Category Archives: Energy

The Nightmarish Complexity of Environmental Regs

As far as I’m concerned, the environmental regulatory process governing the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline and Mountain Valley Pipeline is incomprehensible. And that’s a bad thing. If only a handful of regulators, industry players and environmentalist activists can navigate the layers of bureaucracy and thicket of rules, the public is the loser.

In the latest hoo-ha, the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) has back-tracked on public statements regarding how it will regulate erosion and sediment control of pipeline construction crossing steep mountain slopes.

On April 6, DEQ issued a press release stating that “in addition to utilizing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers nationwide permit 12 for wetland and stream crossings, DEQ will be requiring individual 401 water quality certifications for each project.” The next day, DEQ issued another press release stating that the department “has provided water quality certification for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers 2017 Nationwide Permits.”

Got that? Me neither.

Needless to say, that bureaucratese is unintelligible to the normal human being, and even to spokesmen and reporters whose job it is to translate the gobbledygook. In response to inevitable media inquiries asking what the April 16 press release meant, DEQ spokesman Bill Hayden said that DEQ would require certifications for each individual pipeline segment that crossed or affected any waterway. That meant hundreds of certifications. That is what the Richmond Times-Dispatch understood, what the Roanoke Times understood, and what I understood.

But DEQ Director of Operations James Golden is now saying that Hayden had spoken before he had been briefed by “technical” staff members at DEQ. (So explains the Times-Dispatch today.) DEQ will rely upon a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers national permit. Rather than duplicate the Army Corps’ work, Golden told the T-D, the state’s individual certifications will focus on “upland areas” outside the Army Corps’ jurisdiction.

Asked why DEQ took nearly seven weeks before correcting the widely published remarks, Golden conceded that “in hindsight, DEQ should have tried to provide additional clarity.”

DEQ’s statements never added up to environmental groups, and they made an issue of the seeming discrepancy between the April 16 and April 17 press releases. After endeavoring to understand what it all meant, I headlined the resulting post, “A Brain-Frying Foray into the Regulatory Maze.” In what was surely one of the least-read articles in the history of Bacon’s Rebellion, I tried to sort through the difference between 401 certifications and Permit 12, general permits, individual permits, blanket permits and more. (I never got around to explaining 404 permits, which are relevant somehow.)

Despite the fact that I tediously double-checked information in the article before publishing, I still got stuff wrong — or so says David Sligh with the Dominion Pipeline Monitoring Coalition, a former regulator himself. But I found his correction so incomprehensible that I just appended it whole to the post, and let readers figure out what it meant.

Bottom line: I don’t think harshly of Hayden for disseminating inaccurate information. He was probably as confused as I was. (Well, not that confused. But pretty confused.) Where DEQ fell down was in not correcting the inaccuracies when they began circulating in the media. Frankly, the fact that they didn’t do so makes me wonder if DEQ officials above Hayden knew exactly what was going on.

One conclusion seems unavoidable: When the regulatory system is so full of jargon, is so complex and has so many interlocking pieces that career administrators of DEQ can’t communicate the story accurately to the public, something is wrong with the system.

Where Is Politifact When You Need Them?

“Democracy dies in darkness,” declares the tag-line of the Washington Post, which poses as a defender of the country from fake news peddled by the Trump administration. Perhaps the newspaper should consider fact-checking content on its Opinion page as well.

Mike Tidwell, director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network (CCAN), and LaDelle McWhorter, chairperson of Virginia Organizing, are certainly entitled to the opinions they expressed in a Washington Post op-ed last week. But someone should call them to account for loose and unsubstantiated assertions they made…. and I’m doubting the Post will do it.

The thrust of their op-ed is to explain why Dominion Energy, the “all-powerful corporation that has ‘owned’ Richmond for decades,” has become a political liability, mostly among Democratic Party candidates for office. In short, they declare that Dominion has behaved in a beastly manner to the environment. To be sure, Dominion has stirred up controversy as it re-engineers its infrastructure to replace coal with natural gas. Critics have raised some legitimate concerns regarding the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, coal ash disposal and electric transmission lines, among other projects. But the issues are complicated. Tidwell and McWhorter don’t do nuance.

