One fan was so enthusiastic that he wanted to learn to make cookies himself. So the next time, he showed up at the start of the process. He watched me combine sugar and butter, eggs and white flour.
Instead of being enthusiastic, he was appalled. It had never occurred to him that anything as terrific as a cookie could be made of stuff so unhealthy. It's not that he thought they were created from sunshine and elf magic; he just hadn't thought about it at all. He left before the cookies even came out of the oven.
I felt so bad about it, I ate the whole batch.
But I can empathize with that guy when I'm told that as an environmentalist, I should love natural gas. Natural gas is the chocolate chip cookie of fossil fuels. At the point of consumption, everybody loves it. It's cheap, there's gobs of it, and it burns cleaner than coal, with only half the carbon dioxide emissions. Disillusionment sets in only when you look at the recipe. ("First, frack one well. . .")
On the very same day, a jury convicted ex-Governor Bob McDonnell and his wife on federal corruption charges, setting off a new round of debate about Virginia's lax ethics laws.
The two news items sound like different topics, but in fact they are both about the corruption undermining our democratic system. The McDonnell trial, with its focus on swank vacations, golf clubs, designer clothes and other neat stuff, actually missed the bigger breach of public trust that goes on every day. This takes the form of unlimited corporate campaign contributions and gifts to members of both parties, and the influence over legislation purchased by this largesse.
Dominion Power has spent decades and many millions of dollars building its influence in Richmond this way, to the point where most legislators don't bother pursuing a bill if the utility signals its opposition. That's why Virginia has not followed so many other states in requiring its utilities to invest in energy efficiency, wind and solar. Economic arguments, jobs, electricity rates-all these are talked about in committee, and all are irrelevant to the fate of a bill. The only relevant question for legislators is, "What does Dominion think?"
That's left Virginians wondering how a company that talks so big succeeds in doing so little. And more importantly, what would it take for Dominion to rank even among the average?
Dominion came in 30th out of 32 in renewable energy sales, at 0.52%. On energy efficiency, it achieved 31st out of 32 on savings measured cumulatively (0.41%), and 32nd out of 32 measured on an incremental annual level (at 0.03%). Together these put our team in last place overall-a notable achievement for a utility that trumpets its solar investments and carbon-cutting progress.
To show just how awful Dominion's performance is, the top five finishers achieved between 16.67% and 21.08% on renewable energy sales, 10.62-17.18% on cumulative annual energy efficiency, and 1.46-1.77% on incremental annual energy efficiency. National averages were 5.29% for renewable energy sales, 4.96% for cumulative efficiency savings, and 0.73% for incremental annual efficiency savings. Rankings were based on 2012 numbers, the latest year for which data were available.
Not surprisingly, the company's lawyers tried to prevent their client from having to pay a penalty for all those years it had been dumping pollution into the river. But their reasoning was interesting. Faced with the lawsuit, the company overhauled its industrial process and eliminated most of its waste products, which turned out to be a money-saving move. Thus, said the lawyers, the company hadn't gained any competitive advantage by polluting the river; it had actually lost money doing so. Really, they'd have made a lot more money if we'd forced them to clean up their act sooner.
Needless to say, the argument didn't fly, and the company paid a fine. But its experience turns out to have been a common one. When it comes to environmental regulation, industry screams that the sky is falling, but then it gets to work to solve the problem, and frequently ends up stronger than ever.
This is one reason to be skeptical of ad campaigns from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Mining Association trying to convince the public that the EPA's new regulations on carbon pollution from power plants, to be announced on June 2, will destroy the American economy. They've cried wolf so many times they have lost all credibility.
Don't get excited, Virginia: this solar investor is not Dominion Virginia Power but Dominion Resources, the parent company. You can be sure executives will take every opportunity to brag about the company's stake in the national solar market, but none of this power will reach us here in the Commonwealth.
Here, Dominion owns a grand total of one solar array at a university, all of 132 kilowatts, and a 500-kilowatt array on an industrial building. That brings the grand total to about 70 houses' worth, if the owners don't leave the lights on too much. Dominion is supposed to be developing a total of 30 MW of solar under a law passed in 2012, but the glacial pace of deployment is discouraging. Oh, and neither of its first two projects employed Virginia solar companies, further minimizing their impact in the state.
Why isn't Dominion investing in Virginia? "The cost of large solar projects such as this are still too high for a regulated market in Virginia," Dominion spokesman Dan Genest told the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
Advocates of enlightened energy policy march into session every January bright-eyed and optimistic, only to become mired in the slough of despond. We watch the best bills die, while bills we thought too backward to survive the light of day flourish like an invasive species. Yet even in Virginia, the past few years have produced glimmers of hope that suggest a slowly shifting mindset among legislators.
There is, for example, a growing movement in favor of solar energy that is as strong on the Republican right as it is on the Democratic left. They haven't quite formed a Solar Caucus yet, but you might say we are beginning to see a Solar Consensus.
