While U.S. leaders were worrying about coal jobs, clean energy snatched the lead: even Virginia now has more people working in solar than coal.

 

va-electric-sector-jobs

Jobs in electric generation do not include fuel jobs, so for example, the coal jobs in the two charts have to be added together to get total employment. Wind and solar, of course, have no fuel costs. Charts come from DOE.

Jobs in electric generation do not include fuel jobs, so for example, the coal jobs in the two charts have to be added together to get total employment. Wind and solar, of course, don’t need employees to produce their “fuel.” Charts come from DOE.

A new report from the U.S. Department of Energy takes stock of energy employment in the U.S. and comes up with fresh evidence of the rapid transformation of our nation’s electricity supply: more people today work in the solar and wind industries than in natural gas extraction and coal mining.

According to the January 2017 U.S. Energy and Employment Report, 373,807 Americans now work in solar electric power generation, while 101,738 people work in wind. By comparison, a total of 362,118 people work in the natural gas sector, including both fuel supply and generating plants.

Total coal employment stands at 160,119. And while renewable power employment grew by double digits last year—25% for solar, 32% for wind—total job numbers actually declined across the fossil fuel sectors, where machines now do most of the work.

If generating electricity employs a lot of people, not generating it employs even more. The number of Americans working in energy efficiency rose to almost 2.2 million, an increase of 133,000 jobs over the year before.

Those are nationwide figures, but the report helpfully breaks down the numbers by state. For Virginia, 2016 was a watershed year. In spite of the fact that our solar industry is still in its infancy and we have no operating wind farms yet, more Virginians now work in renewable energy than in the state’s storied coal industry. A mere 2,647 Virginians continue to work in coal mining, compared to 4,338 in solar energy and 1,260 in wind.

Dwarfing all of these numbers is the statistic for employment in energy efficiency in Virginia: 75,552.

Your 2016 guide to Virginia wind and solar policy

Photo credit: Sierra Club

Photo credit: Sierra Club

I could make short work of this year’s update by saying that not much has changed in the way of Virginia renewable energy policy in the past year. The General Assembly punted on almost all of the relevant bills that were presented this winter, and a subcommittee that was formed to review those bills has taken no action to date.

But if the policies haven’t changed, the landscape has. While our legislators sat on their hands, everyone else embarked on what, for Virginia, amounts to a solar binge. Dominion Virginia Power began making good on a pledge to install 400 megawatts (MW) of solar in state by the end of the decade. The Governor has taken the first steps to fulfill a pledge to have state agencies meet 8% of their electric demand with solar. Large corporations suddenly want to take advantage of low solar prices and favorable tax policies to do deals in Virginia. Residents are flocking to bulk purchasing cooperatives for rooftop solar. A few universities and schools are using third-party power purchase agreements (PPAs) to install solar under the limited provisions of Dominion Power’s pilot program.

Very little of this is reflected in the statistics—yet. According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, Virginia increased its total renewable energy capacity from 14 MW at the end of 2014 to 22 MW at the end of 2015. A few years ago, an increase of more than 50% would have been amazing. Today we just have to point out that 22 MW is how much solar capacity North Carolina installs on average every single week.

  1. The further we go, the behinder we get
Maryland North Carolina W. Virginia Tennessee Virginia
Solar* 465 2,294 3.4 132 22
Wind** 190 0 583 29 0
Total 655 2,294 586 161 22

Installed capacity measured in megawatts (MW) at the end of 2015. One megawatt is equal to 1,000 kilowatts (kW).

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

This year we will show real progress. Based on the projects announced to date, Virginia will likely have more than 200 MW of solar online by the end of 2016, with more projects in the queue for 2017. So we are headed in the right direction, but these numbers still represent only a tiny fraction of what we could see if we removed the barriers currently holding back private investment in the solar industry and pushed our utilities to make renewables central to their planning.

Moreover, we still have no wind farms in the state, and neither of our investor-owned utilities included Virginia wind in their latest Integrated Resource Plans (with the exception of Dominion Power’s two pilot offshore wind turbines, which probably won’t get built). The one bright spot on wind energy is that Apex Clean Energy continues to move forward with its Rocky Forge wind farm, scheduled for completion next year.

We also have to view Virginia’s progress on solar in the broader context of energy development. Dominion Virginia Power will have built 4,300 MW of new natural gas generation by the end of the decade and has indicated its interest in building far more. The company will add this to a portfolio that’s already 96% fossil fuel and nuclear. This summer two more companies announced plans to build natural gas plants in Virginia, aiming to burn some of the fracked gas that Dominion plans to bring through the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. When the state’s dominant utility is all-in on natural gas, it’s hard for a different energy model to find elbow room.

But we do have good solar and wind resources, and plenty of demand. What we need are policies that welcome participants to the market.

  1. Virginia utilities won’t sell wind or solar to customers*

(*except those with billions of dollars and famous CEOs—see section 14)

Currently, the average Virginia resident can’t pick up the phone and call their utility to buy electricity generated by wind and solar farms. Worse, they can’t buy renewable energy elsewhere, either.

This wasn’t supposed to happen. 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, Virginia utilities have not done this, except in very tiny amounts. Instead, 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, which is not what they want.

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 have no effect on the power mix in Virginia. For a fuller discussion of the Dominion Green Power Program, see What’s wrong with Dominion’s Green Power Program.

