Tag Archives: Dominion

Consumer Group Calls for Scrapping North Anna 3

 

 

 

Dominion Energy may have declared a “pause” in the development of a third nuclear unit at its North Anna Power Station, but a consumer advocacy group says that’s not good enough. It’s time to shut down the project permanently.

“Dominion needs to kill North Anna to protect rate payers,” said Irene Leech, president of the Virginia Citizens Consumer Council (VCCC). Critics have estimated that the project will cost roughly $19 billion, which would make it the most expensive power plant ever built in Virginia by a factor of ten or more. “If Dominion doesn’t do it, the SCC (State Corporation Commission) should intervene.”

Leech made her comments while introducing Dr. Mark Cooper, senior fellow for economic analysis, Institute for Energy and the Environment, at Vermont Law School, in a media conference call. Cooper, who had predicted the recent cancellation of the V.C. Summer nuclear plant in South Carolina after massive construction cost overruns, filed testimony with the SCC today on behalf of the VCCC in regards to Dominion’s 2017 Integrated Resource Plan.

“Dominion’s recently announced decision to suspend development of North Anna 3 is welcome, but long overdue and not as decisive as it should be,” Cooper said. “The Commission should order North Anna 3 removed from the IRP and refuse to allow any cost recovery associated with the development of North Anna 3 other than through the normal rate-making process, in which the utility demonstrates that it is the least cost option and useful to ratepayers.”

While acknowledging that the nuclear plant is extremely expensive, Dominion has argued that the utility should preserve the nuclear option to cope with a worst-case regulatory scenario restricting carbon-dioxide emissions. In its integrated resource plan, the company explores six scenarios. In one of them, Plan H, Dominion would be have to cut carbon emissions 7% compared to a 2012 baseline by 2030, compelling the closure of up to four coal-fired units at its Mecklenburg and Clover power stations, and making it impossible to make up the lost base capacity with natural gas. The plan contemplates 5,760 megawatts of new solar capacity, but solar output is intrinsically variable. That would leaves nuclear as the only option when the sun didn’t shine, the company has said. The company would not need to build the nuclear plant under any other regulatory scenario.

While some observers assume that Dominion hit the pause button on North Anna 3 because of horrendous construction cost overruns at plants in South Carolina and Georgia, spokesman David Botkins says the company made the decision more than a  year ago. Regulatory uncertainty made it prudent to put the project on hold but not to spike it. The Clean Power Plan, which orders states to impose CO2 emissions on their electric utilities, is not dead. Its legality is tied up in the federal court system, and the McAuliffe administration is moving ahead with his own low-carbon plan for Virginia. The company has not made the decision to build the nuclear unit but thinks it worthwhile, after spending roughly $600 million to obtain a Combined Operating License (COL), to keep the option open.

Given the momentum of technology, Cooper argued, there is no chance of nuclear becoming economically viable. “Nuclear construction costs escalate relentlessly, driven by complexity,” he said. “Nuclear is the most expensive way imaginable to reduce carbon emissions. It’s a bad investment. I have wind, solar, and energy efficiency in hand today at a third of the cost of North Anna 3. I want to get [nuclear] off the table.”

The United States electric system is transitioning “to flexible, small-scale, renewable, distributed” energy sources like rooftop solar. Meanwhile investments in energy efficiency and demand-management strategies are holding down growth in electricity consumption, Cooper said. The ability to store large volumes of electricity in batteries will make it possible to overcome the problem of volatile energy output.

“Think about your laptop, tablet, or cell phone. Ten years ago … the battery life was an hour. Now it’s ten hours. They’re making huge progress in energy storage,” Cooper said. Meanwhile, solar + batteries can increase generating capacity in increments rather than in one a big chunk when the nuclear plant comes online. Utilities talk about solar plants sitting idle at night or under cloudy skies. Large swaths of the electrical infrastructure, such as combustion turbine plants that run only during periods of peak demand, spend much of their time idle as well. Nuclear isn’t cost competitive now, and it never will be, he said.

Putting the North Anna 3 project on hold is not an adequate response, Cooper said. The General Assembly allowed Dominion to capture $570 million from rate payers to defray the cost of obtaining the North Anna 3 operating license. That sum has economic value. Assuming rate payers could earn 3% annually on that money, the opportunity cost amounts to almost $300 million over ten years. Even with the project on hold, said Cooper, “rate payers are bearing a burden.”

Dominion thinks of the North Anna 3 option as a form of insurance policy. “As has been shown throughout history, forecasts change over time,” says a prepared Dominion statement. “Fuel diversity is a key component of any energy plan. Our customers enjoy some of the lowest rates in the United States, due in large part, to the safe, reliable, clean and dependable nuclear units at Surry and North Anna.”

