Category Archives: Disaster planning

Guarding the Grid

transmission_lineby James A. Bacon

It’s easy to spin nightmare scenarios leading to the collapse of the electric grid. North Korea detonates a nuclear weapon a mile overhead, sending out a super-charged electro-magnetic pulse that melts down transmission lines and blows out substations. The electricity overload races ahead of anyone’s ability to control it in a cascading effect that knocks out power for vast swaths of the country. Because key components of the grid take more than a year to manufacture and deliver, electric power takes interminably long to restore. The economy collapses. Millions die.

If you find that threat implausible, how about this one? A massive discharge of radiation from the sun overwhelms the earth’s magnetic field, melts down transmission lines, blows out sub-stations, and…. you know the rest. Or, this: In coordinated strikes, terrorists knock out vulnerable sub-stations, triggering the meltdown of electric lines…. Or cyber-terrorists infiltrate a utility network, overriding the power company’s controls, creating overloads and triggering a meltdown…

Such story-lines sound over-wrought, the stuff of grade B movies or pulp novels. They could never happen in real life, you say. Yet there have been enough deliberate physical and cyber attacks on a small scale, as if someone is probing the system, that many experts deem the threat to be very real. And most of us can still remember the great Northeast Blackout of 2003, caused by sagging electric lines coming into contact with overgrown trees, which demonstrated how a failure in one location can ripple across an entire grid. Fifty-five million people in the U.S. and Canada were effected.

The United States and the Commonwealth of Virginia have been moving in their slow, ponderous way to protect against those threats, and Garry Kranz has written an excellent article in Virginia Business magazine describing what Dominion Virginia Power and others are doing to safeguard against the disaster scenarios.

Writes Kranz:

Dominion plans to spend up to $500 million over the next five to seven years on a variety of security initiatives. The strategy is to harden its transmission substations and other critical infrastructure, add more mobile transmission equipment and boost stockpiles of backup gear. It plans to bolster perimeter security with ultramodern construction and use sophisticated technologies to pre-empt intruders. …

Dominion also is investing in increased grid reliability through the construction of a new systems operations center in Henrico County. Costing an estimated $100 million, the center will be able to perform real-time monitoring of the transmission grid to maintain electric reliability. Projected to open in 2017, the facility will replace Dominion’s current operations center at the Innsbrook Corporate Center in Henrico, which has been around since 1992.

Another tool in the security toolbox is penetration testing.  A standard security technique for utilities and related industries, it allows companies through what is known as a “pen test” to systematically try to defeat internal security controls and procedures to pinpoint any weaknesses.

“We give penetration testers an advantage by moving them inside our network to see how far they get. Sometimes we tell our people the tests will take place, but often we don’t tell them. We want to see if our processes help them detect abnormal activity and report it,” says Engels, who does not share any improvements Dominion has made as a result.

Micro-grid technology also promises enhanced grid reliability, according to Jason Nichols, director of Scitor Corp.’s iSpace lab. Scitor is part of McLean-based defense contractor SAIC. Some military bases in Virginia already deploy micro-grids. Dominion also is funding micro-grid demonstration projects using renewable fuels at several state universities.

“If a portion of Virginia’s public grid goes down, a micro-grid gives the military base the potential to provide local generation to keep hospitals and other critical services running in some sort of degraded state,” Nichols says.

As it happens, while attending freshman orientation earlier this week at a certain unnamed university my son will be attending this year, I encountered a cyber-security professor who had just arrived for his first day on the job. He and I struck up a conversation about this very topic: cyber-security on the grid. What he told me was alarming. Speaking from his personal experience consulting with a major electric utility in the Southeast U.S. (not in Virginia), he found that the control systems cobbled different generations of technology as far back as the 1950s. Vulnerabilities were rampant. I was left with the impression that the only thing preventing infiltration by cyber-enemies was the overwhelming complexity of the chewing-gum-and-bailing-wire system that only a handful of long-time company employees even understood. Whether senior management comprehends the magnitude of these vulnerabilities is an interesting question. Continue reading

The Tradeoffs of Burying Electric Power Lines

How much is it worth to ensure faster restoration of electric service after a major storm? A lot, if it’s you. Perhaps not so much, if it’s someone else!

by James A. Bacon

Anyone who regards the State Corporation Commission as a wholly owned subsidiary of Dominion Virginia Power really isn’t paying attention. SCC commissioners have their own priorities, and they aren’t necessarily those of Dominion. An example was on display yesterday when the commission held hearings on a Dominion request to spend $140 million to bury its most vulnerable power lines so it could get customers back on line quicker after widespread outages.

