Category Archives: Water-waste water

Amidst Abundant Rain, Eastern Virginia Still Faces Water Shortages

Virginia's coastal plain aquifer system

Virginia’s coastal plain aquifer system

by James A. Bacon

After getting soaked with rain over the past two weeks, most Virginians would find it difficult to imagine that the Old Dominion could ever face a water shortage. But the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC) has been thinking beyond next week’s weather forecast, and while there are no immediate threats to the viability of Virginia’s water supply, the commission say that the long-term outlook in eastern Virginia is problematic.

The eastern, most populated portion of Virginia is heavily dependent upon a coastal plain aquifer system. Due to flat terrain and the omnipresence of wetlands, eastern Virginia is not topographically well suited to building water reservoirs. As a consequence, many water consumers rely upon well water.

At present small users (withdrawing less than 300,000 gallons per month) suck about 40 million gallons per day out of the aquifer system. Big users requiring permits are expected to withdraw between 43 and 58 million gallons per day. States JLARC in a new report, “Effectiveness of Virginia’s Water Resource Planning and Management“:

Assuming [the Department of Environmental Quality] achieves the proposed permit reductions it is currently negotiating and current reported withdrawals continue unchanged over the next few years, water levels are predicted to show only small declines and fall below regulatory minimum levels in only a few parts of the aquifer over 50 years. … Beyond the next few years, though, sustainability is tenuous and can be easily tipped out of balance. Potential growth in  both unpermitted and permitted withdrawals can easily push demand in excess of supply, leading again to unsustainable use.

While water shortages are unlikely in the next generation, the necessity to curtail major new water users is hampering economic development now. Difficulty in acquiring new permits will make it challenging for water-intensive industries to locate in eastern Virginia, states the report.

“About 85 percent of local economic developers responding to a JLARC survey reported that availability and affordability of water were important factors for at least one new project during the past three years,” the report says. Survey respondents told JLARC of three incidents in which projects did not materialize due to water permitting issues.

So, what’s to be done? Broadly speaking, JLARC identifies three strategies relevant to eastern Virginia: (1) conservation, (2) repair of leaky infrastructure, and (3) trading water.

Conservation. Conservation by existing users can postpone the need to spend billions of dollars developing new water supplies. Conservation measures can include installation of water-efficient appliances and fixtures, water-efficient landscaping and limits on landscape irrigation, rain harvesting, and tiered pricing structures that escalate charges for big users. Two paper mills — WestRock in West Point and International Paper in Franklin — account for nearly half of all coastal plain aquifer withdrawals. If the mills could find ways to cut water consumption, they could prolong the sustainability of the aquifer by many years.

Fixing water leaks. Local water supply plans report system losses ranging from 4% to 50%, depending upon the age of the infrastructure. JLARC cites two major public water suppliers in eastern Virginia which lost 15% and 17% of their water supply to leaks in 2011. Thanks to new technologies for monitoring water pipes, it is easier to identify leaks than ever. Water authorities across Virginia should be able to prioritize their maintenance spending to patch or replace the pipes with the worst leaks, deferring the need to spend billions of dollars on new capacity.

Groundwater trading. Groundwater trading is a market-based approach in which users buy and sell rights to groundwater consumption. Trading water rights would promote more efficient allocation of the scarce resource and would accommodate economic growth by allowing new users to access groundwater. However, there are prickly legal and philosophical issues associated with what amounts to converting a public resource into private property.

Unless Virginia can cobble together some combination of these solutions, we can expect water rates to rise in eastern Virginia as municipal and regional water authorities seek to ensure their long-term supplies. The Hampton Roads Sanitation District (HRSD), for instance, has begun studying an “aquifer injection” project that would inject about 120 million gallons per day of treated wastewater in the coastal aquifer, more than offsetting all current withdrawals. Among the benefits: reducing land subsidence that contributes to local flooding and reversing saltwater intrusion into the aquifer. However, the estimated price tag is hefty: about $1.2 billion in up-front capital and between $21 million to $43 milllion in annual operating costs.