“The [Combined Operating License] is good indefinitely, and, while no decision has been made to build it, we could make a decision to move forward with it if business conditions change,” said Richard Zuercher, spokesman for Dominion Energy’s nuclear power operations. “We would not do so, however, without authorization from the State Corporation Commission.”

Is Dominion Generating Millions in Excess Profits? It Depends on Who’s Doing the Accounting.

The SCC says Dominion generated up to $395 million in excess revenue in 2016 under the electric rate freeze. Dominion says the SCC is inflating the numbers.

Depending on how you crunch the numbers, Dominion Energy Virginia (DEV) is earning between $221 million and $252 million in excess profits. Had the company not expensed nearly $174 million in coal ash clean-up costs, excess earnings would have amounted to $395 million. That’s the analysis of the State Corporation Commission in a report released last week.

The report supports the narrative that Dominion and its counterpart in western Virginia, Appalachian Power Co., negotiated a lopsided deal for themselves when they pushed for a base-rate freeze in 2015. Invoking the uncertainty created by the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, which would have compelled a major re-engineering of the electric power industry, power companies persuaded the General Assembly that a rate freeze would provide stability for the companies and their customers.

Now that the Clean Power Plan appears to be a dead letter under the Trump administration, critics argue, it’s time to roll back the freeze. Sen. J. Chapman Petersen, D-Fairfax, who had sought in the 2017 General Assembly session to overturn the freeze, said the SCC report confirms his claims. “It simply proves what we suspected all along,” he told the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “Everything I filed last year that was even mildly controversial will be coming back.”

I wanted perspective on the SCC numbers, so I reached out to Dominion as well as Edward L. Petrini at Christian Barton LLP, who represents large industrial and commercial electricity customers in Virginia, and to Michael Kelly, director of communications for the Virginia Attorney General’s Office. Only Dominion responded to my interview request.

I spoke with Thomas P. Wohlfarth, senior vice president of regulatory affairs. Not surprisingly, he says there is a lot less to the SCC excess-earnings numbers than meets the eye.

Accounting for coal ash expenditures. It is “ridiculous,” Wohlfarth says, to remove expenses tied to coal ash removal from the excess-earnings estimates. Dominion incurred a large liability when the Environmental Protection Agency ordered it to develop a permanent storage solution for millions of tons of coal combustion revenue accumulated over the decades. While about half the coal ash expenses qualify for recovery under a “rider” request not included in the base rate, about half of it does, he says.

“There are no circumstances under which it would be appropriate other than to record those expenses when the liability occurred,” Wohlfarth says. Referring to the SCC presentation of the excess-earnings data, he adds, “That’s the game they kind of play, trying to inflate the numbers worse than they are.”

Accounting for Return on Equity. Other accounting issues are more complicated to explain. First some background…. The key determinant in how much money electric utilities are allowed to earn before returning the surplus to ratepayers is Return on Equity (ROE), a ratio expressing earnings as a percentage of shareholder equity. The goal is to set the ROE at a level high enough to encourage power companies to invest in their utility operations — but no higher. Dominion Energy, DEV’s parent company, typically earns a corporation-wide ROE of about 14% to 15%. That includes the return on non-regulated business operations. Because regulated utilities are perceived as less risky, the SCC sets DEV’s ROE significantly lower.

The SCC calculates separate ROEs for Dominion’s generation business and its distribution business, which have different risk profiles. Here are the results based on SCC accounting:

“The combined generation and distribution earned ROE of 11.94% is above the 9.60% ROE approved by the Commission for DEV’s RACs (Rate Adjustment Clauses) during 2016 by 2.34 percentage points, or $358.2 million in revenues,” states the SCC report, “and is above the 10.0% ROE approved by the Commission in DEV’s last biennial review by 1.94 percentage points, or $297 million in revenues.”

Wohlfarth says that the SCC inflated the appearance of excess earnings by using the 9.6% ROE as the basis for its calculations. The SCC allows the company to earn a 10.7% ROE for the base rate, which applies to ongoing operations and are subject to the freeze. Why would the SCC pick the high ROE used for rate adjustment clauses rather than the low ROE used for the base rate when the freeze applies to the base rate?

An exceptional year. Another thing to consider, says Wohlfarth, is that “2016 was an anomalously good year for us.” Dominion benefited from a spike in revenue relating to the way PJM Interconnection, the regional transmission organization of which Virginia is a part, calculated its “capacity” payments. (PJM pays power companies separately for making generating capacity available, whether it is used or not, and for the electricity they actually generated.) That non-recurring revenue added $150 million in revenue.

