Home Energy and Environment Dominion’s Own Model Shows that 15,000 MW of Solar Would Save Virginia...

Dominion’s Own Model Shows that 15,000 MW of Solar Would Save Virginia Customers $1.5 Billion


Cross posted from Power for the People VA

powerhouse_six_1_megawatt_solar_array_ettp_oak_ridge_2016_courtesy-doeDominion Virginia Power has begun making good on its commitment to install 400 megawatts of solar in Virginia, a goal we have been cheering. Dominion argues its projects make economic sense. That leads us to wonder: if 400 MW makes economic sense, would more be even better? As guest blogger Will Driscoll reveals, we don’t need to speculate; Dominion ran the numbers. They just didn’t like the answer. 

By Will Driscoll 

Dominion Virginia Power modeled a resource plan with 15,000 megawatts of solar power, which it calculated would save Virginia customers $1.5 billion compared to a plan that includes a $19 billion nuclear reactor.  Yet when the company submitted its menu of resource options to regulators at the State Corporation Commission as part of its 2016 Integrated Resource Plan (IRP), it included the North Anna 3 nuclear plant while omitting the high-solar option.

The high-solar option only became public when attorneys Will Cleveland and Peter Stein of the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC), representing an environmental coalition, asked the right questions during the discovery phase of the IRP proceedings.

Utilities in 33 states must periodically file an IRP.  The IRP is intended to define the least-cost set of resources that can meet forecasted electricity demand plus a reserve margin, while also meeting the state’s policy goals on renewables and efficiency.  Utilities use computer models to develop an IRP.

Dominion’s utility planning model generated the 15,000-megawatt solar option when the utility set no constraint on the amount of solar that could be added.

The high-solar plan would actually save Virginians much more than $1.5 billion, according to an expert witness in the IRP hearing, former Texas Public Utility Commissioner Karl Rabago.  The projected $1.5 billion in savings would be after Dominion’s projected $5.8 billion of solar integration costs (i.e., any costs needed to adapt the grid for a high level of solar).  Yet the $5.8 billion value “is at least 54 to 84 percent higher than the PJM high and low [integration cost] numbers that [Dominion] cites,” Rabago said.  Thus, “the overall savings … [with] a more reasonable approach to the integration costs would be much higher than $1.5 billion.” (PJM is a regional transmission organization that coordinates the movement of electricity through Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, the District of Columbia, and parts of seven other states.)

To those who have followed the low and still-falling costs of utility-scale solar, it may not be surprising that solar, including any integration costs, would cost less than the proposed North Anna 3 nuclear reactor.  But to learn that Dominion’s own utility planning model presented that result to Dominion is a revelation.

To justify discarding the high-solar option, Dominion executive Robert Thomas said that “15,000 megawatts of solar… was a lot of land.” Yet data from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory show that this amount of solar would need only 0.4 percent of Virginia’s land area (i.e., 15000 MW times 7.9 acres per MW, divided by 27.376 million acres of land).  Mr. Thomas also said that the high-solar option “could create reliability issues,” yet high-renewables utilities in Iowa, South Dakota, California and Europe are highly reliable, thanks to accurate day-ahead weather forecasting and sophisticated utility “unit commitment” models that are also available to Dominion.

The State Corporation Commission, in its final order regarding Dominion’s IRP, did not mention the high-solar option.  The SCC approved the IRP as submitted, noting that “approval of an IRP does not in any way create the slightest presumption that resource options contained in the approved IRP will be approved in a future certificate of public convenience and necessity (“CPCN”), rate adjustment clause (“RAC”), fuel factor, or other type of proceeding governed by different statutes.”

SELC attorney Will Cleveland called on Dominion and the SCC to do better next time: “Citing ‘feasibility concerns,’ Dominion rejected and buried the high solar resource plan without any legitimate analysis of whether the plan was in fact feasible. Virginia ratepayers deserve the lowest-cost, cleanest energy available, and it is increasingly clear that means more solar, not more fossil fuels or nuclear. In the future, Dominion should not be allowed to dismiss the cheaper, cleaner resource plan without a full analysis.”

The environmental coalition represented by SELC consisted of Appalachian Voices, Chesapeake Climate Action Network, the Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club, and SELC itself.