The SCC had rejected an earlier Dominion proposal to spend $263 million on a plan to bury the 20% of overhead lines most responsible for outages and time lost. Dominion had argued that burying those lines would cut average electricity restoration times after major storms in half. After the SCC rebuffed that proposal, the utility came back with a scaled-back proposal to spend $140 million, adding a modest $6 per year to customers bills.

Based on their comments and questions, the commissioners did not look favorably upon it. Writes John Ramsey with the Richmond Times-Dispatch:

Commissioner Mark C. Christie said during the hearing that the utility’s calculation of the societal benefit to justify the plan is the wrong measurement since less expensive options to reduce outages — such as increased tree trimming — would have similar impact.

“The whole question about this thing is bang for the buck,” Christie said. “Certainly, you will get fewer outages when the storm comes through. But how do you know all the extra money you spent on undergrounding was more cost-effective than having more trucks out there or tree-trimming or whatever less expensive options?

“We know if you underground a line down a block, we know it’s going to benefit that block in all likelihood. Does that mean it was worth the expenditure that goes into peoples’ bills?

Dominion maintains a portfolio of a dozen different reliability programs, encompassing tree trimming, upgrading old equipment to current standards, and installing sensors to detect failing parts and prioritize investment, among others. (See “Towards a Smarter Grid.”) The company is continually fine-tuning its allocation of resources. For example, it has moved from trimming routes every three years to an approach that takes into account line voltage, how fast the trees grow and many other factors. The inability to trim trees outside of electric-line right of way, said Dominion lawyers at the hearing, places a major restriction on how aggressively the company can trim.

Bacon’s bottom line: Two points…

First: Electric reliability is part of the company’s DNA. One of the metrics Dominion uses to gauge its own performance is the speed at which it restores electricity service. Undoubtedly the SCC commissioners take reliability into account, but they appear to be more concerned at the moment with the impact of spending on rate payers. And who can blame them? Dominion, like other utilities across the country, has spent billions of dollars meeting tougher federal standards for toxic emissions, and it expects to spend billions more meeting the Clean Power Plan standards for carbon emissions. With all the concern over terrorism, cyber-attacks, electro-magnetic pulses and other threats to grid security, the company also is spending hundreds of millions on measures to harden the grid. Ultimately, citizens and businesses pay for all this. In the instance of restoring service after storms, the SCC seems to be prioritizing cost over reliability.

Second: Dominion has sought, or is seeking, SCC approval for a half dozen major electric transmission line projects that have aroused the ire of citizens concerned about the visual impact. Invariably, transmission-line foes suggest burying the line. That option has been prominently suggested for the controversial Surry-Skiffes Creek line which would impact views of the James River near the historic Jamestown settlement. I am speculating here, but I’m wondering if the SCC is skeptical about the cost of burying electric lines in any context, not just for ensuring reliability.

In terms of pure self interest, Dominion has no reason to object to burying distribution and transmission lines — as long as the SCC allows it to recover its costs. If Dominion balks at burying lines, it’s because the executives who deal with the SCC daily and know the minds of regulators anticipate a tough sell before the commission. It may be hard for people to wrap their mind’s around this, but the SCC is boss and Dominion is the supplicant.

Making NIT More Productive, More Resilient

NIT

Norfolk International Terminal (NIT)

by James A. Bacon

For the millions of Virginians living above the fall line, the struggle that Hampton Roads has with rising sea levels and increasing flooding may seem remote and far away. Why should we care? After all, does anybody in Hampton Roads give a hoot about our problems?

Kit Chope, vice president of sustainability for the Virginia Port Authority, gave a pretty darn good reason this morning for why Virginians across the Commonwealth should take an interest in the region’s increasing vulnerability to storm surges and flooding: Anything that disrupts port operations disrupts the economy of the state. Some 530,000 jobs and 10% of the state’s gross domestic product are tied to port activities, he said.

