Category Archives: Environment

Chesapeake Coal Ash Ruling — Advantage Dominion

Judge John A. Gibney Jr.

My initial reaction to Judge John A. Gibney Jr.’s ruling in Virginia’s first coal ash-related federal court case was to call it a draw. As I blogged yesterday, both the Sierra Club and Dominion Virginia Power found aspects of the judge’s order that supported their positions. But as I sort through the implications for the ongoing debate over coal ash in Virginia, I’m thinking that Dominion was the real winner in the long run.

True enough, the Sierra Club and its attorneys with the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) did win one important tactical victory: Gibney found that arsenic-tainted groundwater passing through the coal ash ponds at Dominion’s former Chesapeake Energy Center (CEC), did, in fact, reach the Elizabeth River in violation of the Clean Water Act.

Here’s how Seth Heald, chair of the Sierra Club’s Virginia chapter, framed that finding in a press release:

A federal court has found Dominion responsible for breaking the law and polluting the Elizabeth River. That is important for all Virginians who seek to hold the utility responsible for its mishandling of toxic coal ash. Now we must push Dominion to do the right thing and get this toxic ash out of the groundwater and away from the river, which is highly susceptible to disastrous flooding from sea-level rise and other climate-change effects.

But the judge also found that Dominion had been a “good corporate citizen,” had cooperated with Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) “every step of the way,” and “should not suffer penalties for doing things that it, and the Commonwealth, thought complied with state and federal law.”

More importantly, Gibney applied what is, in effect, a cost-benefit test to any proposed remedy. While it is true that a tiny volume of leachate reaches the Elizabeth River, arsenic concentrations have been rendered harmless by dilution in the massive volume of river water. No threat to aquatic life and human health has been detectable so far. Unless evidence emerges that arsenic levels are reaching dangerous levels, he saw no justification to spend upwards of $600 million to excavate and remove the coal ash.

Gibney also found Dominion’s remedy of “monitored natural attenuation” — in effect, letting nature run its course — to be inadequate as well. He ordered Dominion to conduct more extensive monitoring of sediment, water and wildlife in and around the Chesapeake cite, and to report the results to the Sierra Club’s counsel and the DEQ. “In the event of a significant change in the amount of arsenic in the water or sediments,” Gibney wrote, “either party may move the Court for further relief.”

But Gibney’s cost-benefit test favors Dominion as the coal-ash controversy unfolds. Riverkeeper groups have opposed Dominion’s requests for solid-waste permits at its Bremo and Possum Point power stations. They argued, as the Sierra Club did in the CEC case, that evidence of contaminated groundwater migrating into nearby water bodies is grounds for removing the coal ash to lined landfills away from the water regardless of expense. But the application of Gibney’s logic to future cases would mean that demonstrating the leakage of small volumes of contamination into surface waters is not sufficient to seek a massively expensive remedy. The leakage must be on a scale to affect aquatic health and human safety.

Over a half century of burning coal at the Chesapeake power plant, Dominion accumulated 3.4 million tons of combustion residue and disposed of it in coal ponds. The ash contained high levels of arsenic — an estimated 150 tons. In 2014, samples of groundwater from ten wells around the ash landfill showed arsenic concentrations higher than 10 micrograms per liter, the groundwater protection standard set by DEQ. At one location, the judge noted, the arsenic concentration reached 1,287 micrograms per liter.

Gibney accepted the Sierra Club’s arguments that groundwater migrates from the coal ash to the surface waters of the Elizabeth River and its tributaries. In so doing, he rejected Dominion’s contentions that the groundwater was unconnected to the surrounding water bodies, and that arsenic traces found in the Elizabeth River originated from other industrial sources. Wrote the judge:

Dominion argues that because sediments move upstream and downstream with the tides, it is impossible to tell where the sediments used for the poor water samples originally came from. Although some tidal action may move sediments around, it defies logic to argue that an enormous amount of arsenic does not contribute to the arsenic in soil and water right next to it, especially given the evidence of groundwater movement from the mound outward.

