Category Archives: Environment

Consumer Group Calls for Scrapping North Anna 3

 

 

 

Dominion Energy may have declared a “pause” in the development of a third nuclear unit at its North Anna Power Station, but a consumer advocacy group says that’s not good enough. It’s time to shut down the project permanently.

“Dominion needs to kill North Anna to protect rate payers,” said Irene Leech, president of the Virginia Citizens Consumer Council (VCCC). Critics have estimated that the project will cost roughly $19 billion, which would make it the most expensive power plant ever built in Virginia by a factor of ten or more. “If Dominion doesn’t do it, the SCC (State Corporation Commission) should intervene.”

Leech made her comments while introducing Dr. Mark Cooper, senior fellow for economic analysis, Institute for Energy and the Environment, at Vermont Law School, in a media conference call. Cooper, who had predicted the recent cancellation of the V.C. Summer nuclear plant in South Carolina after massive construction cost overruns, filed testimony with the SCC today on behalf of the VCCC in regards to Dominion’s 2017 Integrated Resource Plan.

“Dominion’s recently announced decision to suspend development of North Anna 3 is welcome, but long overdue and not as decisive as it should be,” Cooper said. “The Commission should order North Anna 3 removed from the IRP and refuse to allow any cost recovery associated with the development of North Anna 3 other than through the normal rate-making process, in which the utility demonstrates that it is the least cost option and useful to ratepayers.”

While acknowledging that the nuclear plant is extremely expensive, Dominion has argued that the utility should preserve the nuclear option to cope with a worst-case regulatory scenario restricting carbon-dioxide emissions. In its integrated resource plan, the company explores six scenarios. In one of them, Plan H, Dominion would be have to cut carbon emissions 7% compared to a 2012 baseline by 2030, compelling the closure of up to four coal-fired units at its Mecklenburg and Clover power stations, and making it impossible to make up the lost base capacity with natural gas. The plan contemplates 5,760 megawatts of new solar capacity, but solar output is intrinsically variable. That would leaves nuclear as the only option when the sun didn’t shine, the company has said. The company would not need to build the nuclear plant under any other regulatory scenario.

While some observers assume that Dominion hit the pause button on North Anna 3 because of horrendous construction cost overruns at plants in South Carolina and Georgia, spokesman David Botkins says the company made the decision more than a  year ago. Regulatory uncertainty made it prudent to put the project on hold but not to spike it. The Clean Power Plan, which orders states to impose CO2 emissions on their electric utilities, is not dead. Its legality is tied up in the federal court system, and the McAuliffe administration is moving ahead with his own low-carbon plan for Virginia. The company has not made the decision to build the nuclear unit but thinks it worthwhile, after spending roughly $600 million to obtain a Combined Operating License (COL), to keep the option open.

Given the momentum of technology, Cooper argued, there is no chance of nuclear becoming economically viable. “Nuclear construction costs escalate relentlessly, driven by complexity,” he said. “Nuclear is the most expensive way imaginable to reduce carbon emissions. It’s a bad investment. I have wind, solar, and energy efficiency in hand today at a third of the cost of North Anna 3. I want to get [nuclear] off the table.”

The United States electric system is transitioning “to flexible, small-scale, renewable, distributed” energy sources like rooftop solar. Meanwhile investments in energy efficiency and demand-management strategies are holding down growth in electricity consumption, Cooper said. The ability to store large volumes of electricity in batteries will make it possible to overcome the problem of volatile energy output.

“Think about your laptop, tablet, or cell phone. Ten years ago … the battery life was an hour. Now it’s ten hours. They’re making huge progress in energy storage,” Cooper said. Meanwhile, solar + batteries can increase generating capacity in increments rather than in one a big chunk when the nuclear plant comes online. Utilities talk about solar plants sitting idle at night or under cloudy skies. Large swaths of the electrical infrastructure, such as combustion turbine plants that run only during periods of peak demand, spend much of their time idle as well. Nuclear isn’t cost competitive now, and it never will be, he said.

Putting the North Anna 3 project on hold is not an adequate response, Cooper said. The General Assembly allowed Dominion to capture $570 million from rate payers to defray the cost of obtaining the North Anna 3 operating license. That sum has economic value. Assuming rate payers could earn 3% annually on that money, the opportunity cost amounts to almost $300 million over ten years. Even with the project on hold, said Cooper, “rate payers are bearing a burden.”

Dominion thinks of the North Anna 3 option as a form of insurance policy. “As has been shown throughout history, forecasts change over time,” says a prepared Dominion statement. “Fuel diversity is a key component of any energy plan. Our customers enjoy some of the lowest rates in the United States, due in large part, to the safe, reliable, clean and dependable nuclear units at Surry and North Anna.”

“The [Combined Operating License] is good indefinitely, and, while no decision has been made to build it, we could make a decision to move forward with it if business conditions change,” said Richard Zuercher, spokesman for Dominion Energy’s nuclear power operations. “We would not do so, however, without authorization from the State Corporation Commission.”

The Long, Painful Slog to Resolving the Net Metering Debate

Graphic credit: SolaireGen

After a two-hour telephone discussion Thursday, participants in a “net metering” sub-group of the Solar Policy Collaborative Workgroup didn’t seem to agree on much other than which issues need to be resolved. But that represented progress of a sort toward promoting small-scale, distributed solar energy in Virginia by businesses, homeowners and nonprofits.