“What affects the port affects the state,” said Chope in a panel discussion of the 2016 Resilient Virginia Conference, during which a major theme was the long-term threat that sea level rise and flooding poses to Hampton Roads.

Upstream Virginia has gotten the message. Included in the $2 billion bond package approved by the General Assembly in the 2016 session is $350 million to upgrade cargo-handling cranes at Norfolk International Terminal (NIT). The capital investment has been billed primarily as a response to growing cargo traffic and the need to expand capacity. But there’s more to it than that, said Chope. Modernization also will provide more protection from hurricane storm surges that could inundate the facility and knock it out of operation.

The Port of New York and New Jersey, the third largest port in the country, got a taste of what could go wrong during superstorm Sandy. A nine-foot storm surge inundated the portsm washing hazmat materials and other debris into the water channels and rendering electrical power unreliable. Flooded terminals closed for a week, leading to the diversion of 25,000 shipping containers and 58 vessels (some to Hampton Roads). Another 15,000 containers were lost, along with 9,000 automobiles and 4,500 trucks and vehicles.

The ports of Virginia, the nation’s fifth largest port complex, are determined to avoid a similar capacity, Chope said.

Thanks to the bond package, new electricity-powered, rail-mounted gantries will replace the existing diesel-powered straddle cranes. The investment will make possible a 50% increase in the number of containers to be loaded and unloaded. Getting less attention is the fact that the Virginia Port Authority is studying how to protect the terminal from disruption. “Where are we most at risk? Where are our critical nodes? What are the potential points of failure?”

For example, electric vaults at ground level will be elevated above projected storm surge levels. Buildings will be hardened to protect IT systems used to track cargo and communicate with shippers. “Data is king,” Chope said. It must be protected.

The VPA’s resilience efforts have been internally focused mostly, but the port relies upon utilities, especially electricity, and is inextricably tied to the network of railroads, highways and local roads that link the terminals to major markets. If local roads flood, as they are prone to do in the City of Norfolk, that could hinder trucks driving in and out with containers. Everything is interconnected. “What’s good for the city is good for the port,” he said. “What’s good for the port is good for the state.”

A Humble Proposal for Addressing Recurrent Flooding

Flooding in Portsmouth. Image credit: Virginia Newsletter

Flooding in Portsmouth. Image credit: Virginia Newsletter

By James A. Bacon

The recurrence of tidal/surge flooding in Hampton Roads has increased from 1.7 days of “nuisance” flooding yearly in 1960 to 7.3 days in 2o14, and with continued land subsidence and sea-level rise, the flooding will become even more common. So say the authors of “Building Resiliency in Response to Sea Level Rise and Recurrent Flooding: Comprehensive Planning in Hampton Roads,” published in the January 2016 issue of the Virginia News Letter.

Of all the region’s localities, according to the paper, the City of Portsmouth has moved the fastest to incorporate adaptive strategies into its comprehensive planning. The low-lying city of about 100,000 citizens is extremely vulnerable, with 38% of households lying within AE Flood Zones and approximately 50 miles of roadway located less than 4.5 feet above mean high water.

Last year the city interviewed nearly 2,000 households to ask about the frequency of flooding, flood-related loss, risk perception and mitigation behavior. Nearly half the residents surveyed reported being unable to get in or our of their neighborhoods in the past year due to flooding; more than a quarter reported being unable to get to work. More than 18% report suffering some form of damage to vehicles.

“There is strong perception among residents that future economic opportunities will be curtailed by changing sea levels; this view is even more strongly held by residents who experience difficulty getting in or out of their neighborhoods due to flood in or out of their neighborhoods due to flood,” the authors write. “About 30 percent of residents agree that flooding specifically has negatively impacted the value of their homes.”

The authors are less clear about what can be done. They allude to three broad strategies for dealing with flooding: retreat, protection and accommodation. Retreat might entail restricting development in low-lying areas. Protection might include sea walls, living shorelines, improvement storm water drains, better street drainage or ditch maintenance. Accommodation might mean accepting inconvenience, disruption and property loss as the “new normal.” But the paper provides little guidance as to when and where these strategies might be appropriate or how they might be paid for.

