Author Archives: James A. Bacon

Gas Pipelines in Virginia’s Reconfigured Energy Future

The furor over construction of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP) and the Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP) continues unabated this week. News reports have highlighted legislators in Richmond joining pipeline protesters outside the state Capitol and, more colorfully, the antics of a dissident known as “Red” who has ensconced herself in a tree to block clearance of the pipeline route. But the combatants and the media are overlooking the biggest story of all — how the pipelines fit into Virginia’s energy future defined by electric grid modernization and carbon cap-and-trade.

The immediate issue revolves around state regulation of pipeline crossings over mountain streams in the pipeline paths. Foes worry that construction on steep, erosion-prone mountain slopes in karst terrain marked by sinkholes and underground streams will cause sediment runoff to harm wells and other water supplies. State Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, expressed the apocalyptic views of many when he said that the proposed 303-mile Mountain Valley Pipeline “could ruin our way of life.”

ACP spokesman Aaron Ruby reiterated the pipeline’s assertion that the 600-mile pipeline had received “the most thorough regulatory review of any infrastructure project in Virginia history.” In its 25-year history as an agency, confirmed a Department of Environmental Quality spokesperson earlier this month, DEQ has never conducted a project review on the scale of either pipeline.

But pipeline foes say that the regulatory views still aren’t rigorous enough and that DEQ should issue permits for hundreds of individual stream crossings to address the unique conditions at each site.

That line of argumentation led to what may be the best rhetorical flourish of the entire controversy (sympathize with him or not) by Dennis Martire, mid-Atlantic vice president of the Laborers International Union of North America. Martire termed the call for more intensive review of water crossings an attempt to “distort and politicize” the regulatory process. “No doubt,” he said, “the next thing they’ll demand is a pebble-by-pebble analysis.”

The battle over the pipelines has become a stand-in for the larger fight over national energy policy, sucking in the emotional energy of the global warming controversy. Foes say that there is no public necessity for either pipeline. Instead of building infrastructure that transgresses landowner rights and cuts ugly swaths through pristine mountain vistas, Virginia should be pushing measures to improve energy efficiency and install more wind and solar.

Proponents stand by their assertion that natural gas, while not a zero-carbon source of electricity, is a low-carbon source of electricity, a complement to wind and solar power, and a necessary part of Virginia’s energy future. Opposition to the ACP pipeline, says spokesman Ruby, “will slow down our region’s transition from coal to cleaner energy sources, delaying improvements to our environment.”

The ACP and MVP were launched in 2014 under very different political, regulatory, and market conditions than today. The Obama administration, which took global warming very seriously, looked favorably upon natural gas as a lower-carbon alternative to coal and upon nuclear power as a zero-carbon energy source. At the time, it seemed eminently reasonable for electric utilities to plan to further shift their generating portfolios from coal to gas and to increase pipeline capacity to serve their service territories.

But the environmental movement leapfrogged ahead of the Obama administration. The leading edge of the green movement ceased regarding natural gas as a benign fuel, arguing that if one included methane leakage from gas wells and pipelines, not just the combustion of gas in power plants, the fuel contributed as much to global warming as coal. They contended that Virginia lagged other states in embracing energy-efficiency and that the potential existed to bend the demand curve much lower, obviating the need to add new gas-fired generating capacity. Some environmental groups, but not all, went so far as to advocate that Virginia phase out its nuclear units as well.

The ideas expounded by green progressives, which once seemed radical in the Old Dominion, have gone mainstream. Virginia is in the process now of adopting carbon cap-and-trade regulations designed to reduce utility CO2 emissions 30% by 2030. Meanwhile, the Grid Transformation and Security Act enacted this year has declared it to be in the public interest for Dominion Energy Virginia to build 5,200 megawatts of solar energy, or roughly one quarter of its electricity generating capacity, and to invest heavily in energy efficiency. These regulatory developments have been amplified by the increasingly competitive economics of wind and solar.

Both the ACP and the MVP have gone so far down the regulatory path that there’s almost no chance that the projects won’t be built, so the point may be moot now. But I think it would be a useful exercise to take a fresh look at the pipelines in the light of current regulatory realities to see how they might contribute to the optimal balance of cost to rate payers, environmental sustainability, and electric grid reliability.