Appalachian Power’s “green pricing” program is even worse, offering RECs from an 80 MW hydroelectric dam in West Virginia. No wind, and no solar.

Other REC programs are available to Virginia consumers. If you’re considering this route, read this post first.

The State Corporation Commission has ruled that REC-based programs do not qualify as selling renewable energy, so 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.”

So you should be able to go elsewhere to buy wind and solar—say, from a solar facility on someone else’s land, or even from a facility on your own rooftop that someone else owns and operates for you. (For more on that, see section 10 on third-party power purchase agreements.) But Virginia utilities claim that the statute’s words mean that not only must another licensed supplier provide 100% renewable energy, it must 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.

On August 31, however, a hearing examiner for the SCC rejected this reading. If the SCC agrees, Virginia residents might have new options.

Anticipating the possibility of an adverse ruling from the SCC, this spring APCo filed a proposal with the SCC for a new tariff under of §56-577(A)(6). Instead of RECs, APCo now proposes to offer real green power, combining wind, solar and hydro. None of the power will come from new projects; partly as a result, the tariff will cost more. The SCC will hold a hearing on the proposal this fall. If approved, APCo customers would finally be able to order renewable energy from their utility. But it would also likely close off customers’ ability under the statute to turn to other suppliers of renewable energy.

Dominion has not yet followed APCo’s lead on this one. If the SCC rules that the statute means what it says, we would expect Dominion to offer a green power program consisting of true renewable energy. Indeed, Dominion seems to be working on a green tariff this fall that it is calling “community solar” (see next session). Its real interest may well be the same as APCo’s.

We hope the SCC will require both APCo and Dominion to follow best practices recommended by groups like Advanced Energy Economy Institute: “Utility renewable energy tariff programs must require that utilities build, purchase or contract for a portfolio of renewable energy through a competitive process, and charge customers according to the actual cost of the portfolio, whether that be a net premium or net savings for customers.”

  1. Community solar? Not hardly

Last year Dominion received SCC approval for a program it billed as an offer to sell electricity from solar panels. Notwithstanding its name, however, the “Dominion Community Solar” program is not an offer to sell electricity generated from solar energy, and reading the details, one can only conclude it would attract customers only to the extent they were deceived about it. Perhaps someone within Dominion pointed out to the brass how close this looks to consumer fraud; at any rate, a year has passed and the company still hasn’t launched it.

As for true community solar, only one Virginia utility offers it: a member-owned rural electric cooperative in southwestern Virginia called BARC. The rest of you are out of luck at the moment. Every year for the past several years, legislation has been introduced to support community solar, and every year it has died in the face of utility opposition.

A few bills this year would have enabled community solar, but they were “carried over to 2017”—i.e., killed. A small working group put together by the solar industry association and the utilities is currently trying to come up with a program that utilities will find acceptable. The group has issued a “Request for Information,” available online, and is holding public meetings this fall to get input on a proposal that looks much more like a green tariff than like community solar. (Clearly Dominion likes the name “community solar”–just not, you know, actual community solar.) Another group, the Distributed Solar Collaborative, which includes all stakeholders except utilities, is also evaluating models from other states and plans to put forward a true community solar alternative.

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

Many advocates focus on an RPS as a vehicle for inducing demand. In Virginia, that’s a mistake. Virginia has only a voluntary RPS, which means utilities have the option of participating but don’t have to. Any costs they incur in meeting the goals can be charged to ratepayers. Until a few years ago, utilities even got to collect bonus money as a reward for virtue, until it became clear that there was nothing very virtuous going on.

Making our RPS mandatory rather than voluntary would do nothing for wind and solar in Virginia without a complete overhaul. 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 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%.

The RPS is as impotent in practice as it is in theory. In the case of Dominion Virginia Power, the RPS has been met largely with old hydro projects built prior to World War II, trash incinerators, and wood burning, plus a small amount of landfill gas and—a Virginia peculiarity—RECs representing R&D rather than electric generation.

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 or 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: for most, the only game in town

Given the lack of wind or solar options from utilities, people who want renewable energy generally have to build it themselves. A federal 30% tax credit makes it cost-effective for those with cash or access to low-cost financing, and bulk purchasing through nonprofits VA-SUN and LEAP makes the process easier and reduces costs.

Last year 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. A bill to extend PACE authorization to residential customers did not get out of committee this year.

Virginia offers no cash incentives or tax credits for wind or solar. The Virginia legislature passed a bill in 2014 that would offer an incentive, initially as a tax credit and then as a grant program, but it did not receive funding. The same bill, reintroduced in 2015, died in a subcommittee.

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 (as of now only Pennsylvania) or to brokers who sell to voluntary purchasers.

  1. Limits to net metering hamper growth

Section 56-594 of the Virginia code allows utility customers with wind and solar projects to net energy meter. 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.

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 closer to 12 cents. This effectively stops most people from installing larger systems than they can use themselves.

Legislation passed in 2015 makes it less likely that new solar owners will have any surplus. At Dominion’s insistence, the definition of “eligible customer-generator” was amended 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 solar trade association MDV-SEIA continues to work towards a solution to that problem.

The new limitation is a problem for other reasons as well. Some solar customers want to install larger systems than they previously needed because their business is expanding or they plan to buy an electric car. 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 into the grid at the wholesale power price, why would you stop them from performing this service to society? I can understand that the paperwork isn’t worth the hassle for very small amounts of excess electricity, but if there isn’t an app for that yet, I bet some Virginia Tech students could make one.

