Photo courtesy Secure Futures LLC
by Aaron Sutch
In another life, I was a middle school teacher. I taught for four years at a public school. It’s a hard age group. But I found the antics of my 7th and 8th grade students more amusing than frustrating. Perhaps I was well-prepared, having worked at a zoo before entering the classroom.
As a teacher, I enjoyed working with students, but was constantly frustrated as we faced shrinking budgets. Administrators were forced to decide between paying for rising energy costs or investing in resources for my students.
It broke my heart to see tight funds diverted from students to cover rising electricity bills. It happened all the time.
So it’s exciting that Virginia schools are installing solar power to generate electricity and save on energy costs. The Commonwealth now ranks among the top 10 states for solar on K-12 schools with more than 34,000 KW of installed solar capacity. This is enough to power 3,700 Virginia homes. Continue reading
by James A. Bacon
I have consistently supported the expansion of solar energy in Virginia, at least up to a point where it doesn’t compromise the reliability of the electric grid. When up-front capital costs and fuel costs are taken into account, solar is the lowest cost source of electricity in Virginia. Furthermore, as a supporter of property rights, I believe that rural landowners should be free to contract with developers to build solar farms on parcels that might otherwise lie fallow or go underutilized. Building solar farms potentially could put hundreds of millions of dollars in the pockets of rural landowners.
But I understand why people in rural Virginia get up in arms when big solar developers want to blanket thousands of acres with solar panels. I don’t necessarily agree with their proposed remedies, but I do understand.
Virginia’s urban/rural divide is becoming more pronounced than ever. That divide is most visible in voting results and electoral maps that show a vast geographic expanse of “red” Virginia compared to concentrated, highly populated clusters in “blue” Virginia. Views differ on a wide range of issues from gun rights and abortion to taxes and climate change. Continue reading
by James A. Bacon
Two weeks ago Del. Nick Freitas submitted HB 2265 to repeal the Virginia Clean Economy Act on the grounds that it could jack up the electric bill of the average Virginia household by $800. “It is critical that the Commonwealth not add to the financial burdens of people trying to heat their homes by raising their rates as the VCEA clearly does,” he said in a press release at the time.
I totally agree. The issue seems a bit academic today, as the bill did not make it out of committee. But the Virginia Clean Economy Act will take three decades to unfold, so the issue Freitas raised isn’t going away. I bring it up now because I think that Virginians who have problems with the Act need to get their story straight and work in unison. And there’s one important point where I differ with Freitas.
With the enactment of the VCEA, Freitas wrote in the press release, Virginia is experiencing extensive land leasing and acquisition by solar developers. More than 180 solar projects accounting for 140 million solar panels are in various stages of approval or construction. Full implementation of the ACT would consume 490 square miles of Virginia’s forests and farmland, an area twenty times the size of Manhattan. Continue reading
by Emilio Jaksetic
Virginia law (Virginia Code, Section 67-701 ) makes it easier for owners to consider installing solar panels on their property by limiting the ability of community associations to prohibit or restrict the installation of solar panels on the owner’s property. While the statute is likely to encourage the use of solar panels by property owners, there are some things that should be considered by property owners, community associations, and local government officials.
First, community associations in Virginia should get legal advice about the scope and applicability of Section 67-701 before trying to prohibit or restrict an owner from installing a solar panel on the owner’s property. (The relevant definition of “community association” is provided by Section 67-700.)
Second, owners should not rush to install solar panels on their property, and community associations should not rush to install solar panels on the common areas of their community, without considering the following: Continue reading
New sparkplug for Colonial Williamsburg. Carly Fiorina, former CEO of Hewlett-Packard, unsuccessful candidate for president and Virginia resident since 2011, has joined the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation Board of Trustees as chairwoman. It is gratifying to see Fiorina, a truly dynamic individual, apply her talents to a Virginia enterprise. Colonial Williamsburg has suffered a long-term decline as American interest in visiting historical sites has ebbed. Like all tourism attractions, the preserved colonial town also has been hobbled by mandated and self-imposed travel restrictions during the COVID-19 epidemic.
