwards) expand agricultural net metering program
  • HB 1155 (Simon) affirm legality of third-party power purchase agreements (PPAs) for customer solar.
  • SB 83 (Edwards) expand availability of PPAs statewide
  • HB 1252 (Kilgore) allow PPAs for non-profits in APCo territory (passed the House with support of APCo but withdrawn by the patron before a Senate hearing when the utility decided that it didn’t like the bill it had negotiated with advocates in Southwest Virginia after all)

It’s tempting to focus blame on the utilities for the demise of these bills, but the fate of one additional bill reminds us where accountability properly lies. SB 191 (Favola) would have allowed net metering customers to install enough solar to meet up to 125% of their previous 12 months’ electric demand, up from 100% currently. As under current law, they still could not sell any surplus electricity at retail. This last point is key: it means customers have no financial incentive to install more solar than they will actually use, and if they do, it’s the utilities that come out ahead.

APCo and the Coops said they were opposed to it anyway, and were written out of the bill to save it. But Dominion agreed to the bill, with the addition of an amendment it wanted. The bill passed the Senate, and a lobbyist for Dominion joined a representative of the Sierra Club (yours truly) to speak in its favor in the House Commerce and Labor subcommittee. Lobbyists for APCo and the Coops also spoke in its favor, just to be nice. No one rose in opposition.

But the subcommittee killed it anyway on a party-line vote.* One of the Republican committee members offered an excuse about “sending it” to the Rubin Group—which, however, they did not do. Discussions with observers later suggested that the vote was a petty, partisan act of retribution against the patron for something entirely unrelated to the legislation.

So while the utilities’ desire to protect their monopoly makes them oppose customer solar, and utility campaign donations persuade legislators to vote accordingly, ultimately voters have only the legislators themselves to blame for the barriers holding back solar in Virginia.

Elections have consequences, as the saying goes, and the fact that Republicans managed to retain a majority in the House by the slimmest of margins this past November was enough for them to be able to continue their long practice of killing popular solar initiatives in subcommittee. The election that was decided by drawing a name from a hat also determined that rooftop solar bills would not advance out of subcommittee, even when they are small, relatively inconsequential, and completely unopposed.

Advocates had hoped the close election would influence Republicans to moderate their trigger-happy approach to clean energy bills. No part of Republican ideology says customers should not install their own solar. Indeed, in past years Republicans have sometimes been leading advocates for rooftop solar.

Maybe Republicans will do better next year, especially if grassroots anger continues to strengthen the Democrats, and Republicans feel the heat. Otherwise, solar advocates will be highly motivated to support Democrats in the 2019 election.

Of course there are plenty of Democrats in the pockets of the utilities, too. That makes it especially important that a growing number of legislators have pledged to refuse campaign contributions from public utilities and their parent corporations. Delegate Mark Keam (D-Vienna) is the latest to “break up” with Dominion over its undue influence on the legislative process.

The pledge isn’t a guarantee of how a legislator will vote, but for frustrated clean energy advocates it offers a simple litmus test that proved out well this year, as pledge-takers overwhelmingly voted against Dominion’s bill. Solar advocates who found this past legislative session more frustrating than ever may find some satisfaction in persuading their own legislators to follow Keam’s example (and get some press attention for it, too).


* The six Republicans voting to table (kill) SB 191 were O’Quinn, Byron, Hugo, Marshall, Habeeb, and Ransone. The four Democrats supporting the bill were Ward, Kory, Heretick, and Bourne.

Virginia buys Dominion’s pig in a poke

How Dominion sees the bill.

A pig in a poke is defined as “an object offered in a manner that conceals its true value, especially its lack of value.” The expression is said to go back about five hundred years to English marketplaces. A poke was a sort of sack, but why 16th century people bought pigs in sacks, and why they would have bought a sack without looking inside, is not at all clear. I’m guessing the seller was the local pig monopoly, and the buyers were timid leaders who meekly paid their farthings and hoped for the best. After all, that is how we do it in the marketplace of Virginia’s General Assembly when Dominion Energy Virginia comes peddling legislation.

And indeed, the true value (or lack of value) of this year’s boondoggle bill (HB 1558/SB 966) will probably not be understood for months or even years to come. The General Assembly passed this legislation that will govern billions of dollars of new spending paid for by Virginia customers after just a handful of hearings over a few weeks, and with no study or input from outside experts. If you will excuse the expression, this is a lousy way to make sausage.

Arguably, the only thing worse than this bill is the law it seeks to fix, the infamous “rate freeze” legislation of 2015 that simply let Dominion keep a billion dollars of customer money to line its own pockets. You’d think legislators would have learned something about legislating in haste and repenting at leisure.

But the legislation could have been worse. We know this because it was worse; the bills Dominion originally put forward returned even less money to consumers, gave the utilities even more leeway on spending, and included the infamous “double dip” that the SCC said would let Dominion charge customers twice for the same projects. The bills improved over the next few weeks under pressure from progressive Democrats, conservative Republicans, the SCC, the Attorney General’s office, the Governor, and consumer and environmental groups.

Whether it is good enough now remains a matter of debate. Conservatives for Clean Energy and the League of Conservation Voters support the bill, especially the provisions relating to investments in energy efficiency and renewable energy. The Sierra Club, an early opponent, used what leverage it had to get the worst provisions changed before removing its opposition late in the game (while still not supporting the bill). The AG’s Office of Consumer Counsel and Appalachian Voices never dropped their opposition.

Nevertheless, the poke has been bought, so you should definitely take a look at the pig. The Virginia Poverty Law Center and the Southern Environmental Law Center produced a handy summary of the bill’s final provisions compared to both the original bill and the status quo under the 2015 law (and sometimes also to the pre-2015 law).

The summary describes the categories of new spending authorized by the law, but a lot is left to interpretation—Dominion’s interpretation, mostly. Customers don’t seem to have any say in how their money gets spent. They are just supposed to feel happy with the provisions granting them some initial refunds reflecting a portion of the overearnings from past years, plus the utility’s savings from the federal tax cut. Going forward, though, the likelihood of further refunds or rate cuts seems remote. The whole point of the bill is to allow utilities to spend overearnings and avoid refunds. And as always, rates can continue to go up through “rate adjustment clauses” (RACs) like the ones that tacked new charges onto electricity bills even when base rates were frozen.

Moreover, what VPLC’s summary (understandably) lacks is a comparison to what ought to be in there: full refunds based on a review of past earnings rather than legislative guesstimates; mandatory—and much higher—levels of energy efficiency, wind and solar; proper regulatory oversight of rates and spending; and an independent assessment of grid modernization needs rather than blanket permission for a utility to indulge in projects that benefit itself most.

We’ll have to wait until next year for any new legislation, but it is not too early to start laying the groundwork. Governor Northam should direct his administration to begin working with national experts on a comprehensive grid modernization study. The goal should not be to tinker around the edges of current law and policy, but to draft a new and better approach from the ground up. (For a great discussion of why we need this study and what it should look like, see Tom Hadwin’s blogpost from last week.)

Meanwhile, legislators should promise their constituents that they will never again allow a public utility to write our energy laws and force through massive and complex changes over the course of a few weeks of the legislative session. Next time Dominion offers a pig in a poke, the answer should be no.