“These are very difficult and complex problems. We made a run at it last  year, and didn’t get there,” Mark Rubin, the Virginia Commonwealth University professor and mediator behind the policy collaborative, said at the beginning of the session. “From a process perspective,” he said at the end, “this has been a helpful, productive call.”

The solar policy group, which worked out compromise legislation enabling “community” solar in the 2017 session, tackled the net metering issue without success last year. Two-thirds of the way through the current year, the group still seems far from formulating a consensus on net metering. But the conference-call discussion Thursday, which included a diverse set of participants ranging from electric utilities to smaller solar developers and environmental groups, did at least illuminate the main fault lines of debate.

“Net metering” refers to the regulatory system governing how small solar power producers, usually businesses and households putting solar panels on their roofs, connect with power companies. Solar panels often produce more electricity than property owners can absorb during peak periods, and a policy question arises as to the terms and conditions under which they sell their surplus to the electric companies. Solar advocates say utilities should pay small producers the full retail rate. Utilities respond that (a) the full retail rate is higher than the wholesale price of electricity they can purchase on the open market, and (b) they should be compensated for maintaining the electric transmission and distribution grid that solar producers periodically draw upon.

Long a laggard in solar energy, Virginia now has a big pipeline of solar deals in the works, and environmentally conscious consumers soon will be able to purchase renewable energy developed by community groups and marketed and sold through the utilities. But most solar production is large scale generation in vast tracts farms owned and operated by the state’s electric utilities, Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power. Progress has been much slower for small-scale, rooftop solar for the masses.

The most intractable issue facing the net-metering workgroup centered on standby charges. While the impact of rooftop solar on Virginia’s electric grid is minimal now — less than 1% of the power supply — participants are looking 20 to 30 years down the road to when it could become a major contributor. If hundreds of thousands of customers generated most of their own electricity, cutting into utility revenues, other customers would be stuck with the cost of building and maintaining the distribution and transmission lines that even those with rooftop solar rely upon from time to time. To offset this erosion of market share, utilities want to charge solar businesses and households a stand-by charge amounting to several dollars per month.

Katherine Bond, Dominion’s senior policy adviser, noted that a minimum bill of $7 monthly would not cover the company’s costs.

Solar advocates and environmental groups counter that solar is cost positive — that solar has a value that benefits utilities. For example, solar panels emit no carbon dioxide emissions, thereby making it easier for states to attain regulatory goals. Also, peak solar production overlaps with peak electricity demand, reducing the need for utilities to purchase expensive, peak-load electricity on wholesale electricity markets.

These issues are all well known, as they have been hashed out in many other states. What’s not known are the particulars here in Virginia. Because each state has unique geography, solar exposure, and regulatory systems, cost-benefit numbers that might apply to California or North Carolina may not necessarily apply to Virginia.

Aaron Sutch, program director of VA SUN, expressed the view of many that he wants to see more data. “We really do appreciate a respectful dialogue,” he said. But he added, “We haven’t seen any data from the utility side on the issue of cost recovery. … This should be a data-driven process.”

Will Cleveland, a staff attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, agreed. “If you want stakeholder buy-in, present the data so we can see [that cost recovery] is a legitimate problem. It’s hard from an optics perspective to hear that you can’t share the data. It makes it hard for [solar] advocates to agree to any solution if the data isn’t provided.”

“I understand your point that you’d like it to be disseminated more broadly,” said Rubin, the lead mediator of the workgroup. Core members of the net metering sub-group have been exchanging detailed data. But due to the proprietary nature of the data, participants have been held to strict confidentiality. Perhaps, once a particular path forward has been chosen, it might be possible to share more detailed data, he added.

A related issue is the necessity of attributing a monetary value to the positive impact of rooftop solar.  It wasn’t clear from the discussion whether the electric utilities had any data to formulate an estimate.

The sub-group discussed other, seemingly less contentious, issues. No one voiced opposition to the proposition that anyone investing in solar energy today should be grandfathered, or protected, from changes in the law that would harm the financial return on their investment. Rubin said Virginia needs to create a “glide path” to a new system. “How do you go forward without hurting those people who have already committed to solar?”

Do Utilities and Coal Companies Run Virginia? Hardly.

Statue of Gov. Harry F. Byrd outside the Virginia state capitol building. A “traditionalistic” political culture? Maybe once upon a time, but not anymore.

Vivian Thomson argues that utilities and coal companies dominate Virginia’s energy policy. Her simplistic view ignores the reality that environmentalists wield significant power now.

Vivian E. Thomson has a big beef with state government. The University of Virginia environmental sciences professor contends that the political system in the Old Dominion is rigged in favor of the electric utilities and fossil fuel industries against selfless crusaders, such as herself, fighting for the public interest. She persists in this belief even though the State Air Pollution Control Board, of which she was a member in the early 2000s, prevailed in the two major controversies she describes in her book, “Climate Capitulation: An Insider’s Account of State Power in a Coal Nation.”

In that book, she lists three factors that allow “entrenched business elites” to exercise “undue power” in the making of air pollution policy through legislative and administrative processes:

(1) campaign contributions that, in the energy and natural resources sector, are dominated by one electric utility and coal interests, (2) a reactive, part-time legislature that has virtually no independent analytical capacity, and (3) a traditionalistic political culture.

