Category Archives: Energy

Prince William Supervisors Demand Coal Ash Studies

Prince William County Board of Supervisors Chair Corey Stewart speaking at the coal ash public hearing.

Four members of the Prince William County board of supervisors appeared at a public hearing last night to express concerns about Dominion Virginia Power’s plan to pursue the “closure in place” option for disposing the coal ash at its Possum Point Power Station.

The Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) held the hearing as part of its evaluation of Dominion’s request for a solid waste permit. More than a hundred citizens appeared at the hearing at Potomac High School, frequently erupting into jeers and cheers throughout the evening.

Describing the coal ash disposal as “the most important environmental issue facing our county in decades,” Woodbridge Supervisor Frank Principi called upon DEQ to engage in intensive information gathering before issuing a permit. His request, repeated by numerous citizens, echoes legislation backed by Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Mount Vernon, that would require owners of coal ash ponds to assess closure options and demonstrate their long-term safety before DEQ grants a permit.

Specifically, Principi asked the DEQ to release the data for testing water quality at Pond D, where the coal ash is being consolidated and capped with a synthetic liner, and release test results from a surface water sampling plan. Further, he demanded that DEQ conduct an alternatives analysis to see if recycling and landfilling coal ash would be safer.

Principi also said he wants to see documentation of measures to prevent a “catastrophic failure” of Dominion’s cap-in-place proposal. “Nobody here wants to repeat the mistakes of Buffalo Creek, Kingston or Dan River,” he said, citing three notorious examples of coal ash spills.

Board Chairman Corey Stewart, a Republican candidate for governor, appeared midway through the hearing and ramped up the rhetoric. It was unacceptable to leave four million tons of coal ash in place, he said, especially given Dominion’s track record of dealing with the County. “Dominion has been less than honest with Prince William County. Dominion lies. You have to be very skeptical of what they tell you.”

Dominion did not respond to the criticisms leveled against it. Cathy Taylor, Dominion’s senior environmental officer, delivered prepared remarks at the beginning of the hearing that repeated the company’s talking points.

Coal ash has been stored safely at Possum Point since 1948, Taylor said, but new EPA regulations require the company to close the ponds permanently. The company is de-watering the coal ponds now. The company has made proactive improvements to the dewatering process to “make the system better, more effective,” and it is posting water-quality testing results “so neighbors know that Quantico Creek is being protected.”

When the de-watering is complete, the next phase will be consolidating the coal ash from five ponds into the 64-acre Pond D. Under the requested solid waste permit, Dominion would cover the pond with “a high-density polyethelene cap to prevent rainwater or any moisture from coming into contact with the ash; a drainage layer designed to drain water away from the cap; then 24 inches of soil and vegetation.”

The company has already installed a monitoring network of 24 wells around the coal ash ponds, Taylor said. “If groundwater monitoring indicates that further action is needed, then both state and federal requirements mandates that additional measures will be put int place.” Pond D will be inspected on a regular basis to maintain integrity of the cover system, she added, and a professional dam-safety engineer will inspect the facility once a year.

While citizen comments were overwhelmingly opposed to Dominion’s plan, two women opposed the alternative of trucking coal ash to a landfill. Possum Point Road is a narrow, winding, two-lane road not constructed for truck traffic, said Eileen Thrall, who lives on the road. She is worried about congestion and the potential for traffic accidents.

Greg Buppert, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC), warned that Pond D “will not have two basic features that all modern landfills are required to have in Virginia to protect groundwater: a synthetic liner under the ash and a leachate collection system.”

Recent monitoring shows that heavy metals emanating from coal ash at Pond D are getting into the groundwater, Buppert said. “Will Dominion’s closure plan stop this pollution? The answer is that we don’t know. Dominion is required to demonstrate that groundwater is not in contact with the ash at Possum Point. But the company won’t provide that information until October 2018, at which point the cap-in-place construction could be complete.”

“Is Dominion’s plan the best solution for dealing with the coal as at Possum Point? Again we don’t know,” he said. “DEQ and Dominion should not rush forward to cap ash at Pond D  at Possum Point before assessing the full range of alternatives for dealing with this legacy waste.”

Prince William County has well-established authority to regulate landfills within its borders, Buppert said. Given the sentiments expressed by county supervisors at the hearing, he said, county intervention is a real possibility.

Landfill, Recycle or Close in Place?

Coal ash disposal underway at Dominion’s Possum Point Power Station. Photo credit: Dominion Virginia Power

  • As debate intensifies over how to dispose of coal ash, Dominion Virginia Power says it is following the same approach as many other utilities: closing the coal ash ponds in place.
  • Environmentalists want to hold Dominion to a higher standard set by other utilities in the Atlantic Coastal Plain, where many are recycling and landfilling the ash. 
  • Outside experts say the optimal plan for each power plant depends on its unique circumstances.

