Chesterfield Debates Matoaca Mega-Site

Image credit: Chesterfield Observer

In August Governor Terry McAuliffe joined legislators and local government officials to announce plans to build an industrial “mega-site” in the Matoaca area of Chesterfield County. The county anticipates spending $9 million for preliminary engineering and right-of-way-acquisition and $70 million on road improvements, according to the Progress-Index, and that’s just the expenditures noted in the 2018 budget. The county likely will spend tens of millions more providing utility connections.

A mega-site, county officials says, will put Chesterfield in the running for a large-scale industrial manufacturer like an auto assembly plant or aerospace company capable of investing a $1 billion and creating 5,000 jobs. But there are no guarantees. Indeed, the track record of Chesterfield’s previous mega-site, the Meadowville Technology Park, is decidedly mixed.

Jim McConnell and Peter Galuszka raise good questions about mega-sites in a well-researched article in the Chesterfield Observer.

Twenty years ago the county rolled the dice on Meadowville in the hope of landing a semiconductor manufacturing facility. Instead, the U.S. semiconductor boom fizzled, and the 2008 recession intervened, and county officials lowered their aspirations for the park. Meadowville wound up attracting two data centers, a couple of warehouse operations (including an Amazon facility), and a bottling plant. County officials call the park a “success story,” noting that it has attracted $570 million in private investment, produced a 3,000% increase in real estate assessment and collected $24.45 million for land sold to date, with 726 acres yet to be developed.

But not everyone is impressed. “Meadowville was never intended to be a bunch of warehouses,” the Observer quotes Meadowville neighbor Freddy Boisseau as saying. “It was supposed to be computers, biotech, research and development. But the county couldn’t get what they wanted there, so they started searching for what they could get.”

What’s missing is a proper accounting that would allow Chesterfield citizens to draw an informed conclusion about whether the investment in Meadowville was worth the risk taken. What was the total investment in roads, utilities, land acquisition, engineering and improvements? How much has the county recouped in land sales, how much does the increased tax assessment generate in additional tax revenue, and do those revenues cover the debt service? Does the park represent a net gain or a net drain to county finances?

But that is only the beginning of questions that citizens should insist upon answering. Chesterfield has maintained its AAA bond rating, so it can’t be said that Meadowville did any obvious harm. But to what extent did investing in Meadowville crowd out other uses of the county’s debt capacity? What other capital projects went unfunded? And what other transportation improvements could the Virginia Department of Transportation have funded? Maybe Meadowville turned out to be a great investment, maybe it didn’t. The fact is, nobody has done the analysis, and county officials now are asking citizens to take it on faith that the new Matoaca mega-site is worthwhile.

When you roll dice in Las Vegas, you know the odds. It strikes me that Chesterfield, which is hardly unique in this regard, is gambling without knowing the odds. The logic behind mega-sites is more akin to that of someone playing the mega-lottery: You can’t win if you don’t buy a ticket. That’s fine for a $1 lottery ticket, but it’s not OK for a $100 million industrial site.

“They’re asking us to accept a major highway, rail and an industrial site in our neighborhood without anything more than the possibility of getting a company that will bring thousands of good jobs,” said Mike Uzel, leader of a citizen group, Bermuda Advocates for Responsible Development, that opposes the megasite. “This boils down to, do you believe them or not?”

As President Reagan famously said, trust but verify. Chesterfield citizens should get all the facts about Meadowville so they can make a retrospective judgment, and they should get all the facts about Matoaca.

Virginia Gears up for Amazon HQ2 Pitch

Fort Monroe — hands down, the coolest location proposed for Amazon HQ2. No one else, not even Google or Apple, has an headquarters on their own private, friggin’ island! Good luck getting 50,000 people in and out, though.

The Amazon gold rush is heating up. Northern Virginia, Richmond and Hampton Roads are pitching the online retailing giant on multiple site in their regions for Amazon HQ2, a $5 billion, 50,000-employee second headquarters complex. Michael Martz with the Richmond Times-Dispatch has the scoop, citing “multiple” unidentified sources.

Northern Virginia, writes Martz, has identified four potential sites, including the state-owned Center of Innovative Technology property near Washington Dulles International Airport, the Potomac Yard along the Potomac River in Alexandria, and Arlington County properties in Rosslyn and Crystal City.