Last year, after a long battle, this consensus produced a law specifically allowing some third-party-owned solar and wind projects, a critical step for nonprofits to install solar economically. This year, the legislature removed the second major hurdle to these projects, local "machinery and tools" taxes on solar equipment that would have made third-party-owned projects impossible in most Virginia jurisdictions. Assuming the Governor signs, SB 418 and HB 1239 take effect January 1, 2015.
In a near-rerun of two years ago, Senator Chap Petersen's SB 222, nullifying homeowner bans on solar, passed the House and Senate. Back then Governor McDonnell surprised us all by vetoing similar legislation, an action not expected from Governor McAuliffe.
These are not separate issues.
Virginia has had an ethics problem since long before Bob McDonnell met Jonnie Williams. As many people have noted, the real scandal is how hard it is to break our ethics laws. So long as you fill out a form disclosing the gift, it's legal for politicians to accept anything of value from anyone, to use for any purpose. By this standard, McDonnell's biggest failure was one of imagination.
The legislation that appears likely come out of the General Assembly merely puts a $250 cap on the price tag of any one gift, with no limit on the number of lesser gifts and no limit on the value of so-called "intangible" gifts like all-expense-paid vacations. The mocking of this bill has already begun.
Conveniently, the bill deals with a tiny side stream of tainted cash compared to the river of money flowing from corporations and ladled out by lobbyists. Corporations don't usually give out Rolexes and golf clubs. Instead, they give campaign contributions. Here again, Virginia law places no limits on the amount of money a politician can take from any donor. Five thousand or seventy-five thousand, as long as your campaign reports the gift, you can put it in your wallet.
And here's the interesting part: you don't have to spend the money on your campaign. If gerrymandering has delivered you a safe district, you can use your war chest to help out another member of your party-or you can buy groceries with it. The distinction between campaign money and personal money is merely rhetorical. A spokeswoman for the State Board of Elections was quoted in the Washington Post saying, "If they wanted to use the money to send their kids to college, they could probably do that."
Yet the start of each new Session, like the new year itself, always produces hope and excitement about the possibilities at hand. 2014 is no exception. There are a lot of bills here worth watching, and even rooting for. The list below is not comprehensive, and new bills keep coming in while existing ones get amended faster than I can keep up with, so take this summary only for what it's worth today.
One point worth noting is that many of the most promising bills come from Republicans. Renewable energy and energy efficiency, once identified with progressives, seem to have gone mainstream in Virginia. Well, why not? In addition to lowering our carbon footprint and helping residents save money, they make business sense and create jobs.
Investment tax credit. The bill with the potential to do most for renewable energy in Virginia is HB 910 (Villanueva), which would provide tax credits for renewable energy projects. The top priority this year for the solar industry, the bill would go a long way towards helping renewable energy compete in a state that still shells out millions of dollars every year in coal subsidies. A companion bill from a Senate Republican is also expected but has not been filed as of the time of this posting. The combination would be a powerful statement of support from a party that has not always been a friend to renewable energy.
In a bid to create broad support, HB 910 is not limited to emission-free projects like wind and solar. It would be hugely unfortunate if a few large biomass projects were to gobble up the credits, so we hope the patrons will commit to making any necessary fixes in future years if that happens.
Virginia's newly-elected governor, Terry McAuliffe, has high hopes for carbon sequestration. McAuliffe is confronting a problem that confounded his predecessors: how to deal with the continuing economic decline of southwest Virginia's coal-producing counties. But, enthusiastic as he is about new technology, McAuliffe should be skeptical of suggestions that carbon sequestration offers a solution to Virginia's coal decline. It does not.
This decline has been going on for decades. It predates the recession and the Obama presidency and tighter regulations aimed at protecting public health. It predates the explosion in natural gas fracking that has made gas cheaper than coal. Coal employment in Virginia has steadily dropped and is now below 5,000 workers, less than half of what it was in 1990. The best coal seams have been mined out, exacerbating the problem that Virginia coal is more expensive to mine than coal from other states. To get at the remaining seams as cheaply as possible, coal companies increasingly resort to mountaintop removal, destroying vast tracts of the Appalachians with explosives and giant machines (but very few workers). Even if carbon capture and storage proves successful, coal employment in the commonwealth won't recover.
Some utilities understand that this is the future and are looking for ways to turn these trends to their advantage. Others are doing everything they can to protect their turf, and progress (and the environment) be damned. They figure they can't wind up on the wrong side of history if they stop history from happening.
Hence the attempt to throttle solar while it's still little. Caps on system sizes, caps on total amounts of distributed generation, prohibitions against third-party power purchase agreements, restrictions on net metering: all of these are efforts to keep solar too small to matter, and too small to achieve the economies of scale that could lead to an upending of the central utility model.
The latest effort to squelch solar is through standby charges: fees imposed on net metering customers that compensate the utility for "standing by," ready to sell grid-produced energy at night and on cloudy days. In 2012 in Virginia, Dominion Virginia Power won the right to charge customers with large residential systems (10-20 kilowatts) up to $60 per month-a charge that destroyed this market segment. This summer Dominion pressed its advantage, indicating in a submission to regulators that it will likely seek more standby charges on a broader class of solar customers.