Category Archives: Energy

Dominion Explores Pumped Storage in SW Virginia

Graphic credit: Dominion Energy

Much to my astonishment, Dominion Energy is taking a serious look at building a pumped-storage hydro-electric power plant in Virginia’s coalfields. I wrote about the idea back in February but it struck me as a long shot. So much for my superficial impression. It now transpires that Dominion is identifying potential sites in far Southwest Virginia and hopes to narrow the list later this year.

If Dominion decides to proceed, it will notify potentially affected landowners and set up meetings to gain public support, according to Dominion spokesman Greg Edwards. Though still in the early exploratory phase, Dominion describes the prospects as “very exciting.”

The potential impact is enormous. The pumped-storage power station would have a capacity of 1,000 megawatts, making it even bigger than Dominion’s coal- and wood-burning Virginia City Hybrid Energy Center, which cost $1.8 billion to build and generates $6 million a year in tax revenue for Wise County. “We’re talking about revenues way in excess of what Virginia City generates,” Edwards told the Coalfield Progress.

The idea behind pumped storage is to move water between reservoirs at different elevations. Dominion would let the gravity-fed water run turbines, as shown in the company-supplied graphic above, during periods of peak power demand when the cost of electricity is expensive, and then pump the water back to the upper basin when electricity is cheap. The concept is the same as Dominion’s pumped-storage dam in Bath County, the world’s largest.

Pumped storage will be increasingly attractive as eastern utilities increasingly rely upon wind and solar power, which are intermittent sources of electricity. A pumped storage facility could help even out fluctuations in electric production due to variations in wind and sunshine, or even shift power production from periods of peak solar output during the mid-day to peak demand in the late afternoon/early evening. The massive scale contemplated for the project — 1,000 megawatts, roughly equivalent to the capacity of a state-of-the-art gas-fired facility — suggests that Dominion could be considering the plant for load-shifting purposes. And that could be a game-changer.

Source: Dominion 2017 Integrated Resource Plan. Click for legible image.

Dominion’s Integrated Resource Plan foresees the need for a new nuclear power plant by 2030 (under the strictest CO2 regulatory regime), up to five new gas combustion turbines by 2032, and more than 5,000 megawatts of solar power by 2040. I am entering the realm of speculation here — none of this comes from Dominion — but the addition of a giant pumped-storage facility to Dominion’s generating fleet might enable the company to shift more aggressively to solar power and still maintain grid reliability. Potentially, depending upon transmission line limitations, pumped-storage could eliminate the projected need for four 240-megawatt combustion turbines. (How such a shift would impact the demand for natural gas supplied by the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline is a big unanswered question.)

The idea originated with coalfield legislators, not Dominion. Del. Terry Kilgore, R-Gate City, Del. Todd E. Pillion, R-Abingdon, and Sen. Ben Chafin-Lebanon, amended the state code to add pumped-storage hydroelectricity generation and storage to the list of projects which, if built in the Virginia coalfield counties, would be deemed “in the public interest.”

Learning of the proposal during the General Assembly session, Dominion quickly began exploring the idea. Early media reports emphasized the idea of using underground mines as a holding tank for the water, but Edwards told the Coalfield Progress, “We’re not wedded to underground.”

So far, Dominion’s investigations into potential sites have involved working with maps and satellite imagery. The company has looked at “literally hundreds” of possible locations. Even if Dominion finds a suitable site, however, it could take seven to ten years until a pumped-storage facility became operational.

A Fourth Force in Virginia Energy Politics

The political economy of energy in Virginia used to be simple. Three main interest groups contended to formulate energy policy in the state: environmentalists, consumers, and electric utilities. Consumers, both homeowners and businesses, pressed for lower electric rates. Environmentalists fought for cleaner air and, more recently, lower CO2 emissions. And utilities — the only parties responsible for keeping the lights on — lobbied for reliability at a reasonable cost (within a framework that preserved profits).

In the last few years, a fourth force has entered the picture, and the political dynamic is changing. The Old Dominion has seen a surge in the number of small, independent solar- and wind-power developers. They have exercised limited political clout, but now large, national corporations embracing a green energy agenda have entered the fray.

Half the Fortune 500 companies have committed to green agendas, and they signaled their desire earlier this year to see policies in Virginia that were friendlier to wind power, solar power and energy efficiency. (See “Clean Energy Options and Economic Development.”) Their message: If Virginia wants to attract outside corporate investment, the state had better get on board the solar-powered electric train.

Then, in an unprecedented flexing of political muscle last week, a green industry group injected itself into the Virginia gubernatorial race. Advanced Energy Economy (AEE), an association of green industry companies, delivered a policy memo to the campaigns of GOP nominee Ed Gillespie and Democratic nominee Lt. Gov. Ralph S. Northam.