Executives at Dominion Virginia Power thought they were being good corporate citizens a year ago by acting quickly to implement Environmental Protection Agency regulations governing the disposal of coal ash. When the EPA published its new rules, the electric utility promptly announced plans to create a long-term storage solution for the containment ponds at its Bremo and Possum Point power stations.

The EPA had enacted the rules in response to the rupture of a Tennessee Valley Authority coal ash pond in 2008 and a spill from a Duke Energy facility in 2014, both of which caused extensive contamination of nearby rivers. The incidents sparked national outrage and stoked demands for measures to prevent another disaster. The fixes that Dominion detailed in its requests for waste-water and solid-waste permits put the company on the fast track to eliminate any chance of a spill from either power plant.

But the power company is not feeling the love. Environmental groups have contested company plans on the grounds that they would not prevent traces of heavy metals from leaching into the groundwater and eventually into rivers and streams. Denouncing Dominion for ravaging the environment, protesters marched on the state capital. Every other day seems to bring another controversial headline.

Rob Richardson, a Dominion spokesman on the coal ash issue, expressed the bewilderment felt by many within the utility. Dominion has been forward-thinking on coal ash, he said. While other companies submitted plans in late November 2016, Dominion unveiled its plans late in 2015. Instead of winning praise and moving expeditiously through the permitting process, the company has been subjected to an endless litany of criticism. Said Richardson: “We’ve been taking a beating.”

Environmentalists have moved beyond the original goal of stabilizing the coal ash. Through lawsuits, press releases and news stories, critics have changed the terms of debate. Dominion may be solving one problem — the threat that breaking levies might send large volumes of slurried coal ash spilling into the James or Potomac rivers — but critics says its plans to consolidate the coal ash in existing, unlined containment pits won’t halt the leaching of heavy metals into the groundwater.

The company did act quickly, but only to take advantage of a loophole in the EPA rule that allowed utilities to close “inactive” ponds with fewer monitoring requirements, says Greg Buppert, a Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) attorney who has represented the Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club and local river-keeper organizations in lawsuits against Dominion. The EPA has since eliminated that loophole.

“Dominion is ignoring an emerging industry standard in how utilities are dealing with these ash ponds,” he says. “Throughout the region, utilities are excavating unlined ponds, putting the ash in landfills, and in many cases recycling the coal ash.”

Stung by charges that it isn’t living up to the standard set by other utilities, Dominion recently released data culled from EPA filings. In truth, the company says, its closure practices fall well within the norms of the electric-utility industry. Only a minority of coal ash ponds are being landfilled. Many are being closed in place, as seen in the chart below.

coal_ash_closures

Number of coal ash ponds, by company, that are being closed in place. (Click for more legible image.)

Atlantic Coastal Plain. Image source: Wikipedia

But the chart doesn’t come close to settling the debate. Buppert counters that industry-wide comparisons aren’t relevant. Dominion’s power plants are located in the Atlantic Coastal Plain, a low-lying area where groundwater lies close to the surface. Hydrological conditions are different there than in the Piedmont and mountain regions where many coal plants are located. Utilities in the Carolinas and Georgia have agreed to landfill and recycle their coal ash rather than bury it in pits. Dominion has proposed instead to consolidate its coal ash in unlined pits — one at Bremo and one at Possums Point — and cap them with polyethelene lining and a two-foot layer of dirt. Dominion’s proposal, he argues, does not prevent groundwater from migrating through the pits and picking up leached metals from the ash.

In turn, Dominion argues that comparing its power plants to those of Duke Energy, Santee Cooper, Georgia Power and SG&E (SCANA) on the basis of superficially similar hydrology is flawed thinking. Each power plant is unique. Each site has distinctive topographical and hydrological features. Measures that make sense for one site don’t necessarily make sense for another.

Dominion insists that its approach protects the environment without the huge expense of landfilling the coal ash, which could run up the cost to $3 billion. Furthermore, trucking the coal ash to a landfilled location would take many years to complete, leaving the public little safer from potential spills during the interim than they were before. Indeed, literally thousands of truck trips through residential areas would elevate the risk of traffic accidents while diesel fumes and dust pose a nuisance and health risks.

Who’s right? It gets complicated. Strap on your face mask and buckle your scuba tank for a deep dive into the arcane discipline of coal ash disposal.

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Dominion Fulfills 400-Megawatt Solar Commitment

Dominion solar farm

Dominion solar farm. Photo credit: Dominion.

