Author Archives: James A. Bacon

Scrap the SOLs and Move On

Maybe it’s time for Virginia to scrap the Standards of Learning (SOL) tests.

The SOLs arose in the mid-1990s as a way to provide feedback to the community on how well local schools were performing. It was a worthy experiment. Despite massive increases in spending in preceding years, the quality of education in United States was widely seen as deficient. Backers hoped that transparency would provide teachers, principals, school boards, parents and citizens data they could use to work toward the betterment of their schools.

As with so many reforms enacted with the best intentions, this initiative has gone terribly awry. There is little evidence that SOLs improve anything. Indeed, insofar as the standardized exams encourage teachers to “teach to the test” — more on that in a bit — they may do actual harm.

In short order after their enactment, the SOLs morphed into a means to hold schools “accountable” for poor performance. Schools with low levels of academic achievement were highlighted in local media reports and shamed for failing their students. Newspapers published SOL data for schools within their circulation zones, and parents used the data to guide home purchasing decisions. As parents voted with their feet, affluent households displaced poor households in “good” school districts, and poor households gravitated by default to the “bad” schools. In sum, the tests arguably had the unintended effect of aggravating residential inequality and making it harder for poor schools to improve.

Comparing schools with one another was problematic anyway because educational achievement is strongly correlated with socioeconomic status, the mix of affluent and poor children varied widely by school, and average scores reflected socioeconomic status as much as the quality of the teachers and staff. The Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) possessed the data to adjust scores for socioeconomic status so as to not unfairly penalize low-income schools but, for reasons that remain obscure to me, the department stopped publishing it.

Meanwhile, many teachers, principals and school boards learned how to game the system to dress up scores and avoid the shaming. John Butcher, author of Cranky’s Blog, and I have chronicled numerous scandals around the state — the relaxed test standards, the teacher coaching, the classification of sub-performing students as disabled, and sometimes the outright cheating. Newspaper accounts tend to treat these phenomena as isolated instances that happen to occur in their back yard, but they are in fact commonplace.

Perhaps the most insidious gaming of the system involves teaching to the test. As has been explained to me, the SOLs do not test students’ comprehensive knowledge in a particular subject. Rather, they sample knowledge in sub-topics and assume that if a test-taker gets the answers right for those sub-topics, they will demonstrate the same mastery across the board. Over the years, teachers have learned, to pick an example, that the math SOL will address regular polygons but not irregular polygons, so they spend more time teaching regular polygons and perhaps even skip the irregular polygons. Thus, insofar as teachers teach to the test, meaning that they emphasize certain topics over others, SOLs actually may encourage educational malpractice.

As the emphasis has shifted to holding schools accountable for poor performance, VDOE began using SOL scores to declare schools accredited or unaccredited. (There are various flavors of being unaccredited, depending upon whether schools are deemed to be making progress.) While the state can declare a school “unaccredited,” under the state constitution, schools answer to their school boards. The state does negotiate “Memoranda of Understanding” with chronic laggards but, as Butcher has documented, MOUs consist of educratic mumbo jumbo and are useless in turning schools around. At the end of the day, and not for any lack of trying, accountability remains elusive.

Virginia has doggedly tried to make SOLs work for more than twenty years now. We have enough experience under our belts, I would argue, to draw some broad conclusions. SOLs are deficient as a means of measuring students’ academic achievement; if anything, the teaching-to-the-test phenomenon hurts students. SOLs are useless as a means for improving schools’ academic performance or holding administrators accountable for results; teachers and principals are endlessly creative at gaming the system. And, by influencing people of means to buy houses near “good” schools, SOLs arguably have become an unwitting driver of socioeconomic and racial segregation.

I’m not saying that things will miraculously improve if Virginia did away with the SOLs. They exist for a reason. But we must acknowledge that tweaking and nudging a broken system won’t work either. I don’t have any great suggestions for what we put in place of SOLs. I can say that reform should be bottom-up, not top-down, and it should encourage creativity and experimentation. Failed experiments should be shut down, and successes should be replicated. We cannot afford more business as usual.

Trump Nixes Clean Power Plan, Gas and Solar Still Rule

Natural gas turbine at Dominion’s Greensville power plant. President Trump might have ended the regulatory “war on coal,” but he can’t change fundamental economics, which still favor gas and solar.

