Category Archives: General Assembly

Converting Coal Mines into Pumped Storage

Is it practicable to convert old coal mines into pumped storage facilities? We may find out.

Is it practicable to convert old coal mines into pumped storage facilities? We may find out.

Perhaps the most intriguing idea in the renewable-energy package promoted by General Assembly Republicans (see previous post) is the idea of converting abandoned coal mines into pumped storage generating units.

Dominion Virginia Power operates a pumped storage facility in Bath County. The facility has two reservoirs. During periods of high demand when the price of electricity is high, Dominion releases water from the upper reservoir into the lower; during periods of low demand when the price is low, the company pumps water back into the upper reservoir.

The idea is to replicate this process on a smaller scale inside old coal mines. Frankly, I’m having a hard time visualizing how this would work — the underground coal mines I’ve visited follow are as level as the coal seams they follow — but I’ll assume that proponents of the idea know much more about the subject than I do.

One advantage of using coal mines for pumped storage is that they use water already in the mines, and there is no need to dam a river or creek. Further, Terry Kilgore, R-Gate City, who sponsored the bill, envisions using wind or solar power to pump the water. You can’t get any greener than that.

Here’s the topper: Use the abundance of green power to sell big corporations on locating their data centers in Southwest Virginia. One of the Commonwealth of Virginia’s two data centers is located in Lebanon, Va., on the edge of the coalfields, and the Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission has invested heavily in equipping the region with the broadband access that any data center requires. High bandwidth and clean energy make a winning combination, the thinking goes.

Dominion, which already has a coal plant in Wise County, doesn’t have a specific project in mind, but says it is keenly interested in what Kilgore’s bill would allow, reports the Roanoke Times.

“This is a BIG deal longer-term in the coalfields,” Jack Kennedy, Wise County’s clerk of circuit court and regional technology advocate, told the Times. “It could lead to hundreds of millions in investment, maybe over $1 billion.”

Hope always springs eternal in Virginia’s suffering coalfield region. The idea of converting underground coal mines into pumped storage facilities sounds extremely conceptual, and the economics are far from proven. But you never know. If the idea does work, and if the region could attract a handful of data centers — stranger things have happened, Microsoft located a data center in Mecklenburg County —  it could be a game-changer.

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.

Who Needs Amazon Drones When You’ve Got a Starship Robot?

The Starship robot moves at pedestrian speed and weighs no more than 40 pounds, fully loaded.

The Starship robot moves at pedestrian speed and weighs no more than 40 pounds, fully loaded. The company claims the devices are “inherently safe and can navigate around objects and people.”

A robot developed by Starship Technologies, of London, can make deliveries in urban environments. Capable of carrying loads as large as two grocery bags, this “personal courier” can make deliveries of groceries, wine, flowers, whatever, within a three-mile radius. Customers can track the robot’s location location on a smart phone.

“Our delivery platform will launch a new era of instant, unscheduled delivery as well as significantly lower the costs of shipments,” says the Starship website.

Legislation allowing the use of Electric Personal Delivery Devices (EPPDs) in Virginia unanimously passed the state Senate today.  The bill marks the first statewide approval of EPDDs operating on sidewalks, shared-use paths, and crosswalks in the United States, according to a press release issued by the office of Sen. Bill DeSteph, R-Virginia Beach, who patroned the bill. A companion bill has been introduced in the House of Delegates.

“Starship Technologies is delighted with the passage of Senator DeSteph’s legislation from the Senate, and the team is excited about the opportunity to bring this technology to the Commonwealth of Virginia” said Allan Martinson, COO of Starship Technologies.  The bill was supported also by the Unmanned Systems Association of Virginia.

Governor Terry McAuliffe, U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, and other Virginia officials have targeted unmanned vehicles as an economic development opportunity for the state. Drones are regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration, which has held up their deployment for safety reasons, but the use of ground-borne robots on public roads and sidewalks are governed by the states. Virginia also is playing a leading role in the research of driverless cars.