While the evidence shows that Dominion does discharge some arsenic into nearby surface waters, Gibney reasoned, “it does not show how much.”

The Court cannot determine how much groundwater reaches the surface waters, or how much arsenic goes from the CEC to the surrounding waters. .. What the Court does know, however, is that the discharge poses no threat to health or the environment. All tests of the surface waters surrounding the CEC have been well below the water quality criteria for arsenic….. The CEC is surrounded by an enormous body of water, and even a large arsenic discharge would amount to a drop in the bucket.

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Dominion, SELC Spin Coal Ash Ruling as Victory

Dominion Virginia Power and the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) are both declaring victory after a ruling by a federal judge regarding Dominion’s disposal of coal ash at its retired Chesapeake Energy Center.

U.S. District Court Judge John A. Gibney ruled today that the coal ash ponds are contaminating the Elizabeth River with arsenic and that the process of “natural attenuation,” or letting nature take its course, is a “completely ineffective solution,” says a press release issued by the SELC, which represented the plaintiff, the Sierra Club.

“The judge agreed with the Sierra Club’s experts, and rejected the testimony of Dominion experts who said arsenic does not reach the Elizabeth River,” said the statement.

But Dominion found much to celebrate in Gibney’s ruling as well. “The court has confirmed that there has been no threat to health or the environment resulting from the coal ash stored at its former Chesapeake Energy Center,” said a Dominion statement. “The court noted there has been ‘no evidence that shows any injury … has occurred to health or the environment.”

Furthermore, the ruling noted that Dominion had abided by all permits and “should not suffer penalties for doing things that it, and the Commonwealth, thought complied with state and federal law.” Accordingly, the court imposed no penalties on Dominion.

That’s the breaking news. I’ll try to have more tomorrow regarding the implications of the ruling for coal ash controversies at Dominion’s Bremo, Possums Point and Chesterfield power stations.

Fix the Broken Regulatory Process

There must be a better way for federal agencies to review infrastructure mega-projects.

A few days ago, I asked why, after three-and-a-half years, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has yet to give a yea or nay on Dominion Virginia Power’s permit request for the Surry-Skiffes Creek transmission line. The issue I’m raising isn’t what the Army Corps decides but how long it takes to reach a decision. Because of the interminable time spent pondering the permit application, citizens and businesses on the Virginia Peninsula will be at risk of blackouts this year and next, if not longer.

Today, the Richmond Times-Dispatch highlights the frustrations expressed by Diane Leopold, CEO of Dominion Transmission (DT), sister company of Dominion Virginia Power and managing partner of the proposed $5 billion Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP).

“To make these beneficial investments we need certainty from federal agencies. Not a rubber stamp, but a rational path forward with clear processes, reasonable schedules and reasonable decisions,” said Leopold in testimony to the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.

The pipeline requires more than 18 major federal permits and authorizations from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the National Parks Service, the U.S. Forest Service, the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The most visible hang-up at the moment, as judged by Robert Zullo’s article in the T-D, appears to be with the Forest Service.

Dominion says it will use state-of-the-art technology and best practices that will minimize the risk of landslides and erosion on steep mountain slopes. But environmentalists claim that Dominion is under-estimating the landslide risk, and it appears that the Forest Service shares their concerns. Dominion is convinced that it’s right, and its foes are equally persuaded that they’re right. The debate will never be settled by having one side back down.

Why does this have to be so hard?

Instead of a time-consuming bureaucratic battle, why not just specify the desired erosion-and-sediment-control outcomes and require the pipeline to meet them? A reasonable approach would entail careful monitoring of land crossed by the pipeline to detect landslides and other forms of erosion — a cost that ACP would have to absorb. All monitoring data would be made available to the public so government agencies and environmental groups could inspect them to ensure the pipeline was fulfilling its responsibilities. ACP would be required to pay the full cost of restoring mountain slopes and compensate nearby landowners or water authorities for any damages. Perhaps ACP would be required to maintain insurance or post a bond sufficient to guarantee the damages are covered.