President Trump has never hidden his dislike of his predecessor’s Clean Power Plan, which would have required the 50 states to order their electric utilities to curtail carbon dioxide emissions in the cause of combating global warming. Nine months into the Trump administration, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) chief Scott Pruitt finally has announced formal steps to repeal the plan. Reports the New York Times:

“The War on coal is over,” Mr. Pruitt said. “Tomorrow in Washington, D.C. I will be signing a proposed rule to roll back the Clean Power Plan.” …

Mr. Pruitt’s proposal for repeal will now have to go through a formal public-comment period before being finalized, a process that could take months. Mr. Pruitt will also ask the public for comment on what a replacement rule would look like, but the E.P.A. has not offered a timeline.

Admittedly, the regulatory battle is far from over. “Environmental groups and Democratic-controlled states are expected to challenge these rules on multiple fronts,” says the Times. Moreover, there is nothing to stop individual states from implementing tough CO2 standards on their own initiative. Indeed, here in Virginia, the McAuliffe administration has vowed to boost Virginia’s commitment to renewable energy.

But a rollback of the Clean Power Plan won’t change market fundamentals. Just as the natural gas fracking revolution led to natural gas displacing coal over the past decade, market forces will dictate that renewable energy assume an increasing role in the decade ahead — regardless of whether states set CO2 emission caps or not.

In its 2017 Integrated Resource Plan (IRP), Dominion Virginia Energy has laid out its vision for the energy future that calls for increased natural gas and renewable energy. Under its least-cost regulatory scenario, which looks increasingly likely, Dominion won’t build any new coal- or nuclear-powered plants. It will renew licenses for its existing nuclear units but will not build a third unit at its North Anna Power Station, which by some estimates would cost $18 billion or more. The utility will build new gas-powered plants to provide base-load capacity, supplemented by a mix of solar (up to 5,200 megawatts capacity) and gas-fired combustion turbines that can quickly ramp up and down in response to volatile solar output. (Since publication of the IRP, Dominion has demonstrated a keen interest in building a pumped storage facility in Southwest Virginia, which could eliminate the need for some natural gas combustion-turbine units, but the economics of such a scheme have not been fully explored.)

Meanwhile, environmental groups have been pushing aggressively for a future electric grid dominated by renewable electricity, using energy efficiency to reduce demand and battery storage to even out fluctuations in solar output. The greens are opposed not only to building a third nuclear unit at North Anna but to re-licensing the existing units, creating a void that would have to be filled by some power source other than coal. The greens also oppose construction of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which Dominion co-owns and is counting on to supply its growing fleet of natural gas base-load and combustion-turbine plants. The environmentalists are lobbying for essentially the same power mix advocated by their Green Party counterparts in Europe.

German energy policy: not working out as planned.

Interestingly, the New York Times published an article two days ago highlighting how Germany’s shift to green power has stalled. Since 2000 Germany has spent an estimated 189 billion euros, or about $222 billion, on renewable energy subsidies with the goal of cutting carbon dioxide emissions. Ironically, CO2 emissions have remained stuck at 2009 levels, even as the shift to natural gas has allowed the U.S. to reduce its CO2 output. As the retail cost of electric power has doubled since 2000 with little progress on the CO2 front to show for it, large blocs of the German electorate are getting fed up.

“Julian Hermneuwöhner is one such voter,” the Times reports. “Mr. Hermneuwöhner, a 27-year-old computer science student, said his family paid an additional €800 a year because of Energiewende.”

Germany obtains about one-third of its electricity from wind and solar, about double the rate for the U.S. But a decision after the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan prompted the Germans to accelerate the phase-out of nuclear power. The only other energy source available: coal. A doubling of electricity rates and no reduction in CO2 is not a winning electoral combination.

Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union still supports Energiewende, the shift to renewables, but two important parties, the pro-business Free Liberals and the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany party, do not.

Bacon’s bottom line: If I were a betting man, I would wager that Virginia’s mid-term energy future will be dominated by gas and solar. Wind power will remain a niche contributor unless off-shore wind comes into play a decade or more from now. The North Anna 3 nuclear unit will never be built, although Dominion will succeed over furious opposition in re-licensing its existing Surry and North Anna units. The utility will keep its existing coal-fired units in operation through their design life-times. But all the expansion in capacity will come from gas and solar.

And, yes, Dominion will need to expand capacity, even as energy efficiency dampens electricity demand nationally. The recent announcement of the new Facebook data center in Henrico County demonstrates another side of Virginia’s energy future. That single server farm will consume as much electricity as 32,500 homes. Virginia is highly competitive in the data-center industry, and it could add dozens or more data centers in the next two decades. Other states might experience declining demand for electricity, but as long as data centers represent one of Virginia’s great hopes for economic development, electricity demand will continue to grow.