Speaking of conserving history… The American Battlefield Trust has issued a report describing how developing massive solar farms can be made compatible with the preservation of rural historical resources. “Conflict tends to arise when developers disregard the historic and cultural landscapes on or near potential solar sites,” states the report, “Siting Solar in Virginia: Protecting Virginia’s Historic Landscape While Meeting the State’s Clean Energy Goals.” The report advises: (1) early planning and consultation can help avoid harm to historic resources; (2) localities should establish clear rules and guidelines; (3) developers should consider locating solar facilities on greyfield or brownfield land, or co-locating with existing uses such as rooftops and parking lots; (4) developers should proactively engage with the State Historic Preservation Office.
Speaking of solar production… Dominion Energy has scrapped its plans to build a $200 million gas-fired peaking plant at the Southern Virginia Megasite in Pittsylvania County. Reports the Chatham Star-Tribune: The company said it no longer believes it is possible to build the units planned in Pittsvylania County “despite the economic and reliability benefits for our customers.” Peaker plants offset fluctuations in supply and demand to maintain a stable electric grid, a concern that will become all the more pressing as Virginia moves to increased solar production. “We plan to conduct a further reliability study to determine how best to move forward to maintain the around-the-clock service our customers need.” Continue reading
by James A. Bacon
Developers of solar energy projects in Virginia often encounter resistance from rural communities where residents worry about the impact of vast solar farms on viewsheds, the tax base and the rural way of life. In Pulaski County, Hecate Energy LLC is dangling a new incentive to make its project palatable — the chance to attract lucrative data centers.
Hecate has proposed investing $400 million in a 280-megawatt solar project in three phases on 2,700 acres of land near the Town of Dublin, reports the [Pulaski County] Patriot. Hecate would pay leases to landowners, who currently use the land for low-value pasture and hayfields. The project is anticipated to generate $392,000 annually in added county tax revenue for a total of $13.7 million over the 35-year life of the project. As a bonus, the project would create 130 jobs during the construction phase. The new sweetener, never mentioned in press accounts of other solar projects I’ve seen, is the chance to vie for data-center projects.
“Approval of this project instantly makes Pulaski a player in the high-stakes game of Data Center recruitment,” said Hecate spokesman Jay Poole. “Companies which build Data Centers and other high-tech companies which demand sufficient quantities of renewable energy, go to places which make renewable energy more available.” Continue reading
Projected demand for rare metals production required to meet Paris climate accord CO2 emission goals. Source: “Metal Demand for Renewable Electricity and generation in the Netherlands.”
by James A. Bacon
Tom Hadwin is one of the smartest, most well-informed commentators in Virginia on the subject of the electric grid, utility regulation and Dominion Virginia Energy. He sets a high standard for the discussion about energy policy in Virginia. He is calm, rational and fact-based, he refrains from ad hominem attacks and does not engage in partisan hysterics. It is a pleasure exchanging views with him, even when we disagree, and I would recommend readers with an interest in the future of the electric grid to read his thorough and thoughtful comments on Dominion’s 2020 Integrated Research Plan, which you can find below.
That said, Hadwin advances several propositions that are at best debatable. In this post, I wish to focus on one in particular: the way he frames his analysis to include the system-wide costs of drilling and distribution when calculating the environmental costs of natural gas and ignoring the system-wide costs of mining and processing rare-earth metals when calculating the environmental costs of solar panels and wind turbines.
Hadwin observes that many energy executives and financiers promoted natural gas as the “bridge fuel” to a clean energy future on the grounds that CO2 emissions from power-plant combustion are half that of coal. But he goes on to argue that it is not adequate to consider natural-gas combustion alone. One must take a holistic approach of natural gas drilling, fracking, and distribution as well as combustion. Writes Hadwin: Continue reading
Rolling blackout in Pasadena, CA.
by Bill O’Keefe
Virginia has passed a law — SB 851 — requiring Dominion Energy to supply 30% percent of its power from renewable energy sources by 2030 and to close all carbon-emitting power plants by 2045. According to the Energy Information Administration, natural gas fueled 53% of Virginia’s electricity net generation in 2018, nuclear power provided almost 31%, coal fueled about 10% and renewable resources, primarily biomass, supplied nearly 7%. Over the next decade, Virginia must replace its coal fired power and reduce its gas-generated electricity by over 40%. From its public statements, Dominion plans to go all out in wind and solar, emulating California.
