Anybody who closely read the so-called Virginia Clean Economy Act and had watched Dominion Energy Virginia’s previous manipulations of Virginia’s General Assembly could see what was coming. Despite its “billing,” that bill was never going to end the use of fossil fuels in Virginia.
As early as February 13, I reported that to readers of Bacon’s Rebellion, in “Energy Omnibus II: It Doesn’t Shut Gas Plants.” Later bill versions were even less restrictive.
The sponsors of the bill and groups that backed it have expressed shock and betrayal now that the utility has fleshed out its investment and operations plan in a new integrated resource plan. That May 1 document, filed with the State Corporation Commission, included continued operation of various coal and natural gas generators. The document also highlighted loopholes in the text –- which anybody could read –- that open the door for construction of new fossil fuel plants. (You can find all four parts of the initial IRP filing here.)
Most of the news stories focused on the cost projections in the plan, an additional $550 per year for a modest home bill of 1,000 kilowatt hours per month. That was in line with SCC projections well before the bill passed. But the political explosion in Democratic circles was set off by the plan’s failure to promise or even pretend to promise 100% carbon-free electricity.
The House and Senate chief sponsors issued a statement, dutifully circulated by Blue Virginia:
“Virginians need Dominion to respect and adhere to the intent (emphasis added) of this landmark legislation to grow clean energy jobs and stop the worst impacts of climate change from further harming Virginia’s economy,” wrote Richmond Democratic Senator Jennifer McClellan and Arlington Democratic Delegate Rip Sullivan. “As the legislators who wrote Governor Northam’s goals into law, we urge Dominion to follow through on its previous public commitment – not attempt to run from it.”
After more than a decade of watching legislators fall for Dominion’s games like hicks at a carnival, you have to wonder if some are just pretending to be this dumb. Sullivan and McClellan are both lawyers, good ones, and must understand that a bill’s actual wording trumps a lobbyist’s promises.
Intent? Dominion’s intent all along was the use the legislation to hamstring the State Corporation Commission, for the umpteenth time, allowing a massive and unnecessary capital spending program to be funded by captive ratepayer rate increases. Mission accomplished.
Intent means nothing in the legislative process, not when the words are clear. The bill as passed and signed by Governor Ralph Northam only closed those coal-fired electricity plants Dominion already had planned to close. It kept open other coal and all natural gas plants. And it gave the SCC the authority to keep them open under certain conditions. Dominion is happy to let the SCC retain authority when that works to Dominion’s benefit.
Another lawyer-environmentalist with burning hair is Ivy Main, over at The Virginia Mercury.
Dominion’s flat-out refusal to abandon gas by 2045 poisons the rest of the document. The IRP is supposed to show a utility’s plans over a 15-year period, in this case up to 2035. And for those years, the IRP includes the elements of the VCEA that make money for Dominion: the build-out of solar, offshore wind and energy storage projects. It also includes money-saving retirements of outmoded coal, oil and biomass plants, as the VCEA requires. Heck, it even includes plans to close a coal plant the VCEA would allow to stay open in spite of its poor economic outlook (the Clover plant, half-owned by Old Dominion Electric Cooperative.)
What the utility had actually promised is becoming net zero on carbon emissions. As the IRP explains:
“Net zero does not mean eliminating all emissions, but instead means that any remaining emissions are balanced by removing an equivalent amount from the atmosphere. For example, this can occur through carbon capture, reforestation, or negative-emissions technologies such as renewable natural gas.”
There is an elegance to really good displays of political theater. These advocates must have understood that what they were voting on was not what they had promised their voters and donors. But shock, dismay and betrayal are now required to save political face. The IRP will be just more theater. The battle will join again in 2021.
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