“Evolving consumer preferences, dynamic new technologies and aging infrastructure are causing the energy system as we have known it to modernize,” states the memo. AEE outlines four priorities:

  • Allow competitive procurement to attract investment and benefit consumers. Virginia energy policy should open up third-party market alternatives. “While current Virginia law allows competition in statute, more could be done to attract investment and benefit consumers.”
  • Expand access to advanced energy options. The ability to control energy costs is a factor in where many corporations choose to locate. But they’re not just looking for cheap energy — they want green energy.
  • Maximize energy efficiency and demand-response. Under Virginia regulatory regime, electric utilities lose money when customers reduce their electricity consumption, discouraging utilities from investing in energy efficiency programs and demand response. Virginia should “decouple” electricity sales from profitability so utilities don’t lose when they invest in energy efficiency and demand-response programs that cut sales.
  • Modernize the electric grid. Evolving consumer preferences, new technologies, and the need to replace aging infrastructure have created a need to modernize the electric grid. The regulatory system, which inadvertently stifles innovation, needs to be modernized.

AEE wants more wind and solar, more electric vehicles, more energy efficiency, more innovation, and more freedom for entrepreneurs to design solutions for customers. At the same time, the association acknowledges that the way to achieve these aims is not to browbeat electric utilities into submission but to change their incentives, which would take a major re-writing of regulatory law.

Bacon’s bottom line: To advance AEE’s vision, Virginia would need an upgraded electric grid flexible enough to accommodate a less centralized, more distributed grid while still maintaining system-wide reliability. In effect, the green businesses are calling for a deregulation of electric power production. But no one wants to build a competitive and redundant electric transmission-distribution system.

Any viable energy system of the future must allow electric utilities to continue investing in, and earning a profit on, their transmission-distribution systems. Also, deregulation of electricity generation would require grappling with the issue of “stranded” investments — investments in generating capacity that utilities made in good faith under the existing regulatory environment that might not be economical and must be scrapped in deregulated environment.

Like the environmental movement, this Fourth Force in energy politics wants to see a fundamental transformation of Virginia’s electric power system. Unlike the environmentalists, many of whom see Dominion and Appalachian Power as the enemy, the Fourth Force acknowledges the need for a healthy utility sector. This new interest group has plenty of money, which means it can afford to hire lobbyists and spread cash to political campaigns. Plus, these new voices will be more credible to Virginia’s pro-business legislators than the more strident environmentalists had been. 

The politics of electric power in Virginia has reached an inflection point. We are entering a new era.

Workgroup Seeks Compromises to Move Solar Forward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yorktown Units Allowed to Operate on Emergency Basis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Would Dominion Want a $19 Billion Nuclear Plant?

North Anna Power Station

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has indicated it will issue a license within the next few days to build a third nuclear reactor at Dominion Energy’s North Anna power station, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported earlier this week.

Dominion has spent $600 million so far on planning, engineering and developing the 1,450-megawatt facility, which has been widely reported to cost an estimated $19 billion. While acknowledging the huge up-front expense, Dominion has argued that it needs to keep open the option of a third nuclear unit in case federal and state regulators impose strict carbon controls on Virginia’s electric utilities.

Robert Zullo has done a fine job of covering Dominion for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, and I rely upon his reporting to keep up with the energy and environmental issues the company is embroiled in. But I would not frame the North Anna 3 issue as he did:

Given the massive cost of the controversial project, which has been opposed by both consumer and environmental groups and has yet to be approved by the State Corporation Commission, it remains unclear whether the utility will actually build the reactor.

True, consumer and environmental groups do oppose the project, and, true, it is unclear whether the utility will build the reactor. But the driver isn’t the cost, which is horrendous. The driver is what kind of regulatory regime federal and state governments enact to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from Virginia power plants. If regulators choose a “mass-based” approach that caps CO2 emissions on existing power plants and all new generation units built in the future, Dominion argues, the only way to meet electricity demand, maintain federally mandated reliability standards and stay within the CO2 limits is to construct a new nuclear unit, which emits zero carbon.

Dominion is not advocating construction of North Anna 3. It is not recommending construction of North Anna 3. There is no indication that it even wants to build North Anna 3. Rather it is preserving the option should political and regulatory developments leave it no alternative.