The least discussed of this triad is reliability. But reliability, arguably, is the most important — cost and environmental considerations fast become secondary when the lights go out. The East Coast successfully rode out an extreme cold weather event this January, but the so-called bomb cyclone did put enormous stress upon PJM electric transmission system of which Virginia is a part. PJM handled the challenge just fine, but only by calling heavily upon the surge capacity of fossil fuels such as coal and gas, while continuing to rely on the steady input of nuclear. The problem in the future is that coal and nuclear plants in many parts of the country are shutting down.

I have seen no analysis that tells us what reliability looks like under Virginia’s new regulatory regime of 25% or more of intermittent wind and solar, 30% fewer carbon emissions and a commensurate reduction in coal and/or gas, bigger investments in energy efficiency with a resulting bending of the demand curve, and a possible phase-out, desired by some, of nuclear power. Will Virginia burn more natural gas or less in its energy future? And looking back in that light, will Virginians be happy or unhappy that the MVP and ACP were built?

The Ticks Are Coming! The Ticks Are Coming!

More of these guys in Virginia… thanks to global warming.

There are multiple levels to the debate about global warming. The foundation level involves understanding the forces driving climate change, in particular, the extent to which rising temperatures over the past century can be explained by rising levels of CO2 in the atmosphere and to what extent they might be attributable to other factors not yet well understood. Embedded in this debate are projections of how precipitously temperatures will rise in the future.

Layered over the causes-of-climate-change debate is the effects-of-climate change debate. What impact will climate change have on the environment and mankind? The prevailing sentiment is that effect of rising temperatures will be universally baleful — there are no redeeming attributes worth discussing and, therefore, something must be done.

That view is reflected in a new paper by the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), “Climate Change and Health in Virginia.” From the summary:

Have you noticed that Virginia summers have gotten hotter and stickier? Does it seem like allergy season is more intense? Is your home flooding more often than it used to?

It’s not your imagination. Climate change is altering seasonal patterns, making our summers hotter, and fueling increased flooding from coastal storms, like Hurricane Sandy in 2012. As a result, we face more heat-related illnesses, air quality issues, food and water contamination, traumatic injuries, threats to our mental health, and infectious diseases. These threats will only get worse as big polluters continue to pump carbon from coal, oil, and natural gas into the air.

The paper goes on to elaborate several points:

  • Extreme heat is bad for Virginians’ health — and could become more deadly.
  • Coastal floods are getting worse — and could disrupt emergency health services.
  • Climate change could contaminate Virginia’s drinking water.
  • Rising temperatures could make Virginia’s seafood dangerous to eat.
  • Climate change puts Virginia’s progress toward cleaner skies at risk.
  • Allergy seasons are getting longer and more severe.
  • Mosquito- and tick-borne infections are increasing.

I am confident that some of these concerns are legitimate; as for the others, I don’t know. Sea levels are rising, and Hampton Roads is increasingly vulnerable to flooding. Rising water tables in coastal areas could well increase the infiltration of salt water in wells. Warmer waters could well promote the spread of vibriosis, a bacteria that can infect seafood and cause food poisoning in humans. NRDC is not making this stuff up.

But the Council is looking at just one side of the ledger.

Cold kills. The flip side of more extreme heat days is fewer extreme cold days. As it happens, cold kills a lot more people than heat does. According to a 2014 National Health Statistics Report, “During 2006–2010, about 2,000 U.S. residents died each year from weather-related causes of death. About 31% of these deaths were attributed to exposure to excessive natural heat, heat stroke, sun stroke, or all; 63% were attributed to exposure to excessive natural cold, hypothermia, or both.” In other words, cold kills twice as many people as heat in the U.S.

Cold viruses thrive in colder temperatures. Studies have found that rhinoviruses thrive in a slight chill, reproducing more quickly at 91.4° F than at normal body temperature. Lower temperatures in the nose also stifle the production of the body’s anti-immunity agents. In the words of Yale immunologist Akiko Iwasaki, “these temperature effects can result in an 100-fold difference in the level of cold virus” — enough to turn an asymptomatic viral population into a full-fledged cold.