School Accreditation Process Violates State Law

Some unfortunate Virginia Department of Education administrator will be tasked with the job of poring through the public responses to proposed rules for granting and denying public-school accreditation. I would pay good money to watch his hair catch on fire when he reads the comments submitted by John Butcher, author of Cranky’s Blog. Here’s how John summarizes the accreditation process:

“VA. Code § 22.1-253.13:3.A provides:

“[The Boar of Education’s] regulations establishing standards for accreditation shall ensure that the accreditation process is transparent and based on objective measurements. …

“The current accreditation process is in wholesale violation of that law:

  • The Board increases pass rates at some high schools based on the performance of students who do not attend those schools;
  • The Board fails to adjust accreditation scores for a major factor known to affect test scores, poverty, and the Board has abandoned its measure of academic progress, the Student Growth Percentile, that is not affected by poverty;
  • The Board’s indifference to misclassification of students as “disabled” and the abuse of relaxed testing procedures for those students continues; and
  • The Board’s opaque and byzantine ‘adjustments’ increase accreditation.”

Read the short version of his comments here. Or read the full and unadulterated version here.

They Came, They Chanted, They Left

White supremacist losers roll into town for a photo-op. Photo credit: NBC29

The white nationalists were back in Charlottesville over the weekend, bearing torches and rallying around the draped statue of Robert E. Lee. Arriving in a tour bus, about 40 to 50 supremacists bore torches and chanted, “We’ll be back.” After about ten minutes, they boarded their bus and left.

Hopefully, they won’t be back. The best way to ensure that they won’t return is to ignore them. The rally was staged purely for the benefit of the media. Naturally, the media obliged. Among other outlets, the Washington Post and the New York Times assigned reporters to cover the rally. Local TV was there as well. So, the white nationalists got some of what they wanted: attention.

But this time, there were no counter-protesters (at least not enough to warrant mention in the Daily Progress, whose account I have follow here). There was no violence or even a threat of violence, so there was no spectacle, which means there was no video footage worth broadcasting on the national networks. Controversy and publicity are the oxygen that keep the fires of extremism burning.

What if Richard Spencer and his white supremacist buddies threw a rally and nobody came? I doubt they would ever return.

Meanwhile, reports the Daily Progress:

At UVa, about 30 students and faculty stood outside UVa President Teresa A. Sullivan’s residence, Carr’s Hill, and chanted “blood is on your hands” and “all black lives matter.” At the bicentennial celebration on Friday, three students were arrested on trespassing charges after allegedly holding a sign that read “200 years of white supremacy” in front of a screen.

There are ample grounds for criticizing Sullivan’s tenure as university president, but to say that “blood is on her hands” is patently absurd. And while it is true that UVa, like almost every other university in the country, is tainted by racism in its history, it empties the words of any meaning to associate the institution with “white supremacy” today.

Perhaps the best thing to do is to ignore these puerile fools. Unfortunately, unlike the white supremacists, Black Lives Matter protesters won’t board a bus and leave the state. And unlike the white supremacists, whose ideology is almost universally reviled, large swaths of the population — especially in  university communities — are in sympathy with BLM assertions that the United States and its institutions are irredeemably racist. And unlike Richard Spencer and his excoriated band of losers, Black Lives Matter presents demands that university administrations take very seriously indeed.

Celebrating Creativity at the Makerfest

After watching too much cable TV news, I get really depressed about America. But I’ve found a tonic: Attend an art show, craft fair or a makerfest to connect with real people doing real things. The creativity, imagination and craftsmanship on display are a delight to behold. Yesterday I spent a half day at the RVA Makerfest 2017 at the Science Museum of Virginia. By the end of the day, I felt much better. Here are some of the people I met.

Andrew Sink shows a plastic replica of his brain made with a 3-D printer.

Andrew Sink and his business partner Chris Caswell met in Florida. Caswell moved to Boston where he purchased a 3-D printer, and they brainstormed the idea of retailing 3-D printers and supplies. Choosing to meet halfway, geographically speaking, they launched their business in Richmond two years ago. They believe 3D Central to be the first 3-D printing retailer in the country. While similar ventures have popped up in other cities, they think they’ve got the best business model.