Dominion is investing more than $800 million in solar projects in Virginia totaling 398 megawatts of generation either completed or under development. The projects bring the company within an eyelash of fulfilling a 2015 promise to bring 400 megawatts of large-scale solar generation facilities into service by 2020.

Furthermore, said Dominion in a press release issued today, 80% of that capacity is being covered by large business and government customers ranging from Amazon Web Services to the Commonwealth of Virginia and the University of Virginia. Most of the development and construction cost of the projects will be borne by customers under contract, not passed on to rate payers.

Legislation enacted in 2015 declared that development in Virginia of up to 50 megawatts of solar projects in the state was “in the public interest.”

“We are well ahead of schedule on the solar expansion and what we have added so far will have a very minimal impact on the price of electricity for the 2.5 million regulated customers we serve in Virginia,” said Paul Koonce, CEO of Power Generation at Dominion Energy. “Our goal is to have a balanced generating portfolio that is highly reliable, cost effective and environmentally responsible. The cost of energy powered by the sun is coming down and we are working hard to develop projects in new and economical ways for our customers.”

Bacon’s bottom line: Most of this information has appeared in previous announcements, which raises the question of why Dominion issued this press release at this particular time. The backdrop is the increasing pushback the utility is experiencing by gubernatorial candidates and lawmakers on a variety of fronts. Most significantly, the 2015 deal that froze the base rates of Dominion and Appalachian Power for six years has been re-opened for scrutiny.

With this press release, Dominion is reminding the public that there was more to that 2015 legislative compromise, crafted in response to the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, than the rate freeze. The company also committed $57 million over five years to energy assistance to low-income customers and made the 400-megawatt commitment to solar. Reading between the lines, the press release says, “Hey, guys, we made good on the solar promise.”

Bacon’s other bottom line: It’s also apparent — again, reading between the lines — that Dominion management is not persuaded that solar makes economic sense… yet. In other words, its commitment to solar at this point in time is driven by political considerations.

Why do I say that? Because Koonce stresses that the company’s solar investment to date “will have a very minimal impact on the price of electricity.” The implication is that solar would increase the price were it not for the fact that Dominion is building its utility-scale projects by means of long-term contracts with entities willing to pay a premium price for green energy.

The crux of the matter is that solar power is not “dispatchable” — Dominion does not control when it generates solar electricity. It produces electricity only when the sun shines, which does not coincide with periods of peak consumption, and, further, is subject to weather-related interruptions, meaning that electric companies must maintain expensive back-up capacity to fill in.

The vast majority of Dominion’s investment has been in large, utility-scale projects, which are easier to integrate into the high-voltage transmission grid. PJM Interconnection, the regional transmission organization of which Virginia is a part, has said that the region grid could accommodate up to 30% intermittent wind and solar power by redirecting energy flows across a 13-state region.

The dynamics of on-again, off-again production play out differently on the local distribution grid, which lacks the flexibility of the interstate transmission grid. That’s why Dominion has installed 10 experimental, rooftop and other small-scale solar sites around the state: to learn more about how local electric circuits respond to fluctuations in energy output.

Dominion is under tremendous political pressure to accommodate more “distributed generation.” But the economics are very different from utility-scale generation that ties into the transmission grid. Published reports say that the cost of solar could fall to as little as 4 cents per kilowatt hour by 2040. That compares to roughly 11 cents charged by Dominion Virginia Power today. But that still leaves the intermittency issue. While battery storage has been touted as a remedy, battery manufacturers like Tesla are hoping to get the cost down to $100 per kilowatt hour by 2022. There’s still a long way to go before large-scale rooftop deployment is feasible.

Yet in the press release Koonce acknowledged that “the cost of energy powered by the sun is coming down.” So, who knows what the future might bring?

McAuliffe Reverses, Now Opposes Electric Rate Freeze

Governor Terry McAuliffe

Governor Terry McAuliffe said yesterday that he supports legislation that would cancel the freeze in base electric rates on Dominion Virginia Power and Appalachian Power if President Trump kills the Clean Power Plan. The endorsement came a little late for state Sen. J. Chapman Petersen, D-Fairfax City, whose bill to roll back the freeze was killed in a Senate committee in January in a 12 to 2 vote.

Taxpayers “are entitled to the lowest, most efficient rate that we can deliver to them,” McAuliffe said on the John Fredericks Show, which broadcasts in Hampton Roads, Richmond, Lynchburg, Danville and Franklin. “If Chap Petersen can get me a bill on my desk, I’d sign it. Let me be clear.”

“There’s a better chance of me starting for the Redskins as quarterback,” said Petersen, as quoted by the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “Governor, you’re going to need to send down the legislation.”