If I wanted to draw the same kind of health connections as the NRDC, I would argue that pneumonia is a leading killer of the elderly, that pneumonia often results as a complication of catching a cold, and that a warmer climate could reduce the incidence of colds, pneumonia and hospitalization of the elderly.

CO2 promotes plant growth. The NRDC paper notes, “The carbon dioxide driving climate change is also stimulating plant growth,” but sees that as a bad thing! Apparently, plant growth boosts pollen pollution and makes allergies worse. But there’s a plus side to plant growth. A higher CO2 level helps crops and trees grow faster and makes them more drought resistant. CO2 could be a boon to Virginia’s agricultural and forestry productivity. It could mean cheaper locally growth foods and vegetables and better nutrition for all Virginians, including, of course, the poor.

If the only thing you look for are negative effects, then negative effects are all you will find. Years of climate-change research have focused exclusively on the negatives. No scientist wins research grants to study a positive benefit of global warming. I don’t pretend to be able to answer whether warmer temperatures are a net positive or negative to mankind. I suspect that a truly dispassionate approach to the matter might well reveal that, while the effects of climate change are a mixed bag, the net result is negative — based mainly on the impact of the rising sea level. But that’s only a hunch. We haven’t seen a dispassionate approach, so the answer at this time is unknowable.

The NRDC is cherry picking data that fits its case. This particular paper can’t be taken seriously. What Virginia needs is a comprehensive and dispassionate look at the evidence.

Beats a Poke in the Eye with a Sharp Stick

Critics are furious that Dominion Energy Virginia and Appalachian Power Co. won’t be returning all of their excess profits to rate payers, but this year Virginians will enjoy modest rate reductions nonetheless.

First, the two power companies will return savings made possible by the federal 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act tax reductions — $125 million from Dominion and $50 million from Apco, the State Corporation Commission (SCC) announced yesterday. The rate cut will be effective July 1.

Second, Dominion will issue a one-time $133 million refund to customers, also effective July 1, in accordance with the state’s Grid Transformation and Security Act of 2018. Dominion will issue a one-time, $67 million refund next year.

Although no authoritative accounting has been done, the refunds are likely to fall considerably short of what Dominion earned in excess of normally allowable earnings during the three years of the 2015 rate freeze. Instead, under the new law, Dominion will reinvest its over-earnings in renewable energy projects and upgrades to the electric grid.

Bacon’s bottom line: The Grid Transformation Act was highly controversial and hotly contested. I hope it’s somebody’s job to track the costs and benefits of the legislation. Here at a minimum is what the public needs to know: (1) What are the over-earnings each year, and how will Dominion invest them? (2) What is the expected payback of those projects, either in lower costs, greener energy, or improved reliability? and (3) what is the actual payback of those investments?

Can the U.S. Outgrow Its National Debt?

10-year economic growth — the critical variable. Graphic credit: Congressional Budget Office

In previous posts I have described the Republican-backed 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act as a Hail Mary pass, a gamble that by boosting economic growth the United States can outgrow the burden of chronic deficits and a rapidly accumulating national debt. I wasn’t optimistic, but I was willing to wait and see. After the passage of the most recent budget, which will increase spending and push deficits even higher, I became downright pessimistic.

Now comes the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) with its latest 10-year budget forecast, which takes into account the tax cuts and the latest budget. There’s plenty of gloomy news. But the damage isn’t as dreadful as I had feared. There is a glimmer of hope, although it is dim one.

First the bad news: CBO estimates that the deficit for fiscal 2018 will be $218 billion larger than what it had previously forecast. And it projects a cumulative deficit that is $1.6 trillion larger than the $10.1 trillion that it had previously prophesied for the 2018-2027 period. Debt held by the public  (not including Social Security and Medicare trust funds) will rise from 78% of GDP to 96% by the end of the decade.

