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

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

Election Day was a tough day for climate advocates. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Increasing fixed charges on electricity bills hurts customers–and society 

solar panels on a house
SVEC’s fixed charges would discourage customers from pursuing net zero homes like this one. Photo by Ivy Main

Okay, folks, the kids are back in school, so in their honor we are all going to do a word problem! 

Bob Rich lives in a sprawling subdivision of large, single-family homes. Bob has a pool and a hot tub and outdoor lights he keeps on all night. Bob’s four children have loads of electronic gadgetry, plus a habit of leaving windows open when the air conditioner is blasting. Needless to say, the Rich family uses a lot of electricity. But Bob doesn’t worry too much about his utility bill. It’s really not that much compared to all the other bills he pays; and fortunately, his wife is a hedge fund lawyer so he can afford it. 

John Poore, on the other hand, lives in a small apartment and uses as little electricity as possible to save money. He works a low-wage job, and his best efforts to attract a wealthy spouse have not yet panned out. John uses air conditioning only on the hottest summer days. He switched out his incandescent lightbulbs for LEDs, caulked the cracks around his windows where air leaked in, and when his old refrigerator broke, he replaced it with an EnergyStar model. 

Bob and John are both customers of Shenandoah Valley Electric Cooperative, in western Virginia. SVEC says its costs are going up, so it has been “adjusting” its rates. What would you expect the effects to be?

A) Bob’s bills go up more than John’s. 

B) Both Bob and John’s bills go up by the same amount. 

C) John’s bills go up more than Bob’s (and Bob’s might even go down).

You probably already figured out it’s a trick question. We’re dealing with a Virginia utility, so the answer can’t be (A) regardless of that being the obvious and rational answer. 

Indeed, answer (A) is how most utilities operate: Every customer pays a small fixed fee, typically under $10, and the rest of the bill is determined by how much electricity the customer uses. People who use a lot of electricity pay the most. They are usually better able to afford it, but if they don’t like the size of their bills, they can turn off the lights in empty rooms, change their thermostat setting, invest in energy efficiency, or put solar panels on the roof. Conserving energy and adding renewable energy happen to be public policy priorities, so the incentives are aligned with the behavior society wants to encourage. 

But SVEC notes that a lot of its costs aren’t dependent on how much electricity customers use; it has wires to maintain and so forth, plus it recently “invested” in a beautiful and spacious new headquarters that it swore wouldn’t mean rate increases (but, well, you know how that goes). SVEC says Bob and John benefit equally from all these investments, and wants their bills to reflect that. Early last year SVEC “adjusted” its rate structure to increase the fixed customer fee from $13 to $25 and decrease the rate per kilowatt-hour of electricity used. If you chose answer (C), you were correct!

This year, to raise more revenue, SVEC proposes to increase everybody’s fixed fee again, this time to $30. For customers who don’t use much electricity, that fixed fee could become the biggest charge on the bill, and one that can’t ever be reduced by any amount of energy conservation, efficiency or solar panels. They may also wonder whether $30 is just a stop on the way to even higher fixed fees that will further undercut their energy-saving investments.

SVEC didn’t need anyone’s approval when it almost doubled the fixed fee last year. But this year, the State Corporation Commission has to approve the additional changes, so customers finally have a chance to challenge them. Utilities around the state are watching what the SCC does. If SVEC gets approval to shift more of its costs away from customers who use a lot of electricity and onto those who use the least, other utilities will see that as a green light to do the same

Utilities prefer fixed charges because they provide revenue certainty; left to their own devices, they will move as much of their revenue into the fixed-cost category and increase fixed charges as high as they can. Unfortunately, doing so creates an incentive for utilities to spend as much as possible on infrastructure costs that can be recovered through fixed rates. That will raise costs for everyone and produce a further perverse incentive for the utility to encourage energy consumption (and waste) in order to make maximum use of the infrastructure.

This isn’t the result anyone should want, and especially a nonprofit electric cooperative. More affluent, high-use customers will benefit from lower rates per kilowatt-hour, while low-income customers will be less able to control their bills, an inequity that flies in the face of Virginia’s efforts to limit the energy burden on low-income residents. And customers who are considering investing in energy efficiency or solar will find they are looking at a longer payback time, discouraging the energy-saving measures that Virginia strives to promote.

The SCC is holding a hearing today to consider SVEC’s proposed rate increase. The commission should reject SVEC’s efforts to raise fixed charges for customers and send the utility back to the rate-drawing board. 

This article originally appeared in the Virginia Mercury on October 5, 2021.

Everybody talks about bringing solar to low-income households. This guy is doing it (and you can, too).