Thomson’s view of Virginia’s political economy is widely shared among environmentalists and left-of-center activists and politicians. A friend of mine, a professor of environmental law whose opinion I respect, gave the book fulsome praise. Accordingly, Thomson’s thesis deserves a thoughtful response, and that’s what I will endeavor to provide in this post.

Although Thomson provides nuggets of genuine insight, her analysis of Virginia’s political economy is as one-sided as her chronicle of the regulatory controversies in which she was embroiled. (See my critique of her book in “Rogue Board“). She focuses exclusively on how corporations exercise power and influence in Virginia while ignoring the increasing clout of its opponents, who have won numerous victories in the realm of politics, public opinion and the law. Yes, corporations have clout. But so do their foes. Sometimes Big Business gets its way. Often, it doesn’t.

I will start by addressing Thomson’s comments about the part-time legislature, which have considerable merit, move to the meaningless characterization of Virginia as having a “traditionalist” political culture, and close with a discussion of the role of campaign contributions in Virginia politics.

Asymmetry of information. The disparity in political power issues not just from business campaign donations, Thomson argues, but from an asymmetry in information. Virginia has a part-time citizen legislature, and legislators have tiny staffs. As a practical matter, senators and delegates in the General Assembly are reliant upon the expertise of state employees and outsiders such as lobbyists.

Writes Thomson:

Virginia’s legislature is designed to be a part-time body, with the notion that citizens serving as representatives can remain closely attuned to their constituents’ needs and preferences. … [But] even the most dedicated legislators cannot be independently well informed if they have small staffs, low pay, and short sessions.

Less professionalized legislatures are handicapped when it comes to analysis of complicated technical issues such as those commonly encountered in the environmental and public-health policy arenas. When Virginia’s legislators need information they turn to lobbyists or to the executive branch. Companies take advantage of their ongoing relationships with state civil servants and lawmakers to get deals that favor their interests. Large companies are especially well positioned to push for light-handed regulation, since they can expend considerable resources on attorneys and consultants to fight limits they do not like. …

In the environmental policy arena, power flows to those who can collect and interpret complicated scientific, legal, and economic information. The question is, who will provide legislators that information and how will we know who those sources are?

Thomson makes a valid point. Part-time legislators cannot possibly master the infinite complexities of topics as varied as health care, transportation, state-local governance, fiscal issues, K-12 education, higher education, energy and the environment. As a consequence, Virginia lawmakers do rely heavily upon the expertise offered by state employees and lobbyists, many of whom have long memories and deep knowledge, not only of the pros and cons of issues, but of the long legislative and regulatory histories behind the controversies.

She errs, however, in supposing that only corporations and industry groups play the game. The Virginia Public Access Project (VPAP) database lists 72 organizations employing lobbyists on issues relating to “energy.” Dominion Energy. with five lobbyists, had one of the largest profiles in the General Assembly. But, then, the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) also listed five lobbyists.

Perusing the VPAP database, I identified seven other environmental organizations with registered lobbyists addressing energy issues: Appalachian Voices, the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, the Nature Conservancy, the Piedmont Environmental Council, the Sierra Club-Virginia Chapter, the Virginia Conservation Network, and the Virginia League of Conservation Voters.

They were way outnumbered by business lobbyists, but the business lobbyists were a fractured group. The largest number by far represented businesses with an interest in alternate energy sources (wind, solar, biomass, nuclear) or energy efficiency. A significant number represented industrial consumers of energy. Depending on the issue, any of these interest groups might align themselves with the electric utilities one day or the environmentalists the next. 

The impression one gets from studying the list is that the legislature is open to a cacophony of voices on energy issues which no single company, trade association or environmental group could possibly dominate. No one has a monopoly on information. Continue reading

Pipelines and “Environmental Justice”

“Environmental Justice” has been a much bigger rallying cry in the pipeline controversies out west than here in Virginia.

As I was perusing the federal court ruling on the Sierra Club vs. FERC lawsuit (see previous post), I encountered a realm of administrative law with which I was entirely unfamiliar: environmental justice. I’d heard of the concept, of course; I just didn’t realize that it had insinuated itself into environmental impact statements (EISs) for pipelines, transmission lines, and the like.

The majority opinion explained the relevance of the concept this way: “The principle of environmental justice encourages agencies to consider whether the projects they sanction will have a ‘disproportionately high and adverse’ impact on low-income and predominantly minority communities.”

In this particular instance, involving the EIS for the Southeast Markets Pipeline Project, the Sierra Club argued that FERC had failed to adequately take the principle into account. According to the EIS, 83.7% of the pipeline complex’s proposed routes would cross through, or within one mile of, environmental-justice communities.

However, an adverse impact on a minority/low-income community is not necessarily a deal killer. FERC, the court opined, simply must “take a hard look” at the effect on minority/low income areas when drafting an environmental impact statement, and disclose relevant information to the public. And that the commission did. FERC concluded that feasible alternative routes would affect a comparable percentage of environmental-justice populations, the court said. “FERC’s decision to directly compare the proposed alternatives to one another, rather than to some broader population, was reasonable under the circumstances.”

“Environmental justice” has been a rallying cry out west, most prominently in the Dakota Access Pipeline controversy. We don’t hear much of it in Virginia, but I was curious: How does the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline rate according to environmental justice criteria?