The CBO also struck a Boomergeddon-like tone by making the following points:

  • Federal spending on interest payments on that debt will increase  substantially, aggravated by an expected increase in interest rates over the next few years.
  • Federal borrowing will reduce national savings. The nation’s capital stock will be smaller, and productivity and total wages will be lower.
  • Lawmakers will have less flexibility to use tax and spending policies to respond to unexpected challenges.
  • The likelihood of a fiscal crisis in the United States will increase. Investors could become unwilling to finance the government’s borrowing unless they are compensated with very high interest rates. If that happens, interest rates on the federal debt will rise suddenly and sharply.

As the football follows its trajectory into the end zone and a half dozen receivers stretch out their hands to catch it, the outcome of the Hail Mary pass is still “up in the air.” In less metaphorically strained words, the game isn’t over yet.

This CBO statement surprised me: While the federal budget deficit grows sharply over the next few years, later on, between 2023 and 2028, “it stabilizes in relation to the size of the economy, though at a high level by historical standards.”

That’s huge! The danger is that the national debt will grow faster than the economy, thereby posing an ever-increasing burden until the economy collapses. But if that burden stabilizes, even at a higher level, there may be hope that the U.S. can muddle through as (another bad metaphor alert!) the Baby Boomer pig moves through the entitlement pipeline. Eventually, a few decades from now, the entitlement crisis will ease and deficit spending will shrink.

The CBO assumes that tax cuts will goose economic growth this year but that growth will moderate in future years — from a peak of 3.3% this year to 1.8% by 2020, 1.5% for the two years after that, and 1.7% for the five years after that. But a plausible case can be made that a combination of deregulation and tax cuts will stimulate faster long-term growth, even in the face of the inevitably higher interest rates. If so, CBO would be underestimating growth and tax revenue. In this optimistic scenario, growth as a percentage of GDP actually could shrink and Boomergeddon could be averted.

On the gloom-and-doom side, the CBO also assumes steady-state economic growth over the next 10 years. But a recession could knock the props from under the growth projects, running up deficits, the national debt, and interest payments on the debt. Indeed, a major recession could trigger a full-scale fiscal crisis. The current business cycle is already almost 10 years old, one of the longest in U.S. history. What are the odds that it will last 20 years? Almost nil.

The key variable is the rate of economic growth. If it exceeds the CBO’s modest expectations, the U.S. has a fighting chance of avoiding Boomergeddon. If we see another black swan event — a trade war breaking out, North Korea firing a nuclear weapon, Iran blockading the Persian Gulf, the overheated Chinese economy imploding, a run on Italian banks, or a surprise insolvency in the hyper-leveraged, hyper-connected global economy sparking a financial panic — we could experience another 2007-scale recession — but this time with annual $2 trillion-a-year deficits. Hold on to your hats, people, it’s going to be a wild ride.

Virginia’s Housing Shortfall

Underproduction as a % of 2015 housing stock.

Between 2000 and 2015, 23 states fell 7.3 million units short of meeting the housing needs of their growing populations — equivalent to about 7.3% of the housing stock of the United States, according to a new study, “Housing Underproduction in the U.S.,” published by the Up for Growth Coalition.

Although not the worst offender, Virginia was one of the states notable for housing underproduction, falling short of demand by 131,000 units over the 15-year period.

Restrictive zoning and development policies in Virginia and elsewhere have created an imbalance in supply and demand imbalance that has dire economic consequences. States the report:

As people migrate toward cities in search of jobs, education and economic opportunities, the demand for housing in our most populous and economically productive regions has far outstripped the production of new housing units. Due to dramatic shifts in generational preferences and household demographic trends, migration to cities over the past decade are at the highest level since World War II, while housing production has fallen to historic lows. This imbalance has led to rapidly rising housing prices, economic displacement of lower income families and communities of color, and increases in homelessness.

Long-term Bacon’s Rebellion readers familiar our Smart-Growth-for-Conservatives critique of Virginia land use and development policies will be right at home with this study. The report blames “restrictive local development and land use policies that reflect opposition to high-density, multi-family urban growth in favor of low-density, single-family, suburban sprawl.” Offending policies include:

  • Zoning restrictions, which create a shortage of zoned, high-density sites;
  • Escalating and misaligned fee structures, such as impact and linkage fees;
  • Poorly calibrated inclusionary housing requirements; and
  • Lengthy review processes that invite gaming and abuse by growth opponents that can delay projects, create unpredictability, reduce incentives to invest and increase the per-unit cost of development.