The company lays out its logic in its 2017 Integrated Resource Report, a planning document that provides a 15-year look into the future. There is so much political and regulatory uncertainty that Dominion examines eight different scenarios predicated on different schemes for restricting CO2 emissions. Building North Anna 3 appears in only one of the eight options, which the IRP refers to as “Plan H.” Here’s how Dominion describes that plan:

Plan H is a Mass-Based program that limits the total CO2 emissions from both the existing fleet of fossil fuel-fired generating units and all new generation units in the future, but also includes the construction and operation of North Anna 3 in 2030. This Alternative Plan was developed assuming that the Company achieves [Clean Power Plan] compliance through portfolio modifications with no market purchase of CO2 allowances. This Alternative Plan limits the generation of [the Mt. Storm coal-fired power station] to a 40% capacity factor.

Key assumptions include:

  • Retirement of up to four coal-fired units at the Mecklenburg and Clover power stations, totaling 577 megawatts, by 2025.
  • 3,360 megawatts of additional solar capacity;
  • 2,290 MW of additional natural-gas, Combustion Turbine capacity;
  • A 20-year extension of the four existing nuclear units at the North Anna and Surry power stations.
  • Addition of 1,452 of nuclear capacity at North Anna 3.

Dominion acknowledges that the compliance costs of Plan H would be extremely expensive — $14.79 billion over the IRP study period compared to $5.71 billion for the next most expensive alternative and $2.3 billion compared to the least expensive alternative.

The impact of Plan H on residential consumers would be considerable. Dominion estimates that average monthly electric rates for a typical residential customer using 1,000 kilowatt hours per month would increase 29.44% by 2030 and subside to 19.01% higher by 2042. That would be more than five times the increase of the next most costly plan in 2030.

Source: Dominion Energy

A key assumption embedded in Dominion’s projections is that electricity demand will increase by an average of 1.5% annually over the next 15 years. The IRP forecasts a compound annual growth rate of 2.04% for the Virginia economy, based upon data supplied by Moody’s Analytics. Thus, a 1.5% load increase implies continued energy-efficiency gains that reduce the energy intensity of each unit of economic growth.

Virginia’s success in attracting energy-intensive data centers plays into the utility’s Virginia forecast. “The Company has seen significant interest in data centers locating in Virginia because of its proximity to fiber optic networks as well as low-cost, reliable power sources,” the IRP says. (See yesterday’s post, “Building on Virginia’s Data Center Boom.”)

Some observers argue that Dominion’s forecast overstates demand growth. Most notably, PJM Interconnection, the regional transmission organization of which Dominion is a part, provides a significantly lower growth forecast for the Dominion transmission zone, as seen here:

Source: Dominion Energy

The IRP addresses this forecast discrepancy at length. Dominion says four factors account for the gap in projected demand growth. First, PJM eliminated new data center growth from its forecast. Second, PJM makes assumptions about Distributed Energy Resources (primarily solar) that overestimate how they would perform during critical system conditions. Third, PJM bases its forecast of appliance saturation and efficiencies on Southeast regional data, while Dominion uses historical data from its own service territory. And fourth, Dominion uses a different methodology to account for public sector energy growth, which accounts for 13% of company sales.

Another unknown is the likelihood that a Plan H scenario will materialize.

The Trump administration has expressed a desire to scrap the Clean Power Plan. Even if it succeeds in neutering the CO2 regulations, though, a future administration could reinstate them. Meanwhile, the Virginia environmental lobby is pushing hard for the CO2 caps contemplated in Plan H, and the McAuliffe administration will announce its own plan later this month to combat CO2. Furthermore, several environmental groups have gone on the record in opposition to extending the life of the existing Surry and North Anna nuclear plants. Should Dominion fail to renew those licenses, it would have to make up nearly 3,400 megawatts of capacity elsewhere. Unable to add fossil fuel capacity under a Plan H scenario, it would be limited to renewables or nuclear. An all-renewables approach could create an unstable grid with major reliability issues. That would leave North Anna 3 as the only alternative.

Many possibilities might obviate the necessity of building North Anna 3 under a Plan H scenario. The electricity load might increase at a slower pace than Dominion forecasts. The utility might succeed in extending the life of its existing nuclear units. Battery storage technology might advance to the point where it is feasible store massive amounts of sunlight-generated energy. There is no way to know at this time what will happen. But as the entity responsible for keeping the lights on, now and far into the future, Dominion is taking no chances. Despite the jaw-breaking cost, it is not taking the North Anna 3 option off the table.

Building on Virginia’s Data-Center Boom

Data centers are the hottest trend in Virginia economic development these days. But the state is only beginning to think through the implications.

Loudoun County, home to 75 facilities, has developed the largest cluster of data centers in the country (and perhaps the world), and next-door-neighbor Prince William County is rising fast. Rural Mecklenburg County has attracted nearly $2 billion in investment as the location of Microsoft’s East Coast hub for online services. QTS has retrofitted an old microchip factory in Henrico County to open a data center, while DP Facilities, Inc., opened a $65 project center in Wise County. Soon, Virginia Beach will enter the data-center sweepstakes when construction is complete on a 4,000-mile transatlantic cable connecting Virginia to Europe.