In 2015 The General Assembly passed a bill freezing base electric rates, which McAuliffe signed, after the Obama administration had rolled out the Clean Power Plan requiring Virginia’s electric utilities to significantly reduce CO2 emissions. The State Corporation Commission staff had estimated that the legislation could push electric rates 20% higher. With a stated goal of providing rate stability in uncertain times, the legislation locked base rates in place for six years.

Environmentalists were critical of the bill from the beginning, arguing that the Clean Power would increase rates only marginally. Then industrial customers contended that Dominion had been overcharging customers before the law went into effect, and the law locked in rates at excessively high levels. Moreover, they charged, the electric companies weren’t even taking on a major risk: If the Clean Power Plan had forced them to retire coal plants and build new generating facilities, they would have been able to pass on the cost through a Rate Adjustment Clause, which wasn’t affected.

Dominion has argued that the law also provided for annual, instead of biennial, review of power companies’ Integrated Resource Plans, making the planning process more transparent. As part of the legislative compromise, the company also upped its financial commitment to its Energy Share energy-efficiency plan for low-income homeowners.

Furthermore, Bill Murray, Dominion’s managing director of public policy, said last week, the company has taken $296 million in write-offs for the past two years for expenses relating to the closure of its coal ash ponds. The freeze prevents the company from recovering those costs. “Those are costs we are absorbing.”

Bacon’s bottom line: McAuliffe’s support for reversing the freeze is a day late and a dollar short. As a practical matter, Petersen’s bill cannot be resurrected. Reversing the freeze without understanding the emerging regulatory context may not make sense anyway. The Trump administration has made clear its intention to kill the Clean Power Plan. We Virginians need a clearer idea of what kind of energy policy we want going forward. Simply rolling back the freeze doesn’t inform that debate.

Solar power is the potential game changer. The cost of generating solar energy continues to decline, and so does the cost of battery storage, which will help offset the intermittent nature of solar generation. No one disagrees with those propositions, but many questions remain open. How rapidly are solar prices declining? When will solar become economically competitive with natural gas in Virginia? That depends in large measure what happens to natural gas prices. Will they rise from currently low levels, and, if so, by how much?

Another big question is how much solar can Dominion, Appalachian Power and Virgina’s electric co-ops absorb without undermining the reliability of the electric grid. A related set of questions revolves around how much retail competition regulators should allow, how to guarantee the integrity of the grid if electric utilities lose market to independent solar operators, and how rate payers will be impacted if utilities experience a decrease in consumption.

One more pressing matter: What’s the role of nuclear in a post-Clean Power Plan world? While it still may make economic sense to renew the licenses for Dominion’s existing nuclear power plants, building a third unit at North Anna guesstimated to be $18 billion probably does not. Dominion wanted to maintain that option as an insurance policy, at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars in engineering and permitting expenses, to protect against the most onerous of the Clean Power Plan regulatory scenarios. In a Trump presidency, that scenario looks highly unlikely. Should Dominion scrap North Anna 3?

If Virginians want to unfreeze the freeze, we need to recognize that no regulatory action takes place in a vacuum. Rather than dealing with each of these issues piece-meal we should settle them in a comprehensive way.

Collaborate to Increase Virginia’s Energy Options

by Joy Loving

Several posts on Bacon’s Rebellion have caught my eye in recent weeks. In one, Jim Bacon noted  that “[m]arket forces are shifting dramatically in favor of clean energy.” He suggested that “clean power advocates need to back entrepreneurial, market-driven solutions.”

In another, he told readers: “Half the Fortune 500 companies have committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. … If Virginia wants to attract data centers, warehouses and big box stores, among other types of investment, it needs to provide a broader array of clean-energy options.”

And in a third, he discussed a large obstacle:

In an era of abundant capital and near-zero interest rates, reputable corporations can easily and cheaply borrow the money they need to expand. A much tougher task is finding a skilled workforce…. Addressing the jobs-skills mismatch is arguably the greatest economic challenge facing Virginia today…. Virginia’s colleges, community colleges and universities can do most of the heavy lifting on education and training, but they are not equipped to provide a fast-response, turnkey workforce solution….

Taken together, these three posts tell me that Virginia needs to:

1. Act decisively to bring more clean energy to the Commonwealth;
2. Emphasize workforce development over subsidies and tax breaks so Virginia can support the companies (and employment opportunities) that more green energy will bring to the state;
3. Create the “explicit legal framework” to make the first two things happen.

