Times-Dispatch articles expose Dominion’s manipulation of government for its own enrichment—and that ain’t the half of it

Over the past few days the Richmond Times-Dispatch has run a three-part special report detailing Dominion Energy’s grip on the Virginia General Assembly and the company’s abuse of that power to enrich itself at the expense of its captive customers. Journalists Robert Zullo and Michael Martz examine how Dominion’s use of business and personal connections, campaign contributions and lobbying led to a series of laws that enriched the company and eroded the State Corporation Commission’s regulatory authority.

And Dominion still gets off too easy.

But before we get into that, first let me praise the RTD for even running this series. As recently as a few years ago, the paper assiduously avoided printing anything critical of Dominion outside the narrow confines of letters to the editor. News articles almost invariably adopted Dominion’s messaging and quoted Dominion spokespersons with no effort at independent verification. A single quote from an environmentalist or other critic, buried deep in the text, represented the only nod towards journalistic balance.

This has changed, as the paper’s remarkable exposé demonstrates. Zullo and Martz are not alone; columnist Jeff Schapiro frequently criticizes Dominion in ways that would never have seen print before. Somehow the RTD’s editors have found their spine.

The authors don’t editorialize. They quote a wide array of insiders and observers, though the absence of voices from the environmental community is striking. The coverage of personalities is sometimes even positive; Dominion CEO Tom Farrell, for example, comes off more as an upstanding citizen than as a master manipulator.

Indeed, many of the critics interviewed for the series pull their punches. Most of those quoted are full participants in the “Virginia Way,” a system in which going along to get along is embedded in the political culture. They are careful when criticizing Dominion, unwilling to tar their colleagues and, perhaps, aware they owe their own professional success to the same system that got us into this mess.

Overall, however, Dominion is right to hate the hot white light of journalistic scrutiny. Corporate greed doesn’t look good in print when the readers are its victims, and Dominion’s machinations are recorded here in excruciating detail. They culminate in the passage of 2015’s SB 1349, the law stripping the State Corporation Commission of its authority to review utility base rates and order refunds until 2022.

Dominion positioned its bill as a way to “protect” customers from the costs of complying with the federal Clean Power Plan, but it was not hard to recognize the Clean Power Plan as a politically charged fig leaf. SB 1349 was always about letting Dominion keep excess earnings. The Clean Power Plan, after all, was not scheduled to kick in until 2022, when rates would unfreeze. Meanwhile, as one SCC commissioner estimates, Dominion will keep as much as a billion dollars of money it has not earned.

Yet by concentrating on the money, the RTD misses bigger implications. Dominion’s corruption of our legislative process doesn’t just mean consumers are getting ripped off. It means Dominion has been able to undermine efforts to reduce energy use, protect our electric grid, move to greater use of renewable energy, and free us from dependence on fossil fuels.

Heck, under Dominion’s influence, elected leaders don’t even appreciate why these should be their priorities. Politicians genuinely think building fracked-gas pipelines like the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley pipelines will lower energy costs. (In case you missed it, they won’t.) This is the real damage Dominion does, that legislators don’t even know they’ve internalized the utility’s propaganda. This is the exercise of the “third dimension of power,” the hidden type of power described in former UVA professor Vivian Thomson’s recent book Climate of Capitulation.

As a result it doesn’t occur to our elected leaders to ask questions when Dominion promises to reduce carbon emissions while planning to build more fossil fuel generation. (The answer to the question is in the fine print; or if you prefer blunt speech, it’s a lie.)

These leaders acquiesce when Dominion lobbyists urge them to reject mandatory energy efficiency standards on the basis that Virginia has such low-cost electricity (wrong) that we can’t succeed at energy efficiency the way other states do (and anyway the SCC won’t let us, so we shouldn’t even try).

Dominion takes baby steps on renewable energy, and elected officials express their gratitude without noticing how dismally far behind our neighboring states we remain. (How kind of Dominion! Let’s give them some more money!) Democrats used to try to pass renewable energy mandates; they don’t any more. Dominion doesn’t like to be told what to do. So rather than fight and lose, legislators now say they don’t like mandates. That’s a true climate of capitulation.

In short, the people’s representatives pass bills Dominion wants, or reject ones Dominion opposes, and persuade themselves the legislature is in charge.

The RTD cites one especially telling example of this. “Since 1996, Dominion has been [Delegate Ken Plum’s] top political donor, contributing $105,750, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.” Yet, “’I’ve never felt squeezed by them,’ Plum said of the utility’s lobbying corps. ‘I have felt informed by them.’”

That’s what you call good lobbying. The lobbied official never feels squeezed, just informed.

It’s obvious enough that Dominion distributes money to legislators from both parties because it expects to buy influence. Legislators know this, and many acknowledge that it works on their colleagues. As for themselves, however, they are certain they can take money without being influenced. Even Ken Cuccinelli, who advocates for the SCC to regain its authority over Dominion, dismisses the idea of banning campaign contributions from public utilities. (Mind you, he offers no other solutions.)

Voters are rightly more skeptical, as demonstrated by the groundswell of support for Senator Chap Petersen’s proposals to repeal the rate freeze and to bar campaign contributions from regulated public utilities. Dozens of candidates seeking office this year have pledged not to take Dominion money, and according to the group Activate Virginia, 8 incumbents and 46 House candidates have promised to roll back the rate freeze.

In both cases, the question is why so few incumbents have signed on. Perhaps, after reading the RTD’s report, they will understand why they should. What’s at stake goes way beyond money.

A 5-year plan for economic growth: 10% solar and 50,000 new jobs

Source: The Solar Foundation

A new analysis from the non-profit Solar Foundation shows Virginia could create 50,400 jobs if it commits to building enough solar energy in the next five years to provide just 10% of our electricity supply.

The analysis takes the form of an “infographic” showing the implications of 10% solar. It would require building 15,000 megawatts of solar, divided among utility-scale solar farms, commercial installations, and the rooftops of houses. At the end of 2016, Virginia had a total of only 241 MW of solar installed, representing one-tenth of 1 percent of total electricity consumption. Getting to 10% by the end of 2023 would mean an annual growth rate of 61 percent. That would be impressive growth, but well below the 87 percent growth rate averaged by California and North Carolina over the past 6 years.

So 10% in five years should be doable. And indeed, viewed against the need to dramatically lower our carbon footprint, it seems like a very small step indeed. The McAuliffe administration wants to significantly cut statewide carbon emissions, and it is hard to see how we can do that without replacing the dirtiest fossil fuels with solar (and wind, and energy efficiency).

The good news is that the market is in our favor. Dominion Energy’s 2017 Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) identified utility-scale solar as the least-cost energy resource available in Virginia today. And participants in local cooperative buying programs for homeowners and businesses, known as “Solarize” programs, report payback times of under 10 years for rooftop solar, after which they will have nearly free electricity for 20 or 30 years.

Recent solar deals involving Amazon, Microsoft, and now Facebook show just how strong the demand is from customers. The very companies that our political leaders want so desperately to attract to Virginia are insisting on renewable electricity.

These deals demonstrate the direction of the market, and they will give an initial boost to solar employment, especially in the rural communities that are the best locations for solar farms. But restricting solar to a handful of new companies just coming into Virginia won’t get us to 15,000 MW and 10% solar. It’s also fundamentally unfair to the rest of us who are stuck with a dirty grid. Why should existing customers get left with polluting sources, while big tech companies get solar?

For us, Dominion’s IRP caps its solar plans at 240 MW per year, an amount it admits is arbitrary. In other words, Amazon got 260 MW, Facebook is getting 130 MW, but all the rest of Dominion’s customers put together will get just 240 MW per year.

As for customers who are determined to take matters into their own hands with rooftop solar, a host of unnecessary restrictions continue to limit growth. Virginia needs to put policies in place to push utilities to do more, to support local governments and schools that want solar, and to remove the barriers that limit private investment.

