Dominion Energy's Whitehouse solar farm in Louisa County generates 20 megawatts on a 250 acre site. (Dominion Energy)

Virginia residents who want to do right by the planet are confronted with a bewildering array of renewable energy and “green power” options. Unfortunately, few of these programs actually deliver renewable energy. People who want the gold standard — electricity from new wind and solar projects — are completely out of luck if their utility is Dominion Energy Virginia or Appalachian Power. 

To understand how there can be so many options and none of them good, we first have to talk about renewable energy certificates.  RECs are a topic that is way more interesting than it sounds because — well, it would have to be, wouldn’t it? RECs are how we know that some electricity can be attributed to a renewable source. If you want to know what kind of renewable energy your utility is buying, or if you yourself want to buy renewable energy, RECs matter.

RECs are not electricity; they aren’t even real certificates. They were conceived of as an accounting tool enabling a utility to show it is in compliance with a state mandate to include a percentage of renewable energy in its mix. A utility amasses RECs associated with its own renewable generating sources, or buys them from renewable sources it doesn’t own, and then “retires” them to show compliance with the law. Since RECs are separate from the electricity itself, they can be bought and sold independently. There is even an online marketplace for your REC shopping convenience. 

RECs are also how voluntary buyers of renewable energy, like customers of Arcadia or Dominion’s Green Power Program, know they’re actually getting what they pay for —assuming they understand that what they pay for is not actually energy, and may have no relationship to the electricity powering their home or business. If you buy RECs, you are still using whatever electricity your utility provides, but you are also paying a premium on top of your regular bill. 

There is no nationwide, generally accepted definition of “renewable energy,” just as there is no definition of “natural” in food labeling. In Virginia, there is a state law defining what counts as renewable, and it includes not just solar, wind and hydro, but also a range of burnable fuels like biomass and municipal solid waste that foul the air and contribute to climate change. Buyer beware!  

The Virginia Clean Economy Act narrowed the list of sources that Dominion and APCo can use to meet the law’s new renewable portfolio standard, and also limited the locations of qualifying facilities. After 2025, happily, most of the RECs retired by Dominion and APCo under the VCEA will come from Virginia wind and solar facilities. 

But crucially, the VCEA didn’t change the definition of renewable energy in the code. Dominion won’t be able to use RECs from its biomass plants to meet the VCEA, but it can still sell them to anyone else and label the product “renewable” without falling afoul of the law. Anyone buying a renewable energy product from Dominion had better check the list of ingredients. 

It’s not just Dominion. Anyone buying RECs from Arcadia or anywhere else should take a good look at what they are getting, and ask themselves if the money they spend means new renewable energy will be added to the grid. 

The answer is probably no. If the RECs come from a wind farm in Texas or Iowa, the electricity from those turbines doesn’t feed into the grid that serves Virginia, so you can’t even pretend it is powering your house. It also doesn’t mean anyone built a wind farm because of REC buyers like you. Wind energy is already the cheapest form of new energy in the central part of the U.S. People build wind farms because they are profitable, not because they can sell RECs. In fact, those wind farms are swimming in surplus RECs, because states in the center of the country don’t have renewable energy mandates to make their own utilities buy them.  

For that matter, a lot of RECs come from facilities that were built before the idea of RECs even existed. Hundred-year-old hydroelectric dams can sell RECs; so can fifty-year-old paper mills that sell biomass RECs from burning wood. 

With this background, let’s look at the offerings available in Virginia and see which are worth paying more for. 

Dominion Energy Virginia

 In theory, Dominion customers will have the ability to buy real solar energy directly from independent providers beginning as early as 2023, thanks to shared solar legislation sponsored by Sen. Scott Surovell and Del. Jay Jones and passed in 2020. The law envisions independent solar developers building solar facilities in Virginia and selling the electricity (and the RECs) to subscribers who are Dominion customers. But the SCC opened a Pandora’s box last fall by allowing Dominion to propose the rules, and in an act of classic Dominion overreach, the utility has now proposed to collect an average of $75 a month as a “minimum bill” from every customer who buys solar energy from someone else. A fee like that would end the program before it ever started.

On shared solar, Dominion and solar groups clash over $75 minimum bill proposal

 The matter is hardly settled. The solar industry has asked for an evidentiary hearing and suggested that the minimum bill should be set at a single dollar. If all else fails, the program may go forward serving only low-income customers, whom the legislation exempts from the minimum bill. 

Dominion customers can hope for the best, but any shared solar option is still at least two years away. 

In the meantime, the utility’s website lists four renewable energy options: two that sell RECs, one that sells actual energy (and retires the RECs for you) and one that doesn’t exist. 