The 2017 energy outlook suggests that a huge competitor in the green energy arena is and will continue to be China, which has announced big bold plans to assure their leadership in renewable energy (RE) sources. Germany also has made huge strides in increasing their citizens’ access to and use of renewable energy. Both countries have developed sizable solar manufacturing models and many U.S. solar installers buy their products. It’s not a stretch to say that the U.S. is losing out in energy innovation and renewable energy jobs.

Hopefully, the Virginia General Assembly will address some of these issues and enact specific enabling legislation to foster many more large- and mid-size utility-scale clean energy projects. (In 2016 the GA took a bye in this area). If so, Virginia’s RE picture might improve significantly in the next few years.

But such action, however welcome, will not address the fact that many—even most–non corporate Virginians, individuals and small business owners, find it difficult to use RE to produce their electricity. The legislature has not thus far been responsive to the needs and desires of these citizens. Given the likely coming changes for federal energy policy under the Trump administration, Virginians will need to look to their legislators for the means to determine their energy sources.

Accordingly, I have reached the following conclusions:

• Individuals’ energy independence is limited and may be further eroded.
• Virginians may want more energy security than the state’s centralized generation and distribution model now offers.
• Virginia lags other states and other countries in exploring new energy distribution models and energy sources.
• There is great, currently under-exploited, economic potential from clean energy in Virginia.

Virginians must let their legislators know that they want these improvements. A recent survey by Conservatives for Clean Energy concluded, as reported by WVIR-TV, that “two-thirds of conservative voters in Virginia support renewables….” And, Utility Dive recently reported that “Three Republican governors recently strengthened the renewable portfolio standards in their states in a sign that the link between job growth and renewable energy incentives may be trumping traditional partisan affiliations.”

Improving Virginia’s energy policies and increasing Virginians’ energy options will take a concerted effort. It’s not a matter of politics. Solutions can be found if we—energy consumers—demand it. This year may see some momentum in the GA. We can keep that momentum going by telling our elected representatives what we want.

Joy Loving is a Virginian, utility investor, solar producer, and energy consumer.

Converting Coal Mines into Pumped Storage

Is it practicable to convert old coal mines into pumped storage facilities? We may find out.

Is it practicable to convert old coal mines into pumped storage facilities? We may find out.

Perhaps the most intriguing idea in the renewable-energy package promoted by General Assembly Republicans (see previous post) is the idea of converting abandoned coal mines into pumped storage generating units.

Dominion Virginia Power operates a pumped storage facility in Bath County. The facility has two reservoirs. During periods of high demand when the price of electricity is high, Dominion releases water from the upper reservoir into the lower; during periods of low demand when the price is low, the company pumps water back into the upper reservoir.

The idea is to replicate this process on a smaller scale inside old coal mines. Frankly, I’m having a hard time visualizing how this would work — the underground coal mines I’ve visited follow are as level as the coal seams they follow — but I’ll assume that proponents of the idea know much more about the subject than I do.

One advantage of using coal mines for pumped storage is that they use water already in the mines, and there is no need to dam a river or creek. Further, Terry Kilgore, R-Gate City, who sponsored the bill, envisions using wind or solar power to pump the water. You can’t get any greener than that.

Here’s the topper: Use the abundance of green power to sell big corporations on locating their data centers in Southwest Virginia. One of the Commonwealth of Virginia’s two data centers is located in Lebanon, Va., on the edge of the coalfields, and the Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission has invested heavily in equipping the region with the broadband access that any data center requires. High bandwidth and clean energy make a winning combination, the thinking goes.

Dominion, which already has a coal plant in Wise County, doesn’t have a specific project in mind, but says it is keenly interested in what Kilgore’s bill would allow, reports the Roanoke Times.

“This is a BIG deal longer-term in the coalfields,” Jack Kennedy, Wise County’s clerk of circuit court and regional technology advocate, told the Times. “It could lead to hundreds of millions in investment, maybe over $1 billion.”

Hope always springs eternal in Virginia’s suffering coalfield region. The idea of converting underground coal mines into pumped storage facilities sounds extremely conceptual, and the economics are far from proven. But you never know. If the idea does work, and if the region could attract a handful of data centers — stranger things have happened, Microsoft located a data center in Mecklenburg County —  it could be a game-changer.

Pro-Solar Tweaks Advance in General Assembly

If big corporate customers start generating their own electricity, who will pay to build and maintain the electric transmission-distribution grid?

If big corporate customers start generating their own electricity, who will pay to build and maintain the electric transmission-distribution grid?

