The Biggest Corporate Purchase of Solar Power in the U.S… Ever

Microsoft Corp. plans to buy about 60% of the energy production from a massive solar power project in Spotsylvania County to power its data centers in Virginia. The proposed 500-megawatt solar development, called Pleinmont, would include more than 750,000 solar panels on a 3,500-acre site, which, when completed, would be the fifth-largest solar site in the country.

“This is really important to Microsoft, and we think it is really important to Virginia for several reasons,” said Michelle Patron, director of sustainability for Microsoft. “This is going to be the largest corporate purchase of solar power ever in the United States. … We think this puts Virginia on the map for clean energy.”

The Pleinmont solar farm is being planned by Sustainable Power Group LLC, or sPower, which is a joint venture of Arlington-based AES Corp. and Canada-based investment fund AIMCo, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

The project still requires approval by the State Corporation Commission. The commission has scheduled a public hearing in May and is soliciting public comments.

Microsoft has said that it has met its target to power at least 50% of its data centers with clean energy by 2018, and the company wants to achieve 60% clean energy by early 2020, says the Times-Dispatch. In 2016 the company had agreed to buy power from a 20-megawatt solar farm in Fauquier County.

Bacon’s bottom line: In all the excitement over grid modernization and the rollback of the electric rate freeze in recent months, I totally missed this story. But if Virginia is on track to build the fifth-largest solar facility in the country, and if the deal represents the biggest corporate purchase of solar power ever in the U.S., that’s a big deal!

Previous reporting by the Times-Dispatch noted that Pleinmont would sell its electricity into the PJM interstate wholesale power market to companies that want to offset their electricity consumption with power produced by renewable sources of energy.

Does this deal cut Dominion Energy Virginia out of the picture as an electric power generator? Does this represent a new strategic direction for Microsoft and other data-center companies, which are driving the growth in electricity demand in Virginia? In other words, is Dominion’s electric power-generating monopoly being eroded? Five hundred megawatts is a lot of electricity — roughly half the capacity of a new, state-of-the-art natural gas-fired power plant.

Or will Dominion swoop in later, as it has in several other solar deals, acquire the Pleinmont property, and count it towards its commitment to build 5,000 megawatts of solar power, as codified in the recently passed Grid Modernization and Security Act?

One more question: What does this mean for natural gas demand in Virginia?Data centers consume electricity 24/7, but solar power generates power only 12 hours per day (with output varying by the time of year). Where will the electricity come from in off hours? Do deals like this bolster or obviate the need to build any new gas-fired plants?

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6 responses to “The Biggest Corporate Purchase of Solar Power in the U.S… Ever

  1. There is significant opposition to this project in Spotsylvania – where I live maybe 5 miles from the proposed site which basically is land left over after they clear cut the timber.

    You’d never know that listening to the opponents who claim that it will use enormous amounts of water (to clean the panels) which will dry up everyone’s wells.. then it will pollute the groundwater – from the soapy clean and rinse water from washing the panels. Beyond that is will “kill” songbirds and in general “devastate” the countryside…

    I hear some of this blather right here on BR also!

    As far as Dominion goes – they have spent the last decade doing everything they can to stifle solar rather than embrace it themselves and now there is real competition thanks to PJM… and laws that apparently allow 3rd party solar …

    Having lost that battle , they now are focusing on claiming the excess profits so they can decide how it should be spent… all of it, of course, good profits for their investors.

    I think when Dominion gets serious about 21st century technology for energy – as a profit center and restrains themselves from inane PR blather and corrupting the General Assembly – I might think better of them.. but right now watching these other projects go forward – is a little bit fund but also worrying because whatever happens to Dominion is going to affect us… also.

  2. This is nothing more than Microsoft striving for the “green” image it wishes to project in certain quarters. Microsoft doesn’t really want to diversify into the electric generation business; it just wants to say it is a big user of renewables power and setting a good corporate example.

    So what’s the simplest way to accomplish that ‘feel-good’ goal without getting into the management of a generating plant no-where near any other Microsoft facility in rural Spotsylvania County, Virginia? Why, develop the plant and then sell it to someone else to build and operate for you!