Hampton Roads is pushing three potential sites: Town Center in Virginia Beach, Harbour View in Suffolk, and Fort Monroe in Hampton.

The Richmond region is pitching three sites as well: Tree Hill Farm, a 500-acre property south of downtown, the Diamond baseball stadium and neighboring properties, and a 160-acre property in Chesterfield County.

The odds are long. Virginia’s metros are competing with dozens of cities/regions around the country. Of the three Virginia metros, Northern Virginia comes closest to matching the criteria established by Amazon, including one of the largest (though financially troubled) mass transit systems in the country and access to three international airports. The Washington region also has a massive, technologically literate labor pool. As an added bonus, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos already has a mansion in Washington, D.C., owns the Washington Post, and would enjoy access to U.S. government leaders.

However, one informed economic-development source that I talked to recently reminded me that Amazon has encouraged Richmond and Hampton Roads to submit proposals. A major advantage of either metro, the source said, was massively lower costs than Northern Virginia — and Amazon is highly sensitive to costs. However, any number of other cities and regions around the country could claim to offer lower costs. It doesn’t strike me as much of a differentiating factor.

Speaking with another well-informed economic-development source, I raised the objection that metros the size of Richmond or Hampton Roads would have a difficult time building the infrastructure and otherwise adapting to such a massive growth stimulus, especially if Amazon demands significant subsidies or tax exemptions. This source was confident, however, that the 15-year time frame for the project would allow plenty of time. I’m not so sure. I expect Amazon wants to see assets on the ground now, not promises that something will get done. Given Virginia’s track record with big infrastructure projects, I wouldn’t bank on any promise.

But my sources know a lot more than I do, and if they think Virginia has a genuine shot at bagging Amazon, well, I say go for it. Who knows, maybe they have something up their proverbial sleeve they’re not willing to talk about.

How Medicaid Is Cannibalizing Virginia’s Budget

Source: JLARC

Three big trends are worth noting from the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission 2017 state spending update, a review of state spending over the previous 10 years.

First, General Fund spending has been constrained by limited revenue growth resulting from Virginia’s weak economy. The increase in spending has averaged 2.0% per year. Adjusted for inflation and population growth, General Fund spending actually declined 1% over the decade.

Second, the Medicaid program has crowded out spending for other priorities. Medicaid hogged 60% of all General Fund revenue growth over the decade. Medicaid’s share of the General Fund pie increased by 73%.

Third, the healthy growth in non-General Fund spending was driven in large part by tuition increases at Virginia’s colleges and universities. In other words, when faced by stagnant revenue and untouchable Medicaid spending increases, legislators cut what was cuttable. They reduced state support for higher education knowing that colleges and universities could fall back upon the expedient of raising tuition.

Cheerful thought of the day: As Virginia’s population ages, Medicaid spending will go one way — up — and it will continue to squeeze other spending categories. Here’s the spin that Republican legislators put on the JLARC report:

House Speaker William J. Howell, R-Stafford: “Once again, this annual report from JLARC shows that the increasing cost of Virginia’s current Medicaid program is crowding out needed funding for our public schools, colleges and universities, roads, and law enforcement officers. We consistently argued that Virginia can barely afford its existing Medicaid program, let alone the massive cost of expansion, and this report vindicates that position.”

Speaker-designee Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights: “It’s a simple proposition: if you cannot afford your mortgage payment, you don’t build a new addition to your house. Virginia’s current Medicaid program covers around 1 in every 8 Virginians, and as this report shows, the costs are staggering and continue to climb, despite ongoing reform efforts. It would be financially irresponsible to ask taxpayers to fund the massive expansion contemplated under the Affordable Care Act.”

Del. S. Chris Jones, R-Suffolk: “Even as we instituted major reforms aimed at bending the cost curve, and controlled spending growth in other areas of state government, Medicaid costs continue to increase dramatically. This growth eats into funding that could be used for our teachers, law enforcement officers, and hard working state employees.”

