Category Archives: Environment

Crunching the Numbers on Dominion Virginia Power

A crew man for Dominion Virginia Power works to restore electric power.

A lineman for Dominion Virginia Power works to restore electric power.

Dominion Virginia Power has just released a press release touting three numbers it wants the public to know:

  1. Customers have experienced on average a 10 percent improvement in electric power reliability since 2011.
  2. The company’s new Brunswick County Power Station will lower costs by $1.5 billion.
  3. Dominion has reduced the carbon-intensity rating of its generation fleet by 43% company-wide.

And, by the way, Forbes magazine named the company to its list of “Just 100” best corporate citizens in the United States in 2016.

As one would expect from a press release, these numbers portray the company in a favorable light. They suggest that Dominion is doing an commendable job of handling the complex and often-conflicting trade-offs between the cost, reliability and sustainability of delivering electric power to its customers. Needless to say, Dominion has critics who subject every claim to withering scrutiny. The job of an energy journalist is to weigh the conflicting assertions.

Here’s my quick-and-dirty analysis of Dominion’s claims:

  1. True. Customers have experienced an improvement in reliability.
  2. Mostly true. Brunswick Power Station will lower costs in the short run, but long-term savings are predicated on assumptions, which, though not unreasonable, are contested and impossible to verify.
  3. True. Dominion has reduced the carbon-intensity of its generating fleet. But this side-steps the charge that the real problem with natural gas combustion isn’t the combustion but the emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, from drilling, processing and transporting associated with the combustion.

Let’s look at each of the three claims.

Electric reliability. The 10% improvement in reliability probably would stand up to close inspection, if anyone took exception to the number, which, as far as I know, no one has. Dominion’s corporate culture places tremendous emphasis on reliability, and the company has invested heavily to bury vulnerable distribution lines underground, upgrade its emergency response teams, and install smart-grid devices that give it better data on where the problems are.

To calculate the reliability number, Dominion tallies up the total number of outage-days across the system for a year.  To gauge performance under routine operating conditions, the company exempts major storms, such as hurricane Matthew last year, which are episodic by nature, beyond the company’s control, and obscure underlying trends. The methodology for determining reliability is standard in the industry.

“Throughout 2016, we have continued to invest in modernizing and strengthening the energy grid to make our service more reliable,” said Robert M. Blue, chief executive officer and president of Dominion Virginia Power, in an annual letter to the company’s 2.5 million customers. “We aim to continually improve reliability because every minute our customers are without power matters.”

Lower costs. While I did not delve into the $1.5 billion claim for the Brunswick County Power Station, I did examine a similar claim that the new Greensville County Power Station, still under construction, would save $2.1 billion. The logic behind the two numbers is largely the same. You can read the detailed explanation here.

The key question is this: Greensville (and by extension Brunswick) will save $2.1 billion compared to what? If Dominion did not build Greensville, it would have to purchase the megawatts from PJM Interconnection, the regional transmission organization of which Dominion is a part. How does Dominion know what PJM will charge in the future? It doesn’t. It relies upon its economic consulting company, IFC, to make realistic assumptions, and ICF assumes that prices will fluctuate around the long-term cost (including corporate profit) of generating the electricity from a basket of sources. Dominion projects that gas prices will increase from their current lows in the years ahead, from $2 to $3 per million BTUs to $5.11 by 2025.

Dominion states in its press release that Brunswick’s high-efficiency design utilizing state-of-the-art gas turbines will provide an estimated $100 million in fuel savings in its first year in operation and between $954 million and $1.5 billion over the life of the station. If gas prices remain depressed, Brunswick will save even more money; if prices shoot higher than $5.11 per million BTUs, the power station will save less.

Complicating the picture, critics say that solar power is fast becoming economically competitive with natural gas. While gas is cheaper today, they argue, the cost trajectory of solar and battery-storage backup will make them a lower cost option by the next decade. Brunswick Power Station may save money up-front, but it will be more costly over most of its expected 40-year life. Continue reading

Chesapeake Bay: Still Troubled but Improving

The health of the Chesapeake Bay has improved in nine of 13 metrics.

Key Chesapeake Bay metrics.