JLARC urges legislators to tighten up standards for withdrawing water from the coastal aquifer, and capping the withdrawals that any single entity can make. Whatever the solution relied upon, Virginia needs to implement it soon. While water shortages may be decades away, the looming scarcity is affecting Virginia’s economic competitiveness today.

Petersburg’s Other Fiasco

petersburg_city_hall

Petersburg City Hall

by James A. Bacon

Poor Petersburg. The economically depressed Southside city of 32,000 serves as a vivid warning of just about everything that can go wrong for a local government in Virginia. Not only is the city running a massive General Fund budget deficit, it is falling millions of dollars behind in the collection of revenues for its water system.

The heart of the problem is a botched rollout of a meter-reading system that was pitched as a low-risk way for the city to overhaul its aging infrastructure without a tax increase. The city contracted with systems-controls giant Johnson Controls to install meters that would transmit usage figures electronically, obviating the need to send employees door to door to collect the numbers. Supposedly, the overhaul would pay for itself through more accurate readings and personnel reductions.

But something went wrong. First, the $3.9 million project experienced overruns of $1.4 million, bringing the final cost to $5.3 million. Second, it didn’t work properly. A year and a half later, surely enough time to work out the kinks, some people are reporting that they haven’t received water bills for months, while others say they have been billed too often, sometimes to the tune of thousands of dollars.

City officials blame the vendor, Johnson Controls. Yesterday City Council voted to hire an outside attorney to pursue litigation against the company to seek remedy, and has asked for assistance from the Virginia State Police.

While it is possible that Johnson Controls bungled the installation of the meters (Full disclosure: I own 400 shares of Johnson Controls stock), the City of Petersburg’s track record and evidence in the Richmond Times-Dispatch’s reporting of the story suggest that the city itself might have contributed to the problem.

First, the article mentions that more than a fifth of the cost overrun came from a $300,000 change order the year after the contract signed. No mention of whether there might have been other change orders.

Second, the contract was negotiated by then-City Manager William E. Johnson III, under whose watch the city’s General Fund plunged into such chaos that City Council fired him. If his oversight of city books was dismal, the same might well have been true for his oversight of the contract.

Third, it’s not clear from published accounts that the billing problem can even be traced to the meters. Meters report water usage; they do not send out billing statements. Perhaps the billing problem arose from the integration of the meters with the billing process. If so, responsibility gets murky. A successful launch of the system would have required collaboration between Johnson Controls and the city administration.

Fourth, Mayor W. Howard Myers admitted that he and other council members were unaware that the project had experienced cost overruns, or that city administrators had approved Johnson Controls’ work months after the system went live and residents had began complaining about faulty billing. This is the same mayor who declared, after being informed that the city had closed the year with a 20% deficit, “I had no idea. I’m like, wow, where is this coming from?” This is not a mayor who is on top of things, and if he blames the vendor for the mayhem, there is no reason to take his appraisal very seriously.

Fifth, in February, Myers hired Paul Goldman, law partner of former state Del. Joseph Morrissey, to investigate the matter at the rate of $330 per hour. But the city terminated the contract before Goldman could complete his job — more money down the drain. (I would conjecture that Goldman couldn’t finish the job because he found the matter to be an indecipherable morass that would take far more time than anyone had initially imagined.)

The business of government is complicated — and getting ever more so. I admire the everyday citizens who dedicate their time to running for office, helping constituents and overseeing government. They don’t get paid enough for what they do. But many of them, especially in smaller jurisdictions, are ill equipped to master the complexities of the job. Frankly, it’s a wonder we don’t see more fiascos like Petersburg’s.

Bikes, Bees, Beauty

lowline2

by James A. Bacon

New York City has its High Line park built upon an abandoned, elevated freight rail line. The City of Richmond has its Low Line park, built underneath CSX Corp. railroad trestles.

In the seven years since opening to great fanfare, Manhattan’s High Line has attracted millions of visitors and inspired the construction of nearly 1,400 housing units along its two-mile route. By contrast, the opening of Richmond’s Low Line has been decidedly low key, and no one is expecting it to become a magnet for real estate development. But the Low Line could well become an integral part of Richmond’s park system and spur reclamation of the riverfront.