“If you normalize for capacity revenue, we were down around 11% ROE, which doesn’t give us much of a buffer at all,” says Wohlfarth.

That leaves Dominion somewhat ahead of the game in 2016, concedes Wohlfarth, but that’s only one year. The company is still exposed to considerable downside risk in future years.

Future risks. Coal ash remains a potential liability. While Dominion has endeavored to pursue a “cap in place” strategy, environmental groups have pushed hard for Dominion to remove the coal ash and place it in synthetically lined landfills, which could be significantly more expensive. Dominion is expected to issue a report on the economics of coal ash disposal to the General Assembly later this fall.

Also, Dominion remains at risk for major weather events. In 2016, the company experienced only one hurricane remnant, but it was not an expensive one. A superstorm like Hurricane Harvey or Hurricane Irma could incur hundreds of millions of dollars in repair costs.

Yet another risk Dominion faces is plant “impairment.” The company still operates a handful of coal-burning power plants, but in an era of increased electric generation by wind, solar and gas, they are increasingly relegated to the sidelines. When natural gas is cheap and gas plants are more economical to run, coal plants are dispatched less frequently, which means they produce less revenue.

“We’ve got units that are not being dispatched very much at all,” says Wohlfarth. “It becomes difficult to keep them on the books at value. We’re not at that point right now. But it’s something we’re always reviewing.”

Impairment resulting from changing economic or regulatory conditions could result in write-downs of hundreds of millions of dollars, he says. That was one of the concerns about the Clean Power Plan, which, if implemented would have put some of Dominion’s remaining coal-generating assets in jeopardy. While the Clean Power Plan is on the back burner under the Trump administration, it is not dead. The initiative is tied up in the courts. Meanwhile, the McAuliffe administration is pursuing its own restrictions on carbon-dioxide emissions.

All things considered, says Wohlfarth, and Dominion’s ROE is about where it ought to be. Revenues might be a little high in 2016, but they could well be lower in the years ahead. “It’s part of the balanced equation. … Look under the hood, and you’ll see that our rates are adequate to deal with the risks we take.”

Do Utilities and Coal Companies Run Virginia? Hardly.

Statue of Gov. Harry F. Byrd outside the Virginia state capitol building. A “traditionalistic” political culture? Maybe once upon a time, but not anymore.

Vivian Thomson argues that utilities and coal companies dominate Virginia’s energy policy. Her simplistic view ignores the reality that environmentalists wield significant power now.

Vivian E. Thomson has a big beef with state government. The University of Virginia environmental sciences professor contends that the political system in the Old Dominion is rigged in favor of the electric utilities and fossil fuel industries against selfless crusaders, such as herself, fighting for the public interest. She persists in this belief even though the State Air Pollution Control Board, of which she was a member in the early 2000s, prevailed in the two major controversies she describes in her book, “Climate Capitulation: An Insider’s Account of State Power in a Coal Nation.”

In that book, she lists three factors that allow “entrenched business elites” to exercise “undue power” in the making of air pollution policy through legislative and administrative processes:

(1) campaign contributions that, in the energy and natural resources sector, are dominated by one electric utility and coal interests, (2) a reactive, part-time legislature that has virtually no independent analytical capacity, and (3) a traditionalistic political culture.

Thomson’s view of Virginia’s political economy is widely shared among environmentalists and left-of-center activists and politicians. A friend of mine, a professor of environmental law whose opinion I respect, gave the book fulsome praise. Accordingly, Thomson’s thesis deserves a thoughtful response, and that’s what I will endeavor to provide in this post.

Although Thomson provides nuggets of genuine insight, her analysis of Virginia’s political economy is as one-sided as her chronicle of the regulatory controversies in which she was embroiled. (See my critique of her book in “Rogue Board“). She focuses exclusively on how corporations exercise power and influence in Virginia while ignoring the increasing clout of its opponents, who have won numerous victories in the realm of politics, public opinion and the law. Yes, corporations have clout. But so do their foes. Sometimes Big Business gets its way. Often, it doesn’t.

I will start by addressing Thomson’s comments about the part-time legislature, which have considerable merit, move to the meaningless characterization of Virginia as having a “traditionalist” political culture, and close with a discussion of the role of campaign contributions in Virginia politics.

Asymmetry of information. The disparity in political power issues not just from business campaign donations, Thomson argues, but from an asymmetry in information. Virginia has a part-time citizen legislature, and legislators have tiny staffs. As a practical matter, senators and delegates in the General Assembly are reliant upon the expertise of state employees and outsiders such as lobbyists.