The health of the Chesapeake Bay has improved again this year, showing gains in nine of 13 indicators, according to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s biennial State of the Bay report. “While Virginia and Maryland are largely on track to achieve their 2017 mid-term goals of 60 percent of practices in place, Pennsylvania is significantly behind, largely due to its failure to meet the goals it set for reducing pollution from agriculture,” states the report.

Most encouraging was the recovery of the blue crab population, accompanied by gains for rockfish, oysters and shad. Nitrogen, phosphorus, and dissolved oxygen levels also improved.

Decades of effort seem to be paying off, said the report. “We believe the Bay is reaching a tipping point. … We are seeing the clearest water in decades, regrowth of acres of lush underwater grass beds, and the comeback of the Chesapeake’s native oysters, which were nearly eradicated by disease, pollution, and overfishing.”

But much work remains to be done. The overall health index for the Bay still rates a C-, and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation still classifies the Bay as “dangerously out of balance,” just shy of actually “improving.”

FERC Finds Pipeline Impact “Less than Significant”

FERC finds that the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline impact can be readily mitigated.

Pipeline impact: Federal regulators say steep slope construction, like that shown here, should not be a problem.

  • FERC’s pipeline impact study says proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline will have minimal lasting effects on the environment.
  • Dominion claims the study confirms it can build the pipeline while protecting the environment and public safety. 
  • Foes contend the study ducks the question whether the pipeline is a public necessity that justifies the use of eminent domain to acquire rights of way along the route. 

A draft federal assessment has concluded that the environmental impact of the proposed 600-mile Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP) would be mostly temporary and largely offset by extensive mitigation measures.

The staff of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission concluded that approval of the project could have “some adverse and significant environmental impacts. ” However, damage to water resources, wildlife habitat, and property values would be reduced to “less-than-significant levels” with the implementation of plans filed by the ACP and additional measures recommended by the staff.

Dominion Resources, managing partner of the pipeline, hailed the document as “another major step forward” in the lengthy federal review process. “While we have to review the draft further,” said Leslie Hartz, vice president-pipeline construction for Dominion Energy, “we believe it confirms that the project can be built in an environmentally responsible way that protects the public safety and natural resources of our region.”

However, the draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIA), released yesterday, is not the last word. FERC expects to publish the final draft in June. That document, FERC spokeswoman Tamara Young-Allen told the Richmond Times-Dispatch, will address a critical issue not touched upon in the draft EIS: whether the project is a public necessity, a designation needed to invoke eminent domain in order to acquire property along the proposed pipeline path.

Foes of the project lost no time in denouncing the study, arguing that its focus was too narrow. As the authors clearly stated, “Alternative energy sources, energy conservation, and efficiency are not within the scope of this analysis because the purpose of ACP … is to transport natural gas.”

Eminent domain can be justified only if there is a public necessity. But existing natural gas pipelines, opponents contend, can meet the demand for natural gas in Virginia and North Carolina without creating the same environmental risks or taking peoples’ land against their will.

“Dominion’s Atlantic Coast pipeline … is unnecessary,” said Greg Buppert, senior attorney with the Environmental Law Center (SELC). “The current route carves through the mountains in an area the U.S. Forest Service calls, ‘the wildland core of the central Appalachians’, for a pipeline that will lock generations of Virginians into dependence on natural gas. We already have the gas needed to bridge us from dirty to clean energy — existing infrastructure can meet our demands for natural gas for at least the next fifteen years. This is a Dominion self-enrichment project, not a public necessity.”

“In what world does the rapidly increasing, cost-effective contribution of wind and solar not figure into the need for gas-powered electricity generation and, by extension, the justification for taking private property via eminent domain?” asked Jim Bolton, a Lovingston resident quoted in a Friends of Nelson press release.

FERC did evaluate 14 other alternative pipeline routes, including routes that would follow existing highway and electric-transmission rights of way and otherwise minimize crossing of Natural Park Service lands. The study compared total pipeline length, acres affected, the number of residences within 50 feet of workspace, and crossings of wetlands, waterbodies, forested land, public land and recreation features. “We … conclude that the major pipeline alternatives and variations do not offer a significant environmental advantage when compared to the proposed route or would not be economically practical,” the EIS states.

