Enviva Southampton biomass plant
The Enviva wood pellet plant in Southampton, Va. (Sarah Vogelsong/The Virginia Mercury)

What if you could get your electricity from a fuel that destroys forests, produces more air pollution than coal, and is priced higher than alternatives?

“Wow, sign me up!” you would not say, because as a sane person you don’t like deforestation, pollution and overpriced power. 

Also, because you are not Dominion Energy Virginia. Dominion burned wood at one power plant from 1994 until last year; converted three small coal plants to wood-burning in 2013; and burns wood along with coal at its Virginia City coal plant. This “biomass” energy makes up about one percent of the electricity Dominion sells to Virginia ratepayers, according to its most recent IRP. 

Biomass counts as renewable under the Virginia Code, so in theory it can also be used to supply customers who are willing to pay extra for renewable energy. Lots of people want renewable energy these days. Unfortunately for Dominion, they want clean, non-polluting renewables like wind and solar. No one is clamoring for biomass. 

That’s especially true because biomass costs more than wind or solar, not to mention more than fossil sources. Who’s going to buy dirty energy when they can get clean energy for less money? 

We recently learned just how much more expensive biomass is when the State Corporation Commission held a hearing on Dominion’s latest effort to get a renewable energy tariff approved. Rider TRG combines wind, solar and hydro with biomass, originally including biomass burned at the Virginia City coal plant. 

Pretty much everyone hates the proposed tariff, as the Virginia Mercury reported. Counties looking to buy renewable energy objected. Corporate customers said they wouldn’t buy it. 

Dominion’s Virginia City Hybrid Energy Center in Wise County, Va., 2019. (Sarah Vogelsong/Virginia Mercury)

So, in a halfway step meant to mollify opponents, Dominion offered to remove the Virginia City coal plant from the list of sources, while leaving in the rest of the biomass facilities. 

Here’s the interesting part: taking Virginia City out made the program more affordable. Having biomass as part of the renewable energy mix, it turns out, doesn’t save money for participants; it costs extra. 

In that case, you might say (again, you being a sane person), Dominion ought to remove all the biomass from Rider TRG and save participants even more money, while making it a program people might actually want. 

And indeed, the SCC staff calculated that if all the biomass were to be removed, it would reduce the cost by almost two-thirds. For average residential customers using 1,000 kilowatt-hours per month, removing biomass from Rider TRG would mean the added cost of making all their power renewable would fall from $4.21 per month to $1.78. 

A no-brainer, right? Making the program both cleaner and more affordable would make it more popular and spur construction of new renewable energy facilities. 

Dominion refused. Having the program be successful, you see, is not the point. As I wrote this summer, the purpose of Rider TRG isn’t to offer a product people want to buy, it’s to prevent anyone else from selling renewable energy. If the commission approves Dominion’s tariff, under state law competitors will be locked out of the Virginia market. 

If the biomass turns out to be a kind of poison pill for the program, so that no one signs up, that really doesn’t matter to Dominion because, again, the whole point of Rider TRG isn’t to attract customers, it’s to kill competition. 

The SCC hasn’t ruled on the program yet. Post-hearing briefs are due Dec, 20, so we can expect an order in the case early next year. 

But why biomass?

At this point you may be asking yourself why Dominion chose to invest in all those biomass plants in the first place. The answer is subsidies. During its early years, Virginia’s voluntary renewable portfolio standard rewarded Dominion with tens of millions of dollars annually as a bonus for meeting the renewable energy goals set out in the law. Section 56-576 of the Virginia Code very helpfully defines renewable energy to include “biomass, sustainable or otherwise, (the definitions of which shall be liberally construed).”

Fun fact: as recently as 2008, only “sustainable biomass” qualified as renewable energy. The definition was altered in 2009, at the same time it was expanded to cover biomass burned in a coal-fired power plant such as the one Dominion had just announced it would build. 

The RPS bonus money boondoggle came to an end in 2013 when public outrage reached a fever pitch. Then-Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli reached a deal on legislation to repeal the bonus money provisions of the statute. (Utilities could still recover the costs of the RPS program from ratepayers.) Left intact was everything else, including defining renewable energy as “biomass, sustainable or otherwise.”

Liberally construing “sustainable or otherwise” has not been good for southeastern forests. Dogwood Alliance and Southern Environmental Law Center document widespread clear-cutting, loss of forests, and replacement of mixed hardwood forests with pine plantations. As these groups and others have also pointed out, burning wood produces more pollution than coal and isn’t carbon-neutral in the time frame that matters for the climate pickle we’re in.

Dominion is not the worst offender; pride of place belongs to wood pellet manufacturer and exporter Enviva, which just received a permit to expand its Virginia facility in Southampton. 

Dominion also isn’t the only Virginia utility to have invested in burning trees. Northern Virginia Electric Cooperative provides its customers with electricity from a biomass plant in South Boston. NOVEC doesn’t have an RPS to meet, so it sells renewable energy certificates to Maryland utilities. It’s a lousy deal for the Maryland residents who get higher bills and no clean energy to show for it, but meanwhile NOVEC brags about its “environmentally friendly” plant. 

So now what?

There are really two questions when it comes to burning trees for fuel: one, should government give it preferential treatment; and two, should an electric utility be doing it at all? 

The General Assembly will almost certainly consider legislation this year requiring utilities to increase the proportion of electricity they sell that comes from renewable energy. If biomass is allowed to qualify, the result will be less new wind and solar and less progress towards a carbon-free grid. The lesson from other states that have renewable energy mandates is simple: states that allow junk get junk. (Here’s looking at you, Maryland.)

But as we’ve seen, biomass can’t compete with other energy sources on cost if it doesn’t get subsidies. Dominion can follow NOVEC’s lead in selling RECs to Maryland or other states that haven’t wised up yet, but REC payments won’t make up the cost difference between biomass and other fuels. 

Worse—or better, depending on your point of view—other states may decide not to support the biomass racket. Maybe Dominion could still sell the renewable energy certificates (RECs) to the ultra-cheap Green Power for Suckers program that the SCC approved a couple weeks back. But selling cheap RECs to chumps would net the company only—ahem—chump change. 

In fact, the SCC should take a hard look at biomass when Dominion files its next Integrated Resource Plan. Requiring the utility to get out of the wood-burning business wouldn’t just clean the air and protect forests, it could be a smart way to save money for customers.