Author Archives: James A. Bacon

Drip… Drip… Drip… Another Richmond Company Moves from the Burbs to Downtown

Bob Hilb

The Hilb Group, a fast-growing insurance brokerage with more than $125 million in revenue, has made the decision to move its headquarters from the suburban Stony Point office to the Riverfront Plaza in downtown Richmond.

CEO Bob Hilb told Richmond BizSense that he had been looking for a new location for a year in anticipation of the lease expiring on his 5,000-square feet office in 2017. “While it’s a great building, it has turned into very much a medical office space,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with that; it just doesn’t fit our vibe.”

And what’s that vibe? It’s all about the Millennials.

The downtown office will have a more modern, open layout — “a little less wood and more glass,” said Hilb. The company will move only 17 of its 800 employees into the new 9,000-square-foot digs, but he expects the number to grow as the company continues to roll up smaller, independent insurance agencies around the country.

“A lot of a people in our business, you walk into their office and it’s like you’ve walked into a hunting lodge,” he said. “As we grow, there’s no question that being able to attract millennials and having a really nice progressive office makes a difference.”

Bacon’s bottom line: Technically, the Hilb Group’s relocation is a Richmond-to-Richmond move. But Stony Point, located on the far western edge of the City of Richmond, was developed as a classic suburban office park surrounded by parking lots and trees. Walking to the nearby “pedestrian” mall is impractical. The office park is accessible only by automobile. The Hilb Group’s new location in the Riverfront Plaza will be in the heart of downtown near the James River.

Meanwhile, the urbanization of the City of Richmond continues apace. Union Presbyterian Seminary is moving ahead with the development of a $50 million, 301-unit apartment complex in Ginter Park, a single-family neighborhood, despite stiff opposition by neighboring property owners.

And the city planning commission has signaled its intention to rezone Scott’s Addition, a light industrial area transitioning to mixed-use residential and commercial, under a new, more urban zoning classification. Local businesses, says the T-D, would see changes to parking regulations, square footage restrictions and the allowance of small-scale manufacturing.

A Non-Partisan Election Reform: Shorter Lines

Here’s an idea for election reform that everyone should be comfortable with: reducing the time voters spend in line at the polls.

In 2014 a bi-partisan Presidential Commission on Electoral Administration called on state and local officials to ensure that voters wait no more than 30 minutes to cast a ballot. As a voter who spent an hour or more waiting in line in the 2016 election, I would greatly appreciate any effort to cut the logjam.

Writing in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, John Fortier and Donald Palmer with the Bipartisan Policy Center describe a nationwide study in 2016 of election lines. That study encompassed 17 Virginia jurisdictions representing more than 2 million registered voters, or nearly 40 percent of all registered voters in the state.

Our data shows that more than 80 percent of Election Day lines in Virginia occur before noon. Moreover, we found that steps taken by Virginia officials after the 2012 and 2014 elections to allocate resources more effectively did decrease the average wait times at the polls. In 2016, Virginia voters waited an average of less than nine minutes to vote — down dramatically from 24 minutes in 2012 and 28 minutes in 2008. This decrease is one of the largest in the country.

When equipped with the right data, local officials can make smart and informed choices about where and when to deploy resources on Election Day, designing a structure that works best for their unique situations. Until now, however, those officials were flying blind with little to no data to guide or back up decision-making.

It’s nice to know that our election officials are doing something right. I’m looking forward to a snappy, nine-minute wait in the gubernatorial election this fall.

Workgroup Seeks Compromises to Move Solar Forward

The consensus-building workgroup that fostered 2017 legislation to promote community solar energy in Virginia reconvened Monday to grapple with more intractable issues that stand in the way of widespread adoption of solar power.

Participants in the Solar Policy Collaborative Workgroup had clashed repeatedly in the General Assembly over the years, but decided to pursue a different approach in 2016. Mediated by Mark Rubin, executive director of the Virginia Center for Consensus Building at Virginia Commonwealth University, they worked out a compromise proposal that will allow Virginians to purchase renewable electricity generated by local, independent solar developers and marketed by electric utilities.