Photo credit Don Crawford for GiveSolar

Regular readers of this blog know I discourage Virginians from spending their money on so-called green energy offerings from Dominion Energy, Appalachian Power, or REC sellers like Arcadia. They might make you feel better about the electricity you use, but the best products do little to put new solar projects on the grid, and the worst are actually counter-productive

There is a better way to put solar on the grid and salve your conscience, while also cutting out the middleman. Take the money you were going to pay to Dominion Energy for its Green Power Program (or are already paying, if I didn’t warn you off soon enough), and give it to someone who will put actual solar panels on actual houses in Virginia.

That someone might be Jeff Heie, whose non-profit, GiveSolar, works with low-income home-builder Habitat for Humanity in Rockingham County, Virginia to outfit Habitat homes with rooftop solar. The homeowner gets a 4-kilowatt system that cuts their electricity bill by $40; they commit to sending half that amount back to GiveSolar to help pay for the cost of solar on future Habitat homes. 

GiveSolar keeps installation costs down by holding solar “barn-raisings” using volunteers from the community and a solar company, Green Hill Solar, that is willing to install at cost. As a result, a 4-kW system can be installed for $5,000, about half price. 

Eventually GiveSolar expects its Solar Seed Fund to be self-funding as owners of Habitat homes send in their $20 per month repayments, but meanwhile the organization needs donations to get the program up and running. Heie hopes to raise $100,000 to put solar on 20 homes.

It sounds like a lot of money, until you consider that Dominion reports it has 30,000 Virginia customers enrolled in its Green Power Program. If all those customers are currently spending an average of just $5 per month on pointless RECs, and if they sent that money to GiveSolar instead, Heie would raise 150% of his goal every month

Indeed, Heie has plans to take his model to other Habitat for Humanity affiliates around Virginia; he told me he has already heard from five that are interested in installing solar. His approach has also won him the support of other nonprofits, including Solar United Neighbors of Virginia, which is helping to raise $20,000 for the first four projects in Rockingham County and has secured a $10,000 matching grant.

There is a huge need for projects like these. Many low-income Virginia residents spend more than 6 percent of their income on electricity and home heating. Legislators have responded with programs providing funding for low-income energy efficiency programs; capping energy costs for customers who qualify under a percentage-of-income calculation; authorizing Dominion to install solar on some low-income homes (with the utility’s usual profit-margin, and without the barn-raising); and establishing a shared solar program that, if successful, will give some low-income residents the ability to buy electricity from community solar facilities. 

But the potential for rooftop solar to lower energy costs and displace fossil fuels is so huge, and these government programs so limited, that there’s still plenty of room for GiveSolar’s inexpensive, hands-on, and self-sustaining approach. The Habitat homeowners who benefit pay the money back over time, creating a virtuous cycle. Donors don’t have to guess whether their money is building solar projects; they can see it happen, and even take part. Neighbors help neighbors, and by doing so, help the planet.

Legislators built a solar program for apartment dwellers. The SCC gutted it.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The State Corporation Commission recently finalized regulations for the Multifamily Shared Solar Program, created by the General Assembly to give residents of apartment buildings and condominiums the ability to use solar energy from panels installed on their buildings. But in implementing the program, the SCC also made sure it can never be used.  

Dominion Energy is largely to blame here, as it so often is whenever customer-sited solar encounters barriers. The utility proposed to lard up the program with fees, none of them allowed by the law. But it’s the SCC’s agreement with Dominion that’s the problem—and not just for people in apartment buildings who want solar, but for the future of any solar in Virginia that isn’t utility-owned. 

2020’s Solar Freedom law set out to make it easier for residents and businesses to install solar onsite. At the heart of the law is net metering, the program that credits solar owners for excess electricity fed back into the grid. Net metering makes solar affordable for customers, so giving more people access to net metering means more private investment dollars, more jobs and a more resilient power grid. 

The multifamily shared solar provision is meant to extend net metering-like benefits to residents of apartment buildings and condominiums, who don’t own their building and its roof themselves. The law allows the building owner—a landlord or condo association—to have solar panels installed on the property, and let residents buy the electricity produced.  Residents who sign up for solar are to be credited for the solar electricity at the utility’s retail rate, giving the residents a benefit equivalent to net metering. The only added cost the utility is allowed to impose is an administrative fee.

“Administrative fee.” You probably think you know what that term means: a fee to cover the cost of administering the program because, duh, what else could it mean? It would pay for someone to do paperwork, or to tweak the billing software. It couldn’t amount to more than a buck or two for a customer in the program.

