Category Archives: Environment

Pro-Solar Tweaks Advance in General Assembly

If big corporate customers start generating their own electricity, who will pay to build and maintain the electric transmission-distribution grid?

If big corporate customers start generating their own electricity, who will pay to build and maintain the electric transmission-distribution grid?

As the General Assembly reaches the mid-point of its session, solar-energy legislation sponsored by Republicans has a very good chance of passing, reports Robert Zullo with the Richmond Times-Dispatch

The proposals emerged from lengthy discussions in a working group of Virginia’s electric utilities, electric cooperatives, and solar industry proponents. While the package is “a mixed bag,” said Will Cleaveland with the Southern Environmental Law Center, he conceded that it “leans slightly to the positive.”

According to Zullo, the package includes bills that:

  • Allows farmers to sell more renewable energy generated on their property to utilities;
  • Establishes a pilot community solar program for subscribing utility customers;
  • Allows streamlined permitting for small-scale renewable energy projects; and
  • Allows utilities to ask the State Corporation Commission for recovery of costs for pumped hydroelectric generation and storage facilities in Virginia’s coalfields. As envisioned, this pump-storage would be coupled with solar energy.

Bacon’s bottom line: Anything that injects more entrepreneurs and competition into the equation is a good thing. However, these bills leave unanswered perhaps the most important issue facing solar energy in the state: legal clarity for power-purchase agreements, specifically for arrangements involving third-party financing. A consortium of Fortune 500 corporations had requested clarification of laws that would make it easier for them to execute deals with third parties in order to generate their own solar energy. Power-purchase agreements are complex legal and financial instruments set up to extract maximum value from federal tax credits.

Many corporations have made a commitment to clean power and would like to derive a bigger percentage of their electricity from renewable energy sources, which in in most parts of Virginia means solar. From their perspective, the ideal law would allow them to generate their own solar electricity and sell surplus power back into the grid at the full retail rate. However, power companies argue that independent solar generators should recoup a lower wholesale rate for the electricity. Electric utilities oppose laws that allow competitors to capture retail market share without compensating the utilities (and their rate payers) for the cost of maintaining the transmission-distribution grid that everyone relies upon when the sun isn’t shining.

Until the General Assembly grapples with the fundamental issue of how to generate solar electricity without undermining the transmission-distribution grid, all the rest is window dressing.

Is Recycling a Practical Solution for Coal Ash?

State Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Mount Vernon, recommends coal ash recycling.

State Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Mount Vernon, recommends coal ash recycling.

State Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Mount Vernon, represents homeowners living near Dominion Virginia Power’s Possum Point Power Station, which is in the process of disposing of millions of cubic yards of coal ash accumulated over the years. The coal combustion residue, he told the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Conservation & Natural Resources this afternoon, is a “booming, growing, ongoing problem.”

Dominion proposes consolidating the coal combustion residue from five ponds into one, which it will cap with a synthetic liner and monitor for leakage of potentially toxic heavy metals. But tests have found elevated levels of metals associated in the groundwater around the facility, and Surovell wants better protection for his constituents as well as other Virginians living near other coal ash sites. He has submitted a trio of bills that would require Virginia electric utilities to evaluate the options of coal ash recycling and/or disposing of the material into a synthetically lined landfills with leachate collectors.

Numerous coal ash ponds are scattered around Virginia, and Possum Point is furthest advanced in the regulatory process for closure. “This is new to everyone in the United States,” Surovell said, adding that he wants to make sure Dominion’s remedies don’t “blow up in a hundred years.”

William L. Murray, director of public policy, Dominion Virginia Power.

In response William L. Murray, Dominion’s director of public policy, told the committee that Virginia’s Department for Environmental Quality (DEQ) is staffed with “experienced, apolitical regulators.” Surovell’s proposals, he said, amount to an alternative regulatory regime. “The fundamental premise is that there’s something wrong with our current regulatory structure. We respectfully disagree with that.”

Electric utilities have been storing coal ash for decades in impoundments, mixing the residue with water to keep the particles from blowing away. Responding to highly publicized spills of coal ash into Tennessee and North Carolina rivers, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued rules in late 2015 requiring electric companies to de-water the coal and safely dispose of the dry material. In Virginia, the DEQ is responsible for issuing waste-water and solid-waste permits tailored to the conditions of each site.

Dominion got off to a quick start but ran into opposition last year from environmental groups and local landowners, who said that its plans to dispose of the coal ash on-site would contaminate local water supplies. Tests around Possum Point have shown elevated levels of metals associated with coal ash, but a Duke University study suggested that trace metals in groundwater also can occur naturally. Although it is it unclear if the coal ash ponds were to blame, Dominion has offered to replace wells for seven homeowners with municipal water.