  1. Aggregated net metering allowed for farms only

Under a bill introduced by Delegate Randy Minchew (R-Leesburg) and 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 (the farmhouse and other outbuildings). This is referred to as “agricultural net metering.” Efforts to expand aggregated net metering beyond farms have not succeeded.

  1. Standby charges hobble the market for larger home systems and electric cars

Dominion Power and Appalachian Power are at the forefront of a national pushback against policies like net metering that facilitate customer-owned generation.

The current system capacity limit for net-metered solar installations is 1 MW for commercial, 20 kW for residential. 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.

Seizing the opportunity, Dominion won the right to impose a standby charge of up to about $60 per month on these larger systems, eviscerating the market for them just as electric cars were increasing interest in larger systems. (SCC case PUE- 2011-00088.) Legislative efforts to roll back the standby charges were unsuccessful, and more recently, Appalachian Power instituted even more extreme standby charges. (PUE-2014-00026.)

The standby charges supposedly represent the extra costs to the grid for transmission and distribution, though there is a great deal of disagreement on that score, and a lot of suspicion that utilities’ real concern is that they will make less money as demand for their dirty energy product falls.

In the summer of 2013, in a filing with the SCC (PUE-2012-00064, Virginia Electric and Power Company’s Net Metering Generation Impacts Report), Dominion claimed it could also justify standby charges for its generation costs, and indicated it expected to seek them after a year of operating its Solar Purchase Program (see discussion below). As far as I can tell, it hasn’t carried out this threat yet, and it would likely need legislation to do so.

  1. Good news for residential solar: homeowner association bans are largely a thing of the past

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. Virginia utilities continue their fight against PPAs; now a losing battle?

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. . . “

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.

After a long and very public fight in the legislature and the press, 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 is a lousy program and because she, too, reads the Code to allow PPAs currently, making a utility alternative unnecessary. If the commissioners agree with her, this would be a victory for the solar industry and customers. How useful it will be depends on the scope of the final order, however, and on how they view APCo’s effort to close off the opening afforded by §56-577(A)(6) by offering its own renewable energy product.

The problem cries out for a legislative fix. Advocates pushed hard for legislation this year that would open the Virginia market to private investment through third-party PPAs; but as previously noted, the Commerce and Labor committees ducked their responsibilities and failed to act on the bills.

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, and therefore should not trigger a challenge from Appalachian Power or other utilities. 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 proves a market driver

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 “Solar Partnership” Program encounters limited success

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 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 program has resulted in several commercial-scale projects on university campuses and corporate buildings. Unfortunately, it has also been plagued by delays and over-spending.

The program was supposed to proceed in two phases, with 10 MW in place by the end of 2013, and another 20 MW by December 31, 2015. However, the program got off to a very slow start. In August of 2014 the company acknowledged it was behind schedule and would likely not achieve more than 13 or 14 MW of the 30 MW authorized before it ran out of money. On May 7, 2015 Dominion filed a notice with the SCC that it needed to extend the phase 2 end date to December 31, 2016, and confirmed that it would install less than 20 MW altogether.

Although Dominion’s web page suggests that it is still taking applications, I’m doubtful.

  1. Dominion’s Solar Purchase Program: bad for sellers, bad for buyers, and not popular with anyone

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 turned out to be 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 an enormous markup.

I ripped this program from the perspective of the Green Power Program buyers, but the program is also a bad deal for most sellers. Some installers who have looked at it say it’s not worth the hassle given the costs involved and the likelihood that the payments represent taxable income to the homeowner. There is also a possibility that selling the electricity may make homeowners ineligible for the 30% federal tax credit on the purchase of their system. Sellers beware.

And then there’s the problem that selling the solar power means you aren’t powering your home or business with solar—which is the whole point of installing it, right?

  1. Dominion’s Renewable Generation tariff for large users of energy finds no takers; Amazon forces a change, with a new tariff in the works that will be available to others

Currently non-utility renewable energy facilities are subject to a size limit of 1 MW for net-metered projects. These limitations constrain universities, corporations, data centers, and other large users of energy that might want to run on wind or solar. On top of this, the utilities’ interpretation of Virginia law prohibits a developer from building a wind farm or a solar array and selling the power directly to users under a power purchase agreement.

In 2013, Dominion Power rolled out a Renewable Generation Tariff (PUE-2012-00142) to allow customers to buy larger amounts of renewable power from providers, with the utility acting as a go-between and collecting a monthly administrative fee.

From the start the program appeared cumbersome and bureaucratic, and Dominion confirmed to me this summer that they have never had any takers. Then suddenly last year, Amazon Web Services made Dominion’s 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 (an 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 proposes to offer to customers with a peak demand of 5 MW or more, with a program cap of 200 MW. A hearing examiner at the SCC has recommended approval of the special rate.

Dominion used a different model for its deal this year 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 a strong incentive to make deals with large corporations 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.

  1. Dominion moves into utility-scale solar

Well 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, at the utility’s behest, 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’s first solar project will be a 20 MW solar farm in Remington, Virginia; however, the SCC rejected the company’s plan to charge ratepayers for the project 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. Meanwhile, Dominion had also solicited bids for additional projects. To date, three have been announced, totaling 56 MW.

