Category Archives: Environment

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.

A Fourth Force in Virginia Energy Politics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Workgroup Seeks Compromises to Move Solar Forward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Would Dominion Want a $19 Billion Nuclear Plant?

North Anna Power Station

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Key assumptions include:

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

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

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

Source: Dominion Energy

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

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

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

Source: Dominion Energy

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

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

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

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

Building on Virginia’s Data-Center Boom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Graph credit: Dominion Energy

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

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

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

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

Anyone Remember the Coal Ash De-watering Controversy?

Bremo Power Station de-watering test results. Click for legible image.

Environmental controversies are flying so fast and furious in Virginia these days that it’s hard to keep track of them all. As for last year’s disputations, they are quickly forgotten. Remember, for instance, the wrangling over Dominion Energy’s plans for de-watering coal ash ponds at its Bremo and Possum Point power stations?

After intense negotiations, riverkeeper groups, the Southern Environmental Law Center, Dominion, and the Department of Environmental Quality settled upon a protocol for treating and monitoring the quality of effluent before it entered the James River and Quantico Creek. How has the arrangement worked out? The absence of headlines this year is one clue. The water-testing results posted on Dominion’s website provide another.

The tests, which cover pH, suspended solids, oil & grease, hardness and 15 heavy metals and other compounds, show that the water treatment process is cleaning the water to the point where the presence of most pollutants is impossible to detect.

At the Bremo station, only arsenic and chloride appeared in measurable quantities among the three samples taken in early May, and the concentration of both chemicals is less than one-tenth of the Environmental Protection Agency’s permit levels.

Possum Point power station de-watering test results. (Click for larger image.)

At Possum Point, five chemicals appear in large enough quantities to be detectable, but all are safely within prescribed bounds. One chemical, thallium, nudges up close to the permit limit but does not go over.

I don’t purport to have any expertise in these matters, but it looks as if the arrangement is working as it should. If you want to browse through a year’s worth of test results, click here.

This is far from the end of the story, of course. Dominion still must obtain permits for de-watering its Chesapeake and Chesterfield facilities. The results at Bremo and Possum Point suggest that Dominion has the de-watering process firmly under control.

However, the company has yet to receive solid-waste permits for disposing of the coal ash after it has been de-watered. Dominion wants to pursue a cap-in-place approach while environmental groups want the utility to bury the material in landfills. That issue will take longer to resolve. Among the uncertainties is determining the extent to which underground water picks up contaminants while migrating through the coal ash pits. Getting answers will require a different testing protocol than the one used for the de-watering process.