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Virginia’s amazing year in energy: gas rises, coal falls, and solar...

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Nobody laughed a few years ago when former governor Bob McDonnell dubbed Virginia the "Energy Capital of the East Coast"; we were all too astounded. And today, even "Energy Suburb" still seems like a stretch. Yet, if you measure achievement by the sheer level of activity, Virginia is making a play for importance. The year's top energy stories show us fully engaged in the worldwide battle between fossil fuels and renewable energy. Of course, while the smart money says renewables will dominate by mid-century, Virginia seems determined to drown rather than give up its fossil fuel addiction.

Coal falls hard; observers disagree on whether it bounces or goes splat. Nationwide, 2014 was a bad year for the coal industry. Coal stocks fell precipitously; mining jobs continued to decline; and the one thing electric utilities and the public found to agree on is that no one likes coal. Even in Virginia, with its long history of mining, coal had to play defense for what may have been the first time ever. So when Governor McAuliffe released the state's latest energy plan in October, what was otherwise a paean to "All of the Above" omitted the stanza on coal. And this month, the governor proposed a rollback of the subsidies coal companies pocket by mining Virginia coal.

Of course, coal is not going quietly; Senator Charles Carrico (himself heavily subsidized by Alpha Natural Resources) has already responded with a bill to extend the subsidies to 2022.

EPA opens a door to a cleaner future, and Republicans try to brick it up. Speaking of hard times for coal, in June the EPA unveiled its proposal to lower carbon emissions from existing power plants 30% nationwide by 2030. Instead of targeting plants one-by-one, EPA proposed a systemic approach, offering a suite of options for states to reach their individualized targets.

The proposal drew widespread support from the public, but Virginia's 38% reduction target set off howls of protest from defenders of the status quo. The staff of the State Corporation Commission claimed the rule was illegal and would cost ratepayers $6 billion. Republicans convened a special meeting of the House and Senate Energy and Commerce Committees, where they tried out a number of arguments, not all of which proved ready for prime time. The rule, they said, threatens Virginia with a loss of business to more favored states like-and I am not making this up-West Virginia. Also, Virginia should have received more credit for lowering its carbon emissions by building nuclear plants back in the 1970s when no one was thinking about carbon emissions.    

SCC approves Appalachian Power’s “solar tax”

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The State Corporation Commission has granted Appalachian Power Company's request to be allowed to impose "standby" charges on residential customers with solar systems over 10 kilowatts. The charges can range up to more than $100 per month, regardless of how much electricity the homeowner actually draws from the grid.

In its Final Order in case number PUE-2014-00026, dated November 26, the SCC ruled that APCo's standby charge complies with § 56-594 F of the Virginia Code, which provides for standby charges for net-metered residential systems between 10 and 20 kW. (The law does not allow for net metering of residential systems over 20 kW.)

Environmental groups intervened in the case and ran a grassroots campaign that generated over 1500 comments to the SCC, opposing what has been dubbed a "tax on the sun." The result, however, was never in much doubt. The SCC has repeatedly demonstrated a willingness to accept without scrutiny utility assertions that solar customers impose costs on other customers.

Attorneys at the Southern Environmental Law Center, who argued against the standby charges on behalf of the Sierra Club and other groups, say the SCC's reasoning is flawed. According to Cale Jaffe, Director of the SELC's Virginia office, "Appalachian Power actually conceded during the hearing that it was 'not in a position' to determine whether solar customers had 'a positive or negative impact to the distribution cost of service.'  In other words, Appalachian Power said that solar customers might be having a positive impact in helping to reduce APCo's distribution costs, but that the power company didn't have the data and didn't know one way or the other."

Dominion Virginia Power says its 30 MW Solar Partnership Program likely...

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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.

Climate Change Activists to Greet McAuliffe

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Safe natural gas photo 141013RichmondResistance_R_zpscf1911be.jpg Like his discredited predecessor and kowtowing to the fossil fuel sector, Governor McAuliffe has embraced an "all of the above" energy plan that begrudgingly mentions renewable energy. Tomorrow he'll foist it at the Science Museum of Virginia. Some of the people he avoided in Charlottesville will be inside to greet him.