A difficulty with hawking with 3-D printers is that they take considerable effort to learn to operate. Often, people give up and return the product to the retailer. Sink is proud that they’ve never had a return. The key to growing the market, he says, is education and training. 3D Central holds classes, provides individual training, and even teaches summer camps. “You can’t just sell printers,” he says. “You need a holistic solution. I feel that’s what we’ve accomplished.” The company now employs six, and the partners are looking for expanded office space.

As for what these printers can do… In the photo above, Sink shows a print-out of his brain. After taking an MRI to help diagnose his migraines, the hospital gave him a CD image. He fed the data from the CD into the 3-D printer. Voila, a pink plastic brain.

Heidi Rugg and her puppets

Fourteen-year-old Winter Peace says she has been making puppets since she was seven.

It takes a wide range of skills to become a puppeteer, says Heidi Rugg, lead puppeteer of the Barefoot Puppet Theater in Richmond and founder of Puppets off Broad Street, an alliance of four local puppet troupes. Typically, puppeteers make their own puppets. Animating puppets requires mastery over an array of springs, levers, pivots, fulcrums and wheels — in a word, machine mechanics and physics. And, of course, puppeteers must compose entertaining skits and perform them.

Jim Henson and his muppets catapulted puppeteering to national fame in the United States, but the art form is not widely practiced outside of a few big cities. Atlanta, Boston and New York are the big players on the East Coast, Rugg says, but Richmond has a respectable puppeteering community, which has grown to the point where it supports a “performance series” — RVA Winter Puppetfest.

Keith M. Ramsey with his steam-punk inspired art.

After studying at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), Keith M. Ramsey landed a job in a graphic design firm in Richmond. One day he passed a co-worker’s computer displaying some steam punk art. “It stopped me in my tracks,” he says. He immediately fell in love with the genre, and began fabricating things made from castaway metal materials, which he refers to as “found” materials. Adding welding to his repertoire of skills led to an explosion of artistic creativity and innovation.

As it turned out, it was a good thing that Ramsey developed a serious hobby. The design firm laid him off. After that, he plunged into his artwork full time and never looked back. Among the creations on display yesterday were steam punk-inspired lamps and pen holders. Trust me, you cannot buy these office supplies at Staples! See more of his artwork here.

Ballard “Viking” Midyette explains how he made a knife.

Ballard Midyette lovingly produces custom hand-made knives, spending many hours fashioning the blades and wood handles. Other artisans make custom knives, too. But Midyette goes two or three extra steps. He finds the personality in each knife and finds a name to fit. “The Wild Card,” “The Minimalist,” “The Cynewulf,” and the “Conjurer” were the names of some of the knives on display yesterday. He also photographs each step of the production process and writes a narrative, which he posts on the Web for his customers to see.

After studying music at VCU — he plays the trombone — he nearly went to law school. But he bailed at the last minute to pursue his craftsmanship, which he supports through a full-time job. Making a quality product can take hours of polishing blades and sanding wooden handles. Some might find the work tedious, but Midyette, whom his friends call “the Viking” for his mane of red hair, says there is zen to the process. “It’s like taking away the parts that don’t look like the knife.”

He and his partner James Bernard aren’t in it for the money — “I started this without any attachment to income,” Midyette says — but they have found that, if they do good work, it will sell.

Mike Harrell hammering an iron rod into a hook.

Mike Harrell discovered blacksmithing on the Internet. For a long time, he followed a number of blacksmith blogs. With a burly build, bushy beard, and gleaming pate, Harrell could have been called from central casting for the village smithy role. When he finally sought out the company of Richmond-area smithies through the Central Virginia Blacksmith Guild, he discovered other bearded men like himself. “I have found my people!” he says.

The guild has about 110 members. While many members are hirsute and hefty, says Harrell, there are female smithies, too. Working a day job at what he will describe only as a “Richmond-area credit card company” (wink, wink, nod, nod), he pursues smithing as a serious hobby. He works mainly on functional items — at the show he was forging a hook that could be used to hang a bird house — but relies upon others for artistic vision. There’s nothing wrong with being practical, he says. As he asks the kids who watch what he does, when the zombie apocalypse comes, would they rather be good at video games or iron-smithing?

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Why Henrico Likes the Facebook Project

Gary McLaren, executive director of the Henrico County Economic Development Authority.

This afternoon I caught up with Gary McLaren, executive director of the Henrico County Economic Development Authority, who addressed the main questions I raised in the previous post. The Facebook data-center project, he says, is a great deal for Henrico County citizens and taxpayers.