You think that way because you are not a Dominion lawyer. With no definition of “administrative fee” in the law, and no dollar limit, Dominion’s lawyers went to work shoveling every conceivable expense they could come up with into the humble little fee until it resembles one of those memes of a kitten the size of Godzilla. Now the administrative fee includes the utility’s transmission and distribution costs; standby generation; balancing costs; “nonbypassable charges”; even “banking, balancing and storing fees related to the utility’s processing and handling of the excess bill credits.” 

Then the SCC, faced with this long list of fees that have nothing to do with program administration and aren’t authorized in the law, closed its eyes and signed on. 

However, the regulations don’t tell us what all the kitten-stuffing charges add up to. To determine the dollar amounts, the SCC references “parallel rate proceedings,” by which it means regulations being written to implement a different law, also passed in 2020, creating a much larger program under the name of Shared Solar. And right now, in those parallel rate proceedings, Dominion is insisting that those various fees should add up to nearly $75 per customer per month. Mind you, that amount does not include the cost of the electricity from the solar panels. Adding $75 to the price of electricity makes the cost of buying solar energy through the program far more than the cost of buying electricity from Dominion. 

Carrying those charges over to the multifamily program instantly kills it. No landlord would install solar expecting residents to pay an extra $75 per month for their electricity. The result makes a mockery of Solar Freedom’s intent for “robust project development and shared solar program access for all customer classes.” Indeed, the law expressly requires the utility to credit customers at the retail rate, which is to be “inclusive of all supply charges, delivery charges, demand charges, fixed charges, and any applicable riders or other charges to the customer.” The whole point is to block the utility from piling on costs, excepting only that little kitten of an administrative fee

At this point the only way to salvage the multifamily program is for the General Assembly to amend the law. With the SCC refusing to understand the meaning of “administrative,” the only thing legislators can do is put a dollar limit on the kitten. Indeed, a dollar seems like the right amount. 

That would resurrect the multifamily solar program. As for the shared solar program, where Dominion first came up with the idea of penalizing customers $75 a month for buying solar energy from someone else, the SCC is still working on regulations. 

The two programs are based on very different laws. Where Solar Freedom’s multifamily solar provision mimics net metering, and therefore allows the utility to charge only an administrative fee, the shared solar law explicitly contemplates customers paying a “minimum bill” that will include transmission and distribution, standby charges, and so on, in addition to a (presumably for-real) administrative fee. All those bloated charges that Dominion shoehorned into the administrative fee for apartments and condos in clear violation of the legislative mandate, are expressly allowed by the shared solar law.

Except, of course, no one said anything about $75.  If customers have to pay Dominion $75 in addition to whatever they have to pay to the solar provider, no one will sign up, and there will not be a program. 

The implications are not confined to shared solar laws. Dominion is laying a foundation to set a high floor for customer billings that will be independent of how much electricity residents use, where it comes from, whether their use of renewable energy provides a public benefit, or even whether customer-generated solar reduces other utility costs.  

The solar industry and other parties have strenuously objected to Dominion’s calculations. They have also asked the SCC to hold an evidentiary hearing on the amount of the minimum bill to be charged to shared solar customers (and by extension, to multifamily solar customers via kitten-stuffing). The request gives the SCC a chance to weigh benefits as well as costs, and produce an outcome that will ensure a future for shared solar in Virginia. 

This column originally appeared in the Virginia Mercury on July 15, 2021.

Legislative Scorecard Shows Continued Action on Climate, Environment, and Justice From Lawmakers

The Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club released its 2021 Climate, Energy and Justice Scorecard today, grading state legislators on their votes on key issues during the last General Assembly session. Votes scored include energy policies, climate solutions, voting rights and environmental justice. Sixty-three out of one hundred forty legislators scored an “A.”

The organization’s press release highlights the adoption of the Clean Car Standards as the standout win for the environment. The scorecard also notes progress on other transportation bills, residential building codes, pipelines, plastic waste and energy equity. 

A lot of utility reform bills that Sierra Club supported went down to defeat, and votes against those bills pulled down the grades of several Senate Democrats who sit on the Commerce and Labor Committee. Senators Barker, Saslaw, Lewis and Lucas were especially notable for their alignment with utility interests. 

With a federal windfall incoming, Virginia should require school districts to build to green standards

The solar panels powering Arlington, Virginia’s Discovery Elementary School, seen through the windows of a science classroom. Photo by Ivy Main

More than $4.3 billion in federal stimulus dollars will be flowing to Virginia this year as part of the American Rescue Plan, with cities and counties in line for another $2.7 billion. In a joint statement in May, Governor Northam and Democratic leaders laid out spending priorities that included rehabilitating and upgrading the infrastructure in public schools. The General Assembly plans to meet for a special legislative session in August to allocate the funds. In addition to the federal money, Virginia also finds itself in the happy position of having surplus funds of its own to spend.