Writes Thomson:

Virginia’s legislature is designed to be a part-time body, with the notion that citizens serving as representatives can remain closely attuned to their constituents’ needs and preferences. … [But] even the most dedicated legislators cannot be independently well informed if they have small staffs, low pay, and short sessions.

Less professionalized legislatures are handicapped when it comes to analysis of complicated technical issues such as those commonly encountered in the environmental and public-health policy arenas. When Virginia’s legislators need information they turn to lobbyists or to the executive branch. Companies take advantage of their ongoing relationships with state civil servants and lawmakers to get deals that favor their interests. Large companies are especially well positioned to push for light-handed regulation, since they can expend considerable resources on attorneys and consultants to fight limits they do not like. …

In the environmental policy arena, power flows to those who can collect and interpret complicated scientific, legal, and economic information. The question is, who will provide legislators that information and how will we know who those sources are?

Thomson makes a valid point. Part-time legislators cannot possibly master the infinite complexities of topics as varied as health care, transportation, state-local governance, fiscal issues, K-12 education, higher education, energy and the environment. As a consequence, Virginia lawmakers do rely heavily upon the expertise offered by state employees and lobbyists, many of whom have long memories and deep knowledge, not only of the pros and cons of issues, but of the long legislative and regulatory histories behind the controversies.

She errs, however, in supposing that only corporations and industry groups play the game. The Virginia Public Access Project (VPAP) database lists 72 organizations employing lobbyists on issues relating to “energy.” Dominion Energy. with five lobbyists, had one of the largest profiles in the General Assembly. But, then, the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) also listed five lobbyists.

Perusing the VPAP database, I identified seven other environmental organizations with registered lobbyists addressing energy issues: Appalachian Voices, the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, the Nature Conservancy, the Piedmont Environmental Council, the Sierra Club-Virginia Chapter, the Virginia Conservation Network, and the Virginia League of Conservation Voters.

They were way outnumbered by business lobbyists, but the business lobbyists were a fractured group. The largest number by far represented businesses with an interest in alternate energy sources (wind, solar, biomass, nuclear) or energy efficiency. A significant number represented industrial consumers of energy. Depending on the issue, any of these interest groups might align themselves with the electric utilities one day or the environmentalists the next. 

The impression one gets from studying the list is that the legislature is open to a cacophony of voices on energy issues which no single company, trade association or environmental group could possibly dominate. No one has a monopoly on information. Continue reading

Pipelines and “Environmental Justice”

“Environmental Justice” has been a much bigger rallying cry in the pipeline controversies out west than here in Virginia.

As I was perusing the federal court ruling on the Sierra Club vs. FERC lawsuit (see previous post), I encountered a realm of administrative law with which I was entirely unfamiliar: environmental justice. I’d heard of the concept, of course; I just didn’t realize that it had insinuated itself into environmental impact statements (EISs) for pipelines, transmission lines, and the like.

The majority opinion explained the relevance of the concept this way: “The principle of environmental justice encourages agencies to consider whether the projects they sanction will have a ‘disproportionately high and adverse’ impact on low-income and predominantly minority communities.”

In this particular instance, involving the EIS for the Southeast Markets Pipeline Project, the Sierra Club argued that FERC had failed to adequately take the principle into account. According to the EIS, 83.7% of the pipeline complex’s proposed routes would cross through, or within one mile of, environmental-justice communities.

However, an adverse impact on a minority/low-income community is not necessarily a deal killer. FERC, the court opined, simply must “take a hard look” at the effect on minority/low income areas when drafting an environmental impact statement, and disclose relevant information to the public. And that the commission did. FERC concluded that feasible alternative routes would affect a comparable percentage of environmental-justice populations, the court said. “FERC’s decision to directly compare the proposed alternatives to one another, rather than to some broader population, was reasonable under the circumstances.”

“Environmental justice” has been a rallying cry out west, most prominently in the Dakota Access Pipeline controversy. We don’t hear much of it in Virginia, but I was curious: How does the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline rate according to environmental justice criteria?

Here are the numbers, as extracted from the ACP environmental impact statement: In Virginia the percentage of minorities census tracts within one mile of the ACP pipeline and related facilities varies from 0.2% to 100%. In ten of the 63 census tracts, the percentage of minority population is meaningfully greater than that of the county in which it is located. But in 53 tracts, it is not. In other words, it appears that minorities are less impacted than whites.

