The Battle for Virginia’s Corporate Renewables Market Heats Up
July 26, 2019

By Emma Foehringer Merchant

Tensions are escalating in Virginia between Dominion Energy, rival electricity suppliers and the state’s growing list of big corporations demanding renewable power.

Direct Energy and Calpine, two competitive service providers (CSPs) working in utility Dominion’s Virginia territory, alleged in separate motions filed Monday that Dominion has stopped processing their 100 percent renewable electricity enrollment requests for large customers in recent months. The two companies asked state regulators to swiftly intervene to restart enrollment.

Virginia allows competitive service providers to offer 100 percent renewables to large customers as long as the regulated utility does not provide that option itself, which Dominion currently does not.

The appeals from Calpine and Direct Energy come in response to Dominion’s petitions filed earlier this month, which ask the regulators to confirm that competitive service providers have adequate renewable supply to sign on new customers. The utility suggested that neither Calpine nor Direct Energy has that capacity.

Direct Energy told Greentech Media that Dominion’s comments have “no basis in fact or law.”

The battle for Data Center Alley

The tensions over which provider will serve large customers, many of them seeking ever-increasing percentages of renewable power, represent a particular problem in Virginia, where cheap electricity has remade part of the state as “Data Center Alley.”

The number of large companies looking for affordable and often renewable power in the state has put a squeeze on Dominion, which currently produces just 5.6 percent of its electricity in the state using renewables. The utility has also weathered criticism from large corporate customers claiming that its rising rates make power unaffordable.

In 2018, companies including eBay and Salesforce argued in a letter to the State Corporation Commission that Dominion’s proposed integrated resource plan wouldn’t provide the renewables that companies flocking to the area are demanding. Other companies including Apple and Adobe followed up with another letter this May. The SCC ended up rejecting the IRP and approving an updated version last month.

But the SCC has also rebuffed some attempts from corporations to leave Dominion behind. This year regulators rejected bids from both Walmart and Costco to drop Dominion and procure electricity separately, though they suggested the companies should escalate their fight to the legislature. Other companies including Target, Cox Communications and Kroger have also filed applications requesting an exit.

The most recent dust-up over CSPs comes soon after Dominion filed an application with regulators in late May for its own 100 percent renewables offering, which the utility is seeking to get approved within six months. Regulators rejected Dominion’s last attempt at such an option in May 2018.

Ron Cerniglia, Direct Energy’s director of corporate and regulatory affairs, called Dominion’s move to halt enrollments “an overreach and an arrogant attempt to block competition” while Dominion’s own request is processed.

“They’re essentially running the clock by delaying customers’ statutory ability to secure a 100 percent renewable product,” said Cerniglia. “We think Dominion is just putting forward these legal theories with the real purpose of delaying the inevitable, hoping competitive retailers will leave and trying to dissuade customers from switching to a competitive service provider.”

Dominion questions CSPs’ offerings

Dominion, however, told Greentech Media its petition aims “to ensure that all electric customers in Virginia are protected.”

“We think it’s important to ensure that customers who take part in these programs are in fact receiving 100 percent renewable energy,” said spokesperson Samantha Moore in an email.

Calpine did not respond to requests for comment, but in its motion filed with regulators, the company argued that “Dominion should not be allowed to unilaterally impose its own self-serving interpretation of the rules, and, in doing so, prevent customers from exercising their statutory right to choose a CSP for a 100 percent renewable product.”

Without help from the SCC, Calpine said its business in Virginia would “suffer irreparable harm.” Direct Energy said Dominion’s decision has halted over a thousand customer accounts either in the queue or likely to join it soon.

The SCC has given Dominion until July 31 to respond to the motions from Direct Energy and Calpine. Those companies will then have until August 6 to respond.

The commission declined to offer a timeline on when it might rule on the issue.