Facebook will locate its $750 million data center in the White Oak Technology Park, in which the county had invested $40 million in the 1990s to induce semiconductor manufacturer Infineon Technologies AG to locate there. The plant, later part of Infineon spin-off Qimondo, was an excellent corporate citizen while it resided in Henrico, but it closed under competitive pressure of subsidized offshore chip plants.

The Infineon legacy bequeathed three important assets to the White Oak Park, says McLaren. First, thinking that the county might attract other semiconductor plants, the county had oversized its water and sewer lines. Thus, White Oak had 10 million gallons a day of excess water capacity and 13 million gallons of sewer capacity — more than enough to handle the estimated 3.5 million gallons-per-day needed to cool Facebook’s servers.

Second, the park was well supplied with fiber optic trunk lines. “We’re up to eight or nine fiber companies that have run fiber into the park,” McLaren says. Making the location even more attractive, he adds, is the laying of three separate transatlantic cable lines terminating in Virginia Beach. While he doesn’t know it for a fact, he is almost certain that Virginia Beach will link to the North American fiber grid through the Richmond region, making Henrico an ideal location for serving both North America and trans-Atlantic markets.

Third, the park is served by dual feed power. Dominion delivers electricity to the park via two transmission lines. If one line shuts down for whatever reason, the other will keep the park supplied with electricity. While designed to meet the specs of the semiconductor plant, the redundancy fits the needs of the data center industry as well. Says McLaren: “We  have a unique and robust technology park ready to go.”

Henrico County has a good number of data centers. McLaren won’t say exactly how many — some corporate entities would prefer to keep a low profile — but reports have reported the number as twenty. Well known data centers include QTS Data Centers, Peak 10, and Capital One. As the data-center industry explodes, Henrico wants a bigger piece of the pie.

Northern Virginia localities Loudoun County and Prince William County are widely recognized for their large clusters of data centers. Thanks to their proximity to MAE-East internet exchange points in Northern Virginia, the two jurisdictions got off to a strong head start in attracting server farms. To get a bigger share of the business, Henrico had to do something dramatic to increase its competitive posture, McLaren says, so it the tax rate on computers and computer-related equipment.

“We decided we could have a strong value proposition if we made ourselves more competitive” by cutting the tax rate, says McLaren. The thinking was: “Would we rather have 100% of nothing or X percent of something?”

Cutting the tax rate from created a windfall for the dozen or more existing data centers in Henrico County, McLaren concedes. But after the Facebook announcement, the net effect is positive. “I can tell you, with this announcement we are more than made whole.”

When asked for specific numbers, McLaren says he cannot provide them. A breakout of the net gains resulting from the tax break would list data centers and detail proprietary information such as how much they’re investing in real estate versus how much in computers and other capital equipment. In effect, Henrico citizens have to trust that their local government knows what it is doing.

A second inducement offered Facebook — an $863,000 credit on a water-sewer connection fee that normally would cost around $2 million — won’t cost county citizens anything, McLaren says. When the county built the water-sewer infrastructure for White Oak years ago, it gave the Economic Development Authority some credits it could dole out to major prospects to reduce their connection costs. “From time to time, we can use [the credits] as an incentive for companies. … We’ve used them for other companies that have come into the White Oak Tech Park.” Issuing the credits creates no new liability for the county or its taxpayers.

McLaren hopes the visibility of the Facebook deal puts Henrico in the running for more data centers. He is told by industry consultants that the good sites for data centers in Northern Virginia have been taken. While NoVa has many advantages, it’s getting more difficult to supply electricity to the region. Public opposition to Dominion Energy Virginia proposed Haymarket transmission line suggests that the easy-to-serve locations might be tapped out.

Henrico has one less visible advantage in its competition for data centers, McLaren says. The county is highly responsive to economic development prospects and can move quickly. Speed to market is critical to technology companies. Facebook, he says, told him yesterday, “that our willingness to fast track their project … made a big difference in their impression of Henrico County.”

Crunching Numbers on the Facebook Deal

Visualization of Facebook’s Henrico data center. Says CEO Mark Zuckerberg on Facebook: “We’re building out 11th data center in Henrico, Virginia. Like all our new data centers, it will be powered by 100% clean and renewable energy and will create thousands of jobs over the next few years. Our community is growing quickly and we’ll need this infrastructure to serve people all around the world.”