There should be one debate over the standards appropriate to steep mountain slopes, and those standards should apply to everyone who wants to build an interstate pipeline in comparable terrain. The purpose of regulation should not be to prescribe how pipelines do their jobs but to ensure that they achieve the desired outcomes. Finally, the review process should not require months and months of review. It should take no more than a week or two to ascertain that the pipeline applicant has the financial wherewithal to live up to its commitments.

Wouldn’t such an arrangement work better for everyone?

Has Rate Freeze Benefited Virginia Customers?

There's no evidence that the electricity rate freeze has hurt Virginians.

Rate freeze —

Are the electric power companies ripping off rate payers under the guise of a rate freeze? Some think so. The electric utility industry came under fire during the 2017 General Assembly session when Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, submitted a bill to un-do the freeze in base electric rates enacted in the 2015 session. Although his bill never made it through the General Assembly, Petersen has appealed to Governor Terry McAuliffe to implement it as an amendment.

In an op-ed piece published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch this morning Mark Webb, Dominion’s senior vice president for corporate affairs, argued that the freeze is working as designed and is a good deal for rate payers.

Legislators wanted to protect customers from a potential price hike tied to environmental costs. Since then a Dominion residential customer has paid $1,100 less per year for electricity than those in the Mid-Atlantic.

Were the rates frozen after big increases? Not at all. Dominion residential rates are only about 4 percent higher than they were in 2008. Don’t you wish that was the case with your other household expenses?”

Meanwhile, the reliability of service has improved, Webb writes, and industrial rates have declined 16% over the same period. Virginia’s lower electric rates are significantly lower than Maryland’s and Washington, D.C.’s. Maryland residential customers pay 25% higher rates than Dominion customers, while industrial customers pay 49% more. D.C. residents and industrial customers pay an even bigger premium.

Dominion’s lower rates have been an economic boon for Northern Virginia, Webb says. “No wonder large electric users such as data centers overwhelmingly locate in Virginia instead of D.C. or Maryland.”

(Webb’s op-ed made no mention of the neighboring state of North Carolina, however, where the average electric rate is lower — 10.29 per kilowatt hour in December 2016 compared to 10.72 cents in Virginia.)

Webb then goes one step further, contending that the General Assembly’s re-regulation of electric power energy in 2008 has worked out well for Virginians, too. “Since Virginia’s landmark legislation reregulated utilities a decade ago,” he writes, “electric rates have been remarkably stable and well below the national and regional averages.”

Bacon’s bottom line: I was curious. What are the numbers? How have electricity rates fared compared to national averages (a) since reregulation and (b) since the rate freeze? I checked data compiled by the U.S. Energy Information Administration for “Average Retail Prices for Electricity” for answers.

Between 2008 and 2016, the average residential rate per kilowatt hour for retail customers nationally increased 11.7%, significantly higher than the 4% rate for Dominion customers that Webb cites. So, Dominion has out-performed the national average since reregulation. But rate-freeze critics have not disputed the fact.

A more pertinent question is what has happened to electricity rates since July 2015 when the freeze went into effect. As critics have noted, base rates cover only ongoing operating costs, not the cost of fuel, which is adjusted through fuel adjustment clauses, or the cost of new capital projects, which is incorporated into the rate structure through rate adjustment clauses. In theory, overall rates can climb higher while base rates stay locked in place.

But that has not happened. Between July 2015 and December 2016 (the most recent month available), the average price of electricity in Virginia decreased 8% to 10.72 cents per kilowatt hour. That compares to a 5.9% decline in electric rates nationally between July 2015 and November 2016, according to the Energy Information Administration.

Out-performing the national average since mid-2015 would seem to buttress Dominion’s case, but it still doesn’t end the argument. Former Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli has argued that the rate freeze locks into place hundreds of millions of dollars in excess profits, with the implication that if Virginia electricity rates would be even lower if they hadn’t been frozen. Webb side-stepped that issue in his op-ed piece, and the EIA numbers don’t address it.

