If that seems like too slim a provocation for rebellion, look at the war's other front: another EPA rule that pretty much outlaws construction of anything but those "clean coal" plants that grab carbon dioxide right out of the smokestack and shove it underground. Given that those plants are thus far only creatures of myth and longing, it's fair to say the EPA carbon rule would stop a new coal plant.
And yet, the EPA rule has absolutely nothing to do with why no one is building coal plants in America.
The situation reminds me of a nature hike I went on once, where we came across a box turtle. The naturalist told us that the box turtle might be extinct, only it didn't know it yet. This odd state of affairs is because, for various reasons, the turtles seem not to be reproducing. No matter how many of them there are today, if there aren't any babies, they are effectively extinct.
That's the case with coal-fired power plants in America. There are hundreds of them in existence, and they still supply a third of our electricity, but nobody is building any new ones.
This has been true for the last few years, so blaming the Obama EPA smacks of political opportunism. Not that anyone would accuse politicians of that.
Of course, there are differences between a turtle and a coal plant. For one thing, everybody likes turtles. Coal plants, not so much. Over the last decade, all across the country, local people have banded together to shut the worst coal plants and to stop new ones from being built, citing health costs from breathing toxic pollutants and eating mercury-contaminated fish, the effects of mountaintop removal coal mining, and problems dealing with the toxic ash that is the primary waste product of coal burning.
But I think the real reason no one wants a new coal plant has to do with an ad campaign the coal industry ran when environmentalists started attacking the myth of "clean coal." The coal industry figured it was just setting the record straight when it ran its own ads trumpeting the information that burning coal is a major way America gets electricity. "Coal keeps the lights on!" they announced.
And Americans, who thought their electricity came from little switches on the wall, were appalled.
"We're burning what?" they asked each other. And that was the beginning of the end for coal.
Still, what Americans want, and what actually happens, doesn't always coincide, so let's move on to a second cause of coal's decline. We're talking about a force more powerful than either Fox News or public opinion: money.
That's right: if you really want to find the culprit behind the death of coal, you have to finger the free market. That's because coal's chief competitor for making electricity is natural gas, and natural gas is ridiculously cheap today. For this we have to thank new methods of shale fracking that have people almost as upset as they are about coal burning, but with less success because gas is profitable and coal is not.
If you thought it was a bad idea for utilities to be single-mindedly dependent on coal, then you probably also think it's bad that, after dropping coal like so much fool's gold, the same utilities are now panting just as hard after natural gas. But if you stood up for coal on the basis that it was (a) cheap and (b) American, then you really can't be heard to complain about its death at the hands of natural gas.
It's far more convenient to blame the EPA, because it had the courage to come out of its mouse-hole, wave its tiny sword around, and announce, once no one wanted any new coal plants, that it was going to make it darn hard to build any new coal plants.
The EPA isn't waging a war on coal; the free market is. But that makes for a lousy sound bite.
In fact, it's the thinking of utilities across the U.S., many of which are planning the same move. But ratepayers and regulators at Virginia's State Corporation Commission should insist that Dominion take this opportunity to diversify its fuels. New natural gas generation should be at least evenly balanced with price-stable renewable energy like wind and solar. Here are three reasons why.
Natural gas prices will not stay low. Producers are currently pulling back on production because they can't afford to lose money selling below their costs. And with utilities rushing to build new gas-fired electric generating plants, demand is set to soar in the coming years. Exports of liquid natural gas (LNG) will also serve new markets overseas, where gas prices are much higher than in the U.S., further pushing up demand here. Finally, with the price of oil about 10 times the current price of gas when measured per unit of energy, gas will increasingly displace oil in other uses such as powering heavy trucks and possibly conversion of gas to liquid fuels.
With all these factors pushing up demand, the price of natural gas has to go up, and the only question is how high. Longer term production will likely increase as well, dampening the price shocks, but natural gas prices have a long history of volatility, and there is no reason to think they will stabilize now.
A few other states are making fitful progress towards building offshore wind farms, but they have conditions Virginia doesn't: higher energy prices that make offshore wind more competitive with fossil fuels, renewable energy standards that push utilities to become buyers for the electricity, and congested transmission grids that favor local generation.
But of course, Virginia has its own advantages, including possibly the best wind resources in the mid-Atlantic, skilled workers, and extremely competitive port facilities. And the enthusiasm of our legislators and public for the idea of offshore wind matches that of any state.
At the same time, though, our governor and our major utility give decidedly mixed signals, extolling our offshore wind potential at one moment, and in the next opining that no one would actually want to pay for it. And yet Dominion Power hopes to buy up all the Virginia-area offshore wind leases that are offered for bid this fall. So what gives with Dominion and offshore wind?