Let’s look at four of the more egregious statements.

Dumping liquid coal ash. “Dominion … has dumped highly controversial coal ash liquid into major Virginia rivers (the James, tributaries of the Potomac, the Elizabeth).”

To say that Dominion “dumped” coal ash liquid implies an indiscriminate release of polluted water. Before the enactment in 2015 of new Environmental Protection Agency regulations governing coal ash disposal, Dominion did periodically release rainwater that had accumulated atop coal ash ponds but did not mix with the combustion residue, as permitted by state and federal law. Since then, the company has run rainwater as well as water from the coal-ash slurry through a water-treatment process that reduces pollutants to levels well below EPA limits — indeed, in many cases, to undetectable levels.

That system is working well. Environmental groups, which had a hand in negotiating the rules detailed in a Department of Environmental Quality permit, have not filed any legal complaints regarding the de-watering process at the Bremo Bluff Power Station. A judge struck down a complaint filed at Possum Point. Dominion has not yet begun de-watering its Chesterfield or Chesapeake power stations.

Coal ash burial. “The ash, which has accumulated from decades of coal combustion at nearby Dominion power plants, is already suspected in places to be leaking highly toxic substances into the rivers.

CCAN doesn’t come right out and assert that Dominion coal ash ponds leaked toxic substances into rivers. It says Dominion is “suspected” of leaking. And, technically, that’s accurate because environmental groups do, in fact, suspect that leaks have occurred. What’s missing from the statement is critical context.

For example, in a federal lawsuit, Sierra Club attorneys demonstrated that underground water has migrated through ponds at the Chesapeake power station, picked up contaminants, and emptied into the nearby Elizabeth River. But the presiding judge also found that the volumes were so small and were diluted by such a large volume of river water that the metals posed no danger to aquatic life or human health.

The toxicity of a chemical compound depends upon its concentration. Oxygen, which is essential to human and animal life, also is toxic at elevated percentages and pressures. Likewise, heavy metals that leach from coal ash are “toxic” in the sense that they can be harmful to human and aquatic life above certain levels but are non-toxic below those levels. Some of these “toxic” chemicals are required to sustain human life. For example, according to Wikipedia, zinc, one of the heavy metals leached from coal ash, “is an essential component of a large number (>300) of enzymes participating in the synthesis and degradation of carbohydrates, lipids, proteins, and nucleic acids as well as in the metabolism of other micronutrients.”

The fact that a “highly toxic” substance has leaked into the water in is, by itself, meaningless, and the use of such language is designed to scare rather than enlighten.

North Anna 3. “Adding to Dominion’s unpopularity is its desire to build a $19 billion (yes, with a “b”) nuclear reactor at its North Anna plant. Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D) says it’s unneeded and a bad deal for consumers.”

Dominion does not “desire” to build a third nuclear unit at the North Anna Power Station. The company has spent vast sums keeping open the option to build another nuclear unit should circumstances prove necessary. In its 2017 Integrated Resource Report, Dominion offered eight possible economic and regulatory scenarios framing energy usage over the next 15 years. In only one of those scenarios — the one that cracks down the hardest on carbon emissions, requiring the closure of the Mecklenburg and Clover coal-fueled power stations (577 megawatts of capacity) — does Dominion envision the need for another nuclear unit to maintain base-load capacity. But given the fact that environmental groups such as CCAN are pushing for tough restrictions on both nuclear power and CO2 emissions, that scenario cannot be ignored. Continue reading

Virginia Voters Back Pipeline by Nearly Two-to-One

Question: Do you support or oppose building the Atlantic Coast Pipeline?

Registered voters in Virginia favor construction of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP) by an almost two-to-one margin over those who oppose it, according to a poll released by the Consumer Energy Alliance (CEA) today. Fifty-four percent support the controversial project strongly or somewhat, while 31% oppose it.