Following the Least-Cost Pathway to CO2 Cuts

The least-cost pathway concept acknowledges that as annual electric-sector emissions of CO2 approach zero tons per person, the cost per ton reduced increases.

The least-cost pathway concept acknowledges that as annual electric-sector emissions of CO2 approach zero tons per person, the cost per ton reduced increases. (Image source: IHS Markit)

Global greenhouse gas emissions have increased steadily as China, India and other countries bring new coal-powered electric plants online, but the United States has bucked the trend. In the U.S. electric power sector, CO2 emissions declined 20% between 2007 and 2015.

One might think that California, which is re-restructuring its electric power system to reduce carbon emissions, played a major role in that accomplishment. But it didn’t. In fact, even as the Golden State boosted wind and solar output from 2 percent to 14 percent of in-state electricity production over that period, CO2 emissions held steady. The reason: The share of natural gas-fired generation grew from 50 percent to 60 percent.

Explains IHS Markit, a purveyor of market intelligence and analysis: “This was needed to back up and fill in for intermittent renewables, replace output from prematurely closing nuclear plants, and offset declining hydroelectric generation.”

The economics of CO2 reduction are complex, and not all CO2 reduction strategies are created equal — either in terms of cost or in terms of emissions reduced. As IHS Markit notes in a Wall Street Journal advertorial today, there are more cost-efficient ways to cut greenhouse gases than mandating renewables. “The reductions achieved via [California’s] wind and solar mandates cost 10 times more than the ones achieved through its cap-and-trade programs.”

The idea that cutting greenhouse gas emissions is a compelling national goal is far from universally accepted. Not everyone embraces the more cataclysmic predictions of temperature rise, not everyone believes that an atmosphere richer in CO2 will lead to universally baleful effects, and not everyone agrees with the proposition that cutting CO2 emissions is the best way to respond to a warming climate. But let’s set those reservations aside for a moment and assume that combating global warming and cutting CO2 emissions is a global imperative, and that we’ve all got to do our bit to turn the tide.

IHS Markit employs a concept it calls “the least-cost pathway” to CO2 reduction, which ranks CO2 reduction strategies for the electric power industry by cost-effectiveness — essentially by dollars-per-ton of CO2 saved.

The lowest-cost approach is replacing coal, which emits a large volume of CO2 per unit of electricity generated, with natural gas, which emits about half the volume. That approach is so cost-effective that it has already occurred on a large scale, driven largely by market forces (and Environmental Protection Agency rules that cracked down on emissions of toxic metals from the combustion of coal).

Thanks to the fracking revolution, which has expanded the supply of natural gas and pushed down the price, U.S. electric utilities have shifted dramatically from coal to gas. That’s the reason U.S. CO2 emissions have declined so dramatically. While this approach has not totally run its course, the rate of gas-for-coal substitution is likely to slow significantly, as only the newest, cleanest, most cost-efficient coal plants remain in operation.

Extending the life of aging nuclear power plants is somewhat more expensive, and building new nuclear facilities is significantly more expensive. On the positive side, nukes have zero carbon emissions and they provide a reliable base-load capacity. IHS Markit sums up the pros and cons: “Nuclear power plant extension is cost-effective early on, and new nuclear plants become cost-effective as the curve moves into deeper reduction.”

Energy efficiency is part of the equation, says IHS Markit. However, “encouraging efficiency investments beyond what consumers would do themselves involves increasing costs.”

As for wind and solar, they, too, are part of the solution. “But not as the primary source of generation. … Wind and solar costs are not reaching grid parity when the need to align power output to when consumers want electricity is taken into account. Battery technologies are improving but are still not a cost-effective way to manage variations in electricity demand.”

