Delays and cost overruns plague the utility’s program to develop large rooftop solar projects. Its other solar programs aren’t doing so hot either. Meanwhile, the private market for solar is stronger than ever.
At a stakeholder meeting in Chesterfield, Virginia, on Monday, Dominion Virginia Power revealed that it expects to have installed a total of 6 megawatts (MW) of distributed solar generation by year’s end, out of the 30 MW approved by the General Assembly. But the program, which Dominion calls its Solar Partnership Program, may achieve only a total of “thirteen or fourteen megawatts” before it exhausts the $80 million that the State Corporation Commission authorized the company to spend on it.
Dominion had originally requested $110 million for the program, under which it develops large solar facilities on rooftops it leases from commercial, industrial or institutional customers in selected areas. But many solar industry members and advocates, including yours truly, argued that it should be possible to install 30 MW of solar for much less. It turns out that we were right that the private sector could do it for less, but wrong in thinking Dominion could.
The $80 million price tag works out to a cost of between $5.70 and $6.15 per watt, a number that is at least two and a half times what a commercial customer would expect to pay if it purchased a system directly. It’s vastly higher even than what residential customers are paying under the popular “solarize” programs that have sprung up around the state this year, which are producing contracts for home systems at $2.90-3.55 per watt.
Dominion analyst Nate Frost told me at the meeting that the SCC required the company to include all the related costs of the program, including financing and O&M as well as the cost of leasing rooftops from participants. But this still puts the price far above what similar projects would cost if built and owned by a private sector firm, according to an industry insider I consulted.
I followed up with Mr. Frost by email to ask for a cost breakdown, and to find out whether unique factors might have driven up the cost. Mr. Frost referred me to the company’s August 29 filing with the SCC (which, due to the SCC’s impossibly user-unfriendly website, I cannot link you to, although you can look it up yourself on the website by searching under case PUE-2011-0017).
That filing does not, unfortunately, answer any of the questions I put to Mr. Frost. But reading it does give a strong impression that the company had expected to be able to install the full 30 MW under the cost cap, and was as surprised and dismayed as the rest of us to find they were proceeding with projects way too slowly while blowing through their budget way too fast.
Of course, the point of the Solar Partnership Program is not to show whether Dominion is capable of competing with private companies, but to give the utility a chance to examine how solar integrates with the existing grid. This is important because solar is such a new and untried technology that the utility could not possibly know what might happen if it just scattered twenty or thirty megawatts’ worth of it into a system with tens of thousands of megawatts of fossil fuel generation. Sure, critics might suggest Dominion could get that information from New Jersey, which has over 1,300 MW of solar in a state half the size of Virginia. But what the critics fail to understand is that unlike Virginia, New Jersey actually encourages solar, making its electrons highly suspect. This is why we need our own study.
Monday’s stakeholder meeting revealed more bad news about Dominion’s progress on solar. Also behind schedule is the Solar Purchase Program, under which solar owners who would otherwise be eligible to net meter (using their solar power themselves) are offered 15 cents per kilowatt-hour to sell their green electricity to Dominion for resale to the Green Power Program, while purchasing “brown” power for their own use at the standard rate. Although the program has been open for more than a year and has a capacity of 3 MW, to date it has signed up only 703 kilowatts.
Solar industry members and analysts had criticized the design of the program from the outset. But again, the company’s SCC filing (included with the Solar Partnership Program filing) reveals Dominion’s surprise and chagrin that the great majority of customers who initially signed up for the program changed their minds.
Nor are customers jumping to take advantage of Dominion’s “Schedule RG,” which makes the utility a middleman for sales of renewable energy from producers to large customers, like the consumer-conscious corporations that have driven big solar installations in many other states. Thus far there have been no takers. That’s not a huge surprise to observers; Schedule RG was criticized at the time of its proposal for its cumbersome design. (Yes, we are seeing a pattern here.)
By contrast, reported Mr. Frost, the net metering option that allows customers to install solar on their own property and for their own use has attracted 1,080 customers, who have installed a total of 8 MW to date, with 86% of these customers residential.
These aren’t huge numbers either, but they probably don’t include more than a few of the home systems currently under development through the solarize programs, which will add significantly to our residential total this year. Two projects using third-party power purchase agreements (PPAs) will also add as much as a megawatt.
The lesson seems to be that customers are doing a better job installing solar than Dominion is. If Virginia is serious about increasing renewable energy in the state, it should free the private market to build distributed generation like rooftop solar: serving every kind of customer of every size, everywhere in the state. If the utilities want to compete on a level playing field, let them. Otherwise, they should be encouraged to focus on developing multi-megawatt, utility-scale projects for the grid. There is plenty of room for both, and we need it all.