Are Republicans Really Hostile to Solar Energy?

From Conservatives for Clean Energy Virginia poll in January 2019, conducted by Public Opinion Strategies.

Among those testifying during the marathon public hearing this week on a proposed Spotsylvania County solar installation was a former GOP operative turned lobbyist (sounds familiar) who identified himself as “executive director for Conservatives for Clean Energy Virginia.” 

“It’s not just companies that want solar. It’s residents too,” Christopher West told the county supervisors. “In a recent public opinion poll conducted in Virginia, voters overwhelmingly agreed that the commonwealth should pursue an all-of-the-above energy strategy to lower dependence on fossil fuels and improve energy efficiency.  Specifically, over 71 percent of Virginians want to put more emphasis on solar energy.”

Christopher West

West has a respectable list of other clients, so it is reasonable to assume he’s not managing a big organization day-to-day.  The group may use the same phone booth other GOP organizations have gathered in over the years, although it probably has a mailing list.  You won’t find details about who pays the bills on its website, leaving one free to speculate cui bono.  It gave its top awards to the patrons of the 2018 Ratepayer Bill Transformation Act.

Opposition to the massive Spotsylvania facility on NIMBY grounds is unfortunate but easy to understand.  Also understandable: Complaints about the huge federal, state and local tax subsidies still demanded by an industry that otherwise brags it is so cost competitive.

But is sPower’s proposed facility, large as it is, really part of some “globalist, green and liberal agenda in Virginia,” as Sean Hannity claimed on his February 15 national show?  Are its opponents “fighting back and doing everything they can to protect the history of the land that deep-pocketed Democrats seek to destroy…in the heart of historic Civil War country?”  That level of hyperbole begs another cui bono.

West’s client has been polling in North Carolina and Virginia on energy issues for a few years now, with results that should surprise no one (the best kind of poll for lobbyists). There really is no baseline hostility to renewable clean energy sources along political lines. Democrats are more fully committed to renewables over fossil fuel, but Republicans show support for most energy sources.

“Very Conservative” Virginia voters on question of emphasis as new energy sources are developed. Source: Conservatives for Clean Energy. Click for larger view.

The polling is done by Glen Bolger’s Public Opinion Strategies, with samples of 500 likely voters, which are a bit smaller than some prefer when looking at subgroups. The most recent survey West cited was in Virginia in early January, and several weeks ago he had shared a slide set on the results with Bacon’s Rebellion.

Comparing results with previous polls in December 2016 and October 2017, this poll showed declining support for coal, natural gas and nuclear and even wind, with a slight uptick for solar. The fossil fuel sources have stronger support among Republicans, with 44 percent of the most conservative wanting more emphasis on coal. There is a clear regional component to that.

Where I disagree with the poll is its definition of an “all of the above” energy strategy, “which means lowering our heavy dependence on fossil fuels over time and allowing an increase in electricity generation from emerging technologies like renewable energy as well as more energy efficiency, and I support taking action to accelerate the development and use of clean energy in Virginia.”

That is hardly Green New Deal speak, but neither does it match what most would mean by “all of the above.” Many of us are just fine with Virginia continuing to build new natural gas base load plants as old coal retires and perhaps the nuclear plants also retire. Yet strong majorities of those identified as very conservative or somewhat conservative agreed with the statement, perhaps because they do or perhaps because they responded to the phrase “all of the above.”

The opening line about “heavy dependence” puts a thumb on the scale, and the poll authors knew that. A better description of the described approach would be going green at a responsible pace, but still going steadily green.

That said, most Republicans would be closer in alignment with West’s client’s views than with Sean Hannity’s. I hear knee-jerk statements of hostility to renewable energy like Hannity’s in other political arenas and wonder if there is any point responding rationally. Probably not. Behind the scenes on every side, cui bono.

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31 responses to “Are Republicans Really Hostile to Solar Energy?”

  1. LarrytheG Avatar

    “State Sen. Bryce Reeves, R–Spotsylvania, was one of those speakers. When the three-minute time limit for individuals was up, Reeves demanded more time to speak, for his constituents, he said to cheers. He got the extra two minutes allowed to speakers representing groups.

