Category Archives: Energy

A 40-Year Lease on Life for Transmission Tower Foundations

James River transmission-line towers near Newport News sporting new foundations. Photo credits: Dominion Energy.

In 1968 Dominion Energy Virginia erected a series of 18 towers across the James River to carry two transmission lines from south of the river to points in Newport News. The company built the tower foundations with marine-grade, corrosion-resistant steel that was billed to last for decades. By the 1990s, however, it was evident that the steel foundations were eroding. If they deteriorated sufficiently, one of the towers would collapse, putting the Virginia Peninsula at risk of disruption to its electric service.

The utility encapsulated the steel “H pile” foundations with a fiberglass jacket under the waterline and with a putty-like compound above in the hope of preventing further corrosion. The fix didn’t work. A 2013 inspection revealed rust still eating away at the foundation.

“While the 2013 inspection revealed we had a corrosion problem, further investigation found that we had a bigger problem than we thought,” says Mark Allen, Dominion’s director of transmission construction. There was no way of knowing precisely when, he says, but “eventually the towers would have collapsed.”

One remedy would be to build parallel towers and power lines, but that option would cost $50 million. It would be far preferable to repair the foundations in place. But Dominion could not take a chance of knocking the transmission line out of commission by cutting out the bad steel beneath the water and replacing it with good. In 2013, Dominion was under orders to close the two main coal-fired boilers at its Yorktown plant and was struggling to gain regulatory permission to build a new transmission line upriver near Jamestown. There were only two sets of transmission lines serving the Virginia Peninsula, so taking down the Surry-Winchester and Chuckatuck-Newport News lines would have left the entire region vulnerable to blackouts.

Dominion’s engineering staff came up with a solution that wound up costing rate payers only $25 million. The story was chronicled by local media but never given attention elsewhere in the state. When the project garnered recognition by the Southeastern Electric Exchange earlier this year, Bacon’s Rebellion thought it worth re-telling as an example of the trials and tribulations of maintaining an electric transmission grid.

Previous efforts to protect the H piles had not stopped the corrosion.

No one had tackled a job like this before. The foundations of the 18 towers varied in depth between four feet near the riverbanks to 40 feet near the navigation channel, and the company had to cap the foundations to about 15 feet above the waterline, says Allen. The company also had to maneuver around restrictions on time and location due to protections for osprey and cormorant nests on multiple towers, a peregrine falcon nest on the nearby James River Bridge, and fish migrations from Feb. 15 to June 30, not to mention weather conditions.

Divers entered the water, which was so dark at times that they couldn’t see their hands in front of their faces, to install clips on the side of each H pile. To these clips they fastened rebar cages. Around the rebar cages, the construction contractor put in an epoxy-fiberglass jacket to facilitate the pouring of a “cementitous grout” that would become the new foundations for the towers. The design, which fully shielded the old “H-pile” foundations from the concrete caps above water to four feet below the water line, eliminated the need to cut out existing steel below the water surface.

“We were able to use what was there,” says Allen, who commends the creativity of the engineering team. “Instead of an H pile supporting the tower, we have a rebar cage and concrete encapsulation.”

The retrofit, which was completed in 2015, should last another 40 years.

Motels as Housing of Last Resort

Flagship Inn, Petersburg

Two Sundays ago the Richmond Times-Dispatch ran a disturbing special report on poverty and housing insecurity along the Jefferson Davis Highway in Chesterfield County. Hundreds of people live in shabby motels, paying $200 or more per week to live in conditions almost as deplorable as Richmond’s public housing projects. These hotels, the housing equivalent of pawn shops and payday lenders, serve the poor and the desperate who have nowhere else to turn. It is depressing to think that people live this way.

People pay huge sums — $200 per week translates into more than $800 per month, enough to rent a nice, two-room apartment in a decent neighborhood — to dwell amidst deplorable conditions. Many hotel rooms have roaches, bedbugs and other insect infestations. The article cites leaking sewage, mold, mice droppings, and inoperable door locks. Conditions sound similar to those of the public housing projects — without the same level of crime.