Electric companies in North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia recycle, or plan to recycle, large percentages of their coal ash by selling it for use primarily as a cement additive to make concrete. At many sites, they will truck the ash to state-of-the-art landfills with synthetic liners, caps, and leachate collection systems. The Southern Environmental Law Center, which has handled litigation in Virginia and the other states, contends that Virginia should adopt the same practices.

There is considerable commercial demand for coal ash in Virginia, said Surovell. Indeed, there is so much demand that concrete manufacturers are importing the material from China and Poland. It makes no sense to import coal ash when there is plenty available at Dominion’s power stations, he said. Because the ash often requires an intermediate processing step known as beneficiation, recycling the residuals could create jobs in the commonwealth, he said.

One of Surovell’s bills, SB 1383, would require all Virginia electric utilities to “recycle as much of their stored coal ash as is imported into the Commonwealth each year, on a pro rata basis.” The bill would allow the utilities to recover its treatment costs from the taxpayers. Mimicking President Trump, Surovell told the committee, “I think this bill could be huuuge, and create tons and tons of jobs. … I want to make Virginia great again.”

A second bill, SB 1398, would require utilities to assess their closure options — closure in place, recycling, landfilling — and submit their evaluations for review by DEQ and the public. A third, SB 1399, would require “coal combustion by-products be removed for disposal in a permitted landfill meeting federal criteria and that the impoundment site be reclaimed in a manner consistent with federal mine reclamation standards.”

Murray said that Dominion already recycles about 700,000 tons of coal ash a year generated by its coal plants in Mecklenburg, Chesterfield and Virginia City, as well as one it co-owns with the Old Dominion Electric Cooperative in Clover. The material is used in concrete, wallboard and even bowling balls.

If concrete manufacturers are importing coal ash from overseas, why isn’t Dominion recycling all of its coal combustion residue? The circumstances vary from location to location. The problem at Possum Point, said Murray, is that the company would have to truck literally thousands of loads of the material along a residential road, creating issues with congestion, noise and diesel exhaust. It doesn’t take much imagination to think that Surovell’s constituents would object to that solution.

Keep the Politicians Honest, Too

Dominion Virginia Power is coming under fire from all sides as it tries to balance reliability, cost and sustainability.

Dominion Virginia Power is coming under fire from all sides as it tries to balance reliability, cost and sustainability.

“Keep the big boys honest,” was the campaign tag-line of populist “Howlin” Henry Howell when he very nearly won his bid for the governorship in 1973. By “big boys,” he was referring to executives of VEPCO, a predecessor company to Dominion Virginia Power. Four decades later, it appears that Howell’s rhetoric is coming back in style.

As the Associated Press summarizes:

Two out of four GOP primary contestants are openly hostile to Dominion and want to ban the company from making campaign donations. An insurgent Democrat is indicating he’ll make the company’s broad political influence a significant campaign talking point. …

“Somebody has to drag these vampires into the sunlight,” said GOP candidate Denver Riggleman, a distillery owner who battled Dominion over eminent domain issues. Riggleman had a Capitol news conference Tuesday to pledge support for longshot legislation that would prohibit regulated monopolies from making campaign contributions. …

Republican Corey Stewart, a one-time Trump campaign chairman in Virginia, said if elected he would support the ban on donations from regulated monopolies as well and would look at other areas to curb the company’s political influence. “They have virtually every member of the General Assembly in their pocket,” Stewart said. …

On the Democratic side, former Congressman Tom Perriello is also making Dominion’s influence a campaign issue. “Tom believes our political system has become too rigged in favor of big corporations and special interests and that Virginians suffer when the very politicians charged with regulating monopolies accept campaign contributions from them,” his spokesman Ian Sams said.

Is Dominion worried? Spokesman David Botkins sounds confident the company can weather the latest storm: “Our 2.5 million customers tell us they are very, very happy with their low rates, superb reliability, cleaner air, and an energy independent Virginia.”

Bacon’s bottom line: Bashing the electric company is a time-honored tradition in the United States, and Virginia is no exception. Dominion Virginia Power is in politicians’ cross-hairs for multiple reasons. Environmentalists say the company is moving too slowly in adopting renewable fuels, and they say it should spend more to clean up its coal ash ponds. On the flip side, electric customers charge that a freeze in base rates negotiated a year ago locks in excess profits. Then landowners in the path of the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a project managed by parent company Dominion, as well as proposed new electric transmission lines, are up in arms. Meanwhile, there’s no denying that Dominion enjoys enormous clout in the General Assembly and the McAuliffe administration. It should surprise no one that Dominion has become a target of populist wrath.