The vision for the $6 million project calls for flower plots with benches, covered walkways beneath the trestles, rain gardens along the Kanawha Canal, and trees shading HOW MANY?? hundred yards of bike path. Capital Trees, a not-for-profit organized to promote urban greening, has committed to fund the ongoing maintenance.

A year ago, the area was an overgrown ruin, neglected by CSX and the City of Richmond, which shared ownership of the land for more than a century. Located in the flood plain, the property had little value. No one had reason to invest in it or even care about it.

“There was no advocate for this area. It was blighted,” says Susan Robertson, co-chair of Capital Trees. “People would ride on the canal boats from the manicured, renovated canal walk [in Shockoe Bottom] and encounter a scene with invasive weeds and trees. From June through November, you couldn’t see the canal [from the land].”

When the Low Line is complete, it will knit together a cluster of recreational assets including the Richmond terminus of the 52-mile Capital Trail, the Great Shiplock Park, the Kanawha Canal, and Chapel Island with its trails and kayak launch. The Low Line also will provide an amenity for the 1,500 residents of Tobacco Row apartments and condominiums on the far side of the flood wall.

“It’s so great,” Victoria Hedegger, a Tobacco Row resident, said recently while walking her new-born in a stroller. “It was nice before. Now it’s even nicer. [The gardens] make the trail so much more attractive.”

Before Capital Trees got involved, this was the view from the Capital Trails bike path.

Before Capital Trees got involved, this was the view from the Capital Trails bike path.

Capital Trees originated as a collaboration between the Richmond region’s four garden clubs in the expectation that they could undertake projects with greater impact if they worked together. The new generation of garden club leaders aren’t content with traditional beautification projects. They are exploring the intersection of beautification, conservation, storm water management and urban place making.

In its early incarnation, the group worked with city officials to reform the urban tree-planting program. Then it spear-headed the building of rain gardens on 14th street in Richmond’s downtown to control storm water runoff. With each success, Capital Trees’ projects became more ambitious.

In 2011 Lynda Miller, head of New York City’s Central Park Conservancy, visited Richmond to describe how volunteers had reclaimed part of Central Park. “She told use we could tackle big, important projects that can make our lives better, recalls Clare Osdene Schapiro, a Richmond Times-Dispatch writer active in the organization. Continue reading

Maryland Drops Coal Ash Appeal

The coal ash ponds at Possum Point

The coal ash ponds at Possum Point

The state of Maryland has dropped its appeal of permits granted to Dominion Virginia Power for discharging treated water from its Possum Point Power Station coal ash ponds into Quantico Creek and the Potomac River.

“Maryland is supportive of recent agreements in Virginia to increase wastewater treatment protections and monitoring protocols,” Ben Grumbles, Maryland’s secretary of the environment, said in a statement. “We are engaged in and encouraged by the ongoing discussions with Virginia and Dominion to do even more testing for fish tissue, water quality and sediment in the river beyond the current testing and monitoring in current or soon-to-be-proposed permits.”

Jay Apperson, a spokesman for the department, cited Dominion’s commitments to enhanced treatment of the water drawn from coal ash ponds and to specifications that meet or exceed Maryland’s water quality standards, reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch. He continued:

Moreover, Virginia DEQ has pledged to draft a stringent and comprehensive solid waste permit for the Dominion facility that incorporates all federal requirements. Virginia DEQ has further discussed its intent to engage Maryland during this permitting process as groundwater monitoring and surface water monitoring safeguards are included to protect Quantico Creek and the Potomac River.

The only group persisting in an appeal of the coal ash water-discharge permits is the Potomac Riverkeeper Network.

Bacon’s bottom line: The big remaining issue is how Dominion will dispose of the coal ash itself. Dominion has applied for permits to consolidate the material in capped pits on-site, asserting that the alternative preferred by environmentalists — trucking it to lined landfills — would cost $3 billion more. The statements from Maryland’s Department of the Environment suggests that Maryland has taken part in intensive, behind-the-scenes negotiations with Virginia DEQ, as Virginia regulators decide whether to grant the solid waste permits or not.