The plight of some of the residents is truly pitiable. Latisha Ragland, a single mother with three children, lives in the Flagship Inn in Petersburg. The 39-year-old had most of her right leg amputated because of complications from diabetes and high blood pressure. She receives dialysis three times a week, and is waiting for a kidney transplant. She receives $735 a month in disabilities benefits but spends $220 a week for rent. Any unexpected expense is devastating. Stressful insecurity adds to the misery of her circumstances.

It seems absurd that someone must pay the equivalent of nearly $950 per month in rent (4.3 weeks per month x $220) for a literally lousy hotel room. The article prompts the question of why tenants have to pay so much. Are people like Ragland being exploited by greedy motel landlords?

That’s hard to say because landlords would not talk to the reporters. The lawyer for one responded, “There’s plenty of other hotels. Obviously, it’s not that bad or she would leave.” That’s not much of an answer.

But there are hints in the special report as to why the rents are so high. People who live in hotel rooms come only when they can’t find housing anywhere else. Other than living in a tent in the woods, this is truly housing of last resort. Who are these people? For the most part, they live hand-to-mouth and have terrible credit. Who would pay $950 per month if they could qualify to rent their own apartment?

Evidently, some tenants fail to pay their rent. Consider the predicament of the landlord. Anyone who stays at a motel for longer than 90 days has rights under the Landlord-Tentant Act. Landlords can evict clients for non-payment only after giving them a reprieve to allow them to come up with the money, and only after a court proceeding. Sometimes unpaid rent can accumulate to substantial sums.

The T-D cites the situation of Trimaine Reed, living at the America’s Best Value Inn, who took the motel to court after living with cockroaches for three years. In return, the motel tried to remove her for failing to pay $4,016 in rent. The judge ruled against her, she claimed, because she had forgotten the paperwork laying out her defense.

The larger point is not whether Reed was fairly or unfairly evicted. The point is that motel owners are dealing with clients with terrible credit quality who frequently fail to pay their rent. Motel owners either eat the lost rent or attorneys to collect it in court. In either case, they bear a substantial cost which must be compensated for by charging what seems to be unconscionably high rents. The situation is directly analogous to payday lenders who charge what seem to be unconscionably high interest rates to clients with a high propensity for default.

What is to be done? How does society at large deal with the heart-breaking stories of people who live in these motels? Cracking down on the motels does not seem to be a viable option. Driving the motels out of business will leave the tenants with no place to live. Some say Chesterfield County should encourage more affordable housing by requiring developers to add affordable-housing units as a condition of development. That’s fine if you’re OK with wealth transfers from the middle-class to a lucky few who qualify for those apartments; regardless, the lucky few won’t come from the ranks of the motel people because landlords would accept only lower-income tenants with the very best credit. Another option mentioned by the T-D is to create rental subsidy program funded in part by the county. That’s fine if you’re OK with tapping middle-class taxpayers.

None of the traditional remedies look good. But let me throw out an idea. There does seem to be an opportunity to create a charity-based enterprise. Because of their poor credit, motel tenants are paying outrageous sums for terrible living conditions. Address the credit issue, and a charitable entity can get the motel people into better housing at lower rents. Perhaps a charitable enterprise could bundle a couple hundred of these people, in effect pooling the risk and functioning as a co-signor so tenants can qualify for better housing under more favorable terms. Inevitably, some clients would default and the charitable entity would have to eat some bad debt, so it would be necessary to inject some charitable capital or public housing funds to maintain solvency. But in theory, tenants will be at lower risk of falling behind on their rent because they will be paying a significantly smaller percentage of their income. It’s an idea worth noodling.

A Substation in Time Saves Nine

Photo credit: Dominion

The 2013 sniper attack on Pacific Gas & Electric Company’s Metcalf transmission substation was a wake-up call for the electric power industry. A team of riflemen knocked out the facility near San Jose, Calif., by firing upon and severely damaging 17 transformers. Thanks to redundancy in the grid, PG&E was able to prevent blackouts by re-routing electrical power. But the incident drove home how vulnerable the electric grid is to sabotage.

“The next day,” recalls Mike Lamb, manager of operations engineering for Dominion Energy Virginia, “we started brainstorming about what resiliency improvements we needed.”