As it stands now, the federal funds cannot be used for new school construction, a restriction that upsets school officials in areas with aging schools and no budget to replace them. But whether some money is spent on new schools or not, the General Assembly should not just throw dollars out the door and hope for the best. Virginia has an enormous opportunity to improve student health and learning, correct historic injustices, and meet the demands of the climate crisis, but only if the right standards are in place from the outset.

First, funding should be prioritized to Title 1 schools, which are those with at least 40 percent of children from low-income families. Given Virginia’s history of segregation and racism, a high number of Title 1 schools are in Black communities, while others are in parts of rural Virginia that have been left behind economically.  Title 1 schools on average are older and in worse condition than schools in more affluent areas, and the students are more likely to suffer from asthma and other health problems that are exacerbated by mold and poor indoor air quality. Improving indoor air quality and student well-being should be the primary goals for all new or renovated facilities, and it makes sense to start with the students most in need.

Second, while many localities are attracted to the idea of shiny new schools, in most cases it takes less time and costs less to retrofit an old school that is structurally sound than to tear it down and build new. It’s also better for the environment, even if the new school would be built to a “green” standard. Children don’t need new buildings; they need healthy, high-performing buildings. A beautiful remodel of the historic school their parents and grandparents attended could be just what the doctor ordered.

Third, new or renovated schools should be required to meet the highest standards for energy efficiency, including windows, insulation and HVAC. New construction should also be all-electric, as should most renovated buildings. This maximizes taxpayer savings on energy costs over the lifetime of the building, supports the goal of healthy indoor air, and is consistent with Virginia’s commitment to phase out fossil fuels.

Fourth, if the roof will be new or upgraded, it should be made solar-ready, allowing the school to take advantage of third-party power purchase agreements (PPAs) or solar services agreements to install solar panels. Leveraging private capital to pay for the school’s primary energy source stretches construction dollars. These agreements provide financing for solar facilities at no upfront cost and typically save money for schools from the outset. Once the solar panels are paid off, energy bills plummet and savings pile up.

New schools and deep retrofits can even achieve net-zero status affordably, and ought to be required to do so in most cases. Net-zero schools become a source of community pride and offer educational benefits as students learn about energy and how solar panels work. According to a study conducted for Fairfax County Public Schools, the additional upfront cost of building a net-zero-ready school (one that will produce as much energy as it uses once solar panels are added) is only about 5 percent more than standard construction, and the additional cost is recovered through energy savings in under 10 years. Renovating older schools to net-zero costs 11 percent more, but still pays off in 15 years.

Even if we weren’t worried about climate, these standards would make sense for student health and taxpayer savings. Yet today, school districts are not required to build high performance schools, and most don’t. The result is higher operating costs, and in some cases school boards being told that their brand-new schools won’t support solar. Solar companies say it’s probable that solar would be just fine, but this shouldn’t even be an issue. Yet it will continue to be cited as an obstacle if solar-readiness is not made standard.

Our children deserve better. Virginia should seize this year’s historic opportunity to invest in healthy, high-performing schools that are free of fossil fuels and will deliver long-term benefits for taxpayers and the climate.

Dominion-funded group adds more fuel to its campaign against utility reform, and a legislator responds

Four things happened after I wrote last week about Power for Tomorrow’s strange advertising campaign attacking Clean Virginia: the Fredericksburg Freelance-Star ran an op-ed from Power for Tomorrow’s executive director, Gary C. Meltz, opposing deregulation in the electric sector; the Virginia Mercury ran a response to my article from Mr. Meltz; another mailer arrived from Power for Tomorrow, even more unhinged about Clean Virginia and what it calls “their Texas-style policies”; and the Roanoke Times ran an op-ed from Republican Senator David Sutterlein in favor of electricity choice. 

Mr. Meltz’ Freelance-Star op-ed argues that regulated monopolies produce lower cost power for consumers than competitive markets. Instead of developing the argument, however, most of the op-ed is devoted to horror stories about Texas and Maryland.

In both states, poor regulation unquestionably led to high bills, in Texas because customers were allowed to choose “low-cost” billing options that charged them astronomical real-time power costs during the winter freeze, and in Maryland because unscrupulous power providers lured low-income customers into overpriced contracts with up-front goodies like gift cards. Power for Tomorrow would like you to think these abuses are the inevitable result of deregulated markets, but it doesn’t follow.

Coming from the opposite direction, Senator Sutterlein’s op-ed argues that Dominion has abused its political power for private gain. He cites legislation like the notorious 2015 “rate freeze” bill that allowed the company to hang on to over-earnings it would otherwise have had to refund to customers. His cure for these abuses is deregulation, allowing customers to choose other electricity providers. But again, it’s not obvious that curbing Dominion’s excessive profits requires deregulation, rather than better regulation by the General Assembly and the SCC.

