Tag Archives: Solar energy

Bacon Bits: In with the New, Out with the Old

In with the new…

Data Center Alley too hot to handle. The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) has sold 424 acres west of Dulles International Airport to data-center developer Digital Realty Trust for an eye-popping $236.5 million — $558,000 per acre. MWAA will place $207 million in a segregated account used to reduce costs that airlines pay to do business at the airport. The transaction expands the large and growing data-center presence of Digital Realty in Loudoun County, reports the Washington Business Journal.

Virginia’s next big solar project? Solar developer Community Energy has applied to build 125-megawatts in solar capacity in Augusta County, reports PV magazine. To offset concerns about neighborhood impact, Community Energy plans to surround the facility with a buffer of vegetation and put into place measures to diminish the limited audio output. Instead of purchasing the land, the power company is leasing it from landowners, providing farmers an ongoing revenue stream rather than a lump-sum payment.

Out with the old..

Gutted newsrooms. Ned Oliver with the Virginia Mercury has quantified the shrinkage of news staff at Virginia’s largest daily newspapers in recent years. After quietly laying off another eight newspaper employees at the beginning of the month, the Richmond Times-Dispatch newsroom has gone from 42 news and sports reporters in 2010 to 26 today, from nine to six photographers, and from 20 to 13 editors. The Virginian-Pilot has dropped from 67 reporters to 33, 35 editors from to 22, and eight photographers to five. Newsroom staff at the Roanoke Times has eroded by 35% to 25 reporters, 11 editors, and three photographers.

“Meanwhile,” writes Oliver, “there is still no clear model for metro and community newspapers to make up for the loss of all that ad money to digital giants like Google and Facebook.”

Tarheel coal ash overflow. In an event sure to impact the debate over coal ash in Virginia, heavy rains from Hurricane Florence eroded a coal ash facility at a Duke Energy power plant near Wilmington, N.C. The utility is investigating the possible release of about 2,000 cubic yards of the material — enough to fill two-thirds of an Olympic-size swimming pool, according to the Herald-Sun. It was not clear whether any of the ash, which contains traces of heavy metals, reached public waterways.

The release reinforces the necessity of removing coal ash from unlined, uncapped containment ponds where electric utilities have been restoring the coal-combustion residue for decades. Environmental Protection Agency regulations were designed to prevent incidents like this by consolidating and capping coal ash ponds. While environmentalists, regulators and utilities haggle over whether it’s better to store the material in lined landfills, a process that could take two to three decades, existing containment ponds remain vulnerable to extreme weather events like Florence.

Virginia’s Competitive Advantage in Green Power

Solar power is looking better and better by comparison to wind power, and that’s a good thing for Virginia.

In Germany, a global pioneer of wind power, hundreds of wind turbines are experiencing metal fatigue and other issues as they pass their 20- to 25-year design lives — and they are literally falling apart. Turbines are falling to the ground. Blades are snapping off and flying hundreds of feet. Razor-sharp glass fiber splinters have been documented to have flown 800 meters away. So far, no one has been hurt, but one expert speaks of a “ticking time bomb.” (Die Welt has the story here.)

Problems with an energy-production source often don’t become evident for decades. That certainly was the case with coal and oil. Now, a couple of decades after the widespread deployment of wind turbines, we’re learning about a downside of wind. Compared to Deepwater Horizon-scale oil spills and mountaintop-removal coal mining, flying turbine debris may be small potatoes. But as we think about our energy future, the comparison isn’t between wind and coal or oil — no one is building new coal or oil plants — it’s between wind and solar. The great virtue of solar panels is that they just sit there… except when hurricanes tear them off their mountings. But, then, high winds are a problem for wind turbines, too.

Assuming we can design and test turbines to withstand hurricane-force winds, there will be a place for wind in Virginia’s long-term energy future. Wind turbines work at night, which solar panels do not, so they can partially offset the daily drop-off in solar production. Furthermore, if Virginia taps large-scale wind resources, most turbines will be located offshore. Flying turbine blades are less of a problem when people are 20 miles away. But solar power poses none of these issues, and solar is being rolled out on a large scale today. Right now.

