The Virginia Statehouse in Richmond. Credit: Elizabeth McGowan / Energy News Network

Independent energy suppliers would be allowed to compete head-to-head with monopoly utilities under the proposals.

If state legislators act on the next iteration of either of two bills, Virginians would be allowed to buy 100% renewable energy from competitive service suppliers — no matter what programs their utilities offer.

The catch is that lawmakers have less than three weeks to act before the General Assembly session ends in early March.

Unlike their neighbors in Washington, D.C., and Maryland, Virginians can now only buy clean energy from a competitor if their utility doesn’t offer its own 100% green energy plan. Legislation being floated would let residential, commercial and industrial customers shop for renewables whether or not their utility makes available what are referred to as green tariffs.

That tweak would overturn current Virginia law that protects monopoly utilities from having to compete in their territories with an improved or less expensive product. Very big electricity customers are excepted.

Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power have long pursued internal renewable energy tariffs so as to box out independent energy suppliers.

But the journey to fully approved green tariff offerings has been a herky-jerky one for both investor-owned utilities.

Ceres is a Boston-based nonprofit that collaborates with investors and companies on a range of sustainability issues. One is a lengthy campaign in Virginia to push utilities to boost their renewable energy offerings for businesses.

“This is about more choices in the marketplace,” said Alli Gold Roberts, the nonprofit’s director of state policy. “Virginians would be able to voluntarily access renewables.”

Earlier this month, the House of Delegates passed two similar measures, HB 868 and HB 889, pertaining to customer rights to shop for energy. Del. Jeff Bourne, a Democrat representing the Richmond region, introduced HB 868. Del. Mike Mullin, a Democrat representing the Newport News region, introduced HB 889.

A Senate committee, however, opted not to advance either of the companion bills in its chamber, SB 376 and SB 379.

Ceres and other bill-trackers say they expect the full Senate to act on some version of one of the House bills.

“It will be a second bite at the apple for both of those two bills,” said senior attorney Will Cleveland of the Southern Environmental Law Center.

SELC, which has offices in Virginia, has repeatedly challenged the green tariff options that Dominion Energy has presented to utility regulators at the State Corporation Commission.

What Dominion is offering is neither clean enough nor competitively priced, Cleveland said.

“There is an ever-growing demand from customers for clean energy and right now that energy is only as green as what the utilities are providing,” he said.

“The ability to shop around is also an opportunity to lower your costs for electricity. Larger buyers are looking at Dominion’s retail rates and seeing that they are higher.”

Appalachian Power, part of the giant American Electric Power system, has a much smaller customer base in Virginia than Dominion does. The SCC approved Appalachian’s renewable energy tariff in January 2019 after rejecting a similar proposal in 2016. 

Last August, Appalachian rolled out what it’s calling Wind Water & Sunlight for its service area in southwestern Virginia, longtime coal country. The 341- megawatt program offers renewable energy from hydroelectric in Virginia and West Virginia, wind from West Virginia, Indiana and Illinois, and solar from Virginia, when it comes online.

About 200 of Appalachian’s 531,677 residential, commercial and industrial customers had signed up through December, said spokesperson Teresa Hamilton Hall. Enrollees pay a small premium per kilowatt-hour for the renewable energy option.

Dominion’s third try at a green tariff could be ruled on any day now. Regulators rejected the utility’s first proposal in 2018 and Dominion withdrew its second submittal last year.

Ceres has organized an effort among commercial and industrial customers urging the SCC to reject Dominion’s latest renewable energy tariff. Adobe, Kaiser Permanente, Marriott, Salesforce, Target and Unilever are among the 13 companies that spelled out how Dominion’s proposal falls short on curbing greenhouse gas emissions, delivers minimal value to customers and creates a roadblock by precluding customers from pursuing 100% renewable energy offerings from competitive service providers.

“Participation in utility renewable energy programs and renewable energy purchases in competitive markets are equally important tools to reach these goals,” they wrote in a Nov. 14 letter to the SCC, citing the companies’ carbon-shrinking targets. “Unfortunately,” the letter continued, Dominion’s plan “fails to meet the criteria we look for in utility programs.”

The companies criticized Dominion for relying too heavily on existing wood-burning biomass from stand-alone facilities and the biomass-fired portion of the output of an existing coal plant instead of investing in new renewable energy.

Also, they pointed out that redirecting the renewable energy credits from already-installed and legacy-operating assets delivers minimal value to customers, yet is priced at an automatic premium.

Customers who want renewable energy credits “can purchase equally impactful but lower-cost [ones] from other sources,” they wrote.

Gold Roberts, of Ceres, said action on clean energy thus far into the legislative session has been “incredibly exciting.”

“We know that there is a lot of appetite and interest to find solutions,” she said, “whether it’s with the SCC or the legislature or both.”

One of the House bills, HB 889, is broader than the other. It includes a provision to allow large customers — those that use at least 5 MW — to aggregate that demand from various sites so they could purchase renewable power from an independent provider. In addition, those large customers could give their power company three years notice, instead of the five required by current law — before returning to their utility. 

Independent suppliers were able to offer 100% renewable energy to large Virginia businesses on an interim basis while Dominion’s plan is under review.

For instance, since mid-September, Virginia businesses have committed to purchasing 200 MW of 100% clean power from Direct Energy Business, according to figures from the Houston-based retailer. But that’s just a tiny portion of the 2.5 million total customers Dominion serves in northern, central and southeastern Virginia.

Direct Energy, a competitive service provider, is backing the more expansive HB 889, also called the Clean Energy Choice Act, because it will help Virginia meet the state’s goal of 100% clean energy by 2050, said Ronald Cerniglia, director of corporate and regulatory affairs.

His company has supported similar measures since the 2018 legislative session. Advocates say the outlook is far less bleak this year after voters flipped both chambers to Democratic majorities last November.

D.C.-based CleanChoice Energy hasn’t marketed its options in Virginia yet because of the state’s restrictions on renewables. The company serves residential and commercial customers in the nation’s capital and eight states between Illinois and Massachusetts.

But Jennifer Spinosi, regulatory and policy vice president, said that approach could switch quickly if the General Assembly green-lights change.

“We offer a fast and easy way for customers to buy 100% renewable energy without having to put panels on their roof,” she said about her company’s regionally sourced renewable power. “Virginia could become a really competitive marketplace.”

Elizabeth is a longtime energy and environment reporter who has worked for InsideClimate News, Energy Intelligence and Crain Communications. Her groundbreaking dispatches for InsideClimate News from Kalamazoo, Michigan, “The Dilbit Disaster: Inside the Biggest Oil Spill You Never Heard Of” won a Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting in 2013. Her book, "Outpedaling 'The Big C': My Healing Cycle Across America" is available from Bancroft Press. Based in Washington, D.C., Elizabeth covers the state of Virginia.