Likewise, 11.5% of all Virginians live below the poverty line. Thirty-four of 63 census tracts in Virginia within a one-mile radius of ACP facilities have a higher percentage of persons living below the poverty line. In other words, despite the fact that pipelines don’t run through urban areas and suburbs where incomes tend to be highest, but through rural areas where incomes are lower, only 54% of the census tracts affected by the pipeline have a higher poverty rate.

The primary adverse impacts on environmental-justice communities would be temporary increases in dust, noise and traffic from construction work. But, according to the ACP environmental impact statement, “these impacts would occur along the entire pipeline route and in areas with a variety of socio-economic backgrounds.”

These numbers undoubtedly explain why pipeline opponents have not made environmental justice an issue here in Virginia.

It’s not as if the engineers working for Dominion Energy, the managing partner of the pipeline, were especially socially conscious. Rather, in selecting a route, they were threading the needle between national parks, the Appalachian Trail, conservation easements, and other environmental, historical and cultural assets, any one of which could have spiked the project. That the pipeline had so little impact on minorities and low-income Virginians was the luck of the draw.

Sometimes infrastructure projects like highways, natural gas pipelines and electric transmission lines will disproportionately affect minorities and the poor, as it happened with the Southeast Markets Pipeline Project, and sometimes they won’t. Route selection is driven mainly by geography, terrain, market considerations, and economics; the socioeconomic impact is incidental and random.

For all practical purposes, the closest thing to a social-justice issue in Virginia is landowner rights — justice for the propertied class. Are landowners getting fair compensation for the loss of value to their land? That’s a fair question, but if it doesn’t affect the poor and minorities disproportionately, it’s not a matter of “social justice.”

Federal Pipeline Ruling a Big Deal… Or Maybe Not

Construction of the Sabal Trail Pipeline, part of the Southeast Markets Pipeline Project, in Florida. Photo credit: Orlando Sentinel.

Environmentalists notched a win yesterday when the U.S. Court of Appeals in the District of Columbia issued a ruling finding that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) had failed to properly take into account the impact of greenhouse gas emissions on climate change when approving the Southeast Markets Pipeline Project more than a year ago.

“Today, the D.C. Circuit rejected FERC’s excuses for refusing to fully consider the effects of this dirty and dangerous pipeline,” said Staff Attorney Elly Benson with the Sierra Club, the plaintiff, in a prepared statement. “Even though this pipeline is intended to deliver fracked gas to Florida power plants, FERC maintained that it could ignore the greenhouse gas pollution from burning the gas. … Today’s decision requires FERC to fulfill its duties to the public, rather than merely serve as a rubber stamp for corporate polluters’ attempts to construct dangerous and unnecessary fracked gas pipelines.”

Could this spell Doomsville for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and Mountain Valley Pipeline here in Virginia?

Probably not. I asked for a response from Kate Addleson, director of the Sierra Club Virginia Chapter. She was tied up in meetings today so she couldn’t talk, but she forwarded me the national Sierra Club press release. That document did not speculate whether the D.C. federal court ruling would apply to other pipeline projects.

Also, Dominion Energy, managing partner of the ACP, has reviewed the ruling and concluded that it does not apply. “We … don’t believe it will have any impact on the ACP,” said spokesman Aaron Ruby. When reviewing the Southeast Markets Pipeline Project, FERC did not ask what the pipeline complex meant for greenhouse gas emissions. But in the 18 months since approving that project, federal regulators have become more attuned to climate-change impact, and FERC did examine the issue in the environmental impact statement it wrote for the ACP.

“Based on its analysis, FERC concluded that the ACP would not significantly contribute to climate change and could potentially offset some regional greenhouse gas emissions since much of the gas will be used to replace higher-emitting coal plants,” Ruby said.

While acknowledging that gas-fired plants generate less carbon dioxide per unit of energy than coal, environmentalists contend that gas-fired plants provide no net improvement when one considers the full life-cycle of gas production. Life-cycle analysis counts natural gas leaks from the production, collection and transportation of gas burned in the gas-fired power plants. Methane, a main component of natural gas, has a far greater greenhouse effect than carbon dioxide.

However, FERC rejected life-cycle analysis. Federal law, said the ACP environmental impact statement, “does not .. require us to engage in speculative analyses or provide information that will not meaningful inform the decision-making process. Even if we were to find a sufficient connected relationship between the proposed project and upstream development or downstream end-use, it would still be difficult to meaningfully consider these impacts, primarily because emission estimates would be largely influenced by assumptions rather than direct parameters about the project.”