The General Assembly enacted the law in the 2017 session, and participants hope to build on the success, tackling issues that they could not resolve last year. “A level of trust and respect has been established among members of the steering committee,” said Rubin when convening the Monday meeting.

This year the ad hoc organization is seeking input from a broader array of stakeholders and inviting the public to attend meetings. Sub-groups will discuss issues relating to land use, large developers, large customers, community development and net metering. Of the five topics net metering — in which utilities pay owners of solar facilities for surplus electricity they supply to the grid — stimulated by far the most interest, inspiring numerous comments from the audience.

“No ideas are off the table,” said Sam Brumberg, counsel for the Virginia, Maryland & Delaware Association of Electric Cooperatives, and a leader of the net metering sub-group. He cited time-of-use rates, charging for usage of the grid, feed-in tariffs (which enable long-term contracts for solar generators) and other options that might be considered to encourage distributed solar development. “No idea is off limits.”

Brumberg was joined by Scott Thomasson, southeast director of Vote Solar. His organization has engaged in some “fierce battles” in other states over solar policy, he said. By participating in the Virginia solar workshop, he added, he hopes to “get better outcomes through dialogue. We want to avoid the melt-downs in other states.”

Net metering. One thing most audience members agreed upon is that the existing net metering law, designed to protect electric utilities, is a hindrance to widespread adoption of solar energy by homeowners, small businesses, and other small users. Current law limits net metering to residential systems up to 10 kW and commercial systems up to 500 kW, with a program cap if generating capacity reaches 1% of an electric utility’s peak load for the previous year. The benefit to generators is that their surplus electricity can be used to offset electricity purchases from the utility during off-peak periods.

Dominion Energy has sought to limit the surplus that generators could use to offset their electricity sales, while both Dominion and Appalachian Power have insisted upon stand-by charges to compensate them for the cost of maintaining the electric grid that solar-generating residences would draw upon for backup. Builders, environmentalists and other advocates say the restrictions make solar less attractive to install and give small, distributed generators no credit for the load they take off the transmission and distribution grids.

The interests of the electric utilities and the others seem starkly opposed, and there is no obvious way to reconcile the two. But Katharine Bond, senior policy adviser for Dominion, sounded an optimistic note, suggesting that new technology and novel rate structures might make the utilities “more agnostic” about solar initiatives that cut into utility revenues.

Another complication is that net-metering advocates are a diverse group and do not agree amongst themselves on the best approach. Charles Guarino, a Richmond-area resident, made a plea for simplicity in the net metering law. “If people don’t understand it, they won’t participate,” he said.

But Tom Hadwin, with Waynesboro-based ACN Energy Solutions, advocated a value-of-solar tariff based on the premise that it made more sense from the perspective of balancing load on the electric grid to put solar in some locations than in others. Electric rates would be less favorable for solar located near where the grid was congested than for locations where grid congestion was not an issue.

“Simplicity is good, but there are trade-offs,” said Thomasson with Vote Solar., who suggested that a tariff that varied by time of day and load demand might suit some better.

“Not everyone can get what they want,” said Brumberg, but “if we’re successful, folks will get some of what they want.” Continue reading

Thinking on a Higher Plane about Higher Education

Stephen Moret, CEO of the Virginia Economic Development Partnership (VEDP), brought a wealth of experience in corporate recruitment and workforce training when he moved to Virginia from Louisiana. But there’s another aspect of Virginia’s economic development chief that has gained little notice here in the Old Dominion. Last year he earned a doctorate in higher education management from the University of Pennsylvania.

The Ed.D. dissertation that Moret completed last year, “Attainment, Alignment, and Economic Opportunity in America: Linkages Between Higher Education and the Labor Market,” examines the connection between higher education and economic development in the United States, often challenging the conventional wisdom in the process. His findings are worth considering here in Virginia.