Although Dominion will be able to charge ratepayers for these projects, the SCC insists 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. The result is that Dominion still won’t have any solar in its fuel mix. That’s the weird world of RECs for you.

  1. Governor McAuliffe promises the state will 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.)

  1. Will a Solar Development Authority help?

One of the MacAuliffe Administration’s initiatives last year was a bill to establish the Virginia Solar Development Authority. The Authority is explicitly tasked with helping utilities find financing for solar projects; there is no similar language about supporting customer-owned solar. So far, nothing seems to have come of it.

  1. Any wind energy yet? Nope, still waiting

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. Now it just says 247 MW are “being evaluated.” That’s closer to reality, but they probably should put it in the past tense. There has been a lot of press about the standoff in Tazewell County, where supervisors blocked Dominion’s proposed wind farm. Today, Dominion’s advocacy for its project feels perfunctory. The company has signaled it prefers solar, and its 2016 IRP dismisses wind as too costly.

On the other hand, Appalachian Power’s 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 is in the development stages for the 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 is planned for 2017.

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 will begin generating electricity this fall in the waters off Rhode Island. In 2013 Dominion won the federal auction for the right to develop about 2,000 MW of wind power off Virginia Beach, and the company completed a Site Assessment Plan (SAP) this spring.

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 no interest in seeing the project through. Its 2016 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 the 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 this spring it could not commit to construction even by 2020, upon which DOE pulled funding. Dominion executives swear the project isn’t necessarily dead, but that puts me in mind of the “ex-parrot” in the Monty Python skit, still on its perch only because it’s been nailed there.

  1. The Clean Power Plan tries to make it better to switch than fight

On August 3, 2015, EPA issued the final rule known as the Clean Power Plan. Under the rule, states with existing fossil-fuel generating plants must develop plans to reduce total carbon pollution from power plants, which could include using renewable energy as an offset to fossil fuel. In Virginia, the task of developing a state implementation plan (SIP) falls to the Department of Environmental Quality. Earlier this year the Supreme Court stayed implementation of the EPA rule while a Circuit Court considers a challenge, following which Virginia Republicans pushed through a budget provision prohibiting DEQ from developing a SIP while the federal rule is stayed.

Assuming the Clean Power Plan survives challenge, it could help incentivize construction of wind and solar facilities. While Virginia’s goals under the plan are modest, the rule means the state, utilities and the SCC must for the first time take carbon emissions into account in their planning. The EPA has signaled a strong interest in seeing wind and solar deployed as solutions.

The “fuel” that’s helping America fight climate change isn’t natural gas

You’ve heard the good news on climate: after a century or more of continuous rise, U.S. CO2 emissions have finally begun to decline, due largely to changes in the energy sector. According to the Energy Information Agency (EIA), energy-related CO2 emissions in 2015 were 12% below their 2005 levels. The EIA says this is “because of the decreased use of coal and the increased use of natural gas for electricity generation.”

Is the EIA right in making natural gas the hero of the CO2 story? Hardly. Sure, coal-to-gas switching is real. But take a look at this graph showing the contributors to declining carbon emissions. Natural gas displacement of coal accounts for only about a third of the decrease in CO2 emissions.

Courtesy of the Sierra Club Beyond Coal Campaign, using data from the Energy Information Agency.

Courtesy of the Sierra Club Beyond Coal Campaign, using data from the Energy Information Agency.

By far the biggest driver of the declining emissions is energy efficiency. Americans are using less energy overall, even as our population grows and our economy expands

Energy efficiency is sometimes called the “first fuel” because cutting waste is a cheaper and faster way to meet energy demand than building new power plants. Improvements in energy performance cut across all sectors of the economy, from industrial machines to home electronics to innovations like LED bulbs replacing famously wasteful incandescent light bulbs.

Energy efficiency’s stunning success in lowering carbon emissions should get more attention, and not just because it is cheaper than building new natural gas-fired power plants. Efficiency has no downsides. Natural gas has plenty. Indeed, when methane leakage from drilling and infrastructure is factored in, natural gas doesn’t look much like a climate hero at all.

And that’s not the full story. A growing share of the credit for carbon reductions also goes to non-carbon-emitting sources, primarily wind, and solar. Both sources exhibit double-digit growth rates. Wind power in the U.S. has grown from a little over 9,000 megawatts (MW) in 2005 to more than 74,000 MW by the end of 2015. In 2005, the solar market scarcely existed. By early this year, we had 29,000 MW installed.

The solar trend is particularly exciting because we are just starting to see the big numbers that result from solar’s exponential growth. In the first quarter of 2016, more solar came online in the U.S. than all other power sources combined. Analysts like Bloomberg New Energy Finance see solar becoming the world’s dominant energy source over the next 25 years, driving out not just coal but also a lot of gas generation as solar becomes the cheapest way to make energy.

For an inspiring look at how this will happen, check out this presentation by author Tony Seba. As Seba argues, solar isn’t a commodity like fossil fuels; it is a technology like computers and cell phones. When technologies like these take off, they take over. Seba refers to solar technology, battery storage, electric vehicles and self-driving vehicles as “disruptive” technologies that are advancing together to upend our energy and transportation sectors.

Another graph shows us how critical these advancements will be. The U.S. is on track to achieve President Obama’s goal announced last year of lowering carbon emissions 17% below 2005 levels by 2020, but we will need more aggressive measures to meet our Paris Agreement target of 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2025. After 2025, of course, we will have to cut greenhouse emissions even further and faster.

