The political economy of energy in Virginia used to be simple. Three main interest groups contended to formulate energy policy in the state: environmentalists, consumers, and electric utilities. Consumers, both homeowners and businesses, pressed for lower electric rates. Environmentalists fought for cleaner air and, more recently, lower CO2 emissions. And utilities — the only parties responsible for keeping the lights on — lobbied for reliability at a reasonable cost (within a framework that preserved profits).
In the last few years, a fourth force has entered the picture, and the political dynamic is changing. The Old Dominion has seen a surge in the number of small, independent solar- and wind-power developers. They have exercised limited political clout, but now large, national corporations embracing a green energy agenda have entered the fray.
Half the Fortune 500 companies have committed to green agendas, and they signaled their desire earlier this year to see policies in Virginia that were friendlier to wind power, solar power and energy efficiency. (See “Clean Energy Options and Economic Development.”) Their message: If Virginia wants to attract outside corporate investment, the state had better get on board the solar-powered electric train.
Then, in an unprecedented flexing of political muscle last week, a green industry group injected itself into the Virginia gubernatorial race. Advanced Energy Economy (AEE), an association of green industry companies, delivered a policy memo to the campaigns of GOP nominee Ed Gillespie and Democratic nominee Lt. Gov. Ralph S. Northam.
“Evolving consumer preferences, dynamic new technologies and aging infrastructure are causing the energy system as we have known it to modernize,” states the memo. AEE outlines four priorities:
- Allow competitive procurement to attract investment and benefit consumers. Virginia energy policy should open up third-party market alternatives. “While current Virginia law allows competition in statute, more could be done to attract investment and benefit consumers.”
- Expand access to advanced energy options. The ability to control energy costs is a factor in where many corporations choose to locate. But they’re not just looking for cheap energy — they want green energy.
- Maximize energy efficiency and demand-response. Under Virginia regulatory regime, electric utilities lose money when customers reduce their electricity consumption, discouraging utilities from investing in energy efficiency programs and demand response. Virginia should “decouple” electricity sales from profitability so utilities don’t lose when they invest in energy efficiency and demand-response programs that cut sales.
- Modernize the electric grid. Evolving consumer preferences, new technologies, and the need to replace aging infrastructure have created a need to modernize the electric grid. The regulatory system, which inadvertently stifles innovation, needs to be modernized.
AEE wants more wind and solar, more electric vehicles, more energy efficiency, more innovation, and more freedom for entrepreneurs to design solutions for customers. At the same time, the association acknowledges that the way to achieve these aims is not to browbeat electric utilities into submission but to change their incentives, which would take a major re-writing of regulatory law.
Bacon’s bottom line: To advance AEE’s vision, Virginia would need an upgraded electric grid flexible enough to accommodate a less centralized, more distributed grid while still maintaining system-wide reliability. In effect, the green businesses are calling for a deregulation of electric power production. But no one wants to build a competitive and redundant electric transmission-distribution system.
Any viable energy system of the future must allow electric utilities to continue investing in, and earning a profit on, their transmission-distribution systems. Also, deregulation of electricity generation would require grappling with the issue of “stranded” investments — investments in generating capacity that utilities made in good faith under the existing regulatory environment that might not be economical and must be scrapped in deregulated environment.
Like the environmental movement, this Fourth Force in energy politics wants to see a fundamental transformation of Virginia’s electric power system. Unlike the environmentalists, many of whom see Dominion and Appalachian Power as the enemy, the Fourth Force acknowledges the need for a healthy utility sector. This new interest group has plenty of money, which means it can afford to hire lobbyists and spread cash to political campaigns. Plus, these new voices will be more credible to Virginia’s pro-business legislators than the more strident environmentalists had been.
The politics of electric power in Virginia has reached an inflection point. We are entering a new era.