Two propositions are widely and uncritically accepted in the Old Dominion: (1) a highly educated workforce is good for economic development, and (2) therefore, we should invest more in higher education. Accordingly, the Virginia Plan for Higher Education sets the goal of making Virginia the best educated state in the U.S. by 2030. The plan articulates the rationale:

An educated population and well-trained workforce increase economic competitiveness, improve the lives of individuals and support greater community engagement. The best-educated state means that Virginia supports higher education at all levels. This spectrum includes workforce credentials such as industry certifications, state licensures, apprenticeships and certificates, as well as traditional degrees.

Moret does not contest the link between an educated workforce and economic development. But the relationship is a complicated one, he says. His dissertation suggests that it is possible to invest too much in higher ed, or invest in the wrong places. Among other issues, Moret discusses the problem of “malemployment,” a form of underemployment in which four-year degree holders work in jobs requiring less education. He worries that many college graduates lack the critical thinking skills needed to succeed in the workplace. And he notes that the benefits from investing in higher education are highly uneven among the states.

Malemployment. Malemployment is a widespread problem in the U.S. Approximately one-quarter to one-third of all college graduates and roughly 45% of recent college graduates are working in jobs that do not require college-level skills. Altogether, about 10 million FTFY (full-year, full-time) employees with a bachelor’s degree are malemployed nationally, working as retail sales clerks, truck drivers, food service managers, cashiers and other occupations.

“Proponents of higher college degree attainment often emphasize the higher earnings and lower unemployment rates enjoyed by college graduates in comparison to those of individuals whose formal education ended with a high school diploma,” writes Moret. “The reality is that significant numbers of college graduates do not secure employment in occupations that require and/or make meaningful use of college-level skills. They often experience much lower earnings premiums as well as lower job satisfaction than their peers.”

The phenomenon varies widely by type of degree. Science and engineering degrees tend to have the lowest rate of malemployment, arts & humanities among the highest rates.

“The sheer size of the malemployed population as well as the nature of the occupations that many malemployed individuals hold suggest this is a widespread and serious issue in the U.S.,” says Moret, calling into question the simplistic idea that a college education is a sure pathway to well-compensated employment.

Critical thinking. Most full-time faculty members at colleges and universities consider development of critical thinking skills (99%) and effective writing skills (93%) to be essential or very important goals of an undergraduate education. Employers say they are looking for the same skills. All too often, degree earners are not gaining mastery of them. At a few institutions, students lose proficiency at college.

Quoting from an academic source, Moret says:

Many seniors graduate without being able to write well enough to satisfy their employers. Many cannot reason clearly or perform competently in analyzing complex, nontechnical problems, even though faculties rank critical thinking as the primary goal of a college education. Few undergraduates receiving a degree are able to speak or read a foreign language. Most have never taken a course in quantitative reasoning.

Many studies of the connection between education and economic growth have focused on years of schooling or educational attainment as the key predictor, says Moret. But recent research has shown that the real predictor is cognitive skills, which may or may not be obtained in college. (I would bet that there is a large overlap between these cognitive under-achievers and college grads experiencing malemployment.)

Migration and educational attainment. Highly educated, recent college graduates are the most likely of any demographic group to move from one state to another. Individuals with a bachelor’s degree are twice as likely to complete an interstate move as those with a high school degree; Ph.D.s are three times as likely. Likewise, people in their 20s and early 30s are more likely to move than any other age group.

Some states export college-level talent to other states, in effect losing the fiscal investment they made in their students, while other states are talent importers, reaping the benefit of others’ investments. The Great Lakes states are the biggest exporters, followed by the Mid-Atlantic, New England and the Plains states. For every 100 bachelor’s degrees conferred in Michigan, the state has lost 22.

Says Moret:

When college degree production substantially exceeds demand in a state, college graduates tend to complete interstate moves in order to secure better employment outcomes. Collectively, these findings suggest that the economic payoff of a college degree is much greater in some states than others, and state leaders must be careful to ensure that their college degree attainment initiatives are not misaligned with the labor market demands of their economies.