Bacon’s bottom line: The authors note that households can adapt by installing pumps and drains, relocating HVA systems or buying higher-riding automobiles. But, other than relocating their residences to higher land, there doesn’t seem much else that individual households can do to protect themselves. Some kind of collective action is necessary.

Here’s the problem: In some areas, improvements will be too costly. In others, the real estate is of such low value, it’s not worth saving even at modest cost. But if local governments spend money on one neighborhood, every other neighborhood in the political jurisdiction will want their piece of the pie. And why not? Their residents pay taxes, too.

hot_spots

Flooding hot spots in Portsmouth. Image credit: Virginia Newsletter.

Here’s an idea I throw out for discussion: Create community development authorities that encompass those areas (such as the yellow-red islands shown in map of Portsmouth to the right) that are most prone to flooding. A flood-mitigation plan is developed for each district, with improvements to be paid for with taxes raised from property owners in that district. Then put it to a vote of the residents of the district. Let those closest to the situation weigh the costs (a higher tax) versus the benefits (less property damage, flood-free streets, etc.) and decide for themselves.

The result would be a public-improvement plan more tightly aligned with the local circumstances and less vulnerable to political log-rolling than anything a city-wide effort could pull off and far easier to sell politically.

Five-Year Dominion Spending to Upgrade Grid

Dominion's five-year spending priority: upgrading the grid.

Dominion’s five-year spending priority: upgrading the grid.

by James A. Bacon

Dominion Virginia Power plans $9.5 billion in capital expenditures through 2020, almost two-thirds of which will go to upgrading the company’s transmission lines, substations and distribution system. Other priorities include $700 million for new solar generation and, if approved by the State Corporation Commission, additional funds for undergrounding vulnerable distribution lines.

“We know our customers expect high reliability, clean energy and reasonable rates,” said Robert M. Blue, DVP president in a statement. “We focus on that in everything we do, from building new infrastructure to day-to-day maintenance and fast storm response.”

The capital spending, which will average nearly $2 billion a year, represents a major step-up from the past seven years in which Dominion spent $8 billion, much of it for environmental control equipment to reduce coal-fired power plant emissions of toxic chemicals.

Dominion has the fastest-growing demand for electricity of any utility in PJM Interconnection, which manages wholesale markets and the reliability of the regional electric grid for a 13-state region plus the District of Columbia. The company added 430,000 customers in the past decade, the press release states. Dominion also serves an increasing number of energy-intensive date centers in Northern Virginia.

“Our modern way of life requires lots of energy – and that means infrastructure,” Blue said. “To keep up with energy demand and meet new clean air requirements, Dominion Virginia Power and its parent company are constantly building everything from power stations to power lines, substations to natural gas pipelines.”

Of the $9.5 billion in planned expenditures, Dominion proposes to allocate $3.6 billion for transmission lines and substations, $2.4 billion for its distribution system, and $3.5 billion for new generation and environmental improvements.

While policy makers tend to focus mostly on electric rates and environmental impact, Dominion also emphasizes the reliability of the electric grid. Blue said that reliability, measured by minutes lost due to routine service disruptions, has improved 25% since 2008. “Our reliability in 2015 was 98.8%, which translates into approximately 2 hours of outage time per customer over the whole year.” (Reliability metrics do not take into account outages from major storms.)

Dominion’s proposal to run power lines underground would focus on the most outage-prone tap lines. The idea is to enable electric power to be restored more quickly to customers in the event of a hurricane, ice storm or other major weather-related disruption, which historically has hit the state on average every couple of years.

First Ukraine, Next the World?

ukrainian_electric_gridRussian hackers caused a power outage in Ukraine during the holiday season, escalating fears of the vulnerability of the U.S. electric grid to cyber attacks. Half the homes in Ukraine’s Ivano-Frankvisk region were left without power for several hours Dec. 23.

“This is the first incident we know of where an attack caused a blackout,” said John Hultquist, an iSIGHT cyberespionage executive. “It’s always been the scenario we’ve been worried about for years because it has ramifications across broad sectors. (See coverage in the Washington Post.)

Attackers used a malware that wiped files off computer systems, shutting them down and causing the blackout. The attack was described as emerging from Russia.