Federal rule-making moves much slower than environmentalist thinking. When the Obama administration acted to decarbonize the U.S. economy in order to ward off climate change, official government policy allowed a large role for both natural gas and nuclear power. Many environmental organizations now disapprove of both energy sources, preferring renewable power like wind and solar instead. In the past half year, the Trump administration has positioned itself as a champion of fossil fuels. The D.C. Court of Appeals ruling may represent the legal high water mark for environmentalists for the foreseeable future.

A 40-Year Lease on Life for Transmission Tower Foundations

James River transmission-line towers near Newport News sporting new foundations. Photo credits: Dominion Energy.

In 1968 Dominion Energy Virginia erected a series of 18 towers across the James River to carry two transmission lines from south of the river to points in Newport News. The company built the tower foundations with marine-grade, corrosion-resistant steel that was billed to last for decades. By the 1990s, however, it was evident that the steel foundations were eroding. If they deteriorated sufficiently, one of the towers would collapse, putting the Virginia Peninsula at risk of disruption to its electric service.

The utility encapsulated the steel “H pile” foundations with a fiberglass jacket under the waterline and with a putty-like compound above in the hope of preventing further corrosion. The fix didn’t work. A 2013 inspection revealed rust still eating away at the foundation.

“While the 2013 inspection revealed we had a corrosion problem, further investigation found that we had a bigger problem than we thought,” says Mark Allen, Dominion’s director of transmission construction. There was no way of knowing precisely when, he says, but “eventually the towers would have collapsed.”

One remedy would be to build parallel towers and power lines, but that option would cost $50 million. It would be far preferable to repair the foundations in place. But Dominion could not take a chance of knocking the transmission line out of commission by cutting out the bad steel beneath the water and replacing it with good. In 2013, Dominion was under orders to close the two main coal-fired boilers at its Yorktown plant and was struggling to gain regulatory permission to build a new transmission line upriver near Jamestown. There were only two sets of transmission lines serving the Virginia Peninsula, so taking down the Surry-Winchester and Chuckatuck-Newport News lines would have left the entire region vulnerable to blackouts.

Dominion’s engineering staff came up with a solution that wound up costing rate payers only $25 million. The story was chronicled by local media but never given attention elsewhere in the state. When the project garnered recognition by the Southeastern Electric Exchange earlier this year, Bacon’s Rebellion thought it worth re-telling as an example of the trials and tribulations of maintaining an electric transmission grid.

Previous efforts to protect the H piles had not stopped the corrosion.

No one had tackled a job like this before. The foundations of the 18 towers varied in depth between four feet near the riverbanks to 40 feet near the navigation channel, and the company had to cap the foundations to about 15 feet above the waterline, says Allen. The company also had to maneuver around restrictions on time and location due to protections for osprey and cormorant nests on multiple towers, a peregrine falcon nest on the nearby James River Bridge, and fish migrations from Feb. 15 to June 30, not to mention weather conditions.

Divers entered the water, which was so dark at times that they couldn’t see their hands in front of their faces, to install clips on the side of each H pile. To these clips they fastened rebar cages. Around the rebar cages, the construction contractor put in an epoxy-fiberglass jacket to facilitate the pouring of a “cementitous grout” that would become the new foundations for the towers. The design, which fully shielded the old “H-pile” foundations from the concrete caps above water to four feet below the water line, eliminated the need to cut out existing steel below the water surface.

“We were able to use what was there,” says Allen, who commends the creativity of the engineering team. “Instead of an H pile supporting the tower, we have a rebar cage and concrete encapsulation.”

The retrofit, which was completed in 2015, should last another 40 years.

The Shamanistic Logic of Climate Science

Lowell Feld.

I’ve been mixing it up with Lowell Feld, publisher of Blue Virginia, who took exception to my argument that the debacle in Charlottesville represented a clash between the far Right and far Left. He accused me of “moral equivalency,” which is absurd, for I have thoroughly denounced the white nationalists who provoked the confrontation and made it clear that their crimes (including alleged murder) far exceed those of the Antifa and other Leftist elements in this particular instance. You can read his fulminations here, in which he hilariously highlights statements I made that he finds outrageous yet are undeniably true. And he renews his ongoing campaign to lambaste Dominion for sponsoring a blog that expresses opinions so far beyond the pale.

Among the many offenses I have committed, one is “climate science denialism.” I responded to his post as follows (with minor changes):

I love the way you proclaim to be an advocate of “science” in the global warming debate, in contrast to me, a supposed “denier.” But you have shown no indication of understanding what science is. The scientific method creates falsifiable hypotheses, then tests those hypotheses to see if they are valid, modifies the hypotheses to account for the data, and re-tests them in an iterative process. Climate models represent hypotheses regarding the relationship between various climatic variables and the effect they will have on future temperatures increases.