Traditionally, Virginia has been a talent “importing” state, which has contributed to the Washington metropolitan area, including Northern Virginia, having the best educated workforce of any metro in the country. The Old Dominion has benefited from other states’ investment in higher education. However, in recent years, coinciding with sequestration and Virginia’s economic slowdown, Virginia has shifted to a talent-exporting state (although the number of people leaving the state is relatively small). Despite this transition, the state forges ahead with a strategic higher-ed plan calling for awarding more degrees, certifications and apprenticeships. Will supply exceed demand? Will we end up exporting talent? Are we investing excessively in higher ed — or perhaps in the wrong places, producing too many B.A. degrees and too few certifications for skills that are demonstrably in demand?

Virginia’s public policy leaders are not asking such questions — or, if they are, their deliberations are not reflected in the news media. But the issues Moret raises in his dissertation are profoundly important. With an economy in the doldrums and a state budget facing chronic stress, Virginians must question all of their hoary assumptions in order to make better use of the state’s limited resources.

As a member of the State Council for Higher Education in Virginia, Moret is in a position to ask the questions that no one else in authority is asking. Let us hope he makes the most of the opportunity.

Virginia Needs a New Constitution, Part 2

1901 constitution flyer

by Donald J. Rippert

The Commonwealth’s Cornucopia of Constitutions. Virginia has written, scrapped and rewritten its state constitution many times. Virginia is presently operating under its seventh constitution. While that seems striking compared to the U.S. Constitution, it’s not that unusual for a state constitution. Florida and Pennsylvania have had five constitutions, South Carolina six, Georgia nine and Louisiana a whopping eleven different constitutions. Of the original 13 colonies only Massachusetts has yet to perform a constitutional rewrite.

The Spirit of ’76. Virginia’s first constitution was written in 1776. George Mason and James Madison are seen as primary authors. After the obligatory heckling of King George III the constitution got down to the basics of defining the state government – bicameral legislature, governor and so on. The accompanying Virginia Declaration of Rights was a strong point of this first constitution. That document would effectively become the predecessor to the U.S. Bill of Rights. Unfortunately, elitism has been a constant companion to Virginia politics and this constitution was no exception. Voting was reserved for owners of substantial property and men of wealth. The landowners of Southeastern Virginia would be in control of the state.

East vs West – 1830. By the 1820s Virginia was (predictably) one of only two states that restricted voting to landowners. The state constitutional convention of 1829 to 1830 tried to address this distorted concentration of power in the landed gentry. Suffrage requirements were reduced but not enough to address the concerns of the small farmers in the western parts of the state. Virginia kicked the can down the road.

The Reform Constitution, 1851. As the population of western Virginia continued to grow, the Richmond-to-Norfolk “corridor of evil” vainly tried to maintain control of the state through voting rights that required substantial property ownership and a bizarre county-based representation system. Talk from the west of abolishing slavery and / or secession from the state forced the eastern elites to change. The new constitution gave the vote to all white men of voting age and called for election of the governor, the lieutenant governor and all judges by popular vote.

Wartime Constitution, 1864. After years of political abuse by Virginia’s southeastern elite, a number of the counties in the western and northern part of the state decided they would not follow the Richmond-centric rebels into what can only be called an apocalyptic Civil War. The Constitution of 1864 could effectively be called the first state constitution for West Virginia. What remained of Virginia was too busy marching toward utter destruction and unconditional surrender to bother with constitutional niceties.

The Carpetbagger Constitution, 1870. The provisions of The South’s surrender included military occupation of states like Virginia. Given that slavery had been abolished the military commander of Virginia called for a constitutional convention to memorialize America’s new reality. However, the Richmond-based elite would have none of it. Many of the white conservative Virginians who developed the bright idea of a failed secession from the United States now refused to vote for delegates to the constitutional convention. This led the way for a Republican led convention headed by John C. Underwood. In what should come as a surprise to nobody, the “elite free” convention wrote one of Virginia’s best constitutions. The new constitution granted suffrage to all males over 21, established a public school system with mandatory funding and ended the disenfranchisement of former Confederate government members.

