Dominion Energy Struggles With Planning for a Clean Energy Future

by Duane Nichols on May 20, 2020

The goal is “zero carbon emissions” by 2050 ...

What part of ‘zero’ doesn’t Dominion understand?

From an Essay by Ivy Main, Virginia Mercury, May 14, 2020

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Dominion Energy Virginia filed its 2020 Integrated Resource Plan on May 1. Instead of charting the electric utility’s pathway to zero carbon emissions, it announced its intent to hang on to all its gas plants, and even add to the number. In doing so, it revealed a company so thoroughly wedded to fracked gas that it would rather flout Virginia law and risk its own future than do the hard work of transforming itself.

The Virginia Clean Economy Act (VCEA) may be new, but Dominion can hardly claim to be surprised by the commonwealth’s move away from fossil fuels. Gov. Ralph Northam’s executive order last September set a statewide target of zero carbon emissions from the electric sector by 2050. “Challenge accepted,” said a Dominion spokesman at the time, and in February of this year the company claimed it was embracing a 2050 net-zero-carbon goal company-wide. A month later, passage of the Clean Economy Act moved the deadline up to 2045 for Dominion, keeping it at 2050 for utilities that lack Dominion’s head start of 30 percent nuclear power.

Dominion’s IRP, however, does not accept the challenge to get off fossil fuels. It rejects the challenge, directing a giant middle finger at the governor and the General Assembly. Dominion’s “preferred” plan keeps the utility’s existing fracked gas generating plants — currently 40 percent of its electric generation — operating through 2045. The IRP acknowledges this violates the law, so it argues against the law.

The IRP posits that if Dominion stops burning gas in Virginia, it will instead simply buy electricity from out of state, some of which will be generated by gas, and this will cost more money without reducing carbon emissions at the regional level. Better, then, to keep burning gas in Virginia.

It gets worse. The IRP actually proposes increasing the number of gas combustion turbines in Dominion’s fleet. The VCEA imposes a two-year moratorium on new fossil fuel plants, so Dominion’s timetable has these gas peaker plants coming online in 2023 and 2024. The justification is vague; the IRP cites “probable” reliability problems related to adding a lot of solar, but it offers no analysis to back this up, much less any discussion of non-gas alternatives.

Dominion’s flat-out refusal to abandon gas by 2045 poisons the rest of the document. The IRP is supposed to show a utility’s plans over a 15-year period, in this case up to 2035. And for those years, the IRP includes the elements of the VCEA that make money for Dominion: the build-out of solar, offshore wind and energy storage projects. It also includes money-saving retirements of outmoded coal, oil and biomass plants, as the VCEA requires. Heck, it even includes plans to close a coal plant the VCEA would allow to stay open in spite of its poor economic outlook (the Clover plant, half-owned by Old Dominion Electric Cooperative.)

But the IRP proposes no energy efficiency measures beyond those mandated by the VCEA between now and 2025. Dominion hates energy efficiency; it reduces demand, which is bad for business. So the company has made no effort to think deeply about how energy efficiency and other demand-side measures can support a zero-carbon grid — or, for that matter, how customer-owned solar can be made a part of the solution, rather than part of the problem.

This isn’t surprising: a plan that contemplates keeping gas plants around indefinitely looks very different, even in the first 15 years, from a plan that closes them all within 10 years after that.

A company that really accepted the challenge of creating a zero-carbon energy supply would not just get creative in its own planning; it would look beyond generating and supplying electricity, at the larger universe of solutions. It would advocate for buildings constructed to need much less energy, including for heating and cooling, to lessen the seasonal peaks in energy demand.

It would want the state to embrace strong efficiency standards. It would press its corporate and institutional customers to upgrade their facilities and operations to save energy, especially at times of peak demand. It would partner with communities to create microgrids. It would invest in innovation.

In short, it would ask “How can we achieve our fossil-free goal?” instead of asking “How can we keep burning gas?”

It’s not hard to understand why Dominion clings to gas; its parent company is fighting desperately to keep the Atlantic Coast Pipeline project alive in the face of spiraling costs (now up to $8 billion), an increasingly uphill battle at the State Corporation Commission to stick utility ratepayers with the costs of a redundant gas supply contract and a dearth of other customers anywhere along the route.

What is really hard to understand, though, is why Dominion chose to be quite so transparent in its disdain for the VCEA. Senator Jennifer McClellan and Delegate Rip Sullivan, both Democrats, who introduced the law and negotiated its terms with Dominion lobbyists and other stakeholders through many long days and nights, reacted to the IRP with entirely predictable outrage. In a statement they responded:

“The VCEA requires Virginia utilities to step up to the plate and be active leaders in carbon reduction. Dominion Energy’s IRP is tantamount to quitting the game before the first pitch is thrown. The law sets clear benchmarks for Virginia to reach 100 percent clean energy by 2045, not for utilities to plan to import carbon-polluting energy from West Virginia or Kentucky.”