Part of the reason is our lack of incentives. Unlike many other states in the northeast and mid-Atlantic, Virginia offers no tax credits or rebates on solar systems to supplement the federal tax credit. And our voluntary renewable portfolio standard is so flabby that our utilities will never need solar to meet it.
Virginia also isn't known for getting out ahead of the curve on energy. Instead of embracing the promise of clean power, the state clings to an old energy model dominated by fossil fuels. Just this year, the General Assembly renewed a subsidy that takes about $45 million every year out of the pockets of taxpayers to support coal mining.
But as a recent article in the New York Times Magazine described, the future has come knocking.
Most homeowners and businesses that put up solar panels currently "net meter," paying the utility only for power in excess of what their systems generate. Owners of solar systems also earn RECs that they can sell to help offset the cost of the system if they choose. RECs represent the "environmental attributes" of renewable energy, allowing the market to buy and sell what amounts to the bragging rights to renewable energy even when the actual electrons can't be delivered.
Dominion presents its "Solar Purchase Tariff" as a way to meet customer demand for Virginia-made renewable energy and incentivize new solar installations. The good news is that it creates publicity for solar, so it might stimulate interest. The bad news is that the devil is in the details, and there are a lot of details.
Under the proposal, some homeowners and businesses that qualify to net-meter could instead enter a "buy-all, sell-all" contract. Dominion would buy their entire output and its associated RECs at 15 cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh), and sell them power from the grid at the normal retail price of about 11 cents/kWh. Solar system owners would pocket the 4-cent difference.
We'll get back to the solar owners in a moment, but for now let's follow the money: Dominion would turn around and sell the RECs to its Green Power Program, not for that 4-cent difference in price, but for 11 cents/kWh.
The Green Power Program is a voluntary program under which Dominion customers who want to do so can pay more for their electricity to support renewable energy. Over 14,000 Virginians participate through added payments on their electric bills. The program uses the money to buy RECs, which currently come mostly from Midwestern wind farms and landfill gas.
Why would the Green Power Program be so stupid as to pay 11 cents for something that cost Dominion only 4 cents? Well, because Dominion controls the program. Dominion assures us it won't raise the cost of participating in the Green Power Program as a result, but that's only because the power produced by 3 MW is just a drop in the program's bucket, and the rest of the RECs it is buying are extremely cheap in today's market.
This may not always be true, though. As a precedent for future buys of distributed generation, charging participants 11 cents for a product that nets the producer only 4 cents sounds like a great way to drive away participants.
There is also the question of whether Green Power customers want their money spent subsidizing solar panels on other people's houses, rather than helping build Virginia wind farms or solar installations that put new clean energy on the grid. Paying extra on my bill for some rich guy's solar panels makes me feel like a chump, but others may not mind.
But let's get back to the money. If Dominion is charging the Green Power Program 11 cents of the 15-cent solar purchase price, that leaves 4 cents that Dominion itself will pay for customer-generated solar power, even while it charges the same customers about 11 cents for ordinary "brown" power. Dominion says this is because solar power, when reduced to electrons like any other, is worth only what the company would otherwise pay for electricity on the open market (the "avoided cost"), and that's about 4 cents.
The solar industry disputes the claim that distributed solar generation is worth no more than the avoided cost of brown power, and considers it a dangerous precedent with ramifications for future battles, including over standby charges. Distributed generation has a high value to the electric grid, they contend, adding stability and reducing the need for new transmission lines. Moreover, solar panels can reduce peak demand on hot, sunny days, and they do so without adding pollution. Valuing solar energy at the same rate as brown power bought off the grid just has to be wrong, and the only question is how wrong.
So although the Solar Purchase Program is so small that it seems hardly worth all the ink being spilled on it, it appears to be a proxy for a much bigger battle. And this may be the real point, because otherwise the program could prove irrelevant. Solar industry members say the 15-cent price is too low to induce people to install solar. Sure, it's more than the 11 cents saved by net-metering, but many homeowners are already selling their RECs for anywhere from 2 to 20 cents/kWh. Other details of the program-an interconnection fee, a monthly charge for a second meter, and doubts about whether the payments might be taxable-will make most solar customers opt to stick with net-metering and either continue selling their RECs elsewhere or keep those bragging rights for themselves.
Oddly, this spring Dominion, through a broker, started offering 4 cents/kWh to net-metering customers for their solar RECs, outright, with no strings attached. Homeowners were told the RECs will be sold to the Green Power Program. Although it was framed as a one-time buy, this is obviously a much better deal for the solar owners than the proposed Solar Purchase Program. And assuming Dominion doesn't plan to make a profit on the resale of the RECs to the Green Power Program, it is also hugely better for those customers.
All this suggests that Dominion may not even expect any net metering customers to sign up for the Solar Purchase Program. This proposed program may just be part of the bigger power game, in which control over electric generation is the real point.