Personally, I’m agnostic on this issue. I would welcome a data-driven discussion of whether carefully-designed free markets deliver more for the public than a well-regulated monopoly system coupled with a ban on campaign contributions from public utilities. 

But if Power for Tomorrow is really interested in consumer protection, it’s just plain weird that its ads are so squarely focused on trying to take down Clean Virginia, an organization whose entire purpose is to secure lower costs for consumers. It’s hard not to suspect that the real point of the attack ads is to protect the high profits of Power for Tomorrow’s utility funders. 

According to Mr. Meltz, those over- the-top mailers are indeed getting results for Power for Tomorrow. In his Virginia Mercury letter, Meltz says his organization’s “education campaign” has produced 4,324 letters to elected officials and 1,607 petition signatures. Meltz also says Power for Tomorrow’s funding (and spending) will become a public record when they submit paperwork to the IRS. He doesn’t say when that will be; and he isn’t telling us the answers now.

Questions Dominion didn’t answer at its shareholder meeting

Dominion Energy headquarters, Richmond, VA

Dominion Energy held its annual shareholder meeting virtually on May 5. Prior to the meeting, some shareholders submitted questions to the company in hopes of getting better transparency about its thinking regarding a range of pressing questions facing both the company and society at large. In an article that ran in the Virginia Mercury the week before the meeting, I offered a list of questions I’d really like answers to as well. 

I wasn’t able to attend the shareholder meeting, but I understand the questions mostly did not get answers at that time, with the exception of a non-sequitur CEO Bob Blue offered up in response to a question about third-party sales of renewable energy (read on!).  The company has promised to email responses to the people who submitted questions. 

Here are my questions:

1. We learned in Dominion’s Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) case last year that the Virginia City Hybrid Energy Center, the coal plant it owns in Wise County, has a 10-year net present value of negative $472 million. Why isn’t Dominion retiring it immediately to save money and reduce the number of emission allowances it has to buy now that Virginia has joined the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative?

2. In last year’s IRP, Dominion’s preferred scenario would have it keeping its gas plants open indefinitely, even past 2045, when the Virginia Clean Economy Act requires them to be closed. The refusal to plan for full compliance with the law almost certainly impacts the decisions Dominion is making today. Now that Bob Blue has taken over the reins of Dominion from former CEO Tom Farrell, has that changed, and can we expect Dominion to take actions consistent with a full phase-out of fossil fuels before 2045?

3. The energy transition will require construction of tens of thousands of megawatts of solar on hundreds of thousands of acres of land across Virginia. However, community resistance to utility-scale solar farms in Virginia is growing, in large part because they look more like industrial uses than like agricultural uses. As a result, some projects are not being permitted, a costly waste of the company’s time and resources. It’s possible to combine solar with traditional agricultural uses like animal grazing, or to install native plants to support pollinators and provide wildlife habitat, both of which would increase community acceptance. Dominion installs pollinator plantings along some of its transmission line rights-of-way, so the company has experience in this area. Will Dominion begin doing this at its solar projects? If not, what is Dominion doing to “sweeten the pot” for local communities in order to secure permits? 

4. Dominion offers residential customers the option of a renewable energy product that includes biomass energy, a source that is not carbon-free and produces more air pollution than coal. The inclusion of biomass also makes the tariff more expensive than it would be without biomass. In contrast to this unattractive option, two years ago Dominion received SCC approval to sell solar to residential customers via a “community solar” product. This would have appealed to far more customers, but Dominion never followed through.  Why not? 

5. With no solar option available, residents who don’t own a house with a sunny roof are currently shut out of the solar market in Dominion’s Virginia territory. In 2019 and 2020 the General Assembly considered legislation that would have allowed customers to buy renewable energy from third party providers. The bill passed the House each year but failed in a Senate committee due to Dominion’s opposition. If Dominion isn’t interested in selling solar to its customers today, why not let them buy it from others? 

Mr. Blue reportedly answered this question at the meeting by exclaiming, “Because deregulated markets don’t work, they fail! Look at Texas!” 

I can, with difficulty, draw a line from the question to Blue’s answer, but it is not a straight one. Nor is it an honest one, since the causes of the Texas debacle don’t apply here (beyond a similar overreliance on natural gas). 

Here is the answer that is most probably true: “We threw together our so-called renewable energy offering for the sole purpose of blocking out competitors, and the SCC stupidly let us get away with it. If we cared about climate change, we would offer a clean renewable energy product people actually want, but we only care about profit. That requires us to keep our customers locked in, but nothing says we have to make them happy.”