Bacon’s bottom line: Yeah, the Republican leaders are stingy bastards for not expanding Medicaid. But the alternative is worse. Latest news on the Boomergeddon front: The state of Illinois, which expanded its Medicaid program in 2013, incidentally, and now has to cover 10% of the expanded costs not funded by the federal government, has $16.5 billion in unpaid bills. The state also has $200 billion in total liabilities, including pension debt. Meanwhile, pundits are asking if debt-ridden Chicago will become the next Detroit. One good recession, and it will be.

To see what it’s like to operate a government bordering on insolvency, watch Puerto Rico flail as it tries to recover from Hurricane Maria. It’s not a pretty picture. It’s easy to be compassionate when you’re paying with other peoples’ money. When other peoples’ money runs out, everything goes all to hell.

Reform the SOLs, Don’t Kill Them

Cranky begs to differ with the Big Bacon.

Honorable Sir!

Your Jeremiad on the Standards of Learning testing makes five basic points and concludes that it’s time to “scrap the SOLs and move on.” I’d like to mostly agree with your five points and suggest some different conclusions.

SOL Results Have Guided Home Purchase Decisions, With the Effect of Harming Low-Performing Schools

That is almost certainly true.

There is a plethora of Web sites dedicated to reporting score results – even one from the Department of Education. And surely one reason there are few school-age children in my Richmond neighborhood and many in your Henrico enclave is the quality of the schools.

Would you then have parents rely upon word-of-mouth rather than actual data in selecting a place to raise the family?  Would you conceal the performance of this appalling middle school from the parents who are paying the taxes to support its gross failure to educate their children?

It’s not the job of parents to harm their kids by sending them to an awful school in order to improve the school. It’s the job of the school board and the Board of Education to fix the awful schools. And it is far past time to hold the school, the school board, and the education board accountable if they don’t deal with problems such as the example in the link above.

To do that we must have a quality measurement. As one of your commenters pointed out, the education establishment loves to measure inputs: money, facilities, credentials. But those things don’t measure productivity. For sure the SOL is imperfect but it’s the only productivity measure we have at hand. We should be thinking of ways to deal with the imperfections, not relapsing to a system where the only quality measures do not in fact measure quality.

The SOL Penalizes Poverty

It’s clear that children from economically disadvantaged households underperform their more affluent peers on the SOL tests. It’s also clear that some school systems with large ED populations perform better (or worse, e.g., Richmond) than others.

Thus, the bare SOL pass rate is not a fair measure of school quality.

Should we then abandon measurement of educational quality or should we look to improve the measure?

If fact, we have a better measure that is essentially unaffected by economic disadvantage, the Student Growth Percentile. The State tells us:

A student growth percentile expresses how much progress a student has made relative to the progress of students whose achievement was similar on previous assessments.

A student growth percentile complements a student’s SOL scaled score and gives his or her teacher, parents and principal a more complete picture of achievement and progress. A high growth percentile is an indicator of effective instruction, regardless of a student’s scaled score.

And a low SGP tells us that the kid didn’t learn much in comparison to the other students who started in the same place. See this for a discussion of the way the SGP illuminated the awful productivity of some of Richmond’s teachers.

Yet our Board of “Education” has abandoned the SGP.  See this (scroll down to Part F) for a discussion of their bogus reasons.

Bottom line: We know the SOL is unfair to less affluent kids. We know how to correct for that effect but our Board of “Education” doesn’t want to use the tool that does that.  Is that a problem with the SOL or a problem with the Board?

Cheating

There is a long and ugly history of Virginia schools cheating to improve SOL scores. See this for a particularly cynical example. Go here and search for “cheat” to be inundated with data on the subject.

But is this a problem with the SOL testing or with the schools and the Board of Education?

If we take it that it’s crucial to have a measure of educational output, then we’ll have to be prepared to deal with attempts to skew the data. The (unacceptable) alternative is to forget about measuring teaching quality and to let far too many children be harmed by inadequate teaching.

Teaching to the Test

You, and others, condemn the SOL because it encourages teaching to the test. In fact that is not a problem; it is part of the reason for having the SOL. Continue reading

More Nuggets from the Higher Ed Summit

The 2017 Virginia Summit on Higher Education and Economic Competitiveness covered a wider range of topics than I could possibly pack into the one article I filed yesterday. Here are some other noteworthy factoids and observations that came out of that meeting:

Internships to Jobs. A major theme of the summit was the need for more “experiential” training — internships, apprenticeships and other bridges between educational institutions and the workplace. In making the case for internships, Radford University President Brian Hemphill stated that employers convert 60% of their interns into full-time employees. Radford is making internships a centerpiece of its educational program, making the commitment to have 75% of its graduates to have internships by 2020.

