Gov. Ralph Northam
Gov. Ralph Northam

There is a lot to like in the Northam administration’s new Virginia Energy Plan, starting with what is not in it.

The plan doesn’t throw so much as a bone to the coal industry, and the only plug for fracked gas comes in the discussion of alternatives to petroleum in transportation.

The 2018 Energy Plan is all about energy efficiency, solar, onshore wind, offshore wind, clean transportation and reducing carbon emissions. That’s a refreshing break from the “all of the above” trope that got us into the climate pickle we’re in today.

Welcome to the 21st century, Virginia.

But speaking of climate, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change just released a special report that makes it clear we need “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society” to keep warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius.

That’s only half again the amount of warming that has already brought us melting glaciers, a navigable Arctic Ocean, larger and more destructive hurricanes and, here in Virginia, the swampiest summer in memory.

The fact that things are guaranteed to get worse before they get better (if they get better) is not a happy thought.

Perhaps no Virginia politician today has the courage to rise to the challenge the IPCC describes.

Certainly, Gov. Northam shows no signs of transforming into a rapid-change kind of leader. But as we celebrate the proposals in his energy plan that would begin moving us away from our fossil-fuel past, we also have to recognize that none of them go nearly far enough.

And missed opportunities abound.

Let’s start with the high points, though.

One of the plan’s strongest sections champions offshore wind energy. It calls for 2,000 megawatts of offshore wind by 2028, fulfilling the potential of the area of ocean 27 miles off Virginia Beach that the federal government leased to Dominion Energy.

In the short term, the plan pledges support for Dominion’s 12-megawatt pilot project scheduled for completion in 2020 if it is approved by the State Corporation Commission.

Other East Coast states like Massachusetts and New York have adopted more ambitious timelines for commercial-scale projects, but the economics of offshore wind favor the Northeast over the Southeast, and they aren’t saddled with a powerful gas-bloated monopoly utility.  For Virginia, a full build-out by 2028 would be a strong showing, and better by far than what Dominion has actually committed to.

Another strong point is the administration’s commitment to electric vehicles. The transportation sector is responsible for more carbon emissions even than the electric sector, and vehicle electrification is one key response.

Even better would have been a commitment to smart growth strategies to help Virginians get out of their cars.

Overlooking this opportunity is a costly mistake, and not just from a climate standpoint. Today’s popular neighborhoods are the ones that are walkable and bikeable, not the ones centered on automobiles. If we want to create thriving communities that attract young workers, we need to put smart growth front and center in urban planning — and stop making suburban sprawl the cheap option for developers.

Speaking of developers, how about beefing up our substandard residential building code? Lowering energy costs and preparing for hotter summers requires better construction standards.

Houses can be built today that produce as much energy as they consume, saving money over the life of a mortgage and making homes more comfortable.

The only reason Virginia and other states don’t require all new homes to be built this way is that the powerful home builders’ lobby sees higher standards as a threat to profits.

The Energy Plan mentions that updated building codes were among the recommendations in the Virginia Energy Efficiency Roadmap that was developed with funding from the U.S. Department of Energy and published last spring. I hope the only reason the Energy Plan doesn’t include them among its recommendations is that the administration is already quietly taking action.

Meanwhile, it is not reassuring to see that the section of the plan devoted to attaining Virginia’s 10 percent energy efficiency goal simply describes how our utilities will be proposing more efficiency programs as a result of this year’s SB 966 (the “grid mod” bill).

States that are serious about energy efficiency don’t leave it up to companies whose profits depend on a lack of efficiency. They take the job away from the sellers of electricity and give it to people more motivated. So if the governor’s plan is merely to leave it up to Dominion and Appalachian Power without changing their incentives, we should abandon all hope right now.

Indeed, it is strange how often the Energy Plan finishes an in-depth discussion of an issue with a shallow recommendation, and frequently one that has the distinct odor of having been vetted by Dominion.

That observation leads us straight to grid modernization. The plan opens with a very fine discussion of grid modernization, one that shows the administration understands both the problem and the solution. It opens by declaring, “Virginia needs a coordinated distribution system planning process.”

And it notes, “One important rationale for a focus on grid modernization is that the transitions in our electricity system include a shift away from large, centralized power stations to more distributed energy resources.”