The biggest barrier to solar power in Virginia isn’t technology, it isn’t grid reliability (not at this stage of development) and it isn’t obstruction in Richmond. State law now proclaims large volumes of renewable energy to be in the public interest, and Virginia’s largest utility, Dominion Energy Virginia, is forecasting the deployment of more than 5,000 megawatts of solar in its service territory alone. The biggest barrier is local zoning codes, as we are reminded by a story today in The News Virginian.

The Augusta County Board of Supervisors adopted an ordinance yesterday by a narrow 4-3 vote that allows for the leasing of county land for solar energy use. However, critics said the requirement for a 1,000-foot setback from other residences will discourage solar development. The ordinance also does not allow for solar projects on land zoned industrial.

Roger Willetts, who owns the 44 acres in Stuarts Draft, said his property is taxed $6,000 a year by the county. But he said if a solar farm is allowed, he could generate $60,000 in revenue a year. “I think it is an appropriate use. It won’t employ anybody and it won’t have any bathrooms,” Willett told supervisors.

But under the ordinance approved Wednesday, Willetts’ property would be excluded because solar energy on industrial land is not allowed.

Augusta County, situated in a once-beautiful stretch of the Shenandoah Valley, is not a “rural” county with pristine viewsheds of farms and forests. It is characterized by what I call “rural sprawl” — scattered, low-density residential, commercial and industrial development smeared across the countryside. The viewsheds are despoiled already. Sad to say, solar farms aren’t any uglier than what’s already there.

Everywhere a developer proposes to build a solar farm — arguably the most benign form of energy production known to man — the NIMBYs come out and call for restrictions. NIMBYs don’t want gas pipelines. They don’t want electric transmission lines. They don’t want wind turbines. They don’t even want solar farms.

Ironically, solar power could be a boon to the sluggish economies of Virginia’s non-metropolitan cities and counties. Not only do Virginia’s electric utilities envision more solar, the potential exists for Virginia, long a net importer of energy from other states, to export solar power. Virginia is the southern-most state (excluding the northeast corner of North Carolina) in the PJM electric transmission region. For both political and business reasons, there is an insatiable demand for more renewable power within that 13-state region, which stretches from Virginia north to New Jersey and Illinois. Much of that demand comes from Virginia itself, the nation’s leading location for data centers, because West Coast cloud providers insist upon renewable energy sources. PJM creates a  wholesale market for that region, which makes it easier for energy producers located within it to sell into the wholesale market than it is for energy producers on the outside.

While wind-swept Midwestern states in the PJM region are better situated for wind, Virginia is the best situated for solar. As the southern-most state, the Old Dominion has greater solar energy potential — more sunny days and a latitude closer to the equator — than its northern neighbors. As seen in the table above, Virginia has the highest percentage of sun — defined as the percentage of time between sunrise and sunset that sunshine reaches the ground — as well as the largest number of annual hours of sunlight of any PJM state.

Local government officials in Virginia should think of solar power as an economic development tool. Solar farms provide a royalty-income stream to landowners, and they augment the local tax base. While they create few long-term jobs, they do deliver a burst of short-term construction work. As utilities invest in grid modernization, Virginia can provide solar energy for its own needs — up to 30% of the electricity supply, some say, without diminishing grid reliability — and it can export green power to states to the north. This looks like a once-in-a-generation economic opportunity for rural Virginia. Let’s not blow it!

Solar Farms and Rural Blight

Non-solar visual blight in rural Virginia

Governor Ralph Northam is committed to solar energy in Virginia. So is the General Assembly. So are Virginia environmentalists, investor-owned utilities and entrepreneurial solar developers. Now all we have to do is convince the people of rural Virginia that installing massive arrays of solar panels in their neighborhoods poses no threat to their quality of life.

I’ve documented numerous instances of resistance to solar projects around the state on this blog. Here are a couple more.