Topics addressed by the pipeline include:

Karst terrain and steep slopes. Portions of the ACP would traverse karst terrain characterized by sinkholes, caverns, underground streams and springs. The vast majority of the pipeline, using standard construction techniques, would limit land disturbance to between six and eight feet below the surface, the FERC document said, whereas sensitive groundwater resources and cave systems are generally found at greater depth. Continue reading

True Confessions: I Am Dr. Evil

Bacon exposed as Dr. Evil, mouthing Dominion lies

Unmasked! A lying liar mouthing Dominion lies.

I can reveal the truth at last. I, Jim Bacon, posing for years as publisher of the Bacon’s Rebellion blog, am in fact Dr. Evil.

I have long hidden my identity in the hope of furthering my insidious aims. A few readers may have long suspected my secret identity — LarrytheG and PeterG have bumbled perilously close to it on occasion — but even they never imagined the depth of my deception.

Now I have been unmasked by the Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club. There is no point in hiding in the shadows. From now on, I will conduct my campaign to render the world a toxic, smoking, inhabitable ruin in full public view.

Curses, foiled again. Ivy Main and Seth Heald unveiled me, along with my villainous co-conspirators Donald Trump and Dominion Resources, in Main’s Power for the People VA blog. Bilious Virginia, oops, I mean Blue Virginia, then disseminated the exposé through the blogosphere and Twitterdom for all the world to see.

Read the piece, and you will learn that Dominion is not only misguided and wrong but it spews “lies.” The utility is part of the “fossil fuel crowd” that, having observed the “fake news” and “conspiracy theories” of the Trump campaign, is “stepping up its own use of half-truths, diversionary tactics and outright lies.” In the pursuit of profit, the fossil-fuel industry is “undermining the very foundations of American democracy.”

So nefarious is Dominion that, among its other sins, the company courts right- wing forces through its work with the American Legislative Exchange Council, its lavish contributions to lawmakers… “and its sponsorship of the libertarian Jim Bacon’s blog, Bacon’s Rebellion.”

Even before Dominion signed up as a Bacon’s Rebellion sponsor, the exposé says, I, Jim Bacon, exhibited “an exasperating credulity” when examining claims by Dominion and other fossil fuel companies, no doubt endearing myself to Dominion CEO Thomas Farrell. “If I were selling poison under the guise of medicine,” write Main and Heald in speculating upon Farrell’s thinking, “I too would value a man who advertised my wares while proclaiming his independence.”

But my calumnies go beyond merely peddling Dominion’s mistruths. I have adopted unsavory tactics of the Trump campaign and the “alt right” — “putting the onus on others to disprove absurd, baseless claims.” As evidence of such claims, they point to a column I wrote arguing that electoral fraud occurs frequentlty in the form of illegal registrations. Although I described Trump’s assertion of two million fraudulent votes as “reckless” and a “huuuge stretch,” I had the temerity to describe the mainstream media’s over-the-top response to his claim as “unhinged.”

My reprehensible deeds are all part of what Main and Heald see as a “calculated disinformation campaign by the fossil fuel industry and a cadre of front groups like ALEC  to make people believe the science is unsettled, exploiting the natural human tendency to do nothing in the face of uncertainty.”

But in the hierarchy of evil, I am a mere Beelzebub to Dominion’s Satan. Where I merely endorse “spurious reports and lies,” Dominion is the fount of dishonesty itself, dishing out “sham reports, fake news and false claims” for the express purpose of bamboozling regulators, legislators and the public.

Mwahahaha! The last laugh — or should I say, the final evil chortle — is on Main and Heald. They failed to recognize the trap that I laid for them. In trying to discredit me, they discredit only themselves! In conflating Bacon’s Rebellion with Donald Trump, alt-right racists/white nationalists, Dominion, the fossil fuel industry, and even tobacco companies as manifestations of the same malign force, they put on display the same bent for conspiracy theorizing that they attribute to others. Continue reading

Environmentalists Oppose Apco’s Green Tariff

solar_panelsAppalachian Power Company’s proposal to offer a special green-power tariff (which I covered here) has run into heavy resistance from environmentalists on the grounds that (1) it would be expensive and (2) it would prohibit competition in Apco’s service territory. Jim Pieroban explores the controversy in Southeast Energy News.

The proposed tariff, Apco spokesman John Shepelwich told Pierobon, “responds to consumer and industrial demand/requests for 100% renewable energy generation. The goal … is “to provide customers with easy access to cost-effective renewable energy with low transaction costs and a fixed energy component that provides price certainty and avoids fuel price volatility, without impacting other ratepayers.”