Solar companies around the state say if we can do that, they will do their part by hiring more Virginians. Here’s what some of them had to say about the 10% solar goal, and how to achieve it:

“We believe, as Virginians, that we can solve our energy challenges. Ours is a Virginia company founded and based in Charlottesville, and we are committed to building Virginia-based energy production facilities that benefit all Virginians. But the fact is that over the past few years our growth has come from business in other states. We have 26 employees in Virginia now, and we could increase that dramatically if Virginia promotes solar through policy changes that incentivize business owners to invest, allows competition, and supports the environmental message.” –Paul Risberg, President of Altenergy, Charlottesville

“The economics have never been better for solar in Virginia than they are right now. Prospect Solar has grown from two employees in 2010 to 16 full time employees today. Roles such as electricians, skilled labor, engineers, project managers, and sales people are integral to the success of each project. We hope Virginia will commit to a rapid, sustained buildout of all sectors of the solar industry, allowing us to continue adding local jobs.” –Andrew Skinner, Project Manager at Prospect Solar, Sterling

“Nationwide, the solar market was a 23 billion dollar industry in 2016. One out of every 50 new jobs in America was created by the solar industry last year. Sigora has been part of that. We have doubled in size in the past year and now employ 80 people in the Commonwealth.” –Karla Loeb, Vice President of Policy and Development for Sigora Solar, Charlottesville

“Local energy, local jobs, local investment. Our workforce is made up of local people—three of us went to Virginia Tech, one went to New River Community College, which has an Alternative Energy Program. An increase in demand of this scale would mean we’d hire more local people.” –Patrick Feucht, Manager of Baseline Solar, Blacksburg

“Residential and commercial rooftop solar has created most of the solar jobs in Virginia to date, and it has to be a part of the push to 10 percent. As we know, rooftop solar creates more jobs than utility solar, and these are good-paying, local jobs for local people. That’s one reason Virginia should lift the outdated 1 percent cap on net-metered solar, and leave the market open to anyone who wants to invest in their own home-grown energy supply.” –Sue Kanz, President of Solar Services, Virginia Beach

“Ten percent solar is a modest goal to shoot for given the strong economics of solar and the demand we are seeing from customers. Virginia has been held back by restrictive policies that have made it a ‘dark state.’ Reforming our policies would lead to a lot more economic development around solar.” –Tony Smith, President of Secure Futures LLC, Staunton

 

New pipelines report shows the ACP is part of a widespread, systemic market failure

Photo courtesy of Chris Tandy.

Anyone who examines the corporate deals that underlie the Atlantic Coast Pipeline comes away with a strong sense of looking at a broken regulatory system. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) is supposed to approve only those pipelines that can demonstrate they are actually needed. Pipeline companies demonstrate need by showing that customers have contracted for most or all of the pipeline’s capacity. In the case of the ACP, Dominion Energy and its partners manufactured the need by making their own affiliates the customers of the pipeline.

What’s weird is that FERC seems to be okay with this. It recently approved another pipeline with a similar setup—the Nexus pipeline that will carry fracked gas from Ohio through Michigan to Canada. FERC ignored blatant self-dealing between the pipeline company and its regulated utility affiliate, including clear evidence the regulated utility affiliate increased its share of the pipeline’s capacity only to create a “need” for its parent company’s project.

A new report from Oil Change International concludes the U.S. is currently building unneeded fracked-gas pipelines as a result of FERC’s regulatory failures, including its failure to police self-dealing. The result will be excess pipeline capacity, paid for by regulated utility customers.

The primary cause of the overbuilding, and the reason companies like Dominion engage in self-dealing to create the impression of “need,” is that FERC sets an absurdly high rate of return on pipelines—14%, compared to a typical utility rate of return of 10%. FERC set the high rate back in 1997 when interest rates were double what they are now, so it was more expensive to build large infrastructure. FERC hasn’t changed the rate since then even though it is causing obvious market distortions—and creating an incentive for utilities to jump into the pipeline business.

What is even weirder is that Virginia’s State Corporation Commission seems to be okay with self-dealing, too. The ACP is also using affiliate contracts that commit the customers of state-regulated electric utilities (including Dominion Energy Virginia) to pay for the use of the pipelines.

The SCC’s job is to protect electric utility customers from precisely this kind of exploitation. These customers don’t have the option to walk away from the likes of Dominion Energy Virginia; they are required by law to get their electricity from that utility and no other. If the SCC looks at self-dealing and shrugs, where are the customers supposed to go for protection?

That’s why Virginia has a law called the Affiliates Act that requires SCC approval before a regulated utility can commit its customers to any contract or arrangement with an affiliated company. Dominion had to commit electricity customers to the ACP in order to show FERC the pipeline was needed. Yet Dominion never even asked the SCC for approval.

Recognizing the risk to ratepayers, the Sierra Club petitioned the SCC to require Dominion to comply with the Affiliates Act by disclosing the affiliate relationship and seeking approval of the arrangement that affects captive customers. Without SCC approval, Dominion would seem to be on thin ice telling FERC it has the contracts in place that demonstrate the “need” for the ACP.

One would have thought the SCC would jump at the chance to weigh in. The FERC filings show it will cost ratepayers three to four times more to use the ACP than to stick with the competing pipeline that Dominion already has long-tem contracts with.

But on September 19, the SCC denied the Sierra Club’s petition. One of the reasons cited was that Dominion will have to get SCC approval before it actually charges ratepayers for any gas carried by the pipeline.

Meaning, the SCC says it will consider the merits of the problem only after Dominion has secured FERC approval, and after the ACP has already ripped a 600-mile gash across the countryside, dispossessing landowners, tearing up forests, and endangering streams and water supplies.

Well, that poses a bit of a problem, doesn’t it? If the SCC turns down Dominion’s rate recovery request at that point, its decision will cancel out the very argument of “need” that Dominion and its partners used to get the ACP approved by FERC. Meaning, the ACP should never have been built.

But the pipeline will be there in all its razed-earth, $5 billion glory. What then? Perhaps Dominion will instead use the pipeline to serve its LNG export terminal at Cove Point or go hawking its expensive gas to new industrial customers, as some politicians hope. But more likely, this being Virginia, we would expect our General Assembly to order the SCC to grant rate recovery anyway, citing energy security or whatever fig leaf Dominion comes up with.

And a systemic market failure will leave Virginians, along with residents of other states, paying more to burn fracked gas for decades, unwillingly and unfairly doing our part to exacerbate the climate crisis.

Virginia could soon have more than 2,500 MW of solar. We just need customers.

Photo by Activ Solar via Wikimedia Commons.

A review of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality website reveals developers have at least started the permitting process for 64 solar farms across 40 jurisdictions, representing over 2,400 megawatts (MW) of solar capacity.

This includes projects that are already in operation, like the thousand-acre, 80 MW Amazon Web Services farm in Accomack that kicked off the solar gold rush here in 2015. Amazon also has another 5 projects in development. By the end of 2017, Amazon will have 260 MW of solar in Virginia, accounting for more than half the solar in the state.

The DEQ total only includes projects above 5 MW. It also omits another 94 MW of Dominion Energy projects permitted by the State Corporation Commission, all of which will be in operation by late fall. (Under legislation passed this year, Dominion’s projects will now also follow the DEQ Permit By Rule process, which applies to projects between 5 and 150 MW.)

In all, Virginia would have over 2,550 MW of utility-scale solar if all the projects were to be completed, at the maximum size for which they are seeking permits. But a closer look at the DEQ “notices of intent” suggests that so far the projects seem to have attracted only a limited number of customers: Amazon, our utilities, and the Commonwealth of Virginia itself.

Governor McAuliffe pledged that the Commonwealth would buy 110 MW of solar, enough to meet 8% of its electrical demand, split between onsite and offsite arrays. Announced deals include 18 MW at Naval Station Oceana and two projects totaling 32 MW that will serve the University of Virginia. The Commonwealth is also the off-taker of a project that provides Microsoft with RECs, to date the only announced deal involving a corporation other than Amazon.

Dominion Energy Virginia committed to 400 MW in 2015, and the utility’s 2017 integrated resource plan proposes a continuous build-out of 240 MW per year for the next 25 years. Old Dominion Electric Cooperative has also contracted for 30 MW of solar at two locations, with Dominion Energy owning the projects. Most recently, Central Virginia Electric Cooperative contracted for the output of two 5-MW solar farms. (These do not appear on the DEQ site.)

Where can we find more customers?

This leaves most proposed solar farms in Virginia without identified customers. Certainly, Dominion will prove to be the buyer for many, and there is no good reason it should stop at 240 MW per year. Appalachian Power is also considering sites in Virginia and West Virginia, but its appetite appears limited to 25 MW. The Commonwealth probably has a couple more deals in the works to complete McAuliffe’s pledge, and the next governor could up the ante—especially now we know that purchases by public colleges and universities count.