Will Driscoll is a writer and analyst.  Previously he conducted environmental analyses for EPA, as a project manager for ICF Consulting.  His publications include the book Nonproliferation Primer (MIT Press).

  • I’m not sure solar is a 100% answer in Virginia, but I agree we can sure as hell be working harder for it. And I’m actually a proponent of thorium salt reactors as a step in that bridge. We need a multi-faceted approach to this problem.

    • The cheapest form of energy is actually “negawatts” – energy efficiency, or the power you never have to generate in the first place. Then, increasingly, onshore wind and utility-scale solar are FAST becoming the cheapest forms of new power in a growing number of states and countries. As for offshore wind, which Virginia has in abundance, the cost curve there is steeply downwards, as the technology continues to improve and the industry scales up. All of which means that it makes Z-E-R-O sense for Dominion to be investing in new fossil fuel infrastructure, including new natural gas pipelines and power plants. It’s beyond stupid, as it could lead to massive “stranded costs,” pollution, etc, etc.

      • A_Siegel

        Generally agree re negawatts but there is an interesting twist in clean-energy developments.

        What is pretty amazing is that the price curves for solar & onshore wind are such that, in many areas of the world, new solar/wind + storage eat into efficiency ROIs.

        Remember toward the end of W Bush Administration a set of studies showing ability to cut US electricity demand in the range of 35% at 4 cents / kilowatt hour in cost for the negawatt. Okay, we’ve had solar & wind bidding into markets at below that price … hmmm … This doesn’t mean ‘don’t do efficiency’ but that clean energy generation options might increasingly be competitive with efficiency investment options.

    • A_Siegel

      Of course solar is not a 100% answer in Virginia. Neither is on/off-shore wind. Neither is biomass. Neither is efficiency. Neither is storage. Neither is advanced geothermal. Neither is …. E.g., of course we need a multi-faceted.

      Reality is that VA is, in many ways, a national leader in nuclear power — w/significant portions of the relevant industry in Virginia. Even so, the North Ana plan is not the best option for the Commonwealth.

      Perhaps development of SMR along with test bedding thorium could be part of that ‘multi-faceted’.

  • Good news, albeit very small (add another zero and we’re talking..)

    Governor McAuliffe Announces 40MW of New Solar Capacity in Virginia

    ~ Permits issued for two new solar facilities in Essex County and Powhatan County ~

    RICHMOND – Governor McAuliffe today announced the recent issuance of permits for two new solar projects to be built in Virginia. The first, a 20 megawatt (MW) facility under development by Coronal Development Services, will sit on approximately 275 acres in Dunnsville, part of Essex County. The second, also with 20 MW of capacity, will be constructed by Virginia Solar on a 720 acre parcel in Powhatan County. The projects are a significant step in Virginia’s larger initiative to move towards mixed-use energy generation.

    “These projects build on the important investments we are making in the solar industry across Virginia,” said Governor McAuliffe. “This simultaneous announcement is a testament to just how fast the Commonwealth’s solar sector is growing. Solar energy is a central part of the comprehensive energy approach Virginia needs to keep costs low for businesses, families and taxpayers as we build a new Virginia economy.”

    The permits were issued by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality through its “Permit by Rule” process. This streamlined regulatory framework supports the speedy deployment of renewable energy infrastructure while assessing the potential environmental impacts of new facilities.

    “With this increase in solar capacity, the Commonwealth is taking concrete steps towards a sustainable future,” said Secretary of Natural Resources Molly Ward. “Today’s announcement clearly demonstrates the viability of Virginia’s solar sector and represents a big win for energy consumers and the environment alike.”

    Governor McAuliffe is an active supporter of renewable energy and Virginia’s solar industry. Since he took office, the Commonwealth has seen a 10-fold increase in its installed solar capacity, growing from 17 MW in 2014 to more than 188 MW at the end of 2016.

  • Quizzical
    • Even the @#$#$s at Dominion Power should support that, right?

      • Quizzical

        I can’t see why Dominion Power would oppose an expansion of EV charging stations. Maybe they would even want to have a few stations themselves on I-95 and I-81, and make some money from it.

        • Unless they were – gasp! – powered by distributed solar?