Climate change activists, including Richmond Resistance have organized an assembly that is drawing participants from across Virginia. While access to the event inside the museum is at capacity, some activists who oppose the Dominion natural gas pipeline did obtain entry and will be there. They do not intend to disrupt the event, but will wear shirts that show solidarity with those picketing outside.  

The Sierra Club commended the McAuliffe plan for promoting renewables "to jump start our lagging clean energy business sector."

On the other hand, the club's Virginia director, Glen Besa, said in a statement that McAuliffe's support "for offshore drilling, and expanding gas pipelines and coal technology exports seriously undercuts his intentions to address climate change."  --Associated Press via Seattlepi.com

Talk about faint praise.

And the Sierra Club understates the main objection. This plan egregiously ignores the impact of the "strategy" on climate change. Between the lines is a pragmatic acceptance of fracking and the resulting threat to aquifers and the atmosphere; just to mention a couple of things vital to the environment.

There appears no serious investment in wind and solar energy contained in the 461 page plan. The Governor's continued pragmatism on climate change and other issues may do more to suppress Virginia's Democratic vote in 2016 than any Republican scheme, much to the chagrin of a close and personal friend.

Dominion’s Response to Citizen Criticism of 15-Year Energy Plan Only Reconfirms...

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In an attempt to defend its almost complete disregard of clean energy in its Integrated Resource Plan, Dominion VA Power made a number of arguments in its defense in a statement given to the Associated Press prior to a scheduled SCC hearing regarding its 15-year energy plan on Tuesday. First, Dominion emphasized that its 15-year plan is not "set in stone".  Dominion also cited its PROPOSED addition of 30 megawatts of solar power on leased commercial rooftops (this seems to me to be more of an argument against Dominion. 30 megawatts, really?). Thirdly, Dominion also pointed to its bids for leases to build wind farms off of Virginia's coast. All of these arguments need to be filed under the growing narrative of Dominion as big on words of good intention and woefully short on substantive action towards clean energy.

First, given Dominion's paltry baseline for renewable energy in 2026 (2.8%), any increase in their percentage of renewable energy in the years ahead would undoubtedly remain at unsatisfactory levels, at levels which would hardly put a dent in our state's greenhouse gas contributions.

Secondly, an extra 30 megawatts of solar power is not the large scale solar power that Virginians want and is therefore a moot defense. The primary reason that Virginians want clean energy is to stem the tide of climate change. 30 megawatts is hardly a drop in the pond and only illustrates either Dominions total lack of understanding of what Virginians are demanding or a blatant attempt to slow-walk clean energy in Virginia by continually PROPOSING (and sometimes constructing) small-scale clean energy projects to quell criticism of its policies.  

Bob McDonnell: Against Property Rights?

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You might've thought that respecting the rights of property owners to make the best use of their property was a core conservative principle that Republicans would respect.  But when even their most cherished principles conflict with the interests of their wealthy donors, guess which wins?

And so, Governor McDonnell has vetoed a bill that would've put the rights of property owners above those of one of the most misused and disliked institutions in the country -- the home owners association (HOA).  Specifically, Gov. Bob vetoed Senator Chap Petersen's SB 627, the "solar freedom bill," which would have banned HOAs from prohibiting solar panel installations by their residents.

This is an important issue for a number of reasons.  First, as Chap says in his Ox Road South blog: "In effect, HOA's are local governments, without transparency or democracy."  There are a huge number of Americans who live under HOAs (I've heard 50-60 million), and they have to abide by a wide variety of often arbitrary and unevenly applied mandates.  I myself had to fight with my HOA for my basic Constitutional right to display political signs on my lawn.  That tells you something about how HOAs too often put their petty rules above such cornerstones of American law and tradition as the First Amendment.

Renewable Energy Maps Show Virginia’s Utter Failure to Move Towards “Energy...