But for renewable energy to make a serious contribution to our energy supply, new customers have to commit. Fortunately they don’t need to sign onto Dominion’s half-baked green tariff proposal; they can contract directly with developers, as Amazon did initially. When Dominion Energy bought the first Amazon project from its from developer, the parties negotiated a special rate. Industry members say that deal is too complicated to serve as a model for others, but Dominion has indicated an interest in finding a solution.

Dominion’s participation was not necessary for Amazon to move forward, and it would not be required for other large customers to follow suit. In particular, a financial model known as a “virtual PPA” may offer an attractive option. In this arrangement, a large user contracts for the output of a solar or wind farm, but does not actually take delivery of the electricity. Instead, the power is sold into the wholesale market while the customer buys electricity from its utility as usual. The sale of electricity in the wholesale market offsets the cost of power purchased from the utility, acting as a hedge against rising energy prices. The customer gets the renewable energy certificates (RECs) to legally “green” its electricity supply.

A virtual PPA avoids treading on the monopoly power of a utility because it does not require a customer to take delivery of energy from the solar farm. According to Niels Crone of Customer First Renewables, a company that helps large businesses and institutions maximize the value of renewables, virtual PPAs could be a good option for customers located in Virginia.

Crone says that although virtual PPAs (as well as physical PPAs) deliver the greatest bottom-line benefit with larger projects, smaller customers can aggregate their demand to take advantage of economies of scale. That means the benefits don’t have to be limited to the Amazons of the world. Smaller corporations, universities, hospitals and even local government can band together to lower their energy costs—and make a positive impact on Virginia’s environment and economy.

To Understand Pipeline Economics, Follow the Money

By Thomas Hadwin

I have worked for electric and gas utilities in other states, so I am interested in seeing a modern energy system developed in Virginia. I prefer to find solutions where everyone wins, but Virginia is currently split between those who want to protect our land and waters and those who want the lower cost energy and jobs they think pipelines will bring. We can find ways where all interests are served, but we will have to reshape the plans that have been proposed.

The promised economic benefits are what have motivated many political and business leaders to support the Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP). Let’s set aside the environmental issues and focus on the economics. In dealing with contentious issues, it’s often hard to find agreement on the “facts.” We can avoid disagreement by using information that the pipeline owners (Dominion Energy, Duke Energy, and Southern Company, the parent company of Virginia Natural Gas) have filed with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).

To show FERC that a new pipeline would be needed, the pipeline owners had their utility subsidiaries in Virginia and North Carolina sign 20-year firm transportation agreements with the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. FERC’s own guidelines say that this is not enough to prove true market need for a new pipeline, especially if the companies signing those contracts are owned by the pipeline developers. U.S. Department of Energy studies and reports from independent consultants show that existing pipelines can provide all of the gas we need in Virginia and North Carolina. Unfortunately, FERC has not requested any substantive data to prove the need for a new pipeline. Signed contracts are all that have been used to approve pipelines for the past several decades and it appears that this substandard practice will continue.

Dominion claims that the cost savings provided by the ACP are enough to prove it is necessary. Will the ACP actually save ratepayers money in Virginia and North Carolina? Enough to spur new job creation, as has been advertised? The truth is revealed by examining who pays for the $5 billion ACP, and how much it costs compared to other options.

Data filed with FERC show the ACP will cost customers more than existing pipelines

Pipelines charge a fee to transport natural gas. The gas itself is purchased separately. Traditionally, large users of natural gas, such as utilities, have signed long-term contracts to reserve capacity on a particular pipeline. These contracts must be paid in full, whether or not all of the capacity is used. Having the capacity reserved assures that natural gas can be delivered when it is needed and reduces the price volatility compared to paying for pipeline transportation only as it is needed.

Capacity reservations can be a good idea, but not when the cost of the long-term contract is far higher than other alternatives. Based on the fee and the capacity reservation filed with FERC, Dominion’s utility customers could be obligated to pay over $4 billion during the next 20 years to the ACP for the long-term transportation agreement.

Existing pipelines, currently serving Virginia, can transport the same or greater amount of gas as the ACP for a much lower cost, because existing pipelines have been mostly paid for by previous customers. Using gas prices from May of this year, which show a price advantage at the Dominion South zone (the source of supply used by the ACP), the total price of gas delivered by the ACP to Dominion’s Brunswick plant would be 28% more expensive than gas delivered by the connection to the Transco pipeline built in 2015. The fee to use the ACP is over three times more expensive than using the Transco connection. Using existing pipelines in other parts of the state would save even more money compared to the ACP.

The ACP will be one of the most expensive pipelines on the East Coast. The fee to transport gas using the ACP is over 60% of the current price of natural gas. If this seems like a lot to pay just for transportation, it is. A fee this high raises the delivered price of gas compared to what can be delivered by other pipelines.

Dominion study shows savings from the ACP, but doesn’t tell the whole story

The study used by Dominion to publicize the presumed $377 million per year cost savings from the ACP examined a short-term phenomenon that was over in 2016, but was assumed to last until 2038. The calculation of savings during that anomalous period was extended over twenty years and subjected to a magic multiplier to increase the apparent savings even more. But the study left out one important factor, the cost of transportation. If the FERC rate for using the ACP to transport the gas was added to the savings in the price of gas during this especially favorable period, there would be no savings, just added costs.

The ACP is more expensive than using existing pipelines

As new takeaway pipelines are added in 2017-2018 to the production zone used by the ACP, it is expected that the gas price in this zone will equalize with other regions, so that the difference in the price of delivered gas will be due mainly to pipeline transportation costs. This will put the ACP at a considerable disadvantage to other alternatives. Using the ACP to deliver gas over the long-term is far more expensive than using existing pipelines.

Long-term agreements with existing pipelines cost money too, and differences do occur from time to time between production zones. An independent analysis identifies that using the ACP in Dominion’s territory compared to existing pipelines will create a net cost to ratepayers of $1.6 to $2.3 billion over the next 20 years. Perhaps about half that amount would be an extra cost to Virginia Natural Gas customers to use the ACP rather than connections to existing pipelines during that same period. In general terms, the ACP would add about $3 billion in costs to Virginia energy consumers over the next 20 years. The ACP will raise energy costs and therefore, diminish job creation, exactly the opposite of what has been claimed.

Can existing pipelines deliver the gas? Dominion’s actions say yes.

Dominion argues it can’t get enough gas from other pipelines, but its actions indicate otherwise. The ACP’s FERC application identifies that the Columbia Gas Pipeline can deliver Dominion’s full allotment of gas from West Virginia to Virginia for use in power plants. Columbia Gas is adding about 87 percent of the capacity of the ACP to its system in the region. Transco is adding 400 percent of the capacity of the ACP to its corridor moving southbound through Virginia and North Carolina. Dominion says the capacity being added to the Columbia Gas and Transco systems isn’t available. Yet Dominion obtained capacity from Transco for use at the Cove Point LNG plant that it claims is “unavailable” for use in power plants.

Cabot Oil & Gas Corp., the gas supplier over the Transco Pipeline to Cove Point, plans to increase production by 1.7 Bcf/d (more than the capacity of the ACP) in the next two years. Dan Dinges, Cabot’s CEO, says Cabot is getting calls “from various people looking to secure . . . long-term supplies . . . and we are definitely answering those calls.”

It certainly appears that Dominion could receive its full allotment of 0.3 Bcf/d using existing pipelines, much cheaper than using the ACP, if only it was willing to ask.

Gas service to southeast Virginia and to North Carolina could be accomplished with connections to existing pipelines, mostly over existing rights-of-way, at a fraction of the cost and impacts associated with the ACP. Southeast Virginia could obtain as much, or more, natural gas using a connection to existing pipelines, entirely over existing rights-of-way. The region could have its own source of supply for 80 years for a fraction of the price it would pay for the 20-year contract with the ACP.

North Carolina would receive as much, or more, capacity to supply the same customers in the same locations as proposed by the ACP. A connection to Transco would be made over 105 miles of the Cardinal Pipeline corridor, then connect to the last 90 miles of the ACP right-of-way to serve the same delivery points. This shorter pipeline would meet the same needs but save North Carolina residents billions of dollars compared to the ACP and avoid disruption of West Virginia and Virginia mountains and pristine streams, as well as national forest lands.

Connections to the Transcontinental Pipeline corridor serve the same customers in North Carolina as the ACP, saving billions.

