Northam’s energy plan met with acclaim, but how much will it push the envelope?

October 3, 2018 6:01 am

Gov. Ralph Northam put out his administration’s energy plan Tuesday, a non-binding planning document that lays out a vision for the next decade of energy policy in Virginia. But it was met with some effusive praise by environmental groups and renewable energy and energy-efficiency interests.

“This plan represents the first time in Virginia history a governor has completed a truly forward-thinking outlook for our commonwealth’s energy future,” said Kate Addleson, director of the Sierra Club’s Virginia chapter. “The energy plan recognizes that Virginia needs to make significant changes in the way we produce, deliver and consume energy, including transforming our grid into one that can accommodate more renewable energy.”

Much of the 91-page plan mirrors the major overhaul of utility regulation Dominion Energy pushed through the General Assembly this year, Senate Bill 966, or the Grid Transformation and Security Act.

Northam signed the legislation, though he was criticized for not driving a harder bargain on the bill, which allows the utility to offset hundreds of millions in  over-earnings with spending on grid upgrades and other eligible projects, and also commits to big increases in solar and wind development.

“The clean energy sector has the power to create new business opportunities, expand customer access to renewable energy, and spark the high-demand jobs of the 21st century,” Northam said in a statement Tuesday. “Virginia can shift to a more modern electric grid that is reliable, affordable, resilient, and environmentally responsible—and the commonwealth can lead this critical industry as a result. This plan sets an ambitious path forward for Virginia, and I am confident we will charge ahead towards progress over the course of my administration.”

That’s the kind of rhetoric renewable energy advocates have long been demanding in Virginia, where you can look over the border to North Carolina or Maryland to see states with more significantly installed solar capacity.

“With its 2018 energy plan, the Commonwealth of Virginia has taken another important step to expand solar energy and promote innovative technologies over the next 10 years,” said Sean Gallagher, vice president of state affairs at the Solar Energy Industries Association. “Gov. Northam deserves credit for his leadership on clean energy and for establishing goals that are aligned with business and the public’s desire for energy that is affordable, creates jobs, protects the environment and grows Virginia’s economy. The solar industry will work with policy leaders, manufacturers and installers across Virginia to meet these benchmarks.”

Among other recommendations, the plan calls for a comprehensive grid modernization planning process to aid implementation of the sprawling utility act; 3,000 megawatts of solar and onshore wind to be deployed by 2022; 2,000 megawatts of offshore wind to be deployed by 2028 and for Virginia’s utilities to collectively invest $115 million per year in energy efficiency programs.

Also included are recommendations to loosen rules around power purchase agreements, which allow customers to buy energy from third-party electric generators instead of utilities, and raising caps on net-metering, which allow owners of rooftop solar arrays to be compensated for the excess electricity they put onto the grid.

And it recommends including distributed energy planning and data collection (such as the smart electric meters Dominion is pushing to install) in long term utility planning documents, called Integrated Resource Plans, that utilities file to demonstrate how they intend to meet their customers’ demand.

“I don’t think anybody has a clear idea of what is worthwhile grid transformation and what is a waste of ratepayer dollars,” said Will Cleveland, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center who focuses on utility regulation and renewable energy.

He added that there are “some good pro-consumer recommendations” in the plan, particularly lifting the cap on net-metering and adjusting rules on power-purchase agreements.

However, many of the recommendation require navigating a General Assembly in which Dominion has historically held sway on such policy.  And the energy giant has been hostile to allowing others to “use the grid for free,” as it has framed the debate.

“The proposals are largely sound,” Cleveland said. “It’s a little thin on the details of how we actually get to these things. Are these legislative proposals the governor is going to be fighting tooth and nail for or what?”



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Robert Zullo
Robert Zullo

Robert spent 13 years as a reporter and editor at weekly and daily newspapers before becoming editor of the Virginia Mercury in 2018. He was a staff writer and managing editor at Worrall Community Newspapers in Union, N.J., before spending five years in south Louisiana covering hurricanes, oil spills and Good Friday crawfish boils as a reporter and city editor for the The Courier and the Daily Comet newspapers in Houma and Thibodaux. He covered Richmond city hall for the Richmond Times-Dispatch from 2012 to 2013 and worked as a general assignment and city hall reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette from 2013 to 2016. He returned to Richmond in 2016 to cover energy, environment and transportation for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. He grew up in Miami, Fla., and central New Jersey. A former waiter, armored car guard and appliance deliveryman, he is a graduate of the College of William and Mary. Contact him at [email protected]