Category Archives: Energy

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

McAuliffe Signs 11 Renewable Energy Bills into Law

Governor Terry McAuliffe has signed 11 solar and renewable energy bills into law.

Quasi-community solar. The most significant is SB 1393, which creates a mechanism for Dominion, Appalachian power Co. and Virginia’s electric cooperatives to sell solar-generated electricity to subscribers. While the law does not provide everything that solar enthusiasts would like, it does open up economic space for more local, small-scale solar development, and it provides consumers a green-energy option they didn’t have before.

Agricultural solar. HB 2303 and SB 1394 create a framework whereby farms can generate renewable energy and sell it to utilities.

Energy-efficiency. HB 1565 allows localities to establish “green development zones” providing special zoning and tax treatment for buildings and facilities that are deemed to be energy efficient or manufacture products beneficial to the environment.

Battery storage. SB 1258 expands the mission of the Virginia Solar Energy Development Authority to include promotion of battery storage technology.

The Fauquier Times enumerates all 11 bills here.

Electric Utilities Increasingly Open to Renewables

Graphic source: State of the Electric Utility 2017

by Thomas Hadwin

Editor’s note: Tom Hadwin submitted this article before Dominion and Appalachian Power filed Integrated Resource Plans Monday detailing forecasts of dramatically higher solar energy generation over the next 15 to 25 years.

According to a recent article in Utility Dive, U.S. electric utility concerns about integrating higher levels of renewables into the grid are declining.

Utility Dive surveyed more than 600 utility professionals in their fourth-annual State of the Electric Utility (SEU) survey. More than 80% of the respondents expect renewable energy resources to increase moderately or significantly over the next ten years in their service territories.

The lower costs of renewables and natural gas compared to other conventional generating sources are driving the trend to greater acceptance. PJM Interconnection Vice President, Mike Bryson, agrees that the very low price of natural gas and the declining price of renewable energy cause these sources to be favored over new coal and nuclear generation.

Survey respondents agree, with 62% expecting moderate or significant growth in natural gas generation, while 72% predict at least moderate coal retirements in the upcoming decade.

Southeastern states are less enthusiastic about the prospects for growth in wind resources. A majority (58%) of those responding from Southern states did not expect growth in wind generation, which might be due to the lower-than-average wind resource in the region. Advances in advanced turbine technologies might yield prices competitive with natural gas generation in the Southeast by 2025. In other parts of the country, especially the Great Plains, wind generation is often the lowest cost source of electricity today.

Texas is currently the nation’s leading wind generator with 18 GW of nameplate wind generation, with plans to add 14.5 GW more wind generation and 27 GW of solar by 2031 without any statewide Renewable Portfolio Standard. Economics are the driving force.

Utilities expect smaller scale solar will grow even faster than utility-scale facilities with 83% forecasting at least some level of growth in distributed generation solar units. This rapid build-out of solar will require other complementary technologies. Nearly 80% of the utility respondents expect moderate or significant growth in distributed and grid-scale storage units, while 81% predict more grid communication technologies and smart inverters will be required to ease grid integration of additional solar.

In last year’s survey, grid integration issues were the top concern, reported by 32% of respondents. This year, half of that number (16%), said grid integration of renewables was the most pressing problem. Instead, 35% of the utility officials indicated that since the election regulatory and market uncertainty are now the greatest concerns.

Few respondents reported concerns about transmission constraints, stranded assets, or having adequate flexible generation to cover variations in renewable output, which are issues often associated with renewable growth.

This might be due to the recent development of affordable and effective grid integration measures. A National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) study confirms that higher levels of renewable energy will not disrupt system reliability. The study showed that the Eastern Interconnection, the world’s biggest power system, of which PJM is a part, can reliably add ten times more renewable generation than exists today.

Renewables then would comprise about 30% of the system capacity. The remainder would be gas, coal, nuclear, hydro and other types of generation that would provide dispatchable power to cover the variations in the output from renewable sources.

Batteries are not yet cheap enough to make solar plus battery combinations competitive with natural gas-fired combined cycle plants for base-load use. But solar plus batteries is currently cheaper than the more expensive peaking units in some regions. The batteries respond more rapidly to load fluctuations than do existing peaking units. Expected ongoing price declines will make their use more widespread. Continue reading

Please, Norge, Don’t Go NIMBY on Solar Project

Norge residents gather to learn more about a proposed solar farm in their neighborhood. Photo credit: Virginia Gazette.

Report from today’s Virginia Gazette: Members of the Norge community of James City County are “concerned” that a proposed solar farm will impact their neighborhood negatively.

The James City County planning commission approved in April an application to build a solar farm on a 225-acre property on Farmville Lane. The developer, California-based SunPower, said that the lane would have to be widened and trees removed in order for trucks to be able to turn properly.

Residents expressed concerns about traffic and noise said Amanda Beringer, who organized a neighborhood meeting to educate neighbors. “As we did more research and watched the planning commission meeting we realized a lot of people didn’t know about the proposal.”

Bacon’s bottom line: Well, if someone proposed a major construction project near where I lived, I’d want to know more about it, too. So the Norge neighbors can’t be criticized for wanting to learn more about the project. But if concern morphs into opposition, I’ll have “concerns” of my own, but entirely different ones. I’ll be concerned how NIMBYs inevitably arise to block any kind of energy-related project in Virginia, be it electric transmission lines, gas pipelines, wind turbines or even solar farms that hum quietly behind hedges while — outside the construction phase — creating little traffic or human activity of any kind. Some energy projects are intrusive and resistance is understandable. But opposition to solar projects is incomprehensible to me.