    Reeves accused solar interests of gobbling up profits while enjoying tax breaks and told the crowd and supervisors he did not support the project.”

    1. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
      Dick Hall-Sizemore

      Reeves’ testimony was interesting. According to the Virginia Mercury,

      “Reeves sponsored a law mandating that localities require decommissioning plans for any solar development. (sPower’s application includes a lengthy decommissioning plan and bonds.)

      After a lengthy recounting of the passage of the law through the General Assembly, Reeves was cut off at the three-minute time limit by the board, sparking an angry outburst from the crowd until he was given an extra two minutes.

      “The right thing to do is blatantly clear tonight,” he said. When asked by the board to clarify whether he supported the project, he said, “Not at this time.”

      Although the company had done what he had pushed for (although his bill is not effective yet), he still opposed it, without giving any reason. Obviously, what was “blatantly clear” that night was that a lot of his constituents were upset that a solar farm was being proposed next door to them.

  2. djrippert Avatar

    The devil is in the details. Of course the majority of Americans want clean energy. The question comes down to economics. Would you pay 10% more for electricity if it were 10% cleaner? 20 and 20? Liberals bypass this question by basically saying the 1% of Americans who already pay 40% of all taxes will have to pay for this too.

  3. LarrytheG Avatar

    This solar is being sold via PJM to companies like Microsoft.

    the claim that is costs “more” is backed up by what evidence?

    Solar, when produced in quantity like this farm is less than gas and if you “burn” solar when it IS available and gas when it’s not the overall cost is less than if you burned the gas 24/7.

    this is not rocket science. it’s plain and simple economics.

    solar will never ever “replace” gas – because solar does not produce at night but again… if you can “burn” solar when it IS available – then you don’t have to burn gas at those times.

    Used to be that facts meant something but now days – everyone has their own set to conforms to their own particular beliefs… like “solar costs more”.

    1. djrippert Avatar

      I don’t know why it matters who is buying the electricity. But if it really is cheaper then why is it taking so long to build out solar? Putting aside the corruption of Dominion and our General Assembly – what about states with de-regulated energy markets? Shouldn’t solar be growing like a weed in those states?

      Why does North Carolina generate more MW from solar than Texas?

      To be clear, I’d love to see every coal burning electricity generating plant in America shut down. People can debate global warming but not acidification. If solar really is cheaper then why isn’t it more prevalent in Texas?

      1. North Carolina has regulations which favor alternate energy supplies. In effect I assume that means NC subsidizes alternates to some extent. The NC rationale goes back decades in history to the early 1970’s when NC was too mono-dependent on oil for electricity, if I recall. Obviously state policy is going to shape the energy choices.

        1. djrippert Avatar

          Oil? Wow. Thanks for the comment.

      2. Rowinguy Avatar

        Actually, North Carolina has substantial tax advantages that subsidize solar production –tax credits, if I recall correctly. It was a policy determination of their legislature, our General Assembly has not implemented these benefits.

        Another factor on build out is that in the East anyway, the better solar locations in the South are in states with vertically integrated utilities which have to protect their sunk investments in other forms of generation. The tipping point at which time more solar will be added by even these traditional utilities is fast approaching, if not here already. Witness Senate Bill 966 from last year finding 5,000 MW of utility owned solar/wind “in the public interest.”

        DJ you will find that Texas has one of the largest wind energy segments in the nation. Wind, of course, has the advantage of potentially producing round the clock, especially in Texas.

    2. “The claim that it costs “more” is backed up by what evidence?” Exactly so! Today it doesn’t cost more. It used to be that solar power generation required a subsidy to be competitive with natural gas and other fossil fueled supplies — but no longer. We are in the fortunate position today that renewable energy resources CAN compete economically on their own — without considering that externality, hugely important though it is, called global warming.