Here are the numbers, as extracted from the ACP environmental impact statement: In Virginia the percentage of minorities census tracts within one mile of the ACP pipeline and related facilities varies from 0.2% to 100%. In ten of the 63 census tracts, the percentage of minority population is meaningfully greater than that of the county in which it is located. But in 53 tracts, it is not. In other words, it appears that minorities are less impacted than whites.

Likewise, 11.5% of all Virginians live below the poverty line. Thirty-four of 63 census tracts in Virginia within a one-mile radius of ACP facilities have a higher percentage of persons living below the poverty line. In other words, despite the fact that pipelines don’t run through urban areas and suburbs where incomes tend to be highest, but through rural areas where incomes are lower, only 54% of the census tracts affected by the pipeline have a higher poverty rate.

The primary adverse impacts on environmental-justice communities would be temporary increases in dust, noise and traffic from construction work. But, according to the ACP environmental impact statement, “these impacts would occur along the entire pipeline route and in areas with a variety of socio-economic backgrounds.”

These numbers undoubtedly explain why pipeline opponents have not made environmental justice an issue here in Virginia.

It’s not as if the engineers working for Dominion Energy, the managing partner of the pipeline, were especially socially conscious. Rather, in selecting a route, they were threading the needle between national parks, the Appalachian Trail, conservation easements, and other environmental, historical and cultural assets, any one of which could have spiked the project. That the pipeline had so little impact on minorities and low-income Virginians was the luck of the draw.

Sometimes infrastructure projects like highways, natural gas pipelines and electric transmission lines will disproportionately affect minorities and the poor, as it happened with the Southeast Markets Pipeline Project, and sometimes they won’t. Route selection is driven mainly by geography, terrain, market considerations, and economics; the socioeconomic impact is incidental and random.

For all practical purposes, the closest thing to a social-justice issue in Virginia is landowner rights — justice for the propertied class. Are landowners getting fair compensation for the loss of value to their land? That’s a fair question, but if it doesn’t affect the poor and minorities disproportionately, it’s not a matter of “social justice.”

Show Me the Data

Sources: Centers for Disease Control, EPA Toxic Release Inventory. Red dot = Virginia.

I’ve been pondering Vivian E. Thomson’s book, “Climate of Capitulation: An Insider’s Account of State Power in a Coal Nation.” Thomson, a University of Virginia professor who served on the State Air Pollution Control Board during the Warner and Kaine administrations, stresses the high cost of air pollution in human health and mortality. Her treatise quotes various studies predicting that tighter air quality standards would yield major reductions in premature deaths.

I wondered, has anyone gone back to see if the expected reductions actually materialized? If society is going to spend billions of dollars to make gains in air quality, it would be nice to know that there actually is a payoff in the form of better health. My sense is that no one ever checks. If anyone does, the public never hears about it.

Out of curiosity, I ran a correlation analysis between two types of data: the pounds of toxic emissions reported to the Environmental Protection Agency and the 2016 incidence of cancer reported by the Centers for Disease Control, broken down by state. All other things being equal, one would predict that larger toxic emissions would be associated with a higher incidence of cancer.

As can be seen in the chart above, there is almost zero correlation — the R² is .0028 — between toxic emissions and the incidence of cancer in a state. (The chart omits Alaska and Nevada, huge outliers in terms of volume, which would have made the trend line to an even more negligible .0008.)

I readily concede that this is a superficial analysis. Among other factors one might consider would be the size of the state in square miles, on the theory that the same volume of toxic chemicals spread over more acreage would dilute human exposure and result in lower cancer rates. Also, any sophisticated comparison would account for differing toxic release profiles of the 50 states. The Toxic Release Inventory tracks some 143 chemicals, from acetaldehyde to zinc, some of which are more toxic and/or carcinogenic than others.

I publish the graph above not to dispute the idea that there is a connection between toxic chemicals and human health — of course there is — but to push back against the idea that spending billions of dollars tightening regulations on toxic chemicals ineluctably leads to better health outcomes. Perhaps the health benefits are everything Vivian Thomson purports them to be. But perhaps pollution abatement is subject to the laws of diminishing returns which means smaller benefits for larger expenditures. Conceivably, Virginians would see greater benefits to their health if they spent the money in other ways.

When Thomson criticizes Virginia’s “climate of capitulation” — the idea that industry exercises a controlling influence over the political and regulatory system — one might expect her to demonstrate that Virginia’s health is worse off as a result. We would expect to see (a) that states with “traditionalistic” political cultures like Virginia impose laxer pollution restrictions than “individualistic” and “moralistic” political cultures, and (b) that those laxer restrictions are reflected by worse health statistics. But in her book, she makes no effort to demonstrate such connections.

Indeed, Thomson misses what would seem to be an easy opportunity to do so. She quotes a Harvard study as stating that installing “Best Available Control Technology” at the Mirant coal-burning plant in Alexandria would avoid 40 deaths, 43 hospital admissions, 560 emergency room visits and 3,000 asthma attacks per year. Well, from her point of view, things worked out even better than adopting best-in-class technology — the Mirant plant shut down altogether, emitting zero pollution. Did asthma rates in Alexandria decline as advertised? According to a 2015 health profile, 21.4% of Alexandria 10th graders in 2014 had been diagnosed with asthma. I can’t find older data on the Web, but surely it exists. Was the asthma incidence lower than 10 years previously? If not, what does that tell us?

