Fungible (and Vintage?) Green Virtue, For A Fee

Renewable energy certificates can have a vintage? Some might prefer fresh solar or wind power.

by Steve Haner

Like most major electric utilities now, Dominion Energy Virginia has a certain amount of energy generated by processes now designated “renewable.”  Hydro power has been around for a long time, and now that is supplemented by a growing number of solar generators – owned by the company or under contract to it.

All Dominion customers are getting some of their electricity from those sources.  Everyone is a little bit green.  But for an extra $4.21 per 1,000 kilowatt hours, some other customer can take away your green power and leave you less green or totally not green, at least on paper.  Overall the utility’s output stays the same, but it might pick up a few more dollars per month from up to 50,000 of its customers. 

That in a nutshell is Dominion’s proposed “100 percent renewable” Rider TRG.  The May 31st application (here) is the only major documentation pending so far in the case before the State Corporation Commission.  Other case participants – the Office of the Attorney General, the environmental group Appalachian Voices – are joining, but the testimony and briefs have not begun to fly.   The hearing is set for November 21.

How the monopoly utilities propose to provide “100 percent renewable” power is important to understanding their efforts to prevent anybody else selling it in their territory.  Preventing that competition is the real gain for the utilities, and state law only allows consumers a choice if the monopoly utility doesn’t offer its own 100 percent renewable product.  This is Dominion’s third try.

Along with its Gaston and Roanoke Rapids hydro plants and the collection of solar fields, Dominion also proposes to include four generators that burn biomass (wood) and the percentage of power from wood waste coming out of its coal plant in Wise County.  Yes, Virginia, your General Assembly was talked into counting burning wood as “renewable energy,” even when mixed with coal.

Today’s Richmond Times-Dispatch has the display ad announcing yet another Dominion solar project, to be financed by all ratepayers with a rate adjustment clause (just like the previous ones) and then presumably sold at a premium to a subset of customers.   As usual, this set up is the General Assembly’s doing.

The law defines renewable as energy derived from sunlight, wind, falling water, biomass, sustainable or otherwise, (the definitions of which shall be liberally construed), energy from waste, landfill gas, municipal solid waste, wave motion, tides, and geothermal power, and does not include energy derived from coal, oil, natural gas, or nuclear power. Renewable energy shall also include the proportion of the thermal or electric energy from a facility that results from the co-firing of biomass.”

And if the SCC approves this new tariff, no Dominion customer can sign up for renewable energy either produced or packaged by a competitive service provider (CSP), even though that might further reduce demand for energy from coal, natural gas or other “non-renewable” sources.  Existing CSP contracts at the time of approval can remain.

It now works that way for Appalachian Power Company customers.  In January the SCC approved APCo’s Rider WWS, adding $4.25 to that sample 1,000 kWh bill to buy a different way of accounting for the same power sources they were already paying for.  APCo has some new wind resources in the mix, but it also relies heavily on old hydro facilities already in its portfolio.

Here is the marketing on its website and here is its first annual report to the SCC, from May when things were just getting started.  Once things are up and running it will regularly report “the sources, vintages, quantities, and WWS premium rate of RECs (renewable energy certificates) retired on behalf of Rider WWS customers; and the sources, vintages, quantities, and prices of RECs sold to third parties from RPS resources.”  For Bordeaux, 2015 was a great vintage. Buying old hydro power RECs might not have the same cache.  Customers might prefer it fresh.

Note it will be reporting on renewable energy certificates, RECs, and their value, not the cost of producing the power.  There is a complicated minuet involved with the RECs on these generation sources, which are sold and then replaced with lesser valued RECs, and which seem to count both for this tariff and for meeting the company’s existing renewable portfolio standards.

The SCC approved APCo’s Rider WWS over the objections of its own hearing examiner, the consumer counsel at the Office of the Attorney General and that same Appalachian Voices group. Its attorney William Cleveland wrote:

“APCo’s proposal adds no new renewable energy to its generation portfolio, and yet the Application requires participants to pay a premium. If participating customers are paying more for this offering than standard service, it should be because the acquisition of new resources necessitates them to pay more. Instead, the Company proposes to charge customers more than they currently pay for the privilege of claiming the output of certain resources already in APCo’s fleet. And yet, by APCo’s admissions, those specific resources actually cost less than its other resources. Put another way, APCo wants to charge customers above market for resources that cost below market. This is not just and reasonable.”

While seeking approval of its own renewable tariff, APCo also sought in another case to oust the one CSP already operating in its territory, Collegiate Clean Energy.  Collegiate Clean Energy burns landfill gas to make power in Virginia and other states and several of its customers are private colleges.  The gas, mostly methane, breaks down into water and carbon dioxide, but CO2 is a less potent greenhouse gas than methane, so this is an environmental gain. If not used for power generation it is burned off in a flare.

The SCC denied APCo’s request (the case file is here) and left Collegiate in business, but the SCC’s final order set the stage for Dominion to make a unilateral decision to block customers joining competitive service providers in its territory.  Another round of briefs in that dispute is filed but not yet publicly posted, and a hearing will be held Tuesday.