Renewable Energy Outlook in Virginia Still Sunny

Sunny days ahead for renewable energy in Virginia.

Despite political developments in Washington, D.C., it looks like sunny days ahead for renewable energy in Virginia.

Progress toward an electric grid powered by renewable energy has been frustratingly slow to many Virginians. There have been two main obstacles to ramping up production of wind and solar power in the Old Dominion: cost and reliability.

Wind still has high hurdles in Virginia. There is a limited number of on-shore locations suitable for wind turbines, usually atop scenic mountain ridges, and projects run into stiff opposition from local residents. Meanwhile, the massive expense and risk associated with jump-starting an East Coast offshore wind industry looks insurmountable.

But solar is a different story. The cost per kilowatt continues to decline, making solar increasingly competitive with natural gas. Meanwhile, entrepreneurs are devising an array of strategies for coping with solar’s biggest drawback: the fact that utilities can’t turn it on and off in response to changes in electricity demand.

With the goal of advancing wind and solar, many states have embraced Renewable Portfolio Standards that mandate targets and timetables. Virginia’s goal of achieving 15% renewable production by 2025 is voluntary, however. Therefore clean power advocates have counted on the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan to promote clean energy indirectly by compelling power companies to reduce CO2 emissions.

Politically, that approach didn’t work out well. The election of climate-warming skeptic Donald Trump as president and his appointment of Scott Pruitt, a Clean Power Plan foe, as the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, suggests that the Clean Power Plan will be drastically weakened, if not killed outright.

But that doesn’t mean renewables are dead in Virginia. Market forces are shifting dramatically in favor of clean energy. Instead of pushing government-driven mandates, clean power advocates need to back entrepreneurial, market-driven solutions. Here are some examples of energy innovation here in the Old Dominion that make solar an increasingly attractive proposition.

AES Energy Storage. Arlington-based AES Energy Storage is building a global enterprise selling industrial-scale batteries to make the electric grid cleaner and more reliable. The low-hanging fruit is using batteries for “frequency regulation,” fine-tuning the frequency on the electric grid, but AES also is using batteries to offset the intermittent output of solar panels.

Dominion Voltage Inc. Richmond-based Dominion Voltage Inc., a non-regulated subsidiary of Dominion Resources, has developed a Conservation Voltage Reduction product that works in conjunction with smart meters to reduce voltage and conserve energy — up to 4% may be achievable — and provide the flexibility required to integrate solar into local distribution circuits serving homes and businesses. The company claims that it can boost the capacity to accommodate solar on distribution systems from 20% to 80%.

Opower. Arlington-based Opower, purchased earlier this year by software giant Oracle for $532 million, sells data services that track energy-usage trends over tens of millions of homes. More recently, the company has developed services that help utilities engage with electricity consumers — notifying them by text, for instance, if their energy usage is spiking — in order to better manage the electric load.

Tesla Motors. The Department of Motor Vehicles ruling that allows Tesla to set up a retail operation in Richmond represents more than a victory for competition in the automobile retailing sector — it will bring Tesla’s broader strategy to transform the electric grid to Virginia. Batteries in electric vehicles represent a potentially massive source of energy storage that can be turned on and off at will (at least when the cars aren’t driving). Tesla CEO Elon Musk’s grand plan is to EVs with solar panels to make rooftop solar a more economically viable proposition than it is today. Continue reading

Conservation Voltage Reduction: Dominion’s “Fifth Fuel”

Todd Headlee, director of Dominion Voltage Inc., shows off the in-house electric circuit the company uses to model upgrades to its conservation voltage reduction system.

Todd Headlee, director of Dominion Voltage Inc., shows off the in-house electric circuit the company uses to model upgrades to its conservation voltage reduction system.

  • Dominion Voltage Inc.’s Conservation Voltage Reduction (CVR) system has the potential to cut U.S. electricity consumption 2-4% for relatively little cost.
  • The EDGE technology eases integration of small-scale solar and wind energy sources into the electric distribution network.
  • Dominion expects the market for EDGE to take off as electric utilities invest heavily in grid modernization over the next decade.

Nine years ago the Commonwealth of Virginia produced a state energy plan that included among its objectives the cutting of electricity usage by 10% over ten years. That directive landed on the desk of Phil Powell, planning director for Dominion Virginia Power, Virginia’s largest electric utility.