The REC-based Green Power Program has been around for a decade, and as of 2019 it had more than 31,000 subscribers. Dominion’s “product content label” projected that for 2020 the program would likely consist of 56 percent wind RECs, 34 percent biomass RECs, and 10 percent solar RECs. Facilities are advertised as being “in Virginia and the surrounding region,” but the fine print reveals sources as far away as Mississippi, Georgia, Missouri and Alabama, none of which are part of the PJM transmission grid that serves Virginia.  (Side note: the biomass icon is a cow, not a tree, which is misleading but charming, unless they might be burning cows, in which case it is deeply disturbing.) With the website out of date, I contacted Dominion for current content information: solar is now up to 13 percent, but, sadly, biomass still makes up 35 percent of the mix (but now it has a leaf icon!).

REC Select. When I say “buyer beware,” I have this offering in mind. Dominion has been authorized to go Dumpster diving to buy the cheapest RECs from around the country and from any facility that meets Virginia’s overly-expansive definition of renewable energy. The website implies that so far the company is only buying wind RECs from Oklahoma and Nebraska, an indication of just how cheap those are. But under the terms of the program, the RECs could come from 50-year-old paper mills in Ohio or hundred-year-old hydroelectric dams. No educated consumer would buy this product, and both Dominion and the SCC should be ashamed of themselves for putting it out there.

• The 100% Renewable Energy Program delivers actual energy from Virginia, and retires RECs on your behalf. That’s the good news. But only a few of the solar farms are new; the rest of the energy comes from old hydro plants and, worse, from biomass plants that are so highly polluting that they don’t qualify for Virginia’s renewable energy mandate under the VCEA. The inclusion of biomass makes the program more expensive than it would be otherwise. So why include biomass when no one wants it? Because Dominion doesn’t really care if you sign up for this program. The company only offers it to close off a provision in the law that allowed customers to buy renewable energy from competitors if their own utility doesn’t offer it.

• Dominion’s website does list one attractive program under the name “community solar.” Like the shared solar program already discussed, it would deliver actual solar energy from new facilities to be built in Virginia, while retiring the RECs on your behalf. This would pass all our tests, except that it doesn’t exist. The SCC gave Dominion the green light to offer the program more than two years ago, and we’ve heard nothing since, even though the enabling legislation appears to make it mandatory for both Dominion and APCo. 

Appalachian Power

APCo never developed a community solar program either, and the shared solar program discussed earlier would not be available to APCO customers even if it gets off the ground. But APCo does have two renewable energy offerings. 

• For its Virginia Green Pricing program, APCo put together wind and hydro from its own facilities. That means it’s actual energy and reasonably priced, at less than half a cent per kWh. But these are existing facilities that all its customers had been paying for until APCo figured out how to segment the market and make more money, and the hydro is old. (As with Dominion’s renewable energy program, the real purpose of the new product was to close off competition.) 

• Even cheaper is Alternative Option-REC, the RECs for which “may come from a variety of resources but will likely be associated with energy from waste, solid waste and hydro facilities.” No biomass, anyway, but I still have trouble imagining who would pay extra for (literally) rubbish. 

Virginia electric coops.

Some electric cooperatives offer real renewable energy to customers, and a couple have community solar programs that are quite attractive.  

Central Virginia Electric Cooperative and BARC Electric Cooperative offer community solar programs that not only deliver actual solar energy, but also let customers lock in a fixed price for 20-25 years. Four other coops also offer a solar energy option, and at least one other is working on it.

• Many coops also sell RECs, of mixed quality. Shenandoah Valley Electric Cooperative offers RECs generated by wind farms owned or contracted by Old Dominion Electric Cooperative, the generation cooperative that supplies power to most Virginia coops. Rappahannock Electric Cooperative, however, sells only biomass RECs.

• Bottom line: if you are a member of an electric cooperative, you may have better options than either Dominion or APCo is offering — and if you don’t, hey, you’re an owner of the coop, so make some noise!

Arcadia

 If you like RECs, you don’t have to buy RECs from your own utility. The folks at Arcadia have struggled for years to offer products that put new renewable energy on the grid. In states that allow community solar, Arcadia now offers wind and solar from projects in those states. Everywhere else, they just sell RECs. The website provides no information indicating where the facilities are, meaning they could be out in the same central plains states that are awash in surplus wind RECs. Their game plan appears to be for all the nice liberals in blue states to throw enough money at red state RECs that eventually the day will come when demand exceeds supply and drives the price up enough to incentivize new projects. The plan sounds self-defeating to me, but in any case, buyers should keep in mind that the RECs bought before that glorious date will have incentivized precisely nothing. 

Rooftop solar panels. (VCU Capital News Service)

Other options

Obviously, if you have a sunny roof, you can install solar onsite and net-meter. Of all the programs available today, that’s the one that will save you money instead of making you spend more. 

If you don’t have a sunny roof, but you’d still like to see your money put solar onto the grid, consider contributing to a church, school or non-profit that is going solar, or to an organization that puts solar on low-income homes. Two that operate in Virginia are Give Solar, which puts solar on Habitat for Humanity houses, and GRID Alternatives, which trains workers to install solar on low-income homes here and abroad. If everyone in Virginia who is currently buying RECs were to choose this alternative instead, it would put millions of dollars to work building new solar in Virginia, and lowering the energy bills of people who most need the help.

And that might make it the best option of all.