Progress toward an electric grid powered by renewable energy has been frustratingly slow to many Virginians. There have been two main obstacles to ramping up production of wind and solar power in the Old Dominion: cost and reliability.
Wind still has high hurdles in Virginia. There is a limited number of on-shore locations suitable for wind turbines, usually atop scenic mountain ridges, and projects run into stiff opposition from local residents. Meanwhile, the massive expense and risk associated with jump-starting an East Coast offshore wind industry looks insurmountable.
But solar is a different story. The cost per kilowatt continues to decline, making solar increasingly competitive with natural gas. Meanwhile, entrepreneurs are devising an array of strategies for coping with solar’s biggest drawback: the fact that utilities can’t turn it on and off in response to changes in electricity demand.
With the goal of advancing wind and solar, many states have embraced Renewable Portfolio Standards that mandate targets and timetables. Virginia’s goal of achieving 15% renewable production by 2025 is voluntary, however. Therefore clean power advocates have counted on the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan to promote clean energy indirectly by compelling power companies to reduce CO2 emissions.
Politically, that approach didn’t work out well. The election of climate-warming skeptic Donald Trump as president and his appointment of Scott Pruitt, a Clean Power Plan foe, as the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, suggests that the Clean Power Plan will be drastically weakened, if not killed outright.
But that doesn’t mean renewables are dead in Virginia. Market forces are shifting dramatically in favor of clean energy. Instead of pushing government-driven mandates, clean power advocates need to back entrepreneurial, market-driven solutions. Here are some examples of energy innovation here in the Old Dominion that make solar an increasingly attractive proposition.
AES Energy Storage. Arlington-based AES Energy Storage is building a global enterprise selling industrial-scale batteries to make the electric grid cleaner and more reliable. The low-hanging fruit is using batteries for “frequency regulation,” fine-tuning the frequency on the electric grid, but AES also is using batteries to offset the intermittent output of solar panels.
Dominion Voltage Inc. Richmond-based Dominion Voltage Inc., a non-regulated subsidiary of Dominion Resources, has developed a Conservation Voltage Reduction product that works in conjunction with smart meters to reduce voltage and conserve energy — up to 4% may be achievable — and provide the flexibility required to integrate solar into local distribution circuits serving homes and businesses. The company claims that it can boost the capacity to accommodate solar on distribution systems from 20% to 80%.
Opower. Arlington-based Opower, purchased earlier this year by software giant Oracle for $532 million, sells data services that track energy-usage trends over tens of millions of homes. More recently, the company has developed services that help utilities engage with electricity consumers — notifying them by text, for instance, if their energy usage is spiking — in order to better manage the electric load.
Tesla Motors. The Department of Motor Vehicles ruling that allows Tesla to set up a retail operation in Richmond represents more than a victory for competition in the automobile retailing sector — it will bring Tesla’s broader strategy to transform the electric grid to Virginia. Batteries in electric vehicles represent a potentially massive source of energy storage that can be turned on and off at will (at least when the cars aren’t driving). Tesla CEO Elon Musk’s grand plan is to EVs with solar panels to make rooftop solar a more economically viable proposition than it is today.
An added advantage for renewables in Virginia is that the state is located in the PJM Interconnection service territory. PJM uses sophisticated auctions to manage the high-voltage transmission grid and create markets for clean power. PJM has said it currently has the capability to handle up to 30% renewable energy sources on the transmission grid without creating reliability issues.
On the demand side, major players in the booming data-center industry — Amazon Web Services most notably — are committed to expanding the use of green energy. And just last month, 18 major employers including big names such as Walmart, Best Buy, Ikea, Staples and Mars sent a letter to lawmakers and the State Corporation Commission asking them to create an “explicit legal framework” to expand access to renewable energy.
The employers had two main requests. First, the state should allow companies to enter into Power Purchase Agreements (PPAs) with non-utility service providers. Second, utilities should offer a tariff that lets big electricity customers opt into a renewable-energy portfolio maintained by electric utilities. Such a tariff would give the corporations access to a stable, cost-effective green power without impacting other ratepayers.
Creating that “explicit legal framework” is where the action is now. So, despite the imminent demise of the Clean Power Plan, the future of renewable energy in Virginia — particular solar — still looks bright.