Campbell County. The Campbell County Board of Supervisors is moving forward with an ordinance to regulate solar farms, three of which have been proposed for the Central Virginia county, reports the News & Advance. Much of the discussion at a hearing yesterday focused on the noticeable hum emitted by solar inverters, which convert the electricity from solar panels into a form that can enter the electric grid. One supervisor argued for a 200- to 300-foot setback for the devices, which can generate noise at a level comparable to an air conditioner or dishwasher. Other supervisors rejected the idea, but the ordinance does require solar projects to conduct traffic studies and decommissioning studies.

More non-solar visual blight in rural Virginia.(Image credit: Hamell.net.)

Culpeper County. Meanwhile, a standing-room-only crowd turned out for a public hearing yesterday on a proposed 1,900-acre solar farm in Culpeper County. Concerns included impacts to view sheds in the area, screening, construction noise, setbacks and property values, reports the Free Lance-Star.

Bacon’s bottom line: I find noise concerns laughable. If inverters required 200-foot setbacks to mitigate an air conditioner-level hum, so would every new house constructed in Campbell County! Is construction work on solar panels louder and more objectionable than construction work on convenience stores, housing subdivisions and manufacturing plants? As for traffic impact, c’mon, a solar farm might generate two or three trips on a typical day. Solar farms are about as low-impact an activity as it’s possible to get. Even cemeteries see more action! 

Even more non-solar visual blight.

People may have a point about the aesthetic impact of solar farms upon bucolic rural views. But, dude, why just pick on solar farms? I’ve seen plenty of run-down shacks, gas stations, and industrial structures barns in rural Virginia that no one gets exercised about. Why not clean them up, too?

Solar’s time has arrived. Virginia was prudent to not mandate solar power when the technology was more primitive and the electric output far more expensive than it is today. But costs have plummeted, and a big chunk of solar in the electric-generating mix makes economic sense. Plus, solar is clean. Even if you don’t lay awake at night worrying about global warming — which I certainly don’t — that’s a major bonus. Get with the program, people! Solar farms bring tax and royalty revenue into your community. Find something else to worry about!

Virginia’s Date with RGGI

RGGI states: Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island, and Vermont

There’s a good chance that Virginia will participate in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) to cut utility CO2 emissions. The impact of the cap-and-trade system would be mostly symbolic.

Barring litigation, Virginia could start participating later this year in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI, pronounced Reggie), a cap-and-trade program designed to reduce CO2 emissions of electric utilities and large industrial customers by 30% over a 10-year period. All it will take is for the State Air Pollution Control Board to approve regulations, now undergoing public comment, that have been drafted by the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ).

Cap-and-trade programs have proven highly cost effective at bringing down emissions in sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxide, and proponents say that a similar approach could work just as well for carbon-dioxide, widely held to be the primary driver of global warming. Cap-and-trade, they say, avoids the inefficiencies of bureaucratic command-and-control regulations. Instead, the auction arrangement steers power output to entities that can reduce CO2 emissions the most cost effectively. Not only will RGGI cut emissions, they contend, it will flatten electric rate increases, lower electric bills, and stimulate economic growth.

There’s just one problem. Virginia’s largest electric utility, Dominion Energy Virginia, doesn’t believe it. In fact, in its 2018 Integrated Resource Plan, the utility fired a broadside against the regulatory initiative. The company maintains the following:

  • The program could impose $530 million in additional costs on Virginia customers between 2020 and 2030.
  • In effect, Virginia will subsidize other RGGI states through lower compliance costs to the tune of $876 million over the decade.
  • Virginia’s linkage to RGGI will not reduce CO2 emissions. To the contrary, the auctions will increase CO2 output by 5.7% more than it would have been otherwise.