As the debate unfolds, however, voters should bear in mind that Dominion, like Appalachian Power Co. and Virginia’s electric co-ops, must strike a balance between three broad goals: keeping rates low, keeping the lights on, and transitioning to cleaner fuels. Accomplishing all three requires trade-offs, making it impossible to fully satisfy all constituencies. If you add a fourth goal — promoting economic development — the tradeoffs become even more complex.

Dominion’s No. 1 priority is keeping the lights on. Let’s face it, nothing enrages people more than going without electricity for more than an hour or two. But ensuring reliability does not come free. By burying vulnerable distribution lines underground, for instance, the company can reduce the number and length of outages due to storms. That costs hundreds of millions of dollars, driving rates higher. How much are electricity customers willing to pay for an additional increment of reliability?

Similarly, the company could move more aggressively to embrace solar and wind power, but the intermittent nature of renewable energy sources threatens the stability of local distribution circuits. Before integrating renewables on a large scale, Dominion is proceeding with a series of small pilot projects to test the impact on local distribution lines. If you value reliability, you’re probably happy with the approach. If your top priority is combating climate change, you’re probably not.

Meanwhile, the company has been restructuring its transmission grid in response to federal clear air mandates — first to reduce emissions of mercury and other toxic minerals, and more recently to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide. Meeting those goals has required a massive shift from coal to natural gas and renewables. That entails not only building new power plants in new locations and importing electricity via wholesale markets from outside the state, it requires erecting new transmission lines to handle the re-routed electricity flows. Landowners understandably don’t like looking at electric transmission lines. But you can’t stick with the old electric grid and also have clean energy.

That’s not to say things can’t be done differently. Arguably, Dominion Virginia Power cut a sweet deal for itself when the legislatures froze its base rate. Arguably, the company could be more cooperative in allowing homeowners and small businesses to work with third-party providers of clean energy sources. Arguably, Virginia’s eminent domain laws could treat landowners more justly. Arguably, the system could be tweaked in many ways. But it always comes back to setting priorities and making tradeoffs. There is no way to satisfy everyone.

Let’s hope Virginia’s candidates for higher office keep that simple truth in mind as we enter the campaign silly season.

Clash over Rate Freeze Shifts to Va. Supreme Court

Earlier this week, the Virginia Senate shut down a bid by Sen. Chap Peterson, D-Fairfax, to revoke the rate freeze on Dominion Virginia Power’s and Appalachian Power’s electricity rates. But the battle over electric rates is far from over. The contest now moves to the Virginia Supreme Court.

Today is the deadline for foes to submit legal briefs in a case filed by the Old Dominion Committee for Fair Utility Rates. The case challenges a 2015 law that was enacted shortly after the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced details of its Clean Power Plan for cutting carbon dioxide emissions in the electric power industry. State Corporation Commission staff had estimated that the new regulations could cost Dominion rate payers between $5.5 billion to $6 billion, but no one knew for sure, so lawmakers cobbled together a bill that would freeze base rates through 2019.

Proponents said the idea was for Dominion to absorb the risk for higher costs stemming from the regulation in exchange for rate stability. But critics say it was a cover for Dominion and Apco to lock in excessive rates.

Critics have become even more vocal now as Donald Trump prepares to enter the White House. The president-elected has pledged to kill the Clean Power Plan. If he succeeds, the justification for the rate freeze will disappear.

Ken Cuccinelli, a former Republican attorney general, contends that Dominion and Apco took advantage of the agitation over the Clean Power Plan to get a law enacted that guaranteed excessive rates for years without providing any real protection to rate payers. Working with another former AG, Andrew Miller, he argues that the law is constitutionally dubious because the General Assembly usurped the role of the State Corporation Commission to set electric rates.

Dominion responds that state Constitution clearly states that the SCC power to set rates is subject to “such criteria and other requirements” as set by law. Company lawyers have cited six instances in the past two decades in which the General Assembly either capped electricity rates or defined how rates would be set, all without constitutional challenges. Furthermore, says company spokesman David Botkins, consumers have not been harmed. The average monthly residential bill in January 2017 is 3.6% lower than it was two years ago when the law was enacted.

There are four categories of electric rates in Virginia, Cuccinelli explains. One is the “base” rate, which covers most operating costs and accounts for about half the electric bill. A second is a fuel-adjustment clause, which adjusts charges for coal, natural gas, and nuclear fuel as prices move up and down. A third is a seldomly invoked emergency clause to reimburse electric companies for clean-up costs associated with storms, hurricanes and natural disasters. And the fourth is a rate-adjustment clause (RAC), which allows power companies to recover costs associated with new construction and other major capital expenditures, such as those required to comply with new federal regulations.