The Empire Strikes Back, 1902. Virginia’s short period of competent government was ended as the Democratic Party retook the state legislature. The usual band of elitists called for another constitution to be written. It was a doozy. Poll taxes and literacy tests were included to effectively remove African Americans from the voting booth. Segregation became the law of the land. Power was aggrandized in Richmond with the elimination of the county court system. The State Corporation Commission gave added weight to the centralized government. Since African Americans still could vote based on the 1870 Constitution The Imperial Clown Show in Richmond decided to pass this abomination without a popular vote. This was both Virginia’s worst constitution and its longest-lived.

Do we have to? 1971. While Virginia’s political elite moved smoothly from poll taxes to literacy tests to segregation to massive resistance, the rest of the country progressed. Mounting federal pressure in the form of U.S. Supreme Court decisions like Brown v. Board of Education and legislation like the Voting Rights Act of 1965 made it harder and harder for Virginia’s elite to persecute a large percentage of Virginia’s population. A new constitution was needed. The most heinous racist provisions of the 1901 Constitution were removed and Governor Mills Goodwin managed to convince the delegates to drop the “pay go” policy that had infected prior constitutions. However, the aggrandizement of power in Richmond generally and the General Assembly in particular remained.

The history of Virginia’s constitutions has been the story of a small elite eschewing true democracy in a sad effort to keep the lives of many under the thumbs of a few. To date, progress in Virginia has only come from the barrel of a gun (1870) or the threat of federal action (1971). The present state constitution continues to thwart democracy albeit more subtly than was the case with the 1902 travesty.

In the next section of this series the many flaws of Virginia’s existing constitution will be examined.

Worse than Pell!

Cranky (aka John Butcher) has been nosing around the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) database and come up with some interesting numbers comparing the graduation rate for students receiving different types of financial aid.

As seen in the chart above, the students graduating within four, five and six years at the lowest rate are those receiving assistance from the Virginia Commonwealth Award. As Cranky describes it bluntly, VCA is “subsidizing failure” more than any other source of financial aid. That’s quite an accomplishment considering that even the federal Pell program for low-income students out-performed VCA.

What do we know about the Virginia Commonwealth Award? There’s not much available online — mainly this fact sheet published by SCHEV:

The purpose of the Virginia Commonwealth Award is to assist undergraduate students with financial need and graduate students to pay part of their college costs. The funds are appropriated directly to each state supported institution. Funds may be used for need-based grants to Virginia resident undergraduates or for grants or assistantships to graduate students (both in-state and out-of-state). The law requires that the awards to undergraduates be proportional to need so that the students with the greatest need receive the largest awards.

Not that I looked at that hard, but I couldn’t find any document detailing how much money the VCA hands out each year or, more importantly, what the default rate is on loans. If the graduation rate of VCA students is lower than that of federal loans, and federal loans are experiencing significant defaults, it is logical to assume that the VCA is experiencing major defaults as well. Who is managing this program? Is anyone tracking the numbers?

Read John’s thoughts over at Cranky’s Blog. (By the way, I liked John’s headline so much that I stole it for my own post.)

Jury Pool Reject

Yippee! I was struck from the Henrico County jury today, and I’m back to blogging. I was fully prepared to participate in the three-day jury trial of a man charged with heroin distribution, but someone — I’m betting it was the defense attorney — gave me the heave-ho.

I don’t know the reason, but I’m guessing it may be connected to when the prosecuting attorney, upon learning that I published a blog, asked me of my political leanings. I replied that I was a fiscal and free-market conservative. But conceivably, the defense attorney deemed it a mark against me when he asked if I regularly read the Metro section of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, and I replied that I had. Maybe it was the combination of the two — uh, oh, we’ve got a conservative, 64-year-old white guy here who faithfully reads the crime stories in the local newspaper!