With demand for natural gas slowing, rushing to build the ACP risks making a costly mistake

Dominion and Duke have been scaling back the number of gas-fired units that require service from the ACP and pushing back the expected dates for initial operation. Just this year, the two companies cut in half the number of large gas-fired power plants needed in the next 15 years. The first unit is not needed until 2025, in Virginia. There is no need to rush through the regulatory process. We have time to do a thorough evaluation of the need, costs and impacts of new pipeline projects.

Growth in U.S. natural gas use has slowed markedly, further undermining the ACP’s need argument and the artificial sense of urgency to gain regulatory approvals. An industry analyst says, “With domestic demand gains slowing across power burn, residential, commercial, and industrial, the North American gas market must find new levers to pull. It is likely that the biggest demand lever for the U.S. gas market over the next five years and beyond will be LNG exports.” This statement indicates that the rapid growth in natural gas use is not shaping up as policymakers were led to believe. The industry is looking to greater LNG exports as a way to increase natural gas prices and rescue Wall Street’s failing investments in natural gas developers.

As the red line of the chart shows, pipeline capacity in the Appalachian Basin is growing much faster than the supply of natural gas.

The Appalachian Basin is not producing enough gas to fill all of the pipelines that are currently in front of FERC for approval. The production of natural gas would have to increase by 50 percent in the Marcellus/Utica shale plays to fill the pipelines currently proposed over the next several years. Rather than reducing the number of pipelines built, the industry is suggesting that we need to drill for more gas.

Australia tried to use its ample reserves of natural gas to increase domestic use and LNG exports. They converted many factories to natural gas in hopes of creating more jobs. Instead of greater prosperity, domestic gas prices rose 3-4 times in 10 years, factories closed or converted back to coal, and utility bills skyrocketed.

Learning from others’ mistakes: Florida’s example

The ACP is not the only pipeline project to overestimate demand. Further south, Sabal Trail, the most recent pipeline to go into operation, is running at 25% capacity, all of it taken from existing pipelines. This new pipeline, in rapidly growing Florida, was promoted as being absolutely necessary to meet growth in natural gas demand by its utility holding company owners, NextEra and Duke Energy. Yet, total natural gas usage in Florida is down 4% over last year, undercut by cheaper renewables.

If Virginia’s families and businesses lose, who wins?

It can be puzzling to understand why utility holding companies want to build a pipeline if it isn’t needed. It seems unlikely that an unregulated, private corporation would invest billions of dollars in a project the market doesn’t support. The answer has to do with the way the utility subsidiaries are compensated. Our utilities get paid more when they build more. Today, there is little reason to build new power plants, because demand for electricity is no longer growing nationwide, even though there is growth in our economy and population. Demand for electricity in Virginia is growing only because of new data centers and Dominion’s studies show that growth from that source will taper off by 2023.

FERC offers a 50% higher return for gas pipelines than for interstate transmission lines. The holding company executives are making what they see as a prudent decision to chase this extra money, while revenues from their utility subsidiaries are flat, and shift the risk and higher costs to the utility ratepayers.

A choice that is good for the shareholders but bad for the ratepayers is not one that we should encourage. A company cannot be successful in the long run setting the interests of its owners against the interests of its customers. If Dominion builds the pipeline and successfully convinces the SCC to pass on the full costs of the 20-year agreements to the ratepayers, customers will pay billions more for no benefit. This would give them a reason to do less business with Dominion in the long run (using energy efficiency and self-generation with solar to reduce their usage). The higher costs due to the pipeline would create a less healthy state economy and a less healthy utility.

We need to create different approaches where everyone can benefit. To do that, we must reset the role of our utilities and pay them differently so they can prosper when they serve us better, as other states are doing.

Given that the economic benefits we have been promised will not materialize, we should ask the state and federal regulators to fully analyze the need for this project and make a thorough assessment of its impacts. We have the time. The process could take two more years and still not affect the operation of any of the new power plants in Virginia or North Carolina that were used to justify the pipeline.

 

Thomas Hadwin

Waynesboro, VA

Thomas Hadwin worked for electric and gas utilities in Michigan and New York.  He led a department which was responsible for the site selection and approval of multi-billion dollar projects working with state and federal agencies, as well as assuring that all company facilities complied with existing environmental regulations.  He founded a computer and telecommunications business about which the Wall Street Journal wrote an article describing its innovative business model.  As a “healer of businesses” he helped ailing companies throughout the U.S. get back on their feet.  He is currently working to help establish a 21st century energy system for Virginia.

 

2017 guide to Virginia wind and solar policy

You can tell this picture wasn’t taken in Virginia because it has wind turbines in it. But at least the solar farm will look familiar to many Virginians these days. Photo credit Dennis Schroeder, NREL.

After several years of writing this annual update and often finding little to cheer about, I can finally share some good news. The nationwide boom in utility-scale solar has hit Virginia full force, juiced by low panel prices, corporate and state government demand, favorable tax policy and an abundance of good sites near transmission lines. We are a long way from unleashing our full potential; a lack of incentives, utility-inspired barriers, and a legislature still in thrall to fossil fuel interests continue to hold us back. In spite of this, Virginia is now attracting hundreds of millions of dollars in solar energy investments, and today the solar industry employs more of our residents than the coal industry.

The same cannot be said for wind energy; we are alone among all neighboring states in having no operating wind farms. Distributed generation like rooftop solar also remains a weak spot, even as customer interest continues to grow.

This survey of current policy is intended to help decision-makers, industry, advocates and consumers understand where we are today, who the players are, and where we could be going in the coming year. A few disclaimers: I don’t cover everything, the opinions expressed are purely my own, and as legal advice it is worth exactly what you’re paying for it.

  1. Overview: Virginia still lags, but we’ve now got some mo’

Even last summer it was clear utility-scale solar was on a roll in the commonwealth, leading me to predict Virginia would hit 200 megawatts (MW) by the end of 2016, up from 22 MW at the end of 2015. According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, we beat that number and then some.

Maryland North Carolina W. Virginia Tennessee Virginia
Solar* 637.8 3,015.8 3.4 171.1 238.3
Wind** 191 208 686 29 0
Total 828.8 3,223.8 689.4 200.1 238.3

Installed capacity measured in megawatts (MW) at the end of 2016. One megawatt is equal to 1,000 kilowatts (kW). Note that SEIA does not provide 2016 numbers for W. Virginia; shown are 2015.

*Source: Solar Energy Industries Association **Source: American Wind Energy Association 

The big numbers, however, still lie ahead. At the May event where Governor McAuliffe announced his directive to the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) to develop a carbon limit for Virginia, he also reported that Virginia has a total of more than 1,800 MW of solar installed or under development.

Several developments are driving these numbers:

  • Once the federal investment tax credit is factored in, the levelized cost of energy from solar is now below that of coal, nuclear, and natural gas.
  • Dominion committed to 400 MW of solar as part of 2015 legislation, and now indicates in its IRP an intent to build 240 MW per year through at least 2032.
  • Governor McAuliffe committed the state to getting 8% of its electricity from solar, a total of 110 MW.
  • Corporations, led by Amazon, are using new approaches to procure renewable energy on favorable terms, including indirect and virtual PPAs; this forces utilities to cooperate or be cut out of the action.
  • Other customers have stepped up pressure on their utilities to provide renewable energy.

You can find the list of projects that have submitted permit applications on the DEQ website. The list currently does not include regulated utility-owned projects, which until this year received permits from the State Corporation Commission (SCC). Under legislation passed in 2017, however, these projects will also be governed by the DEQ permit-by-rule process.

Industry experts caution that not all of these solar projects will get built; we may even be seeing a speculative bubble of sorts, reflecting a scramble to lock up the good sites now and worry about customers later.

You will find only one wind project on the DEQ list: Apex Clean Energy’s 75 MW Rocky Forge wind farm, which received its permit earlier this year but has not yet begun construction.

And in spite of Dominion Virginia Power having won the right to develop an estimated 2,000 MW of wind power offshore of Virginia Beach, there is still no timeline for offshore wind in Virginia. Dominion continues to include its two-turbine, 12 MW pilot project in its 2017 Integrated Resource Plan, with a projected in-service date of 2021. It does not include the larger resource as an option.

  1. Most customers still can’t buy renewable energy from Virginia utilities

Currently, the average Virginia resident can’t pick up the phone and call their utility to buy electricity generated by wind and solar farms (unless they are members of some rural electric cooperatives—see below). Worse, they can’t buy renewable energy elsewhere, either.