As the General Assembly reaches the mid-point of its session, solar-energy legislation sponsored by Republicans has a very good chance of passing, reports Robert Zullo with the Richmond Times-Dispatch

The proposals emerged from lengthy discussions in a working group of Virginia’s electric utilities, electric cooperatives, and solar industry proponents. While the package is “a mixed bag,” said Will Cleaveland with the Southern Environmental Law Center, he conceded that it “leans slightly to the positive.”

According to Zullo, the package includes bills that:

  • Allows farmers to sell more renewable energy generated on their property to utilities;
  • Establishes a pilot community solar program for subscribing utility customers;
  • Allows streamlined permitting for small-scale renewable energy projects; and
  • Allows utilities to ask the State Corporation Commission for recovery of costs for pumped hydroelectric generation and storage facilities in Virginia’s coalfields. As envisioned, this pump-storage would be coupled with solar energy.

Bacon’s bottom line: Anything that injects more entrepreneurs and competition into the equation is a good thing. However, these bills leave unanswered perhaps the most important issue facing solar energy in the state: legal clarity for power-purchase agreements, specifically for arrangements involving third-party financing. A consortium of Fortune 500 corporations had requested clarification of laws that would make it easier for them to execute deals with third parties in order to generate their own solar energy. Power-purchase agreements are complex legal and financial instruments set up to extract maximum value from federal tax credits.

Many corporations have made a commitment to clean power and would like to derive a bigger percentage of their electricity from renewable energy sources, which in in most parts of Virginia means solar. From their perspective, the ideal law would allow them to generate their own solar electricity and sell surplus power back into the grid at the full retail rate. However, power companies argue that independent solar generators should recoup a lower wholesale rate for the electricity. Electric utilities oppose laws that allow competitors to capture retail market share without compensating the utilities (and their rate payers) for the cost of maintaining the transmission-distribution grid that everyone relies upon when the sun isn’t shining.

Until the General Assembly grapples with the fundamental issue of how to generate solar electricity without undermining the transmission-distribution grid, all the rest is window dressing.

Is Recycling a Practical Solution for Coal Ash?

State Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Mount Vernon, recommends coal ash recycling.

State Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Mount Vernon, recommends coal ash recycling.

State Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Mount Vernon, represents homeowners living near Dominion Virginia Power’s Possum Point Power Station, which is in the process of disposing of millions of cubic yards of coal ash accumulated over the years. The coal combustion residue, he told the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Conservation & Natural Resources this afternoon, is a “booming, growing, ongoing problem.”

Dominion proposes consolidating the coal combustion residue from five ponds into one, which it will cap with a synthetic liner and monitor for leakage of potentially toxic heavy metals. But tests have found elevated levels of metals associated in the groundwater around the facility, and Surovell wants better protection for his constituents as well as other Virginians living near other coal ash sites. He has submitted a trio of bills that would require Virginia electric utilities to evaluate the options of coal ash recycling and/or disposing of the material into a synthetically lined landfills with leachate collectors.

Numerous coal ash ponds are scattered around Virginia, and Possum Point is furthest advanced in the regulatory process for closure. “This is new to everyone in the United States,” Surovell said, adding that he wants to make sure Dominion’s remedies don’t “blow up in a hundred years.”

William L. Murray, director of public policy, Dominion Virginia Power.

In response William L. Murray, Dominion’s director of public policy, told the committee that Virginia’s Department for Environmental Quality (DEQ) is staffed with “experienced, apolitical regulators.” Surovell’s proposals, he said, amount to an alternative regulatory regime. “The fundamental premise is that there’s something wrong with our current regulatory structure. We respectfully disagree with that.”

Electric utilities have been storing coal ash for decades in impoundments, mixing the residue with water to keep the particles from blowing away. Responding to highly publicized spills of coal ash into Tennessee and North Carolina rivers, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued rules in late 2015 requiring electric companies to de-water the coal and safely dispose of the dry material. In Virginia, the DEQ is responsible for issuing waste-water and solid-waste permits tailored to the conditions of each site.

Dominion got off to a quick start but ran into opposition last year from environmental groups and local landowners, who said that its plans to dispose of the coal ash on-site would contaminate local water supplies. Tests around Possum Point have shown elevated levels of metals associated with coal ash, but a Duke University study suggested that trace metals in groundwater also can occur naturally. Although it is it unclear if the coal ash ponds were to blame, Dominion has offered to replace wells for seven homeowners with municipal water.

Electric companies in North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia recycle, or plan to recycle, large percentages of their coal ash by selling it for use primarily as a cement additive to make concrete. At many sites, they will truck the ash to state-of-the-art landfills with synthetic liners, caps, and leachate collection systems. The Southern Environmental Law Center, which has handled litigation in Virginia and the other states, contends that Virginia should adopt the same practices.