The comparative economics get murkier when we look into the future. Will natural gas prices increase, and by how much, as the most productive wells are depleted and exports of Liquified Natural Gas soak up excess supply? Will the cost of solar panels and battery technologies continue to decline as in the past, or will the pace of innovation slow? Will the price of building new nuclear plants remain breathtakingly high, or will some combination of new technologies (mini-nukes, anyone?) and relaxation of excessive safety regulations bring down the cost?

As IHS Markit concedes, there is little consensus. Still, the market-intelligence company provides a useful framework for looking at Virginia’s energy future: We should pursue the least-cost pathway to CO2 emissions.

The devil is in the details, of course. We can haggle endlessly over the cost-effectiveness of any given approach. But the idea makes more sense than pre-supposing that any particular approach — coal, gas, extending old nukes, building new nukes, wind, solar, energy conservation — is the way to go. Different energy sources have their own place in the fuel mix as Virginia’s electric power sector moves up the least-cost pathway.

Tracking California’s Grand Experiment with Solar

California solar farm

California is leading the nation’s transition from fossil fuels and nukes to renewable fuels, mostly solar power. The Golden State’s aggressive investment in solar energy has created such a glut of daytime electricity that solar wholesale prices literally drops to zero and such a shortage during the night that real-time prices surge as high as $1,000 per megawatt hour. Regulators and utilities are learning how to cope with these problems through battery storage, grid modernization and energy conservation.

Hopefully, Virginia utilities and regulators are paying close attention as the Old Dominion defines its own approach to renewable energy. On the one hand, by going slowly, Virginia can learn from California’s mistakes and work-arounds. On the other, Virginia’s cautious approach to solar risks allowing other states crack the code first on how to generate reliable, lower-cost and green power, thus converting the price and quality of electricity from a competitive advantage to a disadvantage.

In 2016 the average cost of electricity in Virginia was 8.88 cents per kilowatt hour, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. In California, the cost was 14.88 cents per kilowatt hour, 40% higher.

California is spending billions of dollars in giant test project in which the entire state economy is the subject. The great challenge with solar, as oft alluded to in Bacon’s Rebellion, is coping with intermittent nature of generation. Last month, notes the Wall Street Journal, Sempra Energy flipped the switch on a bank of 400,000 lithium-ion batteries installed by Virginia-based AES Corp. The batteries will smooth out power flows in San Diego’s solar-intensive electric grid. Meanwhile, Tesla, Inc., is supplying batteries to a Los Angeles-area network tied together in a microgrid of 100 office buildings and industrial properties. Reports the Journal:

When [Edison International] needs more electricity on its system, the batteries would be able to deliver 360 megawatt hours of extra power to the buildings and the grid, enough to power 20,000 homes for a day, on short notice. At other times, the batteries would help firms hosting the arrays to cut their utility bills.

Clearly, strategies exist for overcoming the variable and daylight-only production of solar panels. The big question is how much the batteries cost. And that tends to be a ticklish subject. As the WSJ noted regarding the Tesla/Edison International project in Los Angeles, “The companies declined to say how much the project would cost.”

Broadly speaking, battery storage has two different uses. One is fine-tuning the electric grid, a function that exploits the ability of batteries to respond instantaneously to micro-fluctuations in voltage and frequency. The other is storing electric power until it is needed at a different time. In this second use, batteries compete with natural-gas peaker plants, which are essentially jet turbines that sit idle until needed. Unlike conventional power plants that ramp up and down slowly, gas peakers and batteries can respond quickly to changes in demand.

Stored power from lithium-ion batteries can do the work of a natural-gas peaker plant at an average cost of between $284 and $581 a megawatt-hour, according to a December report by Lazard Ltd. In contrast, electricity from a new gas peaker plant costs between $155 and $227 a megawatt-hour, according to Lazard.

(By comparison, the average retail price of electricity in Virginia is about $89 per megawatt hour.)

Clearly, lithium-ion batteries are far too expensive at present to use on a large scale in Virginia as a peaking resource. But solar advocates hold out the hope that battery storage will decline in cost. Is that realistic?

