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Technology companies push for more renewables in Virginia

Technology firms are buying more than half the solar-generated electricity produced in Virginia, and a state official expects the industry to drive increasing demand for clean energy resources.

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Virginia has 512 MW of operating solar capacity, according to S&P Global Market Intelligence data, with more than double that amount, 1,324 MW, including planned projects, under contract to parties such as corporate buyers, universities and utilities seeking to combat climate change. Microsoft Corp., Amazon Web Services Inc., and Facebook Inc. have collectively purchased 700 MW.

Stephen Moret, president and CEO of the Virginia Economic Development Partnership, which secured a deal for Amazon.com Inc.'s second national headquarters in Arlington County, Va., eyes exponential growth of renewable demand given capital investments from the tech sector.

Referring to past investments in data centers in Virginia by Amazon Web Services, Microsoft and Facebook, Moret said a convergence of state policy support and an increasing presence in the state from leading tech firms will drive growth in demand for renewables. "I think it is going to accelerate and be much, much bigger going forward," he said.

"I think it is probably fair to say that the major data center players have represented the biggest single private-sector catalyst for accelerating demand for renewable energy," Moret added. Outside data centers, Moret also expects job growth in the coming years from cloud computing, automation, software engineering and development, cybersecurity, machine learning, and technology equipment manufacturers.

Technology firms have sought wind and solar power to reduce the carbon footprint of their operations. On Dec. 3, for example, Amazon Web Services announced investments in two solar projects including an 80-MW project in Northern Virginia and 100-MW project in Lee County, Ill. AWS' goal is to use 100% renewable energy by 2030, with an interim goal of 80% by 2024. It previously contracted for 305 MW in Virginia from a combination of the Whitehorn Solar Project planned by Engie SA in Pittsylvania County and six projects in various locations owned by Dominion Energy Inc.

Microsoft has contracted for 315 MW of the 500-MW Spotsylvania Solar Energy Center developed by Sustainable Power Group LLC, or sPower, a joint venture of AES Corp. and Alberta Investment Management Corp. Another 165 MW of the Spotsylvania Solar Energy Center's Highlander Solar Energy Station 1 was purchased in 2018 under a collective power purchase agreement signed by four companies: Apple Inc., Akamai Technologies Inc., Etsy Inc. and Swiss Re AG.

Dominion challenged on claim biomass sources are 'renewable'

Clean energy advocates wonder if the state, dominated by Dominion's utility subsidiary Dominion Energy Virginia, known legally as Virginia Electric and Power Co., will provide the market structures that encourage businesses to purchase renewable energy voluntarily.

In a May 31 proposal, Dominion Energy Virginia proposed a rate plan called Rider TRG, or total renewable generation, for customers who voluntarily seek 100% renewable power (Virginia State Corporation Commission Case No. PUR-2019-00094). Under the tariff, Dominion would meet the participating customers' demand with renewable energy and capacity from a set of resources, some of which it owns and some of which it has under contract.

The initial portfolio includes Dominion's 624-MW Virginia City Hybrid Energy Center, a coal-fired facility that began operating 2012 and is designed to co-fire up to 10% of its fuel with wood wastes or biomass. Organic matter, or biomass, is considered renewable under state law but can produce carbon pollution when consumed. Three other biomass facilities are included in the portfolio.

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Thirteen large companies including Adobe Inc., Kaiser Permanente Inc., Marriott International Inc. and Target Corp. wrote to the corporation commission in November, questioning the makeup of the portfolio. "These biomass assets do not meet some organizations' needs around purchasing from sustainable energy sources that produce incremental carbon reductions," they said.

The companies also said the rider as currently proposed would "preclude customers from pursuing 100% renewable energy offerings from competitive service providers." State law lets individual retail customers buy from competitive suppliers if the incumbent utility serving its exclusive service territory does not offer an approved tariff.

Sierra Club Virginia chapter volunteer and lawyer Ivy Main expects a commission decision in the case in early 2020, she wrote in a Dec. 2 article published in the Virginia Mercury. Post-hearing briefs are due to the commission Dec. 20.