A silver lining is that the outage was relatively short-lived and easily fixed. I would expect that U.S. cyber-security systems are far more robust. On the other hand, it is alarming to have this confirmation that shadowy groups are actively probing the vulnerability of electric power systems anywhere. The electric grid is the most essential infrastructure in the U.S.; without it the economy would collapse and society would dissolve into anarchy. Consider the Ukraine incident a shot across the bow. Let us hope that federal authorities treat the problem with appropriate seriousness and that the political class here in Virginia does the same.

For more about what Virginia is doing to harden its grid, see “Mad Max Coming to an Electric Grid Near You?

— JAB

Mad Max Coming to an Electric Grid Near You?

mad_maxby James A. Bacon

Two years ago Iranian hackers infiltrated the control system of the Bowman Avenue Dam, a small structure used for flood control in Rye, N.Y., about 20 miles from New York City. The hackers never took control of the dam, and no damage was done, but U.S. officials say the incident highlighted the vulnerability of a sprawling U.S. infrastructure of dams, pipelines, drawbridges and electric transmission lines, according to the Wall Street Journal.

The timing of that story couldn’t be better for Ted Koppel, author of the newly published book, “Lights Out: a Cyberattack, a Nation Unprepared, and Surviving the Aftermath.”

Koppel’s terrifying thesis is simply stated in a series of propositions:

  1. Russia and China most likely have already infiltrated our electric grid, Iran is striving to do so, and terrorist organizations aspire to do so.
  2. While the electric power industry maintains that the electric grid is resilient enough to avoid catastrophic blackouts, a growing chorus of national security experts argue that the grid is vulnerable to cyber-sabotage. While parts of the system may be secure, no chain is stronger than its weakest link, and there are lots of weak links.
  3. Cyber-sabotage could lead to system-wide blackout in any or all of North America’s three grids (eastern, western and Texas) that could take months to repair. Neither the federal nor state governments are remotely prepared to respond to a disaster of this magnitude.
  4. Contemporary American society is so totally dependent upon electricity that the country would face economic collapse, civil unrest and mass starvation. Think Mad Max. Mortality rates could run as high as 90%.
  5. The Mormons will inherit the earth — or at least North America. The Mormon Church appears to be the only organized entity in the country to have stockpiled sufficient supplies of food and survival tools to survive a year-long “lights out” scenario.

While Koppel quotes a host of experts in government and the private sector who worry about U.S. vulnerability to cyber-attack, it is worth bearing in mind that consultants and government officials thrive on alarm. The more agitated the public is about the cyber-security threat, the greater the funds that will be thrown their way. I take their warnings with a grain of salt.

Still, the revelation of the Bowman Avenue Dam incident drives home one of Koppel’s main points: that Iran has been actively probing our grid. Maybe his thesis isn’t so alarmist after all.

The United States made a strategic decision years ago to prioritize cyber-offense over cyber-defense. Supposedly, we have the best cyber warriors in the world, and we can take down the infrastructure of any advanced society. Russia and China might be able to knock out our electric grid, but we could knock out their’s. We’re locked in a Mutually Assured Destruction scenario. But Iran? Who can predict the actions of a country ruled by mullahs in the grip of an end-of-times eschatology? If the enemy thinks that the mahdi is coming with the power of god to purge the world of evil and presage the day of judgment, Mutually Assured Destruction may not be much of a deterrence.

Whether you think the odds are 50-50 that catastrophic blackouts could occur, or one in ten, or one in a hundred, the potential consequences are every bit as cataclysmic as those of runaway climate change. But the issue hasn’t gotten a sliver of the attention that climate change has. As the nation embarks upon a massive re-engineering of the electric grid under the Clean Power Plan to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions, will the grid be more secure or less secure from cyber-assault as a result? Is anyone even asking that question?

So, what are we doing here in Virginia?

AEP, parent company of Appalachian Power Company, details its cyber-security initiatives here. The company works within the framework established by the North American Electric Reliability Council (NERC) to protect grid reliability, including the Critical Infrastructure Protection cybersecurity standards to be rolled out in 2016, and it participates in a variety of industry-government groups that share information.