The lithium-ion battery chemistry may be reaching the limits of its potential, reports Fortune magazine in an article published yesterday. “The biggest proof may be in the spate of explosions now plaguing smartphone makers from Samsung to Apple, in part thanks to li-ons’ tendency to grow dendrites, metal strands that can cause short circuits.”

John Goodenough, a co-inventor of the lithium-ion battery, claims to have developed a solid-state battery that replaces lithium with sodium, which, in theory, can hold three times more energy, charge quickly, and never explode. Commercialization of the technology is years away, however, warns Fortune. By way of comparison, Lithium ion batteries took a decade to move from the laboratory to the marketplace.

When it comes to reducing CO2 emissions, Californians seem willing to pay any price. That approach will not sell politically in Virginia. But California is more than a Land of Fruits and Nuts. It has some of the most brilliant scientists, engineers and technologists in the world. If green power can be made economically competitive with fossil fuels and nuclear, California will figure it out. We Virginians should not necessarily emulate its example, but we should be paying attention.

At Last, a Wind Farm Virginia Can Call Its Own

Simulated view of Rocky Forge wind farm.

Simulated view of Rocky Forge wind farm.

It looks like Virginia soon will have its first commercial wind farm. The Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) has approved plans to build 25 giant turbines on a ridgeline in Botetourt County.

Critical to the approval was an agreement by Charlottesville-based Apex Clean Energy to turn off turbines at its Rocky Forge site during warm, calm nights during the season when bats are most active. Foes of the project had focused on the risk that the 550-foot-tall turbines would pose to bats and birds.

Virginia will join 41 other states that have wind projects. The Rocky Forge project has run a regulatory gamut, winning approvals from Botetourt County and the Federal Aviation Administration as well as DEQ. Apex had to demonstrate that its turbines would not pose a threat to commercial aviation.

Apex CEO Mark Goodwin was up-beat. “Linked with competitive pricing and clear evidence that new clean energy generation attracts major corporate investment, Rocky Forge Wind is set to begin a new chapter in Virginia’s energy future.”

Reports the Roanoke Times:

To evaluate the wind farm’s impact on the environment, DEQ relied in large part on studies conducted for Apex by private firms, in consultation with state and federal agencies.

The data showed minimal harm to birds, noting that eagles and other types of birds most threatened by turbines were not seen in large numbers at the proposed wind farm site, a 7,000-acre parcel of unpopulated woodland on North Mountain that sits about 5 miles northeast of Eagle Rock.

The company will stop its turbines from sunset to sunrise from mid-May to mid-November every year, except when the wind is blowing faster than 15 mph or it is 38 degrees or colder on the mountain ridge. … Apex says it also will avoid cutting trees within 5 miles of the bats’ caves and within 150 feet of summer roosting trees for northern long-eared bats from early spring to fall.

In echoes of criticisms leveled against the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and Mountain Valley Pipeline, critics of the project asserted that DEQ’s streamlined administrative process, enacted in 2010, is too friendly to industry.

During construction, the wind farm is expected to produce about 150 jobs. Once the project is operational, it will be run by about a half-dozen employees on-site.
Apex officials have said earlier that the facility could pump as much as $4.5 million a year into the local economy, adding to the tax base and contributing to local sales and tourism spending.

Bacon’s bottom line: Concerns that wind turbines kill birds and bats has emerged as a big issue with many proposed wind farms in the Appalachian mountains. It will be interesting to see if Apex’s concession to shut down the turbines during periods of peak wildlife activity creates a precedent that eases the approval of other wind projects in Virginia.

Virginia’s on-land wind resources are limited, restricted mainly to mountain ridge lines near existing electric transmission lines. People have convinced themselves that wind turbines, like houses, cabins and condominiums, are an eyesore and hurt their property values. Apex shrewdly located Rocky Forge on an isolated ridge seen by few people, so opposition in Botetourt was limited. Whether the Rocky Forge success can be replicated anywhere else remains to be seen.

Will “Home Grown” Renewables Spur Virginia’s Economy?