      I’m one of those people who consider Sean Hannity a horse’s behind — not because of the political views he expresses (although those often leave me cold these days), but because he plays fast and loose with the facts — the very facts he accuses the MSM of “faking.” And it’s very easy for someone who plays loose with the facts to conflate something that’s good for combating climate change with the Green New Deal agenda of those Evil Democrats ignoring that, entirely apart from being “green”, solar power generation now makes economic sense without subsidies.

      Now as we’ve discussed here before, solar power is not the panacea for all power generation from fossil fuels and nuclear and other means. The sun does not shine but a limited number of hours. Either we generate power by other means in the remaining hours, or we “time-shift” solar power using batteries or pumped storage charged during the daylight hours and discharged after dark. Those impose costs that eat into the cost advantage of solar power considered in isolation.

      Also there’s a case to be made for subsidies for solar to get more of it in place faster than would otherwise be the case — and to encourage smaller “homeowner rooftop” installations which do not have the same financing opportunities or efficiencies of scale as “utility-scale” and commercial-customer solar.

      I think the answer to DJR’s question, “if it really is cheaper then why is it taking so long to build out solar?” is very simple: that lower cost for solar is a recent development, and the business of big solar installations is just beginning to take off. Unless Trump’s tariffs on solar collectors made in China interfere, we will continue to see an explosion of interest in solar installations in Virginia. This particular plant in Spotsylvania is, I believe, the tip of the iceberg.

      DJR asks, “Why does NC generate more MW from solar than Texas?” Again, these days, it’s purely a matter of economics. The wholesale cost of electricity is generally lower in Texas than in NC, so, a solar power producer is paid more by the wholesale markets in NC than in TX. In addition, NC gave a big boost to solar developers in the form of state tax credits that Virginia never enacted; I believe some of those state subsidies have expired but some may still be available. In Texas the big renewable power investments are in wind generation more-so than solar; the wind in west TX, on the downslope side of the mountains, blows a lot more of the time than the sun shines. In addition, TX has a less dense transmission grid than in the mid-Atlantic, which means there are many more locations in the mid-Atlantic where solar power generation can be connected to the grid close by at low cost. Look at that solar installation in Spotsylvania, right by a big 500 kV transmission line from North Anna to Quantico with 230 kV connecting lines all over the Fredericksburg region.

      1. Rowinguy Avatar

        AC, if only I’d skipped down to your comment, I would not have needed to weigh in.

        Sorry to pile on, DJ

  4. North Carolina had a state solar rebate for several years which rapidly increased the number of solar facilities there. It has expired. Even Dominion got in on the action and built several solar facilities in NC.

    On a federal level, the subsidies for coal and nuclear have been going on much longer than the subsidies for solar and are much larger. The wind and solar subsidies phase out in the early 2020s. The coal and nuclear subsidies continue.

    Several northeastern states are in the top 10 states with solar, even though they have less available sunlight. They are doing it to have cleaner, cheaper energy.

    There are many impediments to installing solar in the distribution system where it is the most useful and does not affect greenfield sites. Progress is being made, but not much here because the utilities don’t want the competition.

    Texas has a huge wind resource and produces energy from wind even cheaper than solar, but solar is beginning to be rapidly developed there. Breakthroughs in new battery technology, which are expected soon, will aid both of those renewable technologies as well as commercial and industrial customers who want to lower their demand charges.

    1. Correct I forgot to mention TX has terrific on-shore wind resources.

    2. I should have mentioned that subsidies for oil and gas also have been huge and are ongoing.

    3. Rowinguy Avatar

      Tom, you mention NJ as a leader in solar. Correct me if I’m wrong, but my impression is that most of the NJ solar is of the rooftop variety as opposed to utility scale projects, such as the one proposed for Spotsylvania County. Again, legislative initiatives have incented the proliferation of these sources, I believe.

  5. All-of-the above policy is denial of climate change.

  6. An “all of the above” energy policy also might include oil and gas drilling off the Virginia Coast.

    1. I have a concern about “all-of-the-above” as an energy policy. It seems to me it’s an intellectual cop-out. Many of our current energy sources are in an increasing cost trajectory. Do we really want to encourage doing more of the things that will raise our energy prices? Some have externalities beyond what is included in current prices. What about that?