It’s frustratingly slow to test climate hypotheses because it takes many years to accumulate useful data. But enough time has passed since the creation of the early climate models, and the results are clear — the overwhelming majority of models failed to predict the modest temperature increase of the past 20 years.

Climate scientists are wrestling with this outcome and trying to find an explanation. While some scientists are modifying their hypothesis (predicting smaller temperature increases over the years ahead), some are sticking to the catastrophic-global-warming hypothesis and searching for explanations — the heat is hidden in the deep ocean, aerosols reflected the sunlight, whatever — that allows them to maintain predictions that temperatures will increase to an alarming degree.

This mental process reminds me of the writing of a certain Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, an anthropologist who studied the Dinka and Nuer tribes of the southern Sudan in the 1930s, with a particular emphasis on their practice of magic. Shamans would tell their customers, do X, Y, and Z, and your sickness will be cured, your husband will stay faithful, your rival will be struck dead, whatever. If the desired outcome came to fruition, the shaman would take full credit. If the husband continued to stray, the shaman would concoct an explanation — oh, you should have used eye of newt, not eye of frog, or you should have said the incantation this way, not that way. By such rhetorical devices, the shaman maintained a belief among the people in the efficacy of his magic. Evans-Pritchard called these explanations “secondary elaborations.”

As the most politically vocal Climate Change scientists confront the reality of data that don’t conform to the temperature predictions of their models, they are engaged in a vast exercise of secondary elaboration — they’re insisting upon the efficacy of their hypothesis (catastrophic global warming is coming) and creating explanations of why the predicted temperature increases are not yet visible.

So, you can call me a climate “denier,” which is a form of an ad hominem attack, not an argument. And you can make your appeals to authority — 97% of all scientists believe in global warming, etc. — echoing the Catholic Church’s attacks on Copernicus and Galileo. But at the end of the day, your arguments mimic those of the Dinka-Nuer shaman. Your reasoning is pre-scientific and based on faith. Your dogma is catastrophic global warming, and the pseudo-scientific justification for your dogma evolves as needed.

Feld replied that he would not dignify my post with a response. Perhaps that’s because he has no intelligible response.

As for Dominion, I have no idea what the company’s position is on climate change, or if it has a position on climate change at all.

A Substation in Time Saves Nine

Photo credit: Dominion

The 2013 sniper attack on Pacific Gas & Electric Company’s Metcalf transmission substation was a wake-up call for the electric power industry. A team of riflemen knocked out the facility near San Jose, Calif., by firing upon and severely damaging 17 transformers. Thanks to redundancy in the grid, PG&E was able to prevent blackouts by re-routing electrical power. But the incident drove home how vulnerable the electric grid is to sabotage.

“The next day,” recalls Mike Lamb, manager of operations engineering for Dominion Energy Virginia, “we started brainstorming about what resiliency improvements we needed.”

As part of a multi-pronged strategy to bolster resiliency of its 6,500-mile electric transmission lines, 57,000 miles of distribution lines, 900 substations and 66,000 transformers, Dominion procured mobile transmission equipment designed by manufacturers in Europe, Asia and North America. The mobile equipment provides a “plug and play” design that allows it to connect with high-voltage cables in a fraction of set-up time required by conventional technology.

Most of the equipment held in resiliency reserves sits idle until needed in the aftermath of a hurricane, earthquake, or human-caused event. As it turned out, has Dominion found a use for the trailer-borne transmission outside of an emergency situation.

Temporary substation on the job in the Cartersville transmission line rebuild.

The company had a “wreck-and-rebuild” job on an older transmission line between the Bremo Power Station and a substation in Cartersville. Typically, says Lamb, a temporary transmission line would be constructed to carry load to customers while the old line was being rebuilt. In this particular case, a five-mile section had poor access.

Besides saving the $4 million expense of stringing a temporary line, says Lamb, the company was able to conduct a “proof of concept.” Workers proceeded slowly and deliberately over four months in order to work out set-up processes and develop checklists.

“We accomplished a lot of things with this one installation,” Lamb says. “If we have an unplanned situation in the future, we could hopefully make it within five to seven days.”

Nationally, the electric grid is aging. Most transformers in the United States were installed between 1950 and 1970, and have far exceeded their expected 40-year life span. U.S. utilities, some fear, may be forced to contend with an increasing number of breakdowns. Thus the grid is growing more fragile even as the threat of sabotage, cyber attacks and natural disaster looms ever larger.