    The electricity is all going into the Grid anyway. There is nothing different about solar electricity from any other once it’s commingled on the Grid. All that buying and selling of electricity and solar renewable energy credits takes place as a series of paper transactions for the benefit of generators and customers — entities who can be remotely located from one another, so long as they are on the same Grid. And, the PJM Grid covers 13 states so it’s not hard to find somewhere within that region to locate a few data centers, and somewhere else within the same region to locate a few solar generating stations, and to find a local utility or independent generation owner to operate the solar plant. As to whether Microsoft builds but sells the plant subject to a contract to buy the solar renewable energy credits (RECs) associated with the plant’s solar power output; or retains ownership of the plant and the RECs for itself but hires Dominion or another manager to run the plant; or sells the wholesale electricity to PJM, and the RECs to Dominion on the side, as an offset to Microsoft’s consumption of retail electricity at its data centers in Dominion territory — those simply engender bookkeeping, ownership and taxation implications with many, many possible variations.

  3. We need a federal statute that prevents trading in renewable energy credits unless the buyer and seller actually uses this much electric power for the covered period. Allowing Wall Street and hedge funds to become involved in energy trading will simply hike the price of green power and screw the average consumer and small business.

  4. I support the development of more solar in Virginia. It is the cleanest and cheapest source of new generation in Virginia, other than a good energy efficiency project.

    It would be surprising if Dominion doesn’t find a way to own this. The 2% bonus return for solar (for 10 years or more) on top of the standard 10.7% would be hard to pass up. They might wait for the investment fund (AIMCo) to get its tax credit, then purchase it to have a higher priced asset in the rate base and earn more profit.

    Dominion has developed three different solar tariffs. I believe one might have been developed for Microsoft. But a different one could be created specifically for this project.

    This facility is being developed just like any other central station power plant, and will require an expensive transmission connection. That will be a source of long-term profit for Dominion.

    We are far behind in solar development compared to other states that have moderately high amounts of sunshine. North Carolina has the second most installed solar behind California, but it is starting to slow down now that its state solar tax credit has expired.

    Despite its title, the recent energy bill did not really set the stage for a modern energy system. There was little description of how to integrate solar development. The main action was to say that 5000 MW of new solar was “in the public interest” and cede control of most of it to Dominion.

    This will greatly add to our energy costs. The profit percentage that Dominion would add by putting solar facilities in the rate base could cost ratepayers more than two times the investment in the project.

    There is a place for utility-scale solar, but developing solar primarily in this way misses out on many of its benefits. Widely distributed, smaller units reduce susceptibility to local weather events, increase grid reliability and resiliency, and can reduce customer costs.

    The path selected by the GA provides maximum profits to utilities and higher costs to ratepayers.

    As Acbar has pointed out, there are a wide variety of ways to encourage solar development. They all deserve fair evaluation in the discussion of our energy future.

    PJM is on record saying Dominion’s load growth over the next 15 years will be flat. This includes the addition of new data centers. Dominion says about 3500 MW of new demand will be added by the data centers. But the data centers want to be served by renewable energy.

    I don’t see any proven need for the 1600 MW combined cycle plant proposed for 2025. One new gas-fired plant in Virginia has already been scratched since the pipeline was announced. If Dominion is allowed to spend hundreds of millions on energy efficiency, they will have to save some energy. With current and growing surplus of generation in PJM, it will be hard to justify any new large gas-fired plants, especially when the price of gas begins to rise.

  5. I agree with Acbar – these big companies like Amazon and Microsoft want green “cred” and this is how they do it. They buy enough solar to offset their total use… even if at some point at night or cloudy days they end up using conventional fossil fuel grid power.

    but I’m confused over what Tom seems to say that somehow Dominion is benefiting from Microsoft (and others) purchasing 3rd party solar…

    finally – at the end of the day – no matter what happens to solar – at some point solar is not “available” and someone has to deliver power – that undoubtedly is going to come from fossil fuels. I don’t see any way around that and despite a lot of talk about “storage” – we are not there yet. When we get there – you will see virtually every island on the planet switch over from diesel generators to solar+storage systems. Until then… we need to admit that someone has to operate gas plants to cover the times when solar is not “available”.

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