PJM service territory

A big reason RGGI proponent’s optimistic forecasts won’t pan out, Dominion says, is that there is a geographic mismatch between the RGGI states and PJM Interconnection, the wholesale market of which Virginia is a part. The nine RGGI states are concentrated in the Northeast; the 14 states of PJM are located in the Mid-Atlantic and the Midwest. The only overlap between the two are Virginia, Maryland, and Delaware. Because Dominion, Appalachian Power Co., and other electricity producers don’t control which power sources are dispatched to meet electric demand — PJM does — generators in Virginia would suffer a cost disadvantage compared to competitors in neighboring states not subject to RGGI, such as North Carolina and West Virginia.

“The effect of RGGI-equivalent reduction requirements in Virginia is likely to limit the dispatch of highly-efficient and lower-emitting [natural gas combined-cycle] facilities in Virginia and to encourage the dispatch of higher-emitting resources and increased emissions in neighboring states outside of the RGGI region,” states the IRP.

But environmentalists insist the cap-and-trade program will be beneficial. “Carbon pollution is a big contributor to climate change. Cap-and-trade is a market-based way of dealing with that environmental problem,” says Will Cleveland, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center.

“We think this is a really good opportunity,” says Harry Godfrey, Virginia director of Advanced Energy Economy. “To the extent that there are still older, coal-fired plants online, we foresee … less utilization of those assets in the future. But we see less utilization anyway. All of our analysis shows a coal-to-gas shift. … Our analysis shows that you can limit cost impacts, and even reduce rates in the process.”

How RGGI works

In 2009 ten Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic states accounting for one-eighth of the U.S. population and one-seventh of its economic activity created the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative as an interstate cap-and-trade program. Broadening the geographic scope of the trading system beyond the boundaries of a single state, it was thought, would create a bigger pool of CO2-cutting opportunities.

Under RGGI’s “direct” auction trading system, RGGI sets a regional limit on the total amount of CO2 that power plants in member states are allowed to emit. Owners of fossil fuel power plants with capacity greater than 25 megawatts are assigned an allowance to release a certain amount of CO2. Then they are required to purchase pollution permits at quarterly auctions sufficient to meet that output. The plan is for RGGI to ratchet the CO2 allowances by 3% each year over a decade. Utilities and big industrial producers who can’t find ways internally to cut their CO2 emissions can go to the auctions to buy extra allowances. Power generators who can find ways to cut emissions economically can sell their excess allowances to those who need them.

In the first auctions between 2009 and 2011, RGGI sold 395 million tons worth of CO2 allowances. The cap was a generous one, so the auction price for allowances was low — ranging between $1.86 and $3.35 per ton — according to the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. As the CO2 allowances tightened, prices increased, reaching a high of $7.50 per ton in 2015. Prices fell after the Trump administration nixed the Clean Power Plan but the next round of CO2 emissions cuts — 30% by 2030 — likely will push the price back up. Continue reading

Supply, Demand Aligning for Solar in Virginia

Four percent of the nation’s power supply is used to power data centers. That figure will increase to 10% within the next decade. Meanwhile, major cloud providers are demanding clean energy sources consistent with their corporate values. For example, Microsoft, Google, Apple, and Facebook have joined the RE100 initiative committing them to generate 100% of their power from renewable sources.

Those numbers come from Garret Bean, vice president of development for sPower, the group behind Sustainable Power Group LLC’s proposal to build a 500-megawatt solar farm in Spotsylvania County. He spoke yesterday at the 2018 Virginia Energy Conference. Virginia Business has the story here.

It’s a lot easier to “live your values” when the price of generating a kilowatt of solar power has dropped from $96 in 1970 to about 4 cents today. Between developments on the supply side and the demand side, the potential exists to build a whole lot of solar in Virginia. Indeed, Bean counts some 212 solar companies and 22 manufacturers in Virginia vying for a piece of the action.

What makes Virginia a particularly attractive place to prospect, despite solar’s slow start here, is that the state is ground zero for building new data centers. High bandwidth connectivity is critical infrastructure for data centers, and 70% of the world’s internet traffic flows through the commonwealth.

At present Virginia gets about half of one percent of its electricity from the sun. Inherently variable solar output doesn’t create grid reliability issues until it accounts for 20% or more of the electricity supply, so there’s plenty of room to grow.