Eighty-three percent of voters say they consider “energy issues” to be very or somewhat important in the upcoming gubernatorial election. Forty-eight percent say that are more likely to support a candidate who “favors more infrastructure projects like the Atlantic Coast Pipeline” while 27% say they would more likely prefer a candidate opposed to the pipeline.

The poll of 500 Virginia voters was commissioned by the CEA, a non-profit, non-partisan trade association for the purpose of “providing reliable, affordable energy for consumers.” The organization strongly supports the pipeline. Dominion Energy, the managing partner of the ACP, is a member. (See the questions and results of the Virginia polling here.)

Clearly, the results are favorable to the ACP, which has encountered stiff resistance from environmentalists and landowners along the pipeline route. In rolling out the poll to the media, CEA made no secret of the fact that the timing is designed to stiffen the backs of gubernatorial candidates who favor the project. Tom Perriello has made opposition to the pipeline a major issue in a tightly contested race for the Democratic Party nomination against Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam.

In past posts I have noted biases, both pro and con, in polls that framed questions to elicit answers from respondents that their sponsors were looking for. This poll shows no obvious sign of such of bias. Here are the two key questions:

I’d like to talk now about energy issues. Have you heard or read anything about a proposed natural gas pipeline from West Virginia to public utilities in Virginia and North Carolina, or is that not something you have heard or read about?

And:

As you may know, there is a proposal to build a 600-mile Atlantic Coast Pipeline to bring natural gas from West Virginia to public utilities in Virginia and North Carolina. Do you strongly support, somewhat support, somewhat oppose or strongly oppose building the Atlantic Coast Pipeline?

The polling sample seems reasonably representative of the Virginia population: 74% white, 16% black, 36% Democrat, 27% Republican, 23% conservative, 16% liberal. The margin of error due to sample size is +/-4.4%. The polls results do not provide a geographic breakdown.

While supporting the ACP, voters gave even stronger endorsement of “renewable energy projects, such as solar and wind power” — with 69% strongly in favor, and 20% somewhat in factor. Weaker majorities favored expanding offshore oil and gas drilling in U.S. waters, and generating electricity using coal-fired plants.

Dominion has been criticized for its influence in state politics during this campaign season. Another questions asked: “As you may know, Dominion is one of the companies that has proposed the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.” Seventy-eight percent said that Dominion’s involvement would have no influence on their support, either way. Ten percent responded they would be more likely to back the pipeline; 8% said they would be more likely to oppose it.

Remarkably, despite intensive media coverage of the pipeline controversy, 47% of respondents replied that they had not heard of the ACP.

Why Panda Power Loves Natural Gas

Bechtel, which helped build the Stonewall station, used a 500-tire trailer the length of a football field — to deliver manufactured components to the construction site.

Yesterday I wrote about the 778-megawatt gas-fired Panda Stonewall power station starting up near Leesburg. Against the backdrop of ongoing debate over gas versus solar here in Virginia, I wondered why the Dallas, Tex., investors behind the plant were willing to risk more than half a billion dollars in equity and debt on a merchant generating facility that would sell into the wholesale electricity market.

How did these newcomers to the Virginia energy scene see the future of electricity? Aren’t they worried that solar energy will displace gas in a few years as the price of solar continues to drop and the cost of natural gas is expected to rise? Aren’t they worried their big investment will be rendered valueless? Remember, Panda has zero political influence in Richmond, and the company can’t go running to the State Corporation Commission to bail it out if the bet on natural gas goes sour.

Bill Pentak, vice president of public affairs, says Panda Power Funds owns both gas and solar facilities. “We understand solar,” he says. “We built the largest solar project in the northeastern United States, covering 100 acres in southern New Jersey.”

Panda Power Funds will invest in projects that make economic sense, Pentak says, and right now the economics tend to favor natural gas. Take that New Jersey solar facility — it produces 20 megawatts of electricity. “That’s gross. But you’ve got to convert [the electricity] from DC power to AC. You lose 10 percent in the conversion. In the real world, it produces 18 megawatts.”

Then there’s the land use to consider, he says. Solar requires lots of acreage, and it takes up land that has alternative economic uses such as farming. The Stonewall plant takes up a fraction of the space and produces far more energy — 62 times as much on one fifth the land.

