A couple of years ago, the rap against Dominion Energy Virginia was that it was hostile to solar power. That line of thought is harder to maintain now that Dominion is committed to build at least 5,200 megawatts of solar power — roughly a quarter of its generating capacity — by 2042. Dave Mayfield at the Virginian-Pilot has taken notice:
After many years as a laggard, Virginia has lately been emerging as a leader in the field.
Last year, it placed 10th among the states in new solar capacity installed, up from 17th the year before, according to a report compiled for the Solar Energy Industries Association. North Carolina ranked second, behind California.
The association projects that Virginia’s total solar generating capacity will more than triple over the next five years to roughly 2,000 megawatts – enough to power upwards of 200,000 homes.
Some industry officials and clean-energy advocates expect even-sharper growth during that time frame, and say the solar expansion almost certainly will accelerate across Virginia in the decades beyond.
I nearly fell out of my chair when I read this: “I think you’re going to see a lot more discussion about Virginia being a hot state for solar,” said Ivy Main, affiliated with the Sierra Club’s Virginia chapter who writes the “Power for the People VA” blog. Main has been relentlessly critical of Dominion’s approach to solar over the years.
So the rap against Dominion has changed. Now the criticism is that, yeah, 5,200 megawatts is pretty good, but 25 years takes too long to reach that goal. And, yeah, Dominion is building more solar, but it’s not opening up the grid fast enough enough to homeowners, small businesses and independent solar producers.
Regarding the first criticism: I expect Dominion’s enthusiasm for solar will increase in direct proportion to the falling cost of solar generation, smart grid technology, and battery storage. Just as the utility has gone from a minimal commitment to solar two years ago to a large-scale commitment today in response to changing economics and market forces — especially growing demand by data centers and large corporations for renewable energy — this “problem” will take care of itself. The main brake on solar adoption will be Dominion’s comfort level with integrating a huge solar fleet into its transmission and distribution systems while maintaining grid reliability during periods of peak demand.
The second criticism, opening up solar production to outside competition, is a thornier issue. Many companies would like a piece of Dominion’s electricity market (as well as that of Appalachian Power’s and that of the electric co-ops). These interlopers are nimble and innovative, and, given current price trends, they likely would be able to sell solar for less than the cost of generating electricity from coal, nuclear or even gas — if not now, then five years from now. If competition opened up as critics would like, Virginia’s incumbent utilities stand to lose significant market share.
But here’s the rub: Electric utilities are monopolies, and they are monopolies for a reason. They have the responsibility for maintaining the integrity and reliability of the electric grid. If the lights go out, the North American Electric Reliability Council, PJM Interconnection, the State Corporation Commission, and millions of customers will look to the likes of Dominion, Appalachian Power, and the electric co-ops to get them back on again. They won’t look to homeowners. They won’t look to the independent solar producers. They won’t look to the Sierra Club. The utilities are the ones with skin in the game.
Society and the utilities have struck a bargain: In exchange for ensuring the reliability of the system, society will grant them monopoly service territories and regulate them to provide an assured rate of return on their capital (absent incompetence on the utilities’ part). Reneging on that bargain and opening up the system to wide-open competition would undermine the utilities’ revenues and profits, exposing them to potentially massive write-offs. It should surprise no one that the utilities resist such an eventuality.
Ironically, Dominion led the charge for opening up the utility industry to competition some twenty years ago. The experience was widely judged to be a failure; little competition materialized. Then in recognition of that failure a decade ago, Dominion led the charge to re-regulate the industry in Virginia. We can debate the success or failure of the experience since then, but it does seem apparent that if the industry were deregulated in 2018, there would be plenty of competition on the power-generation side of the business — from merchant producers selling into the wholesale market, from entrepreneurs partnering with big corporations, from intermediaries buying wholesale electricity off the grid and re-selling it to retail customers, and from energy- and eco-conscious homeowners installing their own solar.
One approach to opening up the market for competition is to demonize the utilities. That’s a favorite trope of the Left, which is hostile to corporate power and profits to begin with. Another approach is to give thought to how to realign the incentives for Dominion, Apco and the electric co-ops to do the kinds of things society wants them to do — generate more renewables, allow more competition, invest in energy efficiency, etc. — and to realign them in such a way as to not trigger massive write-offs for power plants made obsolete by the changes. Virginia can choose an ideological route or it can choose a pragmatic path forward.
Under any scenario, building and maintaining the electric transmission and distribution remains a “natural monopoly” and would be subject to continued regulation. But deciding how to restructure electricity generation will be really complicated. In an ideal world, all power generators would sell into PJM’s wholesale market and the winners would be bidders who offer the best combination of price and sustainability. But if the incumbent utilities lose market share and revenues, who pays for cleaning up the coal ash ponds of coal-burning power plants? Who eats the cost of write-offs from obsolete generating units? Who pays to keep aging coal- or nuclear-power plants in reserve for back-up power? What are the implications of Virginia joining the Global Greenhouse Gas Initiative?
We haven’t begun to answer these questions. Indeed, only a handful of people are even asking them. After the exhaustive debate over the Grid Transformation and Security Act this year, there may be little appetite for any such conversations. But allowing for an appropriate respite from the recently concluded General Assembly session, perhaps we should begin the discussion.