Industrial-Scale Solar Comes to Virginia

Industrial-scale solar farm in California.

If you’re curious what an industrial-scale solar farm will look like, check out Sustainable Power Group LLC’s proposed 3,500-acre solar facility in Spotsylvania County. The Utah company wants to build a 500-megawatt electric power generating station that would entail building approximately 1 million solar panels.

Writes the Free Lance-Star:

The proposed facility would produce enough energy to power all of Spotsylvania’s nearly 46,000 homes nearly twice over, but the company plans to sell the power to corporations throughout Virginia and possibly other states. Microsoft Corp. has said it plans to buy more than half of the energy produced by the solar farm to power its data centers in Virginia.

Think about it: 3,500 acres is more than five square miles. That’s a lot of land. Virginia, by way of reference, is 42,775 square miles. Let’s say the solar farms can supply electricity to 90,000 homes (at peak sunlight). It would take nearly 500 square miles of solar panels to supply all the homes in the state — and considerably more to supply all the businesses. We could be talking about solar panels covering 1% of Virginia’s land mass. This is a major land use issue.

In the early stage of Virginia’s solar development, developers are cherry-picking the prime sites — land located near existing transmission lines that spares the necessity of building power lines to tie into the grid. Rural residents seem to be highly ambivalent about solar farms as it is. Just imagine what will happen if all the good sites are taken and developers have to begin building transmission spurs to connect to the grid. Not only would that add a significant cost, it would require running the regulatory gamut. Inevitably, landowners would complain, especially if the solar developers resorted to eminent domain to cross their property. Opponents would draw upon the array of legal, regulatory and P.R. innovations pioneered to thwart projects initiated by Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power. Under such conditions, would independent solar developers have the financial staying power to slog through those battles?

Perhaps the question is academic. Solar will not likely exceed 25% of Dominion’s electric power generation over the next couple of decades. I have no idea if developers will run out of suitable sites for solar farms by then. But who knows? If the Sustainable Power Group is talking about selling green power into the PJM grid, and if other developers follow its lead, perhaps the market for solar is bigger than what it would take to supply Virginia residents alone. The day the Old Dominion runs out of easily cherry-picked sites might come sooner than we think. Once solar reaches critical mass, it could well create a new set of conflicts and controversies.

Dominion Long-Range Plan: More Solar, More Gas

Dominion’s 15-year plan affirms more solar in Virginia’s energy future.

Dominion Virginia Energy filed this afternoon its 2018 Integrated Resource Plan (IRP), an updated 15-year strategic plan. The IRP reiterates the utility’s commitment to more natural gas and more solar power as a path to a lower carbon future. There’s a lot to cover here, so I will just hit the highlights today, and I’ll dig deeper into the report tomorrow.

The key assumption behind the plan is that “carbon emissions regulation is virtually assured in the future, either through new federal initiatives or through measures adopted at the state level.”

A proposed regulation from the Department of Environmental Quality, if adopted by the State Air Pollution Control Board, would make Virginia a participant in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, which would ratchet down carbon dioxide emissions by 30% over 10 years. “Compliance with carbon regulation could, unless mitigated by other public policies, lead to an increase of between $2.23 and $5.81 in 2018 dollars in the typical residential customer’s monthly electric bills by 2030,” stated the company in a press release.

The IRP also incorporates legislation enacted by the General Assembly this year, the Grid Transformation and Security Act of 2018,” under which earnings above the allowed return on investment would be plowed back into investments in renewable energy, energy efficiency, and smart grid upgrades. The plan contemplates construction of the 12-megawatt Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind project to demonstrate the viability of wind turbines off the Virginia coast, license renewal for the Surry and North Anna nuclear units, the roll-out of new energy-efficiency programs, and the possible retirement of older, less-efficient coal, oil and gas power plants.