Not only do dysfunctional housing markets produce fewer units than would be supported by demand, according to the report, they produce units in the wrong locations. The market for housing in walkable, high-density, high-value urban areas is significantly under-served, while housing continues to be built in lower-density suburban communities with a backlog of land zoned for residential.

Average change in home prices by county, 2000-2016.

The study advocates a loosening of anti-development restrictions to encourage  a “smart growth” model of growth that promotes high-density residential development in major transportation corridors. Benefits will include increasing the housing supply, exploiting existing infrastructure, and increasing tax yields to local governments. Four broad tools would achieve these aims:

  • By-right approval. Establish “by right” high-density residential development in a half-mile radius around a transit station (roughly 5 percent of a metropolitan region’s land area).
  • Impact fee recalibration. Recalibrate impact fees to reflect actual costs of infrastructure service for high-density development.
  • Property tax abatement. Use property tax abatement as a gap financing tool to enable denser and more affordable housing production.
  • Value capture. Establish mechanisms to capture value created through up-zones and tax abatement investments to be used as dedicated funding for a range of housing programs.

Clearly, Virginia has a lot of work to do. We’re not as bad as the West Coast, the Northeast, or even our neighbor to the north, Maryland, but we’re the worst state in the Southeast (excepting Florida). The cost of housing is harming our economic competitiveness and hindering our ability to adapt to economic circumstances.

One of the ways to address rural poverty in Virginia, for instance, would be to encourage unemployed or under-employed workers in small towns and countryside to migrate to metropolitan areas offering better employment opportunities. When local governments in metro areas restrict housing development, they block this migration. Lower-income Americans literally can’t afford to make the move. The result is the worst of both worlds: sub-par employment opportunities in rural areas combined with job shortages in the major metros.

The higher cost of housing also helps explain another phenomenon — the shift of Virginia in recent years from a state from a people-importing state into a people-exporting state.

Finally, as the report alludes to, high housing costs disproportionately impact the poor and minorities. High housing costs, not racism, keep minorities trapped in public housing projects and slums. High housing costs block them from becoming homeowners, building home equity, and accumulating wealth, thus perpetuating income inequality.

Where is the General Assembly on the housing issue? Where was the McAuliffe administration? Where is the Northam administration? AWOL, all of them.

Pulitzer Recognition for Three-Strikes-and-You’re-Out Articles

Congratulations to Tim Eberly with the Virginian-Pilot for winning recognition as a Pulitzer Prize finalist for his investigative reporting on Virginia’s three-strikes-and-you’re-out law. He was up against some stiff competition — the Washington Post won the award for its investigation of Senate candidate Roy Moore’s history of sexual harassment of teenage girls.

Here’s the kick-off of Eberly’s Nov. 17, 2017, story:

Virginia bureaucrats are keeping nonviolent convicts in prison longer than murderers

Snagged by a short-lived state law, some Virginia inmates have served more time behind bars than many murderers, even though they harmed no one in their crimes and had never been in prison before.

In some cases, their prison terms will stretch far longer than those of convicts who fatally shot, stabbed or bludgeoned people, a Virginian-Pilot investigation has found.

This disparity stems from a 1982 “three-strikes” law that, largely during a 12-year period, has caught inmates in its clutches for decades.

Young men barely old enough to vote went from first-time offender to three-striker in one swift motion. They weren’t the career criminals for which three-strikes laws are generally written. More often than not, their crimes were committed in a single spree. And plenty of them had little or no prior criminal history.

Virginia enacted the law when the state, like the rest of the U.S., was awash in a rising tide of crime and the public was sick and tired of convicted criminals being released back onto the streets with a judicial slap of the wrist. At the time, the idea of three-strikes-and-you’re-out seemed to me like a good idea. And one could argue (although many will disagree) that the law did help stem crime by the expedient of taking criminals out of circulation.

But as Eberly revealed, the law was arbitrary, and it created new injustices. Now that crime rates have fallen dramatically and the populace is no longer gripped by fear, we are pained far more by those injustices than we once were.