There is considerable commercial demand for coal ash in Virginia, said Surovell. Indeed, there is so much demand that concrete manufacturers are importing the material from China and Poland. It makes no sense to import coal ash when there is plenty available at Dominion’s power stations, he said. Because the ash often requires an intermediate processing step known as beneficiation, recycling the residuals could create jobs in the commonwealth, he said.

One of Surovell’s bills, SB 1383, would require all Virginia electric utilities to “recycle as much of their stored coal ash as is imported into the Commonwealth each year, on a pro rata basis.” The bill would allow the utilities to recover its treatment costs from the taxpayers. Mimicking President Trump, Surovell told the committee, “I think this bill could be huuuge, and create tons and tons of jobs. … I want to make Virginia great again.”

A second bill, SB 1398, would require utilities to assess their closure options — closure in place, recycling, landfilling — and submit their evaluations for review by DEQ and the public. A third, SB 1399, would require “coal combustion by-products be removed for disposal in a permitted landfill meeting federal criteria and that the impoundment site be reclaimed in a manner consistent with federal mine reclamation standards.”

Murray said that Dominion already recycles about 700,000 tons of coal ash a year generated by its coal plants in Mecklenburg, Chesterfield and Virginia City, as well as one it co-owns with the Old Dominion Electric Cooperative in Clover. The material is used in concrete, wallboard and even bowling balls.

If concrete manufacturers are importing coal ash from overseas, why isn’t Dominion recycling all of its coal combustion residue? The circumstances vary from location to location. The problem at Possum Point, said Murray, is that the company would have to truck literally thousands of loads of the material along a residential road, creating issues with congestion, noise and diesel exhaust. It doesn’t take much imagination to think that Surovell’s constituents would object to that solution.

Why the Controversy over Burying Electric Lines?

Dominion says burying electric lines prone to outages will reduce repair costs and restore juice to customers quickly.

Dominion says burying electric lines prone to outages will reduce repair costs and restore juice to customers more rapidly. But will undergrounding programs pay for themselves?

The Senate Commerce and Labor Committee voted unanimously yesterday to approve a bill, SB 1473, that would declare that burying electric lines lines is “in the public interest.” The bill would apply to local distribution lines, or “tap” lines, that have a 10-year average of nine or more unplanned outages per mile. Dominion Virginia Power says it has 4,000 miles of such lines.

About a year and a half ago, the SCC nixed a Dominion plan to bury 526 miles of distribution lines and recoup about $700 million from customers over 40 years on the grounds that the cost-effectiveness was unproven. The commission approved instead a pilot project that would provide an empirical base for evaluating the economics of burying outage-prone electric lines.

It’s not clear from the Richmond Times-Dispatch reporting exactly what effect the law would have on State Corporation Commission (SCC) decision making.

Dominion spokesman David Botkins said that the bill is not intended to circumvent the SCC ruling. “Clearly, it doesn’t do that,” he said. “The SCC retains the ultimate authority as they review and approve and deny every application going forward.”

The company has argued that burying the most vulnerable lines would reduce electric outages and speed recovery from storms and other disruptive events. “What we’re looking to do,” said Alan Bradshaw, director of the underground program, “is eliminate work.”

Bacon’s bottom line: I don’t understand why burying electric lines has become so controversial. The logic seems fairly straightforward. Outages occur with predictable frequency along some 4,000 miles of local distribution lines in Dominion’s system. It costs a predictable amount in manpower, equipment and supplies to restore those electric lines under routine weather conditions, plus an unpredictable amount stemming from major storms. Dominion should be able to put a dollar value on the cost of burying the lines, and it should be able to put a dollar value on the cost of restoring the lines over, say, a 10-year or 20-year period of time. If the cost of burying a given mile of line, amortized over 40 years, exceeds the average annual cost of restoring the power, then it’s a poor deal for ratepayers. Conversely, if the cost of burial is lower than the cost of restoration, ratepayers save money. Go for it!

If we want to delve a little deeper, we also could assign a “cost” to electrical customers for going without electricity. That cost is trivial if the outage lasts only an hour or two, but it could mount exponentially if the disruption lasts for days, food is ruined, work (for those who work at home) is disrupted, and families seek shelter in motels or the homes of family and friends. I don’t know how to calculate such a number, and I don’t know if the SCC took such intangible costs into account when ruling on Dominion’s tap line-burial request. If there is a reasonable way to assign a cost, it should be included.

Dominion now has more than a year of experience under the pilot project — experience that includes the massive outages caused by Hurricane Matthew. Surely we have enough data to make the requisite calculations to devise a cost-effective solution.