Dominion’s press release highlighted the growing role for solar energy. Depending on Virginia’s regulatory path, the company could add 4,720 megawatts of solar capacity over the next 15 years — enough to power 1.18 million homes at peak sunlight, and a nearly 50% increase over last year’s 3,200 forecast.

To back up the solar farms when the sun isn’t shining, Dominion forecasts the need to build eight new gas-fired combustion-turbine (CT) units capable of producing up to 3,664 megawatts of electricity, enough to supply the needs of more than 900,000 homes. Unlike combined-cycle gas plants, which ramp output up and down slowly, the CT units provide surge capacity that can nimbly adjust to fluctuating solar and wind output.

The exact details vary with five scenarios reflecting different federal and state regulatory approaches. The scenarios include:

  • No CO2 tax — no new regulations, the least-cost baseline.
  • RGGI participation — compliance achieved by importing “more carbon intensive out-of-state energy and generating capacity;” $1.5 billion more expensive than the baseline plan.
  • RGGI (unlimited imports) — Virginia becomes a full RGGI member, CO2 allowances cost more; costs $3.71 billion more than the base-line plan.
  • RGGI (limited imports) — Virginia becomes full RGGI member, but builds low-carbon capacity rather than imports it; costs $4.04 billion more than the base-line plan.
  • Federal CO2 program — assumes federal CO2 legislation beginning in 2026; costs $3.09 billion more than the base-line plan.

Predictable flashpoints. Inevitably, there will be pushback in the environmental community to Dominion’s plan. First, skeptics likely will dispute the utility’s forecast for increases in peak electricity demand and the need for more generating capacity; Virginia, they will say, needs to deploy energy-efficiency measures more aggressively. Second, they will argue that the re-licensing of the four nuclear units is unneeded. Third, they might contend that battery storage will be more cost effective than gas-fired CT units in offsetting fluctuations in solar production. Fourth, they will say that Dominion is exaggerating the cost of CO2 regulation; indeed, they will argue that the RGGI carbon trading regime will have little impact on costs to rate-payers, and might even reduce their monthly bills.

I’ll dig into each of these issues in the days and weeks ahead.

PJM to Analyze Long-Term Grid Resilience

PJM Interconnection, operator of the regional transmission grid of which Virginia is a part, says the electric grid handled the 12-day bout of extreme cold weather in January with plenty of margin to spare. But given the evolving energy mix in the multi-state region serving 65 million Americans — more gas, wind and solar, less coal and nuclear — PJM has embarked upon an analysis to assess future fuel security.

“The PJM grid remains reliable even with the resource retirements analyzed to date and investment in new, increasingly more efficient gas-powered generation sources,” said the grid operator in a press release yesterday. “While the grid also remains fuel secure given these changes, the potential for continued evolution of the fuel mix underscores concerns … about the need to examine the long-term resilience of the grid.”

PJM’s initiative follows findings by the National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) last month that a surge in coal-generated electricity helped the Mid-Atlantic and Northeastern regions get through the Bomb Cyclone deep freeze, while nuclear, gas, wind and solar output remained largely static. NTEL argued that gas-fired electricity output was somewhat constrained by pipeline capacity and the necessity of competing with natural gas as a home heating fuel. PJM responded that demand for gas pushed up the price to the point where coal became cost competitive to burn, but there never was a shortage of gas.

That’s this year. What about the future as the energy mix continues to evolve? Virginia appears poised to participate in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a cap-and-trade market designed to ratchet down utility carbon emissions by 30% over 10 years. For participating states, that will require the phasing out of power plants reliant upon the most carbon-intensive energy sources, coal and oil. Furthermore, increasing production of wind and solar power continue to undermine the economics of nuclear power. Here in Virginia, environmental and left-wing activist groups have signaled their opposition to re-licensing the Surry and North Anna nuclear plants over the next decade or two. Bottom line: the long-range energy mix could be far more dependent upon gas and renewables than it is today.

PJM places a premium on fuel diversity as a way to mitigate risk. “No generation resource is free from risks that can negatively impact the electric power sector,” states a 2017 report, “PJM‘s Evolving Resource Mix and System Reliability.” “These risks are global and can affect any geography or political construction.”