As part of a multi-pronged strategy to bolster resiliency of its 6,500-mile electric transmission lines, 57,000 miles of distribution lines, 900 substations and 66,000 transformers, Dominion procured mobile transmission equipment designed by manufacturers in Europe, Asia and North America. The mobile equipment provides a “plug and play” design that allows it to connect with high-voltage cables in a fraction of set-up time required by conventional technology.

Most of the equipment held in resiliency reserves sits idle until needed in the aftermath of a hurricane, earthquake, or human-caused event. As it turned out, has Dominion found a use for the trailer-borne transmission outside of an emergency situation.

Temporary substation on the job in the Cartersville transmission line rebuild.

The company had a “wreck-and-rebuild” job on an older transmission line between the Bremo Power Station and a substation in Cartersville. Typically, says Lamb, a temporary transmission line would be constructed to carry load to customers while the old line was being rebuilt. In this particular case, a five-mile section had poor access.

Besides saving the $4 million expense of stringing a temporary line, says Lamb, the company was able to conduct a “proof of concept.” Workers proceeded slowly and deliberately over four months in order to work out set-up processes and develop checklists.

“We accomplished a lot of things with this one installation,” Lamb says. “If we have an unplanned situation in the future, we could hopefully make it within five to seven days.”

Nationally, the electric grid is aging. Most transformers in the United States were installed between 1950 and 1970, and have far exceeded their expected 40-year life span. U.S. utilities, some fear, may be forced to contend with an increasing number of breakdowns. Thus the grid is growing more fragile even as the threat of sabotage, cyber attacks and natural disaster looms ever larger.

While Dominion says that it has been proactively replacing older transformers, substation equipment, and transmission lines in order to improve reliability, the mobile transmission equipment gives it an added safeguard against an extended outage.

“The installation of the mobile transmission substation in Cartersville was a first in North America, and the equipment operated as designed,” says Lamb. “Dominion will definitely be better equipped and prepared in the future to respond to unplanned events.”

The Surge in Prince William Data Storage

Data centers continue to be the biggest economic development game in Virginia. The sector is dominated by Loudoun County, which spotted the potential earlier than anyone else and moved quickly to gain competitive advantage. Now Loudoun’s next-door-neighbor, Prince William County, is coming on strong.

The data center industry has brought 31 projects to the county to date, injecting $6.2 billion in capital investment and 912 jobs into the local economy, reports Virginia Business magazine. Most of the tax revenue goes to the county’s bottom line. For every $1 in county services the industry requires, data centers yield about $4.30 in tax revenue to Prince William.

Prince William is close to Ashburn in Loudoun County, which is known as Data Center Alley because of its concentration of more than 10 million square feet of data centers that are either in operation or under development.

As of December, Northern Virginia was the leading North America data center market with more than 30% of the market share and a record of 113.0 megawatts absorption of the total 357.85 megawatts in the top U.S. markets, according to JLL’s 2017 Data Center Outlook.  That’s nearly double the total for the nearest competing market, Northern California, which had 59.1 megawatts.

In its latest report on data centers, JLL notes that Northern Virginia has all six major data center REITs (real estate investments trusts) and the top five cloud providers developing in the market.

The area has 12.6 million square feet of data center space, with 190 megawatts of new electric power under construction. JLL credits the area’s fiber-rich Internet infrastructure and affordable cost of electricity — an average of 5.2 cents per kilowatt hour for data centers — as competitive advantages.

Bacon’s bottom line: The data-center boom has a long way to go. Market analysts forecast continued growth as Big Data and the Internet of Things, among other factors, create demand for ever more data storage. Meanwhile, the shift from decentralized, in-house storage to Cloud storage will tend to concentrate the storage of data geographically in super-efficient facilities with access to abundant fiber-optic cable and a supply of cheap, preferably green, electricity. The main limit on the ability of Northern Virginia to accommodate more data centers may be the ability of Dominion Energy and the Northern Virginia Electric Cooperative to supply the region with power.

Dominion needs to upgrade its electric transmission capacity to serve Northern Virginia, but homeowners are not happy at the prospect of large towers and lines despoiling their views. As it happens, Prince William is ground zero for this conflict, where local residents are up in arms over Dominion’s proposed transmission line to serve a proposed Amazon Web Services data center in the Haymarket area. If Virginia wants to continue reaping the economic advantages of Northern Virginia’s data center boom, someone needs to figure out how to mediate these seemingly irreconcilable differences.