Keep the Politicians Honest, Too

Dominion Virginia Power is coming under fire from all sides as it tries to balance reliability, cost and sustainability.

Dominion Virginia Power is coming under fire from all sides as it tries to balance reliability, cost and sustainability.

“Keep the big boys honest,” was the campaign tag-line of populist “Howlin” Henry Howell when he very nearly won his bid for the governorship in 1973. By “big boys,” he was referring to executives of VEPCO, a predecessor company to Dominion Virginia Power. Four decades later, it appears that Howell’s rhetoric is coming back in style.

As the Associated Press summarizes:

Two out of four GOP primary contestants are openly hostile to Dominion and want to ban the company from making campaign donations. An insurgent Democrat is indicating he’ll make the company’s broad political influence a significant campaign talking point. …

“Somebody has to drag these vampires into the sunlight,” said GOP candidate Denver Riggleman, a distillery owner who battled Dominion over eminent domain issues. Riggleman had a Capitol news conference Tuesday to pledge support for longshot legislation that would prohibit regulated monopolies from making campaign contributions. …

Republican Corey Stewart, a one-time Trump campaign chairman in Virginia, said if elected he would support the ban on donations from regulated monopolies as well and would look at other areas to curb the company’s political influence. “They have virtually every member of the General Assembly in their pocket,” Stewart said. …

On the Democratic side, former Congressman Tom Perriello is also making Dominion’s influence a campaign issue. “Tom believes our political system has become too rigged in favor of big corporations and special interests and that Virginians suffer when the very politicians charged with regulating monopolies accept campaign contributions from them,” his spokesman Ian Sams said.

Is Dominion worried? Spokesman David Botkins sounds confident the company can weather the latest storm: “Our 2.5 million customers tell us they are very, very happy with their low rates, superb reliability, cleaner air, and an energy independent Virginia.”

Bacon’s bottom line: Bashing the electric company is a time-honored tradition in the United States, and Virginia is no exception. Dominion Virginia Power is in politicians’ cross-hairs for multiple reasons. Environmentalists say the company is moving too slowly in adopting renewable fuels, and they say it should spend more to clean up its coal ash ponds. On the flip side, electric customers charge that a freeze in base rates negotiated a year ago locks in excess profits. Then landowners in the path of the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a project managed by parent company Dominion, as well as proposed new electric transmission lines, are up in arms. Meanwhile, there’s no denying that Dominion enjoys enormous clout in the General Assembly and the McAuliffe administration. It should surprise no one that Dominion has become a target of populist wrath.

As the debate unfolds, however, voters should bear in mind that Dominion, like Appalachian Power Co. and Virginia’s electric co-ops, must strike a balance between three broad goals: keeping rates low, keeping the lights on, and transitioning to cleaner fuels. Accomplishing all three requires trade-offs, making it impossible to fully satisfy all constituencies. If you add a fourth goal — promoting economic development — the tradeoffs become even more complex.

Dominion’s No. 1 priority is keeping the lights on. Let’s face it, nothing enrages people more than going without electricity for more than an hour or two. But ensuring reliability does not come free. By burying vulnerable distribution lines underground, for instance, the company can reduce the number and length of outages due to storms. That costs hundreds of millions of dollars, driving rates higher. How much are electricity customers willing to pay for an additional increment of reliability?

Similarly, the company could move more aggressively to embrace solar and wind power, but the intermittent nature of renewable energy sources threatens the stability of local distribution circuits. Before integrating renewables on a large scale, Dominion is proceeding with a series of small pilot projects to test the impact on local distribution lines. If you value reliability, you’re probably happy with the approach. If your top priority is combating climate change, you’re probably not.

Meanwhile, the company has been restructuring its transmission grid in response to federal clear air mandates — first to reduce emissions of mercury and other toxic minerals, and more recently to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide. Meeting those goals has required a massive shift from coal to natural gas and renewables. That entails not only building new power plants in new locations and importing electricity via wholesale markets from outside the state, it requires erecting new transmission lines to handle the re-routed electricity flows. Landowners understandably don’t like looking at electric transmission lines. But you can’t stick with the old electric grid and also have clean energy.

That’s not to say things can’t be done differently. Arguably, Dominion Virginia Power cut a sweet deal for itself when the legislatures froze its base rate. Arguably, the company could be more cooperative in allowing homeowners and small businesses to work with third-party providers of clean energy sources. Arguably, Virginia’s eminent domain laws could treat landowners more justly. Arguably, the system could be tweaked in many ways. But it always comes back to setting priorities and making tradeoffs. There is no way to satisfy everyone.

Let’s hope Virginia’s candidates for higher office keep that simple truth in mind as we enter the campaign silly season.