However, in an analysis of a wide variety of power-source portfolios with different mixes of coal, nuclear, gas, wind, solar and “other,” the study found that “natural gas and, to a lesser degree, coal” contributed more to system flexibility and reliability than the competing power sources. The study drew no conclusions regarding an ideal power-generating portfolio. In other reports, PJM has said that the existing transmission system can accommodate up to 30% contribution from wind and solar.

PJM’s new analysis will involve three phases:

  • Identify system vulnerabilities and determine attributes such as dual-fuel capability that can ensure that peak demands can be met during extreme scenarios.
  • Model those vulnerabilities as constraints in PJM’s wholesale market for guaranteed capacity.
  • Work with federal agencies to ensure that PJM is meeting security needs for military installations.

Stated the press release: “The intent of the vulnerability assessment is to stress-test the system under various fuel supply disruption scenarios to better understand potential future reliability concerns.”

(Hat tip: Allen Barringer)

No, Coal Did Not Save the Grid in January


Contrary to a recent report that coal-generated electricity prevented a system collapse during January’s “bomb cyclone” deep freeze, PJM Interconnection, the regional transmission organization of which Virginia is a part, says it had plenty of reserve capacity. The reason PJM dispatched so much electricity from coal-fired units was that it was cheaper than electricity generated by natural gas, the price of which surged during the cold spell — not because there were inadequate supplies of gas.

“Natural gas and nuclear units were not unreliable or otherwise unavailable to serve increased customer demand, nor would PJM have faced ‘interconnected-wide blacksouts’ without the particular generating units dispatched, states PJM in a response forwarded to U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry. (Hat tip: Albert C. Pollard, Jr.)

Last week Bacon’s Rebellion summarized key findings of a report by the National Energy Technology Laboratory (see “How Coal Saved the Electric Grid,”) which noted that coal-fired generation increased dramatically during the extreme, 12-day chill. Nuclear energy output didn’t change (nukes run flat-out all the time, regardless), wind/solar output declined slightly, and gas output was constrained by pipeline constraints and other factors. The NETL report argued that without the backup coal capacity, “a 9-18 GW shortfall would have developed, depending on assumed imports and generation outages, leading to system collapse.”

But PJM says that the regional electricity transmission system maintained significant reserves during the bomb cyclone. “PJM reserves were over 23 percent of peak load demand, and there were few units that were unable to obtain natural gas transportation.” The reason coal-fired output leaped was that it was cheaper than gas — not that the gas was unavailable.

During the cold snap, the region experienced an increase in the price of natural gas, which made coal resources (which often did not run under periods of lower natural gas prices) the more economic choice during times of high gas prices. But one cannot extrapolate from these economic facts a conclusion as to future reliability within PJM. …

The fact that additional coal resources were dispatched due to economics is not a basis to conclude that natural gas resources were not available to meet PJM system demands or that without the coal resources during this period the PJM grid would have faced “shortfalls leading to interconnect-wide blackouts.”

The PJM report did confirm other parts of the NETL analysis. Electricity from nuclear power plants stayed constant through the 12-day weather event. Wind and solar output declined ever-so-slightly. And natural gas did suffer minor supply-related outages… but they accounted for less than 2% of the total load requirement at the time.

Bacon’s bottom line: Coal-fired units kicked in 13,000 megawatts of additional output during the deep freeze. That was roughly one-third of the system’s 32,600 megawatts in reserve capacity. In the absence of the coal surge, customers in Virginia and across the multi-state PJM system would have paid more for their natural gas, but they would not have faced blackouts in January. It seems safe to say that the impression created by the NETL analysis was wrong.