Pipeline Passes FERC Environmental Review

While the proposed 605-mile Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP) would have temporary adverse impacts on people and the environment, the impact can be reduced to “less-than-significant levels,” if the project is constructed and operated in compliance with federal standards, declared the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in a final Environmental Impact Statement issued today. Read the EIS here.

The finding is a critical step toward ultimate approval or denial by the commission. Backers of the project lauded the FERC finding, while pipeline foes criticized it. Here follows a sample of the immediate reaction.

Atlantic Coast Pipeline. Leslie Hartz, vice president-engineering and construction for Dominion Energy, the ACP’s managing partner: “The favorable environmental report released today provides a clear path for final approval of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline this fall. The report concludes that the project can be built safely and with minimal long-term impacts to the environment. The report also reinforces previous findings by the FERC and decades of research demonstrating that natural gas pipelines do not adversely impact tourist economies or residential property values. With this report, the region moves one step closer toward a stronger economy, a more secure energy supply and a cleaner environment.”

Allegheny-Blue Ridge Alliance. Executive Director Lew Freeman: “The Trump administration’s final environmental report issued today for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which would carry fracked-gas through West Virginia, Virginia and North Carolina, utterly fails to independently assess whether the project is even needed. This is the core issue upon which all other considerations of the controversial project are based, says a coalition of community groups and legal and technical experts.”

Energy Sure. Samantha Quig with the Virginia Chamber of Commerce and Rich Greer with the Laborer’s International Union of North America: “After almost three years of extensive study by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and other agencies, we are encouraged by the favorable conclusions of the final environmental report released today. Never before has an infrastructure project in our region received so much scrutiny by so many agencies and offered so many opportunities for public input. We have total confidence in the process, and we are convinced the project will be built with all necessary protections for the environment and public safety.”

House Republicans (no link): Virginia House of Delegates Speaker William J. Howell and Speaker-designee M. Kirkland Cox: “We are heartened by today’s positive news from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission regarding the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. Construction of this project is crucial to ensuring Virginia’s economy continues to grow in the years ahead, and that our families and businesses will continue to have access to affordable and reliable domestic energy. As Governor Terry McAuliffe has noted, the ACP is really a ‘jobs pipeline’, and it is desperately needed in our Commonwealth. We know that we can grow Virginia’s economy, and create thousands of good paying jobs for our people, while also preserving the environmental treasures we all cherish and love. Today’s report proves this.”

Southern Environmental Law Center. Staff attorney Greg Buppert: “FERC still hasn’t addressed the most basic question hanging over this project: Is it even needed? It’s FERC’s responsibility to determine if this pipeline is a public necessity before it allows developers to take private property, clear forests, and carve up mountainsides. Mounting evidence shows that it is not.”

Bold Alliance. Richard Averitt, affected landowner and entrepreneur: ““The FEIS is based on incomplete information, false narratives, and superficial statements of need that are based on corrupt self-dealing. It makes a mockery of the approval process. It’s clear that FERC exists to do the bidding of the industry that pays its salaries and feels no responsibility to the public or to the truth.”

I’ll add more responses as I get them.

Dominion Wins OK on Switching Station

The James City County Board of Supervisors approved yesterday a Dominion Energy request to build a switching station needed to connect the proposed 500 kV Surry-Skiffes transmission line to the electric grid on the Virginia Peninsula.

The action eliminates the last substantive hurdle for the project, which triggered a massive outcry on the grounds that the transmission line would cross the James River near Jamestown, despoiling what foes described as pristine views of a national historic treasure.

The board split 3 to 2 on approving the station, which required a special use permit, zoning change, and height waiver. A decisive consideration, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, was concern that failure to build the transmission line would leave the peninsula vulnerable to blackouts.

Opponents have vowed not to give up the fight, but I can’t imagine what options they might have now that Dominion has obtained all needed regulatory approvals. I think we can close the file on this particular controversy.

Update: OK, I guess we can’t close the file. The National Parks Conservation Association has filed a lawsuit against the Army Corps and Secretary of the Army, seeking an injunction to block the permit issued for Surry-Skiffes. The T-D has the story here. See Dominion’s response in the comments.