What defense attorney in the world would want me on the jury?

This is only the second time in my life that I’d been called for jury duty, and it was interesting to view the process of jury selection from the inside. The jurors represented a broad cross-section of Henrico County society in terms of race/ethnicity, although the panel probably skewed to older citizens and middle-class occupations — no derelicts in this group. That may have something to do with the fact that felons are excluded from the jury pool.

When asked if any of us, or any of our close relatives, had been the victim of a crime. one woman said her father had been murdered, and one fellow said two of his friends had died of heroin overdoses. Another woman owned up to having worked for the Drug Enforcement Agency, although in an HR capacity. Needless to say, all three were struck.

After getting a look at the defendant — he looked somewhat elderly, with a scruffy, gray-white beard, not like the stereotypical street thug — I’ll be curious to know what happens to him. Maybe I can read about it in the Times-Dispatch.

Bacon Bits

I’m on jury duty today, so I won’t have time for blogging. But very quickly, a couple of articles worth noting….

Fraudulent graduation rates. In Prince George’s County, Md., four members of the school board have asked the governor for an investigation into what they allege is a systemic effort to fraudulently boost graduation rates in the Maryland school district, reports the Washington Post. “Widespread, systemic corruption” has inflated graduation rates since 2004, they say.

Of course, that’s Maryland, not virtuous Virginia. Such institutional chiseling could not possibly happen here! The steady increase in graduation rates in Virginia schools is due entirely to the extraordinary efforts of teachers, administrators and students!! Still, citizens and school board members should be alert to the possibility, as remote and implausible as it sounds, that similar chiseling occurs in our own school districts.

Health system profits still healthy. We’ve been hearing for years how the profits of Virginia hospitals, though hefty today, are subject to erosion by the buffeting storms of Obamacare and other forces. Yet the profits of our health systems seem to be holding up nicely. The latest evidence comes from Carilion Clinic in Roanoke.

“Carilion Clinic on Monday released financial statements showing continued improvement for both its operating margin and bond ratings that could soon prompt it to make public its plans to expand Carilion Roanoke Memorial Hospital,” reports the Roanoke Times.

After losing $131 million between 2008 and 2011, Carilion earned $69 million on $1.65 billion in revenue during fiscal year 2016, giving it a 4.2% operating margin. Moody’s affirmed an A1 rating and upgraded Carilion’s outlook from stable to positive. Standard & Poor’s moved Carilion’s rating upward from A+ to AA-.

Carilion provided $67 million worth of services to people who could not afford them during 2016. This was up about $15 million over 2015.

Virginia Needs a New Constitution, Part 1

by Donald J. Rippert

Carved in stone.  America’s elite and their lap dogs within our political structure know that larceny is best accomplished within a vacuum of change. If the “little people” in a democracy ever figure out that they can force the politicians to change the laws then the elite find crony capitalism far more difficult to practice. For example, big money in politics favors the elite (who have the money). It also favors their political puppets who know they are better able to remain “politicians for life” if raising gobs of money remains more important than solving problems. So, the question of the excessive influence of money in American politics is simply answered with two words, “Citizens United.”  The U.S. Supreme Court found it unconstitutional to restrict money in politics, ergo it can’t be done. But, of course, it can be done. The U.S. Constitution can be amended. Yet as Americans across the political spectrum vent their rage against the influence of George Soros and the Koch Brothers nothing is done. Why?

The Big Lie. America’s political insiders have convinced many of us that the U.S. Constitution is, effectively, inviolate. The right tells us that the Constitution is the product of divine inspiration written by human hands. The left relies on stasis and judicial manipulation of “the living Constitution” to let unelected judges perform the duties that our elected representatives stubbornly refuse to undertake. The net result of this conspiracy between America’s vested interests and its political class is a polarized nation where economic stagnation is the order of the day for an ever increasing percentage of its people. Yet no matter how fundamental our problems become, the case for fundamental change is blocked by a bizarre belief that the U.S. Constitution cannot be changed.