Virginia law is not the problem. Section 56-577(A)(6) of the Virginia code allows utilities to offer “green power” tariffs, and if they don’t, customers are supposed to be able to go elsewhere for it. Ideally, a utility would use money from voluntary green power programs to build or buy renewable energy for these customers. However, our two big investor-owned utilities, Dominion Energy Virginia (formerly Dominion Virginia Power) and Appalachian Power Company (APCo), have not done this. Instead, the utilities pay brokers to buy renewable energy certificates (RECs) on behalf of the participants. Participation by consumers is voluntary. Participants sign up and agree to be billed extra on their power bills for the service. Meanwhile, they still run their homes and businesses on regular “brown” power.

In Dominion’s case, these RECs meet a recognized national standard, and some of them originate with wind turbines, but they primarily represent power produced and consumed out of state, and thus don’t displace any fossil fuel burning in Virginia. For a fuller discussion of the Dominion Green Power Program, see What’s wrong with Dominion’s Green Power Program.

Since RECs are not energy, Dominion customers are free to buy RECs from other providers, such as Arcadia. If you’re considering this route, read this post first so you understand what you are getting. Personally, I recommend instead making monthly tax-deductible donations to GRID Alternatives to put solar on low-income homes.

Appalachian Power’s “green pricing” program is worse than Dominion’s, consisting only of RECs from an 80 MW hydroelectric dam in West Virginia. In April of 2016 APCo filed a proposal with the SCC for a true renewable energy tariff under of §56-577(A)(6) that would combine wind, solar and hydro. None of the power would come from new projects; partly as a result, the tariff will cost more. That led a hearing examiner to recommend that the SCC reject the tariff as not in the public interest. A ruling by the SCC is expected this summer or fall.

Can you go elsewhere? Since the State Corporation Commission has ruled that REC-based programs do not qualify as selling renewable energy, under the terms of §56-577(A)(6), customers are currently permitted to turn to other licensed suppliers of electric energy “to purchase electric energy provided 100 percent from renewable energy.”

That means you should be able to go elsewhere to buy wind and solar. But Virginia utilities claim that the statute’s words should be read as requiring not only that another licensed supplier provide 100% renewable energy, but that it also supply 100% of the customer’s demand, all the time. Obviously, the owner of a wind farm or solar facility cannot do that. Ergo, say the utilities, a customer cannot go elsewhere.

In August of 2016, a hearing examiner for the SCC rejected this reading in favor of the plain language of the statute. Unfortunately, the case was terminated without the commissioners themselves ruling on the issue.

In spite of the roadblocks, an independent power seller called Direct Energy announced plans last year to sell a renewable energy product to Virginia residents in Dominion’s territory. (The company described the product as a combination of wind and municipal waste biomass.) This spring the SCC confirmed Direct Energy’s right to enter the Virginia market, but also ruled that Direct Energy will have to stop signing up customers once Dominion has its own approved renewable energy tariff. As of this writing, Direct Energy has not decided whether to proceed.

Within a few weeks of the ruling, Dominion filed plans for several new 100% renewable energy tariffs for large commercial customers, and indicated it expected to offer a residential renewable energy tariff as well. Until we see the details, it is hard to know whether this should be viewed as a genuinely positive step for customers or is merely intended to scare off competitors like Direct Energy. Because Dominion’s tariff is designed to meet the company’s “100% of the time” interpretation of the statute, it will include sources like forest biomass, which counts as renewable under the Virginia code but is highly polluting and doesn’t meet many national standards for sustainability. That makes it questionable whether anyone will want to pay extra for its product. If the SCC confirms its hearing examiner’s report rejecting the similar APCo tariff, Dominion may be forced back to the drawing board. (Note to Dominion CEO Robert Blue: Bob, you have the nation’s largest pumped storage facility. Wind, solar and pumped hydro would combine beautifully. You do not need to foist biomass on customers to meet your notion of 100% renewable.)

A new solar option is in the works. For both APCo and Dominion customers, another option is on the way. Under legislation passed this year under the misleading banner of “community solar,” both utilities will contract for power from solar farms to sell to consumers. Details—including price—still have to be worked out in a rulemaking proceeding at the State Corporation Commission. The new programs explicitly do not count as ones selling “electric energy provided 100 percent from renewable energy,” though ironically, they may be the first programs from Dominion and APCo to do exactly that for residential consumers.

Some coop members do have wind and solar options. Recently I learned that there are good green power programs in place in Virginia, available to members of some rural electric cooperatives. Old Dominion Electric Cooperative (ODEC), which supplies power to member cooperatives, buys the output of three wind farms in Maryland and Pennsylvania, and has contracted for two solar farms in Virginia that are slated to come online this year. Not all coops participate; ODEC has the list of those that do on its website.

  1. Community solar

Dominion loves the name “community solar.” The reality, not so much. The solar tariff discussed in section 2 uses that name but keeps the utility in control and gives customers no ownership interest. Dominion opposed true community solar legislation this year (as in past years) that would have put consumers in the driver’s seat.

This is not the first time Dominion has used the name “community solar” for a program that isn’t. In 2015 Dominion received SCC approval for a program it billed as an offer to sell electricity from solar panels. Unfortunately it turned out the “Dominion Community Solar” program would have involved customers paying extra so Dominion could sell solar energy to other people. Reading the details, it seemed clear it would attract customers only to the extent they didn’t understand it. Fortunately the company still hasn’t launched the program, but I’ve seen no formal withdrawal.

As for true community solar, only one Virginia utility offers it: a member-owned rural electric cooperative in southwestern Virginia called BARC.

  1. The miserable sham that is Virginia’s Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS)

Many renewable energy advocates focus on an RPS as a vehicle for inducing demand. In Virginia, that’s a non-starter. Virginia has only a voluntary RPS, which means utilities have the option of participating but don’t have to. And unfortunately, the statute takes a kitchen-sink approach to what counts as renewable energy, so meeting it requires no new investment and no wind or solar. The SCC also insists that utilities take a least-cost approach to meeting the RPS, which means they use RECs from trash incinerators, wood burning, and old out-of-state hydro projects built prior to World War II. If utilities build wind and solar, they are required to sell the high-value RECs from these projects and buy low-cost junky ones instead. Thus, no matter how much solar Dominion builds, the RPS operates to ensure customers will never see solar as part of their energy mix.

The targets are also modest to a fault. Although nominally promising 15% renewables by 2025, the statute sets a 2007 baseline and contains a sleight-of-hand in the definitions section by which the target is applied only to the amount of energy not produced by nuclear plants. The combined result is an effective 2025 target of about 7%.

There appears to be no appetite in the General Assembly for making the RPS mandatory, and efforts to improve the voluntary goals have repeatedly failed in the face of utility and other industry opposition. The utilities have offered no arguments why the goals should not be limited to new, high-value, in-state renewable projects, other than that it would cost more to meet them than to buy junk RECs.

But with the GA hostile to a mandatory RPS and too many parties with vested interests in keeping the kitchen-sink approach going, it is hard to imagine our RPS becoming transformed into a useful tool to incentivize wind and solar.

That doesn’t mean there is no role for legislatively-mandated wind and solar. But it would be easier to pass a bill with a simple, straightforward mandate for buying or building a certain number of megawatts than it would be to repair a hopelessly broken RPS.

  1. Customer-owned generation 

Given the lack of wind or solar options from utilities, people who want renewable energy generally have to build it themselves. Low panel prices and the federal 30% tax credit make it cost-effective for most customers. The emergence of bulk purchasing coops, sometimes also called “solarize” programs, such as those offered through nonprofits VA-SUN and LEAP, makes the process easy for homeowners and businesses and further reduces costs.

Virginia allows net energy metering at the retail rate, though with limits (see section 6). Large commercial customers should also consider the advantages of solar in reducing high demand charges.

In 2016 the GA passed legislation enabling Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) loans for commercial customers. Localities now have an option to offer low-cost financing for energy efficiency and renewable energy projects at the commercial level. Arlington County received a federal grant to develop a PACE program that is expected to launch this year and be a model for other jurisdictions. A bill to extend PACE authorization to residential customers did not get out of committee last year.

Virginia offers no cash incentives or tax credits for wind or solar. The lack of a true RPS in Virginia means Virginia utilities generally will not buy solar renewable energy certificates (SRECs) from customers. SRECs generated here can sometimes be sold to utilities in other states or to brokers who sell to voluntary purchasers.

  1. Limits on retail net metering

Section 56-594 of the Virginia code allows utility customers with wind and solar projects to net energy meter at the retail rate. System owners get credit from their utility for surplus electricity that’s fed into the grid at times of high output. That offsets the grid power they draw on when their systems are producing less than they need. Their monthly bills reflect only the net energy they draw from the grid.