Dominion, DONG Seal Deal on Two Offshore Wind Turbines

The yellow square in this Dominion graphic shows the location of the two wind turbines on the edge of the bloc that Dominion has leased for a large offshore wind farm.

Dominion Energy Virginia has signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with DONG Energy, the world’s largest offshore wind-power company, to build two 6-megawatt turbines off the Virginia Beach coast — a critical step toward opening up 2,000 megawatts of off-shore wind to development.

Dominion will own the $300 million project, while Dong has committed to delivering the project at a fixed price. A Dominion solicitation in 2015 yielded a low bid of $375 million, way higher than the company’s internal estimates. When a federal grant expired, creating even more exposure for the company, many observers gave up the project for dead.

But the Denmark-based DONG, which claims to have built 27% of the total offshore wind capacity in the world, is eyeing the U.S. East Coast. Besides working with Dominion, the company has formed a partnership with Eversource, a Massachusetts utility, and has committed to develop a major lease off the New Jersey coast. The MOU with Dominion gives the company “exclusive rights to discuss a strategic partnership” with Dominion Energy to develop the commercial site based on successful deployment of the initial test turbines.

“Virginia is now positioned to be a leader in developing more renewable energy thanks to the Commonwealth’s committed leadership and DONG’s unrivaled expertise in building offshore wind farms,” said Thomas F. Farrell, II, Dominion Energy CEO, in making the announcement earlier today at a Port of Virginia facility in Portsmouth.

“Today marks the first step in what I expect to be the deployment of hundreds of wind turbines off Virginia’s coast that will further diversify our energy production portfolio, create thousands of jobs, and reduce carbon emissions in the Commonwealth,” said Governor Terry McAuliffe, who also spoke at the waterside announcement. McAuliffe had pushed hard for the project behind the scenes.

So far, the only offshore wind turbines operating off the U.S. coast are a five-unit farm located off Block Island, Rhode Island. While that heavily subsidized project does have the distinction of being the first offshore wind power, no one expects it to provide an economic model for U.S. offshore development. The Dominion-Dong project could provide that model. 

The significance of the new Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind project is not in energy the turbines produce — only 12 megawatts — but in demonstrating how well they hold up under hurricane conditions off the East Coast.

DONG has extensive experience operating in the North Sea, which is known for its harsh weather, but wave and wind conditions off the Mid-Atlantic coast are different. “From a technical perspective, we’re very keen to learn about Mid-Atlantic weather patterns,” Francis Slingsby, in charge of DONG’s strategic partnerships, told Bacon’s Rebellion. Experience with the two demonstration turbines will guide design and construction of the estimated 2,000 turbines to come later. “When we put steel in the water,” he says, “we want to do it right.”

“We are excited to bring our expertise to America,” said Samuel Leupold, CEO of Wind Power at Dong Energy, in a prepared statement. (Leupold was unable to attend the announcement.) “This project will provide us vital experience in constructing an offshore project in the United States and serve as a stepping stone to a larger commercial-scale project between our companies in the future.”

Work on the project will begin immediately, and the two turbines are expected to go into operation by the end of 2020. The pace of construction will vary, depending upon factors such as weather and the migratory patterns of whales and other animals. The tips of the blades will reach higher than the Washington Monument, Dominion says, but simulations indicate that the turbines, located 26 miles from the shore, will not be visible to Virginia Beach beach goers.

A primary motive of building offshore wind is to provide an additional source of clean energy. While solar is taking off in Virginia, wind inside state borders has been relegated to small ridge-line projects in the western part of the state. The only way wind can be a major contributor to Virginia’s energy future is through development of off-shore wind.

Two thousand megawatts, if built, would be the rough equivalent to two state-of-the-art gas-burning power plants. The difference is that wind is not “dispatchable” — it generates power when the wind blows, not necessarily when Dominion needs it. Despite that drawback, the cost of offshore wind power is increasingly competitive with other sources, and utilities are increasingly confident they can handle the fluctuations in electricity output.

Assuming the two-turbine demonstration project turns out well, Dominion expects to phase in large-scale wind production in increments, Mark Mitchell, vice president-generation construction, told reporters. As turbines are added, the company would assess the ability of the Hampton Roads electric grid to accommodate the added volume of intermittent capacity. Dominion would make grid upgrades as needed.