Slide4Given the urgency of the climate crisis, we don’t have the option of waiting around for the solar revolution to bankrupt the oil and gas industry and fossil-bound electric utilities. These companies will not go quietly; already they are maneuvering to lock customers into fossil fuels. Power producers are engaged in a mad rush to build natural gas plants, and wherever possible, to stick utility customers with the costs.

For Virginians who have felt especially under attack from fracked gas projects recently, this final graph shows it’s not your imagination: Virginia is second only to Texas in new gas plant development underway. And this graph captures only a fraction of the new gas that Virginia’s major utility, Dominion Virginia Power, wants to build. In presentations to state officials, it revealed plans for more than 9,000 megawatts of additional gas generating capacity.

Based on Energy Information Agency data. Chart excludes natural gas generating units already under construction as well as those scheduled to come online after 2020.

Based on Energy Information Agency data. Chart excludes natural gas generating units already under construction as well as those scheduled to come online after 2020.

Dominion and other gas-happy utilities are betting that once plants are built and consumers are on the hook, regulators won’t want to see them idled ten years from now just because renewable energy has made them obsolete.

Indeed, Dominion and other utilities, including Duke Energy, Southern Company, and NextEra in the Southeast and DTE Energy in the Midwest, even plan to use electricity customers to make money for the gas pipelines they are building, locking Americans further into gas.

This is madness. The only sound energy plan today is one that looks forward to an era of minimal fossil fuel use. It puts efficiency and renewables front and center, shifting natural gas and other fuels to supporting roles that will shrink over time.

The shift is inevitable. Delaying it means allowing the climate crisis to worsen, while sticking customers with higher bills for decades to come. That may suit some utilities just fine, but the cost is too high for the rest of us.

 

Charging green customers more without doing more: Appalachian Power discovers the beauty of market segmentation, and moves to block competition

This wind farm isn't in Virginia, and APCo's proposal doesn't include building any new wind. But the cows are cute. Photo credit: NREL

This wind farm isn’t in Virginia, and APCo’s proposal doesn’t include building any new wind. But the cows are cute. Photo credit: NREL

Appalachian Power Company has asked the State Corporation Commission to approve a 100% renewable energy product it wants to offer its environmentally-conscious electricity customers. These customers would pay about 18% more for a combination of wind and hydro than they currently do for “brown” power. But APCo doesn’t plan to build new facilities. It will simply segregate out some of its existing wind and hydro (none of it in Virginia) to package as a new, higher-priced product.[i] The case is PUE-2016-00051.

Since APCo currently sells the renewable energy certificates (RECs) associated with these wind and hydro projects to buyers elsewhere, the change means it would terminate those contracts and provide the RECs to its green energy customers along with the electricity. RECs represent the “renewable attributes” of the power (the bragging rights, if you will), so the electricity by itself doesn’t count as renewable if it doesn’t come with the RECs.

The price of RECs represents only a part of the 18% premium. RECs are really cheap nationally, because supply exceeds demand.[ii] Another driver of the premium is that wind energy was more expensive back in 2007-2010, when these projects were built. Falling wind prices and a natural gas glut have pushed overall energy prices down since then. APCo customers are still paying off the cost of its wind farms (or in the case of two of them, are still paying on power purchase contracts). APCo proposes to shift the burden of paying for those wind farms onto the customers it believes are willing to pay more. At least theoretically, this means it will also reduce the price it charges the rest of its customers, who (it assumes) don’t care where their power comes from.

APCo says if demand is high enough, it will invest in new renewable energy facilities to add supply, which might decrease the cost of the tariff in the future. Cost declines have made new wind competitive with fossil fuels, so a tariff based on new facilities would have lower pricing.

Page 37 of APCo’s filing shows the effect of the accounting change on a customer’s bill for a residential customer using 120 kWh/month:

100% RE: $160,  non-RE customers: $135

or an extra $25/month, $300/year

By my math that comes out to:

100% RE: 13.3 cents/kWh,   non-RE customers: 11.3 cents/kWh

No doubt APCo is responding to consumer demand in proposing this renewable energy tariff. Virginians have become much more vocal, and much less patient, about wanting their utilities to invest in clean energy. But APCo has less virtuous motives as well. Offering electricity generated by 100% renewable energy closes off one avenue under which solar developers currently argue that third-party power purchase agreements (PPAs) are legal. PPAs are a common tool for financing solar projects, and are the only way some customers can afford to buy renewable energy. They are not being used today in APCo territory because of the risk that the utility will sue, claiming a violation of its monopoly on electricity sales.

The Virginia Code contains an exception to utilities’ exclusive monopoly in their territory: if a utility doesn’t sell 100% renewable energy to its customers, anyone else can. The SCC previously ruled that selling RECs doesn’t count, so APCo and Dominion’s own green power programs (consisting mostly of overpriced RECs) do not close the loophole. I have always wondered why they didn’t just do what APCo now proposes, if for no other reason than to close the loophole. The Code says nothing about the green power having to be reasonably priced.