The five-year retention rate of employees hired straight out of college for Dominion Virginia Energy is about 33%, said Paul Koonce, executive vice president of the energy giant. For students who had interned with the company two or more years, the retention rate is 100%. The company employs 300 to 400 interns across 17 states.

To graduate on time, try taking a full course load. Virginia higher-ed institutions stand out in the percentage of students who graduate “on time,” that is, within six years. But there’s still plenty of room for improvement. At Radford, said Hemphill, 83% of the students are taking 15 course credits or more each semester. But that means 17% are taking lighter course loads. Said Hemphill: “We need to get that to 100%.”

The community college path to a B.A. degree. One of Virginia’s main strategies to bring down the cost of a four-year degree is to encourage students to study in community college for two years and then transfer to a four-year college to take more advanced courses in fulfillment of a major. But there’s a fly in the ointment. Hemphill again: On average students lose 13 credits (almost an entire semester) when they transfer.

Want efficiency? Try stable funding. Another common theme was the need for more stable state funding for higher education. Frequently mentioned was the idea of establishing a reserve fund for higher education to buffer institutions from backtracking on promised support. Del. Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, next in line to be Speaker of the House, quoted Richmond businessman and former University of Virginia Rector Bill Goodwin as saying, if the state wants universities to be more efficient, the state needs to stabilize funding. Volatile state funding creates uncertainty. Faced with uncertainty, colleges hedge their bets. Hedging bets is the enemy of efficiency.

Physician, educate thyself! Democratic candidate for Governor Ralph Northam, a physician, worries that Virginia isn’t producing enough doctors. Virginia has four medical schools, but doctors don’t go from medical school directly into the workforce. They must undergo training in residencies — and Virginia doesn’t not have enough. As I understand it, though, residency funding comes from Medicare, so I’m not sure there’s much that Virginia can do about it.

Making the Link Between Higher-Ed and Economic Development

Anup Ghosh, founder of Invincea Labs, the kind of company Virginia business leaders would like to see more of emerging from state colleges and universities.Photo credit: Washington Post.

If there’s one thing that big business, colleges, universities, Republicans and Democrats agree upon, it’s that Virginia’s public system of higher education is essential for workforce development, social mobility, economic competitiveness, and building the economy of the future. The unanimity of opinion was on full display today at the 2017 Virginia Summit on Higher Education and Economic Competitiveness in Richmond.

A series of speakers including the Democratic and Republican candidates for governor hammered away at a common theme. Virginia’s economy has slowed, people are leaving the state for the first time since records were first kept in the 1940s, and the Old Dominion has declined in a number of best-state-for-business rankings. To revitalize the economy, Virginia needs to invest in its colleges, community colleges and universities to equip workers with 21st century skills and create innovation ecosystems capable of spinning university research into new businesses and jobs.

If those messages sound familiar, it’s because they largely coincide with the goals announced last week by Growth4Virginia, an initiative of the Virginia Business Higher Education Council, which put on the summit. The council, comprised of college presidents and prominent businessmen, has been working with the Virginia Chamber of Commerce to build public awareness of higher-ed’s contribution to the economy.

Beyond articulating four broad strategies — making Virginia the top state for talent, making Virginia a home for entrepreneurs and innovators, providing affordable access for all Virginians, and preparing Virginians for great jobs and great lives — the conference did not stake out any public policy positions. The event seemed more geared to raising consciousness that something needs to be done.

However, it was not apparent that the consensus strategies, hemmed in as they are by scarce state resources, will accomplish much. Two dissenting themes emerged in the panel discussions. First, Virginia can crank out more graduates, but there is no guarantee that the grads will stay here if they can’t find jobs. Second, Virginia can pour money into university research, but R&D activity won’t generate enterprises and jobs unless other elements of the innovation ecosystem are in place.