Then factor in solar’s intermittent production. Solar does not generate electricity at night, and it fluctuates during the day. The more solar installed, the more gas is needed as a backup. Says Pentak:

If you have ton of solar or wind on your grid, you make it less stable. If the wind dies down or the sun stops shining, the grid operator will have to call upon power that can be quickly dispatched. It won’t be coal fired, which takes three days to ramp up. It won’ t be nuclear, which takes three weeks. All that’s left is natural gas. A combined-cycle plant can cycle up in an hour and a half. A combustion turbine can in 30 to 40 minutes.

Thus, gas will be needed both as a base-load energy source and a back-up energy source. “We think Stonewall will operate as a base-load plant,” he says. But technology has blurred the distinction between peak load, intermediate load and base-load. Combined cycle plants — which generate electricity with gas-burning turbines and recycle the waste heat to run steam turbines — can operate as a base-load power source if need be, and also can dial output up and down as required.

Battery technology is not at the point where batteries can store enough energy to meet large-scale power needs, Pentak says. Moreover, batteries are not environmentally friendly. “Where do you put spent batteries? Solar technology is promising, but it’s not there yet.”

Dominion Urges Citizens to Report Suspicious Activity

PG&E’s Metcalf substation, where a sniper attack knocked out 17 transformers. Photo credit: Wall Street Journal

Dominion Energy issued an unusual press release a couple of days ago, urging customers to “report suspicious activity.”

“Suspicious activity includes anything from someone recording or monitoring Dominion Energy facilities to someone who doesn’t seem like they belong in a certain area or is behaving strangely,” said Marc Gaudette, Director of Corporate Security, Safety and Health. “What may seem like a small piece of information could be the missing piece of the puzzle that law enforcement needs to prevent an unexpected event.”

Bacon’s bottom line: Dominion, like other electric utilities, finds itself in a difficult situation. On the one hand, it is rightfully concerned about the threats to the integrity of the electric grid at the hands of terrorists or other saboteurs. The electric power industry has been on hyper alert ever since a 2014 sniper attack on Pacific Gas & Electric’s Metcalf Transmission Substation, which severely damaged 17 transformers and forced the utility to reroute electric power in order to avoid blackouts. The situation is all the more urgent for Dominion, which has shut down two of three of its Yorktown Power Stations, leaving the Virginia Peninsula more vulnerable than usual to blackouts should an accident knock out a transmission line on a hot-weather day with elevated electricity demand.

Dominion cannot survey every substation or every mile of transmission line 24/7, and it makes sense to call upon the public if someone sees something suspicious. As the press release states: “”Think security and safety… If you spot something suspicious, speak up. … Act as our eyes and ears and report any suspicious activity near a Dominion Energy facility by calling 1-800-684-8486. Of course, in an emergency you should always call 911.”

Dominion’s problem is that it can’t get too specific about what to look out for. For one, the utility doesn’t want to generate unnecessary public alarm by exaggerating the threat. Even more important, the company doesn’t want to tip the hand of any potential bad guys by getting too specific about what to look for, thus revealing potential vulnerabilities.

The result of these conflicting imperatives leaves people unclear about what exactly they should be looking for. But a half-informed citizenry is preferable to a totally uninformed citizenry. And, given the stakes involved, false alarms are preferable to no alarms. I live near an electric transmission line and substation, which I routinely ignore. Now, I’ll be keeping an eye out for… whatever…. I’m not quite sure. But better safe than sorry.

Panda Stonewall Gas Plant Starts Cranking out 778 Megwatts

Aerial view of the Panda Stonewall facility in Loudoun County.

Aerial view of the Panda Stonewall facility in Loudoun County.

Panda Power Funds has commenced commercial operations at its 778-megawatt “Stonewall” combined-cycle, natural gas-fired power plant near Leesburg. The plant is capable of providing the electric power needs of up to 778,000 homes in the Washington metropolitan area, the company announced in a press release yesterday.

“Panda Stonewall is one of the newest, cleanest and most efficient natural gas-fueled power plants in the United States,” said Todd W. Carter, CEO and senior partner of Dallas, Tex.-based Panda Power Funds.

