Dominion Power criticized for “green” program

ominion Power’s “Green Power” program purports to give customers clean energy options, but opponents question the legitimacy of the program. The company’s Bremo Bluff plant—its nearest power source to Charlottesville—currently runs on coal, but is being converted to run on natural gas by 2014. (Photo courtesy Dominion Power)

Environmental activists are taking aim at Dominion Power, the electric provider that services nearly every Charlottesville resident, for what they say is a misleading program that offers customers clean energy options, but doesn’t tell the whole truth about its power sources.

The Chesapeake Climate Action Network —a nonprofit with a mission to combat climate change in the Mid-Atlantic—rallied Charlottesville supporters on UVA Grounds last week to campaign against what it calls Dominion’s “dirty power,” claiming the company’s “Green Power” program is green in name only.

Dominion’s Green Power customers pay extra each month to purchase renewable energy certificates, or RECs. According to Dominion, when one REC is purchased, one megawatt hour of renewable energy is added to the power grid. Customers can select Dominion’s 100 percent plan, which buys them RECs equal to their full electricity use, or they can select the block plan, which lets them buy bundles of RECs in $2 increments. Program costs vary per customer, but typically, enrolling in the 100 percent plan is a real financial commitment: Dominion says that customers using 1,000 kWh a month see a $13 increase in their monthly bills.

In 2007, Virginia’s General Assembly passed a Renewable Portfolio Standard that installed incentives to encourage renewable energy use. Dominion received a $76 million bonus for complying with the standard, but according to the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, the extra cash is undeserved. “It’s just a bonus that they get for meeting the order of the law, even though they’re not actually fulfilling the spirit of it,” said Beth Kemler, CCAN’s Virginia director.

“[Virginia’s legislators] envisioned wind turbines and solar panels and also the jobs that go with them popping up all over Virginia,” Kemler explained. “But the way that Dominion is actually fulfilling the goal is buying credits from other companies that are generating energy at old out-of-state facilities—hydrodams and wood-burning facilities, many of them built before World War II—rather than renewable wind and solar here in Virginia.”

CCAN emphasized that all renewable sources are not created equal—wind and solar are zero-emissions, whereas wood-burning plants emit greenhouse gases. But under Virginia’s current Renewable Portfolio Standard, Dominion will receive its “green” bonus whether it burns biomass or uses clean wind energy. And there’s little incentive for Dominion to expand renewable energy production within Virginia itself: The company can maximize its profits by buying energy from out-of-state companies instead of paying for new Virginia plants.

Dominion is standing behind its green program. “Our customers are not complaining,” said David Botkins, Dominion’s regional spokesman. “We have almost 15,000 enrolled.” Botkins said RECs are an effective way to “support the production and development of additional renewable energy in our region,” and he stressed Dominion’s commitment to “increasing renewable energy investments.”

Botkins highlighted Dominion’s stated intent to construct wind power generators in western Virginia.

But specifics of the company’s plan to roll out more zero-emissions energy sources are so far unclear. Dominion’s website explains that its wind power sites “are in the early development stages and, accordingly, project size, timing, and other details are not yet known.”

CCAN has also called into question the Green Power program’s financial model, which directs half of customer dollars to RECs and the other half to “support services” like customer service and customer education. The organization says Dominion is misleading eco-conscious customers by using their cash for administrative needs. But Botkins deems the model necessary since the program is “100 percent self-funded” and since customer education “helps build additional delivery of and demand for renewable energy.”

Moving forward, the Chesapeake Climate Action Network is lobbying the Virginia General Assembly to change the state’s incentive system, requiring Dominion to build solar or wind plants in order to qualify for state bonuses. “Dominion is just shuffling papers and not actually building anything in Virginia,” Kemler said. “People in Virginia want to see solar and wind plants here.”—Katy Nelson