Critics say that Apco is overpricing the renewable energy, which will be supplied mainly by wind farms in Illinois, Indiana and West Virginia. The average cost of wind nationally is about $20.75 per megawatt hour, and Apco likely could purchase it for less than that. But Apco’s tariff would average $72 per megawatt hour because it would include projects brought online between 2001 and 201o when the cost was much higher.

As Pierobon notes, third-party sales of electricity are generating increasing interest in Virginia and throughout the Southeast. The regional chapter of the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) contends that Apco’s proposed tariff would effectively remove solar supplied by third parties as an option for ratepayers. Said Dana Sleeper with the Maryland-DC-Virginia chapter: “Ironically, [approval]  could result in fewer options for customers to purchase renewable energy and support renewable energy development in Virginia.”

Hundreds Seek Pipeline Construction Jobs

Atlantic Coast Pipeline construction will create 7,200 temporary jobs.

Pipeline construction.

The proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP) is highly controversial in Augusta County, where property owners fear pipeline construction will jeopardize water supplies, create a safety hazard for nearby residents, and drive down property values. But hundreds of mechanics, welders, electricians and other blue-collar workers see the $5 billion project as a potential boon.

By noon Thursday, 157 people had signed up at the Augusta Expo put on by the ACP to inform local vendors and workers of opportunities to work on the 600-mile pipeline, according to the News Virginian.

At peak construction in 2018, said ACP spokesman Aaron Ruby, the pipeline will employ 7,220 workers.

Wrote the News Virginian:

Scott Bazzarre, the founder and president of Budget Electrical & Mechanical in Palmyra, wants to be considered for electrical work on the pipeline. He calls the pipeline a boon for workers like him and for the economy. “It’s a no-brainer, not just for the tax base but for a struggling economy.”

Unlike landowners, who will have to live with the pipeline as a permanent fixture on their property, construction workers will benefit only for the duration of the construction project. But there are undoubtedly thousands of workers who think like Bazarre: “We have to have good-paying jobs for my kids and grandkids.”

Bacon’s bottom line: Is it a stretch to suggest that the ACP pipeline controversy reflects the same societal schisms as the 2016 election: the propertied, educated class versus blue collar workers struggling to survive economically? Such a framework over-simplifies a complex reality, but I think there’s something to it. Even though Virginia’s unemployment rate stands at 3.7%, theoretically full employment, rural/small town Virginia has a higher jobless rate, and the “unemployment” figures don’t take into account discouraged workers who have dropped out of the workforce. Pipeline construction would throw construction workers a lifeline.

On the other hand, property owners can’t be blamed for wanting to be left alone. The value of land in the Shenandoah Valley is determined increasingly by aesthetics — bucolic rural landscapes, mountain views, wildlife habitats — not by farming/timbering income streams that traditionally determine compensation for land taken by eminent domain. One can argue that Virginia’s eminent-domain laws do not provide fair compensation for lost value.

In any case, Virginia’s blue collar workers have been largely invisible in the pipeline debate until now. Don’t be surprised to see ACP maximize their exposure.

Conservation Voltage Reduction: Dominion’s “Fifth Fuel”

Todd Headlee, director of Dominion Voltage Inc., shows off the in-house electric circuit the company uses to model upgrades to its conservation voltage reduction system.

Todd Headlee, director of Dominion Voltage Inc., shows off the in-house electric circuit the company uses to model upgrades to its conservation voltage reduction system.

  • Dominion Voltage Inc.’s Conservation Voltage Reduction (CVR) system has the potential to cut U.S. electricity consumption 2-4% for relatively little cost.
  • The EDGE technology eases integration of small-scale solar and wind energy sources into the electric distribution network.
  • Dominion expects the market for EDGE to take off as electric utilities invest heavily in grid modernization over the next decade.

Nine years ago the Commonwealth of Virginia produced a state energy plan that included among its objectives the cutting of electricity usage by 10% over ten years. That directive landed on the desk of Phil Powell, planning director for Dominion Virginia Power, Virginia’s largest electric utility.

After surveying a host of energy efficiency strategies, Powell focused on one called Conservation Voltage Reduction (CVR). The idea behind CVR is to save energy by reducing the voltage on electric lines.