McAuliffe has been a vocal proponent of renewable energy in Virginia. He also sees offshore wind as a potential economic boon for Hampton Roads. Over and above the potential for large-scale construction work, the Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind project would support hundreds of jobs in ongoing operations & maintenance.

Economic developers have touted the advantages of Hampton Roads, with its mid-Atlantic location, ports, and shipbuilding as a logical center for the U.S. off-shore wind industry.

“We’re optimistic, Virginia has what it takes” to attract companies in the wind-power supply chain, Slingsby said. However, he noted that the European wind-power industry has multiple industry clusters, so there was no reason to think that companies necessarily would concentrate in a single U.S. location like Hampton Roads. Factors that states can control are the ability to ramp up for a large-scale installation of wind turbines and to make skilled labor labor available. Wind farm technicians are one of the most exciting and fastest-growing blue collar occupations in the U.S. right now, he said.

Appalachian Power Nails Down 225 MW in Wind Power

Appalachian Power Co. is asking state regulators in Virginia and West Virginia to approve 225 MW of new wind generation from facilities located in Ohio and West Virginia.

The Roanoke-based electric utility, which serves roughly 1 million customers in Virginia, West Virginia, and Tennessee, already has 375 MW of wind generation, with another 120 MW coming on line in 2018. With the approval of the two new projects, the company would have a total of 1,000 megawatts of renewable energy (wind and hydro).

“We are continuing to transition to an energy company of the future and further diversifying our power generation portfolio. These acquisitions move us in that direction,” said CEO Chris Beam. “Direct ownership and operation of these facilities will give our employees new experiences in the planning, production and delivery of power from diverse generating assets as Appalachian continues to add renewable resources in the years ahead.”

The 175 MW Hardin Wind Facility will be located in Hardin County, Ohio, and the 50 MW Beech Ridge II Wind Facility will be in Greenbrier County, W.Va. Both wind projects are under development by Invenergy, LLC.

Bacon’s bottom line: I wondered why Appalachian, the bulk of whose service territory resides in Virginia, would acquire wind properties based in far-away Ohio. Spokesman John Shelpwich gave the following response:

Appalachian Power operates in both Virginia and West Virginia. Our customers share in plants in both states… hydro and natural gas plants here, coal plants in W.Va. Historically, we have also owned or partly owned plants in other states (generally coal) too. In this case, these two facilities were proposals that came out of the RFP we issued in 2016 for wind generation with a primary requirement being that the new plant had to be interconnected with PJM. Both of these are.

We had a number of proposals in response; these two — and one other that was also approved will be in Indiana that we will not own, but will purchase its output by long-term contract — provide our customers the best deals. (I will note that it has been hard to get a sizable wind facility constructed in Va. so far).

If you recall, the RFP for utility scale solar we issued earlier this year calls specifically for construction to be within our service territory in Va. or W.Va. We received numerous proposals for that RFP too and are reviewing the best opportunities.

The key sentence: “It has been hard to get a sizable wind facility constructed in Va. so far.”

The problem here is not obstruction or foot-dragging by Virginia’s electric utilities. Appalachian wants to own Virginia-based wind power. A big part of the challenge, I suspect, is the paucity of viable utility-scale wind sites. Also, wind farms in the mountains are strung along ridge tops, almost invariably stimulating resistance from locals who don’t want their views marred. If Virginians want more wind power, we may need to take a look at how local zoning codes empower NIMBYs and hamper wind development.

Another lesson: If you like wind power, you’d better like the transmission lines that enable electrons in Ohio and Indiana to flow to Virginia. As renewable wind and solar make gain an increasing share of Virginia’s electric power mix, Virginia needs to build out a highly flexible grid that can handle the intermittent power generation from those sources. That means investing in “smart” grid technologies. And it could well require building more transmission lines.

Campaign Contributions and Selective Indignation

Steve Nash, author of “Virginia Climate Fever,” is on a crusade against Dominion Energy, electric utilities, the coal industry and other corporate special interests that donate vast sums of money to Virginia politicians. He has been submitting op-eds to newspapers around the state taking Dominion and Appalachian Power to task for their outsized campaign contributions.