Last month, AEP participated in the GridEx III exercise, sponsored by NERC, which brought together more than 200 organizations across North America. GridEx, the company says, “is the largest, most comprehensive effort addressing security by the electricity industry to date and serves as an example of the commitment of stakeholders to continuously improve physical security and cybersecurity defenses.” Findings from the exercise, which simulated cyberattacks in coordination with physical attacks, combined with trucks and shootings to create enduring damage, will be released in January.

Dominion’s web page on cyber-security states that the company continually monitors and periodically audits its operations. “Dominion cyber security experts regularly communicate with government agencies, law enforcement and intelligence organizations and industry peers to assess threats and align the company’s security posture with regulatory requirements and evolving digital technologies.”

In April, Governor Terry McAuliffe announced that Virginia was the first state to set up an Information Sharing and Analysis Organization, or ISAO, “a collaboration that is designed to facilitate the collection and analysis of critical infrastructure information in order to help stakeholders better understand and combat security risks.”

However, Koppel quotes General Keith Alexander, retired director of the National Security Agency (NSA) and now CEO of IronNet Cybersecurity, as saying that the electric grid is more vulnerable than it used to be. New interconnections create new pathways for cyber attacks to travel.

“Your small and medium-sized companies cannot afford a world-class cyber threat team,” he told Koppel. Bringing down small companies in the right order could initiate a domino-like “cascade effect” which could compromise the systems of the larger companies, threatening the entire network.

Fuzzy Thinking at the Top

Woolly headed

Woolly headed

by James A. Bacon

Governor Terry McAuliffe views the implementation of the Clean Power Plan as a great opportunity for Virginia to create “green” jobs in solar energy and energy-efficiency while also reducing carbon emissions and head off global warming. “I am working hard with Virginia businesses and environmental leaders to seize this moment to lead for our planet and for our economy,” he wrote in an op-ed piece published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch today.

That’s a fine sentiment. Virginia does need to create more jobs. And McAuliffe correctly perceives that the commonwealth faces momentous decisions regarding its electric system. But there was so much platitudinous thinking in the op-ed that I found it thoroughly discouraging. At the highest level of Virginia government, banalities have replaced substantive thought. Let’s take a look at some of the assaults on reason in the piece.

Job creation. Yes, if Virginia builds more solar plants, installs more solar panels on roofs, and builds more wind-powered turbines, it will create jobs related to the construction and operation of wind and solar power. However, the State Corporation Commission staff said last year that implementing the Clean Power Plan could drive electric rates 20% higher. Higher electric rates would discourage industrial development and take money out of the pockets of business and residential customers, all of which would result in job destruction. The difference is that the new energy jobs would be highly visible while the lost jobs, distributed in dribs and drabs across economy, would be largely invisible. Which effect would outweigh the other? Nobody knows, and anyone who pretends to is just making stuff up.

Environmentalists claim that, if implemented properly, the Clean Power Plan would nudge rates only a little higher, and ratepayers would save enough money through energy conservation that their bills actually would be a little lower than today. Perhaps that’s so. It certainly would be a much more desirable income than a 20% increase in electricity rates. So… let’s see the plan! What combination of programs and strategies will lead to this ideal outcome? How would the McAuliffe administration propose implementing the Clean Power Plan differently than the SCC would, while taking care to ensure a reliable supply of electricity, to avoid that 20% rate increase?

There was no hint in McAuliffe’s op-ed that such hard-nose thinking is even necessary. Chanting, “Rah, rah, green jobs,” is not a plan.

Norfolk flooding. If I hear one more invocation of rising sea levels and increased flooding in Norfolk as justification for spending billions of dollars overhauling Virginia’s energy infrastructure, I think my brain will explode. Here’s what the governor had to say on the subject:

Even before the hurricane headed toward Virginia’s coast, the city of Norfolk was bracing for a greater number of nuisance flooding days over the next year due to higher sea levels and more frequent storm surges. Because Norfolk houses the largest U.S. naval station in the world, this is also an issue of national security.

The Clean Power Plan is recognition of the need for action.

This logic is so woolly headed that if we could shave it, we could put the world’s sheep farmers out of business. The increasing incidence of flooding is a justification for building flood walls, hardening infrastructure, upgrading building codes, eliminating subsidies for flood insurance and reforming land use — not for restructuring Virginia’s electric grid.