In a scenario in which Dominion was forced to shut down its Chesterfield coal-fired plant, denied licenses to extend the life of its nuclear plants and required to replace the capacity with solar, Dominion could recover the cost of multibillion-dollar capital expenditures through a Rate Adjustment Clause.

A second reason the 2015 rate-freeze law was bogus, says Cuccinelli, is that the Clean Power Plan was not scheduled to go into effect until 2022 — when the rate freeze expires. “The costs don’t even hit during the time addressed in the bill.”

Botkins responds that the rate freeze has protected rate payers against a variety of costs that would have been charged to them otherwise. The company ate tens of millions of dollars in clean-up costs from Hurricane Matthew, the ninth most costly storm in the company’s history. Citing another instance, he says, when 250,000 customers in Central Virginia lost power in a windstorm, “We worked around the clock. We absorbed those costs.”

The 2015 law also provided for a $57 million infusion into Dominion’s statewide weatherization program for low-income Virginians. And it committed the company to build 400 megawatts of solar power, which it is in the process of fulfilling, Botkins said. Just last week the company announced that it had completed work on three solar facilities in Virginia capable of producing 56 megawatts of electricity.

Addressing Cuccinelli’s argument that the costs of the Clean Power Plan wouldn’t hit rate payers until 2022, Botkins said that was unlikely. “You have to prepare for these things in advance. You can’t flip a switch and start complying.”

Cuccinelli is not impressed by the miscellaneous costs that Dominion has covered. SCC staff had determined before the rate freeze that the company was generating excess profits. The rate freeze cemented those profits into place for seven years. Paying for big storms that cost $100 million every ten years is a small risk compared to locking in a billion dollars in excess profits, he says. “Short of Noah’s flood, there will not be costs absorbed by utilities to offset the massive profits locked in” by the 2015 law.

Attorney General Mark Herring says the law is constitutional, says Botkins. “Virginia has an energy plan, and it’s working well. Low rates, superior reliability, and cleaner air than ever before — all to the benefit of our customers.  With all the regulatory uncertainty still swirling in Washington, now is not the time for political grandstanding at the expense of Virginia’s energy future.”

Justification for Electricity Rate Freeze Melting?

If the Trump administration repeals the Clean Power Plan, what justification is there for an electricity rate freeze in Virginia?

If the Trump administration repeals the Clean Power Plan, what justification is there for an electricity rate freeze in Virginia?

Is it time to reverse the rate freeze on electricity rates in Virginia? If President-elect Donald Trump revokes the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, Sen. Chap Peterson, D-Fairfax, author of SB 1095, thinks it would be.

Two years ago, no one knew what to make of the Clean Power Plan, an Environmental Protection Agency initiative that compelled electric utilities to reduce emissions of carbon-dioxide in the cause of fighting Global Warming. No one in the 2014 General Assembly session knew what the final regulations would look like or which of four broad regulatory options the Commonwealth of Virginia might adopt. If the plan required Dominion Virginia Power and Appalachian Power to close coal-fired power plants and replace generating capacity with gas, solar or nuclear, the utilities warned that rates could spike higher. On the other hand, the plan might not survive legal challenge.

At the time, it made sense to many legislators to freeze base electric rates until the dust settled. Since then, Trump has declared his skepticism of Global Warming, promised to roll back regulations hurting the coal industry, and nominated a new EPA chief who, as attorney general of Oklahoma, had filed suit to block the Clean Power Plan. However, it is not clear how quickly the plan, was implemented under a novel reading of the Clean Air Act after extensive administrative proceedings, could be repealed.

Peterson says it is time for a second look at the freeze. “You really can’t say, ‘Oh we have a federal government that’s trying to put coal out of business, so we need to give power plants a financial break.’ Sorry, that narrative doesn’t work anymore,” the Associated Press quotes him as saying.

Large industrial customers say the freeze could cost Dominion customers $2.4 billion in unnecessary payments by 2022, when the freeze expires, and Appalachian Power customers another $300 million. But Thomas Wohlfarth, a Dominion senior vice president, said those estimates are based on overly optimistic projections about the true cost of providing electricity.

Moreover, Wohlfarth said, Trump can’t just dispense with carbon regulations with the stroke of a pen. “We’re not of the opinion that carbon regulation is going to go away.”

Update: Well, well, this blog post had the shortest relevance of just about anything I’ve ever published on Bacon’s Rebellion. When I checked Richmond Sunlight a couple of hours ago, the bill was still alive. Now I have been informed that the bill died in the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee on a 12 to 2 vote.