Panda estimated that the project will inject $7.1 billion into Virginia’s economy during the construction phase and first 10 years of operation. The Bechtel Corp./Siemens Energy Inc. consortium employed 700 people at peak construction. The plant employs 27 full-time employees to oversee operations and maintenance of the facility.

The Stonewall project is Panda’s sixth built in a three-year period. The Stonewall facility raised debt capital of approximately $570 million. Panda Power Funds supplied equity capital along with large institutional co-investors, including Siemens Financial Services. Said Kirk Edelman, Global Head of Energy Finance at Siemens Financial Services: “Our investment underscores Siemens’ strong commitment to supporting projects that deliver cleaner, more environmentally-friendly and sustainable energy.”

The plant, located four miles southeast of Leesburg, will use reclaimed water from the town to cool the facility.

The press release did not say who Panda Stonewall will sell electricity to, noting only that the plant is located in “one of the fastest growing metropolitan areas of the United States.” The company quoted the George Mason Center for Regional Analysis as saying that the metro region is projected to add more than 410,000 new households by 2023 as a result of job growth. In addition, “Loudoun County, dubbed ‘Data Center Alley,’ hosts the largest concentration of data centers in the world. More than 70 percent of the world’s Internet traffic flows through the County on a daily basis.”

Panda Stonewall will be able to draw upon gas from either Dominion Energy or Columbia Gas, both of which pass through the plant site. The plant connects to the grid through an existing Dominion 230 kV electric transmission line that connects the Pleasant View and Brambleton sub-stations.

Bacon’s bottom line: The press release does not say who will purchase Panda Stonewall’s electricity, but it seems reasonable to infer that the plant will sell into the PJM Interconnection wholesale market. As a combined-cycle facility, Stonewall will be a base-load facility, not a peaking facility. Panda Power would not have made the investment unless it was confident that it could displace older, more expensive electricity sources serving the Washington metro market.

While a power plant theoretically can serve markets anywhere — power companies don’t control where their electrons flow — the shape of the electric transmission grid creates choke points, which get incorporated into the price charged to electricity consumers. I don’t know what the electric transmission grid looks like in the Washington metro area, but I would conjecture that Panda views the location on the metropolitan fringe as a competitive advantage for Stonewall over electricity wheeled in from greater distances. Additionally, the incorporation of state-of-the-art technology will make the plant more efficient than coal-fired plants and even older gas-fired plants.

Reading between the lines, it appears that Panda thinks the power plant will pay for itself and generate a profitable return over a relatively short time line — 10 years. Why do I say that? Because the press release calculates the plant’s economic impact over a 10-year period. Admittedly, that is pure surmise and needs to be confirmed by the company. But if I am correct, it says a lot about the competitive advantage of natural gas as an electric energy source in the near- to mid-term future. Even if electric utilities in the Washington metro area — Dominion, Potomac Electric Power Co., and the electric cooperatives — begin building solar energy on a large scale, merchant generators like Panda calculate that either (a) they can pay off their investment and generate a competitive return within 10 years, (b) they can continue continue selling electricity profitably beyond the 10-year horizon, or (c) some combination of the two.

Update: Panda spokesman Bill Pentak says there is no connection between the 10-year time frame of its economic-impact analysis and the company’s financial payback model. Additionally, he said that the $7.1 billion estimate of impact includes the multiplier effect of dollars circulating in the local economy.

McAuliffe Moves to Cap Utility Carbon Emissions

Governor Terry McAuliffe. Photo credit: Associated Press

Big news yesterday: Governor Terry McAuliffe issued an executive order to cap greenhouse gas emissions from Virginia power plants. Unfortunately, I’m out of town on personal business today, so I don’t have time for anything more than a cursory analysis.

Said McAuliffe in a press release: ““The threat of climate change is real, and we have a shared responsibility to confront it. Once approved, this regulation will reduce carbon dioxide emissions from the Commonwealth’s power plants and give rise to the next generation of energy jobs. As the federal government abdicates its role on this important issue, it is critical for states to fill the void. Beginning today, Virginia will lead the way to cut carbon and lean in on the clean energy future.”