The reality is that anything Virginia does to re-engineer its electric grid to reduce CO2 emissions will have an impact on global warming and rising sea levels too small to measure. According to estimates using the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s MAGICC/SCENGEN climate model, the Clean Power Plan will reduce global temperatures about one-one hundredth of a degree (Centigrade) by the year 2100. Virginia’s implementation would account for roughly 1/40th that amount (based on its proportion of the U.S. GDP). To suggest that Virginia, by reducing global temperatures by 1/4,000th of a degree Centigrade, will slow the rate of rising sea levels enough to reduce the impact upon Norfolk is fantasy thinking.

As it happens, there is an argument for implementing the Clean Power Plan: By making the investment, the U.S. can thereby exercise the moral leadership to induce other countries, particularly China, India, to curtail their greenhouse gas emissions. You can choose to accept that argument or not based upon your own partisan and ideological inclinations. But that’s not the argument that McAuliffe offers for supporting the plan.

The future grid. The Obama administration is imposing the Clean Power Plan upon America at a time when the electric power industry is in extraordinary flux, with new technologies and business models threatening to up-end the regulatory structure that has prevailed over the past 80 or so years. The pace of change, and the uncertainty it brings, is unprecedented during the era of regulated utilities. New technologies show enormous promise for replacing fossil fuels. At the same time, given the inherently intermittent nature of those power sources, there are many issues to work out for ensuring the reliability of the electric system, upon which our entire civilization is built. There is little room for error.

There are many profound questions to ponder. Should we invest in large nuclear- and gas-powered power plants with 40-year life spans when solar technology might produce electric power more cheaply within a 5- to 10-year time frame? Should we invest in the current generation of renewable fuels today when the next generation could well cost far less? In either case, we risk saddling Virginia’s electric power system with antiquated and uneconomic capacity. Do we want a big-is-better power system built around large power plants and a robust transmission system, or do we prefer a decentralized, small-is-beautiful approach that may not be as efficient but could be less vulnerable to catastrophic failure? What trade-offs are we willing to make between cost, reliability and the environment?

What path would McAuliffe urge us to take? We don’t know. The Governor offers no clue in his op-ed. Indeed, there are no simple answers to these questions. One way or the other, either we decide what future we want, or we will have a future thrust upon us.

Tracking Hurricane Outages Online

outage_map

Dominion outage map, 3:00 p.m. Thursday

by James A. Bacon

Last month Dominion Virginia Power rolled out an interactive map that allows the public to report and track power outages and restoration. A nice touch, I thought at the time, but no big deal. That was before Hurricane Joaquin was bearing down on Virginia. All of a sudden, I’m very interested.

According to J.D. Power’s 2014 Electric Utility Residential Customer Satisfaction Study, communications about power outages is an important factor influencing customer satisfaction. Ratings for the industry have improved steadily over the past six years, J.D. Powers said, as companies have taken to communicating outage information via utility-initiated phone calls, emails, text messages and social media sites.

Dominion has gotten the message.

“Next to energy, the most important thing we can provide to customers is information,” said Becky Merritt, vice president of Customer Service in the September press release. “This new outage map provides greater access to the information customers need to help us restore their power quickly in the event of an outage. It also provides information to help manage their lives and reduce the inconvenience.”

New features include:

  • compatibility with most smartphones and tablets;
  • icons indicating the number and general locations of work requests;
  • customized views with street-level or satellite imagery and live weather radar;
  • improved search options, including searching by landmarks or road intersections;
  • faster updates— information refreshes every 15 minutes;
  • option to bookmark multiple outage locations to follow restoration progress; and
  • better tracking of a specific outage through the outage reporting system.

The outage map can be found here.

With an estimated three days before Juaquin arrives, Dominion is bracing itself. Hey, guys, special word of advice: Pay close attention to the Countryside subdivision in Henrico County. It took eleven days for electricity to be restored at the Bacon’s Rebellion global command headquarters after Hurricane Isabel. I’ll be blogging the hurricane — but only if the electricity stays on!