— JAB

Eb Tide for Bay Pollution

Ches_BayMeasures enacted since 2009 to reduce nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment have driven down the level of pollutants in the Chesapeake Bay, according to computer simulations by the Chesapeake Bay Program, a partnership of federal and state agencies and not-for-profits dedicated to cleaning up the bay. The results between 2009 and 2015: nitrogen down 8%, phosphorus down 20%, and sediment down 7%.

Practices are currently in place to achieve 31 percent of the nitrogen reductions, 81 percent of the phosphorus reductions and 48 percent of the sediment reductions necessary to attain applicable water quality standards as compared to 2009, the year before the Environmental Protection Agency established the Bay Total Maximum Daily Loads, states a Chesapeake Bay Program annual report.

“There is good news here,” responded Chesapeake Bay Foundation President William C. Baker , “but a lot of work remains before we can declare success. Pollution continues to flow from those city streets and farms that do not have controls in place. And while improved, discharges of sewage to public waters continue in some jurisdictions.”

— JAB

Hysteria Level Rising over Coal Ash

hysteriaThe debate over coal ash disposal is reaching a hysterical pitch as leftist groups peddle gross inaccuracies in “education” sessions to ignorant audiences not equipped to sift fact from fiction. An example comes from a Tuesday “teach in” hosted by Divest U.Va. and the Virginia Student Environmental Coalition, which was reported uncritically by the Cavalier Daily:

“Coal ash contains chemicals that are super unsafe for humans, including arsenic, which is not a healthy thing to be putting into our water,” [first-year student Ian] Ware said. “You shouldn’t be putting arsenic and drinking water together.”

Nobody proposes putting arsenic and drinking water together. Yes, coal ash does contain trace elements of arsenic measured in parts per billion but (a) Dominion Virginia Power will reduce arsenic to levels lower than the Environmental Protection Agency has determined to be safe for humans and aquatic life at the point of discharge into the river except under extreme drought conditions, (b) Dominion’s treated wastewater will be diluted by about 3,000 times the volume of river water during periods of average flow in the James River before it reaches a drinking water intake 50 miles downstream, (c) Dominion will release treated wastewater into the river for a period of roughly a year, while standards are set at levels that presuppose that people will consume the water over a 70-year life span as their sole source of drinking water, and (d) water drawn from the river undergoes municipal water treatment before anyone drinks it.

Other than that, the statement was entirely reasonable.

— JAB

Drinkable Water for Humans — or Fish?

James River carp do just fine in water that don't meet drinking water standards.

James River carp do just fine in water that doesn’t meet human drinking water standards.

by James A. Bacon

State regulators have taken heat recently for permits they issued Dominion Virginia Power to release treated wastewater from coal-ash ponds into the James River and Quantico Creek. The controversy has played out in the news as the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) filed an appeal to contest the permit and as protesters organized by No ACP rallied at Capitol Square to protest the “dumping” of “toxic” water into Virginia rivers.

SELC and No ACP are very different organizations, and they are demanding very different things. The main concern of the SELC, a mainstream environmental organization, is to ensure that treated wastewater released into Virginia waters meets the “fishable/swimmable” standard that protects aquatic life. The protesters, organized by local activist groups No ACP, Collective X and Richmond Resistance, want to hold Dominion and other utilities to a far stricter — and, arguably, entirely inappropriate — “drinkable” standard.

It’s easy for the public to conflate the two as part of a general critique of big utilities and  compliant regulators allowing the dumping of toxic pollution into Virginia waters. But that would be a huge mistake. Agree or disagree with their legal case, the SELC attorneys understand the issues at stake. By contrast, the activists’ mastery of the subject matter does not appear to exceed what they can write on placards and chant in slogans.

I will deal with the activists’ argument in this post so I can delve more deeply into the SELC case against the wastewater permits later.