After surveying a host of energy efficiency strategies, Powell focused on one called Conservation Voltage Reduction (CVR). The idea behind CVR is to save energy by reducing the voltage on electric lines.

Electric companies must maintain their tap lines between 114 volts and 126 volts. Keeping within the low side of that range saves electricity, but power companies err on the side of caution. Voltage varies by distance from the sub-station and local fluctuations in the electric load; dropping below 114 volts can cause damage to machines, appliances and other devices. If it were possible to measure voltage on the grid with greater precision, Powell knew, Dominion could eke out a meaningful reduction in electricity consumption.

Electric companies had experimented with conservation voltage reduction, but they relied upon guesswork that made them reluctant to reduce voltage aggressively. As it happened, Powell also was involved in a Dominion pilot project to deploy smart meters that could provide the very voltage information he needed. “I was looking at CVR and smart meters at the same time,” he says, “and I began thinking about how to use them together.”

Powell assembled an ad hoc group to noodle the problem. Working on their own time, they tested their solution on an electric circuit where all the houses were equipped with smart meters. One of those houses, not entirely coincidentally, was Powell’s. From his home, he monitored the neighborhood voltage as people turned their HVAC, lights, TVs, dishwashers and dryers on and off. The technology worked like a charm. Not only did it conserve electricity, but Powell discovered that the system could give a heads-up when customers encountered voltage-related issues. The company could dispatch a crew to fix the problem almost before customers knew they had it.

Powell’s tinkering formed the basis of supervisory control and data acquisition product, EDGE, which Dominion hopes will help propel the electric grid into the 21st century. The company sees two vital applications. First, EDGE has the potential to shave electricity consumption by 2% to 4% globally if deployed across utilities’ entire service territories — equivalent to the output of dozens of utility-scale power plants. “This is a great environmental service to the world,” says Todd Headlee, executive director at Dominion Voltage Inc. (DVI), the non-regulated enterprise created to commercialize the product.

Second, the technology makes it easier to integrate rooftop solar into the distribution grid on a large scale. As a rule of thumb, a local distribution circuit cannot accommodate more than 20% solar capacity, due to rapidly changes in output, Headlee says. “With our product, we hope a circuit can get up to 80% capacity,”

DVI is doing business in Hawaii, California and other states where there are energy efficiency mandates and solar power is taking off.  The company also is pursuing business in Canada, Europe and Asia. where many of its patents have been approved.

Major regulatory barriers exist in many states, but the potential energy savings are so massive that Headlee is confident that conservation voltage reduction will take off. “Ten years from now,” he predicts, “every utility will be doing CVR, either with our technology or a competitor’ because the benefits are too big to ignore.” Continue reading

Forget Globalization. Worry about Automation.

Automation is taking more American jobs than Mexicans are.

Automation is destroying more American jobs than Mexicans are.

Watcha gonna do… watcha gonna do… whatcha gonna do when robots come for you?

Robots aren’t science fiction. You need to start thinking about them — and so does Virginia’s political establishment.

The 2015 Oxford automation study, “The Future of Employment: How Susceptible Are Jobs to Computerisation,” concluded that 47% of all U.S. jobs in 702 occupations are at “high risk” of decimation by automation. If it’s any consolation, an Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) study found that a mere 9% of jobs are at risk. But don’t get complacent. A 2016 McKinsey study predicts that 60% of all U.S. occupations could see 30% or more of their work activities automated.

Using the same methodology as the Oxford study, Dr. James V. Koch, an Old Dominion University economist, calculates that nearly 1.9 million jobs are at risk in Virginia — about 51% of all jobs, four percentage points higher than the national average.

Seeking refuge in a college education will not necessarily save your job from robots or artificial intelligence. A hair stylist in Harrisonburg stands better chance of surviving the job carnage wrought by our robot overlords than, say, a tax preparer in Danville.

The deciding factor, says Koch in an essay in the “2016 State of the Commonwealth Report,” sponsored by the Virginia Chamber Foundation, “is the extent to which jobs require creative and and social intelligence and the ability to manipulate as opposed to being dominated by repetitive, routine tasks capable of being learned by machines fueled by artificial intelligence.”