Thomson has total faith in the validity of the studies she cites, which, of course, align with her ideological proclivities. But if she wants people to accept her argument that Virginia’s regulatory policy is bad for Virginians, some of us would like to see the evidence.

Rogue Board

In “Climate of Capitulation,” former Air Board member Vivian Thomson argues unpersuasively that state government favors energy over the environment.

In 2005 Mirant Corporation operated a 482-megawatt coal-fired power plant in Alexandria. The facility was 60 years old, and it was dirty, emitting almost twice the allowed limits of nitrogen oxide (NOx). Due to its proximity to Reagan Washington National Airport, the plant had unusually low smokestacks, which meant that NOx, sulfur dioxide and particulates settled nearby. A Harvard University health study contended that installing Best Available Control technology at Mirant would avoid about 40 deaths, 43 hospital admissions, and 3,000 asthma attacks each year. In August of that year, the Warner administration ordered the plant shut down.

Mirant complied, but within a few weeks, citing an order from the U.S. Department of Energy, it reopened the facility. Conflict between Mirant on the one hand and environmentalists and citizens of Alexandria on the other raged for years. Warner’s successor, Governor Tim Kaine, tried to find a solution acceptable to all, and in 2006 the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) negotiated a permit that would reduce the local impact on Alexandrians by increasing the height of the pollution plume and dispersing emissions over a wider area. But the State Air Pollution Control Board, a majority of whose members sided with the opposition, voted 3 to 2 against it. Later, in 2008, the company agreed to merge smokestacks to lift the plume, accept the Board’s sulfur dioxide limits, and invest $34 million to reduce particulate emissions. The Air Board approved that permit, but Mirant’s owner, GenOn, ended up closing the plant before undertaking the improvements.

Vivian E. Thomson, an environmental science professor at the University of Virginia, recounts the Mirant episode in her recently published book, “Climate of Capitulation: An Insider’s Account of State Power in a Coal Nation.” Mirant’s ability to keep the Alexandria plant opened, she argues, was just one of many examples of how the energy lobby exercise power in Virginia and other states at the expense of the environment and citizens’ health.

Officials in the Kaine administration undermined and opposed the Board’s work, she asserts. The General Assembly interfered with Board decisions and enacted a law to expand the board from five to seven members for the purpose of diluting the power of the three activist board members, one of whom was Thomson herself. Resistance to the board’s policing of the environment reflected “cozy relationships” between regulators and businesses and Virginia’s “corrupt” environmental policy-making process, she says.

Vivian E. Thomson

Thomson details three major controversies in which she participated: the Mirant closing, the approval of Dominion Energy’s hybrid energy plant in Wise County, and the regulation of dust from coal trucks. Distressed by the way energy interests evaded her brand of environmental justice, Thomson describes a “climate of capitulation” — a system that shows “favoritism toward private interests and an inclination to maintain the status quo.”

By avoiding inflammatory rhetoric and maintaining a flat, academic style, Thomson strives to come across in the book as a reasoned observer of the political process. She doesn’t insult her opponents, she doesn’t engage in conspiracy theorizing, and she avoids a strident tone. But she never concedes that environmental regulation involves trade-offs with jobs, electric rates or electric reliability. In her analysis, protecting the environment and public health are not merely important goals, but the only goals worth considering.

Indeed, Thomson’s inability to acknowledge any perspective other than her own gives proof to the assessment of Kaine’s secretary of the environment, Preston Bryant, that the State Air Pollution Control Board was indeed a “rogue board.”

The Mirant controversy. Thomson’s blinkered view comes through most clearly in her recitation of the Mirant controversy. She never explains why the Department of Energy (DOE) issued an emergency order to reopen the Mirant plant after the Warner administration shut it down. The facility, as I discovered only by querying the Web, was one of three power plants supplying electricity to Washington, D.C. Pepco, the city’s utility, was planning to shut down one of the other three, the Potomac River Generating Station, for environmental reasons and it needed to upgrade a transmission line and substation feeding electricity to the capital from the outside. To avoid the risk of outages, the D.C. Public Service Commission petitioned federal authorities to keep the Mirant plant open until Pepco managed to complete the improvements. The DOE complied. Thomson deemed none of this background to be worthy of mention. Without it, the early behavior of Mirant and the Kaine administration are all but incomprehensible. 

The controversy persisted after Pepco completed its grid upgrade in July 2007. As Mirant struggled to stay in operation — operating mainly as a peaker plant only during the hottest and coldest days — Mark Rubin, a gubernatorial aide, brainstormed possible solutions to the problem. Eventually, he worked out a settlement, which the Air Board accepted. But in the end, the aging plant was beyond saving as natural gas began displacing coal in the energy marketplace. GenOn shut it down permanently.

Let’s recap. Governor Warner ordered the Mirant plant closed. The federal government ordered it reopened to ensure a reliable supply of electricity to Washington, D.C. through July 2007. The Kaine administration sought a compromise to allow the plant to continue operating beyond that date while also addressing environmental concerns. Protracted negotiations resulted in a deal that the Air Board approved. This is an example of Virginia politicians capitulating to energy interests?

The Hybrid Energy Center controversy. A parallel controversy in Wise County in which the Kaine administration did not accede to the air board’s wishes provides another alleged instance of state government caving in to the energy sector. In this case, the villain was the electric utility now known as Dominion Energy.