Recall that we are still waiting for the SCC to rule on APCo’s terrible PPA-alternative proposal. The solar industry and environmental groups opposed the proposal not just because it was expensive, convoluted and certain to fail, but also because the Code’s renewable energy exception appears to allow PPAs already, making the APCo program unnecessary.[iii]

APCo and Dominion argue that the Code exception applies only where the seller supplies 100% of the customer’s demand, 100% of the time, with 100% renewable energy. A single wind farm can’t guarantee around-the-clock output, so APCo has combined wind energy with some hydro. That’s something a wind or solar developer can’t do, especially when the developer is merely putting solar panels on a customer’s roof.

These are nice legal arguments guaranteed to keep lawyers employed and the market in limbo. From the public policy point of view, though, there is nothing to be gained by suppressing the renewable energy market. Why squelch private investment and deny customers the right to use a popular financing tool to install wind and solar? For customers willing to pay a premium, why limit them to APCo’s product? If a company wants only wind power or solar power, why not let them contract with any willing provider?

The SCC should definitively declare in favor of PPAs, open the market to competition, and let the free market get to work. If the SCC won’t do it, the legislature should. If customers want APCo’s renewable energy product, terrific. If they can do better elsewhere, let them. We all win by creating new clean energy jobs, having carbon-free electricity displace fossil fuels, and giving customers the products they want.


[i] Page 6 of APCo’s Petition states: “Initially, the Company will assign to Rider REO the output of its renewable generators that are currently under long-term Purchased Power Agreements (the ‘Renewable PPAs’): the Summerville hydro-electric facility, and the Camp Grove, Fowler Ridge, Beech Ridge, and Grand Ridge wind facilities.” The Summersville dam, in West Virginia, was built in 2001. The Camp Grove Wind farm is in Illinois and began operation in 2007. Fowler Ridge, in Indiana, was commissioned in 2008. Beech Ridge, in West Virginia, became operational in 2010. Grand Ridge, in Illinois, was built in 2009.

[ii] It appears from APCo’s filing that its wind RECs sell for $18/MWh, or 1.8 cents/kWh. I don’t see a price stated for hydro RECs in APCO’s filing, but they typically have little value.

[iii] A second basis for believing that PPAs are legal does not rely on the Code exception. Rulings from Iowa and New Hampshire have recognized that PPAs involving rooftop solar are not the kind of electricity sales covered by public utility regulations. APCo’s new offering does not undercut that argument.

 

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

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

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

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

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

Removing barriers to investment 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Community energy/solar gardens

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

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

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

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

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

Tax credits and exemptions

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

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

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

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

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

State funding through carbon cap and trade

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

Financing

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

Utility cost recovery

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

Energy storage

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

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

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

Biomass

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

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

Consumer choice

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

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

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

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


UPDATE:

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

Virginia wind and solar companies say tax credit extensions cue up a happy new year

Photo by Dennis Schroeder / NREL

Photo by Dennis Schroeder / NREL

Congress included a welcome gift to the wind and solar industries in last week’s package of goodies that made up the year-end spending bill. For the wind industry, the renewal of the expired production tax credit (PTC) with a five-year phase-out finally ends the guessing game that has driven repeated boom-and-bust cycles—and will help Virginia’s first-ever wind farm move forward.

For solar, the extension of the investment tax credit (ITC) beyond the end of next year ensures that one of the fastest-growing industries in the U.S. won’t face a major disruption that would have driven many small companies out of business. That’s critical in Virginia, where the lack of incentives has left the market mostly to small players able to get by on small profit margins. As the economics of solar continuously improve, these small companies see a bright future in the Commonwealth.

I asked several Virginia industry members how they were feeling after Congress’ year-end gift.

“The certainty the tax credit extension gives our business is critical,” answered Jeff Nicholson, Director of Development for Waynesboro-based Sigora Solar. “While there won’t be as much of a crunch to get systems installed next year, we can hire without being concerned that the market for solar will plummet in a year.”

Sigora has been one of Virginia’s most remarkable small business success stories, growing from 11 employees at the beginning of 2015 to 44 today. With the ITC extension, the company now foresees a “long-term, steady stream of business” through the rest of the decade, said Nicholson.

The 30% ITC had been set to expire at the end of 2016 for residential customers, while dropping to 10% for commercial and utility-scale projects. Under the bill passed by Congress and signed by President Obama on December 18, the tax credit will remain at 30% for all systems through 2018, and then taper off gradually until it reaches 10% in 2022. If current price trends continue, the extra few years may be enough to make solar competitive with other fuels without subsidies.

“We know solar is a solid energy production fuel, every bit as viable as coal, oil, nuclear and wind, and it is clear that the more we build, the more cost effective it becomes,” said Paul Risberg, President of Charlottesville-based Altenergy Incorporated. Altenergy grew by 40% in 2015, and Risberg told me he now expects that trend to continue in 2016.

Another Virginia success story is Staunton-based Secure Futures LLC, which has carved out a niche supplying solar energy to tax-exempt entities like universities and local government entities in Virginia, using third-party power purchase agreements. CEO Tony Smith told me, “The ITC extension means that our business can continue to offer at or below grid-parity solar electricity to our commercial scale customers beyond 2016.”

But, he added, “It still remains challenging to attract investment in Virginia due to the disparity in incentives to solar in our state as compared with our neighboring states, especially for behind-the-meter third party owned solar.  We remain hopeful that our industry will continue to build support in Richmond to reduce the barriers to solar investment in Virginia.”