Impact on human settlement patterns… The Starship robot could tilt consumer preferences for urban areas over suburban. As a practical matter, the device can travel only where there are sidewalks and where development is compact. As much as I would love to order my Kroger groceries online (which I now can do) and have them delivered by a robot, there is no sidewalk in suburban Henrico County the device could travel to reach me. The street network and relatively high density of the City of Richmond would be far more suitable. In the grand scheme of things, delivery-by-robot is a small amenity. Still, it is one more reason to move from the ‘burbs into the city.

Here’s an Idea — Let’s Impose Unfunded Mandates on Shrinking School Districts

Does it make sense to impose unfunded mandates on jurisdictions with shrinking school populations?

Dozens of Virginia localities have lost population since 2010. Does it make sense to impose unfunded mandates on jurisdictions with shrinking tax base and school enrollment?

There seems to be no end to the ideas that Do Gooders have to improve conditions in Virginia’s schools. And there’s always someone in the General Assembly willing to submit a bill to force Virginia school districts to adopt those feel-good ideas without providing any money to pay for them.

This year, the Do Gooders have backed unfunded mandates that would require every school in Virginia to hire a nurse and every school district in the state to hire a dyslexia adviser. I have no quarrel with the aspiration of employing more nurses and dyslexia advisers in our schools. But I do take issue with enacting bills that would impose those priorities over those of local school boards, many of which are grappling with shrinking budgets and all of which have a keener insight into local needs than anyone in Richmond.

Fortunately, the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Elementary and Secondary Education killed HB 1757, the nurse bill, recognizing that unfunded mandates create fiscal hardship for  local school divisions, reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

The Virginia Association of School Nurses said the state has one school nurse per 830 students. The bill would have mandated a ratio of one nurse per 550 students. Children need the service of trained professionals to deal with a host of medical conditions, the nurses argued. Ailments range from Type 1 diabetes to seizures, asthma and severe allergies. Some school districts put a nurse in every school. But some have other priorities. Small districts would be especially hard-pressed to meet the standard.

Another bill, HB 2395, would require every school district to staff a dyslexia specialist. The Dyslexia Research Institute contends that 10% to 15% of the U.S. population has the learning disability, but only one in twenty dyslexics are recognized and receive assistance. The syndrome interferes with children’s ability to learn how to read.

In this instance, reports the Times-Dispatch, the House Appropriations subcommittee approved the bill, which follows a law enacted last year that required new teachers to receive training in identifying and dealing with dyslexia.

Larger school districts already maintain dyslexia specialists. Here’s my question: What’s different between an unfunded mandate for hiring dyslexia specialists and an unfunded mandate for hiring school nurses? Perhaps the price tag is smaller — a single dyslexia specialist costs less than multiple school nurses. But the underlying principle is the same — the General Assembly is imposing its priorities upon local school boards.

While all this is going on, lawmakers are grappling with the financial problems experienced by shrinking school divisions. As coincidence would have it, the Demographics Research Group at the University of Virginia, has just published  its latest population data. As can be seen in the map above, dozens of localities have lost population since 2010. Presumably that population decline is matched by a decline in school population.

According to a third article in today’s Times-Dispatch, 39 localities have lost either 1,000 students or 20% of their enrollment between 2006 and 2016. Lower enrollments mean less state support for schools. The House Appropriations Committee is considering a bill that would scrape up $8.6 million to provide relief for those jurisdictions on the grounds that they are too small to offset the loss of state revenue by consolidating services and facilities.

In what world does it make sense to impose a new unfunded mandate — in this case, the dyslexia expert — upon these localities?

Virginia Higher Ed Faces Legislative Backlash

Virginia higher ed, and the University of Virginia in particular, are facing toughest General Assembly scrutiny in twenty years.

Virginia higher ed, and the University of Virginia in particular, are facing toughest General Assembly scrutiny in twenty years.