Alpha Natural Resources: Running Wrong

Alpha miners in Southwest Virginia (Photo by Scott Elmquist)

Alpha miners in Southwest Virginia
(Photo by Scott Elmquist)

 By Peter Galuszka

Four years ago, coal titan Alpha Natural Resources, one of Virginia’s biggest political donors, was riding high.

It was spending $7.1 billion to buy Massey Energy, a renegade coal firm based in Richmond that had compiled an extraordinary record for safety and environmental violations and fines. Its management practices culminated in a huge mine blast on April 5, 2010 that killed 29 miners in West Virginia, according to three investigations.

Bristol-based Alpha, founded in 2002, had coveted Massey’s rich troves of metallurgical and steam coal as the industry was undergoing a boom phase. It would get about 1,400 Massey workers to add to its workforce of 6,600 but would have to retrain them in safety procedures through Alpha’s “Running Right” program.

Now, four years later, Alpha is in a fight for its life. Its stock – trading at a paltry 55 cents per share — has been delisted by the New York Stock Exchange. After months of layoffs, the firm is preparing for a bankruptcy filing. It is negotiating with its loan holders and senior bondholders to help restructure its debt.

Alpha is the victim of a severe downturn in the coal industry as cheap natural gas from hydraulic fracturing drilling has flooded the market and become a favorite of electric utilities. Alpha had banked on Masset’s huge reserves of met coal to sustain it, but global economic strife, especially in China, has dramatically cut demand for steel. Some claim there is a “War on Coal” in the form of tough new regulations, although others claim the real reason is that coal can’t face competition from other fuel sources.

Alpha’s big fall has big implications for Virginia in several arenas:

(1) Alpha is one of the largest political donors in the state, favoring Republicans. In recent years, it has spent $2,256,617 on GOP politicians and PACS, notably on such influential politicians and Jerry Kilgore and Tommy Norment, according to the Virginia Public Access Project. It also has spent $626,558 on Democrats.

In 2014-2015, it was the ninth largest donor in the state. Dominion was ahead among corporations, but Alpha beat out such top drawer bankrollers as Altria, Comcast and Verizon. The question now is whether a bankruptcy trustee will allow Alpha to continue its funding efforts.

(2) How will Alpha handle its pension and other benefits for its workers? If it goes bankrupt, it will be in the same company as Patriot Coal which is in bankruptcy for the second time in the past several years. Patriot was spun off by Peabody, the nation’s largest coal producer, which wanted to get out of the troubled Central Appalachian market to concentrate on more profitable coalfields in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin and the Midwest.

Critics say that Patriot was a shell firm set up by Peabody so it could skip out of paying health, pension and other benefits to the retired workers it used to employ. The United Mine Workers of America has criticized a Patriot plan to pay its top five executives $6.4 million as it reorganizes its finances.

(3) Coal firms that have large surface mines, as Alpha does, may not be able to meet the financial requirements to clean up the pits as required by law. Alpha has used mountaintop removal practices in the Appalachians in which hundreds of feet of mountains are ripped apart by explosives and huge drag lines to get at coal. They also have mines in Wyoming that also involve removing millions of tons of overburden.

Like many coal firms, Alpha has used “self-bonding” practices to guarantee mine reclamation. In this, the companies use their finances as insurance that they will clean up. If not, they must post cash. Wyoming has given Alpha until Aug. 24 to prove it has $411 million for reclamation.

(4) The health problems of coalfield residents continue unabated. According to a Newsweek report, Kentucky has more cancer rates than any other state. Tobacco smoking as a lot to do with it, but so does exposure to carcinogenic compounds that are released into the environment by mountaintop removal. This also affects people living in Virginia and West Virginia. In 2014, Alpha was fined $27.5 million by federal regulators for illegal discharges of toxic materials into hundreds of streams. It also must pay $200 million to clean up the streams.

The trials of coal companies mean bad news for Virginia and its sister states whose residents living near shut-down mines will still be at risk from them. As more go bust or bankrupt, the bill for their destructive practices will have to borne by someone else.

After digging out the Appalachians for about 150 years, the coal firms have never left coalfield residents well off. Despite its coal riches, Kentucky ranks 45th in the country for wealth. King Coal could have helped alleviate that earlier, but is in a much more difficult position to do much now. Everyday folks with be the ones paying for their legacy.