City’s pursuit of clean energy sets ambitious goals, raises some questions

Volunteers place one of the solar panels on the roof of Eastern Mennonite School on Saturday, Oct. 10, 2020.

By Eric Gorton, contributor

While formally calling for a transition to 100% clean electricity in 15 years, the city council has placed Harrisonburg in the middle of an ongoing debate over how electric utilities can move away from power sources that burn gasses contributing to global warming. 

The resolution, which the city council adopted Nov. 10, directs the city to pursue reaching 100% clean renewable energy in the electricity sector by 2035 — and in all sectors, including transportation and heating and cooling, for all public and private uses, by 2050. It says shifting to a clean energy economy will allow Harrisonburg to address public health and social justice issues, support small business development and create a more livable and walkable city.

It comes on the heels of the city adopting its first Environmental Action Plan in January and the state’s passage of the Virginia Clean Economy Act this spring.

Outgoing three-term City Councilman Richard Baugh said he’s confident the goal is achievable, but exactly how it will happen is not clear.

“To me, you’re looking at an area here that has all sorts of things in flux,” he said in a telephone interview. “When I say I’m confident, it’s because that’s where I think the ship’s going to stay headed. There may be bumps in the road, but I just think we’re going to get more and more direction. It’s not going to be so much what can we do here locally to try to figure out what little thing we can do to move the needle a little bit, but how do we participate.”

Baugh said he is encouraged by the Clean Economy Act and by Joe Biden winning the presidential election. 

“Fortunately, we’re looking at a change,” he said, adding that Virginia had been at the bottom of lists of states taking action to address climate change before the Virginia General Assembly passed the Clean Economy Act in March.

“It was a struggle to get anyone in state government to acknowledge that any environmental problems existed,” Baugh said. “Now Virginia is being identified as a regional leader in moving forward.”

As for Biden’s victory, Baugh said he expects the federal government’s position on the environment to change to embrace efforts to address climate change. Biden has announced a slate of cabinet officials he dubbed his climate team to “address the existential threat of our time, climate change,” as NPR reported Friday.

While Baugh said he is optimistic about meeting the resolution’s goals, a group of local clean energy advocates has reservations. They are concerned electricity supplied by the city-owned Harrisonburg Electric Commission could even get “dirtier” as a result of the Virginia Clean Economy Act.

Tracking the energy sources

The HEC purchases its power from Dominion Energy, which is required under The Clean Economy Act to get all of its electricity from renewable sources by 2045. The city’s contract with Dominion runs until 2031 and requires that the city receive the same percentage of renewable energy that Dominion has on its grid. But that requirement might not be as clear-cut as it sounds, the advocates say.

“We follow this pretty close and we have struggled to answer the question, will the Harrisonburg grid really get the same percentage of renewable energy as the Dominion grid?” said Jeff Heie, who was a member of the Environmental Performance Standards Advisory Committee that helped draft the city’s Environmental Action Plan. Heie also is involved with a number of clean energy advocacy initiatives, including “50 by 25,” a group that would like to see Harrisonburg get to 50% renewable energy on the electric grid by 2025.

Their concern focuses on the process of renewable energy certificates, or RECs, and the fact that the HEC, along with 15 other municipal electric utilities in Virginia, is not governed by the State Corporation Commission.  

The certificates are accounting mechanisms for tracking renewable energy usage. One REC is created for every megawatt-hour of renewable electricity generated and sold to the wholesale market. RECs are tracked by an official REC tracking system. And by 2045, Dominion will have to show that it is generating all of its power from wind, solar or other renewable resources. Between now and then, the advocates say, it’s not clear how Dominion will assign RECs to HEC or other utilities to show that it is meeting the state law.

“The landscape is changing, and my guess is that now, while Dominion doesn’t have any accountability to anybody for how it assigns its renewable energy credits, eventually that’s going to change and HEC might find itself …  Dominion might want to change the amount of renewable energy credits it assigns HEC,” said Joy Loving, another leader of the “50 by 25” initiative.

Heie said another question is what could happen if HEC ends up contracting with a different power supplier after 2031. Because HEC, as a municipally-owned utility, is not regulated by the State Corporation Commission, it could contract with a company outside Virginia that also would not be required to abide by the Virginia Clean Economy Act, but it could also find a company or organization that heavily relies on renewable energy sources. Front Royal, he said, buys its power from American Municipal Power in Ohio.

“I think a lot of people in Virginia don’t know that it is possible to get energy from someone other than Appalachian Power or Dominion,” he said. “I’d like to see HEC shop around for the best deal, for a company that has environmental sustainability goals. In order for HEC to fulfill its mandate of being orderly, economic and businesslike, they should be shopping around for their electricity. They shouldn’t just assume that Dominion is going to continue to be their provider.”

Future talks with Dominion 

Brian O’Dell, general manager of HEC, said there could be some changes in the way Dominion credits RECs to Harrisonburg, but he said he doesn’t think that will affect how quickly the city grid could achieve 100% renewable energy.

“This will be a topic of discussion with Dominion in the coming months,” he said.

O’Dell estimates the city gets about 6% of its electricity from renewable resources, including .26% from solar panels installed by residents, businesses and organizations in the city; another .26% from the Kerr-Philpott hydro projects; and 5.6% from Dominion. Additionally, 46.2% comes from nuclear plants.

“I would say it’s fair to add that to our renewables to say that a total of 52.3% comes from carbon-free sources,” he said. “As Dominion continues with their aggressive installation of solar and wind per the Virginia Clean Economy Act, our share of that will increase as well.”

Additional direction from the city?

Another sticking point for the advocates is the lack of city policy directing HEC to pursue renewable energy.

“There is nothing in writing. There’s nothing in the city code related to HEC where the city is giving signals to HEC that they need to pursue these goals,” Heie said. “This resolution, as much as I hate to say it, really felt like appeasement to the environmental crowd like us.”

O’Dell said HEC “will be looking for some clarification from the city regarding the sectors and their specific intent” listed in the resolution.

Addressing the lack of specific actions and deadlines in the city’s Environmental Action Plan, Baugh said he understands where some activists might not be fully satisfied.  

“If you are looking for firm things getting done by firm deadlines, there’s maybe things not to like about the” plan, he said. “But I swear it’s in the top five in the state of most forward looking thinking things anybody’s done.”

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