But because hope springs eternal, I’ll also add an answer that I would much prefer Mr. Blue to give: “Under my new leadership, we are taking climate science seriously and will develop the renewable energy options our customers want. My goal is to offer a solar tariff so good that none of our customers will want to look elsewhere, and the question will become moot.”

6. According to Dominion’s 2020 IRP, data centers make up 12 percent of Dominion’s load in Virginia, a number that has been increasing by 20 percent per year. Data center operators say they want renewable energy but have trouble getting it from Dominion. The biggest tech companies negotiate deals for solar, but smaller customers have fewer attractive options. What is Dominion doing to ensure that data centers have access to solar energy at attractive market rates?

Notice how the answers to the previous question apply here. Dominion has a huge opportunity to lead on climate, requiring only that the company actually care.

7. A year ago Dominion canceled the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, losing the almost $3 billion already spent on the project but saving the additional $5 billion-plus it would have cost to complete the project. About the same time, Dominion sold off its entire gas transmission business, indicating it had come to see pipelines as poor investments. This makes sense since the company already gets all the gas it needs through existing pipelines, and going forward, climate policies and the increasing competitiveness of renewable energy and battery storage mean gas use will decline. But then the company contracted for 12.5% of the shipping capacity of the Mountain Valley Pipeline through its subsidiary Public Service Company of North Carolina, at a cost of at least $50 million per year. How can the company justify this investment? Is there an exit clause in the contract, or will shareholders suffer in the event the company is not allowed to pass this cost on to ratepayers?

8. Dominion is currently pursuing relicensing of its two aging nuclear reactors at North Anna, which are already beyond their 40-year design life. According to the 2020 IRP, Dominion plans to run the North Anna reactors, as well as its two reactors in Surry County, at least through 2045, the period covered by the IRP. Nuclear is a carbon-free resource, but so are wind and solar, and nuclear plants in other states are closing because they are no longer economically competitive. What will it cost Dominion to refurbish these nuclear plants to keep them in operation safely so far beyond their design life? And what will it cost the company if, in spite of refurbishing, one or more of the reactors can’t pass a safety inspection, or even suffers a major failure?

9. Millions of customers in Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina are at risk from hurricanes and other weather events that can knock out power for many days at a time. Today, onsite solar-plus-storage can keep critical facilities operating and allow community centers and schools to serve local residents who have lost power, ensuring they have a place to store medicines that need refrigeration and to charge cellphones, motorized wheelchairs and other devices. If Dominion were to supply the batteries for these facilities, the company could access them for grid storage and services when they are not needed as backup power. In addition to offering a new profit center, it would relieve some of the pressure on line crews who work to restore power after a storm. When will Dominion offer this lifesaving service to its customers? 

10. Electric vehicle charging will increase demand for electricity in Virginia, and it also offers an opportunity for the company to deploy vehicle-to-grid technology, making use of the batteries in buses and private vehicles to help balance the grid. Virginia’s General Assembly rejected legislation that would have allowed Dominion to own and control the batteries in school buses in Virginia, but it passed a bill to help local school districts buy electric buses. Will Dominion now support the ability of the school districts to buy electric school buses and own the batteries themselves, and work with them to implement a vehicle-to-grid program? 

Carbon-free electricity by 2035? Virginia is ready.

(Photo by Dennis Schroeder / NREL)

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

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

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

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

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

Cost

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

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

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

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

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

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

Feasibility

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

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

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

Reliability

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

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

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

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

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

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

The General Assembly made progress on climate in 2021, but our work here is hardly done

Before the start of the 2021 legislative session, I highlighted three areas where Virginia needed to make significant progress to support its climate agenda: transportation electrification, improving the energy efficiency of buildings and giving consumers greater access to renewable energy. 

The General Assembly delivered on one-and-a-half out of three. If we add bonus points for smaller successes, maybe we can call it a total of two. The transportation category truly outperformed expectations, but building efficiency underperformed and renewable energy access didn’t perform at all. 

In the transportation sector, the General Assembly passed the Clean Car Standards requiring manufacturers to deliver more electric vehicles to Virginia dealers (HB1965); approved a statewide study of transit equity (HJ542); approved (but so far has not funded) an electric vehicle rebate program (HB1979); directed the SCC to report on ways to electrify transportation (HB2282); and established a school bus electrification fund (also empty for now)(HB2118). 

Together these bills address two of the most significant ways we can reduce emissions from the transportation sector: supporting the move away from the internal combustion engine to electric vehicles and improving mass transit options. 

