Editorial: Power options expand choice

Funny thing about markets: They tell you things. For instance, people who use electricity and people who make solar panels have been dropping some very heavy hints lately about solar energy.

As in: Hop to it.

Dominion Virginia Power has, proposing an eightfold increase in its solar facilities. It's a big change for a company often criticized for dragging its heels on renewable energy. But the new Dominion plan outlining this shift raises questions we believe need answering.

Some involve the way Dominion has so closely tied a controversial gas pipeline project to this initiative. Some involve its plans for continued expansion of its fast-growing holdings of natural-gas-fired power plants. Perhaps most of all, they involve the way a technology — solar panels — long seen as a way of easing the heavy hand of electric monopolies on our wallets and our energy policy could end up enhancing the company's control over Virginia energy choices.

Dominion's change in direction was sparked by a sharp drop in the cost of solar panels and by Virginians' requests that Dominion invest more in renewable energy.

Consumers have little choice about where they buy electricity. It's a monopoly, regulated by the State Corporation Commission, to ensure we're not overcharged and that Dominion has money to invest in the plants and wires that bring electricity to Virginians.

At stake is more than price. The primary responsibility we lay on Dominion is to be sure the lights stay on.

Even though Dominion's latest plan notes that the cost of solar facilities runs at $52 per megawatt-hour (roughly, the juice that 1,000 typical residential customers would use in a month) while workhorse natural-gas-fired generating units run between $70 and $88 and new nuclear plants at $149, cheaper isn't always the answer.

What do solar plants generate at midnight, after all?

That's why Dominion says it needs to build more gas-fired plants — and a controversial new pipeline across Virginia from the gas fields of West Virginia.

The question of how much backup electricity-generating capacity Virginia really needs is why environmental groups are skeptical about Dominion's intentions. It's the most important question about the new plan.

Below the surface is a still more basic question the ever-improving technology of solar power and other renewable resources pose: Who should control energy policy? Dominion? State regulators? You?

You can now, to some extent, if you want to put solar panels on your roof or a windmill in your backyard. If you do so, you enter into a new kind of relationship with Dominion —unless you don't use electricity at night or on windless days. That relationship says: I'll stay on the grid for when I need it and use my own power when I can. But physics says that if you stay on the grid, any electricity from your solar panel or windmill that you're not using has to flow into Dominion's system.

What's the fair way of handling that? How much should you be paid for your unused power? This has been a sore point for years for people and businesses preferring to manage their electricity use by generating some from the sun, wind or small hydroelectric facilities.

A Dominion solar farm preserves the current relationship between utility and customer — or, to be precise, between a monopoly and customers who don't really have a viable choice.

This is why we are always concerned when Dominion, one of the most generous donors to politicians' campaign funds, pushes for legislation to change the way the SCC looks at its operations. The company got a break two years ago with a rate freeze that only freezes part of your rate, which former Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli is challenging before the state Supreme Court and which state Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, struggled in vain to repeal earlier this year.

Let's take the signals Dominion has read about solar power — that people want it and that it's affordable — as a chance to reset energy policy.

Dominion's customers should pay the company a fair price for its electricity, and for the cost it incurs to ensure electricity is available even when the sun doesn't shine and the winds don't blow.

Virginia should also avoid penalizing people who wish to invest in loosening their dependence on what remains a monopoly.

Dominion's new plan opens the door for a fresh look at how best to do this.

We suggest that fresh approach should end the rate freeze, in order to get SCC rate reviews back on schedule and make sure the company isn't earning excess profits the Office of Attorney General says it has.

The new approach should redefine the relationship between the utility and those who invest in their own panels and windmills. It should retain SCC authority to say whether new gas plants are needed, and it should ensure that investment in the difficult technical task of managing intermittent solar power is covered by rates Dominion charges.

We challenge General Assembly candidates to say where they stand on these issues and urge you to vote for legislators who will take these steps when lawmakers convene next January.

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