Mighty Morphing Power Turbines

If Virginia ever develops a large fleet of offshore wind turbines, we may have a team of researchers led by the University of Virginia to thank.

Funded by the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, the research team expects to build prototypes this summer for a 50-megawatt offshore wind turbine that is nearly six times more powerful than the record-setting turbine deployed off the coast of Scotland in April, reports Greentech Media.

The massive turbine takes a radically different approach to wind turbine design. Conventional turbine blades face the incoming wind. By contrast, blades for the Segmented Ultralight Morphing Rotor (SUMR) would face downwind and fold together as the wind force increases. The design was inspired by palm trees, which have evolved to survive hurricane-force winds. And surviving hurricane-force winds is exactly what the SUMR is supposed to do.

One of the major barriers to developing a wind farm off the south Atlantic coast is the uncertainty of whether conventional turbines, which can withstand North Sea gales, would hold up to extreme hurricane winds. Before Dominion Energy Virginia is willing to build scores of turbines off the coast of Virginia Beach, it wants to erect two turbines in the so-called Virginia Offshore Wind Technology Advancement Project (VOWTAP) to test a hurricane-resistant design. But the utility was unable to get the project cost, last estimated at $300 million, low enough to win approval by the State Corporation Commission. The project has been effectively shelved.

The ultralight SUMR blades will be 200 meters long, almost twice as long as conventional blades, but will be possible to assemble in pieces, thus avoiding problems shipping them from the factory site to the project site. Because the blades would be constructed of more malleable materials, they also would be capable of morphing downwind.

“We’re trying to have the turbine blades be more aligned along the load path, so we can get away with lower structural mass and have less fatigue and less damage,” said Eric Loth, chair of the department of mechanical and aerospace engineering at UVa and project leader.

The UVa-led consortium plans to test its turbine this summer at the National Wind Technology Center in Colorado and complete the design within a year.

Loth, the design leader, hopes that the new turbine will be transformative. The innovative design could reduce the levelized cost of offshore wind energy by as much as 50% by 2025, he says. “We need to come up with turbines that are not necessarily more efficient but will cost less to build and maintain.”

Bacon’s bottom line: If this research pans out, Virginians should thank their lucky stars that Dominion didn’t commit to spending billions of dollars on what in retrospect can be viewed as risky and outmoded wind technologies. Hopefully, this project will spark renewed interest in offshore wind. It would be doubly cool if Virginia could not only participate in the creation of the SUMR blades but be the first to deploy it on a commercial scale and the first to reap its benefits.

As we think about Virginia’s long-term energy mix (see previous post), we should factor the potential of this new wind technology into the equation.

Correction: Al Christopher, director of the state Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy, informs me that the VOWTAP project has not been shelved. Rather it morphed last July into Virginia Coastal Offshore Wind. “Dominion has said publicly several times recently that it plans to file for cost recovery with the SCC very soon.”

No, Coal Did Not Save the Grid in January


Contrary to a recent report that coal-generated electricity prevented a system collapse during January’s “bomb cyclone” deep freeze, PJM Interconnection, the regional transmission organization of which Virginia is a part, says it had plenty of reserve capacity. The reason PJM dispatched so much electricity from coal-fired units was that it was cheaper than electricity generated by natural gas, the price of which surged during the cold spell — not because there were inadequate supplies of gas.

“Natural gas and nuclear units were not unreliable or otherwise unavailable to serve increased customer demand, nor would PJM have faced ‘interconnected-wide blacksouts’ without the particular generating units dispatched, states PJM in a response forwarded to U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry. (Hat tip: Albert C. Pollard, Jr.)

Last week Bacon’s Rebellion summarized key findings of a report by the National Energy Technology Laboratory (see “How Coal Saved the Electric Grid,”) which noted that coal-fired generation increased dramatically during the extreme, 12-day chill. Nuclear energy output didn’t change (nukes run flat-out all the time, regardless), wind/solar output declined slightly, and gas output was constrained by pipeline constraints and other factors. The NETL report argued that without the backup coal capacity, “a 9-18 GW shortfall would have developed, depending on assumed imports and generation outages, leading to system collapse.”