Residential customers can net meter systems up to 20 kW, although standby charges will apply to those between 10 and 20 kW (see section 8). Commercial customers can net meter up to 1,000 kW (1 MW). There is an overall cap of 1% of a utility’s peak demand that can be supplied by net metered systems (as measured at their rated capacity).

If a system produces more than the customer uses in a month, the credits roll over to the next month. However, at the end of the year, the customer will be paid for any excess credits only by entering a power purchase agreement with the utility. This will likely be for a price that represents the utility’s “avoided cost” of about 4.5 cents, rather than the retail rate, which for homeowners is about 12 cents. This effectively stops most people from installing larger systems than they can use themselves.

In 2015, the definition of “eligible customer-generator” was tightened to limit system sizes to no larger than needed to meet the customers demand, based on the previous 12 months of billing history. The SCC wrote implementing regulations (see 20VAC5-315-10 et seq.) but failed to address what happens with new construction.

The limitation presents a new barrier to current customers who want to expand their solar arrays because their business is expanding or they plan to buy an electric car. Why should they have to wait twelve months? But the limitation is also stupid. If customers want to install more clean, renewable energy than they need and are willing to sell the surplus electricity for avoided cost, why would you stop them from performing this service to society?

  1. Progress on meter aggregation derailed by agricultural solar bill

Under a bill passed in 2013, owners of Virginia farms with more than one electric meter are permitted to attribute the electricity produced by a system that serves one meter (say, on a barn) to other meters on the property (e.g., the farmhouse and other outbuildings). This is referred to as “agricultural net metering.” Unfortunately, there have been complaints from installers about a lack of cooperation from utilities in actually using this provision.

Advocates had hoped that agricultural net metering would be a first step towards broader meter aggregation options, but 2017 legislation instead took agricultural customers in a new direction. Beginning this year, farmers can elect to devote up to a quarter of their acreage to solar panels, up to 1.5 MW or 150% of their own electricity demand. The electricity must be sold to the utility at its avoided cost, while the farmer must buy all its electricity from the utility at retail. A farmer who chooses to do this cannot also use agricultural net metering. Agricultural net metering will be terminated entirely in 2019 in territory served by electric cooperatives, though existing customers are grandfathered.

The change would seem to give farmers no rights they did not already have under federal law, but industry sources I trust say some farmers will indeed be able to make money this way. However, taking away the agricultural net metering option is a backward step for farmers who want to use the solar they produce and aggregate meters.

  1. Standby charges on larger home systems

The current system capacity limit for net-metered residential solar installations is 20 kW. However, for residential systems between 10 kW and 20 kW, a utility is allowed to apply to the State Corporation Commission to impose a “standby” charge on those customers. Both Dominion and APCo have approval from the SCC to impose standby charges so high that solar installers say the larger systems often don’t make economic sense.

Utilities argue that customers with solar panels don’t pay their fair share of the upkeep of the grid, shifting costs to those who don’t own solar. A range of “value of solar” studies in other states have generally found the reverse, concluding that distributed solar provides a net benefit to the grid and to society at large. A stakeholder group in Virginia completed the initial phase of a value of solar study in 2014 but got no further after the utilities pulled out of the process.

Standby charges and other net metering issues will be a major focus of attention this year as a topic in the “Rubin Group” discussion. See section 19.

  1. Homeowner associations cannot ban solar

Homeowner association (HOA) bans and restrictions on solar systems have been a problem for residential solar. In the 2014 session, the legislature nullified bans as contrary to public policy. The law contains an exception for bans that are recorded in the land deeds, but this is said to be highly unusual; most bans are simply written into HOA covenants. In April of 2015 the Virginia Attorney issued an opinion letter confirming that unrecorded HOA bans on solar are no longer legal.

Even where HOAs cannot ban solar installations, they can impose “reasonable restrictions concerning the size, place and manner of placement.” This language is undefined. The Maryland-DC-Virginia Solar Energy Industries Association has published a guide for HOAs on this topic.

  1. Third-party ownership

One of the primary drivers of solar installations in other states has been third-party ownership of the systems, including third-party power purchase agreements (PPAs), under which the customer pays only for the power produced by the system. For customers that pay no taxes, including non-profit entities like churches and colleges, this is especially important because they can’t use the 30% federal tax credit to reduce the cost of the system if they purchase it directly. Under a PPA, the system owner can take the tax credit (as well as accelerated depreciation) and pass along the savings in the form of a lower electricity price.

The Virginia Code seems to sanction this approach to financing solar facilities in its net metering provisions, specifically §56-594, which authorizes a “customer generator” to net meter, and defines an eligible customer generator as “a customer that owns and operates, or contracts with other persons to own or operate, or both, an electrical generating facility that . . . uses as its total source of fuel renewable energy. . . “ (emphasis added).

Notwithstanding this provision, in 2011, when Washington & Lee University attempted to use a PPA to finance a solar array on its campus, Dominion Virginia Power issued cease and desist letters to the university and its Staunton-based solar provider, Secure Futures LLC. Dominion claimed the arrangement violated its monopoly on power sales within its territory. Secure Futures and the university thought that even if what was really just a financing arrangement somehow fell afoul of Dominion’s monopoly, surely they were covered by the exception in §56-577(A)(6) available to customers whose own utilities do not offer 100% renewable energy. (See Section 2, above.)

Yet the threat of prolonged and costly litigation was too much. The parties turned the PPA contract into a lease, allowing the solar installation to proceed but without the advantages of a PPA.

(Note that PPAs are sometimes referred to as “leases,” but they are distinct legally. Leasing solar equipment is like renting a generator; both provide power but don’t involve the sale of the electricity itself. I have never heard of a utility objecting to a true lease.)

In 2013 Dominion and the solar industry negotiated a compromise that specifically allows customers in Dominion territory to use third-party PPAs to install solar or wind projects under a pilot program capped at 50 MW. Projects must have a minimum size of 50 kW, unless the customer is a tax-exempt entity, in which case there is no minimum. Projects can be as large as 1 MW. The SCC is supposed to review the program every two years beginning in 2015 and has authority to make changes to it. I’m not aware the SCC has reviewed the program to date.

Appalachian Power and the electric cooperatives declined to participate in the PPA deal-making, so the legal uncertainty about PPAs continues in their territories. In June of 2015, Appalachian Power proposed an alternative to PPAs. An evidentiary hearing was held September 29, 2015. A veritable parade of witnesses testified that APCo”s program was expensive, unworkable and unnecessary, given the plain language of the statute allowing PPAs.

Almost a year later, on August 31, 2016, the hearing examiner finally issued her report, recommending that APCo’s application be rejected, both because it was a lousy program and because she, too, read the Code to allow PPAs currently, making a utility alternative unnecessary. Before the commission itself could confirm the ruling, APCo withdrew its application.

In 2017, the legislature passed a bill to allow private colleges and universities—but no one else—in APCo territory to use PPAs to install a maximum of 7 MW of renewable energy.

Meanwhile, Secure Futures has developed a third-party-ownership business model that it says works like a PPA for tax purposes but does not include the sale of electricity. This allows the company to install larger projects in more parts of Virginia (including most recently a 1.3 MW solar array to be installed at Carilion New River Valley Medical Center in Southwest Virginia, which I have to mention here because the project combines solar and sheep farming and therefore will make for cute photos). Currently Secure Futures is the only solar provider offering this option, which it calls a Customer Self-Generation Agreement.

  1. Tax exemption for third-party owned solar

In 2014 the General Assembly passed a law exempting solar generating equipment “owned or operated by a business” from state and local taxation for installations up to 20 MW. It did this by classifying solar equipment as “pollution abatement equipment.” Note that this applies only to the equipment, not to the buildings or land underlying the installation, so real estate taxes aren’t affected.

The law was a response to a problem that local “machinery and tools” taxes were mostly so high as to make third-party PPAs uneconomic in Virginia. In a state where solar was already on the margin, the tax could be a deal-breaker.

The 20 MW cap was included at the request of the Virginia Municipal League and the Virginia Association of Counties, and it seemed at the time like such a high cap as to be irrelevant. However, with solar increasingly attractive economically, Virginia’s tax exemption rapidly became a draw for solar developers, including Virginia utilities.