The Virginia solar industry got an extra year-end gift on Monday when Governor Terry MacAuliffe announced plans for the state government to buy 110 megawatts of solar over the next three years, accounting for 8% of its electricity usage. While 75% of that will be utility-scale solar to be built by Virginia Dominion Power, 25% will consist of on-site projects of less than 2 megawatts in size, to be built by third-party developers using power purchase agreements.* The state will follow a competitive procurement process, but in response to a question at the press conference, MacAuliffe said it will not limit participation to Virginia-based companies.

Still, the Virginia industry members were optimistic the announcement would help boost the profile of solar energy in the Commonwealth. The industry trade group, MDV-SEIA, says it participated in the discussions leading to the announcement.

Virginia has a lot of catching-up to do, of course; neighboring states are so far ahead and have so much momentum that, as the Virginia Sierra Club’s Glen Besa observed, “If Dominion sticks to its commitment (of 400 megawatts of solar by 2020), we’ll be further behind on solar than we are now.”

Photo credit NREL

Photo credit NREL

Like the ITC for solar, the 2.3 cents per kilowatt-hour PTC has been a crucial support for the wind industry, making it the second-biggest source of new electric generation in the U.S. for many years now. But until last week, Congress had been reluctant to extend the PTC for more than a year at a time, sometimes retroactively, causing havoc for planners and developers and leading to boom-and-bust cycles deeply damaging to growth.

Now the PTC will be extended through 2016 before tapering off and expiring altogether at the end of 2019. Projects that “commence construction” by the end of a given year will qualify at that year’s level. (“Commence construction” language was also added to the solar ITC.) The predictability that comes with the five-year tapering-off period is expected to finally bring stability to project planning.

And like the solar industry, the wind industry now predicts bright days ahead. Bruce Burcat, Executive Director of the Mid-Atlantic Renewable Energy Coalition, told me, “Sound policies like the PTC have driven innovation which has helped reduce the cost of wind energy down by about 66 percent over the past six years, making it highly price competitive with traditional forms of energy resources. This trend bodes well for the opportunity for wind to take hold in Virginia.”

Burcat is undeterred by Virginia’s lack of success with wind farms to date. “While no wind farms have been developed in Virginia, we believe that with the right signals from the Commonwealth, Virginia could see its first wind farms developed sometime in the next few years,” he said. “Wind farms would bring investment and jobs and other economic development opportunities to Virginia.  Wind farms would also be a very important tool for cleanly and cost-effectively helping Virginia meet the requirements of the EPA’s Clean Power Plan.”

Virginia’s first wind farm is expected to be Apex Clean Energy’s 75-MW Rocky Forge project in Botetourt County, which the company projects to have operational in 2017. Tyson Utt, Apex’s Director of Development for the Mid-Atlantic, told me, “The extension of the PTC will enable the facility to charge less for the energy it produces, saving electricity consumers money.” And, he added, “The project will be built on private land with private investment and will help diversify Virginia’s energy mix while injecting millions into the local economy.”

Apex also has a second wind farm of up to 180 MW under development in Pulaski County, scheduled for completion in 2017 or 2018.

Utt agrees the wind industry won’t need incentives for long to compete with fossil fuels. “The PTC exists to help level the playing field for renewable energy, relative to legacy generation sources that have benefited from permanent subsidies for decades. That said, renewable energy is becoming so economically competitive on its own that the industry now feels comfortable accepting a phase out of the PTC over the next five years, and the tax extenders package that just passed through congress does exactly this. Of course, wind energy offers additional benefits that are not currently reflected in our incentive structure, including the ability to generate electricity without producing carbon dioxide or consuming water. We expect that as our nation moves towards the recognition that there should be a price placed on carbon, wind energy will become even more competitive with conventional generation sources.”

[UPDATE: on January 6, the Associated Press reported that Appalachian Power is seeking to buy up to 150 MW of wind power through direct ownership or long-term power purchase agreements.]

In addition to the tax credit extensions for wind and solar, Congress passed other clean energy incentives that have gotten less attention. Scott Sklar, President of the Arlington-based Stella Group, Ltd. and an adjunct professor at George Washington University, noted that other renewable technologies also qualified for tax credits, and a tax deduction for energy efficiency improvements in commercial buildings was renewed. He also pointed to provisions in the Highway Authorization Act passed into law this month that favor renewable energy. As a result, he told me, “The end-of-year passage by Congress of extensions for the entire portfolio of energy efficiency and renewable energy, coupled with the infrastructure incentives for renewable energy in the highway bill, will more than double private investment into these sectors over the next six years.”

Sklar is bullish on clean energy. “With expanding markets, allowing these technologies to-scale even further, will insure electric grid and fuel parity before 2020, and also insure that renewable energy and energy efficiency will become the dominant energy provider both in the US and the world.”

I should note, though, that not everyone was entirely happy with Congress last week. Though they lauded the tax credit extensions, environmental groups including the Sierra Club opposed the lifting of the oil export ban that Republicans demanded in return. Exporting American crude oil, they fear, will lead to more drilling in the U.S. and higher oil consumption worldwide, further driving climate change. And while wind and solar compete head-to-head with the biggest climate culprit, coal, currently they offer little competition for oil in the transportation sector.

But with a world-wide oil glut that shows no signs of easing, observers including Sklar think lifting the export ban won’t have much effect in the near term. The extension of the renewable energy tax credits, on the other hand, will help push clean energy pricing to a point where wind and solar dominate the market for new electricity generation. According to an analysis by the Council on Foreign Relations, “Extension of the tax credits will do far more to reduce carbon dioxide emissions over the next five years than lifting the export ban will do to increase them.”