In 2005 Dominion had proposed building a $1.5 billion “hybrid” energy plant that burned coal, coal waste and waste wood. Dominion and its supporters billed it as a boon to economic development — 800 construction jobs, 75 post-construction jobs, 300 coal mining jobs, and $5 million yearly in new tax revenues for a county with a $44 million budget. As a bonus, the Virginia City Hybrid Energy Center would consume waste coal that was polluting regional streams and rivers. But activist groups protested that the project would perpetuate the environmentally destructive practice of mountaintop removal, generate air pollution that would harm nearby forests, and emit carbon-dioxide that contributed to global warming.

Dominion submitted the first part of its application for air pollution permits in the summer of 2006, and a second part in early 2007. The first governed sulfur dioxide and particulates, the second mercury and other toxics. The status of state and federal regulation of toxics and greenhouse gases was in flux at this time, with widely diverging views on how to deal with the pollution issues. Long story short, the Air Board hewed to interpretations different than those of the General Assembly and the Kaine administration, and took an adversarial view in the proceedings. Continue reading

The Shamanistic Logic of Climate Science

Lowell Feld.

I’ve been mixing it up with Lowell Feld, publisher of Blue Virginia, who took exception to my argument that the debacle in Charlottesville represented a clash between the far Right and far Left. He accused me of “moral equivalency,” which is absurd, for I have thoroughly denounced the white nationalists who provoked the confrontation and made it clear that their crimes (including alleged murder) far exceed those of the Antifa and other Leftist elements in this particular instance. You can read his fulminations here, in which he hilariously highlights statements I made that he finds outrageous yet are undeniably true. And he renews his ongoing campaign to lambaste Dominion for sponsoring a blog that expresses opinions so far beyond the pale.

Among the many offenses I have committed, one is “climate science denialism.” I responded to his post as follows (with minor changes):

I love the way you proclaim to be an advocate of “science” in the global warming debate, in contrast to me, a supposed “denier.” But you have shown no indication of understanding what science is. The scientific method creates falsifiable hypotheses, then tests those hypotheses to see if they are valid, modifies the hypotheses to account for the data, and re-tests them in an iterative process. Climate models represent hypotheses regarding the relationship between various climatic variables and the effect they will have on future temperatures increases.

It’s frustratingly slow to test climate hypotheses because it takes many years to accumulate useful data. But enough time has passed since the creation of the early climate models, and the results are clear — the overwhelming majority of models failed to predict the modest temperature increase of the past 20 years.

Climate scientists are wrestling with this outcome and trying to find an explanation. While some scientists are modifying their hypothesis (predicting smaller temperature increases over the years ahead), some are sticking to the catastrophic-global-warming hypothesis and searching for explanations — the heat is hidden in the deep ocean, aerosols reflected the sunlight, whatever — that allows them to maintain predictions that temperatures will increase to an alarming degree.

This mental process reminds me of the writing of a certain Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, an anthropologist who studied the Dinka and Nuer tribes of the southern Sudan in the 1930s, with a particular emphasis on their practice of magic. Shamans would tell their customers, do X, Y, and Z, and your sickness will be cured, your husband will stay faithful, your rival will be struck dead, whatever. If the desired outcome came to fruition, the shaman would take full credit. If the husband continued to stray, the shaman would concoct an explanation — oh, you should have used eye of newt, not eye of frog, or you should have said the incantation this way, not that way. By such rhetorical devices, the shaman maintained a belief among the people in the efficacy of his magic. Evans-Pritchard called these explanations “secondary elaborations.”

As the most politically vocal Climate Change scientists confront the reality of data that don’t conform to the temperature predictions of their models, they are engaged in a vast exercise of secondary elaboration — they’re insisting upon the efficacy of their hypothesis (catastrophic global warming is coming) and creating explanations of why the predicted temperature increases are not yet visible.

So, you can call me a climate “denier,” which is a form of an ad hominem attack, not an argument. And you can make your appeals to authority — 97% of all scientists believe in global warming, etc. — echoing the Catholic Church’s attacks on Copernicus and Galileo. But at the end of the day, your arguments mimic those of the Dinka-Nuer shaman. Your reasoning is pre-scientific and based on faith. Your dogma is catastrophic global warming, and the pseudo-scientific justification for your dogma evolves as needed.

Feld replied that he would not dignify my post with a response. Perhaps that’s because he has no intelligible response.

As for Dominion, I have no idea what the company’s position is on climate change, or if it has a position on climate change at all.

Does “Ooker” Estridge Know Something the Experts Don’t?

Tangier Island, a marshy, low-lying island of about 1.2 square miles  in the Chesapeake Bay, would seem to be Virginia’s poster child for sea-level rise. The island, according to Wikipedia, has lost about two-thirds of its land mass since 1850. There had been a universal belief, I thought, that the island is headed for oblivion as sea level continues to creep higher, whether at the same slow-but-steady rate that has held over the past century or at the accelerated rate postulated by those who hew to the most pessimistic global warming scenarios.

But the assumption of a rising sea level is not embraced universally. The mayor of Tangier, an incorporated town that serves the island’s 500 souls, attributes the island’s shrinkage to erosion, not sea level rise.

Mayor James Eskridge. Photo credit: Associated Press.