But PJM did not address the longer-term outlook in its report. The political reality is that in the U.S. and in Virginia, powerful interest groups seek to curtail coal production. There is a strong likelihood that Virginia will enter the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a cap-and-trade arrangement designed to cut carbon emissions, most likely through the closure of additional coal plants. Looking out a decade or more, some environmental and consumer groups oppose the plans of Dominion Energy Virginia to re-license its four nuclear power units that currently produce 30% of the company’s electric power. Furthermore, the same groups, worried by the contribution of natural gas to CO2 emissions, want to slam the door on construction of any more gas-fired power plants.

As can be seen in the chart above, which details the breakdown of electricity by fuel type in the PJM system before and during the deep freeze, coal and nuclear accounted for 65% of the interstate region’s electricity production before the event and 66% during the cold snap.

Put another way, coal accounted for 45,900 megawatts of system-wide output during the freeze, and nuclear contributed another 35,400. Compare that to the system’s 32,6oo megawatts in reserve capacity.

While PJM has plenty of reserve capacity today, we have to ask ourselves, will the system have plenty of reserve capacity 10 or 15 years from now if coal- and nuclear-powered units continue to shut down? While the pipeline capacity exists today to supply today’s natural gas demand, will it be sufficient to meet demand when gas picks up much of the load for shuttered coal and nukes? While we can always purchase out-of-state electricity through PJM, will there be sufficient transmission-line capacity to get that electricity to Virginia load centers?

I don’t know the answers to these questions. Perhaps everything will turn out fine. But we can’t assume that it will just because PJM has ample reserve capacity today. As Virginians calibrate the balance between coal, nuclear, gas, hydro, solar, wind and battery storage, we need to consider the long-term outlook. The future will be upon us before we know it.

The Biggest Corporate Purchase of Solar Power in the U.S… Ever

Microsoft Corp. plans to buy about 60% of the energy production from a massive solar power project in Spotsylvania County to power its data centers in Virginia. The proposed 500-megawatt solar development, called Pleinmont, would include more than 750,000 solar panels on a 3,500-acre site, which, when completed, would be the fifth-largest solar site in the country.

“This is really important to Microsoft, and we think it is really important to Virginia for several reasons,” said Michelle Patron, director of sustainability for Microsoft. “This is going to be the largest corporate purchase of solar power ever in the United States. … We think this puts Virginia on the map for clean energy.”

The Pleinmont solar farm is being planned by Sustainable Power Group LLC, or sPower, which is a joint venture of Arlington-based AES Corp. and Canada-based investment fund AIMCo, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

The project still requires approval by the State Corporation Commission. The commission has scheduled a public hearing in May and is soliciting public comments.

Microsoft has said that it has met its target to power at least 50% of its data centers with clean energy by 2018, and the company wants to achieve 60% clean energy by early 2020, says the Times-Dispatch. In 2016 the company had agreed to buy power from a 20-megawatt solar farm in Fauquier County.

Bacon’s bottom line: In all the excitement over grid modernization and the rollback of the electric rate freeze in recent months, I totally missed this story. But if Virginia is on track to build the fifth-largest solar facility in the country, and if the deal represents the biggest corporate purchase of solar power ever in the U.S., that’s a big deal!

Previous reporting by the Times-Dispatch noted that Pleinmont would sell its electricity into the PJM interstate wholesale power market to companies that want to offset their electricity consumption with power produced by renewable sources of energy.

Does this deal cut Dominion Energy Virginia out of the picture as an electric power generator? Does this represent a new strategic direction for Microsoft and other data-center companies, which are driving the growth in electricity demand in Virginia? In other words, is Dominion’s electric power-generating monopoly being eroded? Five hundred megawatts is a lot of electricity — roughly half the capacity of a new, state-of-the-art natural gas-fired power plant.

Or will Dominion swoop in later, as it has in several other solar deals, acquire the Pleinmont property, and count it towards its commitment to build 5,000 megawatts of solar power, as codified in the recently passed Grid Modernization and Security Act?

One more question: What does this mean for natural gas demand in Virginia?Data centers consume electricity 24/7, but solar power generates power only 12 hours per day (with output varying by the time of year). Where will the electricity come from in off hours? Do deals like this bolster or obviate the need to build any new gas-fired plants?