Facebook’s $1 billion announcement is a big deal for Henrico County and for Virginia. The social media giant will invest $750 million to build a data center complex in Henrico’s White Oak Technology Park, and Dominion Virginia Energy Virginia will spend roughly $250 million to supply the facility with “100 percent renewable energy.” It is not yet known precisely where the solar facilities will be located, but they will be in Virginia.

This is one of the biggest economic development deals in the state this year — a massive one by RoVa (Rest of Virginia) standards. As with all mega-projects, the big question is this: Did we give away the store? At first blush, it appears that state tax payer and rate payers will do fine. The impact on Henrico County citizens is murkier.

Drawing upon a U.S. Chamber of Commerce data center study, the McAuliffe administration estimates that construction of the 970,000-square-foot data center will employ up to 1,688 local workers, provide up to $77.7 million in wages for those workers, and produce $234.5 million output along the local economy’s supply chain during construction. Once in operation, the data center will inject $32.5 million annually into the economy.

You can read the congratulatory comments from various politicians and poobahs in the press release from the Governor’s Office. Remarkably, state and local officials managed to close the deal without any direct subsidies or tax breaks from the commonwealth, which is almost unprecedented in a project of this magnitude. Moreover, Facebook and Dominion Virginia Energy have crafted a special tariff to cover the cost of solar power which appears to protect rate payers. However, Henrico County made two major concessions, the justification for which are impossible to evaluate based on information made public so far.

The Facebook plant will consume an estimated 130 megawatts of electric power at full build-out, the equivalent of about 32,500 homes, and will require close to 3.5 million gallons per day for its cooling systems.

Henrico, which competed with Loudoun County and Prince William County, for the deal, had invested $40 million in infrastructure improvements at the White Oak Technology Park. The park offers high-seed fiber-optic cable from multiple providers, it can accommodate a high-capacity electric customer, and it can deliver up to 10 million gallons a day of water.

To sweeten the pot, Henrico County enacted a major tax break and gave Facebook an $850,000 sewer-connection credit on a fee that otherwise would have cost the company more than $2 million.

In April, the Board of Supervisors approved a cut in the business property tax rate on computer and related equipment for data centers from $3.50 per $100 of assessed value to $0.40 — an 88.6% reduction. It’s not clear how much that tax break is worth. The county has released no detailed numbers. But if one assumes that half of Facebook’s capital investment consists of computers and related equipment, about $500 million, then tax revenues would drop from $17.5 million to $2 million per year, making the tax break worth about $15 million a year. And that doesn’t include the loss in revenue from the roughly 20 other data centers located in the county that would benefit from the tax cut.

Whether the reduced tax rate is reasonable or not also depends on how the county financed those $40 million in improvements. Will the revenue stream from Facebook taxes cover the cost of paying down bonds or other financing mechanisms used to pay for the improvements? That data was not available from press reports or press releases.

Another big question mark involves how the special electricity tariff will be structured. To meet Facebook’s commitment to consume clean, renewable energy, Dominion plans to build solar facilities with a total capacity of 300 megawatts.

The proposed RF (Renewable Facility) tariff, which must be approved by the State Corporation Commission, will be structured so that only Facebook will pay the cost of solar generation, said Robert M. Blue, president and CEO of Dominion’s power delivery group. At present, solar is more expensive than other power sources. The rate structure, said Blue, “is designed to be neutral to our other customers.”

In summary, a quickie analysis suggests that the Facebook project is probably a good deal for Virginians — neither state taxpayers nor Dominion rate payers will be subsidizing the project. It’s less clear whether the project is a good deal for Henrico residents. It may be, but it may not be. The data needed to draw a conclusion has not been made public.

Update: The $40 million investment in the White Oak Technology Park dates back years to when the country geared up to serve the Infineon semiconductor plant (now closed). That investment was paid off within six or seven years, and the financing of the infrastructure was not an issue in the Facebook deal. I’ll have more to say in the next post.

The Left Consumes Its Own

Conservative scholars and agitators aren’t the only people getting shouted down at college campuses anymore.

Claire Gastanaga is an old-school liberal who, from my observation, reliably supports the old-school liberal position on everything from women’s rights to illegal immigration. But, as an old-school liberal, she also respects the rights enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, such as, oh, to pick a wild and crazy example, the right to freedom of speech. Indeed, as executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, she visited her alma mater, the College of William & Mary last week, to speak about freedom of speech.

But she didn’t get to say very much. A multiracial group of students affiliated with Black Lives Matter, enraged that the ACLU had defended the right of white nationalists to hold the August rally in Charlottesville, shouted her down.