The views of James “Ooker” Eskridge gained national exposure when he appeared in a CNN Town Hall devoted to Al Gore’s documentary, “”An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power,” and said to the former vice president, “”I’m not a scientist, but I’m a keen observer. If sea level rise is occurring, why am I not seeing signs of it?”

US News provides a few additional details:

Eskridge, 58, a lifelong waterman who harvests crabs from the bay, was among the 87 percent of voters in this deeply spiritual community who supported [President] Trump.

When CNN aired a segment on Tangier’s plight in June, Eskridge told meteorologist Jennifer Gray: “I love Trump as much as any family member I got.”

Eskridge and others believe that erosion, not sea-level rise, is the real threat because they can see it. And they believe infrastructure, such as a sea wall around the island, can save it.

“The erosion that’s taking place you can almost see every week, every month for sure,” he told The Associated Press in May.

During his interview with CNN, Eskridge said: “Donald Trump, if you see this … whatever you can do, we welcome any help you can give us.”

A colorful fellow, Eskridge makes good news copy. But the media seem to be treating him as curiosity. And perhaps for good reason. From all the evidence I have seen — and you don’t have to be a Global Warming alarmist to believe it — the global sea level has been rising at a consistent rate for as long as it has been measured (although the rate has varied somewhat locally)

On the other hand, Eskridge does live on Tangier Island, and he he knows the local waters intimately. No one seems to have asked him why he thinks erosion, not sea level rise, is behind the island’s diminution. What evidence does he have? Perhaps he knows something that the scientists don’t. Perhaps there are dynamics they have failed to consider. Someone ought to ask him. He may have no idea what he’s talking about. But then again, maybe he does.

As for the mayor’s proposed solution — building a sea wall around the populated portion of the island — that’s an entirely different matter. Building a wall (it sounds very Trumpian, doesn’t it?) might sound like a great idea if you’re a Tangier resident and someone else is paying for it. But someone must ask, how much would it cost compared to the economic benefit of saving the island’s 500 or so residents from inundation?

I’ll concede that there is some sentimental value in saving a community that has been in place since the 1770s and has preserved a unique dialect dating back to the 18th century or earlier. The island is a historic artifact of times gone by. But is Tangier more special than any other endangered community that can trace its roots back a hundred years or more? We cannot escape the reality that our society has finite resources and that any sum spent on, say, preserving Tangier Island, cannot be spent on a project helping someone else.

It’s safe to say that I’m dissatisfied with the rigor of thinking all the way around.

Who’s Behind the Virginia Resistance to Trump Climate Policy?

On June 1 of this year, President Donald Trump announced that he was pulling the United States out of the Paris Climate Agreement.

The next day, Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney posted on Facebook that he stood with the Mayors National Climate Action Agenda, committing to cut CO2 emissions and support “binding federal and global-level policymaking.”

Two days later, Governor Terry McAuliffe denounced Trump’s action and committed Virginia to a group of states pledging to carry out the principles of the Paris accord.

The same day Attorney General Mark Herring joined 18 other attorneys general in dedicating themselves to support the principles of the Paris climate-change accord. In short order, they were joined by the mayors of Charlottesville, Roanoke and the Town of Blacksburg.

Some people began wondering how the anti-Trump forces mobilized so quickly, Matt Hardin, an attorney with the Alexandria-based Free Market Environmental Law Clinic, recounted today at the Tuesday Morning Club. Speaking before a confab of Virginia conservative and libertarian activists, he said he suspected that Charlottesville and Blacksburg politicians would be at the epicenter of the controversial actions.

But the responses to FOIA requests, Hardin says, indicates that the City of Los Angeles had taken the lead in recruiting Virginia mayors. The FOIA emails also revealed that Roanoke Mayor Sherman P. Lea, Sr., was in the thick of things. Whoever would have thought Roanoke as a center of the “resistance”?

If anyone is interested in perusing them, the FOIA responses for Charlottesville, Roanoke, Blacksburg and the attorney general’s office can be found on the Energy & Environmental Legal Institute website under the “‘We Are Still In’ Campaign” headline.

Hardin tried to make the case to the Tuesday Morning Group that the mayors’ resistance to Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris agreement might be illegal under Virginia law. Virginia is a Dillon Rule state, which means that local governments possess only those powers specifically delegated to them by the General Assembly — and joining international agreements is not one of them. Indeed, joining international agreements is a prerogative limited to the U.S. government. Virginia cities, said Hardin, are participating in United Nations initiatives and spending taxpayer money to do so.

By contrast, said Hardin, McAuliffe has not yet issued an executive order backing up his tough talk. Perhaps he recognizes the constitutional limits of his power, even if the mayors do not.

Bacon’s bottom line: Personally, I can’t get exercised about Trump yanking the U.S. out of the Paris agreement. Former President Obama never submitted the accord as a treaty to Congress, knowing that Congress would never approve it, and therefore it does not have the force of law. At the same time, I can’t get agitated about the Global Warming zealots either. Signing up to take part in a U.N. initiative is not the same as negotiating your own treaty.

The mayors are engaged in leftist virtue signaling, which might be annoying but, the last time I looked, was not illegal. If the mayors want to commit their jurisdictions to reduce their carbon footprints by 30%, that’s their business. They don’t need a Paris climate accord to do it. Frankly, there are a lot worse ways for mayors to spend their money. At least their cities will have lower energy bills at the end of the day. That’s more than you can say about a lot of things mayors spend their money on.

