Home Energy and Environment Memo to Legislators: Virginia Is Not a Low-Cost Energy State

Memo to Legislators: Virginia Is Not a Low-Cost Energy State

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Sure, there is something to be said for using a lot of energy–if you’re a Jack Russel Terrier. For the rest of us, not so much.
Photo credit Steve-65 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https-::commons.wikimedia.org:w:index.php?curid=17865919

by Ivy Main, cross posted from Power for the People VA

Anyone who has attended the annual meeting of the House Energy Subcommittee has watched the Republican majority vote down all manner of legislation designed to improve Virginia’s poor ranking on energy efficiency. Since energy bills have to survive this subcommittee before the rest of the General Assembly gets to hear them, this little band of naysayers effectively holds back progress on initiatives that would save money and reduce energy use.

Why would they do that? As discussed in my last post, these delegates almost invariably vote the way Dominion Virginia Power wants them to. And Dominion doesn’t like these bills. The utility is in the business of selling electricity, and energy efficiency is bad for business.

Of course the utilities don’t put it that way. At this year’s subcommittee meeting, Dominion Virginia Power lobbyist Bill Murray explained his company’s opposition to one of Delegate Rip Sullivan’s energy efficiency bills by saying that real efficiency gains depend on the actions of individuals, and Virginians aren’t incentivized to take these actions because Dominion keeps our rates so admirably low.

This might put you in mind of former Vice President Dick Cheney’s dismissal of conservation as a sign of personal virtue but not a sound basis for energy policy. Let’s set that aside. Murray’s comments might also be thought unfair to his own client, which has tried and failed to get approval from the State Corporation Commission for various programs that would help consumers practice personal virtue. (If you wonder why, in that case, he was standing there opposing legislation designed to produce a better result, you are missing the point of the Subcommittee Hearing. It’s Kabuki theatre, people, and you really shouldn’t miss it.)

For now, however, let’s simply ask whether Mr. Murray’s claim is correct. Are we really paying less for energy than residents of other states?

We should first clarify whether we are talking about rates, or bills. Dominion prefers to focus on rates, but what people pay are bills. Few people can tell you what their electricity rate is, but most have a sense of the bottom line on their monthly bill.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Agency, Virginia’s 2016 residential rates stand at an average of 10.72 cents per kilowatt-hour, which is indeed about 12% below the national average of 12.21.* The average for our peer group, the South Atlantic region, is 11.11 cents per kWh, with Maryland at the high end (14.01 cents), and Georgia at the low end (9.92 cents).

When it comes to monthly bills, however, Virginia residential customers ($130.58) pay almost exactly the South Atlantic average ($131.20), but we are way above the national average ($114.03). (Note the bills are based on 2015 data; the EIA has not updated this chart for 2016.) If having to pay more for electricity is the primary motivation to adopt energy efficiency measures, Virginians are more motivated than most Americans.

Several factors can make a state rank higher on rates and lower on bills. Among these is energy efficiency. Energy efficiency is why a state like California, with high incomes and notoriously high residential electricity rates (16.99 cents/kWh), still has average monthly bills ($94.59) that are 30% below Virginia’s. California has succeeded in keeping per capita energy use flat for decades while the U.S. average climbed steadily, only flattening out in the past ten years. California is currently ranked 49th in the nation for per capita energy consumption, and 49th in total energy costs. “California” is a bad word among Virginia Republicans, who assume anything that state does must be bad, but California’s experience has to be considered by anyone who cares about energy costs.

Back at the Energy Subcommittee meeting, Bill Murray did not mention California, but he did offer his opinion on the cause of Virginia’s higher-than-average bills. He noted that many Virginians use electric heat pumps to heat their homes, which drives up winter electricity use, resulting in higher bills on average. (An EIA analysis using 2009 data showed that 55% of Virginia households heat with electricity, higher than the U.S. average but less than the South Atlantic average.)

To get a look at the whole energy picture across states, I created the table below that compares residents’ costs of electricity, natural gas and fuel oil across the U.S. Virginia ranked 18th out of 51. Because it isn’t weather-adjusted, it can’t tell the full story. However you slice it, though, Virginia is not a low-cost energy state.

It may still be true that middle-class homeowners don’t feel the bite of energy bills enough to go to the trouble of figuring out what they should do to save energy. If it’s hard, people don’t do it—which is one reason energy efficiency programs are designed to make it easier. But middle-class homeowners also aren’t the only ones who would benefit. Across Virginia, people with incomes below 50% of the poverty level spend at least 40%, and often more than half their income, on energy bills.