Erasing history. One of the more insipid approaches taken to ossify the U.S. Constitution is to rely on the ignorance of many Americans by insisting that the framers knew they had created a near perfect document and, therefore, made it very hard to change. The fact that the framers wrote the first ten amendments before the ink dried on the U.S. Constitution somehow doesn’t dispel this recounting of history. Thomas Jefferson provides an interesting perspective both from his vantage as a founding father and from the long life he led after the American Revolution. Jefferson had the chance to observe the Constitution’s effect on America for decades after its ratification. In a letter to Samuel Kercheval in 1816 Jefferson had this to say:

“But I know also, that laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed, and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy, as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.

And lastly, let us provide in our constitution for its revision at stated periods. What these periods should be, nature herself indicates.”

 Jefferson knew the Constitution was imperfect. After 26 years of seeing the U.S. Constitution in action he was contemplating the merits of scheduled revisions.

Sic Semper Tyrannosaurus. Virginia has a much different constitutional history than the United States. The State Constitution of Virginia has been rewritten six times since it was first ratified in 1776. Not amended, not revised, rewritten. Much of what has gone into those constitutions was the predictably disgraceful and prejudiced thinking emblematic of Virginia’s political class. However, Jefferson’s home state has proven that it is willing to avoid being trapped under “the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.”

But what of today?  Would Virginia’s current political class consider following the Old Dominion’s longstanding history of “out with the old and in with the new”? Thinking optimistically I suppose that would depend on whether there were enough good ideas to justify yet another rewrite. Thinking pessimistically, our state politicians are as corrupt as their peers in Washington and know full well that mandated unchanging power keeps their political lives long and their personal pockets full.

Just this once, I am going to think optimistically about our current state government.

The remainder of this series will examine why it is time that we throw out the present Virginia constitution in favor of a new one that keeps pace with the times and improves the lot of all of us governed under that constitution.

Yorktown Units Allowed to Operate on Emergency Basis

Existing power lines crossing the James River. Photo credit: Daily Press

U.S. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry has issued an order allowing the coal-fired Yorktown Units 1 and 2 to operate on a limited basis for three months this summer to prevent uncontrolled power disruptions in the North Hampton Roads area of Virginia. Dominion Energy had planned to shut down the two units to meet Environmental Protection Agency clean-air regulations. But PJM Interconnection, the regional transmission organization serving Virginia, requested the exemption in March.

“I hereby determine that an emergency exists in the Commonwealth of Virginia due to a shortage of electric energy, a shortage of facilities for the generation of electric energy, and other causes, and that issuance of this Order will meet the emergency and serve the public interest,” stated Perry in an order dated June 16.

The units will operate only as needed to reduce the risk of power outages until Dominion Energy’s 500 kV Skiffes Creek transmission line is completed. The units also can be used during transmission construction when existing lines will need to be taken out of service.

A week ago the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers gave a conditional go-ahead to Dominion to build a transmission line across the James River, eliminating the major regulatory barrier to the project. But the utility still needs to obtain permits from the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, a water quality certification from the Department of Environmental Quality, and a permit from the James City County Board of Supervisors for a switching station, reports the Williamsburg Yorktown Daily.

Meanwhile, construction is expected to take a year and a half, leaving the Virginia Peninsula vulnerable to rolling blackouts on days of peak demand in order to avoid an uncontrolled, cascading blackout that could spread way beyond the region.

Dominion had cited the threat of blackouts as justification for hurrying the permitting process, which has dragged on for years. After shutting down the two polluting Yorktown units this spring, the utility instituted a Remedial Action Scheme (RAS) that would immediately drop load to 150,000 customers in the event that  an uncontrolled blackout took place.

“The order provides authority to PJM and Dominion to run the [Yorktown] units only when needed to avoid loss of electric power in the North Hampton Roads area when certain power demand levels are reached,” says PJM spokesman Ray E. Dotter.