Peter Blake, executive director of the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV), set the scene by describing Virginia’s progress toward reaching the goals of the Virginia Plan for Higher Education. The most audacious goal is to make Virginia the “best educated state” in the country by 2030, leaping past Massachusetts, Colorado, Connecticut, Minnesota and Washington. As a practical matter, that means granting 1.5 million undergraduate degrees and workforce credentials between 2015 and 2030. Two years into the initiative, Blake said, Virginia is on track to its goal, having granted 265,000.

Boosting Virginia from the sixth best educated state to No. 1 “will not be a light lift,” Blake said. “It will require sustained attention.”

Neither Blake nor anyone else at the conference gave an estimate of how much it would cost to achieve that goal. But for the most part, Virginia’s business leaders at the conclave accepted the necessity of investing in the higher-ed system.

The Virginia Chamber of Commerce is focused on improving Virginia’s best-state-for-business rankings, and the quality of the workforce is one of the important metrics, said Dennis Treacy, chamber chairman. Particularly essential are the so-called STEM-H (science, technology, engineering, math and health) degrees.

Stephen Moret, president of the Virginia Economic Development Partnership, agreed that the quality of Virginia’s workforce is vital for recruiting out-of-state business. “Human capital is the single greatest driver of prosperity in the economy,” he said. “Incentives still matter, but what matters the most is human capital. If we win on human capital, we win, period.” As for the goal of becoming the best educated state, he said, “I love that goal.”

But he warned that there is a “relatively small correlation between degree production and degree attainment.” In other words, it’s one thing to grant the degrees, it’s another to find jobs for people with those degrees. The reason so many Virginians, half of whom have college degrees, left the state over the past three years is that they can’t find jobs here. Federal budget sequestration has crimped job creation in Northern Virginia, the commonwealth’s economic engine. Moret suggested that it might be prudent to focus resources on graduating students from disciplines for which there is a demonstrated shortage.

Making a similar point, John L. “Dubby” Wynne, former CEO of Landmark Communications in Norfolk, noted that Virginia has a 4.3 million-person workforce and has an acute shortage of employees with information technology skills. Yet Virginia’s higher ed system produces only 4,000 four-year degrees, two-year degrees, and certification credentials in computer science per year.

The other big sticking point was the goal of investing more in Virginia universities’ research capabilities. It is a truism that in a technology-driven economy, research universities are engines of economic growth. Look no further than Stanford, Berkeley and Silicon Valley or Harvard, MIT and Boston. But given the size of its economy and the high regard of its public universities, Virginia punches below its weight.

Virginia’s six research universities generate about $1.4 billion in research annually, said Angel Cabrera, president of George Mason University. That’s less than the University of Michigan alone. Virginia is attracting less than its fair share of federal research dollars. If the commonwealth wants to be a player in research, he said, “you have to make investments to get it.”

Cabrera gave examples of the kind of economic benefits that accrue from R&D activity. Annup Ghosh, founder of Invincea, which describes itself as a next-generation anti-virus company, sold the company earlier this year for $120 million. Ceres Nanosciences, which developed a highly accurate diagnostic test for Lyme disease, has raised millions of dollars in growth capital. Both came out of GMU.

However, GMU is embedded in a dense innovation ecosystem. Ghosh, for instance, had worked at DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which funded his research at GMU. He tapped the Center for Innovative Technology for funding, and he found other early-stage funding in Northern Virginia. Thanks to the region’s ties to the defense and intelligence agencies, entrepreneurs also can draw upon world-class technical and executive talent in cyber-security.

Other regions in Virginia don’t have such well-developed innovation ecosystems. With an eye to building innovation assets in Hampton Roads, Wynne conducted a gap analysis comparing Hampton Roads capabilities with best practices. The regional fell woefully short. The NASA Langley research facility and the Thomas Jefferson Lab conduct about $1 billion in research between them, but a scientist seeking to commercialize a technology would find few resources to help him, he said. Wynne said he is working on building a business accelerator and developing a source of seed funding.