Frustration with Virginia’s higher education establishment boiled over during a press conference in the state Capitol building this morning as 15 senators and delegates from both political parties expressed their intention to curtail tuition hikes at public colleges and universities.

Legislators have introduced some 20 bills so far in the 2017 session addressing affordability and access at Virginia universities, and they expect more will be filed. A primary source of concern is how the state’s elite institutions are steering millions of dollars into financial aid to out-of-state students even as Virginians find the cost of attendance increasingly unaffordable.

Del. Tim Hugo, R-Centreville, a graduate of the College of William & Mary, decried the high percentage of out-of-state students at his alma mater. Referring tongue-in-cheek to William & Mary as “the College of New Jersey-Williamsburg campus,” he said, “We need more in-state students.”

The University of Virginia is spending $20 million to $30 million in scholarships for out-of-state students, said Del. Dave Albo, R-Springfield. He found that dispensation ironic given the fact that “for years we were told we needed out-of-state students to fund the schools.”

Another source of resentment was the accumulation of large financial reserves, particularly at the University of Virginia. UVa had cobbled together a $2.2 billion “strategic investment fund,” expected to generate $100 million a year in investment returns, even as the board of visitors raised tuition aggressively and lobbied for more state support.

The press conference followed the release of a poll released yesterday by Partners 4 Affordable Excellence @ EDU, a group created to fight runaway college tuition hikes (and a sponsor of this blog). That poll of registered Virginia voters found that a large majority overwhelmingly believe that the cost of college attendance is too high and support greater transparency of university budgets and decision-making.

Dr. James V. Koch, a former president of Old Dominion University and president of Partners 4 Affordable Excellence, opened the event with a review of data. Since 2000, he said, the Consumer Price Index had increased 35.2%. Over that same period the national Higher Ed Price Index had jumped 52.9%. In Virginia, the cost of in-state tuition and fees had shot up even faster, even as incomes have stagnated. The number of work-hours that it took a Virginian earning the median hourly wage to pay average tuition and fees for a four-year college increased from 227 in 2001-2002 to 438 this year.

Bills before the General Assembly would cap the percentage of out-of-state students at 25% at Virginia higher ed institutions, forbid colleges from using in-state tuition revenues to pay for financial aid, restrict the amount of out-of-state tuition that could be applied to financial aid, and limit tuition increases to the rate of inflation, among other measures.

University officials justify high enrollments of non-Virginians on the grounds that out-of-state students on average pay 160% of the tuition cost, in effect subsidizing Virginia residents. If lawmakers cut out-of-state enrollments, they will increase pressure on universities to jack up in-state tuition. Also, providing financial aid to some out-of-state students, they argue, is necessary to make attendance affordable for lower-income students and preserve socio-economic and racial diversity.

Del. Lionell Spruill, D-Chesapeake, was more concerned with helping poor, minority Virginia students. In Virginia, the percentage of students receiving Pell grants for low-income students is around 20%, the lowest rate in the nation, he said. The reason for the low participation, he explained, is that tuition, fees and other costs are so high in the Old Dominion that low-income students can’t afford to attend. Poor Virginian students should be first in line for student loans, he contended.

A similar argument was advanced by Del. Terry Kilgore, R-Gate City, who represents an district in far southwest Virginia. As unaffordable as costs are for a family in affluent, suburban Fairfax County, he said, they create an insurmountable barrier for many families in Appalachia.

While legislators at the press conference shared a common concern about the cost of Virginia higher ed, they indicated no agreement upon which bills to support. Indeed, the issue of financial aid may prove divisive. While Spruill and Kilgore focused on the need of their lower-income constituents, a disproportionate percentage of of whom rely upon financial aid, other lawmakers represented middle-class households who are tired of seeing some of their tuition money diverted to financial aid for others.

“The high tuition, high aid model is out of control,” said Sen. Bill DeSteph, R-Virginia Beach. Continue reading