Senator McClellan, it might be pointed out, could be on her way to becoming Virginia’s next governor. Most companies would hesitate to offend a leader of her stature, as well as such a prominent Democratic leader as Delegate Sullivan.

But that’s Dominion for you. It will rise to any challenge, as long as the challenge doesn’t require anything the company didn’t already want to do.

>>> NOTE: Ivy Main is a lawyer and a longtime volunteer with the Sierra Club’s Virginia chapter. A former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency employee, she is currently the Sierra Club’s renewable energy chairperson. Her opinions are her own in this essay.

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Duane Nichols May 25, 2020 at 8:28 pm

Drax CCGT Project Wins First Court Battle in England

Article by Paul Homewood, Feedspot, May 23, 2020

The UK government’s approval of a large new gas-fired power plant has been ruled legal by the high court. A legal challenge was brought after ministers overruled climate change objections from planning authorities.

The plant, which is being developed by Drax in North Yorkshire, would be the biggest gas power station in Europe, and could account for 75% of the UK’s power sector emissions when fully operational, according to lawyers for ClientEarth, which brought the judicial review.

The planning inspectorate recommended that ministers refuse permission for the 3.6GW gas plant because it “would undermine the government’s commitment, as set out in the Climate Change Act 2008, to cut greenhouse emissions” by having “significant adverse effects”.

It was the first big project rejected by planners because of the climate crisis. However, Andrea Leadsom, who was secretary of state for business, energy and industrial strategy at the time of the planning application, rejected the advice and gave the go-ahead in October.

The government’s actions to tackle the climate emergency are under particular scrutiny at the moment as the UK will host a UN summit in early 2021. At the meeting, nations will need to dramatically increase their pledges to cut carbon emissions to avoid a disastrous 3-4C rise in global temperatures. For the summit to be successful, experts say, the host nation needs to take a leadership role at home.

Sam Hunter Jones, a lawyer at ClientEarth, said: “We’re very dissatisfied by today’s judgment, rejecting our arguments against the lawfulness of the government’s decision and of its approach to assessing the project’s carbon lock-in risk. We will consider an appeal.”

A Drax spokeswoman said: “Drax power station plays a vital role in the UK’s energy system, generating reliable, flexible electricity for millions of homes and businesses. The development of new high-efficiency gas power would support the UK’s decarbonising energy system.”

She said the company’s ambition was to remove, not add, carbon to the atmosphere by 2030. It would do this by burning wood or plants and then capturing and storing the emissions. The gas plant is capable of having carbon capture technology fitted in the future, the company says.

John Sauven, the head of Greenpeace UK, said: “Building new gas-fired power stations when the UK has a net zero carbon target is hardly showing climate leadership. It also makes little economic sense. The costs are already higher than for renewable options like wind and solar. Investing money to increase pollution may still be legal but it’s no longer defensible.”

ClientEarth argued that the combination of the project’s large scale, level of emissions and long operating life made it a significant threat to the UK’s carbon targets. The group has previously inflicted three defeats on ministers over their failure to tackle air pollution.

The planning inspectorate concluded that wind and solar power would cut energy bills for consumers, while the proposed gas plant would not. “Both [Drax] and [National Grid] confirmed that it is the production of renewable plants that will deliver cheaper energy,” it said.

This year there have been a series of legal actions against polluting infrastructure projects on climate grounds. Last week the Good Law Project launched a legal action over decade-old energy policies that it said the government was using to approve fossil fuel projects such as Drax’s gas plant, even after ministers had pledged to cut UK carbon emissions to net zero by 2050.

In April, Transport Action Network launched a legal challenge to try to prevent billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money being spent on a huge road-building programme, which it said breached the UK’s legal commitments to tackle the climate crisis and air pollution.

In February the court of appeal ruled that plans for a third runway at Heathrow airport were illegal because ministers did not adequately take into account the government’s climate commitments. This was the first major ruling in the world to be based on the 2015 Paris climate change agreement. Heathrow is seeking to overturn this decision in the supreme court.

A spokesperson for the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy said: “We welcome the high court’s ruling issued today which supports the secretary of state’s decision to grant consent for the Drax repowering project. We are going further and faster than any other major economy in taking action on climate change.

“As we transition to net zero emissions in 2050, natural gas can provide a reliable source of energy while our world class renewables sector continues to grow, supported by record levels of investment.”

It appears likely that this judgement will be appealed, and it was the Appeal Court which ruled against the Heathrow expansion.

It is noteworthy that Greenpeace’s John Sauven claims CCGT makes “little economic sense”, because wind and solar are already cheaper. But surely that is a decision for Drax to make?

What remains indisputable is that Britain’s power grid cannot operate without the back up of reliable sources of generation, such as CCGT. The dependability of our energy infrastructure is far too important to be put into the hands of unelected, activist judges.


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