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According to EIA, "Non-hydroelectric renewable generation has increased in many states over the past decade." Those states include "blue" states (e.g., the west coast, the northeast) and "red" states (e.g., Texas, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Idaho). Then there's a state you might be familiar with, where its governor likes to talk about turning it into the "energy capital of the east coast." Yes, that would be Virginia, and no, we are not moving in the least bit towards becoming the "energy capital of the east coast."

Why not? Bad/stupid policies, basically, like our absurd failure to enact a strong, mandatory Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS), as many other states have done. Also, how about net metering? Strong tax incentives for homeowners and businesses to install renewable energy, energy efficiency, etc? At this point, we're lagging way, wayyyy behind many other states, let alone many other countries.  

Climate Activists Blow the Whistle on “Dominion’s Foul Trouble”

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350.org's Bill McKibben and the Chesapeake Climate Action Network's Mike Tidwell says when it comes to investing in clean & secure energy sources, Virginia fouls out:
The problem is the state's largest utility, Dominion Virginia Power. While states like Minnesota and Iowa get 10 to 20 percent of their electricity from wind power alone, creating thousands of jobs, Dominion generates zero electricity for Virginia ratepayers from wind or solar.

Instead, the utility invests overwhelmingly in dirty fossil fuels. Despite rising global warming concerns and smog-filled summer skies in Shenandoah National Park, Dominion plans to increase the renewable-energy slice of its cumulative energy pie by a microscopic 0.4 percent over the next 15 years. You read that right: 0.4 percent.

There's no sign things will change without some loud and much-deserved booing from the crowd. Which is why ratepayers from across the state have set Saturday as "The March to End Dominion's Power Madness."

The rally will be Saturday (March 24) at noon outside Dominion's Richmond headquarters, sign up at EndPowerMadness.com.

March to End Dominion’s Power Madness: March 24

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Fellow (Blue) Virginians and bloggers, did you know that Dominion Virginia Power is the largest non-party  political contributor to Virginia's candidates and committees? As such, Dominion has crafted energy policy in Virginia in its own image, an image that doesn't always reflect the interests of all Virginians under Dominion's umbrella.  For instance, Dominion was awarded $76 million  for meeting Virginia's weak renewable energy standard while literally generating ZERO wind and solar power in Virginia. There is clearly little benefit to rewarding Dominion to buy renewable energy from outside of the commonwealth when the renewable energy standard was constructed to create renewable energy  inside Virginia.

On top of that, Dominion executives plan to keep on developing fossil fuel power plants and ignoring renewable energy.  According to the company's 2011 Integrated Resource Plan, which looks 15 years into the future, they plan to still generate less than 3% renewable energy in 2026.

These are a few of the reasons why the Chesapeake Climate Action Network  along with other environmental groups is holding a rally and a march outside of Dominion's HQ in Richmond on March 24 at 12PM. On March 24, supporters of clean energy will meet at Kanawha Plaza  to march around Dominion VA Power's HQ and form a human chain. We will demand that Dominion invest in clean energy for VA's future now. There will also be world-renown and Virginia-based environmental speakers such as Phil Radford of Greenpeace USA and Mike Tidwell of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network (CCAN) who will discuss the need for clean energy in Virginia, the role of corporate money in politics, and how Virginia can become the example for clean energy use and construction. If you support clean energy, now is the time to come out and show it. This will be the biggest environmental rally in Virginia's history. I hope to see you all on March 24 and we can make history together!

Dominion CEO recognizes need to decrease fossil fuel use while taking...

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The CEO of the Richmond, VA based Dominion Resources Inc., Tom Farrell, noted that any national energy strategy must decrease the use of fossil fuels during his Keynote Speech at CERAWeek 2012.

It's a relief that Mr. Farrell recognizes America's crushing reliance on energy sources that are wreaking havoc on our lungs and our climate.

What Mr. Farrell is really saying is that he and his company want to be at the head of this energy revolution, controlling the market share along with the profits. At least, this is what Dominion's Robber Baron past would lead one to conclude.