According to Paula Squires writing in Virginia Business magazine, Virginia boasts more than 650 data processing, hosting and related establishments that employ more than 13,900 people. Since 2006, the industry has announced more than $11.8 million in new investment and 6,600 jobs. The jobs, while relatively few in number, pay well (more than $100,000 a year in Northern Virginia), and generate a gusher of local taxes.

Billions of dollars are flowing into the sector as the global economy embraces cloud computing to handle the massive surge in data collection and storage. A Markets and Markets research report estimates that the cloud storage market will grow from $23.76 billion in 2016 to $74.94 billion by 2021 — a compounded annual growth rate of 25.8%.

Loudoun County was one of the first localities anywhere to see the economic development potential. The county had a built-in advantage — a massive network of fiber-optic cable built by AOL and WorldCom during the heyday of the 1990s Internet bubble. WorldCom went bust and AOL has a much-diminished presence, but the cable infrastructure remained — and high-capacity connectivity is an essential prerequisite for a data center. Loudoun claims that 70% of the world’s Internet traffic passes through the county. The concentration of data centers is so pronounced that economic developers refers to a six-mile radius around Waxpool Road and Loudoun County Parkway as “data center alley.”

The county has built on its infrastructure advantage by learning how to expedite zoning, permitting and construction. CyrusOne completed construction of a 220,000-square-foot data center in Sterling in 180 days — reputedly the shortest construction time fever for a center that size, reports Squires.

To incentivize investment, the state exempts computer equipment bought or leased for a data center from the retail sales and use tax. Henrico County has dropped its business property tax rate on computers and related equipment from $3.50 to $.40 per $100 of assessed value.

Also, Dominion Energy has emerged as a significant partner. The endless racks of servers inside data centers consume electricity and generate heat, which must be cooled by massive HVAC systems. Dominion charges 5.2 cents per kilowatt hour for large facilities, and a slightly higher rate for small ones. “We’re very competitive,” says Stan Blackwell, director of customer service and strategic partnerships for Dominion. “We have some of the lowest data-center rates in the nation.”

Bacon’s bottom line: The rise of the data-center industry raises two pointed sets of public policy questions.

First, how can Virginia optimize this opportunity? What are the critical drivers? Obviously, the existence of high-capacity fiber networks is one consideration. It appears from the map atop this post that Virginia has one of the densest clusters of long-haul fiber capacity in the country. How crucial is that advantage? Does Virginia’s proximity to a relatively fiber-poor Southeastern U.S. give data centers serving that market an edge? Is the competitive advantage bequeathed by fiber-optic infrastructure such that Virginia should consider encouraging investment in more? Conversely, does it do any good for Virginia to invest in its own fiber infrastructure if connections to neighboring states are lacking? Many, many questions.

Electricity is one of the largest costs associated with operating a data center, accounting for roughly 10% of the total cost of ownership — and it is one of the largest costs that vary by location. Dominion’s electric rates confer a significant competitive edge for locations within its service territory.

Graph credit: Dominion Energy

One of the biggest challenges for Dominion — and the further expansion of the data-center industry — is delivering electricity to these data centers. In one particularly controversial case, the utility wants to build a 230 kV transmission line and substation from Gainesville to Haymarket to serve an Amazon data center. Locals have organized in opposition, claiming that the 100-foot-tall towers will disrupt views and harm property values to benefit a single industrial customer. They insist that Dominion bury the line at considerable expense. If Virginia wants to develop the data-center industry more fully, it may need to find ways to resolve the inevitable utility-landowner disputes fairly expeditiously. No company wants to wait years to find out whether a project will get the electric power it needs.

A second big public policy question centers on the implications of the data-center boom for electricity demand in Virginia. According to Virginia Business, data centers represent Dominion’s fastest-growing customer segment: About 7% of the company’s retail portfolio consists of data centers.

This feeds into the debate over Dominion’s future electric generating mix. Dominion’s 2017 Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) assumes that electric load will increase at a compounded rate of 1.5% over the next 15 years — considerably higher than PJM Interconnection’s forecast for the Dominion service territory. Dominion argues that PJM has not taken into account the phenomenal growth of demand by Virginia-based data centers. These projections matter because they influence how much new generating capacity — including nuclear, as I will explore in a forthcoming post — Dominion adds in the years ahead, with tremendous implications for rate payer and the environment.

The data center surge could prove to be an economic development boon for Virginia. But the industry’s growth impacts local zoning and land-use practices, tax policy, fiber-optic infrastructure development, and energy policy. The McAuliffe administration would be well advised to pull together a conclave to determine how to sort through these issues.

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.”