Dominion, DONG Seal Deal on Two Offshore Wind Turbines

The yellow square in this Dominion graphic shows the location of the two wind turbines on the edge of the bloc that Dominion has leased for a large offshore wind farm.

Dominion Energy Virginia has signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with DONG Energy, the world’s largest offshore wind-power company, to build two 6-megawatt turbines off the Virginia Beach coast — a critical step toward opening up 2,000 megawatts of off-shore wind to development.

Dominion will own the $300 million project, while Dong has committed to delivering the project at a fixed price. A Dominion solicitation in 2015 yielded a low bid of $375 million, way higher than the company’s internal estimates. When a federal grant expired, creating even more exposure for the company, many observers gave up the project for dead.

But the Denmark-based DONG, which claims to have built 27% of the total offshore wind capacity in the world, is eyeing the U.S. East Coast. Besides working with Dominion, the company has formed a partnership with Eversource, a Massachusetts utility, and has committed to develop a major lease off the New Jersey coast. The MOU with Dominion gives the company “exclusive rights to discuss a strategic partnership” with Dominion Energy to develop the commercial site based on successful deployment of the initial test turbines.

“Virginia is now positioned to be a leader in developing more renewable energy thanks to the Commonwealth’s committed leadership and DONG’s unrivaled expertise in building offshore wind farms,” said Thomas F. Farrell, II, Dominion Energy CEO, in making the announcement earlier today at a Port of Virginia facility in Portsmouth.

“Today marks the first step in what I expect to be the deployment of hundreds of wind turbines off Virginia’s coast that will further diversify our energy production portfolio, create thousands of jobs, and reduce carbon emissions in the Commonwealth,” said Governor Terry McAuliffe, who also spoke at the waterside announcement. McAuliffe had pushed hard for the project behind the scenes.

So far, the only offshore wind turbines operating off the U.S. coast are a five-unit farm located off Block Island, Rhode Island. While that heavily subsidized project does have the distinction of being the first offshore wind power, no one expects it to provide an economic model for U.S. offshore development. The Dominion-Dong project could provide that model. 

The significance of the new Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind project is not in energy the turbines produce — only 12 megawatts — but in demonstrating how well they hold up under hurricane conditions off the East Coast.

DONG has extensive experience operating in the North Sea, which is known for its harsh weather, but wave and wind conditions off the Mid-Atlantic coast are different. “From a technical perspective, we’re very keen to learn about Mid-Atlantic weather patterns,” Francis Slingsby, in charge of DONG’s strategic partnerships, told Bacon’s Rebellion. Experience with the two demonstration turbines will guide design and construction of the estimated 2,000 turbines to come later. “When we put steel in the water,” he says, “we want to do it right.”

“We are excited to bring our expertise to America,” said Samuel Leupold, CEO of Wind Power at Dong Energy, in a prepared statement. (Leupold was unable to attend the announcement.) “This project will provide us vital experience in constructing an offshore project in the United States and serve as a stepping stone to a larger commercial-scale project between our companies in the future.”

Work on the project will begin immediately, and the two turbines are expected to go into operation by the end of 2020. The pace of construction will vary, depending upon factors such as weather and the migratory patterns of whales and other animals. The tips of the blades will reach higher than the Washington Monument, Dominion says, but simulations indicate that the turbines, located 26 miles from the shore, will not be visible to Virginia Beach beach goers.

A primary motive of building offshore wind is to provide an additional source of clean energy. While solar is taking off in Virginia, wind inside state borders has been relegated to small ridge-line projects in the western part of the state. The only way wind can be a major contributor to Virginia’s energy future is through development of off-shore wind.

Two thousand megawatts, if built, would be the rough equivalent to two state-of-the-art gas-burning power plants. The difference is that wind is not “dispatchable” — it generates power when the wind blows, not necessarily when Dominion needs it. Despite that drawback, the cost of offshore wind power is increasingly competitive with other sources, and utilities are increasingly confident they can handle the fluctuations in electricity output.

Assuming the two-turbine demonstration project turns out well, Dominion expects to phase in large-scale wind production in increments, Mark Mitchell, vice president-generation construction, told reporters. As turbines are added, the company would assess the ability of the Hampton Roads electric grid to accommodate the added volume of intermittent capacity. Dominion would make grid upgrades as needed.

McAuliffe has been a vocal proponent of renewable energy in Virginia. He also sees offshore wind as a potential economic boon for Hampton Roads. Over and above the potential for large-scale construction work, the Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind project would support hundreds of jobs in ongoing operations & maintenance.

Economic developers have touted the advantages of Hampton Roads, with its mid-Atlantic location, ports, and shipbuilding as a logical center for the U.S. off-shore wind industry.

“We’re optimistic, Virginia has what it takes” to attract companies in the wind-power supply chain, Slingsby said. However, he noted that the European wind-power industry has multiple industry clusters, so there was no reason to think that companies necessarily would concentrate in a single U.S. location like Hampton Roads. Factors that states can control are the ability to ramp up for a large-scale installation of wind turbines and to make skilled labor labor available. Wind farm technicians are one of the most exciting and fastest-growing blue collar occupations in the U.S. right now, he said.