So, in the immortal words of 19th-century Russian revolutionary Nikolai Chernyshevsky, “What is to be done?”

Writes Koch:

Wise public policies in this arena should focus on “riding the wave” of technological change rather than encouraging resistance movements that are destined to prove futile. Astutely constructed public-private partnerships between governments and firms have the potential to develop programs designed to compensate and redirect job losers, who in many cases are relatively innocent victims of dynamic economic forces beyond their control.

Koch, a former Old Dominion University president, argues the state should work to increase the skills, flexibility and mobility of the workforce. By skills, he means proficiencies that count in the marketplace. “This is not the same thing as generating massive numbers of additional bachelor’s degree holders, or STEM-degree holders,” he says. “There is relatively little rigorous economic evidence available that a significant shortage of job candidates exists in STEM-related occupations.”

By flexibility, Koch means “suppleness in thinking and approach” — critical thinking. And by mobility, “wise public policy will reduce barriers that discourage people from moving geographically and/or telecommuting to jobs that may be located thousands of miles away.”

What the empirical evidence tells us, says Koch, “is that the current range of public policies is insufficient to deal with the occupational ferment that Frey and Osborne (the authors of the Oxford study) have identified. We are forewarned.”

CTB Approves $4 Billion Interstate 64 Project

CTB approves $4 billion project to benefit Interstate 64, Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel

The CTB approved Option A, one of four options, to relieve chronic congestion on Interstate 64 and the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel.

Wow! The Commonwealth Transportation Board  approved yesterday a $4 billion plan to expand the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel and widen twelve miles of Interstate 64 from four lanes to six. Said Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne after the vote: “Historic day for Hampton Roads and the state.”

The Virginian-Pilot provides these details:

The additional lane capacity in each direction would likely be high-occupancy toll lanes, which would require that a car carry three people to avoid a toll during peak hours. Vehicles with one or two people could choose to pay a variable toll based on congestion during peak hours. The Commonwealth Transportation Board will be able to weigh in later on the “managed lane” concept.

Buses would use the new lanes, too.

The existing lanes will remain free.

Funding will come from tolls and bonds, regional gas tax revenue, and federal loans.

Bacon’s bottom line: Northern Virginians have had to learn to live with HOT lanes, and now Hampton Roadsters will, too. Nobody likes paying the tolls, but the money to widen highways and build the tunnel has to come from somewhere.

Should Hampton Roadsters (or Virginians) pay higher gasoline taxes to improvements on Interstate 64? Nobody likes gasoline taxes either — especially if they’re not the ones benefiting from the project.

Should VDOT toll the new tunnel and its companion tunnels in order to lower the tolls? That, too, is a non-starter. No one likes paying a toll where they weren’t paying one before.

How about tolling just the new tunnel? That’s the plan! No one loses. If traffic is logjammed and you desperately need to get to the other side of the river, you can pay a toll (which will vary, depending upon demand) for an expedited trip. But you don’t have to pay the toll if you don’t want to. You can join the schlubs in the slow lanes, and you’re no worse off than before.

If you carpool or ride a bus, you’re better off. You can use the HOT lane for free, and you don’t wait in the schlub lanes.

Even if you’re a schlub, you’re probably better off. The slow lanes will be less congested than they would have been without the project. The HOT lanes will divert toll payers, carpoolers and buses who would have been clogging the slow lanes with you.

I haven’t seen how the deal or financing is structured, so I can’t comment on the soundness of the Interstate 64 plan. But construction of a HOT lane is both morally and politically defensible.

Food Pantries, the Latest College Craze

An increasing number of college food pantries in Virginia provide emergency rations to hungry students. Photo credit: VCU's Rampa

An increasing number of college food pantries in Virginia provide emergency rations to hungry students. Photo credit: VCU’s Rampantry

There’s a new wrinkle on the college affordability crisis. Some students are so strapped for cash that colleges are setting up food pantries. As CNN reports, membership in the College and University Food Bank Alliance has quadrupled in the past two years to 398 members.

“Even if you don’t hear about hunger being a problem, there’s probably a population on campus in need,” said Megan Breitenbach, a student who volunteers at the pantry at Montclair State in New Jersey.