In 2016 Dominion proposed changing the exemption to benefit its own projects at the expense of those of independent developers. In the end, the statute was amended in a way that benefits utility-scale projects without unduly harming smaller projects. Many new projects will now be only 80% exempt, rather than entirely exempt. However, the details are complex, with different timelines and different size classes, and anyone looking to use this provision should study it carefully.

  1. Dominion-owned distributed solar

In 2011, the General Assembly passed a law allowing Dominion to build up to 30 MW of solar energy on leased property, such as roof space on a college or commercial establishment. The demonstration program was intended to help Dominion learn about grid integration. The SCC approved $80 million of spending, to be partially offset by selling the RECs (meaning the solar energy would not be used to meet Virginia’s RPS goals). The “Solar Partnership Program” resulted in several commercial-scale projects on university campuses and corporate buildings, but the program did not offer any economic advantages, and it seems to have fizzled out. The new Dominion Energy web page still mentions it, but currently the link does not lead to more information.

  1. Dominion Solar Purchase Program

The same legislation that enabled the “Solar Partnership” initiative also authorized Dominion to establish “an alternative to net metering” as part of the demonstration program. The alternative is a buy-all, sell-all deal for up to 3 MW of customer-owned solar. As approved by the SCC, the program allows owners of small solar systems on homes and businesses to sell the power and the associated RECs to Dominion at 15 cents/kWh, while buying regular grid power at retail for their own use. Dominion then sells the power to the Green Power Program at a hefty markup. It is not clear whether the program continues to be available; the links on the new Dominion Energy website don’t lead anywhere helpful.

I ripped this program from the perspective of the Green Power Program buyers, but many installers also feel it is a bad deal for customers, given the costs involved and the likelihood that the payments represent taxable income. Finally, selling the electricity may make new system owners ineligible for the 30% federal tax credit on the purchase of the system.

  1. Utility renewable energy tariffs for large customers

In May of this year, Dominion applied to the SCC for permission to offer six new voluntary schedules for customers with a peak demand of at least 1,000 kW (1 MW). The tariff would use a mix of sources that count as renewable under the Virginia Code but still pollute, including biomass—making it only sort-of green.

For large customers that want wind and solar, the options are more limited. In 2013, Dominion Power introduced a Renewable Generation Tariff to allow customers to buy renewable power from providers, with the utility acting as a go-between and collecting a monthly administrative fee. The program was poorly designed and got no takers.

In 2015, Amazon Web Services made Dominion’s RG tariff irrelevant. Amazon contracted directly with a developer for an 80 MW solar farm, avoiding Dominion’s monopoly restrictions with a plan to sell the electricity directly into the PJM (wholesale) market. Dominion Energy (the merchant affiliate of Dominion Virginia Power) then bought the project, and Dominion Virginia Power negotiated a special rate with Amazon for the power. This contract became the basis for an “experimental” tariff that Dominion now offers to customers with a peak demand of 5 MW or more, with a program cap of 200 MW.

Since that first deal, Dominion and Amazon have followed up with contracts for an additional 180 MW of solar in five Virginia counties.

Dominion used a different model for a deal with Microsoft. After the SCC turned down Dominion’s application to charge ratepayers for a 20-MW solar farm in Remington, Virginia, Dominion reached an agreement with Microsoft and the Commonwealth of Virginia under which the state will buy the output of the project, while Microsoft buys the RECs.

Dominion has also entered into a contract to sell the output of a 17 MW solar facility to the University of Virginia and the Darden School of Business.

Dominion has a strong incentive to make deals with large institutions that want a lot of renewable energy: if they don’t like what Dominion is offering, they can do an end run around the utility. Amazon has shown other companies how to use PJM rules that let anyone develop projects for the wholesale market regardless of utility monopolies, and then “attribute” the solar or wind energy to their operations in any state. With the tax exemption discussed in section 11, Virginia projects apparently now pencil out pretty well.

Some observers caution that the process is still not easy. One of the tasks the Rubin Group says it plans to take on this year is considering further changes to help large customers.

  1. Dominion continues to add utility-scale solar for its own portfolio

Even before Amazon and Microsoft showed an interest in large-scale solar projects here, Dominion had announced it wanted to develop 400 MW of solar in Virginia. In 2015, two bills promoted the construction of utility-scale solar by declaring it in the public interest for utilities to build solar energy projects of at least 1 MW, and up to an aggregate of 500 MW. The bill was amended at the solar industry’s behest to allow utilities the alternative of entering into PPAs for solar power prior to purchasing the generation facilities at a later date, an option with significant tax advantages.

Dominion got off to a rocky start when the SCC rejected the company’s plan to charge ratepayers for its first project, a 20 MW solar farm in Remington, Virginia because the company had not considered cheaper third-party alternatives. Governor McAuliffe helped save the project by working out a deal with Microsoft, as discussed above. Further projects fared better, however, and Dominion is now so enthusiastic about solar that its latest Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) calls for it to engage in a continuous build-out at a rate of 240 MW per year, all for the benefit of its regular ratepayers.

Although Dominion will be able to charge ratepayers for these projects, the SCC will probably insist that the RECs be sold—whether to utilities in other states that have RPS obligations, or to customers who want them for their own sustainability goals, or perhaps even to voluntary green power customers. If this happens, the result will be that Dominion still won’t use solar to meet the Virginia RPS, and ordinary customers will still not have solar as part of the electricity they pay for. That’s the weird world of RECs for you.

  1. Governor McAuliffe initiates program to purchase 110 MW of solar

Following a recommendation by the Governor’s Climate Change and Resiliency Commission, on December 21, 2015, Governor McAuliffe announced that the Commonwealth would commit to procuring 8% of its electricity from solar, with 75% of that built by Dominion and 25% by private developers.

The first deal that will count towards this goal is an 18 MW project at Naval Station Oceana, announced on August 2, 2016. The Commonwealth will buy the power and the RECs. (The Remington Project did not count, because as the buyer of the RECs, only Microsoft can claim the right to be buying solar power.) A 17 MW solar farm supplying the University of Virginia will also count towards the 8%, according to Deputy Secretary of Commerce and Trade Hayes Framme.

  1. Still waiting for wind

No Virginia utility is actively moving forward with a wind farm on land. Dominion Power’s website used to list 248 MW of land-based wind in Virginia as “under development,” without any noticeable progress. The current web page omits mention of these projects.

On the other hand, Appalachian Power’s most recent IRP suggests an interest in wind as a low-cost renewable resource. The bad news is that it isn’t proposing to build any new wind in Virginia.

With no utility buyers, Virginia has not been a friendly place for independent wind developers. In previous years a few wind farm proposals made it to the permitting stage before being abandoned, including in Highland County and on Poor Mountain near Roanoke.

Nonetheless, Apex Clean Energy has obtained a permit to develop a 75-MW Rocky Forge wind farm in Botetourt County. No customer has been announced, but the company believes the project can produce electricity at a competitive price, given its good location and improved turbine technology. Construction, once planned for this year, is now slated for 2018.

As for Virginia’s great offshore wind resource, little progress has been made towards harnessing it, even as the nation’s first offshore wind project began generating electricity in the waters off Rhode Island last year. Dominion won the federal auction for the right to develop about 2,000 MW of wind power off Virginia Beach in 2013, and the company has completed a Site Assessment Plan (SAP) that is awaiting approval.

We had originally been told the federal government’s timeline would lead to wind turbines being built off Virginia Beach around 2020. Now, however, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management says Dominion has five years from approval of the SAP to submit its construction and operations plan, after which we’ll have to wait for review and approval. Presumably the project will also require an environmental impact statement. So the whole process would be quite slow even if Dominion were committed to moving forward expeditiously.

But in fact, it seems increasingly clear that Dominion is just going through the motions and has little interest in seeing the project through. Its 2017 Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) does not even include offshore wind in any of its scenarios for the next 15 years, except for the 12 MW that would be produced by the two test turbines of its VOWTAP project.

Yes, so what about VOWTAP? Dominion had been part of a Department of Energy-funded team to try out new technology, with two pilot turbines due to be installed in 2017. After a second round of bids to build the project still came in higher than expected, Dominion told DOE last spring it could not commit to construction even by 2020, upon which DOE pulled funding. Dominion executives have not declared the project dead, however, and while there has been no public discussion of reviving it, the 2017 IRP suggests an in-service date of 2021.