Well, exactly! Moreover: “The grid transformation improvements that the commonwealth is contemplating include a significant focus on the distribution system, but our current resource planning process (Integrated Resource Plan or IRP) does not fully evaluate the integration of these resources. One overarching focus of this Energy Plan is the development of a comprehensive analysis of distributed energy resources.”

But just when you feel sure that the plan is about to announce the administration is setting up an independent process for comprehensive grid modernization, the discussion comes to a screeching halt. The plan offers just one recommendation, which starts out well but then takes a sudden turn down a dead-end road:

To ensure that utility investments align with long-term policy objectives and market shifts, Virginia should reform its regulatory process to include distribution system level planning in Virginia’s ongoing Integrated Resource Planning requirement.

Seriously? We need regulatory reform, but we will let the utilities handle it through their IRPs? Sorry, who let Dominion write that into the plan?

It’s possible the administration is punting here because it doesn’t want to antagonize the State Corporation Commission. The SCC pretty much hated the grid mod bill and resented the legislation’s attack on the commission’s oversight authority. And rightly so, but let’s face it, the SCC hasn’t shown any interest in “reforming the regulatory process.”

The Energy Plan’s failure to take up this challenge is all the more discouraging in light of a just-released report from the non-profit Grid Lab that evaluates Dominion’s spending proposal under SB 966 and finds it sorely lacking. The report clearly lays out how to do grid modernization right. It’s disheartening to see the administration on board with doing it wrong.

Dominion’s influence also hobbles the recommendations on rooftop solar and net metering. This section begins by recognizing that “net metering is one of the primary policy drivers for the installation of distributed solar resources from residential, small business, and agricultural stakeholders.”

Then it describes some of the barriers that currently restrain the market: standby charges, system size caps, the rule that prevents customers from installing more solar than necessary to meet past (but not future) demand.

But its recommendations are limited to raising the 1 percent aggregate cap on net metering to 5 percent and making third-party power purchase agreements legal statewide. These are necessary reforms, and if the administration can achieve them, Virginia will see a lot more solar development.

But why not recommend doing away with all the unnecessary policy barriers and really open up the market?

The answer, surely, is that Dominion wouldn’t stand for it.

Refusing to challenge these barriers (and others — the list is a long one) is especially regrettable given that the plan goes on to recommend Dominion develop distributed generation on customer property.

Dominion has tried this before through its Solar Partnership Program, and mostly proved it can’t compete with private developers. If it wants to try again, that’s great. We love competition!

But you have to suspect that competition is not what this particular monopoly has in mind.

The need to expand opportunities for private investment in solar is all the more pressing in light of the slow pace of utility investment. Legislators have been congratulating themselves on declaring 5,000 megawatts of solar and wind in the public interest, and the Energy Plan calls for Dominion to develop 500 megawatts of solar annually.

I suspect our leaders don’t realize how little that is.

After 10 years, 5,000 MW of solar, at a projected capacity factor of 25 percent, would produce less electricity than the 1,588 megawatt gas plant Dominion is currently finishing in Greensville, operating at a projected 80 percent capacity.

Offshore wind capacities are in the range of 40-45 percent, so 2,000 megawatts of offshore wind will produce the amount of electricity equivalent to one of Dominion’s other gas plants. It won’t quite match the 1,358-megawatt Brunswick Power Station, or even the 1,329 megawatt Warren County Power Station, but Dominion also has several smaller gas plants.

At this point you get the picture. If all the solar and wind Virginia plans to build over 10 years adds up to two gas plants, Virginia is not building enough solar and wind. Consider that North Carolina has nearly 4,500 megawatts of solar installed already, adding more than 1,200 megawatts in 2017 alone, and is projected to add another 4,230 megawatts over the next five years. 

That gets us back to climate.

The administration can claim credit for following through on developing regulations to reduce carbon emissions from power plants by 30 percent by 2030, using the cap-and-trade program of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a group of northeastern states. If successful, that still leaves us with 70 percent of the carbon emissions in 2030, when we need to be well on our way to zero. And for that, we don’t have a plan.

Of course, Ralph Northam has been governor for only nine months.

He has some solid people in place, but right now he has to work with a legislature controlled by Republicans and dominated by Dominion allies in both parties, not to mention an SCC that’s still way too fond of fossil fuels.

Another blue wave in the 2019 election could sweep in enough new people to change the calculus on what is possible.

In that case, we may yet see the kind of leadership we need.

Editor’s note: The views of our opinion contributors are their own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Virginia Mercury.