California’s electricity rates are 61% higher than Virginia’s — 19.79 cents per Kwh versus 12.28 cents. Over the past month, there have been numerous news stories about rolling blackouts in California caused by renewable energy mandates and inability to substitute enough from other sources when solar and wind aren’t able to meet demand. Continue reading
A battery storage facility: not nearly as photogenic as solar panels and wind turbines
by James A. Bacon
Rappahannock Electric Cooperative (REC) is partnering with Charlottesville-based East Point Energy to install the first grid-scale battery-storage project by a Virginia electric cooperative.
The project has a peak capacity of two megawatts and a duration of eight megawatt hours, enough to power about 1,000 homes for eight hours, the coop stated in a press release two days ago. REC provides electricity to 170,000 connections in portions of 22 Virginia counties.
There has been much discussion about large-scale battery storage as a supplement to solar and wind power as Virginia moves to a carbon-free grid by 2050. In theory, batteries will be able to store excess electricity generated by the intermittent power sources and release it when the weather isn’t cooperating. But the aim of the REC energy-storage project, to be located in Spotsylvania County, is more modest. Anticipated benefits include: Continue reading
by James A. Bacon
For a look at Virginia’s energy future, just take a look at California. It’s not a pretty picture. The state’s grid operator imposed short rolling blackouts twice over the weekend due to an inability to meet peak demand caused by a heat wave. More blackouts are possible later this week.
Both Virginia and California aspire to have 100% carb0n-free electric grids, but the Golden State is farther along in adopting wind and solar power. The California Energy Commission estimates that “34% of California’s electricity came from renewable sources in 2018.”
The Northam administration has signed legislation requiring Dominion Energy to generate 100% of its electricity from renewable sources (primarily solar and wind) by 2045, and Appalachian Power to meet that goal by 2050. All coal-fired plants must close by the end of 2024. California’s present is Virginia’s future just a few years out. Continue reading
Source: “Cost Projections for Utility-Scale Battery Storage,” National Renewable Energy Laboratory
by James A. Bacon
The Northam administration has set the goal of achieving a zero-carbon energy grid by 2045, that is, an energy grid that uses zero fossil fuels. Natural gas and coal would be replaced in the Clean Energy Virginia plan Governor Ralph Northam announced yesterday, with “new investments in solar, onshore wind, offshore wind, energy efficiency, and battery storage.”
The key to making a 100% renewable electric grid work is battery storage. Solar and wind power are inherently intermittent, dependent upon weather conditions that cannot be controlled. Renewables advocates say the way to even out the fluctuations in power output is to store excess power in batteries when the sun is shining and the wind blowing, and to release the power when conditions are cloudy and calm. While the cost of battery storage is extremely high now — batteries are used at present mainly to regulate minute fluctuations in voltage and frequency — costs per kilowatt hour (kWh) are expected to decline dramatically, as seen in the chart above.
The questions then become, how much battery storage capacity will we need? How will reliance upon batteries change the need for redundant renewable power facilities? And how much will the package cost? Continue reading
by Jane Twitmyer
The South, including Virginia, has been slow to build clean, transformed utility systems. Last year, major corporations including Costco, Cox, Kroger, Sam’s Club, Target and Walmart petitioned Virginia regulators to allow them to meet their renewable energy goals by purchasing their electricity from third parties. Dominion Energy’s response was to commission a poll, according to PV magazine, asking which of two arguments was the most compelling: (1) the claim that ratepayer bills will go up $100 per month if corporations are allowed to procure their own renewables, or (2) that in the states where deregulation was introduced, that customer rates rose 39%.