      The all-of-the-above mindset also pays little heed to the question of whether increasing energy production is better than spending less and reducing energy use.

      I am not advocating for a particular solution here. I am advocating for some deep thinking and a collaborative effort to re-envision our energy future for the good of our people and our economy.

  7. Headline on Historic shift: APS says batteries are cheapest energy option, plans big investment.

    “The state’s biggest electric company will spend hundreds of millions of dollars to add large, building-size batteries to the power grid across Arizona. APS will use the batteries to soak up surplus energy on the grid early in the day when solar power plants across the region are pumping out more electricity than the homes and businesses require.”

    Tom has been predicting this for a long time. APS won’t say exactly how much the project will cost or how much it will save, but it does note in the article, “In general, 100 megawatts of battery capacity with four hour of storage runs about $120 million, APS officials said.”

    That’s good for daily use. But you don’t build an electric grid to handle routine days only. You also have to handle extreme weather events. I don’t know how many extreme weather events Arizona has — probably not as many as Virginia.

    Still, battery storage might be coming sooner than we think.

    1. Re: “But you don’t build an electric grid to handle routine days only. You also have to handle extreme weather events.” True; but for power generators, routine days are their bread-and-butter and the economics of every-day use are what they build for; extreme weather is infrequent enough that the grid system operator throw anything you have at it to keep the lights on, almost regardless of cost. Solar + battery-storage IS a good way to deal with routine grid power requirements in normal daily weather conditions; it is not well suited for extreme weather. Of course once it’s built you will use it in emergencies too to the extent you can, but remember, most weather emergencies are associated with extended periods of cloudiness and even snow cover when solar generation is relatively handicapped. The best defense against extreme weather is to have a grid that covers such a large area that it has “weather diversity”: the bad weather never affects all of it at the same time.

      1. Rowinguy Avatar

        AC do you consider the Bath County Pumped Storage unit to be effectively akin to a huge battery? It can throw hundreds of MW onto the grid in just a few minutes and can be “recharged” every night by the continued operation of the Dominion nuclear units, I believe, pumping the water back up to the upper reservoir.

        1. Just saw this question. Yes, in effect it is a huge battery, one that operationally can’t be beat for flexibility and low operating cost, and it can be cycled unlimited times (unlike Li+). Disadvantages: very large upfront cost and environmental impact to build, and a significant percentage loss (~15% overall?) in both the pumping and generating mode. But amortized over decades the up-front cost can be reasonable.

          Today pumped-storage is generally recharged from nuclear generation late at night; but if CA is any guide the day will come in only a couple of decades (or maybe a lot sooner) when solar plus nuclear generation in PJM exceeds daytime loads, and when that happens the daytime wholesale energy market price will approach zero and it will become most economical to pump water at Bath County in the peak solar generating hours and retrieve that power during the “duck curve” peak load hours just after sunset. Nuclear is not that low-priced these days; that’s why so many nukes have been shut down recently.

          Personally I expect grid-scale battery technology breakthroughs can and will improve greatly on Li+ efficiencies and costs and safety, someday, beating the economics of pumped-storage in the process, but that day always seems to be around the corner.

  8. Tom is right to have predicted this; we are going to see a lot more of it, especially across the sunny South, and soon. That said, lithium ion battery technology is way too expensive and creates a battery with too limited a life-cycle to really become the answer to the grid’s need for time-shifting the generation of power through storage. If it’s cost-effective to use Li+ now, as Elon Musk keeps reminding us, think how much more cost-effective some of the new technologies should prove to be, such as liquid sulphur or aluminum salt based batteries, that operate at higher voltages, operate for many times more charge/discharge cycles, are vastly cheaper to manufacture and consume no rare metals or other minerals, have no propensity to explode or cause fires or environmental harm, and can be disposed of easily. The company that solves the technical obstacles to one of these new battery technologies is going to make $billions overnight.