So if cost equals motivation, Virginians are motivated. What’s lacking are the energy efficiency programs to help people save energy, and the laws to enable those programs.

Overall Rank State Total Energy Cost Monthly Electricity Cost (Rank) Monthly Natural-Gas Cost (Rank) Monthly Home Heating-Oil Cost (Rank)
1 Connecticut $304 $155(7) $44(20) $104(1)
2 Rhode Island $259 $107(39) $61(5) $91(4)
3 Massachusetts $253 $115(34) $60(6) $78(6)
4 Alaska $241 $129(20) $53(13) $59(7)
5 New Hampshire $234 $127(25) $20(44) $87(5)
6 Vermont $231 $120(30) $18(48) $93(3)
7 New York $220 $115(32) $66(3) $39(9)
8 Maine $217 $107(40) $6(49) $104(2)
9 Pennsylvania $211 $121(28) $50(15) $40(8)
10 Maryland $209 $145(13) $43(22) $21(11)
11 Delaware $208 $152(9) $37(26) $19(12)
12 Georgia $203 $157(6) $46(19) $0(42)
13 New Jersey $200 $115(33) $63(4) $22(10)
14 Alabama $197 $171(3) $26(40) $0(39)
15 South Carolina $196 $177(1) $19(47) $0(32)
16 Mississippi $184 $163(4) $21(43) $0(49)
17 Ohio $183 $120(29) $59(7) $4(19)
18 Virginia $182 $141(14) $31(32) $10(13)
18 Hawaii $182 $177(2) $5(50) $0(51)
20 Kansas $181 $125(27) $56(11) $0(47)
21 Michigan $180 $106(43) $72(2) $2(25)
22 North Dakota $179 $140(15) $32(31) $7(15)
22 Texas $179 $155(8) $24(41) $0(50)
24 Missouri $178 $134(18) $44(21) $0(36)
25 Indiana $177 $129(21) $47(17) $1(29)
26 Illinois $176 $96(47) $80(1) $0(35)
27 Oklahoma $175 $135(17) $40(24) $0(43)
28 Tennessee $174 $147(10) $27(37) $0(37)
29 Wisconsin $171 $109(37) $57(9) $5(17)
30 Minnesota $170 $108(38) $57(10) $5(16)
31 Louisiana $169 $146(11) $23(42) $0(46)
32 North Carolina $168 $145(12) $20(45) $3(22)
33 Kentucky $167 $136(16) $30(34) $1(30)
33 South Dakota $167 $129(23) $34(28) $4(20)
35 Florida $164 $160(5) $4(51) $0(44)
36 West Virginia $162 $126(26) $32(30) $4(18)
36 Iowa $162 $109(36) $52(14) $1(27)
38 Nevada $161 $128(24) $33(29) $0(31)
38 Nebraska $161 $119(31) $42(23) $0(33)
40 Arkansas $158 $129(22) $29(36) $0(41)
41 Wyoming $154 $107(41) $46(18) $1(28)
42 Arizona $153 $134(19) $19(46) $0(48)
43 District of Columbia $148 $82(51) $58(8) $8(14)
44 Idaho $146 $113(35) $30(35) $3(23)
45 Montana $145 $103(44) $40(25) $2(26)
46 Utah $144 $89(49) $55(12) $0(34)
47 Colorado $141 $92(48) $49(16) $0(38)
48 Oregon $135 $107(42) $26(38) $2(24)
49 California $126 $96(45) $30(33) $0(40)
50 Washington $125 $96(46) $26(39) $3(21)
51 New Mexico $124 $88(50) $36(27) $0(45)

 

Data derived from WalletHub, “2016’s Most & Least Energy-Expensive States,’ July 13, 2016, https://wallethub.com/edu/energy-costs-by-state/4833/#methodology. I was only interested in energy consumption in buildings, so I backed out the numbers for motor fuel cost.

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*The EIA data reflect statewide averages. Dominion’s own residential rates tend to be lower than Virginia’s statewide average. It costs more to bring electricity to rural areas, so APCo and the coops would be expected to have higher rates. And urban dwellers use less electricity on average than rural residents, which keeps bills lower for city folks in Dominion territory. But since most states have a mix of urban and rural residents, it seems correct to compare statewide averages.

Note, too, that the discussion here—and at the Energy Subcommittee meeting—concerned residential rates. Virginia’s commercial rates are significantly better than the U.S. average.