While Dominion says that it has been proactively replacing older transformers, substation equipment, and transmission lines in order to improve reliability, the mobile transmission equipment gives it an added safeguard against an extended outage.

“The installation of the mobile transmission substation in Cartersville was a first in North America, and the equipment operated as designed,” says Lamb. “Dominion will definitely be better equipped and prepared in the future to respond to unplanned events.”

Pipeline Passes FERC Environmental Review

While the proposed 605-mile Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP) would have temporary adverse impacts on people and the environment, the impact can be reduced to “less-than-significant levels,” if the project is constructed and operated in compliance with federal standards, declared the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in a final Environmental Impact Statement issued today. Read the EIS here.

The finding is a critical step toward ultimate approval or denial by the commission. Backers of the project lauded the FERC finding, while pipeline foes criticized it. Here follows a sample of the immediate reaction.

Atlantic Coast Pipeline. Leslie Hartz, vice president-engineering and construction for Dominion Energy, the ACP’s managing partner: “The favorable environmental report released today provides a clear path for final approval of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline this fall. The report concludes that the project can be built safely and with minimal long-term impacts to the environment. The report also reinforces previous findings by the FERC and decades of research demonstrating that natural gas pipelines do not adversely impact tourist economies or residential property values. With this report, the region moves one step closer toward a stronger economy, a more secure energy supply and a cleaner environment.”

Allegheny-Blue Ridge Alliance. Executive Director Lew Freeman: “The Trump administration’s final environmental report issued today for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which would carry fracked-gas through West Virginia, Virginia and North Carolina, utterly fails to independently assess whether the project is even needed. This is the core issue upon which all other considerations of the controversial project are based, says a coalition of community groups and legal and technical experts.”

Energy Sure. Samantha Quig with the Virginia Chamber of Commerce and Rich Greer with the Laborer’s International Union of North America: “After almost three years of extensive study by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and other agencies, we are encouraged by the favorable conclusions of the final environmental report released today. Never before has an infrastructure project in our region received so much scrutiny by so many agencies and offered so many opportunities for public input. We have total confidence in the process, and we are convinced the project will be built with all necessary protections for the environment and public safety.”

House Republicans (no link): Virginia House of Delegates Speaker William J. Howell and Speaker-designee M. Kirkland Cox: “We are heartened by today’s positive news from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission regarding the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. Construction of this project is crucial to ensuring Virginia’s economy continues to grow in the years ahead, and that our families and businesses will continue to have access to affordable and reliable domestic energy. As Governor Terry McAuliffe has noted, the ACP is really a ‘jobs pipeline’, and it is desperately needed in our Commonwealth. We know that we can grow Virginia’s economy, and create thousands of good paying jobs for our people, while also preserving the environmental treasures we all cherish and love. Today’s report proves this.”

Southern Environmental Law Center. Staff attorney Greg Buppert: “FERC still hasn’t addressed the most basic question hanging over this project: Is it even needed? It’s FERC’s responsibility to determine if this pipeline is a public necessity before it allows developers to take private property, clear forests, and carve up mountainsides. Mounting evidence shows that it is not.”

Bold Alliance. Richard Averitt, affected landowner and entrepreneur: ““The FEIS is based on incomplete information, false narratives, and superficial statements of need that are based on corrupt self-dealing. It makes a mockery of the approval process. It’s clear that FERC exists to do the bidding of the industry that pays its salaries and feels no responsibility to the public or to the truth.”

I’ll add more responses as I get them.

Dominion Wins OK on Switching Station

The James City County Board of Supervisors approved yesterday a Dominion Energy request to build a switching station needed to connect the proposed 500 kV Surry-Skiffes transmission line to the electric grid on the Virginia Peninsula.

The action eliminates the last substantive hurdle for the project, which triggered a massive outcry on the grounds that the transmission line would cross the James River near Jamestown, despoiling what foes described as pristine views of a national historic treasure.

The board split 3 to 2 on approving the station, which required a special use permit, zoning change, and height waiver. A decisive consideration, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, was concern that failure to build the transmission line would leave the peninsula vulnerable to blackouts.

Opponents have vowed not to give up the fight, but I can’t imagine what options they might have now that Dominion has obtained all needed regulatory approvals. I think we can close the file on this particular controversy.

Update: OK, I guess we can’t close the file. The National Parks Conservation Association has filed a lawsuit against the Army Corps and Secretary of the Army, seeking an injunction to block the permit issued for Surry-Skiffes. The T-D has the story here. See Dominion’s response in the comments.