Bacon’s bottom line: While strong colleges and universities are essential components of technology-driven economic development, they are not sufficient in and of themselves. It is possible for the commonwealth to invest too much in higher-ed, getting ahead of the demand for graduates and the ability to commercialize R&D. Investment in higher-ed has to be carefully calibrated with demand for particular skills and the slow and painstaking development of innovation ecosystems around research universities. If state leaders are not careful, they could wind up subsidizing at great expense the workforce of other states and building research capabilities that generate little economic spin-off.

Scrap the SOLs and Move On

Maybe it’s time for Virginia to scrap the Standards of Learning (SOL) tests.

The SOLs arose in the mid-1990s as a way to provide feedback to the community on how well local schools were performing. It was a worthy experiment. Despite massive increases in spending in preceding years, the quality of education in United States was widely seen as deficient. Backers hoped that transparency would provide teachers, principals, school boards, parents and citizens data they could use to work toward the betterment of their schools.

As with so many reforms enacted with the best intentions, this initiative has gone terribly awry. There is little evidence that SOLs improve anything. Indeed, insofar as the standardized exams encourage teachers to “teach to the test” — more on that in a bit — they may do actual harm.

In short order after their enactment, the SOLs morphed into a means to hold schools “accountable” for poor performance. Schools with low levels of academic achievement were highlighted in local media reports and shamed for failing their students. Newspapers published SOL data for schools within their circulation zones, and parents used the data to guide home purchasing decisions. As parents voted with their feet, affluent households displaced poor households in “good” school districts, and poor households gravitated by default to the “bad” schools. In sum, the tests arguably had the unintended effect of aggravating residential inequality and making it harder for poor schools to improve.

Comparing schools with one another was problematic anyway because educational achievement is strongly correlated with socioeconomic status, the mix of affluent and poor children varied widely by school, and average scores reflected socioeconomic status as much as the quality of the teachers and staff. The Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) possessed the data to adjust scores for socioeconomic status so as to not unfairly penalize low-income schools but, for reasons that remain obscure to me, the department stopped publishing it.

Meanwhile, many teachers, principals and school boards learned how to game the system to dress up scores and avoid the shaming. John Butcher, author of Cranky’s Blog, and I have chronicled numerous scandals around the state — the relaxed test standards, the teacher coaching, the classification of sub-performing students as disabled, and sometimes the outright cheating. Newspaper accounts tend to treat these phenomena as isolated instances that happen to occur in their back yard, but they are in fact commonplace.

Perhaps the most insidious gaming of the system involves teaching to the test. As has been explained to me, the SOLs do not test students’ comprehensive knowledge in a particular subject. Rather, they sample knowledge in sub-topics and assume that if a test-taker gets the answers right for those sub-topics, they will demonstrate the same mastery across the board. Over the years, teachers have learned, to pick an example, that the math SOL will address regular polygons but not irregular polygons, so they spend more time teaching regular polygons and perhaps even skip the irregular polygons. Thus, insofar as teachers teach to the test, meaning that they emphasize certain topics over others, SOLs actually may encourage educational malpractice.

As the emphasis has shifted to holding schools accountable for poor performance, VDOE began using SOL scores to declare schools accredited or unaccredited. (There are various flavors of being unaccredited, depending upon whether schools are deemed to be making progress.) While the state can declare a school “unaccredited,” under the state constitution, schools answer to their school boards. The state does negotiate “Memoranda of Understanding” with chronic laggards but, as Butcher has documented, MOUs consist of educratic mumbo jumbo and are useless in turning schools around. At the end of the day, and not for any lack of trying, accountability remains elusive.

Virginia has doggedly tried to make SOLs work for more than twenty years now. We have enough experience under our belts, I would argue, to draw some broad conclusions. SOLs are deficient as a means of measuring students’ academic achievement; if anything, the teaching-to-the-test phenomenon hurts students. SOLs are useless as a means for improving schools’ academic performance or holding administrators accountable for results; teachers and principals are endlessly creative at gaming the system. And, by influencing people of means to buy houses near “good” schools, SOLs arguably have become an unwitting driver of socioeconomic and racial segregation.

I’m not saying that things will miraculously improve if Virginia did away with the SOLs. They exist for a reason. But we must acknowledge that tweaking and nudging a broken system won’t work either. I don’t have any great suggestions for what we put in place of SOLs. I can say that reform should be bottom-up, not top-down, and it should encourage creativity and experimentation. Failed experiments should be shut down, and successes should be replicated. We cannot afford more business as usual.