But PJM says that the regional electricity transmission system maintained significant reserves during the bomb cyclone. “PJM reserves were over 23 percent of peak load demand, and there were few units that were unable to obtain natural gas transportation.” The reason coal-fired output leaped was that it was cheaper than gas — not that the gas was unavailable.

During the cold snap, the region experienced an increase in the price of natural gas, which made coal resources (which often did not run under periods of lower natural gas prices) the more economic choice during times of high gas prices. But one cannot extrapolate from these economic facts a conclusion as to future reliability within PJM. …

The fact that additional coal resources were dispatched due to economics is not a basis to conclude that natural gas resources were not available to meet PJM system demands or that without the coal resources during this period the PJM grid would have faced “shortfalls leading to interconnect-wide blackouts.”

The PJM report did confirm other parts of the NETL analysis. Electricity from nuclear power plants stayed constant through the 12-day weather event. Wind and solar output declined ever-so-slightly. And natural gas did suffer minor supply-related outages… but they accounted for less than 2% of the total load requirement at the time.

Bacon’s bottom line: Coal-fired units kicked in 13,000 megawatts of additional output during the deep freeze. That was roughly one-third of the system’s 32,600 megawatts in reserve capacity. In the absence of the coal surge, customers in Virginia and across the multi-state PJM system would have paid more for their natural gas, but they would not have faced blackouts in January. It seems safe to say that the impression created by the NETL analysis was wrong.

But PJM did not address the longer-term outlook in its report. The political reality is that in the U.S. and in Virginia, powerful interest groups seek to curtail coal production. There is a strong likelihood that Virginia will enter the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a cap-and-trade arrangement designed to cut carbon emissions, most likely through the closure of additional coal plants. Looking out a decade or more, some environmental and consumer groups oppose the plans of Dominion Energy Virginia to re-license its four nuclear power units that currently produce 30% of the company’s electric power. Furthermore, the same groups, worried by the contribution of natural gas to CO2 emissions, want to slam the door on construction of any more gas-fired power plants.

As can be seen in the chart above, which details the breakdown of electricity by fuel type in the PJM system before and during the deep freeze, coal and nuclear accounted for 65% of the interstate region’s electricity production before the event and 66% during the cold snap.

Put another way, coal accounted for 45,900 megawatts of system-wide output during the freeze, and nuclear contributed another 35,400. Compare that to the system’s 32,6oo megawatts in reserve capacity.

While PJM has plenty of reserve capacity today, we have to ask ourselves, will the system have plenty of reserve capacity 10 or 15 years from now if coal- and nuclear-powered units continue to shut down? While the pipeline capacity exists today to supply today’s natural gas demand, will it be sufficient to meet demand when gas picks up much of the load for shuttered coal and nukes? While we can always purchase out-of-state electricity through PJM, will there be sufficient transmission-line capacity to get that electricity to Virginia load centers?

I don’t know the answers to these questions. Perhaps everything will turn out fine. But we can’t assume that it will just because PJM has ample reserve capacity today. As Virginians calibrate the balance between coal, nuclear, gas, hydro, solar, wind and battery storage, we need to consider the long-term outlook. The future will be upon us before we know it.

State Pension Problems Still Getting Worse

Map credit: Pew Charitable Trusts

Another year, and another analysis by the Pew Charitable Trusts on the deteriorating condition of U.S. states’ public employee pension plans. Drawing on data from 2016, Pew concludes that despite scattered actions by the 50 states to shore up their pensions, the funding gap only got worse.

In 2016, the state pension funds in this study cumulatively reported a $1.4 trillion deficit—representing a $295 billion jump from 2015 and the 15th annual increase in pension debt since 2000. Overall, state plans disclosed assets of just $2.6 trillion to cover total pension liabilities of $4 trillion.

There is considerable variability between the states, however. The funding ratio (assets as a percentage of liabilities) ranges from 99% for Wisconsin, which is in fine shape, to 31% for Kentucky and New Jersey, which are in deep doo-doo. The national average is 66%. Virginia is in modestly better condition than the national average with a funding ratio of 72%. Our net pension liability in 2016 was “only” $25.3 billion.