According to the No ACP press release, the protesters’ demands are simple — “an immediate repeal of recent permits that would allow Dominion Power to dump millions of gallons of toxic coal ash wastewater into Virginia’s most treasured waterways.”

What standards should Dominion meet? “DEQ must rewrite these permits to require the use of best available technology and that the water be treated to undetectable levels of arsenic and other toxins before disposal,” states the press release. Speaking to the Times-Dispatch, protest organizer Tatiane McCormick made much the same point: The permits should be rewritten to require Dominion to discharge water into the rivers only if it meets (to use the T-D‘s words) “drinking water standards.” (No ACP did not respond to a Bacon’s Rebellion request for an interview.)

A  refresher: Coal ash is the residue from the combustion of coal. Dominion, Appalachian Power Co. and large industrial companies have been impounding the material, which contains heavy metals such as arsenic, mercury, and cadmium, in large containment ponds for many years. Because the metals are typically chemically bound with clays and glasses, not free-floating, they are largely inert, which is why the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) does not classify coal ash as a hazardous waste.

Dominion, the first company in Virginia to respond to the new standards, plans to drain the water from the ponds and then cap them in order to prevent rainwater from percolating through. Dominion will treat the water in a multi-staged clean-up process before releasing it into the river. The DEQ permit allows the water to exceed safe levels at the point of entry into the river, relying upon dilution with river water to keep it within prescribed limits.

The state has two types of regulatory standards: one for drinking water, and one for fishable/swimmable water. Power plants and manufacturers are required to meet the fishable/swimmable standard for any effluent they release into rivers and streams. Under the U.S. regulatory regime, it is up to municipal water treatment plants, not power plants and manufacturers, to bring river water up to the drinking water standard, and they have invested billions of dollars in treatment facilities to do so.

Under its permit, Dominion will release a maximum of 1,500 gallons per minute of treated wastewater into the river, says Jason Williams, an environmental manager for the utility. River flow varies depending upon weather conditions, but on the day Williams spoke to Bacon’s Rebellion, it was running about 13.7 million gallons per minute. “If you treated the [coal ash] wastewater to drinking water quality,” says Williams, “it would immediately be rendered undrinkable by mixing with the river water.”

John R. Craynon, who manages the Appalachian Research Initiative for Environmental Science (ARIES) at Virginia Tech, makes the same point. (ARIES is funded by the coal industry but the industry has no say in the selection of research projects, says Craynon.) Treating wastewater to a drinking water standard would be very expensive and a waste of effort, he says. “The moment the drinking water hits the stream, it’s no longer of the same quality.”

Bottom line: Compelling Dominion and other utilities to treat coal ash wastewater to drinking water standards would accomplish nothing. It would not render the river water safe for human consumption. The real question is whether Dominion’s permit will enable it to meet the swimmable/fishable standards that protect aquatic life. The SELC would like the permit to tighten the restrictions on mercury and arsenic. We will examine that issue in a subsequent post.

More Questions than Answers on Coal-Ash Waste Water Discharges

James River near Dominion's Bremo power plant. Photo credit: WTVR.

James River near Dominion’s Bremo power plant. Photo credit: WTVR.

by James A. Bacon

A crowd estimated at 2oo strong by the Richmond Times-Dispatch (and 700 by the protesters themselves) gathered at the state Capitol grounds Saturday to denounce the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) for granting Dominion Virginia Power permits to discharge treated coal-ash waste water into Quantico Creek and the James River.

Chanting “Coal ash kills. No dumping, no spills,” protesters demanded to see Governor Terry McAuliffe. Police arrested nine after they ignored the restrictions regarding where and when they could gather in Capitol Square.

“Dominion now has a proven track record for negligence and misrepresenting their actions to both state and federal agencies,” said Tatiane Pena of No ACP in a press release issued after the event. “Their promises to the public are worthless. It is the job of the Department of Environmental Quality to ensure that our waterways and communities are protected, and the current permits contain zero mechanism for enforcement. Nor do they require Dominion [to] treat the wastewater to the highest standard possible.”