Look, people, solar energy is coming. Dominion and Appalachian Power have both announced commitments to massive increases in solar generation over the next 25 years. While some of that solar capacity will be small-scale, distributed rooftop solar panels, most of it will be utility-scale solar farms like the one SunPower wants to build. Leasing land to a  power company is great news for suburban and exurban landowners struggling to make ends meet in farming, and the tax benefits to localities are significant — even after taking into account the 80% discount on property tax assessments.

Local governments across Virginia need to get proactive and update their zoning codes and comprehensive plans to prepare for the upcoming solar bonanza. They need to work out potentially conflicting issues ahead of time. The quicker solar projects sail through the regulatory process, the more that will get built to the benefit of all.

The Failed Mountain “Decapitation” Narrative

Schematic filed with West Virginia regulators of a two-mile stretch of the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline near the Virginia state line.

Schematic filed with West Virginia regulators of a two-mile stretch of the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline near the Virginia state line. (Click for larger image.)

Environmentalists say the Atlantic Coast Pipeline will “decapitate” pristine mountaintops in western Virginia. They have no evidence to back the claim.

Last week foes of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP) leveled their most rhetorically heated charges against the 600-mile pipeline project yet. Construction teams would have to excavate some 247,000 dump-truck loads of rock and soil as they blasted a path across steep mountains and ridge lines. Describing the “decapitation” of pristine mountains, opponents likened the process to highly destructive mountaintop removal by the coal industry.

There was just one problem. The environmentalists’ calculations were based on the assumption that the ACP would flatten a 125-foot-wide construction corridor through the mountains. That assumption was inaccurate, Aaron Ruby, a spokesman for Dominion Transmission, managing partner of the pipeline project, responded at the time. On ridge lines, the company would carve out just enough space to excavate the trench, which will be “significantly narrower” than 125 feet. Without the 125-foot assumption, the rest of the “decapitation” analysis falls apart.

Ruby’s comment seemingly constituted a devastating rebuke. But pipeline foes are sticking to their guns. Building on the “decapitation” theme, the Chesapeake Climate Action Network (CCAN) is planning a rally today in front of Governor Terry McAuliffe’s office to demand that the governor use his regulatory power to “halt Dominion’s proposed mountaintop removal plans.”

A CCAN briefing paper asserts that “the choice to build along ridgelines is part of Dominion’s preferred and deliberate design. Working on these ridgelines will require creating a wide and flat surface to allow Dominion’s earth-moving vehicles and deep-trenching machines to operate and maneuver. The federal government’s report on the environmental impacts of the pipeline declares that ‘narrow ridgetops’ [will] require widening and flattening in order to provide workspace in the temporary right-of-way.”

What proof does CCAN have to back up such claims? None at all.


ANALYSIS


In a follow-up email distributed to members of the media late last week, Rick Webb with the Dominion Pipeline Monitoring Coalition (DPMC), a CCAN ally, attached a document that included the schematic above, which Dominion had submitted in a West Virginia regulatory filing. The schematic shows an elevation profile and a top-down view of the pipeline route on a two-mile section of the proposed pipeline near the Virginia border. A report by RESPEC, a geoscience engineering consulting firm hired by Appalachian Mountain Advocates, another anti-pipeline ally, estimated that construction would remove 130,000 cubic yards of material in that one segment alone.

That report, “Atlantic Coast Pipeline and Supply Header Project Volumetric Analysis,” made several assumptions. Among them, the firm created “typical cross-sections” to facilitate the computation of the volume of excavated material. One of the four cross-sections — “Ridgeline – Steep” category (shown below) — was applied to topography located on a ridgeline with an overall slope of greater than 20%.

Source: “Atlantic Coast Pipeline and Supply Header Project
Volumetric Analysis.” (Click for larger image.)

The graphic clearly shows the assumption that the top of the ridge-line will be removed in its entirety.

But the assumption is invalid. As ACP spokesman Ruby elaborated in an email: “We will not need to grade the entire 125-foot-wide construction right of way on every ridgeline. We may need to clear the entire ROW so we have room for our equipment, but we will only grade enough space so we can safely excavate the trench and install the pipe.”

There is nothing in the Dominion schematic to contradict Ruby.

In an interview with Bacon’s Rebellion, Webb acknowledged that pipeline foes were making assumptions for the purposes of their analysis, and he shifted the burden of proof to Dominion to prove their analysis wrong.

“We’re taking the information we have and saying, ‘It can be this bad,'” said Webb. “If Dominion says this is an exaggeration, show us the details to prove otherwise. Informed decisions can’t be made,” he added, until more information is made available.

Dominion has yet to file detailed construction plans for the route, Webb said. “The only detailed plans in Virginia we’ve seen is a one-tenth of a mile section in Highland County using high-tensile steel mesh nailed into the ground with six-foot nails. We want to see what they’re planning to do with the rest of the pipeline. Dominion has presented a concept. … We want to see solutions now.”

It’s one thing for pipeline foes to demand Dominion to make more information available to the public. It’s a very different thing to claim that the company intends to engage in mountaintop decapitation with devastating environmental consequences. Dominion insists that it won’t, and pipeline opponents have offered no tangible evidence to indicate otherwise. Perhaps proof will turn up in future filings to support their view. But it hasn’t yet, and pipeline foes undermine their credibility by trumpeting claims with no basis in demonstrated fact.