The House rejected a second school bus electrification bill that, as originally drafted, would have allowed Dominion Energy Virginia to own, control and profit handsomely from the batteries in as many as 1,250 new electric school buses. Adding non-polluting school buses across Virginia and testing the value of vehicle-to-grid technology would have been exciting, but Dominion couldn’t help taking a good idea and trying to make it into another bloated profit center. Given the odor of Dominion boondoggle, the question isn’t why the House rejected the bill, but why the Senate was willing to swallow it.

Still, it’s clear electric school buses are an idea whose time has come, and vehicle-to-grid technology could have real benefits for ratepayers. Dominion is already testing the technology with school bus batteries in a smaller pilot program, so we can expect to see more on this topic next year. Meanwhile, advocates hope to see funding emerge to implement HB2118, possibly from the federal stimulus bill now under consideration in Congress.

Improving the energy efficiency of new homes should have been an equally popular idea with legislators. Virginia will be spending hundreds of millions of dollars retrofitting existing homes in the years to come, so it makes sense to ensure that new houses don’t immediately join the queue of homes needing upgrades to be climate-ready. Unfortunately, beefing up the energy efficiency provisions of Virginia’s residential building code (HB2227) proved a hard sell in the face of entrenched opposition from the homebuilders’ lobby and surprising resistance from even some Democratic legislators. 

The legislation originally would have mandated adoption of the latest national energy efficiency code provisions, but it was amended to leave it up to the discretion of the code-writing board whether to require new homes to achieve this higher level of efficiency. They already had that authority; however, the board will now have to consider factors that favor stricter standards, like the long-term cost of ownership. For that reason I’m counting this bill as half a win. Whether or not the board decides to take the hint, improving efficiency in new homes is a topic we will see a lot more of in the future — and next time it is likely to come with more urgency and added features.

Energy efficiency bills did better when they addressed only government bodies. Legislation that passed now favors energy-efficient and water-efficient products in public procurement, and requires EV charging and energy/carbon tracking capability for new public buildings.

Unfortunately, 2021 was another bad year for my third priority, giving consumers the right to buy renewable energy from competitive suppliers. The House supported the “right to shop” bill (HB2048), but Senate Commerce and Labor once again proved itself a bulwark of defense for the monopoly utility model against the interests of residents and corporate customers alike. Killing the bill does nothing to lessen the demand from consumers. If Dominion does not move soon to offer better renewable energy options itself, we can expect to see this legislation return.

Senate Commerce and Labor further cemented its reputation as Dominion’s best friend by dispatching the full suite of utility reform bills that had won bipartisan support in the House. Only three senators on the 15-member committee consistently voted in favor of the reforms, ensuring that none of them got to the Senate floor. 

https://www.virginiamercury.com/2021/02/15/electric-utility-rate-reform-efforts-quashed-by-senate-committee/embed/#?secret=PtRlKZ6GtJ

Various other bills advanced the energy transition in smaller, focused bites. But perhaps the best news is that nothing this year marked a retreat from the commitment the General Assembly and the governor made last year to move Virginia toward a cleaner and more equitable energy supply. 

Below is a brief round-up of the climate and energy bills that passed this year, including the ones mentioned above. The governor will still have to sign the bills before they become law, but we are not expecting any surprises. 

Renewable energy and storage

 HB1925 (Kilgore) establishes, but does not fund, the Virginia Brownfield and Coal Mine Renewable Energy Grant Fund and Program. 

• HB1994 (Murphy) expands the definition of small agriculture generators to include certain small manufacturing businesses such as breweries, distilleries and wineries for the purposes of the law allowing these businesses to aggregate meters and sell renewable energy to a utility. 

• HB2006 (Heretick) and SB1201 (Petersen) change the definition of an “electric supplier” to include the operator of a storage facility of at least 25 MW, exempting them from state and local taxation but allowing a revenue share assessment. 

 HB2034 (Hurst) clarifies that the program allowing third-party power purchase agreements (PPAs) applies to nonjurisdictional customers (i.e., local government and schools) as well as jurisdictional customers (most other customers) of Appalachian Power and Kentucky Utilities. 

 HB2148 (Willett) provides for energy storage facilities below 150 MW to be subject to the DEQ permit by rule process as “small renewable energy projects.” This is a priority bill for renewable energy industry associations. 

 HB2201 (Jones) and SB1207 (Barker) expands provisions related to siting agreements for solar projects located in an opportunity zone to include energy storage projects; however, according to existing language, the provision only takes effect if the GA also passes legislation authorizing localities to adopt an ordinance providing for the tax treatment of energy storage projects. This is another renewable energy industry bill. 

 HB2269 (Heretick) provides for increases in the revenue share localities can require for solar projects based on changes in the Consumer Price Index. 

