By Steve Haner
First published this morning by the Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy.
The front line in the war against fossil fuels in Virginia has now shifted back to the State Corporation Commission, and as usual only one side has fielded an army and brought heavy weapons to the battlefield. Those who might defend the continued use of coal and natural gas are missing in action.
Various interest groups seeking to end the use of coal and natural gas to generate electricity in Virginia earlier this month filed expert testimony from eight witnesses. All ask the SCC to reject Dominion Energy Virginia’s proposed 2023 integrated resource plan (IRP). The utility’s decades-long capital plan, as previously reported, has reversed course and now calls for retaining and even adding to the utility’s fleet of natural gas generators.
One group, representing Virginia’s data center industry, filed testimony from its president in support of Dominion’s proposed generation additions. “The bottom line is that Dominion’s investments are required to support and grow the economic drivers of the 21st century,” wrote Josh Levi of the Data Center Coalition.
But Levi testifies mainly about the economic benefits of his industry, not actually being disputed in front of the Commission. His testimony avoids the key question being posed to the regulators: whether intermittent wind and solar generation are sufficiently reliable, as the environmental groups claim, or whether Dominion is wise to maintain its more dependable natural gas plants or even add to them.
No other business or industry group with a major stake in Virginia’s future energy choices offered expert testimony, but there is still time to join the debate. The expert testimony on the case record can (and should) be supplemented by public comments. The portal for groups or individuals to express their views is here. The deadline for public comments is September 12.
Dominion can file rebuttal testimony responding to the eight experts, and in the next few days the SCC staff will be filing its own observations and recommendations on the IRP. A hearing is set for September 18-19.
The massive IRP before the regulators is just a plan, and even if approved as “reasonable and prudent” it binds nobody to anything. If Dominion wants to build a new natural gas or nuclear facility, that will be a fresh application. But Dominion’s retreat from its previous position that natural gas could be abandoned is important.
The 2020 Virginia Clean Economy Act allowed some flexibility on future natural gas use to maintain system reliability, but the overall goal of ending fossil fuels was clear. When they controlled the legislature and Governor’s office, Democrats added other statutes stating the same goal. The SCC is being asked to enforce them, and a ruling against the IRP on that basis could seal the fate of fossil fuel generation.
Then there are the political implications, as Virginia’s Democrats have now made a central message of their promises to end predicted “climate change” by forbidding fossil fuels in all forms. So, three environmental activist groups and a renewable energy coalition took up the challenge and recruited eight experts among them, from as far away as Massachusetts and California.
The hundreds of pages filed in opposition can be summarized into a handful of basic arguments.
First, they claim that Dominion is overstating the future load growth it is predicting, much of it tied to the expansion of those energy-hungry data centers. If Dominion’s future load doesn’t grow as predicted, that undercuts the need for maintaining existing coal or natural gas plants, adding a new plant or adding nuclear generation.
One of the witnesses on that point is Gregory Abbott, a retired SCC analyst now hired by Appalachian Voices, who also believes there is a disconnect between the data center growth expected in Northern Virginia and Dominion’s plan, which seeks to add a new gas-fired plant in the Richmond area and suggests Southwest Virginia as the location for a future nuclear facility.
Second, several claim Dominion is underestimating how effective various energy efficiency and demand management strategies would be in addressing that future demand. If true, wouldn’t that also call into question the need to add all the wind and solar projects Dominion is still including? The question of the size of future demand is separate from the debate over how to maintain the most reliable generation, and reliability is the main reason to maintain or even add new fossil fuel or nuclear power.
Third, witnesses stress that Dominion’s change in direction violates the spirit and perhaps the letter of the Code of Virginia. Several aspects of the Virginia Clean Economy Act are cited, not just the deadline of 2045 for ending all fossil fuel use. Witnesses also argue that Dominion’s continued reliance on fossil fuels will cause it to violate the new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency power plant emission rules, proposed but being hotly contested at the federal level.
Finally, a University of Michigan professor provides a long treatise on “environmental justice” topics and chides Dominion for not holding stakeholder meetings specifically geared to “environmental justice communities.” Summarizing his 97-page filing, Justin Schott writes:
…these same communities which are excluded from the planning process disproportionately experience a range of environmental injustices, including high energy burdens, high rates of disconnections, and exposure to extreme heat waves and urban heat islands. Nearly half a million of Dominion’s residential customers cannot afford their energy bills; upwards of 40% of households in environmental justice communities are chronically cutting back on other basic needs or keeping their homes at unsafe temperatures…these environmental injustices affect Black, Indigenous and Latinx households at double to triple the rates of higher income, predominantly white communities.
Schott’s focus on how the higher costs hurt those with less income is useful. He seems to have done original research on the impacts by race and income level. If all that is true, then the key issue is what future generation mix best keeps costs in line. There are many who join Dominion in doubting the wind-solar-battery model advocated by these activist groups is cost effective or even viable, but their views are not formally in front of the SCC.