Food Bank Alliance members include these Virginia institutions:

Virginia Commonwealth University. The mission of Ram Pantry is to “to provide VCU students with healthy, culturally appropriate, emergency food.” Due to limited resources, the website says, the pantry can no longer service VCU faculty and staff!

Virginia Tech. Tech won reknown for its No. 1 ranking in the “best food” category of “The Princeton Review’s” 2015 best colleges review. But in December 2015, according to the Roanoke Times, the food pantry was serving 50 to 75 students per week.

Old Dominion University. ODU launched Ignite Pantry in October.

Northern Virginia Community College and Eastern Shore Community College also operate food pantries.

Bacon’s bottom line: In their never-ending quest to recruit more elite student bodies, Virginia colleges and universities are placing more emphasis on the kind of food that kids from affluent families are accustomed to. Virginia Tech is a case in point. As I blogged last month when discussing the rising cost of food services at the University of Virginia:

Upgrading from the crappy cafeteria food I ate back in the 1970s to trendy, locally sourced food is expensive, and the lower-income and middle-class students whose families live on McDonalds or Olive Garden budgets are hard-pressed to pay for it.

Little did I realize that the situation was so bad that colleges and universities were setting up food pantries!

With every passing day, it seems increasingly evident that colleges and universities in Virginia (and across the nation) are engines of exploitation, running up the cost of attendance (tuition, fees, room, board), encouraging indebtedness, and sending their graduates into the workforce deeply in hoc — all to acquire the resources to boost institutional prestige in a never-ending race with other institutions doing the same thing. Starving students are the latest symptom of a system that is terribly broken.

Note to Readers

electrocution_hairGood news! We think we have restored the Bacon’s Rebellion blog to full functionality. Things should be working more smoothly now. However, we’re still suffering after-effects of the Denial of Service attack and our efforts (far more complicated than we anticipated) to migrate the blog to a faster, more secure platform.

What’s in it for you?

Subscriptions. Bacon’s Rebellion offers three ways for you to stay in touch: (1) Subscribe to our RSS feed; (2) subscribe to our email notification; and (3) NEW!! subscribe to our Twitter feed. Pick the options that work best for you.

We may have lost some email subscriptions in the migration from one platform to another, however. If you do not receive your email updates, please let me know, and I’ll try to get it straightened out.

Comment registrations. Readers have been bedeviled by difficulties when signing in to make comments. We think we’ve fixed that problem, but readers may have to reset their passwords one more time. If you have any trouble, contact me at jabacon[at]baconsrebellion.com, and I’ll generate a new password for you.

Thanks, JP. Thanks again to JP Barringer with (Barrel Strength) Design for helping me through this laborious process. He spent way more time on this project than he ever bargained for. I never could have done it alone.

Dominion Tweaks Coal-Ash Dewatering Process

Coal ash pond at Possum Point Power Station.

Coal ash pond at Possum Point. Photo credit: Prince William Times and Potomac Riverkeepers Network.

Dominion Virginia Power has temporarily shut down the $35 million water treatment facility at its Possum Point Power Station as it adjusts the process of cleaning water from its coal ash ponds,

Levels of selenium, a chemical element that can be toxic at high levels, rose above a “trigger” point specified in agreement between Dominion and Prince William County, reported the Prince William Times. However, Dominion was never in violation of its water quality permit, which requires the company to test treated water for selenium and a dozen other coal-ash contaminants.

Dominion officials attribute the pause in de-watering the coal ash ponds to “lessons learned” from operational challenges at Possum Point. Changes detailed in a revised engineering report, which must be approved by state and county officials, should result in discharges of selenium and zinc even lower than called for in the water permit. Also, the water-treatment facility should operate more efficiently.

“We decided to stop, redesign and update,” Jason Williams, environmental manager, told Bacon’s Rebellion. The company plans to switch from a geotube technology to clarifiers and settling tanks like the system in operation at the Bremo Power Station, he said. Also, by adding two more water-holding tanks like at Bremo, there will be less stop-and-go in the water discharge. “It will be much more efficient than firing up the system, waiting for test data, and discharging.”

Dewatering should resume early next year, pending regulatory approvals.

Suburbs Not So Simple

Virginia suburbs have diverse patterns of development.