Writing most recently in the (Lynchburg) News & Advance, Steve asks:

So whether you’re conservative, green, libertarian or liberal, here’s the question: Can your legislator explain why it’s OK to accept “donations” from the two power companies and still cast votes on legislation that affects not only their profits, but also our electric bills and, crucially, our environment? For that matter, why is it legitimate to take money from any corporate interests who also have legislative needs that should not pre-empt the public interest?

Now, Steve is a very close friend of mine, and we debate issues like this with regularity. One of the things that I love about Steve is that, although he is tenacious in his beliefs, he does make an effort to understand the other side of the argument. He engages in reasoned, gentlemanly discussion rather than resorting to change-the-subject evasions and ad hominem attacks. I will endeavor to engage Steve’s arguments in the same generous spirit.

It is an article of faith on the left that the coal and electric-power industries, and Dominion most of all, are fending off worthy environmentalist legislation by buying legislators’ loyalties. Dominion, as Steve points out, has given more than $7.4 million to legislators of both parties since 2016 — $826,000 in 2016-17 alone. The company is Virginia’s top donor. And it doesn’t hand out the money in a spirit of charity and good will. Like everyone else, Dominion gives money because it hopes to get something in return — access, if not legislators’ votes.

As Steve writes:

Public servants who take Dominion’s and Appalachian’s money have voted on countless power-utility-related bills, listened to the pitches of the sturdy corps of power company lobbyists, and then handed those companies a lengthening series of legislative home runs worth hundreds of millions of dollars — perhaps a billion or two by some estimates. And they routinely vote on legislation affecting the bankers, realtors, beer wholesalers, the health industry and their other benefactors.

Please note that Steve seems to have no problem with environmental interests donating large sums of money. As the Staunton News Leader observed recently, the top three environmental campaign donors, the League of Conservation Voters, NextGen Climate Action, and the Sierra Club have shelled out $5.0 million to individual statewide candidates over the past decade, compared to Dominion’s $3.3 million. (The comparison is not entirely fair because it doesn’t include other utility and fossil fuel interests. But the article makes the point that environmentalists aren’t slouches when it comes to throwing around big money.)

Steve and other environmentalists frequently note that Dominion donated $75,000 to Governor Terry McAuliffe’s 2014 gubernatorial campaign, not including thousands more from individual Dominion executives. Although I don’t recall Steve making the connection, others have suggested that such campaign booty explains the governor’s support for the controversial Atlantic Coast Pipeline, of which Dominion is the managing partner.

But the critics of utility donations never acknowledge that NextGen Climate Action, founded by California hedge-fund billionaire Tom Steyer, donated more than $1.6 million to McAuliffe! Another $1.7 million came from the League of Conservation Voters, and nearly $470,000 from the Sierra Club. Nor do the critics ever observe that, as a reward to his environmental supporters, McAuliffe appointed Angela Navarro, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, as deputy secretary of Natural Resources.

When was the last time a Dominion Energy executive was appointed to a senior administrative post?

Steve holds up as exemplars more than five dozen House of Delegates candidates who have signed a pledge to refuse to accept campaign cash from either Dominion or Apco. These are mostly Democrats, but Steve argues that conservatives should join the movement, too. After all, big money in politics encourages big government.

As a libertarian, I agree that big money and big government are intertwined.  And as a libertarian, I have no problem with candidates voluntarily turning down corporate money — as opposed to restricting the right of corporations to offer the money. But as best I can tell, Tom Steyer, the Virginia League of Conservation Voters, and the Sierra Club are not calling for less government. They just want to utilize the power of state government to different ends.

The difference between the electric utilities and the environmentalists, Steve implies in the quote above, is that the utilities are lobbying for their own private interests while environmentalists are pushing for the “public interest.”

It’s fair to say that environmentalists believe they are working for the public interest. But they’re working for their definition of the public interest. Their’s is not necessarily the same definition that, say, coal miners in Southwest Virginia would adopt. Or that economic developers in natural gas-constrained Hampton Roads would use. Or that electric rate payers would use. Or that businesses and homeowners counting on the reliability of the electric grid would use.