• SB1258 (Marsden) requires the State Water Control Board to administer a Virginia Erosion and Sediment Control Program (VESCP) on behalf of any locality that notifies the Department of Environmental Quality that it has chosen not to administer a VESCP for any solar photovoltaic (electric energy) project with a rated electrical generation capacity exceeding five megawatts. The provisions become effective only if the program is funded.. 

• SB1295 (DeSteph) requires utilities to use Virginia-made or U.S.-made products in constructing renewable energy and storage facilities “if available.” As amended, the products must be “reasonably available and competitively priced.” 

Energy efficiency and buildings

 HB1811 (Helmer) adds a preference for energy efficient and water-efficient products in public procurement. 

 HB1859 (Guy) amends last year’s legislation on Commercial Property Assessed Clean Energy (C-PACE) loans to allow these loans to be extended to projects completed in the previous 2 years; it also expressly excludes residential buildings of less than 5 units and residential condominiums. 

 HB2001 (Helmer) requires state and local government buildings to be constructed or renovated to include electric vehicle charging infrastructure and the capability of tracking energy efficiency and carbon emissions. Local governments are authorized to adopt even more stringent requirements. It now has an amendment delaying its effectiveness to 2023 for localities with populations under 100,000. 

 HB2227 (Kory) originally required the Board of Housing and Community Development to adopt amendments to the Uniform Statewide Building Code within one year of publication of a new version of the International Code Council’s International Energy Conservation Code (IECC) to address changes related to energy efficiency and conservation. The bill would have required the Board to adopt building code standards that are at least as stringent as those contained in the new version of the IECC. 

Financing

• HB1919 (Kory) authorizes a locality to establish a green bank to finance clean energy investments. 

Fossil fuels 

• HB1834 (Subramanyam) and SB1247 (Deeds) originally required owners of carbon-emitting power plants to conduct a study at least every 18 months to determine whether the facility should be retired; and to give notice of any decision to retire a facility to state and local leaders within 14 days. Both bills were amended so that the retirement analysis is now just a part of the integrated resource planning process of investor-owned utilities, currently every three years, leaving out other plant owners like cooperatives. 

• HB1899 (Hudson) and SB1252 (McPike) sunset the coal tax credits as ofJan. 1, 2022

• SB1265 (Deeds) makes it easier for DEQ to inspect and issue stop-work orders during gas pipeline construction. 

• SB1311 (McClellan) requires pipeline applicants to submit detailed erosion and sediment control plans and stormwater management plans to DEQ. 

Climate bills 

• HB2330 (Kory) is the legislation the SCC asked for to provide guidance on the Percentage of Income Payment Program under the Virginia Clean Economy Act. 

• SB1282 (Morrissey) directs DEQ to conduct a statewide greenhouse gas inventory, to be updated and published every four years. 

• SB1284 (Favola) changes the name of the Commonwealth Energy Policy to the Commonwealth Clean Energy Policy, and streamlines the language without making major changes to the policies set out last year in Favola’s successful SB94. That bill overhauled the CEP, which until then had been a jumble of competing priorities, and established new targets for Virginia to achieve 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2040 and net-zero carbon economy-wide by 2045. 

• SB1374 (Lewis) sets up a Carbon Sequestration Task Force to consider methods of increasing carbon sequestration in the natural environment, establish benchmarks and identify carbon markets. 

EVs and Transportation energy

 HB1850 (Reid) increases the roadway weight limit for electric and natural gas-fueled trucks to accommodate the extra weight of batteries or natural gas fuel systems. 

 HB1965 (Bagby) is the Clean Car Standards bill, which would require manufacturers to deliver more electric vehicles to Virginia dealers beginning in 2025. 

• HB1979 (Reid) creates a rebate program for new and used electric vehicles; however, the GA provided no funding. 

 HB2118 (Keam) establishes an Electric Vehicle Grant Fund and Program to assist school boards in replacing diesel buses with electric, installing charging infrastructure, and developing workforce education to support the electric buses. It currently has no funding.

 HB2282 (Sullivan) directs the SCC to develop and report on policy proposals to accelerate transportation electrification in the Commonwealth. The bill also limits how utilities get reimbursed for investments in transportation electrification: they must recover costs through normal rates for generation and distribution, and not through rate adjustment clauses or customer credit reinvestment offsets. 

 HJ542 (McQuinn) requests a statewide study of transit equity and modernization. 

 SB1223 (Boysko) adds a requirement to the Virginia Energy Plan to include an analysis of electric vehicle charging infrastructure and other infrastructure needed to support the 2045 net-zero carbon target in the transportation sector.

This article originally appeared in the Virginia Mercury on March 5, 2021.