So it’s easy to see coal as the biggest loser here, but Big Oil shouldn’t feel too smug. As battery storage becomes more affordable and electric cars gain market share, wind and solar will begin to displace oil, too. The future, my friends, belongs to clean energy.

Here’s to 2016!

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*The astute reader may wonder how the Governor persuaded Dominion to allow it to buy electricity from third-party providers in spite of Dominion’s tireless defense of its monopoly on electricity sales and its reluctance to allow other customers to use PPAs outside the narrow confines of a pilot program. Unlike most of us, the state purchases power from Dominion under a contract, rather than under a tariff overseen by the State Corporation Commission. So allowing the state to use PPAs required negotiating a change to the contract but does not have immediate ramifications for lesser folk. But still: at some point, doesn’t it become obvious that restrictions on PPAs are simply holding the market back?

And even all you astute readers may not have thought to ask: when the state buys solar electricity from Dominion or third parties, who will own the RECs? After all, it is not the guy with the solar system on his roof who can legally claim to be using solar energy, but the guy holding the renewable energy certificates (RECs) associated with that energy. If the state wants to brag about meeting its new goal of 8% of its electricity from solar, it had better hold the RECs to prove it—and not, for example, allow Dominion to sell the RECs to a Pennsylvania utility or to the voluntary participants of its Green Power Program. When I asked Deputy Secretary of Commerce Hayes Framme about this, however, he said the question of who will own the RECs “has yet to be determined.”

Dominion ditches plans for onshore wind in Virginia, but grows bullish on solar

Not for you, Virginia.

Not for you, Virginia.

Well, now it’s semi-official: in spite of what it has been telling customers for years, Dominion Power is not going to build onshore wind in Virginia. Speaking at an Edison Electric Institute conference in Dallas on November 13, Dominion Resources Executive Vice President and CFO Mark Gettrick spelled it out:

“When the wind business first got started, a decade, a decade and a half ago, we built two wind projects early on [Mt. Storm, in West Virginia, and Fowler Ridge, in Indiana], and we elected not to build any more. We steered away from wind. We do not think wind would ever be a good resource on land, in Virginia anyway, and so we elected not to pursue incremental wind projects.”

Someone should probably let the rest of the company in on the secret. Dominion’s website still insists the company has three Virginia onshore wind projects in development, and it included 247 megawatts’ worth in its latest Integrated Resource Plan (IRP). But the plan reflects the company’s cooling enthusiasm for wind energy, with the projects now slated for 2022-2024.

This is disappointing news, but it certainly isn’t a surprise. Dominion proposed its Virginia wind farms back before fracking caused natural gas prices to nosedive, undercutting the economic case for wind. At that point, Virginia’s lack of a real RPS meant Dominion had no incentive to build higher-priced generation, and every reason to believe the State Corporation Commission would reject a wind project, as it did similar proposals from Appalachian Power.

But though it is abandoning wind, the company is enthusiastic about solar. Gettrick said Dominion sees “gas and solar” as the way to comply with the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, which will require states to lower their carbon emissions from electric generating plants. Gettrick said:

“We see a growing need in Virginia to install solar for native load compliance with carbon. So that’s what we’re doing . . . So watch where we go with solar. We like the technology, the cost continues to drop, and we see it as a cornerstone for future development in Virginia.”

Advocates may wonder, why solar and not wind? Wind would seem to be cheaper, after all, and a single utility-scale turbine provides more power than hundreds of home solar systems.

The IRP offers part of the answer. For a utility, not all power is equal. Dominion has plenty of power for times when demand is low; the challenge is filling in the peaks and valleys of demand above that minimum level. Dominion needs the most power on summer days when solar produces well but wind does not.

The other part of the answer is price. This will surprise people who have seen the rock-bottom prices of wind power in places like Iowa and Texas, where wind outcompetes even natural gas. But it’s cheap to build wind among cornfields or on open rangeland, where access is easy. It’s more expensive to do it in the eastern mountains, where narrow, winding roads pose logistical challenges. The result is that wind power in the Southeast will cost about double what it costs in the Plains, according to the most recent Lazard analysis.

By contrast, Lazard calculates that utility scale solar power costs only about 20% more in the Southeast than it does in the dry, sunny Southwest, where utility-scale solar has reached grid parity. So while the best wind prices are well below the best solar prices nationwide, solar may be cheaper than wind in Virginia.

Lazard’s analyses are based on actual projects, but it also makes some predictions about where prices are headed. It projects unsubsidized utility-scale solar prices of six cents per kilowatt-hour by 2017, confirming predictions of widespread grid parity made by other analysts like Citibank and Deutsche Bank.

If you’re concerned about meeting EPA carbon emissions rules, or just concerned about the environment, period–or you want a reliable and stable-priced resource to hedge gas–solar makes very good sense.

Given these price trends, Dominion’s enthusiasm is entirely understandable. But surely it has some explaining to do, after years of trashing solar to legislators and the SCC. It has gone so far as to slap standby charges on customers who generate their own solar power. And as we’ve seen, its own forays into rooftop solar can’t be counted a success.

But perhaps we could all let bygones be bygones. If Dominion would focus its efforts on utility-scale solar while allowing the removal of barriers constraining the private market for commercial and residential solar, all of us would be winners.