McAuliffe’s press release cited the job-creation benefits that would come from a shift from fossil fuels to solar energy. Last year, as solar production took off in Virginia, the solar industry employed 3,236 workers — twice the number supported by coal. McAuliffe said also invoked sea level rise to justify his move:

Virginia is already experiencing the effects of climate change in its coastal regions due to rising sea levels. The threat from frequent storm surges and flooding could cost the Commonwealth close to $100 billion dollars for residential property alone. The impacts extend far beyond our coast, as half of Virginia’s counties face increased risk of water shortages by 2050 resulting from climate-related weather shifts.

The action now moves to the Department of Environmental Quality, which the governor ordered to write the regulations.

Bacon’s bottom line: McAuliffe’s move will generate headlines and plenty of political heat — Republicans have already announced their opposition to what they call the governor’s executive overreach — but it’s far from clear what practical impact the move will have. Acknowledging that the cost of solar energy has plummeted, Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power already have forecast that they will move heavily toward renewable energy sources over the next 25 years.

The press release spoke of a “cap” on greenhouse gases and new regulations that will “reduce” carbon emissions — not merely reduce carbon intensity (carbon dioxide emitted per kilowatt of energy produced). It is possible to reduce the carbon intensity of the electric generating fleet while allowing total carbon emissions to increase, albeit it at a much slower rate, as the economy grows. If Virginia caps carbon emissions, Dominion and Apco might be required to close additional coal-fired power stations, and it is unlikely that Dominion would build a planned gas-fired power plant in the early 2020s. Cancellation of that facility could undermine the economics of the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline, construction of which McAuliffe has said he supports.

Expect trench warfare between utilities, environmentalists and consumer advocates in the DEQ hearings discussing how to implement the carbon caps. Also expect General Assembly Republicans to challenge McAuliffe’s legal authority to implement a cap.

Update: Apco spokesman John Shepelwich submits the following correction: “Appalachian Power no longer operates any coal-fueled power generation in Virginia and has not since 2015. Two of the three units of our Clinch River Plant in Russell County were converted from coal to natural gas; that plant is scheduled to be retired in 2026.”

Bristol Home Builder Proposes Solar Subdivision

Developer Aaron Lilly is seeking Bristol planning commission approval to construct 30 upscale townhouses using solar power to offset electric bills. He envisions the project as the first solar-powered subdivision east of the Mississippi, reports the Bristol Herald-Courier.

The project would be built on 12.5 hillside acres near an Interstate 81 exit. The townhomes would have 1,600 square feet of living space plus a 400-square-foot garage. Units can be configured with “smart home” technology for monitoring and control that, among other benefits, can provide medical information to a caregiver. Lilly sees the houses as “age in place” residences. He intends to price the properties in the $200,000 to $250,000 range. Said Lilly:

After seeing solar was at least possible, we’ve been working on this for over a year. It is more affordable than ever before and the price of electricity goes up every year. … There would be two meters on the house – one telling how much power we consume from [Bristol Virginia Utilities] and the other how much power is produced and the person would pay the difference.

If power keeps going up and solar keeps coming down, we’re there. If we’re not there yet, we’re close enough. This is our goal and we’re working feverishly to make sure it happens. … The first ones are an experiment. We don’t know how much power we can make.

Planning commissioners were supportive of the proposal and granted preliminary approval.

Bacon’s bottom line: It’s hard to imagine that this is the first time a developer east of the Mississippi has proposed building new townhouses with solar panels on the roof. But I haven’t heard of anyone doing it in Virginia, so, who knows. If Lilly says it’s true, maybe it is. If so, good for him.

Economically, it may make more sense for home builders to install solar during the construction phase — Lilly will build nine connected units in Phase 1 — than for individual homeowners to outsource the project to solar installers one project at a time. Also, Lilly can pocket the solar credits, which might be worth more to him than to individual homeowners. Another selling point is that homeowners can amortize the construction cost over the life of a 30-year mortgage.