According to W&M’s student paper, The Flat Hat:

Protesters took over the stage within five minutes of Executive Director of the ACLU of Virginia Claire Guthrie Gastañaga’s entrance. Signs in hand, the protesters shouted chants such as “liberalism is white supremacy” and “the revolution will not uphold the constitution.”

In the statement, BLM criticized the ACLU’s approach to white supremacy in regard to the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, suggesting that the organization provides an unnecessary platform for white supremacists.

“When is the free speech of the oppressed protected?” a BLM group representative asked. “We know from personal experience that rights granted to wealthy, white, cis, male, straight bodies do not trickle down to marginalized groups. We face greater barriers and consequences for speaking.”

After reading the statement aloud, the group’s representative took her place back in line, and the protesters continued to chant.

At one point, Gastanaga asked the students: “Is conversation not possible?”

The chanting continued. Thirty minutes into the event, the sponsors canceled the event. Students interested in talking to Gastanaga clustered around her to talk. But the protesters surrounded them and drowned out their conversation by chanting with increased volume. The students then dispersed.

The College’s BLM chapter took credit on its Facebook page through a livestream of the event, as well as a written post: “Tonight, we shut down an event at William & Mary where Claire Gastañaga, executive director of the ACLU of Virginia, was speaking. In contrast to the ACLU, we want to reaffirm our position of zero tolerance for white supremacy no matter what form it decides to masquerade in.”

After the incident, W&M President Taylor Reveley issued the following statement:

William & Mary has a powerful commitment to the free play of ideas. We have a campus where respectful dialogue, especially in disagreement, is encouraged so that we can listen and learn from views that differ from our own, so that we can freely express our own views, and so that debate can occur. Unfortunately, that type of exchange was unable to take place Wednesday night when an event to discuss a very important matter – the meaning of the First Amendment — could not be held as planned. …

Silencing certain voices in order to advance the cause of others is not acceptable in our community. This stifles debate and prevents those who’ve come to hear a speaker, our students in particular, from asking questions, often  hard questions, and from engaging in debate where the strength of ideas, not the power of shouting, is the currency. William & Mary must be a campus that welcomes difficult conversations, honest debate and civil dialogue

Nice to know that Revely supports free speech. The question is this: What is he willing to do to uphold it? Not much, apparently. The Flat Hat makes no mention of any discipline or sanction against the protesters.

There is a back story to this event, which I will allude to briefly but hope others take the time to research more deeply. Reveley met with student representatives of Black Lives Matter on March 29 for “ongoing conversations about race at William & Mary.” In an April 4 statement following that meeting, he said:

Many items on their list [of demands] are consistent with the recommendations that came last spring from our Task Force on Race and Race Relations. And many have already produced results or are in the planning state.

While we have made progress, there remains much to be done. Racial discrimination at William & Mary is flatly unacceptable. We all have a role to play to ensure that our university is a place where everyone is welcome and respected and where we can and do learn from one another.

On April 19, William & Mary announced plans to commit $1 million to a more diverse faculty, rename two residence halls after African-Americans, and hire a consultant to strengthen diversity in hiring, training and assessment of campus culture. Future priorities include creating a vice president of diversity and inclusion, and investing $35 million to increase diversity among faculty and senior administrators.

Bacon’s bottom line: This will not end well for Revely. None of these developments made much news at the time, and no one outside the university would have known about them had not Black Lives Matter partisans, after demanding respect for their own views, undertaken to deprive others of the right to express theirs. This is a new phenomena for Virginia campuses, and Revely had better get hold of the situation or he will risk a severe backlash. For Virginia’s higher-ed community, which is lobbying for major concessions from the General Assembly, the timing couldn’t be worse. I cannot imagine Republican legislators responding positively to haughty BLM demands and W&M promises to divert $35 million in funds to increase diversity.

A couple of predictions: The demands of Black Live Matters and their ideological cohorts are limitless. No matter what the W&M administration does to placate them, it will never be enough. BLM will always make more demands. The reason is simple: Their demands are largely impossible to fulfill. There is a limited pipeline of African-Americans getting Ph.D.s, and every college in the country is vying for these candidates. Likewise, there is a limited supply of minority high school graduates qualified to attend an elite institution like W&M, and every other elite institution — mostly private schools with lots more money to throw around — are competing to recruit them. Finally, the actions of Black Lives Matter are so militant and offensive, they create the very atmosphere of super-charged racial sensitivity that makes every racial interaction a potentially stressful event and feeds their own feelings of alienation. This cannot possibly contribute to an atmosphere of racial amity.