Electric companies must maintain their tap lines between 114 volts and 126 volts. Keeping within the low side of that range saves electricity, but power companies err on the side of caution. Voltage varies by distance from the sub-station and local fluctuations in the electric load; dropping below 114 volts can cause damage to machines, appliances and other devices. If it were possible to measure voltage on the grid with greater precision, Powell knew, Dominion could eke out a meaningful reduction in electricity consumption.

Electric companies had experimented with conservation voltage reduction, but they relied upon guesswork that made them reluctant to reduce voltage aggressively. As it happened, Powell also was involved in a Dominion pilot project to deploy smart meters that could provide the very voltage information he needed. “I was looking at CVR and smart meters at the same time,” he says, “and I began thinking about how to use them together.”

Powell assembled an ad hoc group to noodle the problem. Working on their own time, they tested their solution on an electric circuit where all the houses were equipped with smart meters. One of those houses, not entirely coincidentally, was Powell’s. From his home, he monitored the neighborhood voltage as people turned their HVAC, lights, TVs, dishwashers and dryers on and off. The technology worked like a charm. Not only did it conserve electricity, but Powell discovered that the system could give a heads-up when customers encountered voltage-related issues. The company could dispatch a crew to fix the problem almost before customers knew they had it.

Powell’s tinkering formed the basis of supervisory control and data acquisition product, EDGE, which Dominion hopes will help propel the electric grid into the 21st century. The company sees two vital applications. First, EDGE has the potential to shave electricity consumption by 2% to 4% globally if deployed across utilities’ entire service territories — equivalent to the output of dozens of utility-scale power plants. “This is a great environmental service to the world,” says Todd Headlee, executive director at Dominion Voltage Inc. (DVI), the non-regulated enterprise created to commercialize the product.

Second, the technology makes it easier to integrate rooftop solar into the distribution grid on a large scale. As a rule of thumb, a local distribution circuit cannot accommodate more than 20% solar capacity, due to rapidly changes in output, Headlee says. “With our product, we hope a circuit can get up to 80% capacity,”

DVI is doing business in Hawaii, California and other states where there are energy efficiency mandates and solar power is taking off.  The company also is pursuing business in Canada, Europe and Asia. where many of its patents have been approved.

Major regulatory barriers exist in many states, but the potential energy savings are so massive that Headlee is confident that conservation voltage reduction will take off. “Ten years from now,” he predicts, “every utility will be doing CVR, either with our technology or a competitor’ because the benefits are too big to ignore.” Continue reading

Dominion Tweaks Coal-Ash Dewatering Process

Coal ash pond at Possum Point Power Station.

Coal ash pond at Possum Point. Photo credit: Prince William Times and Potomac Riverkeepers Network.

Dominion Virginia Power has temporarily shut down the $35 million water treatment facility at its Possum Point Power Station as it adjusts the process of cleaning water from its coal ash ponds,

Levels of selenium, a chemical element that can be toxic at high levels, rose above a “trigger” point specified in agreement between Dominion and Prince William County, reported the Prince William Times. However, Dominion was never in violation of its water quality permit, which requires the company to test treated water for selenium and a dozen other coal-ash contaminants.

Dominion officials attribute the pause in de-watering the coal ash ponds to “lessons learned” from operational challenges at Possum Point. Changes detailed in a revised engineering report, which must be approved by state and county officials, should result in discharges of selenium and zinc even lower than called for in the water permit. Also, the water-treatment facility should operate more efficiently.

“We decided to stop, redesign and update,” Jason Williams, environmental manager, told Bacon’s Rebellion. The company plans to switch from a geotube technology to clarifiers and settling tanks like the system in operation at the Bremo Power Station, he said. Also, by adding two more water-holding tanks like at Bremo, there will be less stop-and-go in the water discharge. “It will be much more efficient than firing up the system, waiting for test data, and discharging.”

Dewatering should resume early next year, pending regulatory approvals.

Wild Life in the New Dominion


Forget the bears, bobcats and coyotes. Camera traps near Virginia’s Mountain Lake Biological Station, manned by Virginia Tech researchers, have captured photographs of a strange hominid species. So reports Motherboard.

The Beauty in Virginia


Check out the incredible landscape and wildlife photos in the Piedmont Environmental Council’s 7th annual photo contest! The photo above shows the Shenandoah River in Clarke County. What a beautiful state we share!