Organized by No ACP, Collective X and Richmond Resistance, the protest represents the left wing of the environmental movement. The mainstream Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC), which has appealed the permits, has been much more restrained in its rhetoric.

Let’s set aside for a moment the inflammatory tone of the protesters’ sloganeering. (Dominion’s coal ash, which will be consolidated in capped ponds and drained of water, will not “kill” anyone. The treated waste water when released, not “dumped” or “spilled,” into the river, might kill aquatic life under extreme low-water conditions within a narrow plume downstream.)

Instead, let’s look instead at the idea that Dominion should treat the coal-ash waste water to “drinking water” standards. That doesn’t sound on its face to be unreasonable. Nobody wants big industry putting dirty water into our rivers and streams, especially not if they’re laden with heavy metals like mercury and arsenic that can be toxic to humans and aquatic life at sufficiently high concentrations. But are “drinking water” standards really what’s required to keep our rivers and streams safe, or would that level of stringency be overkill?

Sadly, despite considerable attention given to the coal-ash issue across the state (including one of my own articles in this blog), I have seen nothing that explains what’s safe and what’s not. For the most part, all that gets replicated is sound-bite claims and counter-claims. In my article, “How Clean Is Clean Enough,” I went into greater depth than anyone else on exactly how Dominion proposes to treat the coal ash waste water and why the SELC argues that treatment is deficient. But even I neglected to inform readers what concentration of various chemicals and compounds is considered safe for humans and aquatic wildlife, and by whom. Presumably, environmentalists, industry groups, the EPA and DEQ all have different ideas of what constitutes safe levels. How far apart are they? Have we moved 99 yards down the field and we’re battling over that last yard, or are we butting heads at the 50-yard line with a long way to go?

And a related set of questions: How much would it cost to meet stricter standards? Are we talking millions of dollars? Tens of millions? Or hundreds of millions? What are the trade-offs in terms of costs and benefits?

I put in queries to Dominion, DEQ and SELC for their input but did not get responses in time for this blog post. I’ll get back to readers when I find out more.

Chesterfield Confronts Cost of Addressing Storm Water Runoff

Virginia Tech bioretention project

Virginia Tech bioretention project

by James A. Bacon

Chesterfield County businesses could wind up paying $308 per year on average to fund the county’s $35 million stormwater utility program, while single-family households could be tagged with $24 per year, reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Needless to say, a lot of people are unhappy with the prospect of a new fee. “It is very unfair that we have to deal with it,” said Steve A. Elswick, board chairman. But noncompliance is not an option. “There have been questions about what if we just don’t do it. Unfortunately we’ll be faced with civil liabilities and criminal charges against the county administrator.” Public hearings on the plan are scheduled in March.

As Bacon’s Rebellion readers know, I’m not a fan of new taxes and government-mandated fees that look and feel like taxes. I believe in smaller, less intrusive government. But if a new tax or fee is justified, the stormwater utility program probably is it.

First off, the burden of establishing a serious stormwater management plan has been working its way through the legislative and regulatory system for a decade or longer. Every local government has known it was coming and has had years to prepare. The fact is, stormwater runoff  imposes significant economic costs. It causes erosion and puts sediment into rivers and streams, it picks up nitrogen and phosphates which contribute to destructive algae blooms, and it carries toxic chemicals from roads and parking lots into the watershed. The end result is significant environmental degradation to Virginia’s streams, rivers and Chesapeake Bay, which causes economic harm to the recreation and fishing industries (to say nothing of the harm done to the wildlife).

Second, the most appropriate way to pay for mitigating stormwater runoff is with a user fee. People should pay in direct proportion to the harm they cause, as measured by the square footage of impermeable surface on their property such as roof tops, driveways, patios and parking areas. That means large retailers with sprawling parking lots would pay the most, as appears to be the case in the Chesterfield plan. Insofar as county roads contribute to runoff, it may be justifiable for a proportionate share of program costs to come from general county funds.

How much will the program cost businesses? Many will pay less than the $308 average, Scott Smedley, director of Environmental Engineering, told the board of directors. And some will pay a lot more. “There is a small percentage on top, large facilities, that have really high bill, so that kind of skews that average.”