  9. TooManyTaxes Avatar

    I don’t buy the argument that solar is truly cheaper than fossil fuels because no one with bigger bucks than Dominion is offering to power Virginia with lower priced solar. Quite a few billionaires have been readily disrupting multiple industries with new technology and new approaches to business. And a sizeable number of the mega-rich are pushing climate change concerns.

    Granted solar works only in the daytime. But where is the proposal to provide 20% of Dominion’s daytime demand with renewable energy if only the law is changed to permit competition in generation and in retail markets? I suspect that, if there were a bona fide offer to do something like this, there would be enough public uproar to hand Dominion some big defeats at the General Assembly. And Governor Mengele in Blackface could make some reparations to the left by agreeing to sign the bill.

    There is none because there ain’t none.

    1. Coal was not cheaper than nat gas either, but it was the power of souce of choice. Basically the logic was coal was long term cheapest , given price escalation assumed for natural gas (which never happened).

    2. djrippert Avatar

      “I don’t buy the argument that solar is truly cheaper than fossil fuels because no one with bigger bucks than Dominion is offering to power Virginia with lower priced solar.”

      That was my original thought. If solar is cheaper than fossil fuels is there any state where solar is growing like gangbusters?

      The counter-point that there are subsidies to coal and nuclear power too could certainly be right. Certainly mining and nuclear power equipment producers are many decades ahead of solar companies in buying off government officials.

      I also suspect that the last thing Dominion wants is to write off any of its filthy coal burning power plants that fall into disuse when supplanted by renewable power generation. Applying an ROI percentage to an asset on the books at $0 yields $0. I’ve got to believe that Dominion is digging its feet in pretty deeply on keeping those fossil fuel plants running.

      1. I dunno, if you ask me the main thing Dominion is worried about is probably maintaining nuclear in the mix. There is the newer “hybrid” coal plant that former Gov. Kaine championed, I am sure nobody wants to shut a new plant down. Virginia is quite strong on biomass (wood waste) co-burning wich gives us high marks for alternate fuels (recognizing some enviros scoff at that activity as bad for the environment -and even I am not sure how good it is).

      2. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
        Reed Fawell 3rd

        Yes, enough of this foolish nonsense. Bacon’s gone off the deep end, lost his mind and senses altogether, held senseless and lost down in deep blue sea. To expose this renewable hoax and cult, and save the planet from its phony infomercials, see:

  10. LarrytheG Avatar

    I’m still a skeptic on the batteries but they are coming along and in time they may well be ready to take over when solar goes down at night or cloudy times.

    Friends just got back from Tahiti and I asked about electricity – which they confirmed is mostly diesel and mostly for the tourists.

    When Tahiti starts using solar/batteries we’ll know change is happening.

    TMT asked why there are no third-party suppliers of solar in Virginia , I was under the impression that Dominion would not agree and the SCC would not approve, no?

    The thing is – when batteries do become cost-effective – what happens to Dominion when people, that can, will convert to solar/batteries and they still have their connection to the grid – they just cut their usage by 80%?

    If that happens – Dominion will start losing money unless
    they get rate increases – which will fall much more heavily on folks who don’t have solar/batteries and will encourage even more folks to get solar/batteries and do other strategies to lower their use – as the price goes up.

    This is exactly how states like California that use 1/2 the electricity per capita that we do – increasing cost for electricity drove down it’s consumption as people conserved with technology.

  11. Acbar is right. There are many advancements underway with battery technology. Lithium-ion based batteries are cost-effective now and have been deployed throughout PJM for several years. They respond much faster than fossil-fired peaking units and don’t have the GHG and fuel cost increase exposure, plus they provide voltage and frequency control services that lower costs.

    A number of new battery technologies are under development that will be cheaper, much faster to recharge and have at least double the energy density. This will spur the acceptance of EVs by providing double the range and much lower costs, with much faster fueling (recharge).