Virginia suburbs broken down by percentage of population in each suburban type.

A difficulty in analyzing the economic dynamics of the “suburbs” is that land use and development is far from uniform. Recognizing that the term encompasses a wide range of human settlement patterns, the authors of “Housing in the Evolving American Suburb” broke down suburbs into five major types.

Established high-end. These have high home values and established development patterns. They tend to be built at higher densities and located closer to the metropolitan core. Residents resist new growth.

Stable middle-income. These neighborhoods tend to be older and located closer to the urban core. They exhibit a wide range of home values.

Economically challenged. These locations have lower home values and have seen little to no population growth in recent years. They may have aging infrastructure or under-performing services.

Greenfield lifestyle. These are newer, developed within the past ten to 15 years, and closer to the suburban fringe, where the bulk of new community development is occurring. They tend to have some land still available for new development.

Greenfield value. These, too, are located at or close to the suburban fringe, attracting value-oriented home buyers. Developing over the past ten to 15 years, they often reflect a “drive until you qualify” pattern.

The distribution of population between suburban types is similar in Richmond and Hampton Roads, as seen in the table above. But the sprawling, faster-growing Washington region is distinguished by a significantly higher “greenfield value” population. The drive-until-you-qualify phenomenon is in strong in Washington’s Northern Virginia suburbs, impelled by development restrictions and high housing prices in the core jurisdictions.

Bacon’s bottom line: I suppose this taxonomy is marginally interesting, but I don’t see how it guides either homeowners or county governance. The same study examines home buyer preferences (see previous post). How do these suburban types match against those preferences? The study doesn’t say. How does the trajectory of housing values match against those preferences? It doesn’t say. How should county officials alter their comprehensive plans to better align housing/community types with market demand? Again, not much to say.

What Home Buyers Are Looking For

Home buyers still favor housing attributes that favor the suburbs

Source: “Housing in the Evolving American Suburb.” Home buyers still show strongest preference for housing attributes associated with suburban living.

For all the talk of urban renaissance in cities across Virginia and the United States, first-time home buyers find that new or existing suburban homes offer the best match for their preferences and budget, reports the Urban Land Institute (ULI) in a new study, “Housing in the Evolving American Suburb.”

While American’s urban cores are experiencing investment and population growth after decades of disinvestment and flight, the action is still in the suburbs because that’s where most of the developed land is. And, while members of the Millennial generation may value walkability and access to public transit more than previous generations, they still put the highest value on square footage, larger lots, and access to good schools and public services.

Nevertheless, there is likely a deficit of walkable urbanism compared to the demand for it, and that scarcity creates a premium for houses in walkable neighborhoods, the study argues.

In the coming years, efforts will likely continue to make at least some suburban areas more urban, with walkability to restaurants, stores, and other conveniences, combined where possible with access to good transit. Some of that development will be close to existing urban areas, and some will be close to existing or newly built mixed-use modes that include restaurants and stores. Some of the suburban development will deliver a more urban experience for a wider range of households. … Many large master-planned communities are including urban town centers as a component of their development.

Bacon’s bottom line: So, the race is on in metropolitan regions like Richmond. Who can move faster to attract affluent households that pay the most in taxes and enjoy the greatest ability to live where they want — the City of Richmond or the suburban counties? The city has the walkable neighborhoods, proximity to cultural amenities, and access to mass transit. But the counties have larger lots and houses, lower taxes, and access to better public schools.

Both cities and counties in Virginia have the potential to offer the best of both worlds. The City of Richmond could gain an enormous competitive advantage if it could improve the quality of its public schools. Sadly, that seems to be an intractable task. Conversely, Henrico and Chesterfield Counties could gain a competitive advantage by zoning for walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods. Although the counties have allowed islands of walkable urbanism to take root, the pace of change is glacially slow.

Both urban and suburban jurisdictions face institutional rigidities that prevent them from achieving maximum potential in the early 21st century. What a shame.

Wild Life in the New Dominion

new_dominion2

Forget the bears, bobcats and coyotes. Camera traps near Virginia’s Mountain Lake Biological Station, manned by Virginia Tech researchers, have captured photographs of a strange hominid species. So reports Motherboard.