By Beth Kemler
Picture this. You tell your mechanic that your car needs a new steering wheel. The car runs OK but this critical piece of equipment is broken. In turn, the mechanic hems and haws — a brand new steering wheel might be challenging to find. So you offer him a bonus — you’ll pay triple his normal rate to find the wheel you want. You sign the contract with the bonus included and shake hands. A week later, you come back and pay your bill only to discover that, instead of installing a new steering wheel, he slapped a new coat of paint on your old one. Turns out the contract you signed said that any part with paint applied in the current year counts as “new.”
Virginians face a similar quandary when it comes to the state’s electric utilities and renewable energy.
Back in 2007, the General Assembly made a deal with Dominion Virginia Power and other electricity suppliers in the state. Lawmakers laid out a reward for bringing renewable energy online. While many states require their utilities to invest in wind and solar power, we told ours that we would offer them a bonus for meeting renewable energy goals. If the utilities invested in modest amounts of clean energy, they would get a profit reward through Virginians’ electricity rates. Meeting these goals would help to lower air pollution and reduce emissions of planet-heating gases, while creating good jobs for Virginians.
Last year, the companies were awarded prize money under the program. Between 2011 and 2013, Virginia ratepayers will hand over approximately $76 million to Dominion Virginia Power alone. But those investments in clean, renewable energy? Those new jobs? That cleaner air? Not happening.
The problem lies with the fine print in the contract Virginia legislators signed on our behalf — a law called the Renewable Portfolio Standard that lays out what utilities must do to earn these big bonuses. Hint: They don’t have to do much. Turns out Dominion can, with no sleight of hand, pocket a huge reward by taking credit for energy from power sources that would have been online anyway.
If no prize were offered, the trash-burning plant in Alexandria would still be generating power, as it has since 1987. If no prize were offered, Dominion’s dam in Thelma, N.C., would still be generating power, as it has since 1963. If no prize were offered, the company’s Cushaw dam would still be generating power, as it has since 1930.
But Dominion fills out some paperwork — the equivalent of the mechanic’s fresh coat of paint — and claims a big prize for what we already had. We’ve had the Cushaw dam for more than 80 years. It’s been churning out power since Herbert Hoover was president. When the dam began operating in January 1930, televisions were just being invented, as were masking tape and the Twinkie.
Is this the type of clean, modern technology our elected officials had in mind when they offered the reward? Not likely.
When our legislators created this law, shaking hands with Dominion on our behalf, I would guess that they envisioned wind farms and solar panels popping up all over the commonwealth — and the jobs that these new investments would create for Virginians. But since the devil is in the details, Dominion can meet the requirements of the law while doing nothing to actually earn the bonus. In fact, every single facility Dominion counted to get the bonus was built before the law was passed in 2007 — business as usual. Following the rules it helped to write, Dominion just pats itself on the back and heads for the bank and its shareholders — with our money.
This $76 million rip-off isn’t going unnoticed, and Virginians are beginning to protest. They bring a wholly reasonable request: Earn your bonus. Invest in Virginia-made clean wind and solar energy.
In January, the Virginia General Assembly can vote to stop the corporate handout for old and out-of-state energy. We need to fix this law to require only in-state renewable energy sources with key benchmarks for wind and solar power. It’s time Dominion and others actually earned their “green” bonuses.
Beth Kemler is the Virginia state director at the Chesapeake Climate Action Network.