Admittedly, 2016 was a tough year in which state pension plans generated a mere 1% return on their investments, significantly short of the 7% to 7.5% returns that most plans are predicated upon. (Virginia assumes a 7% return.) Investment performance shined last year, which could improve 2017 performance when Pew gets around to calculating it a year from now.

However, investment returns are likely to become more volatile, Pew notes. As the gap between the return on 30-year Treasury bonds and equity returns has widened over the past two decades, pensions have shifted assets to riskier investments in the hope of generating a bigger payback.

The share of public funds’ investments in stocks, private equity, and other risky assets has increased by over 30 percentage points since 1990—to over 70 percent of the portfolio of state pension plans. As a result, pension plan investment performance now tracks equity returns more closely than bond returns.

That’s great news when the stock market goes up, as it did last year. But when interest rates rise and market multiples shrink, as is happening this year, pension funds are vulnerable to setbacks in stocks, private equities, and interest-sensitive real estate investments.

Pew has developed a set of analytical tools that allow a more penetrating look at a state’s pension posture. One of those is “net amortization as a percentage of payroll for each state.”

There are two ways for states to increase the assets in their pension plans. One is to earn a higher rate of return on its investment portfolio. The other is to contribute more (in employee contributions and government contributions) into the plan.

With the “net amortization” metric, Pew assumes that the pension plan earns the assumed rate of return (even though that assumption isn’t always justified). The idea is to determine whether state/employee contributions are putting in enough to cover new benefits earned that year. States the study: “Plans that consistently fall short of this benchmark can expect to see the gap between the liability for promised benefits and available funds grow over time.”

Some states are doing a horrible job — Kentucky, New Jersey, and Illinois are ticking time bombs. Kentucky paid in only 41% of its benchmark in 2016, and New Jersey only 33%. The national average was 88%. Virginia looked pretty good by comparison, paying in 101% and whittling down its net liability by one whole percentage point! Continue reading

How Not to Win Friends and Influence People

Last night vandals smeared the Thomas Jefferson statue at the University of Virginia with the phrase “racist + rapist,” reports WVIR-TV. Today marks Founder’s Day, which celebrates Jefferson’s 275th birthday.

The University of Virginia released a statement, saying, “The university is disappointed that individuals vandalized the statue of Thomas Jefferson on the Lawn on the day that we honor his contributions to our University and to our democracy.”

The UVa administration is “disappointed.” Not “indignant” about vandalism to the founder of the university and a founding father of the nation. Not “shocked.” Not “outraged.” Just “disappointed.”

The latest vandalism follows an incident last September in which someone draped the statue with a sheet that read, “Black Lives Matter. Fuck White Supremacy.”

Vandals, let me tell you what university administrators can’t bring themselves to say. If you’re trying to change things for the better, you’re not helping. If you want to convert people to your cause, you don’t get it by desecrating the revered symbols of the people you’re trying to convert. In fact, you do the opposite. Want more rednecks flying big-ass Confederate battle flags just off the Interstate? This is how you get more rednecks flying big-ass Confederate battle flags just off the Interstate.

I could say something similar to the rednecks. Want more defilement of Thomas Jefferson statues? This is how you get more defilement of Thomas Jefferson statues. Here’s the difference. You are University of Virginia students — you’re attending one of the most prestigious universities in the country. You’re supposed to be well-informed and articulate. The rednecks are just… rednecks.

Go back and study your history. See how Frederick Douglas acquitted himself. See how Harriet Tubman acquitted herself. See how Booker T. Washington acquitted himself. See how Thurgood Marshall acquitted himself. See how Martin Luther King acquitted himself. They didn’t use vulgar profanity. They didn’t desecrate the founding fathers. They appealed to peoples’ better nature. And they made a difference.

If you want to discuss Jefferson’s historical legacy — his role in articulating and advancing human freedoms, his sins as a slave holder, his views towards race, his role in abolishing the international slave trade — by all means, let’s have that discussion. The man was not a saint. It is reasonable for every generation to reinterpret his contributions for good and for ill in this country. But vandalizing his statue doesn’t contribute to the conversation — it shuts the conversation down.