The arguments are deeply questionable now that renewable technologies are cost competitive, but the “high cost” argument ignores the ongoing federal support for fossil fuel industries. A Forbes article in January warned all investors that “power sector decarbonization” is now an “imperative.” In almost all jurisdictions, utility-scale wind and solar are now the cheapest source of new electricity without subsidies. … New unsubsidized wind costs $28-54/megawatt-hour (MWh), and solar costs $32-44/MWh, while new combined cycle natural gas costs $44-68/MWh.
Comparing the real costs of generation resources is complicated. Subsidies, both direct and indirect, as well as “offloaded” costs, need to be included. Forbes said their cost comparisons were “without subsidies,” meaning without “direct subsidies” — or specific government funding meant to reduce the retail price of building or fueling a generation resource. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) describes these subsidies as “pre-tax subsidies”, which in 2017, globally amounted to roughly $500 billion a year. Continue reading
by Jane Twitmyer
In the 2019 election, Virginia voters finally figured out the one weird trick that allows any jurisdiction to pass good climate and clean-energy legislation, according to Dave Roberts at VOX. “They put Democrats in charge.”
Virginia is the first southern state in the U.S. to set a goal of sourcing 100% of its electricity from renewables by 2050. The recently passed “Clean Economy Act” mandates major change. All coal, oil burning and wood pellet plants must be retired, and all in-state power plant carbon emissions eliminated by 2050. Going forward, renewable resources such as energy efficiency, battery storage and expanded solar are now required. Net-metered solar will expand from 1% to 6%. The state’s commitment for offshore wind is the third largest in the country.
These new CEA requirements are being celebrated by the newly elected Democratic majority and the climate activists who all worked vigorously to pass them. During the Session, 53 House bills and 29 Senate bills were introduced relating to creating clean energy. So, although Virginia’s utilities and the South’s two other major utilities have lagged the rest of the country in developing their energy efficiency and renewable strategies, Virginia is now on the way to building a system resourced with clean energy. Continue reading
by James A. Bacon
Solar energy is the cheapest source of electricity now available, solar advocates tell us, and that’s a big reason we should build more of it in Virginia. At the same time, says the solar lobby, the industry needs local-government tax breaks, in particular a state-mandated 80% exemption from local machine-and-tool taxes.
“If that tax incentive was not in place, you could not have the had the kind of development that was necessary,” David Murray, executive director of the Maryland-DC-Delaware-Virginia Energy Industry Association, tells the Register & Bee website at GoDanRiver.com.
So, which is it? Is solar the cheapest electricity source available, or the cheapest just when poor rural local governments are compelled by the state to grant massive tax breaks?
Pittsylvania County, the county adjacent to the City of Danville, has one solar farm in operation and has granted permitting for eight others. The county expects to benefit from two revenue streams: property taxes and machine & tool taxes. Under legislation in effect since 2016, small solar projects (less than 20 megawatts capacity) are entirely exempt from the M&T tax, while larger projects are 80% exempt. Moreover, under the State Corporation Commission depreciation schedule, utility-scale solar is taxed at 90% of value in the first five years but only 10% of value by year 25. Continue reading
by James A. Bacon
It may be a while before the solar industry matches the clout of Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power, but it has come into its own as a lobbying and political player. The new reality hit me forcefully when the Virginia Solar for All Campaign issued a statement applauding the advance of the Virginia Clean Economy Act out of committee yesterday.
“The House of Delegates is taking bold action on energy, advancing legislation that will create a clean energy economy, put Virginia on a path to 100% clean energy, and eliminate harmful carbon emissions to turn back the tide against climate change,” said Rachel Smucker, Virginia Policy and Development Manager for the Maryland Delaware Virginia Solar Energy Industries Association (MDV-SEIA).
Distributed solar generation — small-scale rooftop and community projects — is a key component of the bill, which would mandate a 100% renewable electric grid by 2050. At present, distributed solar is capped at 1% of Dominion’s peak load forecast. Lifting that cap, expanding opportunities for Power Purchase Agreements (PPAs), and mandating 100% renewable energy sources would open up multibillion-dollar market opportunities for solar companies.
The collection of logos seen above, representing members of the Virginia Solar for All Campaign, does not even account for all the solar players in the state. Continue reading