Home builders are always looking for a competitive edge. I’m surprised that we haven’t seen more of this kind of activity.

Shareholders Pressure Dominion on Climate Policy

At Dominion Energy’s annual meeting earlier this month, shareholders submitted numerous shareholder proposals requiring the energy giant to adopt more environmentally friendly measures. I took note of some of them in my story about the event but never bothered to inquire about the vote results. I’ve attended plenty of annual meetings in my time, and I’d never seen a shareholder proposal opposed by management approved, or even come close to being approved. I didn’t expect any differently this time.

My bad. As it turns out, 48% of participating shares voted in favor of a resolution that would require Dominion to publish an annual statement on the financial risks that climate change poses to the company, according to the Virginian-Pilot. That total was up from the 23.5% of the vote for a comparable resolution at the 2015 annual meeting.

It wasn’t just gadfly nuns and hippies owning a few shares who voted for the resolution. That many votes required heavy support from pension funds and other institutional shareholders. It’s entirely possible that a similar proposal could pass a year from now. The proposal must be taken seriously, for its sponsors surely will be back next year.

Backers of the proposal cast the issue in terms of what is best for Dominion, not environmentalists, the environment or Mother Gaia: Climate change caused by CO2 emissions is unleashing more frequent and more damaging storms, which can expose Dominion’s infrastructure to storm damage, and will engender tighter anti-carbon regulations that could endanger its multi-billion bet on natural gas electric plants and pipelines.

“The three costliest storms in Dominion’s 100-year operating history, Hurricane Isabel, Hurricane Irene and the June 2012 Derecho, have occurred in the last decade,” states the shareholder proposal in the 2016 proxy statement. “The consensus among climate scientists is that without significant reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, climate change will continue to result in more severe and frequent storms, among other effects.”

Dominion’s restoration costs were $128 million for Hurricane Isabel in 2003, $59 million after Hurricane Irene in 2011, and $42 million after the derecho. “Additionally, between 2011 and 2012, weather events, earthquakes, and environmental regulations imposed more than $450 million in costs on the company, adversely affecting its earnings.”

Also, argued a memorandum in support of the proposal, the company does not seem to be taking into account federal or state legislation that could “either mandate greater deployment of renewable energy or assess financial penalties for the continued use of fossil fuels.” Dominion could be “betting the company” that changing laws, regulation and consumer tastes won’t leave the company with billions in stranded, uneconomic assets.

“Dominion faces serious financial challenges with regard to climate change risks that are not being addressed,” says the memorandum. “Dominion should be required to provide adequate climate risk assessments, including clearly defined actions the Board intends to take to address these risks.”

Dominion responds. Dominion management advised shareholders to vote against the proposal. Committed to being a good environmental steward, Dominion is pursuing an integrated strategy to reduce greenhouse emissions based on a diverse fuel mix, including gas, nuclear, hydro, wind and solar, the company stated. Between 2000 and 2015, the company has reduced the carbon intensity of its generating fleet by 43%, and it has forecast that carbon intensity will fall another 25% as it expands solar production to 5,200 megawatts over the next 25 years.

Dominion says it is one of the lowest carbon-intensity electricity producers in the U.S. Producers at the lowest end of the scale are pure-play renewable companies.

Also, the company responded in the proxy statement, it already reports on financial risks relating to climate change in its 10-Q forms and in its Citizenship & Sustainability Report. Three years ago, it published the “2014 Dominion Greenhouse Gas Report.”

As for the charge that Dominion isn’t taking into account the potential for tighter carbon emissions, in remarks made during the shareholders meeting, CEO Tom Farrell said that carbon regulation is coming. While some politicians have suggested that the Trump administration will roll back the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, Farrell said that the EPA is legally required to regulate CO2 emissions, and that a McAuliffe administration study group will come out with state-level recommendations in June.

Bacon’s bottom line: One can argue with the premises of the shareholder proposal, but it really doesn’t matter if the authors are right or wrong in their particulars. What matters is whether shareholders owning a majority of shares believe they are right. If a few more shareholders agree, joining those in the 48%, they could push through their proposal a year from now.