[Update: on July 10, 2017, Dominion announced it had signed a memorandum of understanding with Denmark-based DONG Energy, one of the largest offshore wind developers in Europe, to complete the two pilot turbines. According to a Dominion press release, the MOU also gives DONG “the exclusive rights to discuss a strategic partnership with Dominion Energy about developing the commercial site based on successful deployment of the initial test turbines.”]

  1. The EPA Clean Power Plan is (probably) dead; long live the McAuliffe clean energy plan!

The Trump administration’s pullback on the Paris accord and the Clean Power Plan are depressing evidence that the Koch brothers have more influence on government than the American people do. Yet the practical effect in Virginia is small. The Clean Power Plan’s targets for Virginia were modest to a fault, and the state could have written an implementation plan that complied with the federal law while still allowing construction of an unlimited number of new gas-burning plants, sending total carbon emissions soaring.

Governor McAuliffe’s recent Executive Directive 11, on the other hand, ties emissions reductions from Virginia power plants to those in other states that have committed to reducing carbon emissions, leaving somewhat less room for mischief in implementation. There are still plenty of pitfalls ahead, and some Republican leaders have vowed to prevent it from ever taking effect. But any constraints on greenhouse gas emissions would serve to increase the value of emissions-free sources like wind and solar. The DEQ web page will show public participation opportunities.

  1. Solar initiatives underway ahead of the 2018 Session

The legislative initiatives that passed in 2017 dealt primarily with utility-scale solar. Since then, the solar industry has announced plans to focus more on removing barriers to distributed generation, a decided challenge given the utilities’ determination to curtail net metering.

The utilities and the solar industry have reconvened solar policy discussions via the Rubin Group, named for its moderator, Mark Rubin. Steering committee members this year include the electric cooperatives, Dominion, APCo, the solar industry trade group MDV-SEIA, the farm advocate Powered by Facts, the environmental group Southern Environmental Law Center, and the Virginia Manufacturer’s Association. The Rubin Group held a meeting on June 19 to get input from other stakeholders, and a follow-up email announced plans for the following subgroups:

  • Large Customer  (Convener: Katharine Bond, Dominion Energy, with Advanced Energy Economy, Ceres, and World Wildlife Fund as Key Participants)
  • Large Developer/Utility-Scale Solar (Convener: Francis Hodsoll, SolUnesco & MDV-SEIA Board Member)
  • Net Metering (Co-Conveners: Sam Brumberg, Virginia’s Electric Cooperatives & Scott Thomasson, Vote Solar & MDV-SEIA Board Member)
  • Land Use (Convener: Karen Schaufeld, Powered by Facts)
  • Community Solar Implementation for Dominion Energy (Conveners: Katharine Bond & Nate Frost, Dominion Energy)

The Rubin Group will accept comments at RubinGroup2017@gmail.com. [Update: Although this was the email address given out at the public meeting, we have learned it goes to Sam Brumberg, attorney for the electric cooperatives, who says he checks it only a few times per month. He recommends contacting Mark Rubin directly at rubin.mark3@gmail.com.]

A separate initiative is the Virginia Distributed Solar Alliance, which includes solar companies, environmental groups, consumers and solar advocates, but not utilities. As its name suggests, it focuses on removing barriers to smaller-scale, customer-sited projects, defending net metering and educating the public about the added benefits distributed solar bring to the grid and the community. The VA-DSA recently launched its website and is welcoming members.

 

 

McAuliffe, on his way out, makes his bold move on climate–and drives Republicans crazy

Governor Terry McAuliffe signs an Executive Directive on climate.

Terry McAuliffe dangled climate bait in front of Virginia Republicans, and they swallowed it hook, line and sinker.

Three weeks ago Governor McAuliffe announced he was directing the state’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) to develop a rule capping greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. His Executive Directive gives DEQ until the end of December to put out a draft rule for public comment—meaning McAuliffe will be out of office before any rule takes effect, and its fate really lies with the winner of November’s gubernatorial election.

Democratic contenders Ralph Northam and Tom Perriello praised the initiative, but Republicans were too much in campaign mode to react rationally. Instead they went ballistic, ensuring that climate change will be an election issue in Virginia for the first time. Ed Gillespie, the frontrunner in the Republican primary, denounced the directive as “job killing and cost-increasing,” and used the opportunity to make common cause with coal companies. Corey Stewart called global warming “obviously a hoax” and promised to restore the taxpayer subsidies Virginia once lavished on the coal barons. Frank Wagner used his status as a state senator to convene a committee hearing so he could inveigh against McAuliffe’s directive.

Last week President Trump further elevated climate as an issue when he announced he was pulling the U.S. out of the international climate accord. ExxonMobil and ConocoPhillips criticized the move, but the Republican Party of Virginia celebrated it with a “Pittsburgh, not Paris” rally at the White House.

Only Virginia and New Jersey will elect governors in 2017, so our election is widely regarded as a bellwether for the 2018 federal electons. With almost 60% of Americans backing the Paris accord, Trump’s pullout—and the choice of Virginia Republicans to embrace an unpopular president over a divisive decision—makes McAuliffe’s directive look like a winning move for Democrats.

It is long past time for climate to become an important issue in national discourse. On the other hand, it’s painful to see it used as a political cudgel in partisan fights, and even worse to see Republicans double down on denying that a threat exists or that we have the tools to address it. Climate change is not something that happens only to one party’s target voter demographic. God sendeth the rain on the just and on the unjust. We are all in this together.

To be fair, there are Republicans who take climate change seriously and believe we need to address it. Unfortunately, the ones who hold elected office rarely have the courage to say it. Their party does not have their backs.

Political clickbait or not, the climate rule McAuliffe envisions is conceptually simple and economically efficient. It would have DEQ set greenhouse gas emissions limits from power plants pegged to those of the eleven states that currently regulate emissions, with a goal of enabling our utilities to trade emissions allowances with utilities in other states.

In effect, Virginia utilities would trade with those of the northeastern states that are members of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), but Virginia would not actually join RGGI. That’s too bad; joining RGGI would let the state auction emissions allowances instead of giving them away, bringing in money for climate adaptation and clean energy programs. According to Deputy Natural Resources Director Angela Navarro, however, joining RGGI would require passage of legislation. Republicans in the General Assembly have blocked such legislation for the past three years in a row.

Auction revenue would be welcome, but the carbon reduction plan still makes sense. Navarro told me the RGGI states are currently achieving reductions of 2.5% year over year and driving clean energy investments. Using this approach would enable Virginia to achieve the 30% by 2030 reductions that the environmental community has been urging. It would also put Virginia in a stronger position when the U.S. eventually adopts nationwide carbon limits. Indeed, McAuliffe’s plan looks better than the Clean Power Plan the Trump administration is trying to scuttle, which applies only to existing power plants and might allow unlimited construction of new fracked gas plants.

A market-friendly cap-and-trade approach is the kind of solution that would appeal to Republicans, if they cared to get into the solution business. Unfortunately, Senator Wagner’s response is likely to be typical of what we can expect from Virginia’s Republican General Assembly when it reconvenes in January 2018. The ink was barely dry on McAuliffe’s directive when Wagner called a meeting of the Joint Commission on Administrative Rules to give himself a pre-primary platform to attack the climate initiative.

Wagner expected a member of the Administration to attend the meeting so he’d have someone to lecture—but wouldn’t you know, it turned out that every single Administration official with any connection to the issue was busy that day. That did not stop Wagner and his fellow Republicans from attacking McAuliffe’s directive as expensive and potentially unconstitutional. (Attorney General Mark Herring had released an opinion the previous week supporting its constitutionality.)

Democrats on the committee were unimpressed with Wagner’s grandstanding, and complained of being summoned to review a rule that hadn’t even been drafted yet. Even more to the point was the testimony from Virginia residents who came to speak in favor of climate action, not as a matter not of politics, but of public health. Dr. Janet Eddy of Virginia Clinicians for Climate Action and Dr. Matthew Burke of the Medical Society Consortium on Climate and Health described how a warming climate means more asthma and heat stroke, longer allergy seasons, and the northward spread of malaria and other infectious diseases.

These are serious problems, and they deserve serious attention. The Republican Party line that global warming isn’t happening, it isn’t our fault, and we can’t afford to stop has all the coherence of the thief who tells the judge he didn’t steal anyone’s wallet, and anyway there wasn’t much cash in it (and he can’t mend his ways because he has a gambling addiction).

Virginia voters will go to the polls on Tuesday to choose their party’s nominees for statewide office and the House of Delegates, so citizens are thinking about the issues that matter to them. The good news is that this year, climate may finally be one of them.