Environmentalists are a special interest lobby just like Dominion, Apco and the coal companies. That doesn’t make them evil; it doesn’t even make them wrong. Indeed, I’m happy to entertain the idea that in many instances, they are right. But it is romantic nonsense to insist that environmentalists dwell in some higher ethical plane and that their goals are any more pure than anyone else’s.

Bacon’s bottom line: If Dominion, Apco, the coal industry, Tom Steyer, the Sierra Club, and every other corporate or special interest group under the sun didn’t believe that money didn’t buy them access, they wouldn’t give the money. Clearly, money does influence the public policy process. But so does the media. So do grass roots organizing efforts. So do lawsuits. And, believe it or not, so do the actual merits of the case.

Thanks to the Virginia Public Access Project, it’s easy to follow campaign money. However, a large fraction of the cash dedicated to influencing public policy is invisible. We can’t track how much different groups are spending on public relations and influencing the press. We can’t track how much money is spent on research, organizing demonstrations, letter-writing campaigns, and other grass-roots activities. We can’t track how much money is spent on filing lawsuits and pressuring regulators.

Wouldn’t it be great if the electric utilities and environmental groups alike revealed how much they spent on such efforts? I’m not holding my breath. Most groups hew to the ethic of “Transparency for thee, but not for me.” Until such time as we know the bigger picture, I’m not inclined to make a big deal about disparities in one channel — campaign contributions — for influencing the political process.

Update: I just came across a 2014 Mother Jones article that said Steyer’s NextGen Climate Action spent $8 million “to keep Republican Ken Cuccinelli out of the state’s top office.” So, Steyer spent more money in one year than Dominion donated in ten.

A Patch in Time Saves Nine

The WannaCry and Petya cyber-assaults on banks, airports and other businesses in Europe in May used a vulnerability in Microsoft software to infect machines and spread around the world. Microsoft had issued a patch to close the back door months earlier, but many users never installed the update. Ironically, when Microsoft creates a software patch, it tips off bad guys to a previously unrecognized vulnerability. Cyber-criminals can create a virus to exploit that vulnerability sure in the knowledge that many corporations will fail to update the all of the thousands of computers and devices in their system.

The single-most effective thing that any IT manager can do to maintain security is to promptly install software patches. The task sounds pretty basic. But it’s easier said than done.

Christiansburg-based FoxGuard Solutions helps clients keep software up to date on critical infrastructure such as power grids, wind turbines and nuclear power plants. Founded in 1981, the company has seen its cyber-security business expand at a compounded growth rate of 42% over the past five years.

As far as FoxGuard CEO Marty Muscatello is aware, none of its customers were affected by the WannaCry and Petya attacks, reports Jacob Demmit with the Roanoke Times, after accompanying U.S. Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Salem, on a tour of the FoxGuard facility. The company’s software is used in 40 different states and 35 countries. Reports Demmit:

FoxGuard has been using a $4.3 million cooperative agreement from the U.S. Department of Energy since 2013 to develop tools to track software updates and patches for 128 companies in the critical infrastructure industry.

It’s pretty easy to keep a single home computer up to date, but that becomes increasingly difficult when an IT department is trying to protect a power plant that could have 100,000 different machines across a power grid. A company might not even be aware of some computers on its network that could let hackers in, like an air conditioning system.

FoxGuard, it would seem, has a bright future, for its market will expand exponentially. As the Internet of Things takes off, embedding microchips and wireless in billions of devices, corporations will be hard-pressed to keep track of them all. Patching them all will be almost impossible, for Original Equipment Manufacturers typically stop updating software for devices they no longer manufacture. The challenge is particularly acute for electric utilities, which have cobbled together multiple generations of technology to operate their systems. As they move increasingly toward flexible “smart grids” to accommodate solar and wind power, they will install thousands of sensors and actuators across their systems, potentially making them even more vulnerable to cyber-attacks.

For a monthly fee, says the Roanoke Times, FoxGuard tracks all those machines and makes sure the client knows of every update on a timely basis. The company can even download and test the update in its own lab to check for compatibility issues before installing it in the field.

Bacon’s bottom line: The news brings daily remembers of how vulnerable the global Internet-connected economy is, and how anyone with a good cyber-security technology or service can tap into a global market. Governor Terry McAuliffe is right about this: Cyber-security is one of the biggest economic-development opportunities to come along in Virginia in a long time.