Which creates more jobs? Solar and wind…

Walton Shepherd, a staff attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), has made an economic-development argument for renewable energy sources over natural gas in Virginia’s energy policy. Sandy Hausman with WVTF Public Radio quotes him as follows:

Renewable energy and energy efficiency are basically homegrown resources. If Virginia wants to produce its own power and not send dollars out of state for things like natural gas that we actually have to import, we can tap those resources right here in Virginia and keep those dollars local.

… or gas-fired power plants?

Shepherd says that Virginia should cut carbon emissions by 30%, and the state should reject any request by Dominion Virginia Power to build any new natural gas burning plants. Using similar logic, environmentalists also have argued that construction of the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline and Mountain Valley Pipeline, both of which would transport natural gas, is unnecessary and not in the public interest.

Shepherd raises a point worth examining: Do “home grown” energy sources like solar, wind and energy conservation create more taxable, job-creating economic activity than building pipelines and gas-fired power stations? The answer seems intuitively obvious — wind and sunshine are abundant and free here in the Old Dominion, while natural gas imported from outside the state represents a drain on Virginia’s economy.

But the truth of the matter is far from clear. The point of this post is not to settle the matter — I don’t have the data or analytical tools to do that — merely to warn against making simplistic assumptions.

Cost of capital. First, the cost of fuel is only one part of the cost of generating electricity. Two other inputs are manpower and, most important, capital. Shepherd’s argument (as filtered through Public Radio) does not consider the cost of capital. At present, solar panels and wind turbines are more expensive per unit of electricity generated than the turbines, boilers and pollution-control devices it takes to burn natural gas. Higher costs translate into higher electric rates, which come out of the pockets of businesses and rate payers, which diminishes the money they have to spend in the local economy.

Direct job creation. Once installed, solar, wind and gas facilities require employees to maintain and operate them. A billion-dollar gas power station requires only a few dozen employees to operate. A solar farm requires little more than periodic inspections to ensure everything is working properly and landscapers to keep down the grass. (Wind will be a niche player in Virginia, so I don’t give it much consideration here.) I haven’t seen an objective analysis that compares the employment levels (and payroll) of solar farms vs. gas plants. Either way, the numbers are tiny compared to the capital investment expended.

Indirect job creation. Solar farms and gas plants also have indirect, spin-off effects. For instance, corporations dedicated to green energy policies want to buy renewable energy. A case in point is Amazon Web Services, which has committed to run its Northern Virginia data centers on solar. The availability of green energy makes such companies more willing to invest in Virginia, although it is difficult to say how critical the criteria is in their location decisions.

On the other side of the argument, gas backers say that new gas-fired power stations will support construction of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which in turn will supply gas to industrial customers along the pipeline route and allow communities to compete for energy-intensive manufacturing prospects for the first time.

Energy efficiency. Greenies such as Shepherd tout the advantages of energy efficiency. Whether weatherizing the houses of the poor or installing state-of-the-art controls for office HVAC systems, investments in energy efficiency can create jobs and build businesses. (My wife used to work for a company that makes a software platform for building automation systems. That Henrico-based firm employs a lot of  highly paid engineers.) Energy conservation programs come in many forms — from upgrading heat pumps to replacing old, energy-hogging refrigerators — and each one offers a different payback. On one extreme, the market-driven building automation business offers demonstrable savings and requires no government support. On the other hand, programs that eke out marginal improvements in appliance efficiency typically require subsidies from taxpayers or rate payers.

Subsidized conservation programs may create local jobs, but if the same sum of money were invested elsewhere, they might create just as many jobs, perhaps more. Americans normally trust the free market to allocate capital the most efficiently. When government policy overrides market dynamics via subsidies, it’s much harder to make the case that job creation will be maximized. Continue reading

Prince William Supervisors Demand Coal Ash Studies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Landfill, Recycle or Close in Place?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

coal_ash_closures

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

Atlantic Coastal Plain. Image source: Wikipedia

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

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

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

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

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