    It will also turn our energy system on its head. Not only will cheaper, more energy dense batteries speed the adoption of renewables, but commercial and industrial customers will use them to shift their loads. Now, these customers pay about half of their bill for a “demand charge”. The utilities charge them for the amount of generating capacity needed to meet their peak demand, even during times when their demand is not anywhere near the peak. If these businesses could use batteries to store energy that is available at other times of the day and release it for their use during their usual times of peak demand, it would appear to the utility that their peak demand was reduced, lowering their demand charge. This would be a huge revenue loss for utilities, but a great boon to businesses.

    In the 2030s, the refurbishment of the 60-year old nuclear units will make nuclear generation in Virginia no longer cost-effective. If we have reduced our energy use and built a modern energy system here, we can gradually phase them out over ten years. The pumped storage facility can then be used to store energy during the day-time peak solar output and released at night, when the nuclear units were the main source of electricity.

    All of these developments are a huge threat to a vertically integrated utility’s business model. That is why Dominion is using the GA to load upon many billions in new projects that will provide a new long-term stream of income, including owning most of the solar facilities added in Virginia. Unfortunately, most of these projects, including having Dominion own the solar, do not serve the customers. It only raises their energy costs.

    Ten years is a blink of an eye in the utility business. That is why Dominion is trying to cushion the effects of the shift now. It would be better if we prepared for the changes and gave Dominion a better way to earn money that didn’t require them to use 20th century methods to gain more revenue.

  12. As an example of cost differences with renewables, natural gas probably costs 2-3 per kWhr to make power. The last I knew, off-shore wind, which many Virginia liberals strongly favor, is over 20 cent/kWhr.

    That is not the message liberals want to convey. Liberals want to convey the mesage that the fossil fuels are exteremely damaging to Virginia, and renewables are 100% safe and cheaper and will create millons of jobs. And even if renewables are more expensive, why would we want to hurt the health of everyone and their children and grandchildren via climate change disasters? It is strongly believed by liberals that a future without fossil fuels is happier, healthier, and more prosperous. As a liberal fallback position Larry often wants to bracket the case where unexpectedly the economy suffers from the move to renewables, even if we are not more prosperous, at least we are alive and healthy and happy and energy use will be reduced due to the weaker econony, which would be a blessing in disguise. So 100% renewables is a win-win.

  13. Here are the numbers from Lazard’s Levelized Cost of Energy Report from November 2018:

    Levelized cost of energy includes the capital cost, fuel costs, and O & M costs.

    Subsidized Solar 3.2-4.1 cents/kWh
    Unsubsidized solar 3.6-4.4 cents/kWh

    Subsidized wind 1.4-4.1 cents/kWh
    Unsubsidized wind 2.9-5.6 cents/kWh

    Gas Combined cycle 4.1-7.4 cents/kWh

    The lower end of the gas unit’s range assumes lower fuel costs, such as we have experienced the past few years. Dominion projects that gas prices will increase by 2-3 times over the next 15 years. Using that assumption, the gas-fired units would be in the higher end of the range shown, 6-8 cents /kWh. This is a good deal higher than renewables which continue to decline in price by 50% every 4-5 years and have no fuel costs and low O&M expenses.

    Massachusetts has received fixed priced bids for offshore wind at 6.5 cents/kWh. Other offshore wind projects in the early 2020s expect to be priced in the 5-6 cents/kWh range. Virginia could achieve this too if we requested developers to bid a fixed cost PPA. Instead the GA forced the SCC’s hand to approve Dominion’s pilot project at about 77 cents/kWh.

    Current estimates for lithium ion battery storage are 3.1-3.7 cents/kWh.

    Gas-fired peaking units are 15.2-20.6 cents/kWh.

    Residential solar plus storage is estimated to be under 7.4 cents/kWh.

    You can see how disruptive this will be, especially as prices continue to drop. Conventional generation will increase in price. That is why Dominion is resisting opening up the market and wants all renewable development under its control and in the rate base.

    We cannot ignore these trends any longer. We deserve to have lower energy prices and our utilities deserve the have a fair return for doing what we need them to do for us. Not what they want to do – maximize profits at our expense.

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