Farrell Defends Dominion’s Environmental Record

Dominion CEO Tom Farrell

Under continual pressure from politicians, protesters and even shareholders to develop more renewable energy, Dominion Energy (which has changed its name from Dominion Resources) offered a vigorous defense of its environmental policies at its 108th annual meeting in downtown Richmond today.

Since 2000 the company has cut nitrogen-oxide emissions 81%, sulfur dioxide emissions 95% and mercury emissions by 96% — a performance exceeded by only one other electric utility in the country, CEO Thomas F. Farrell II told shareholders.

Dominion also has reduced the carbon intensity of its electricity by 43% between 2000 and 2015, Farrell said. Carbon intensity measures the pounds of carbon-dioxide (CO2) emissions per megawatt hour of electricity produced. Dominion’s performance compares to a 23% reduction for the electric utility industry as a whole.

Carbon intensity will fall another 25% as Dominion expands solar power generation to a projected total of 5,200 megawatts within 25 years. “Solar is growing very rapidly,” Farrell said. I know that a lot of folks would like all of our power to come from renewables. That’s not realistic. That’s not affordable.”

Of greater interest to most of the shareholders in attendance, Dominion reported an 11.8% increase in earnings in 2016 and an 8.1% increase in dividends. But numerous shareholders, some owning as few as one or two shares, lined up to take the microphone during a Q&A session. They pressed for changes to Dominion’s governance practices, urged more aggressive adoption of solar power, and chastised the company for construction of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP).

Several shareholders argued that Dominion should reduce its corporate exposure to environmental risks, especially those resulting from severe weather or drastic regulatory changes implemented in response to climate change. One formal shareholder proposal recommended the company nominate a director with environmental expertise; another asked Dominion to evaluate alternate technologies as a way to comply with Paris Agreement accords to cut CO2 emissions. All shareholder proposals were voted down.

Farrell unapologetically defended the company’s environmental record, citing its achievements to date and its plans for the future.

Dominion was one of only four electric utilities to file a brief in favor of the Obama administration’s controversial Clean Power Plan, Farrell said. The plan, the status of which is now up in the air under the Trump administration, mandates major cuts to electric-utilities’ CO2 emissions, although the amount would vary depending upon how each state implements the plan.

While some have suggested that the Trump administration will scuttle the Clean Power Plan, Farrell insisted that carbon regulation is here to stay. An EPA endangerment finding, upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, declared that the EPA is required to regulate CO2. “I have no idea what that’s going to look like. Neither does anyone else,” Farrell said. But some form of regulation is unavoidable.

In the meantime, a McAuliffe administration task force has been looking at the CO2 issue and is expected to announce its recommendations for the General Assembly next month. “There’s going to be carbon regulation, and to suggest otherwise just isn’t true,” Farrell said.

The carbon-regulation issue is particularly sensitive to Dominion because critics have argued for a rollback of a rate freeze put into effect two years ago in response to the Clean Power Plan. Now that the plan is likely to be overturned, they contend, the justification for the rate freeze — to provide rate stability amidst regulatory uncertainty — no longer exists.

Farrell also defended the “urgent need” for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a 600-mile pipeline that would bolster natural gas supplies to “grossly under-served” communities in Virginia and North Carolina. The pipeline has inspired fierce resistance from property owners along the route, especially in the steep mountains of western Virginia where environmentalists have raised concerns that construction on steep slopes and narrow ridges will lead to erosion and disruption to water fragile water supplies.

Large chunks of eastern Virginia and North Carolina have reached the limits of existing natural gas pipeline capacity, Farrell said. Furthermore, much of North Carolina is served by only one natural gas pipeline, Transco, making the region vulnerable to supply disruptions. He cited a recent outage on Transco that interrupted the gas supply to the company’s Brunswick Power Station near the North Carolina border, forcing it to halt generation temporarily. The ACP would provide an alternate pipeline to serve Brunswick and the nearby Greensville Power Station, which will be the world’s largest combined-cycle natural gas plant when construction is complete, as well as to Duke Energy power plants in North Carolina. Continue reading