Trump Nixes Clean Power Plan, Gas and Solar Still Rule

Natural gas turbine at Dominion’s Greensville power plant. President Trump might have ended the regulatory “war on coal,” but he can’t change fundamental economics, which still favor gas and solar.

President Trump has never hidden his dislike of his predecessor’s Clean Power Plan, which would have required the 50 states to order their electric utilities to curtail carbon dioxide emissions in the cause of combating global warming. Nine months into the Trump administration, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) chief Scott Pruitt finally has announced formal steps to repeal the plan. Reports the New York Times:

“The War on coal is over,” Mr. Pruitt said. “Tomorrow in Washington, D.C. I will be signing a proposed rule to roll back the Clean Power Plan.” …

Mr. Pruitt’s proposal for repeal will now have to go through a formal public-comment period before being finalized, a process that could take months. Mr. Pruitt will also ask the public for comment on what a replacement rule would look like, but the E.P.A. has not offered a timeline.

Admittedly, the regulatory battle is far from over. “Environmental groups and Democratic-controlled states are expected to challenge these rules on multiple fronts,” says the Times. Moreover, there is nothing to stop individual states from implementing tough CO2 standards on their own initiative. Indeed, here in Virginia, the McAuliffe administration has vowed to boost Virginia’s commitment to renewable energy.

But a rollback of the Clean Power Plan won’t change market fundamentals. Just as the natural gas fracking revolution led to natural gas displacing coal over the past decade, market forces will dictate that renewable energy assume an increasing role in the decade ahead — regardless of whether states set CO2 emission caps or not.

In its 2017 Integrated Resource Plan (IRP), Dominion Virginia Energy has laid out its vision for the energy future that calls for increased natural gas and renewable energy. Under its least-cost regulatory scenario, which looks increasingly likely, Dominion won’t build any new coal- or nuclear-powered plants. It will renew licenses for its existing nuclear units but will not build a third unit at its North Anna Power Station, which by some estimates would cost $18 billion or more. The utility will build new gas-powered plants to provide base-load capacity, supplemented by a mix of solar (up to 5,200 megawatts capacity) and gas-fired combustion turbines that can quickly ramp up and down in response to volatile solar output. (Since publication of the IRP, Dominion has demonstrated a keen interest in building a pumped storage facility in Southwest Virginia, which could eliminate the need for some natural gas combustion-turbine units, but the economics of such a scheme have not been fully explored.)

Meanwhile, environmental groups have been pushing aggressively for a future electric grid dominated by renewable electricity, using energy efficiency to reduce demand and battery storage to even out fluctuations in solar output. The greens are opposed not only to building a third nuclear unit at North Anna but to re-licensing the existing units, creating a void that would have to be filled by some power source other than coal. The greens also oppose construction of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which Dominion co-owns and is counting on to supply its growing fleet of natural gas base-load and combustion-turbine plants. The environmentalists are lobbying for essentially the same power mix advocated by their Green Party counterparts in Europe.

German energy policy: not working out as planned.

Interestingly, the New York Times published an article two days ago highlighting how Germany’s shift to green power has stalled. Since 2000 Germany has spent an estimated 189 billion euros, or about $222 billion, on renewable energy subsidies with the goal of cutting carbon dioxide emissions. Ironically, CO2 emissions have remained stuck at 2009 levels, even as the shift to natural gas has allowed the U.S. to reduce its CO2 output. As the retail cost of electric power has doubled since 2000 with little progress on the CO2 front to show for it, large blocs of the German electorate are getting fed up.

“Julian Hermneuwöhner is one such voter,” the Times reports. “Mr. Hermneuwöhner, a 27-year-old computer science student, said his family paid an additional €800 a year because of Energiewende.”

Germany obtains about one-third of its electricity from wind and solar, about double the rate for the U.S. But a decision after the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan prompted the Germans to accelerate the phase-out of nuclear power. The only other energy source available: coal. A doubling of electricity rates and no reduction in CO2 is not a winning electoral combination.

Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union still supports Energiewende, the shift to renewables, but two important parties, the pro-business Free Liberals and the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany party, do not.