Update: Peterson is vowing that “the fight isn’t over to stop excessive profits for regulated utilities.” In what may be the most quotable quote so far this session, he said: “If you use electricity in Virginia, you should want this bill. If you live in a teepee, you probably don’t care.”

Update: Yikes, the updates are flowing fast and furious. The rate freeze “has provided direct benefits to low-income seniors and military veterans through the expansion of Energy Share, and saved customers millions of dollars in costs while keeping Dominion’s rates well below the national average, which are lower now than before SB 1349 was passed,” said Dominion spokesman David Botkins.

“The broader issue of uncertainty around how EPA will regulate carbon is increasing, given the current Clean Power Plan may be replaced with an alternative that would then be subject to a new round of challenges,” Botkins said.

Norfolk Naval’s Investment in “Energy Security”

How can a North Carolina solar farm contribute to energy security and resiliency of the Norfolk Naval Station?

How can a North Carolina solar farm contribute to energy security and resiliency of the Norfolk Naval Station? GAO has the same questions I do. Photo credit: Virginian-Pilot.

Let me set the scene for this post. A year ago I wrote about Naval Station Norfolk’s deal to purchase enough solar electricity through Dominion Virginia Power to meet 6% of its electricity needs over the next ten years. The transaction advanced the U.S. Navy’s goal of deriving at least 50% of shore-based energy from alternative sources by 2020. The terms of the deal were murky, however, and I could not elicit from the Navy what it was paying for the electricity other than a vague statement that the tariff was “consistent with the current rate structure.”

The Navy justifies the move to renewable energy nationally on the grounds that it “promotes more secure and resilient installation operations.” However, the solar farm is not located on the Naval base. Developed by a third party enterprise, Invenergy, and acquired by Dominion in order to fulfill the Navy’s needs, the 20-megawatt facility lies far to the south in Morgans Corner, N.C.

How did buying solar energy from North Carolina, as opposed to building the facility on the base itself, promote the security and resiliency of Naval Station Norfolk? If Dominion’s electric grid went down in a hurricane, cyber-attack, act of war, or whatever, the solar electricity generated at Morgans Corner could not miraculously leap over 30 or 40 miles of swamp and farmland to Norfolk. The Navy’s non-responsive response to my question: “Signing long-term contracts for renewable energy helps to increase the DON’s energy security by providing long-term cost stability and diversifying our resources.”

The Navy roped Dominion and Invenergy into the deal because it needed private-sector partners to utilize the state and federal tax credits that would bring down the cost of the project to the Navy (even though it transferred costs to the treasuries of the United States and North Carolina.) It seemed obvious to me that the deal was designed to meet the Obama administration’s renewable energy goals, not to create a secure energy source for the Navy base — at least not secure in any military sense.

Nothing came of my article. No one else seemed to care.

Then, in September 2016, the federal Government Accounting Office (GAO), published a study, “DOD Renewable Energy Projects,” of which I have only now become aware. That report examined 17 Department of Defense renewable-energy projects. Unfortunately, Naval Station Norfolk was not one of them. But I am not the only one, it turns out, who wonders if the renewable projects contribute anything to military base energy security.

While some of the renewable projects advanced DoD’s energy goals, states the report, “project documentation was not always clear about how each  project was expected to … advance the department’s energy security objective or estimate the value of energy security provided.”

We found that only 2 of the projects were specifically designed to provide power to the installations in the event of a disruption to the commercial grid without additional investments. DOD officials told us that they believed all 17 of the projects in our sample provided an energy security benefit because the officials defined energy security broadly to encompass the diversification of fuel sources, among other things.

Dominion is a secure and reliable provider of electricity under normal circumstances, so DoD clearly was looking for something more. Arguably, the solar deal allows the naval station to lock in stable rates for the next 25 years or so (however long the solar panels last). But that’s budgetary security — not the kind of security that would allow the naval station to continue functioning in a national emergency when the grid goes down.

In theory, a solar facility feeding into a microgrid could seal itself off from the troubles in the larger grid. But only two military facilities appeared to have followed that path. One likely reason is that solar panels take up a lot of room. To supply Naval Station Norfolk would require thousands of panels on hundreds of acres of land, and the naval base does not have hundreds of acres available. By necessity, utility-scale solar projects are located in the boonies — away from military facilities.

Bacon’s bottom line: Relying upon solar energy to create a secure electricity supply for a military base is, except in rare cases, a hopeless task. That’s not to say that the policy was a bad one. One can come up with all sorts of reasons to install more solar capacity. They just aren’t the reasons the U.S. Navy gave us.

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