I haven’t seen the Chesterfield plan, so I don’t know the details of how the fees are structured. But in an ideal world (ideal from my perspective, at least), businesses should be rewarded through a reduction in fees if they reduce the square footage of impervious surface. One thing the county could do is to relax minimum parking mandates that compel businesses to maintain more parking spaces than they need or want. Indeed, every jurisdiction in Virginia should repeal their parking minimums.

Meanwhile, in General Assembly action, funding for stormwater runoff has become a budgetary issue. The McAuliffe administration’s proposed budget would cut the Stormwater Local Assistance Fund, which provides matching funds to local stormwater-cleanup initiatives, to zero. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation is backing budget amendments that would provide $50 million over each of the next two years. A separate measure would streamline statutory programs to help localities better manage their runoff programs.

Cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay is an environmental and economic imperative. While some may be impatient at the slow pace of progress, the Bay ecology is improving. It took decades to ruin the Bay and it will decades to restore its full potential. Virginia is pursuing a reasonable, slow-but-steady approach that is fiscally and politically sustainable.

Carbon Cuts: Why PJM Has a Better Idea

pjm-region-1024x657By Peter Galuszka

Amidst all the gnashing of teeth in Virginia about complying with proposed federal carbon dioxide rules, there seems to be one very large part of the debate that’s missing.

Several recent analytical reports explore using regional, carbon marketplaces to help comply with proposed federal Clean Power Plan rules that would cut carbon emissions by 2030. They conclude that the carbon goals can be attained more cheaply and efficiently by using a regional approach.

The lead study is by the PJM Interconnection, a grid that involves all or parts of 13 states including most of Virginia. Its March 2 report states that “state by state compliance options – compared to regional compliance options – likely would result in higher compliance costs for most PJM states because there are fewer low-cost options available within state boundaries than across the entire region.”

The same conclusion was made by another report by the Washington-based consulting firm Analysis Group on March 16. It states: “PJM’s analysis of compliance options demonstrates that regional, market-based approaches can meet Clean Power Plan goals across PJM states at lowest cost, with retirements likely spread out over a number of years.”

PJM set off in its analysis by setting a price per ton of carbon dioxide emissions with an eye towards the entities being exchanged among PJM-member utilities in a new market. The PJM report shows that electricity generation varies greatly among members. Some are farther along with renewables while others are greatly reliant upon coal.

By exchanging carbon units, some coal plants might actually be kept in service longer while overall goals are still achieved. EnergyWire, an industry news service, quotes Michael Kormos, PJM’s executive vice president for operations, as saying that the market-based carbon exchange, somewhat counterintuitively, might keep coal plants running longer.

“With the renewables and nuclear coming in as basically carbon free, we’re actually able run those coal resources more because they are getting credit from renewables and the nuclear as zero carbon.”

In December, PJM had 183,694 megawatts of generation. Some 67,749 megawatts are from coal-fired units.

Kormos says that a number of coal-fired units are going to be retired in the 2015 to 2030 timeframe regardless of what happens with the Clean Power Plan, whose final rules will be prepared by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency later this year. The retirements of older coal plants are expected to involve a minimum of 6,000 megawatts of power.

It is curious that very little of this report is being heard in the vigorous debate in Virginia about complying with the Clean Power Plan. What you hear is a bunch of humping and grumping from Dominion Virginia Power and its acolytes in the General Assembly, the State Corporation Commission and the media.

This is not a new concept. Carbon trading is active in Europe and has worked here to lessen acid rain.

It is amazing that one hears nothing about it these days. It is shouted down by alarmists who claim that Virginia ratepayers will be stuck with $6 billion in extra bills and that there’s an Obama-led  “War on Coal.” The New York Times has a front-pager this morning about how Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell is taking the rare step of actually leading the “War on Coal” propaganda campaign.

Also strange, if not bizarre, is that this approach is precisely market-based which so many commentators on the blog claim to worship. Where are they on the PJM idea? Has anyone asked Dominion, which is running the show in this debate?