Bacon’s bottom line: If I were a betting man, I would wager that Virginia’s mid-term energy future will be dominated by gas and solar. Wind power will remain a niche contributor unless off-shore wind comes into play a decade or more from now. The North Anna 3 nuclear unit will never be built, although Dominion will succeed over furious opposition in re-licensing its existing Surry and North Anna units. The utility will keep its existing coal-fired units in operation through their design life-times. But all the expansion in capacity will come from gas and solar.

And, yes, Dominion will need to expand capacity, even as energy efficiency dampens electricity demand nationally. The recent announcement of the new Facebook data center in Henrico County demonstrates another side of Virginia’s energy future. That single server farm will consume as much electricity as 32,500 homes. Virginia is highly competitive in the data-center industry, and it could add dozens or more data centers in the next two decades. Other states might experience declining demand for electricity, but as long as data centers represent one of Virginia’s great hopes for economic development, electricity demand will continue to grow.

School Accreditation Process Violates State Law

Some unfortunate Virginia Department of Education administrator will be tasked with the job of poring through the public responses to proposed rules for granting and denying public-school accreditation. I would pay good money to watch his hair catch on fire when he reads the comments submitted by John Butcher, author of Cranky’s Blog. Here’s how John summarizes the accreditation process:

“VA. Code § 22.1-253.13:3.A provides:

“[The Boar of Education’s] regulations establishing standards for accreditation shall ensure that the accreditation process is transparent and based on objective measurements. …

“The current accreditation process is in wholesale violation of that law:

  • The Board increases pass rates at some high schools based on the performance of students who do not attend those schools;
  • The Board fails to adjust accreditation scores for a major factor known to affect test scores, poverty, and the Board has abandoned its measure of academic progress, the Student Growth Percentile, that is not affected by poverty;
  • The Board’s indifference to misclassification of students as “disabled” and the abuse of relaxed testing procedures for those students continues; and
  • The Board’s opaque and byzantine ‘adjustments’ increase accreditation.”

Read the short version of his comments here. Or read the full and unadulterated version here.

They Came, They Chanted, They Left

White supremacist losers roll into town for a photo-op. Photo credit: NBC29

The white nationalists were back in Charlottesville over the weekend, bearing torches and rallying around the draped statue of Robert E. Lee. Arriving in a tour bus, about 40 to 50 supremacists bore torches and chanted, “We’ll be back.” After about ten minutes, they boarded their bus and left.

Hopefully, they won’t be back. The best way to ensure that they won’t return is to ignore them. The rally was staged purely for the benefit of the media. Naturally, the media obliged. Among other outlets, the Washington Post and the New York Times assigned reporters to cover the rally. Local TV was there as well. So, the white nationalists got some of what they wanted: attention.

But this time, there were no counter-protesters (at least not enough to warrant mention in the Daily Progress, whose account I have follow here). There was no violence or even a threat of violence, so there was no spectacle, which means there was no video footage worth broadcasting on the national networks. Controversy and publicity are the oxygen that keep the fires of extremism burning.

What if Richard Spencer and his white supremacist buddies threw a rally and nobody came? I doubt they would ever return.

Meanwhile, reports the Daily Progress:

At UVa, about 30 students and faculty stood outside UVa President Teresa A. Sullivan’s residence, Carr’s Hill, and chanted “blood is on your hands” and “all black lives matter.” At the bicentennial celebration on Friday, three students were arrested on trespassing charges after allegedly holding a sign that read “200 years of white supremacy” in front of a screen.

There are ample grounds for criticizing Sullivan’s tenure as university president, but to say that “blood is on her hands” is patently absurd. And while it is true that UVa, like almost every other university in the country, is tainted by racism in its history, it empties the words of any meaning to associate the institution with “white supremacy” today.

Perhaps the best thing to do is to ignore these puerile fools. Unfortunately, unlike the white supremacists, Black Lives Matter protesters won’t board a bus and leave the state. And unlike the white supremacists, whose ideology is almost universally reviled, large swaths of the population — especially in  university communities — are in sympathy with BLM assertions that the United States and its institutions are irredeemably racist. And unlike Richard Spencer and his excoriated band of losers, Black Lives Matter presents demands that university administrations take very seriously indeed.