Emboldened by the administration’s weak response, campus radicals — and the BLM movement at W&M includes many whites — are out of control. I predict that we’ll see more of this kind of behavior. The situation will get worse before it gets better.

Electric Coops Vet Community Solar Plan

Subscribers to a community solar program in the works by five Virginia electrical cooperatives would pay a rate premium of 42% to 45% to use clean, renewable energy, according to data released by the electric coops.

The five rural cooperatives, who may be joined by others in a State Corporation Commission (SCC) filing late October or November, have developed the plan for customers unable to install their own solar capacity to purchase solar through the coops. The rates primarily reflect the cost of building the solar capacity. They do not include any cost for administering the program, but they do cover transmission and line losses to the cooperatives.

The five electric coops include A&N Electric Cooperative, Central Virginia Electric Cooperative, Mecklenburg Electric Cooperative, Northern Neck Electric Cooperative, and Rappahannock Electric Cooperative.

Unlike like investor-owned utilities, such as Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power, Virginia’s electrical cooperatives are owned by their customers. Because they pay no dividends to shareholders and don’t answer to Wall Street analysts, they have more flexibility in the programs they offer, said Sam Brumberg, association counsel for the Virginia, Maryland & Delaware Association of Electric Cooperatives, in a conference call Thursday to solicit feedback from solar developers and other stakeholders.

Legislation enacted in the 2017 General Assembly session allows electric companies to create “community solar” programs in which power companies market and re-sell solar power built by independent solar developers. The programs must be approved by the SCC.

Numerous electric coop customers have expressed an interest in purchasing solar energy through the cooperatives, said Brumberg, and the community solar program will provide them with a choice they don’t have now. The voluntary program will provide customers “easy on, easy off,” one-year subscriptions, which will allow them to avoid the long-term financial commitment of installing their own solar.  However, the voluntary program is designed to recover its costs from its subscribers.

The program will guaranteed flat rates for at least three years. While the solar portion of the rate will remain fixed for longer periods, the distribution charge may rise. 

A major sticking point addressed in the conference call was affordability of the program for low- and middle-income (LMI) customers. Brumberg discussed the potential for subsidizing the rates for certain customers, perhaps through government grants, foundation grants, or involvement of a large commercial “anchor tenant” who could absorb a disproportionate share of the cost.

Bacon’s bottom line: These are the first figures I’ve found that indicate the  cost of community solar in the current economic environment. The 40% to 45% premium represents a significant hurdle to widespread market penetration. In effect, community solar represents a luxury good in the energy marketplace, a fact that the electric cooperatives indirectly acknowledge by their concern that LMI customers may be difficult to recruit.

Admittedly, the economics of solar are changing. The per-kW cost of solar is steadily declining. So is the cost of battery storage, which makes it feasible to store surplus solar-generated electricity and release it when needed. Moreover, the “fuel” cost of solar — essentially zero — will not increase, while the cost of fossil fuel alternatives, especially natural gas, most likely will rise over time. But as long as programs are voluntary, and as long as most customers value money in their hand today more than savings years from now, it will be a challenge to persuade them to pay the premium.

San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo: No Special Deals for Amazon

San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo

San Jose, Calif., Mayor Sam Liccardo, a Democrat, wrote a column in the Wall Street Journal today explaining he will not offer subsidies or incentives to induce Amazon to locate its second headquarters in his city:

Why do public officials throw away taxpayer dollars in subsidies while trying to promote economic development? Perhaps because they can. The subsidy represents something tangible that officials can point to as the factor that “sealed the deal” to create more jobs.

The harder work of investing public dollars in schools, infrastructure and amenities takes years of concerted effort but has far greater payoff. A healthy  economic ecosystem that supports innovation and growth is what makes a community attractive to a company like Amazon. …

The key is to craft policies that apply to all fairly competing employers. Cutting special deals with individuals companies isn’t the right strategy.

Wise advice. Virginia localities vying for the Amazon project need to take a honest appraisal of themselves. If they can’t compete for the Amazon deal without giving away the store, (a) Amazon probably won’t be interested anyway (even if it encouraged them to submit a bid), and (b) they will regret it if by some miracle they actually win. For many, it doesn’t even make sense to compete. Packaging proposals costs resources (staff time, consultants) that could be better spent on second-tier projects — such as the $1 billion Facebook data center in Henrico County to be announced later today.